By Kirthi Jayakumar
The Westphalian model is built on the value that every state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory. Within the ambit of territorial sovereignty, the power of a state extends to its population, oftentimes manifesting in the form of laws, policies, administrative machinery, and judicial apparatuses, among other things. Through these mechanisms, regardless of the nature of state activity – be that governance, administration, legislation, execution, or adjudication – the state fundamentally controls its population, effectively practicing some form of necropolitics. In the post-Cold War era, with the normalization of humanitarian intervention, state praxis of necropolitics extended beyond its traditional borders to prioritize the lives of “others,” oftentimes instrumentalized to foment particular political agendas.
Fundamentally construed as an extension of Foucalt’s concept of biopower – the use of power to control people’s lives – necropolitics is also about the “creation and maintenance of institutions that prioritize certain populations as more valuable,” in order to normalize population control, for example (Foucault 1978). Achille Mbembe, author of On the Postcolony, explored the term in depth and extended it to include political violence (Mbembe 2003). Presenting examples such as slavery, apartheid, and the colonization of Palestine, Mbembe established that there are various forms of necropower that operate – statist, racialized, the state of exception, urgency, and martyrdom – to reduce people to mere precarious conditions of life (Mbembe 2003). Jasbir Puar framed the term “queer necropolitics” to address queer outrage toward violence targeting non-binary people on the one hand and its complicity with Islamophibia, effectively creating a reality where “the homosexual other is white, the racial other is straight” (Puar 2007).
The necropolitical state order has been normalized as something of a grundnorm in “doing” statehood. Ruthless dictatorships have crushed dissent through brutal crackdowns and oppressive policies. Structural violence in the form of draconian and oppressive laws have been carefully implemented to target particular population groups. Patriarchal systems and structures have been normalized into reducing the lives of everyone who is not a cis-het man into second class citizens. Swathes of populations have been legislated upon by those who neither share their lived experiences nor attempt to understand it. Foreign aid is administered with heavy caveats against its disbursement, where particular population groups are specifically identified as excluded from the intended beneficiaries. The language in global treaties is reframed through multiple iterations to do away with, for example, “sexual and reproductive health rights” because a powerful state does not align with such language. This could effectively describe the dynamics within and between any state(s) in the world and still hold true: for in one way or another, doing statehood has been confined to a constant state of the use of force – structural and cultural, or overt. This is where the egregious failing of the Westphalian model comes to light.
Patriarchy, colonization, heteronormativity, capitalism, racism, imperialism, militarism, and casteism are fundamental attributes of the Westphalian State. These forces constantly predispose the state to be a purveyor of necropower and to exert political violence on certain bodies through, for example, structural legal and policy instruments and the continued fomentation of the prison-industry and military-industry complex.
A feminist foreign policy speaks truth to this power, calling in question systemic violence that has fomented the necropower that has come to be normalized world over. As the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy explains, "Feminist Foreign Policy is a political framework centred around the wellbeing of marginalised people and invokes processes of self-reflection regarding foreign policy’s hierarchical global systems." The Westphalian model has been built on a foundation of othering, marginalization, and discrimination executed with structural, cultural, and overt forms of violence – in effect, creating as Mbembe (2003) said, “the walking dead” through forms of subjugation that locate bodies differently on a spectrum of life to death. By centring marginalized people, Feminist Foreign Policy enables a means to discard necropolitics in the pursuit to prioritize agency. By reflecting on and seeking to change extant hierarchical global systems, it calls for the dismantling of structural and political violence that enables the pursuit of necropower.
Mbembe wrote, “The ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die” (Mbembe 2003). All power is corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A feminist alternative may just be our way out.
Foucault, Michel (1978). The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume I. London: Penguin.
Mbembe, Achille (2003). "Necropolitics" (PDF). Public Culture. 15 (1): 11–40. doi:10.1215/08992363-15-1-11.
Puar, Jasbir K. (2007). Terrorist assemblages: homonationalism in queer times. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 32–79.