Centuries of accumulated impunity.

– Patricio Guzmán, The Pearl Button


Environmental historian Justin McBrien proposes the term “Necrocene” as a supplementary elaboration of the term “Capitalocene.” In a 2016 essay, McBrien writes: “Capitalism leaves in its wake the disappearance of species, languages, cultures, and peoples. It seeks the planned obsolescence of all life…. Today’s debate about planetary crisis has yielded the concepts of the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene. Both recognize extinction but have yet to grasp its ontological significance – for humanity or for capitalism. What I wish to propose is that we recognize the Necrocene – or ‘New Death’ – as a fundamental biogeological moment of our era: the Capitalocene. The Necrocene reframes the history of capitalism’s expansion through the process of becoming extinction.” (McBrien 2016: 116) McBrien does not engage with the notion of “Necropolitics” developed by philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe in a powerful 2003 essay of the same name, but the encounter between Necrocene and Necropolitics would be a mutually stimulating one. In the conclusion of his essay, Mbembe writes: “[C]ontemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death (necropolitics) profoundly reconfigure the relations among resistance, sacrifice, and terror. I have demonstrated that the notion of biopower is insufficient to account for contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death. Moreover I have put forward the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.” (Mbembe 2003: 39-40) Mbembe’s tracing of the shifts in the operations of terror, from early-modern colonial conquest and the colonial institutions of the plantation and slavery, to late-modern colonial occupations and contemporary wars, reminds us that the social processes driving “anthropogenic” planetary change are multiple and deeply rooted in the histories of modernity, which is not identical or reducible to the merely economic processes of capitalism. It is still difficult to raise the question that would seem to follow: If modernity is the ultimate social agent of a new planetary extinction event, and thereby exposes itself as unsustainable, what possibilities may lie beyond modernity (or at least its current logics)? What alter-modernities? (GR)

Image: A mountain of bison skulls to be used as fertilizer, Rougeville, Michigan, ca. 1890. Photo: Public domain, photographer unknown.

See also: Anthrobscene, Anthropocene, Capitalocene, commodities trading, Plantationocene

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