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The Politics of Freedom Part 1: Necropolitics and Sovereignty

As a medical anthropologist and a critical whiteness scholar I have recently reflected on the meaning of ‘Freedom’ in an era post- Freedom Convoy. More specifically, I have come to question our usage of the language of Freedom and its connection to necropolitics, or the power to decide who may live and who should die, in a world of rising right-wing populism.

The truth of the matter is that Freedom, in the context of places like Canada, is a product of colonial domination that equates the white, cisgender, heterosexual, masculine, able-bodied experience as the true recipient of the Freedom we all strive for. In this two-part series, I will focus on the importance of right-wing studies in shifting our conceptions of necropolitical power into non-state actors. The everyday discourse of non-state actors and the politicization of Freedom has led to a dynamic process of negotiation of meaning that showcases the inherent exclusivity that Freedom has always carried, but has never been fully recognized or discussed by media or academia. I will begin by exploring in more depth necropolitics and right-wing populism.

To develop a conversation on what exactly Freedom has come to signify it is first important to discuss necropolitics in a world of rising right-wing populism. Necropolitics, as described earlier Mbembé (2003) states, is the power to decide who may live and who must die (p. 12) as forms of personal and political power. In this way, necropolitical power is the ultimate expression of sovereignty as those most powerful are allotted command over the limits of death, refusal or acceptance (p. 17). They hold the power to choose the way life persists or ends. Those of us who exist under this power are subjugated by the murderous state and receive an unequal flow of resources and the rights to life and self-sovereignty.

In the literature that has come since Mbembé’s work in 2003, necropolitical power has expanded beyond the state, and into the hands of non-state actors (Bratich 2021; Rouse 2021). Non-state actors who participate in oppressive actions and ideologies in which racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetorics are utilized as a functional tool, become spaces where right-wing extremism finds it footing. Present social inequalities - in tandem with decreasing social solidarity - have encouraged expressions of anger and resentment to take on a renewed sense of urgency and prevalence (Salmela & von Scheve 2017) that engage and implicate non-state actors in necropolitics. This is what Bratich (2021) refers to as cultural necropolitics. Cultural necropolitics sees groups and individuals (not just on the right) engaging in a ‘downsurgency’ that enacts violence on unwilling participants of vulnerable populations who exist below white persons on the social hierarchy.

The boundaries between the state and the individual in the realms of sovereignty, Freedom, and necropolitics have become blurred by individual effect and desire (Rouse 2021). Right-wing populism in Canada has contributed to the blurring of these boundaries. Populism, broadly, is a ‘thin centered ideology’ (meaning it has ambiguous and weakened ideological foundations), has become a tool used by leaders to create ingroups that situate themselves in opposition to entrenched elites (Erl 2020). Populism finds its strength in ambiguity and emotional filtering of messaging, beliefs, and agendas. In this way, populism, especially right-wing populism, allows people to accept voting against their own interests because of the strong emotional roots that thin-centered ideologies allow for. Populism is about “common-sense” politics where the everyday person becomes empowered through the transmutation of democratic principles into events like the Freedom Convoy or the Insurrection on January 6th. In these instances white supremacy, conspiracy, and white nationalism become redefined as an expression of constitutional rights and not something hateful and violent. In this way, right-wing populism has rerouted necropolitical power into the hands of everyday people. These people, who seek to re-establish the invisible dominance of white, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied, masculinity, utilize their personal experiences and feelings as a kind of “DIY politics” (Nadeau 2019, p. 270) that allows them to live out rather than resolve contradiction and ambiguity of bigoted politics and beliefs.

When I consider the ways that right-wing populism and cultural necropolitics interact through events like the Freedom Convoy, it is striking to me that Mbembé’s usage of the word ‘sovereignty’ is more important than ever. Freedom (as in big ‘F’ Freedom) has come to hold deeply polarizing and politicized meaning. In an era post- Freedom Convoy in Canada, to be someone who fights for Freedom is also to be someone is who racist, sexist, selfish, and controversial. It is to be someone who believes in the unquestioned dominance of white masculinity, and reaches for the space in which Freedom and sovereignty come together in necropolitics. A space in which some people must die to protect the virtue and purity of the nation of Canada. The people that must die are racialized, are women, are part of the LGBTQ2IA+ community, are immigrants, are disabled. It is these people who are a ‘drain’ on the collective good. Freedom, like sovereignty, does not belong to everyone.

Freedom is entangled with sovereignty in both supportive and oppositional ways (Ahrens 2005). It is supportive in that individual freedom is needed for cultural necropolitics to be enacted, yet is oppositional in that those who fight for Freedom contribute to systems that hurt, oppress, and kill, and not just those that exist below them in the social hierarchy. Freedom becomes a negotiated process of sense-making in a world that is progressively becoming more polarized. It has negative connotation of supremacy and nationalism yet still represents calls for social justice and radical positive change. The side of Freedom that you stand on is a relational category of existence. It is an existence embedded within necropolitics, death, life, and hope/hopelessness. The question I continue to ask myself is: what does Freedom really mean in Canada now that it has become an ambiguous and unreliable space? Maybe it has always been that way.

In the next installment of this series I will discuss the specific meanings of Freedom in order to map out the exclusionary nature of it and engage in meaningful ways to address the fracturing of Freedom in Canada.

Literature cited:

Ahrens, Jörn. 2005. “Freedom and Sovereignty. A Fatal Relationship Outlined with Jean-Luc Nancy and Marquis de Sade.” Law and Critique 16: 301–13.

Bratich, Jack. 2021. “‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Covid!’: Anti-Lockdown Protests as Necropopulist Downsurgency.” Cultural Studies 35 (2–3): 416–31.

Erl, Chris. 2020. “The People and The Nation: The ‘Thick’ and ‘Thin’ of Right-Wing Populism in Canada.” Social Science Quarterly 102 (1): 107–24.

Mbembe, J.A. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15 (1): 11–40.

Nadeau, Frédérick. 2019. “Political Voices and Everyday Choices.” Canadian Anthropology Society 61 (2): 270–82.

Rouse, Carolyn. 2021. “Necropolitics versus Biopolitics: Spatialization, White Privilege, and Visibility during a Pandemic.” Cultural Anthropology 36 (3): 360–67.

Salmela, Mikko, and Christian von Scheve. 2017. “Emotional Roots of Right-Wing Political Populism. Social Science Information.” Social Science Information 56 (4): 567–95.

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