During April 2020, when U.S. states were locked down in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, protests to the lockdowns and mask-wearing by “Pro-Freedom” demonstrators, which were partially sponsored and funded by the radical right, were examples of a phenomenon newly coined “necropopulism” in a new study.
“These eruptions were examples of a tendency I had been noting for a couple of years, one I call “necropopulism,” said Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Jack Bratich, the study’s author. “Rather than a traditional notion of populism, in which something called ‘the people’ was glorified and protected, necropopuilsm is indifferent to whether the people live or die (as long as abstract ideals like freedom are preserved). It’s a homi-suicidal populism, found even earlier in the costumed street protests of the alt-right as well as the proponents of the ‘Lost Cause’ (those that preserve the memory of the failed Confederacy insurrection, including the fetish for statues of dead soldiers).”
In addition, Bratich said, these “Pro-Freedom” groups fight in a way that could result in their own decline, which is why he calls this movement a “downsurgency” rather than an “insurgency.”
“Rather than a traditional notion of populism, in which something called ‘the people’ was glorified and protected, necropopuilsm is indifferent to whether the people live or die (as long as abstract ideals like freedom are preserved)."
Bratich, who has been tracking street protests and social movements for years, said the street mobilizations against masking and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic surprised him. “What I saw in them, especially in the many protest signs people carried, was a fundamental disregard for life in favor of ‘liberty.’ There were even subtle signals around eugenics (e.g. that covid would simply kill off the weak so we shouldn’t ‘sacrifice’ the freedom of free market economy because of it).”
In his study, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Covid!”: Anti-Lockdown Protests as Necropopulist Downsurgency,” Bratich posits that understanding this new phenomenon is essential “if we are to antagonize this necrotic force, not simply through a battle of ideas but by preventing a fascist social body from being fully activated and mobilized.”
Bratich said the anti-masker appeals for “individual freedom” are “in fact passionate protections of the homogenous – of a whiteness that articulates itself through a disregard for the lives of Others, an indifference to those who are different. The eugenicist tones of the Tennessee anti-lockdown protest sign that said, ‘Sacrifice the Weak,’ thus announced a whiteness that determines who is unworthy of care and security.”
Such homogeneity is especially clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, that has disproportionately impacted communities of color, Bratich said.
After George Floyd’s murder, street rallies and protests held by the “pro-freedom” protestors against the lockdown and mask wearing became less common, Bratich said, only to be largely replaced by actions these groups took against stores enforcing mask-wearing -- and many of these incidents were violent and some resulted in deaths.
Looking back through American and global history, Bratich notes today’s “Pro-Freedom” protests follow in a long “American tradition of death-driven liberty.” These old traditions and mottos are now being adopted by these protesters in the context of COVID-19, which is very revealing, Bratich says.
Noting a sign that was held by a protestor at a rally that read, “‘Give me Liberty or Give me COVID,” Bratich said the translation is: “Give me Liberty AND Give me Death (and throw in some Death to Others as well). To put it succinctly, the accelerated and acute circumstances resulting from COVID-19 are drawing out the necropolitical orientations of the U.S. radical and libertarian right.”
Why is this history relevant today? Recent protests and other acts of dissension by “Pro-Freedom” protestors ultimately reflect their aim to guard patriarchy and white supremacy."
The new term Bratich coined, “necropopulism,” is closely related to the word “necropolitics,” which scholar Achille Mbembe defined in 2003 as “the sovereign power for homicide, ‘to dictate who may live and who must die’,” Bratich said.
Further, Bratich explained, Mbembe wrote that Nazism became ‘became the archetype of a power formation that combined the characteristics of the racist state, the murderous state, and the suicidal state.’ Mbembe also traced evidence of necropolitics back to “to colonialism’s brutal control mechanisms.”
Why is this history relevant today? Recent protests and other acts of dissension by “Pro-Freedom” protestors ultimately reflect their aim to guard patriarchy and white supremacy, Bratich said, and thus the likelihood is that they will not only harm themselves during these acts of protest, but they will also harm their targets: women and people of color.
“Our conventional political terminology needs to capture this process better in order to understand the logic that undergird the anti-lockdown protests . . . at best we are confronted with a necropopulism: a populism that, under the banner of specific types of people (white, masculinized, Christian), seeks to extinguish the life that allows any people to persist,” Bratich wrote in the study.