A Politics of Life vs. a Politics of Death

I was very happy to use the White House’s new tool that calculates where tax dollars go and find out that more of my taxes go to paying for Medicaid and CHIP than for funding ongoing military operations. As tax day comes in the midst of intensely partisan battles over the budget, this juxtaposition between funds that keep our citizens healthier — more alive — and between those that wage wars — cause death — feels very clear. Are we going to keep spending $698 billion on the military, six times more than China, the world’s other largest spender? Or are we going to keep spending intact for the social safety net that provides health care, food subsidies, housing, and income to those who can’t get it any other way?

In her 1988 book Manhood and Politics, Wendy Brown examined the political theories of Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Weber and proved that all three conceive of power as wrapped up in manhood. But their conception of politics and manhood is very specific: it is defined as transcending life and its necessities. All three feel that the highest cause for humans is to overcome our dependence on meeting bodily needs and to risk our lives for glory. In other words, concerns with life and maintaining it — associated with women, who reproduce and produce sustenance for men — are both antithetical to power and to manhood. “Concern with life was conceived by all of them not simply as foreign or irrelevant to politics, but as threatening or debasing to the political realm and manhood,” she noted.

This formulation carries forward today, as she explained:

The formal political power of the liberal state is expressed in its assertion of the “national interest,” a “cause” usually juxtaposed to the particular interests and general well-being of the citizenry. The notion of national interest permits the state to jettison its erstwhile concern with life or assert and pursue concerns higher than life. It is for “national security” or “national honor” that the state sacrifices its youth in foreign military interventions, engineers right-wing coups in the Third World, spends millions on subverting domestic and foreign voices of dissent, pays farmers to bury rather than reap their crops, sanctions depletion and destruction of the environment, tolerates carcinogenic industrial operations, and slashes welfare programs while expanding defense expenditures. Little remains of the welfare state’s protective posture toward “mere life” when such lives can be made into instruments of aggressive warfare, subjected to working conditions threatening to their mental and physical health, or subjected to an environment in which the prosperity of the state is held in higher esteem than its citizens’ need to breathe air, drink water, and eat food that will not kill them.

So as Democrats and Republicans argue over where we should cut spending, the question we might want to ask is this: do the policies promote life or do they promote death? Are we protecting the environment, our food supplies, our air, and our health, or will our spending do the opposite? I’d call on politicians to get in touch with their feminine side — the side that’s interested in promoting life.


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