The Economization of Life (EoL) is a book that sticks. Author Michelle Murphy delicately surfaces the history and persistence of racist and eugenicist logics as they comprise global economies and state governance practices, and, in a bold and self-reflexive gesture, describes how these same logics operate in feminist organizations and academic research. Murphy’s work forced me to grapple with unresolvable tensions, particularly between long term liberation and short term survival, which were simultaneously troubling and eye-opening. I can see these now in places where they used to be hidden.
One of these tensions in EoL stretches between long standing eugenicist roots of “family planning” NGOs like Planned Parenthood and the urgent mission to protect women’s rights to bodily autonomy. Starting in the introduction, Murphy mentions how American Birth Control League (later to become Planned Parenthood) founder Margaret Sanger helped organize the World Population Conference of 1927 with the biologist Raymond Pearl who identified global population growth as an economic problem to be addressed through state planning. This initial glimpse into the history of population biology prepares Murphy to examine the role of NGOs like Planned Parenthood in Western-directed global campaigns and experiments to limit Bangladeshi births in exchange for lives “worthwhile;” lives that would positively contribute to the neoliberal global economy instead of lives on its margins. Shortly after reading about this history in EoL, I was invited to a “Punks for Planned Parenthood” concert in Buffalo, NY since the Trump administration has been threatening its funding (Belluck 2019). This is especially pertinent with President Trump’s newly appointed and recently nominated Supreme Court judges, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who many see as a looming threat to Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion, and the Affordable Care Act that made birth control and sexual health services more widely available in the U.S. In this current political climate where women often have to cross pro-life picket lines to enter Planned Parenthoods, we need them as they stand. How do we resolve this dilemma in which the same organizations protecting reproductive rights for some women are taking them away from others? Maybe, this is an impossible task within our current frameworks.
Murphy moves past the stories of experimental harms to think about how experimentation can open possibilities for us to operate outside of oppressive systems, for instance envisioning sexual and reproductive health services outside the confines of neoliberal and eugenicist logics. While I was reading EoL, my aunt who grew up in Puerto Rico was visiting and asked what it was about. I told her about the history of experimentation on Bangladeshi women to limit births. This was not surprising to her. In response, she recounted how Puerto Rican women were coerced to participate in birth control trials in the 1950s; many became infertile and three died. The pharmaceutical company was never held accountable (Nelson 2015). From this conversation with my aunt, I can tell this experimentation, which Murphy defines broadly in Chapter 07 as “conjectural future-making assemblages,” fueled the mostly White-led U.S. feminist and sexual liberation movements of the 1960’s at the expense of Puerto Rican women, leaving behind intergenerational trauma and fear (80). Murphy deliberately does not go into depth about these atrocities- other scholars have done this. Instead, sheshows us how these networks of extractive experimentation and their harms emerged, fueled by an economic logic, and urges us to examine the possibilities for modes of experimentation that promote less violent otherwisesor speculative futures. Murphy draws upon Audre Lorde to propose that experiments can be tactics for change and acts of “self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (81-82). Murphy leaves the reader with the question: what does new experimentation look like?
Murphy takes up this question in Chapter 09, “Experimental Otherwise,” looking to the non-governmental organization UBINIG (Unnayan Bikalper Nitinirdharoni Gobeshona, or Policy Research for Development Alternative) and their involvement with Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agricultural Movement), which incorporates eco-feminism and organic cultivation. Murphy describes the new modes of experimentation offered by Nayakrishi Andolon as “an alternative politics of life” (105). The experiment, as Murphy conceptualizes it, is not just scientific or medical. While UBINIG reaches back towards traditional agricultural practices, the partnership with Nayakrishi Andolon has produced a shift toward non-hierarchicalways of working together and reoriented top-down government policy to prioritize community needs.
UBINIG’s workreminds me of other non-hierarchical,activist organizations experimenting with economic and digital otherwises in the U.S.Through this experimentation, they are resolving the tensions between survival and the larger need to transform systems like the economy and digital infrastructures to center on democratic participation, solidarity, and human rights. For instance, The New Economy Coalition in Boston, MA is committed to building a new economy for social justice and ecological sustainability“to accelerate the transition of our economic system from capitalism to a solidarity economy. ” They do more immediate work by supporting community organizers who are building worker-owned cooperatives and community land trusts. Similarly, The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC) is resolving this tension by building democratic and participatory technological infrastructures for digital justice. They believe that people have a fundamental right to communication and have established digital justice principles promoting community-based, accessible and participatory digital infrastructures. On the ground, they make the internet and digital tools available to people who otherwise cannot afford it.
Following this thread of political otherwises, I found EoL a fitting companion for Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (2019) by DDJC member adrienne maree brown, which I read around the same time. In Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, brown compiles a series of interviews and reflective essays to show us, as the subtitle indicates, that happiness and pleasure can facilitate the otherwise overburdening quest towards liberation. Like Murphy, brown cites Lorde’s statement about self-preservation and asks a question that Murphy gestures toward throughout EoL: “How do we move from a dying body to a reproductive body?” (Brown 2017: 727). As women of color, we have structures of oppression like racism and neoliberalism pushing down on us, telling us that we cannot feel pleasure, that we cannot reproduce, killing us. Following Lorde and brown and other critical thinkers, Murphy’s analysis points towards possibilities for resistance to these structures through pleasure, reproduction (of bodies, ideas, seeds) and imagining otherwises together.
These themes of regeneration and resistance have also emerged in the work I have been doing with Murphy and otheractivists, scientists, technologists, and scholarsin the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) to envision alternative infrastructures for environmental data. EDGI’s Environmental Data Justice (EDJ) project surfaces tensions between a troubled history of economization and the need to address immediate threats to our livelihoods. Similar to the tensions we face in supporting Planned Parenthood despite its violent history, we want to support climate and environmental science while critiquing how it often overlooks historically marginalized perspectives and takes data self-reported by industry at face value. This is extremely difficult in an era with loud voices on the far right supported by the Trump Administration in threatening human rights to health – whether sexual or environmental.
In response to these unresolvable tensions, Murphy urges us to experiment with an anti-racist and anti-colonial conjuring of other “collective forms of life, that make room for resistance, critique, and the becoming-imagine becoming-in-time of multiplicities and relations more responsible to, and less folded within, the violence of capital and its reliance on externalized destructions, racisms, and heterosexual propriety” instead of a closed system, or bottle, where people need to die so that others live (141).
Lourdes Vera is a PhD candidate and member of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University. She is also on the coordinating committee of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative and a 2019 Switzer Foundation Fellow. Her dissertation research applies a framework of “Environmental Data Justice” to envision and implement systems of data production and stewardship driven by communities affected by environmental contamination. As a former science teacher, she fuses critical pedagogy with civic science to monitor air with communities living near oil and gas facilities.
Belluck, Pam. 2019. “Trump Administration Blocks Funds for Planned Parenthood and Others Over Abortion Referrals (Published 2019).” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/22/health/trump-defunds-planned-parenthood.html
brown, adrienne maree. 2019. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Chico, California: AK Press. Kindle Edition.
Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Nelson, Jennifer. 2015. More than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement. New York City: NYU Press.