Reproduction at the Center: Michelle Murphy’s Economization of Life

Michelle Murphy’s The Economization of Life tells the story of how a singular economy began as a fantasy, and how that fantasy was manifested into reality. Born with Keynesian macroeconomics, the fantasy of “the economy” was sharpened during the early Cold War period into an instrument of death-dealing. This occurred primarily though the development of a new concept in macroeconomics – population. The impact of this concept was simultaneously symbolic and material, as populations came to be managed in ways that impacted peoples’ ability to thrive or even survive. By the 1970s, the fantasy of that there was an overarching global economy was tuned to the now well-establish science of demography. Together they were used to organize a new financial infrastructure that dominated world governance from the period of Cold War imperialism to the age of international lending, which transitioned colonial prerogative from former colonizing governments to agents like the boards of the IMF and World Bank. The IMF and World bank, dominated by formerly colonizing nations including the US, focused on controlling the national policies of postcolonial nations through the logic of population control. As Murphy argues, this commitment to the deadly logics of population control and efficiency as an inherent “good” by international lending and the leaders of the largest national economies has led to the “economization of life” – a process that mediates access to reproductive rights, access and/or refuge from reproductive technologies, and access to the means of the social reproduction, or perpetuating one’s social world. The book focuses on the effects of the economization of life on South Asian populations, particularly in Bangladesh, which Murphy argues have been rendered as the extreme case study of neoliberal experimentation.

Reviewing an impressively broad range of scholarship on experimentation, Murphy combs through an archive of governmental and policy documents, reading them alongside economic treatises, Science & Technology Studies (STS) literature, medical anthropology and sociology, as well as feminist and critical race scholarship. In doing so, Murphy reveals the step-by-step process by which a new innovation of eugenicist logic for dealing death and averting birth becomes a coldly mathematical common sense in global governance. As Murphy rightly asserts, “this history puts questions of reproduction at the center of how capitalism summons its world” (Murphy 2017: 7).

Murphy’s version of historical materialism is inflected by feminist technoscience’s assertion that technologies produce material-semiotic worlds. It demonstrates how both “economy” and “population” are phantom effects that enact their own causes. For example, in the book’s first section, “Phantasmagrams of Population and Economy,” Murphy shows how gross domestic product (GDP) operates as a “phantasmagram” – a quantitative practice enriched with affect, which propagates imaginaries, lures feeling, and hence has supernatural effects in surplus of its rational concepts. These “extra-objective relations,” as Murphy calls them, enchant governments and policy advisors into acting in the interest of phantasms like GDP, aided by infrastructures of data-making and analysis (25).

As The Economization of Life describes, in breathtaking historical and geographical scope, these many forms of social relations and their accompanying social worlds and forms of common sense get rendered inefficient within macroeconomic logics. My own research has looked at social and biological reproduction between the United States, Europe, and South Asia from the perspective of what forms of sociality fall out of these logics as irrational or illegible. For example, my ethnographic research on surrogacy demonstrates how the cultural meaning and value of the practice of surrogacy is violently written over by the logics of the surrogacy contract, which reduce the act of carrying a fetus to term as to nine months of service as a “gestational carrier.”[1] Similarly,The Economization of Life provides historical context for the ways that the science of population works together with reproductive medicine and the market economy to support commercial surrogacy in South Asia as a region biopoliticized as “over-populated.”[2] At the same time, Murphy makes room for us to consider the political and existential possibilities that continue to arise from life worlds that appear to have been written over by macroeconomics and population logics. For example, Murphy uses Farida Akhter’s participation in the Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agricultural Movement), a biodiversity-based farming practice in Bangladesh that embraces a regenerative politics that “sustain life in time with a distributed relation between many beings”(108) to think through the potential for new forms of living. Murphy describes the community-led ecological agricultural movement as an example of one answer to the question: How does one experiment with a different politics of reproduction – one that rejects the logics of population, the liberal ethics of individuation, and the horizon of economy?

The Economization of Life shows us how the infrastructure of the macroeconomy controls the infrastructure of access to reproductive rights through the repressive state apparatus of police and courts and agents of calcified racism and classism. As Murphy argues, if the economy is a material-semiotic phantasm that has organized world governance through a racist and eugenicist logic, this makes dismantling its historical impact an issue of reproductive justice. Reproductive justice organizers have argued that access to reproductive rights must be accompanied by access to the means to support and protect those for whom one takes the responsibility to provide care. As a social movement, reproductive justice addresses social welfare issues including affordable housing, healthcare access, and food security, but also, increasingly, the right to social assistance for parents and guardians who require support to care for their children or wards, the rights of families detained at the border to stay together, and the rights to social support for people who are not employed.

Murphy roots the history of macroeconomics and the science of population management in eugenics and colonialism, in order to contextualize contemporary forms of global biopolitical governance. This history sheds new light on why, in the current moment, it has become an obvious and ubiquitous observation that only the privileged have access to the care and health resources they need. To care for something bigger than oneself and one’s bio-legal family is not perceived by neoliberal governments to be efficient. This leads to conditions such as those observed by the Precarity Lab in its forthcoming book, Technoprecarious, that under the US healthcare system health and wellness are necessary conditions for accessing further health and wellness.[3] Structural racism, sexism and ableism continue to block access to health and wellness. Although institutional medicine recognizes race as a social determinant of health, its description of race as a “disparity” can unintentionally pathologize people of color. For example, the US Surgeon General recently described how higher rates of complications and death from Covid-19 among Black and Latinx Americans resulted from “risky” individual behaviors.[4] Twenty-five years ago, US Black, Asian, Latinx and Indigenous feminist scholars took up the activist-coined term “reproductive justice” to challenge medicine’s framework of reproductive choice to include the needs of low-resources women, including the right to parent in safe and sustainable communities.[5] Murphy provides a missing part of the history for how these prejudicial structures came to be, and how they have, and continue, to center reproduction.

The Economization of Life gives us important tools to bring the work of reproductive justice from the world of feminist social justice organizing to the world of feminist scholarship. It shows us that the economy is an effect that materializes its own causes, supported by a structure of belief that holds together otherwise disparate data and calculations. With enough effort, it urges us, we should be able to divest from that enabling belief, and instead follow models for a regenerative politics, committing instead to reproductive justice as an infrastructure of regeneration.

Kalindi Vora is Director of the Feminist Research Institute and Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at University of California, Davis. An anthropologist of medicine and technology, she has published two books, Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor and Surrogate Humanity: Race, Technology, Revolution (Neda Atanasoski, co-author), which study the relationship between technology, labor, and human bodies as it relates to engineering, information technology, and design. She has also published extensively on commercial surrogacy in India and is also a co-author of the forthcoming books Pocket Guide to Feminist Science and Technoprecarious(2020). Both books address issues of practice and design in STEM as informed by expertise in history and social analysis of social inequality. 


[1] Vora, Kalindi, (2014), ‘Experimental Socialities and Gestational Surrogacy in the Indian ART Clinic’, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 79:1, pp. 63-83; Kalindi Vora (2013), ‘Potential, Risk and Return in Transnational Indian Gestational Surrogacy,’ Current Anthropology, 54: Supplement 7,pp. S97-S105; Kalindi Vora (2012), ‘Limits of Labor’, South Atlantic Quarterly201:111, no. 4, pp. 681-700.

[2] Vora, Kalindi, Life Support: Biocapitalism and the New History of Outsourced Labor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

[3]Precarity Lab, Technoprecarious. MIT Press, 2020.

[4] White House Press Briefing, April 10 2020.


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