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e are living in a particularly alarming historical moment characterized by the resurgence of far-right populism in the US and Europe, as well as in particular countries in the Global South such as India and the Philippines. Many see this populism as a lapse in the otherwise stable, prosperous and progressive order of liberal democracy that should continue its uninterrupted global expansion. But when viewed through the arguments presented in Michelle Murphy’s The Economization of Life, we begin to see that today’s far-right racism has deep and often unrecognized historical roots in two taken-for-granted concepts that are central to global capitalism: “population” and “the economy.” Murphy’s book reveals the violent historical legacies of these concepts, which came together in novel ways during the twentieth century and eventually formed the backbone of an imperial strategy of population growth management that continues to shape the present. That the economy continues to be invoked today by the far-right in tandem with the notion of “population” is one of many reasons to consider the mutual historical construction of these concepts. After all, who has not heard about how immigration supposedly hinders the economy, and how it also has the potential to change the “essential” constitution of white populations in the Global North?
The book begins at a historical moment when the abstraction of “population” was brought into the laboratory. Raymond Pearl’s early-twentieth-century experiments with bottled Drosophila (fruit flies) demonstrated that population growth was not a fixed process, as the Malthusian imaginary had assumed, but could be tamed by managing its environment: the economy. The economy as “container,” analogous to the bottle that held Pearl’s fruit flies, is a central image of the book. Imagined futures are formed within the container, where capitalist aspirations to manage reproduction and production come to life. But so too is a violent borderland where some lives are deemed “productive” and worth preserving, and others are not. This containerization of population, through technoscientific devices such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), shapes the “regime of valuation” (6) that Murphy calls the economization of life.
The main task of Murphy’s book is to reveal a notable array of “epistemic infrastructures” (6) that have brought the economization of life into being. These infrastructures are central to how the abstractions of population and economy become materialized through various forms, including measuremen t techniques, data collection, funding, and techno-scientific “field” experiments. The book follows the creation of infrastructures that supported geopolitical and social science networks that were formed during the Cold War between the U.S. and Bangladesh. In tracing racist schemes to surveil and curtail the affectively charged “threat” of population growth in Bangladesh to more recent philanthropic campaigns to invest in girls’ education in the “developing” world, Murphy draws a continuous line between early infrastructures of the economization of life and its contemporary presence. While these infrastructures persist, they are not monolithic. They take form through an assortment of interventions, which are not simply imposed in a top-down manner but operate through multiple logics that adapt to site-specific conditions. Among the most important of these infrastructural interventions are the modes of economic and demographic representation that are constantly being (re)produced and circulated at multiple scales. Murphy thus argues that the epistemic infrastructures of the economization of life have built upon each other in forming a dominant regime of valuing and devaluing life under modern capitalism. The book is arranged into three “arcs” to reflect the gradual, continuous development of this regime’s infrastructures. Importantly, though, the book “is a provocation, not a proof” (7) that “traces only one of the potent routes through which the economization of life has become sedimented into the world” (8).
Arc I examines the history of the construction of GDP as a fundamental economic measure in the context of national liberation struggles in the Global South and the subsequent beginning of postcolonialism during the second half of the twentieth century. GDP came to be considered central to knowing about “the economy,” given that it has the capability of gauging its growth, health and overall conditions. But by asking the question of how GDP is actually calculated-- and what the calculation of GDP excludes as its “extraeconomic” outer realm--Murphy leads us to a discussion of how infrastructures are not built to neutrally measure what is actually in the world, but to fundamentally produce it through experimentation. For Murphy, the separation between what is and what is not important for the economy separates lives that can be regarded as productive and defensible from those lives which have to be constantly controlled, diminished, averted, and even wasted.
In discussing how the boundaries of the macroeconomy have come into being through calculation, Murphy also engages with a Marxist-feminist debate of the 1970s that saw reproduction as an essential form of labor within capitalism that functioned as the “shadow space of economy” (31). She intervenes in this debate by observing that “reproduction as construed through the figure of population was also coming into legibility in the 1970s for economists and social scientists as crucial, rather than incidental, to the success of the macroeconomy” (33). According to Murphy, reproduction appeared as a category not only within Marxist feminist analyses of capitalist social relations, but also within the technocratic gaze of Cold War social scientists who sought to analyze reproduction in order to manage population growth. This is an important historical engagement which reveals another dimension to the category of reproduction, which Murphy argues eventually became a central component of how population was imagined and governed as an economic object.
In Arc II, Murphy situates the social-scientific centering of reproduction within an analysis of infrastructures of “experimental exuberance” (82), largely in the context of postcolonial Bangladesh. These infrastructures of social science were inserted into the violent struggles that shaped the creation of the nation-state of Bangladesh in the 1970s, promising to know and thereby steer demographic dynamics and the impact they had on the economy. This political project produced an enormous amount of data that served, if anything, to bolster the infrastructures of expertise focused on Bangladesh. Constant experimentation was directed towards taming population growth and what started to be seen as the best way to achieve it: family planning projects. It meant modulating “backwards” societies in the image of an economy-population couple reflecting Americanized Cold War fears of overpopulation. Murphy’s analysis of the “Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices (KAP)” surveys (62-72) during the early 1970s demonstrates this in how they formed a “governmentality of population, a technique for simultaneously measuring and rearranging the affective orientations and living-being of aggregates of people” (64). This technique and many others helped inaugurate the move towards a neoliberal approach to averting births that were seen to negatively affect the economy. Arc II thus demonstrates how “the economy” became not simply a passive model through which population growth came to be understood, but an affectively-charged and historically contingent artifact of attempts to actively manage and evaluate reproduction.
Arc III demonstrates Murphy’s argument that the economization of life has been transformed through financialization, privileging investment in girls’ education as a way of managing population. It is through this shift that the economization of life continues to guide approaches to “development.” Murphy’s focus is on the figuration of “the Girl” as both an affective emblem of global corporate philanthropy and an individualized node within the shifting neoliberal terrain of global finance. Whereas the “Third World” woman was figured as a threat to be managed, signifying the proliferation of negatively valued life and framed as a disposable life herself, “the Girl” has come to be portrayed as an investment opportunity whose educational and entrepreneurial future forms the hinge of successful “development” in poor nations. “Human capital” was an important category through which the economization of life came to pivot around the Girl, placing embodied attributes such as skills and education within the category of investable life. What this turn to human capital signifies, according to Murphy, is the financialization of reproduction, in which girls’ bodies become imagined and valued according to their speculated return on investment, linking financial risk to the prospect of “development.” From the 1990s, this new figuration of the Girl as a risky body drew on fertility and educational data inherited from Cold War experimentation explored in Arc II, although it also departed from these techniques of data collection. For instance, risk analysis firms such as Maplecroft have sought to harness the global scale and modularity of big data in order to represent places in the world where specifically defined data about the Girl is lacking. We think that this third arc is an incredibly important one in the book. It demonstrates the contemporary endurance of the economization of life where it may be tempting to overemphasize historical differences between Cold War population management and more recent corporately sponsored “development” campaigns. To be sure, these differences are important, but the third arc reveals that the conditions that allow for corporate “development” emerged from Cold War population data and the devaluations of life that producing and circulating this data helped make possible.
The coda that follows the book offers a theoretical and ethical reflection on how the history of the economization of life might be further understood and challenged through a focus on what Murphy terms “distributed reproduction” (141). Whereas the abstraction of population requires us to view reproduction as an amassment of individual births, Murphy advocates a view of reproduction as a spatially and temporally uneven, unequal, and collective process of life “becoming-in-time” (142) that is distributed through certain infrastructures. Analyses of distributed reproduction, unlike population, would not offer a bounded model that makes individualized lives amenable to the categories of mainstream economic analysis. Rather, it would approach what Murphy calls “aggregate forms of life” as a multiplicity that allows for “a politics of life that is not biopolitical, that is not invested in the managerial grammar that some must die so that others might live” (141). She thus connects her project to the reproductive justice movements of the 1990s, which form a body of anti-racist, ecological, and anti-colonial struggles that seek to imagine and work towards more just ways of maintaining human and non-human collective life. The coda’s discussion of distributed reproduction as a site of political struggle complements the rest of the book, which narrates the path from Raymond Pearl’s laboratory to contemporary global datascapes as a fairly uncontested one. We do not suggest this as a criticism of Murphy’s account, which is purposely short and admits to “replicating some of the same erasures of the bird’s-eye view science it studies” (7). Given this issue, Murphy’s brief outline of distributed reproduction offers a compelling lens through which to begin resisting the economization of life.
The Economization of Life is an outstanding history of our collective political imaginations in the present. A central accomplishment of the book is its nuanced and concise illustration of how reproduction, technoscience, and political economy converge. The influence of feminist science and technology studies (STS) on this book is clear in Murphy’s acute attention to how gendered and sexed bodies are imagined and governed through technoscientific interventions into reproduction. Murphy explicitly situates this thematic focus within STS scholarship relating to the commodification of the biological world. In contributing to this field of inquiry, Murphy demonstrates that valuing and devaluing forms of life according to the logics of population and economy is not simply a commodification of bodies and reproduction. Rather, it involves “the creation of the atmospheres and assemblages that capitalism conjures for itself and as its own context” (72). The economy is not merely an abstract system, then, that capitalists drag relations of reproduction into; it is an affective world they help shape in affirming “productive” life and devaluing life seen as parasitic and threatening, as requiring incessant calculation and violent management. Murphy is careful not to establish a direct causal relation between affects, such as fear and exuberance, and projects to calculate and categorize “productive” and “unproductive” life. But it is nonetheless imperative in her account that affects circulate within established as well as emergent power relations for “the economy” as container to come into being.
Murphy’s focus on the affective worlds of capitalism also speaks to the economization literature within STS (which she discusses surprisingly briefly). Her emphasis on the affective, and not only calculative, relations of “the economy” as they are shaped through the channeling and shaping of collective fears, excitements, and aspirations as well as through technoscientific practices, provides a fresh perspective on how the economy is brought into being that will interest scholars of economization and political economy. Yet given the influence of Marxian thought on the book, we wonder whether it might be useful to mobilize the concept of affect more explicitly alongside a Marxian conception of ideology in order to think about an “experimental otherwise” (105-109) beyond population and the economy. This question is in part motivated by our concern, outlined at the beginning of this review, with how certain right-wing ideological interests are increasingly circulating and entrenching affective appeals to population and economy. A granular analysis of contemporary ideologies of racial purity and economic nationalism, as one possible example, could move from a broad and sweeping account of the economization of life to its reconfigurations by particular actors in time- and place-specific encounters. That said, this book is already an incredibly revealing and succinctly narrated history of “population” and “economy,” and a convincing call to imagine worlds beyond their confines. We look forward to further work that takes Murphy’s provocation seriously, especially from scholars across multiple disciplines grappling with questions relating to the political economy of reproduction (both human and non-human), the gendered history of technoscience, and the genealogy of neoliberal thought and practice.