Malcolm James, City University, London

About two years ago, I was set to jump through one of the many hoops that make up the PhD process. It was my ‘upgrade’ – the exam you need to pass to move from ‘MPhil’ to ‘PhD Candidate’. For my submission, I needed to present my introduction, methods and a substantive chapter. My substantive chapter was entitled the ‘Politics of Death and Everyday Life in outer East London’. During the upgrade, significant discomfort was aired about the conceptualisation of everyday life in outer East London as a politics of death. One useful suggestion was that I should instead consider the ‘politics of less life’ as a more appropriate theoretical angle for understanding marginalisation in the London Borough of Newham.

Warned off the topic, the chapter was lost in the metaphorical drawer and did not feature in my PhD, but the questions I was grappling with have remained prescient. Unfortunately, the killing of Mark Duggan in August 2011 and the recent trial which found the police had not acted unlawfully in shooting an unarmed man, highlight that urban marginalisation with its racial and classed stereotyping is indeed part of a British post-colonial politics of death. Below I attempt to explain how Mark Duggan’s killing and urban marginalisation are part of this same politics.

That dormant chapter attempted to argue, with all the limitations of an initial ethnographic exploration of outer East London youth clubs, that marginalisation in that location was connected to the politics of death in post-colonial Britain. I understood marginalisation as a feature of neo-liberal governance where classed and racialised categories are used to define success and failure. In my research, young people’s definition as ‘failing’ and ‘at risk’ was negatively made sense of against categories of success. In the context of post-colonial Britain, these categories of success and failure were racially coded so that success was white and middle-class, and failure was coded as black, brown, ‘not-white-enough’ and working-class. As Newham is highly ethnically diverse, this was not to say that those who were not white and middle-class could not perform neo-liberal success, although to do so they often needed to distinguish themselves as being less-black, Asian, Muslim, Albanian, Polish, working-class, etc than their stereotypes. As part of the post-colonial politics of Britain, I was interested in showing how these racial categories of success and failure formed hierarchies of belonging that traced forms of racial governance through which Britain managed its relationship with Empire.

The theoretical underpinning of my argument drew on Foucault’s famous lecture ‘Society Must Be Defended’ (2003). In this lecture, Foucault argues that the governance of modern society is predicated on the right of the state to ‘make live and let die’. The state here is understood not as cold and monolithic, but diffuse and part of the everyday ways in which we police ourselves – what Foucault called ‘governmentality’. In the context of outer East London, I understood the categories of failure and success through which young people are ordered and police themselves as part of the state’s management of life and death. These racialised and classed categories of success and failure were the means through which political life was hierarchically ordered – so that ultimately some (the successful) were made live and others (the failing) let die.

In order to understand the relation between neo-liberal governance in Newham, Empire and post-colonial orderings of life, I also drew on Mbembe’s (2003) essay on Necropolitics. While Foucault’s work offers a modern and European framework for addressing the neo-liberal politics of death, he does not consider how this contemporary politics of death relates to colonial governance. Nonetheless, the ways in which failure and success are racially coded in Britain are intimately wound up with Empire, and this entails a colonial and post-colonial analysis of the situation. In his essay, Mbembe provides this framework. He challenges Foucault’s modern and Euro-centric analysis by forcefully demonstrating how death and killing are central to the politics of the colonial past and present.

As noted, the part of my chapter that generated discussion was that neo-liberal marginalisation in post-colonial Britain(s) could, and maybe should, be understood as contingent with the colonial and modern politics of death that Foucault and Mbembe address. Admittedly, the relationship between the state and death is starker in situations in which killing is inseparable from governance. Agamben’s (1998) arguments on the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, provide a graphic illustration of how the racist state functions to order life and death, so that the removal of political life from those deemed racially inferior becomes central to the state’s existence. In terms of colonial governance, we might also look at how killing was part of a civilizing mission in which black Africans were positioned as savages and white colonialists as civilizing saviours. David Anderson (2006) has addressed this in relation to the practices of torture, detention and killing pursued against the Mau Mau in Kenya whilst Mahmood Mamdani (2001) has addressed how the violence of colonial governance was formative to the Rwanda Genocide.

Against these contexts, it is easy to understand how an argument about a politics of death in outer East London might seem perverse and overblown, and, indeed, that a more accurate discussion should be forwarded on a politics of ‘less life’ pertinent to that social and historical location. After all, none of the young people I knew died, and the forms of urban marginalisation I was analysing were more about less-life than death. However, this overlooks the political and historical connections that must be made if we are to understand urban marginalisation. As Frantz Fanon (1986) reminds us, the politics of death that constitutes colonial governance is inseparable (but distinct) from the forms of making live and letting die that happen in our metropolitan centres.

Unfortunately, this case is not hard to make, and contemporary examples of Britain’s politics of death, and its relation to its colonial pasts and presents not hard to find. The acts of torture, detention and racialised marginalisation that operate through the ‘War on Terror’ and the categorisation of the Muslim terrorist, provide one discomforting route into this discussion. As the stories of Moazzam Begg (2006) and drone warfare show, it is this racial categorisation that permits torture and killing, under the banner of freedom, civilization and a Western colonialist idea of life. These ideologies have deep roots in the white man’s (sic) civilising mission. As Gargi Bhattacharyya (2006) has shown, these politics of death relate directly to the ways in which the figure of the Muslim is managed and monitored in neo-liberal Britain. In this way, colonial and post-colonial politics of death of the near and far are intimately intertwined.

Further evidence of Britain’s post-colonial politics of death is available through analyses of the detention and deportation of asylum seekers conducted by Bloch and Schuster (2005). These processes amount to the variegated removal of political rights and political life. The removal of life in these ways, allow us to understand how Jimmy Mubenga was permitted to be suffocated to death by G4S security guards whilst being deported to Angola. It also allows us to understand the case of Isa Muazu. He was never convicted of a crime but was permitted to starve himself almost to death in Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre rather than be forcibly returned to what he felt was a worse fate in Nigeria. He was, in the end, forcibly returned to Nigeria. His case highlights how the racial categorisation of asylum seekers legitimates killing, in order that categories of citizenship can be politically instrumentalised in service of a whitened politics of life.

These cases also relate to the killing of Mark Duggan by armed police in Tottenham in 2011. Although the killing of Duggan provides a different angle to this analysis, one that more firmly locates Britain’s politics of death among young people that have grown up in marginalised urban locations, it is also connected to these wider post-colonial politics. In the recent inquest into his death, it was proved that the police fabricated evidence to show that he had been carrying a gun, and Duggan was unarmed when killed. Nonetheless, the jury decided that the police had not acted unlawfully. In this way, an unarmed man was killed, but his death was not seen to be unlawful or, drawing on Butler (2004), something that should be publicly grieved.

The conditions that made this verdict possible, Stafford Scott (co-founder of the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign in 1985) noted in the Guardian, were rooted in the criminalisation of Duggan in the run up to the trial, in which he was painted as a gangster, although he had only been convicted of two minor offences. These codings of criminalisation are racialised and classed. The main image that was used by the press, combined with the demonization that surrounded it, presented a young man as a criminal and a gangster. The image was later revealed to be a cropped shot of Duggan mourning the death of his daughter. In this way, the media representation of Duggan acted to doubly erase Duggan’s grief and grief for Duggan. In their place, long-established racial stereotypes coding him as a black working class young man (as opposed to middle class and white codings of success) were mobilised. Rather than grieve his death and scrutinise the police, this post-colonial imagery and the subsequent trial verdict reinforced his alleged criminality and legitimated his killing.

Duggan is not of course alone. Deaths in custody, the police’s shoot to kill policy (explored in a recent edition of Panorama), and stop and search, all operate through these racialised and classed categorisations of success and failure that are so deeply intertwined with Britain’s post-colonial politics of death. Although not all urban marginalisation results in death, it is part of the same politics. Framing this as a politics of less life downplays these connections by focusing too closely on the absence of killing in many marginalised places. The effect is to obfuscate the wider politics in which urban marginalisation is constituted. Although located in particular contexts, the forms of racial and classed categorisation that enable the marginalisation of young people in deprived places, are also part of the post-colonial and neo-liberal governance that permits killing and denies grievance. This politics sustains a post-colonial racial state with white and middle class codings for life worth living.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Anderson, David. 2006. Histories of the hanged: Britain’s dirty war in Kenya and the end of empire. London: Phoenix.

Begg, Moazzam. 2006. Enemy combatant: a British Muslim’s journey to Guantanamo and back. London: Free Press.

Bhattacharyya, Gargi. 2006. “Wars on our doorstep: Islamicising ‘race’ and militarising everyday life”, in Alana Lentin and Ronit Lentin eds. Race and state. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, pp.138-151.

Bloch, Alice and Liza Schuster. 2005. “At the extremes of exclusion: deportation, detention and dispersal”. Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol.28, no.3, pp.491-512.

Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. London: Verso.

Fanon, Franz. 1986. Black skin, white masks. London: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society must be defended”: lectures at the College de France, 1975-76. London: Allen Lane.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 2001. When victims become killers: colonialism, nativism, and the genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics”. Public Culture, vol.15, no.1, pp.11-40.

Malcolm James teaches ‘race’, ethnicity, multiculture and ethnography at Department of Sociology City University London. Malcolm holds a PhD in sociology from London School of Economics. His interests in race, multiculture and youth are evident in numerous academic and non-academic publications including Journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, the Guardian (‘Behind the Riots’ series), and Open Democracy. He can be followed on twitter @mookron. Thanks to Helen Kim, Naaz Rashid, Victoria Redclift and Sivamohan Valluvan for invaluable comments and advice.