“Priority passengers” and other necropolitical human taxonomies

Earlier this week I wrote about two incidents of violence on planes . While these incidents differed drastically in the reasons behind them, both were racist in nature. Now, because we seem to be living in an era of cliches come to life, three time’s the charm and a third incident  of violence on a plane took place. This time involving a man who was threatened with forceful removal using handcuffs if he didn’t disembark to make room for “a priority passenger”.  

On Twitter I pointed out that corporate marketing (the so called “priority passenger” being part of the jargon of frequent flyer programs) had finally been incorporated to the necropolitical. In this necropolitics theorized and articulated by Achilles Mbembe , “the world is divided into those who are disposable and those who are not, those whose lives can be wasted and those who cannot”. Usually, the State, in its role of dominator, is in charge of this “administration of the different values of human life”, executing policies and legal interventions that would ensure the upholding of these categories. What, for me, was novel in this latest incident of airline violence is that the threat of State violence was used as a tool to protect a corporate marketing plan. Usually, State violence is deployed as a way to protect and enforce corporate interests (for instance with military interventions on other countries or police repression against protesters) but I don’t recall seeing an instance where State violence is flaunted as a way to enforce what is basically a promotional scheme for a private company.

When I wrote the initial essay  on the series about Big Data, I touched upon the history of human taxonomies and the creation of racial hierarchies to justify the exploitation of populations deemed “inferior” to the colonizers. In these taxonomies, human lives were divided across racial and ethnic lines and assigned a “value” with white Europeans firmly on top of the scale. Nowadays, while the influence of these racist taxonomies still permeates our cultures and their legacy is still the root of the systemic issues faced by non white people, scientific racism is, generally speaking, no longer deemed a respectable pursuit. However, if the latest United Airlines incident involving a “priority passenger” is any indication, we might be at the verge of the emergence of a new form of taxonomy: humanity as a loyalty award. In this hyper capitalist taxonomy the consumer, no longer someone invested of personhood by virtue of their humanity, is conferred status by virtue of their spending power. Some countries already grant “Golden visas ” and residence permits to people with sufficient capital and a willingness to invest , perhaps Gold, Platinum and Diamond levels of humanity might as well be the next step.

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