Time & History

Same war time zone (2018)

[ transcript of a talk for the Radical Philosophy Association’s Fall conference ]

I would like to begin with a passage from Giorgio Agamben’s 1978 essay, ‘Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum,’ since it will serve to orient the remarks that follow:

Every conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time which is implicit in it, conditions it, and thereby has to be elucidated. Similarly, every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without an alteration in this experience. The original task of a genuine revolution, therefore, is never merely to ‘change the world’, but also – and above all – to ‘change time’. Modern political thought has concentrated its attention on history, and has not elaborated a corresponding concept of time. Even historical materialism has until now neglected to elaborate a concept of time that compares with its concept of history. Because of this omission it has been unwittingly compelled to have recourse to a concept of time dominant in Western culture for centuries, and so to harbour, side by side, a revolutionary concept of history and a traditional experience of time. (Agamben, Infancy and History, 91)

So, according to Agamben, the central impasse at which historical materialism finds itself is that of having a revolutionary understanding of history without an equally revolutionary notion of time – the result being that we find ourselves compelled to rely upon a traditionally Western conception of time as rectilinear, characterized by the present as fleeting instant, and flanked by the abstract and homogenous notion of a past, which came before, and a future, which comes after. If such an impasse were indeed actually the case, it would be tantamount to conceiving the history as the history of (class) struggle without the necessary means of effectively participating in struggle, let alone abolishing the very conditions that ensure the reproduction of class based society. History, when viewed within situations such as these, cannot help but feel less like the time of struggle and more like the indefinite wandering of Humanity. However, rather than recapitulating Agamben’s wide sweeping argument for what he takes to be a properly historical materialist understanding of time (an argument that begins with Gnosticism, moves through Stoicism, culminates with Benjamin and Heidegger, thereby giving rise to the decidedly non-quantifiable time of Aristotelian pleasure), I would like to turn out attention to an essay entitled  ‘The Time of Capital and the Messianicity of Time. Marx with Benjamin’ (2012), by Sami Khatib; for it is here where one encounters a critical rejoinder to Agamben’s position that does some of the important groundwork for demonstrating how, contra Agamben, “it is in Marx himself that we find the grounds for a materialist theory of time.” After having provided a general overview of Khatib’s reading of the various forms of capitalist time analyzed by Marx, I will articulate both the virtues and limits of Khatib’s rejoinder, which treats the relationship between abstract-time and historical-time as the very grounds for any possible historical materialist concept of time. The concluding portion of this talk will begin from what I deem to be its chief limitation – namely, what is elided by this overemphasis on the importance played by abstract-time and historical-time is the existence of a qualitatively different form of time that Marx will call disposable-time, and a concept of time whose cardinal virtue is in its overcoming any brute opposition of abstract/historical-time as well as the false dichotomy between labour-/leisure-time.   

1. In Defense of an Historical Materialist Concept of Time

At the outset, what is significant regarding Khatib’s inquiry is the fact that he undertakes a defense of an either latent or manifest theory of time in the late Marx not insofar as time is understood as being divided into labour- and leisure-time. Rather, Khatib begins from a two-fold concept of Time, where one form of time is time understood as “rectilinear, homogenous, cyclical time” (abstract time) and another form where time is said to be “disruptive, revolutionary time as an opening up of history” (historical time). And as Khatib remarks, it is necessary to distinguish between abstract and historical time precisely because capital is simultaneously “a social formation within history,” and “a social formation that produces and reproduces its own historical time.” In other words, capital is that historical social form that is both a product of history and that which brings into existence a wholly new form of time proper to itself.

Now, what is meant by “abstract time?” Abstract-time refers to what Marx called “socially necessary labour-time” – the average amount of time required for the production (of value) and reproduction (of what is necessary for capital to sustain itself). Or as Marx put it in chapter 6 of Capital, “[T]he value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this special article. So far as it has value, it represents no more than a definite quantity of the average labour of society incorporated in it.” Thus, to speak of abstract-time is to speak of time as the measure of value. However, insofar as abstract time as measure of value refers to that quantifiable average of labour-time required for the production of surplus-value and reproduce itself, that which abstract-time measures must be something distinct from itself. And it is precisely time as “historical time” that allows for the measurement of total value produced. However, this is the case, not because historical-time refers to a supposed set of iron laws that dictate history’s progression; rather, it is due to the fact that historical-time is the temporal form whose content is nothing but the rise and fall of productivity given a certain period of capitalist development. And this is perhaps best seen in Marx’s comment regarding the working day, when he writes,

What is a working day? […] The working day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of rest without which labour-power is absolutely incapable of renewing its services. Hence, it is self-evident that the worker is nothing other than labour-power for the duration of his whole life, and that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and by right labour-time […] It is not the normal maintenance of labour-power which determines the limits of the working day here, but rather the greatest possible daily expenditure of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory and painful it may be, which determines the limits of the workers’ period of rest. (Marx, Capital vol. I, 375 fn., emphasis mine)

Thus Khatib is correct in saying that it is due to the inherently variable content of historical-time that abstract-time is itself “the bearer of an historical index that cannot be measured…external to the movement of the self-valorization of capital.” What is more, says Khatib, abstract time is not simply bound to the variable transformations in productivity, which is the content of historical-time; abstract-time is itself determined, to a greater or lesser degree, by the fluctuations of historical-time.

Now while Khatib has explicitly made reference to the work of Moishe Postone throughout his argument, it is when this two-fold understanding of capitalist time as both abstract and historical that he reminds us of Postone’s own remark (“The entire abstract temporal axis, or frame of reference, is moved with each socially general increase in productivity; both the social labour hour and the base level of production are moved ‘forward in time’”) in order to provide the following formulation: “historical time is a function of abstract time retroactively changing the parameter of this function [measure of value].” Thus, while historical time is distinct from abstract time insofar as it is the object that is to be measured, historical time is also distinct from abstract time insofar as it alone is capable of forcing a change in the way in which capital measures the production of value. In other words, while abstract-time measures the movement of labour according to discrete moments within the spaces of production or reproduction, historical-time continuously modifies what labour will and will not be compensated for via the wage and relative to the current rate at which surplus-value is produced. And it is at this point that the following question necessarily arises: are the categories of abstract-time and historical-time sufficient for developing an historical materialist understanding of time? For Khatib, we must answer in the affirmative and the negative: in the affirmative insofar as abstract-time and historical-time are a two-fold understanding of a kind of time that only exists within capitalist societies; and in the negative because, according to Khatib, this two-fold nature of capitalist time generates its own paradox whereby the linear and homogeneous time of abstract-time does not move in a linear fashion and only moves in accordance with the rise and fall of the rate of production (i.e. historical-time). Thus, we find ourselves in a particular situation where we are confronted neither with rectilinear time nor with the temporal structure of progress but rather (abstract-)time as that which rules everything around us: “Time has become the equivalent and exchangeable form of contingent events on a global scale – the temporal form of the world market. [T]his empty temporality lacks historical openness since it ‘lacks’ the lack of linearity, that is to say, it does not allow for a temporal rupture or cut irreducible to equivalent intervals of exchangeable time units” (‘The Time of Capital and the Messianicity of Time,’ 56-7). That said, it is due to this aporetic conclusion regarding capitalist time in its abstract and historical forms that Khatib turns to Benjamin’s concept of ‘now-time’ [Jetztzeit]; a form of time that is said to be capable of overcoming the impasse of time-as-concept.

2. Jetztzeit & the Critique of Historical Progress

In his 14th theses ‘On the Concept of History,’ Benjamin defines now-time in the following terms:

History is the subject of a construction whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled full by now-time [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with now-time, a past which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate…it [was] the tiger’s leap into the past. Such a leap, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical leap Marx understood as revolution. (Benjamin, Selected Writings, 395)

As Khatib rightly notes, Jetztzeit does indeed share a certain structural likeness to the historical-time of capital insofar as both “consist[s] of non-linear, disruptive short circuits between historically different base levels of productivity.” However, what separates them and renders them ultimately incommensurable is the fact that Benjaminian ‘now-time’ marks a transformation in the forces and/or relations of capitalist production that functions as the conditions of possibility for the reintroduction of “a certain fragment of the past” and whose consequences are, as Benjamin says, enough “to blast open the continuum of history.” What is more, ‘now-time’ is actually “a model of messianic time” and “comprises the entire history of mankind in a tremendous abbreviation.” However, what must be understood in is that Jetztzeit’s abbreviated capture of human history is said to be a model precisely because within each of its irretrievable images of the past (or dialectical images) are the three modes of messianic temporalization: (i) the present as the moment “in which time takes a stand [einsteht],” (ii) the present as the moment that “has come to a standstill;” and (iii) the present as the moment wherein a certain “image of the past…unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger,” or the image of an “irretrievable…past which threatens to disappear in any present that does not recognize itself as intended in that image.” Jetztzeit, then, as a present pregnant with the unrealized past and its possible future, is a form of time whose concept situates the current cycle of struggles in a certain historical lineage (e.g. workers movement, feminism, antifascism, etc.) such that these images, which continue to find no place within the dominant conception of history (i.e. history of the victors), are redeemed by this time which “takes a stand [einsteht]” and achieves “a conception of history that accords with” the insight that “the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

Now, contra Khatib’s suggestion of Jetztzeit as the dialectical corrective to capitalist time’s aporetic structure, and in light of Benjamin’s own understanding of the term, what is made clear is that Jetztzeit is less a concept of time and more so a cognitive abstraction that takes place in time but whose subject is the history of the struggling, oppressed class itself. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, while Benjamin nominates messianic time as the capacity for redeeming the past that belongs to a given collective revolutionary, Khatib understands messianic time to be “nothing [other] than an inner loop of/within capital-time giving us time to subtract human labour from capital-time – to deactivate capital-time and ultimately to bring the latter to an end.” In other words, attempting to resolve the impasse of capitalist time via the concept of ‘now-time’ only leads to a confusion of categories and their respective registers of analysis (i.e. now-time is a concept indexed to history, and insofar as it is not a form of time that is essential to capital’s self-reproduction, then now-time as a resolution to the capitalist form of abstract-/historical-time leaves the impasse unresolved).

3. On Non-Alienated Forms of Time: from ‘now-time’ to disposable-time

In the time that remains, I’ll provide the general contours for an argument that views the category of disposable-time (rather than Jetztzeit) as the adequate form of time that would (i) resolve the aporia of abstract and historical time and (ii) provide a more complete historical materialist concept of time. In the Grundrisse one reads the following claim from Marx: ‘For real wealth is developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.’ This disposable-time that is said to be the true measure of the wealth produced under communism; this time with which we can do as we please and that structures one’s life as a life defined by this form of time that can only be attributed to communism; this time, then, is the form of time that allows us to move beyond the static division of labour-time  vs. leisure-time (i.e. socially necessary labour-time that is waged and extra-socially necessary labour time, which is unwaged). In other words, it is by moving beyond this brute opposition of labour- versus leisure-time that one can grasp the way in which disposable-time is a form of time that is both immanent to the capitalist mode of production and a form of time that is potentially adequate to, or at least orients us toward, the time of communism: adequate because it is only through disposable-time that society’s negotiation of the questions/problems/experiences of love and sexuality can  be determined in a specifically communist manner; communist because disposable-time is a form of time the existence of which necessarily implies the abolition of any notion of time as the measure of value.

However, at this point in our analysis what becomes clear is that in having identified the category or form of Time needed to move beyond all that is false in the separation of labour-time from leisure-time, it remains the case that its corresponding content has yet to be accounted for. So what good is an indeterminate category; in other words, of what use does a historical materialist analysis have for a pure and empty form of time? This suspicion of disposable-time’s insufficiency due to its being a form without content, however, misunderstands what is at issue; it is not the case that Marx offers disposable-time as a way of answering the question ‘what is the actual, empirical, and material reality that corresponds to this form?’ Rather, it is in response to the question, ‘what will give order and structure to social existence in the absence of time as the measure of value?’, that the category of disposable-time is applied. For what is at issue is not a question of describing reality but one of the reality of social relations, since it is these real-abstractions that govern and regulate individual existence in accordance to the demands of the market. Thus, it is of no consequence if time-as-category is said to be empty since it is the form of a certain social relation that is sufficient for discovering the kind of concrete social relations that will come to define social existence. On this point that Dauvé is once again instructive:

“When they [the proletariat] transform or reproduce what they have taken over, what matters is the material and psychological satisfaction obtained not just by the product, but also by the productive activity…To put it another way, what will regulate production will be more than production procedures, it will be the social relation experienced by the participants. Sharing becomes not just giving other people…but acting together…Organizing, resisting, and fighting imply places to meet, eat, sleep, produce, and repair. When social relationships integrate what is now distinct – what is called producing and consuming – time-count and its coercion are ignored. Since objects are not made to be exchanged according to the average quantum of time necessary to make them…there is no point in keeping track of minutes and seconds. People take their time, literally. It hardly needs saying that some people will be slower than others and that people will rush to do something urgent: time of course matters, but it no longer rules as the universal quantifier.” (Gilles Dauvé, Time, ‘An A to Z of Communization’)

Disposable-time, then, is a properly communist time since in its abolition of life organized according waged and unwaged activity it creates and organizes our social existence in accordance with a form of time the function of which is to act as the condition of possibility whereby everyone can rediscover themselves in actuality, including a rediscovery of what love could be independent of the obligations of socially and/or extra-socially necessary labour time. Thus, it is to our advantage that the category of disposable-time is a form devoid of content (since it does not make any claim to knowledge but rather establishes criteria for anti-capitalist social relations) precisely because the content of any form can only assume one of two possible modes of existence: that of succeeding or that of failing to conform to what is materially and objectively the case. For the promise of marxist theorizing was never the confirmation of the existence of the real-abstraction of capital; thus, disposable-time also serves as a really existing social relation that is to be constructed. Hence my suggestion of disposable-time as the condition of possibility for becoming acquainted with a non-alienated and collective self (a profound rediscovery no less since it would be nothing more and nothing less than our becoming reacquainted with a self that we have never known). As Dauvé puts this: disposable-time is the time of communism because ‘Time is…the dimension of human liberation, providing the measure of time does not turn into measuring the world and us according to time.’ Disposable-time, then, is nothing but the measure of human liberation whereas the forms of time appropriate to capital are those which measure ourselves and the world against a standard that is, in essence, other-worldly and in-human. Thus, what was true in Agamben’s provocation with which we began is the idea that engaging in class struggle does not simply mean participating in a process of increasingly equitable distributions of the total surplus-value of capital. It also means to struggle against situations where our lives are measured according to capitalist Time instead of Time being measured according to all that is alive in our needs and desires, and what is required for its self-reproduction. Or, in the words of an Argentine comrade:

It was really interesting to begin to think about and imagine very concrete strategies for going on strike in atypical places. Because if we are serious about the strike, if we are really proposing it, we have to address all of these questions that we have about what it means to strike. It can’t be allowed to force us to give an image of ourselves that does not correspond with our everyday reality. What is powerful is that the women from the popular economy were the first to say “we will strike.” That is, these questions are asked from a position of a determined wager on the strike, in order to strengthen the strike. They really liked striking and they are eager to continue elaborating these questions about what it means to go on strike when you don’t have a boss, when you work in a cooperative, when you receive welfare, and so on. To include all of these realities in the strike, it is necessary to overflow it and effectively think about work beyond the typical job, under a boss, in a determined place, and so on. Another interesting question that has been debated recently has to do with how to connect the strike to care work, and in the way in which that care is carried out in homes, in community or neighborhood spaces or is self-managed. On the one hand, thinking about what it means to take those spaces to the mobilization, that the mobilization takes responsibility for that part of care work. There is a double measure to the time of the strike. We strike for a few hours in our workplaces and for the whole day we remove ourselves from the gender roles that assign us tasks of care. We strike and we make time for ourselves. That was a very powerful slogan: we organize ourselves to be able to dispose of our time, to free ourselves from daily obligations, and open up that time. (Verónica Gago, ‘The Strike of Those Who Can’t Stop’)

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The Reality of Destitution is The Destitution of Reality

Finalized draft for Unworking; a forthcoming collection of essays
on désoeuvrement and inoperativity that will be out this Fall.

[0.] Introduction

On the 19th and 20th of December, 2001, 1 million people took to the streets of Buenos Aires to protest the collapse of Argentina’s economy — a collapse set to the tune of 150 billion US Dollars (the amount of debt owed to the IMF). In the midst of what would prove to  be the opening salvo of a decade long crisis, there appeared new forms of struggle, which subsequently gave rise to the invention of new forms of theorizing and political practice. For example, while traditional models of workers organizations in the 60’s and 70’s revolved around the factory (e.g. sit-ins, work slow downs, strikes, and so on), these nascent social movements found themselves displaced from the point of production. And given the decades long increase in unemployment leading up to the 2001 crisis, Argentina witnessed the emergence of the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupandos (Unemployed Workers Movement or MTD), for whom the piquete (blockade) served as the new form of struggle outside of the factory-site. The piquetes, which first appeared in the center of the country, had as its aim the obstruction of the circulation of commodities. Thus, the blockade, was the practical resolution devised by MTD to the following questions: What would it mean to strike outside of the workplace as the traditional site of struggle? Or, as one unemployed worker put it, “who is going to be in control? The people in struggle or the bastards in the government?”  Devoid of any particular place to strike, MTD attacked the world of the commodity that extended beyond the factory walls.

It was in light of the emergence of these new social movements and their corresponding forms of struggle that the militant research collective, Colectivo Situaciones, developed the concept of counterpower or de-instituent power; a category of political theorizing that has now come to be known simply as destituent power: “[A]t long last we have learned that power — the state, understood as a privileged locus of change — is not the site, par excellence, of the political. As Spinoza stated long ago, such power is the place of sadness and of the most absolute impotence. Thus we turn to counterpower. For us, emancipatory thought does not look to seize the state apparatus in order to implement change; rather, it looks to flee those sites, to renounce instituting any centre or centrality” (‘On the Researcher-Militant’). Despite the eighteen year difference that separates the present moment from that of the early days of Colectivo Situaciones, the current cycle of struggles appear to have found themselves in a similar situation.

Approximately one month into the gilets jaunes uprising, the French online magazine, Lundi Matin, published an editorial entitled, ‘Next Stop: Destitution,’ wherein one encounters the following passage:

The question is as follows: what does it concretely mean to destitute the system in practice? Obviously, it cannot mean electing new representatives, since the bankruptcy of the current regime issues precisely from the bankruptcy of its representative system. To destitute the system means to take over locally, canton by canton, the material and symbolic organization of life. It is precisely the current organization of life that is today in question, that is itself the catastrophe. We must not fear the unknown: we have never seen millions of people allow themselves to die of hunger. Just as we are perfectly capable of organizing ourselves horizontally to set up blockades, we have the capacity to organize ourselves to relaunch a more sensible organization of existence. As revolt is organized locally, so it is at the local level that our solutions will be found. The “national” level is only ever the echo that issues from local initiatives.

While the number of articles and analyses regarding the gilets jaunes uprising increases with each of its ‘Acts,’ it is worth emphasizing that destituent power, as it is proposed here, is not simply an attempt to implement in practice the concepts developed by “ultra-left” theorizing done in isolation. Rather, in light of the concerns that emerged early on regarding the presence of far-right and fascist elements within various locales of this nation-wide mobilization, destituent power is seen as the means of attempting to give determinate form to the indeterminate character of the movement as a whole. For as the Italian comrades at Common Ware have correctly noted

In the streets and in the squares of France over the last few weeks it was not only this impoverished middle class in its crisis of mediation that was present, of course. From time to time, in different cities and urban conflict zones, there were various proletarian and sub-proletarian segments, stratified and held in tension by generation and race. It is precisely the recomposition between the middle class in its crisis of mediation and a proletariat deprived of a future that, as we have said for some years, constitutes the decisive political point of the movements within the crisis […] To be clear: we are not saying that insurgencies such as that of the Gilets Jaunes have in fact solved the problem of recomposition. We are simply saying that within this terrain the question has been materially and spontaneously posed.

The crucial point is this: it is within the context of the dissolution and recomposition of class relations within French society that we must understand this call for ‘destituting the economy;’ for it is only by grasping the condition and problem that defines the gilets jaunes uprising as one of recomposition that destituent power can be understood as an attempt at giving determinate form to what is still an underdetermined movement. In what follows, we begin with an interrogation into our present conjuncture as one in which Marx’s original formulation of communism as the real movement of abolition and Agamben’s “coming community” appeals to its destituent power encounter one another; a moment that has perhaps been captured best by the Invisible Committee’s provocative reworking of this Marxian dictum when they write, “Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things” (Now, p. 89). However, a statement such as this necessarily raises the following question: What becomes of communism if it is said to be the real movement that“destitutes” the present state of things? Does the substitution of “destitution” for “abolition” signal a principled divergence from the vision of communism found in those pages of the German Ideology and as intended by Marx and Engels? Or does this destituent movement mark a progressive refinement in light of the failures of historical communism and its various workers movements? As the above epigraphs already suggest, any beginnings of an answer to such questions can be found in the works of Giorgio Agamben and the Invisible Committee; both of whom have perhaps gone farthest in reconceiving communism via the category of destituent power.

When one reads Agamben’s more recent political writings alongside his 1993 text, ‘Form-of-Life,’  as Jason E. Smith has noted, what becomes clear is that through Agamben’s reworking of the set of ideas that came out of the workerist tradition,  the author is led to view capitalist society and its attendant social relations as asymmetric and antagonistic to the community that is claimed to be the content proper to forms-of-life:

The workerist and post-workerist traditions understand the concept of antagonism in terms of the dynamic of capitalist social relations. This conflictual and asymmetric relation between living and dead labour is one in which living labour is always ‘primary,’…whose resistance to that form of capture drives capitalist development itself…Agamben’s rewriting of this scenario situates the antagonism less within the dynamics of capitalist production than within the relation between ‘massive inscription of social knowledge in productive processes’, on the one hand, and ‘intellectuality as antagonist potentiality and form-of-life’ on the other…Communism is the enemy of the social, that is, the objective or factual partitioning of society into classes…To the divisions of society Agamben opposes the multitude of community. The overcoming of capitalist society assumes the name not of socialism but of community: communism. (‘Form-of-Life and Antagonism,’ p. 203)

It is for these reasons that, over a decade later, Agamben reformulated the anti-work thesis of operaismo and autonomia as follows: “If the fundamental ontological question today is not work but inoperativity…then the corresponding concept can no longer be that of ‘constituent power’ [potere constituente] but something that could be called ‘destituent power’ [potenza destituente]” (What is destituent power (or potentiality)? p. 70).

Now, with respect to the Invisible Committee, their reconceptualization of communism as the real movement of destituent power may appear especially deceptive to some, or lead to a fundamental misunderstanding, if such an invocation of destituent power is taken to mean a tacit affinity and endorsement of Agamben’s equation of the communal content of forms-of-life with the potential realization of communism as such. As will be seen in what follows, nothing could be further from the truth, for the Committee’s usage of the concept of destituent power actually finds common ground with the very figures (operaismo/autonomia) from which Agamben sought to distance himself. If the Committee privileges destituent, as opposed to constituent, power, it is not due to destituent acts being the very means of arriving at the pure potentiality at the heart of forms-of-life (i.e. ‘intellectuality as antagonistic potentiality of forms-of-life’). Rather, theirs is a vision of communism as the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things insofar as we understand ‘the destitution of the present’ as meaning: (i) affirming the rupture with the current state of affairs in order to (ii) organize and render this rupture ever more real, and with the hopes of bringing this state of affairs to the point where the crises and social problems that have long persisted as the open and public secret of everyday life under Capital are now directly confronted — and precisely because they can no longer be avoided. And it is with respect to these two aspects of destituent power that Samuel Hayat’s analysis of the gilets jaunes is worth recalling here:

Today, far from disappearing, social antagonisms have multiplied, something which constitutes both a resource and a challenge to emancipatory politics. The old socialist solutions, centered around the question of class, already in 1848 contributed to invisibilizing the question of women and of race, even though the voices existed to put these questions front and center. A new emancipatory politics, which remains to be invented, should be based on making the ensemble of relations of domination visible, without hierarchy and by remaining open and responsive to new antagonisms which will inevitably come to light.

And so, the conclusion to be drawn from this comparative analysis is not simply that Agamben and the Invisible Committee arrive at qualitatively different understandings of the concept of destituent power; a disagreement that appears as nothing more than a difference in how each position themselves toward a shared philosophical heritage. More importantly, their respective analyses propose two distinct and competing frameworks by which we can think through the problems that determine the historical and material conditions in which communist struggle is waged today. And insofar as destituent power has appeared once again, an incommensurable difference at the level of analysis translates into a mutual antagonism at the level of practice. At the very least we can say that what is at stake, in light of ongoing social movements, is nothing short of the possibility for theoretical activity to materially effect collective practice and re-potentiate the antagonism at the heart of capitalist social life.

[1.] Humanity’s Innocence: From Proletarian Struggle to Prelapsarian Life

In the Summer and Fall of 2013, Giorgio Agamben delivered a series of lectures in central France and Athens, Greece, under the heading, ‘What is destituent power?’ Now, despite the particularities to which Agamben was responding to in each lecture — the recent occupations and insurrections in Cairo, Istanbul, London, and New York; the necessity to think the end of democracy in the place of its birth — what is consistent throughout is that, for Agamben, destituent power functions as a third term that is said to overcome the static opposition between constituent and constituted power (the former being counter-hegemonic practices and the latter being acts that defend or uphold the existing institutions of the state). As Agamben puts it, “if revolutions and insurrections correspond to constituent power, that is, a violence that establishes and constitutes the new law, in order to think a destituent power we have to imagine completely other strategies, whose definition is the task of the coming politics. A power that was only just overthrown by violence will rise again in another form, in the incessant, inevitable dialectic between constituent power and constituted power, violence which makes the law and violence that preserves it” (‘What is Destituent Power?’ 70).

Perhaps more importantly, this series of lectures also marks a key development in Agamben’s overall thinking since destituent power appears as the means of theorizing one of the central ideas of his work as a whole—inoperativity—a concept which Agamben discovers time and again, regardless of the object of his analysis, be it theology, politics, or aesthetic and art practices. So, whether one considers his study of St. Augustine’s reflections on the salvation of humanity, where human nature is conceived as “blessed inactivity, which is neither doing nor not doing,” or Walter Benjamin, who relates destituent power to Sorel’s proletarian general strike in his essay Critique of Violence, or regarding the relationship between poetry, communication, and language as such — “What is a poem…if not an operation taking place in language that consists in rendering inoperative, in deactivating its communicative and informative function, in order to open it to a new possible use?” (Art, Inactivity, Politics, 138) — what is always at issue is how best to conceive the reality of a form-of-life whose actions, when viewed from the vantage point of the existing order of things, cannot be understood as anything other than blessed/idle in essence, non-productive of value, and impractical for deliberation. The salient point here is that, for Agamben, these characteristics of idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity, are not understood to be products of history. Idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity are ontological facts of human existence; so much so that Agamben will go on to claim that it is precisely these attributes, which are proper to the being of humanity that capital appropriates and exploits:

Human life is idle and aimless, but it is precisely this lack of action and aim which makes possible the incomparable busyness of the human race. And the machinery of government functions because it has captured within its empty heart the inactivity of the human essence. This inactivity is the political substance of the West, the glorious nourishment of all power. This is why feasting and idleness resurface continually in the dreams and political utopias of the West…They are the enigmatic relics which the economic-theological machine abandons on the shoreline of civilization; mankind returns to them wonderingly, but always uselessly and nostalgically. Nostalgically because they seem to contain something that clings jealously to the human essence; uselessly because in reality they are nothing more than the ashes of the immaterial, glorious fuel burnt by the motor of the machine during its inexorable, relentless rotation. (‘Art, Inactivity, Politics,’ p. 140)

For Agamben, it is to humanity’s originary idleness/inoperativity that one must center in any engagement with the questions posed by politics. In other words, it is only by attending to what is ontological regarding humanity (to that which pertains to our originary inoperativity) that we can adequately determine how best to overcome the political fact of Life separated from its form; a fact imposed on us and continuously reproduced by History. Hence, says Agamben, the shape of the politics to come is not that of a struggle over the State or between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces. To the contrary, “the coming politics will no longer be a struggle to conquer or to control the state on the part of either new or old social subjects, but rather a struggle between the state and the nonstate (humanity), that is, an irresolvable disjunction between whatever singularities and the state organization” (Means Without End, p. 88). Given such an analysis, one is led to the logical conclusion that the politics to come will be defined, not by its struggle with and over the State, but by the struggle between “humanity” (as the nonstate) and the State as various social forms of sovereign/governmental power, which pervert what we have always, originarily, been in truth: inoperative, idle, and therefore free.

However, confronted with a conclusion as bold as this (i.e. the coming politics begins by positing an originary idleness against history as a series of state-sponsored perversions of this essence) a few questions necessarily arise: Insofar as inoperativity and destituent power is said to be the essence of the being of humanity, does this not lead to an understanding of communist politics as a struggle between the ontological, on the one hand, and the historical and material, on the other? And to what extent does the notion of destituent power refer to what are allegedly the echoes of an ontological essence from which we have become estranged under capital? In any event, the crucial point to be emphasized is that what is operative behind such strong claims regarding the substance of humanity, is an equivocation between two conceptions of time: the time of eschatology and that of history. For it is this equivocation of eschatological and historical time that grounds Agamben’s understanding of inoperativity and destituent power as what is most essential to human being. To make matters worse, one equivocation inevitably leads to another, but this time with respect to political analysis, for insofar as inoperativity/destituent power is said to be the originary substance of (human) being, the proletariat as the classical figure of revolutionary politics is now nothing but a means of returning to our once innocent, unspoiled, prelapsarian life. For Agamben, politics is the price paid by humanity’s original sin of state-craft and the various, historical, forms of sovereign power that is each time realized through specific dispositifs of capture:

The originary place of Western politics consists of an ex-ceptio, an inclusive exclusion of human life in the form of bare life. Consider the peculiarities of this operation: life is not in itself political, it is what must be excluded, and, at the same time, included by way of its exclusion. Life—that is, the Impolitical (l’Impolitico)—must be politicized through a complex operation that has the structure of an exception. The autonomy of the political is founded, in this sense, on a division, an articulation, and an exception of life. From the outset, Western politics is biopolitical. (‘What is a destituent power (or potentiality)?’ p. 65)

That said, one may still wonder if we have been unfair with such a characterization of Agamben, for in his 2013 lectures Agamben goes on to provide further clarification to the way in which destituent power can be said to be the shape of politics to come; a politics made possible by virtue of living in such a way

…that a form-of-life can constitute itself as the inoperativity immanent in every life. The constitution of a form-of-life coincides…completely with the destitution of the social and biological conditions into which it finds itself thrown. The form-of-life is…the revocation of all factical vocations…It is not a question of thinking a better or more authentic form of life…Inoperativity is not another work…it coincides completely and constitutively with their destitution, with a life. And this destitution is the coming politics. (Ibid, p. 74)

A passage such as this merits our interest for at least two reasons. On the one hand, destituent power is now said to be something innately bound to, yet distinct from, humanity’s originary inoperativity. And while it remains the case that it is by destituent means that we are returned to our non-alienated inoperative living, Agamben qualifies this previous iteration with the inclusion of forms-of-life as that previously missing mediator capable of overcoming the dilemma of capital’s historical separation of humanity, ontologically considered, and its alienated being, which takes the form of bare life. Given this formulation, destituent power must now be understood as a collective capacity accessible only through this experience of living a life inseparable from its (communal) form: “the destitution of power and of its works is an arduous task, because it is first of all and only in a form-of-life that it can be carried out. Only a form-of-life is constitutively destituent” (Ibid, 72). Thus, says Agamben, it is only by means of a collectivity that it becomes possible for individuals to “return it [the human activity that is the substance of value production] to the potentiality from which it originates” (Ibid, 73).

On this account it would appear that destituent power is no longer simply the immediate recuperation of alienated (human) being and rather an always-latent possibility of non-alienated living perpetually deferred and rendered increasingly impossible. Thus, Agamben writes

Contemplation and inoperativity are…the metaphysical operators of anthropogenesis, which, freeing the living being from every biological or social destiny and from every predetermined task, renders it open for that particular absence of work that we are accustomed to calling ‘politics’ and ‘art.’ Politics and art are neither tasks nor simply ‘works’: they name…the dimension in which the linguistic and corporeal, material and immaterial, biological and social operations are made inoperative and contemplated as such. (Ibid, 74, emphasis mine)

Significant in this account of destituent power is the fact that Agamben now appears capable of addressing the issue of how originary being and our future inoperativity can be said to have any relation to one another (insofar as it is the history of sovereign governmentality that has successfully functioned as that which perpetually obstructs our non-alienated living). That said, what is gained in logical consistency is simultaneously lost in terms of its concrete specificity. For while Agamben conceives of the destitution of capital as the process of transforming an overdetermined set of possible forms-of-life into an underdetermined and constrained set of possible forms, humanity cannot be said to be the sole proprietor of the potentiality (re)discovered at the end of this procedure; whether considered ontologically, or historically and materially. Thus we are led to wonder, is a non-ontological conception of destituent power possible?

[2.] Destituons le Monde: Against the Management of Everyday Life

According to the Invisible Committee, destituent acts or gestures are realized according to the fusion of the positive/creative logic of founding the conditions for an other world in which many worlds fit and the negative/destructive logic of ending, once and for all, the present world fashioned in the image and likeness of Capital. That is to say, destituent gestures abide by a logic where ‘the One divides into Two’ (“The destituent gesture is thus desertion and attack, creation and wrecking, and all at once, in the same gesture” (Now, p. 88-89)); actions that are simultaneously creative and destructive. Moreover, these collective gestures belong to that class of acts, which rely upon the temporality proper to social reproduction and are actualized in times of decision, which is to say, in times of crisis. And what is ultimately realized along the way; in the bringing about an end to this world, is an altogether different solution to the two-fold problem of the estrangement of bodies and fragmentation of worlds. However, destituent power is said to resolve the issue of separated bodies and of the discontinuity that structures the possible worlds of every form-of-life not by rehabilitating some sense of ‘unity,’ conceived as the coming-into-being of a still underdetermined (though latently possible) counter-hegemonic Left. To the contrary, destituent acts resolve this crisis through the construction of a different organization of the fragmentation already underway; a structuring process, which ensures that estranged bodies remain isolated from each other, trapped within their own solitude:

Here is the paradox, then: being constrained to unity undoes us, the lie of social life makes us psychotic, and embracing fragmentation is what allows us to regain a serene presence to the world. There is a certain mental position where this fact ceases to be perceived in a contradictory way. That is where we place ourselves. (Now, p. 46)

What, then, is intended in this redefinition of “the real movement” as a process that abides by a destituent (as opposed to an abolitionist) logic? According to the terms that determine a properly destituent political logic, the virtue of any struggle against the state and capital is to be found in the potential harbored within each action that suggests a future that has finally done away with everything that encourages us to “hate Monday’s” when it is capital that is the cause behind the whatever-object of our lamentations. That is to say, actualizing destituent power is to give material reality to the potential of establishing the distance between movements and established institutions, in order for the former to better desert, or flee, or take flight from, everything that is involved in rendering vacuous the relation we maintain to ourselves, to those we call comrade, friend, or lover, and to the world insofar as it is made in the image and likeness of capital. As a fellow accomplice has recently pointed out with regarding the gilets jaunes movement in France, “[I]t is not the radicals who are making the movement, it is the movement that is radicalizing people” (‘Next Stop: Destitution’).

So, unlike those collectivities which tend toward “constituent” or “constituted” power and situate their strategy within the dialectical relation of recognition/negotiation with the ruling authority (i.e. organizing in the hopes of realizing a situation of dual power), collectivities that abide by a destituent logic adhere to, and seek to actualize, the vital need to disengage and distance itself from the dialectical trap of constituent-constituted power. But what would this alleged other form of unity mean, when conceived as a collective ‘abandonment’ of the economy and ‘disengagement’ from the dialectic between constituted and constituent power? At the very least, says the Committee, it would mean the reformulation of the communist question itself; for the equivocation that began with Lenin regarding the terms “socialism” and “communism” has given rise to a more profound confusion whereby liberal economists, socialists, and Marxists all have agreed that the question with which we are confronted is nothing but a question of management.

To destitute or ‘abandon’ the economy not only means acknowledging the illusory gains of constituent power in theory; to abandon the economy implies an organization of collective struggle founded upon the fact that “capitalism is not a mode of management but a mode of production based on specific productive relations, and revolution targets these relations” (Dauvé, ‘Leninism and the Ultra-Left’). Thus the need for an other mode of organization and struggle than that of constituent power (a form of struggle, which poses the problem of the abolition of the present state of things as being a question of management), which begins from the recognition that

Communism is not a “superior economic organization of society” but the destitution of the economy. Economy rests on a pair of fictions, therefore, that of society and that of the individual. Destituting it involves situating this false antinomy and bringing to light that which it means to cover up. (Now, 137)

Thus, it can be said that, for the Invisible Committee, destituent are those acts which are grounded upon a rejection of developing better and more equitable strategies of economic management insofar as communism is not a “superior economic organization.” So, insofar as this notion of destituent power seeks to give form to the problems and crises capital “means to cover up” and thereby rendering them as that which can no longer be avoided or ignored within everyday life, destituent gestures necessarily involve a certain level of organization of struggle in order to achieve the “bringing to light” of the problems and crises that affect society as a whole. What is more, it is by virtue of the Committee’s understanding of destituent power as organizing struggles such that they are able to (i) resolve the problems of social reproduction through decidedly anti-capitalist (i.e. communist) measures while (ii) rendering social problems unavoidable and impossible to ignore, that we are returned to what Marx and Engels originally understood regarding that most general phase of the development of the proletariat:

In…the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where the war breaks out into open revolution, and where violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat. (Communist Manifesto, 20)

However, and for the sake of clarity, it should be noted that while the Committee and Marx and Engels share in the idea that capital wages a ‘more or less thinly veiled civil war’ on social totality, the Committee break with them on the question of the proletariat as History’s revolutionary subject. Against the suggestions of the Manifesto and its authors, the Committee view the contemporary form of capitalist social organization as having done away with that feature of social life (i.e. a mass and shared experience of work) required for the transformation of the objective category of workers into the subjective agent of the proletariat. For the Committee, rather than any prolongation of a shared experience of alienation definitive of the ‘mass worker,’ “[T]he majestic figure of the Worker is being succeeded by the puny figure of the Needy Opportunist [le Crevard]—because if money and control are to infiltrate everywhere, it’s necessary for money to be lacking everywhere. Henceforth, everything must be an occasion for generating a little money, a little value, for earning “a little cash” (Now, 96). The outcome of the ‘Needy Opportunist’ supplanting ‘the Worker,’ being that, today, “Capital no longer just determines the forms of cities, the content of work and leisure, the imaginary of the crowds, the language of real life and that of intimacy, the ways of being in fashion, the needs and their satisfaction, it also produces its own people. It engenders its own optimizing humanity” (Now, 100). Regardless as to whether this break from Marx and Engels is due to philosophical differences or the changes in the historical and material structure of capitalist production, it is clear that, for the Committee, any figure that identifies as the ‘revolutionary subject’ (whether founded upon some new and shared experience of  precarious labour or otherwise) would still aim towards re-unifying the ongoing fragmentation; a gesture that necessarily leads struggles back into the dialectical dead-end of constituent/constituted power.

Thus we arrive at the central difference between Agamben’s and the Invisible Committee’s understandings of destituent power: while Agamben consistently conceives of destituent power as the capacity for forms-of-life to redeem Humanity from that which it has been ontologically estranged vis-a-vis Capital, the Committee, by contrast, understand destituent power as the general phase of development of insurrection centered around anti-state, anti-bureaucratic, and communist social relations. Thus, it is due to this discrepancy between destitution as messianic capacity of forms-of-life and destitution as the form and organization insurrectionary struggle takes when founded upon anti-state communist social relations that it comes as no surprise to read the Committee issue this decidedly anti-Agambenian statement:

Only by means of this type of confusion did it become possible to imagine that a subject like “Humanity” could exist. Humanity—that is, all human beings, stripped of what weaves together their concrete situated existence, and gathered up phantasmally into one great something-or-other, nowhere to be found. By wiping out all the attachments that make up the specific texture of worlds, on the pretext of abolishing private ownership of the means of production, modern “communism” has effectively made a tabula rasa—of everything. That’s what happens to those who practice economy, even by criticizing it. (Now, 136-37)

In other words, such appeals to Humanity are possible only insofar as one assumes that the lives of individuals are adequately defined in isolation from the attributes they comes to assume in the course of living; that is, insofar as one follows Agamben in confusing what is ontologically possibile with what is actually an historical and material potentiality.

At stake, then, in this debate regarding destituent power is the material possibility of directly appropriating the forces and relations of capitalist production. Moreover, in contrast to Agamben’s understanding of destitution in relation to law upholding (constituted power) and law establishing violence (constituent power), the Committee conceive of destituent power as being ‘against the economy’ insofar as the question isn’t that of appropriating the means of production and rather poses the question of how to go about constructing the relations of social reproduction measured by something other than labor-time (or what is required for production). For the Committee, what has become evident is that given the present organization of global society vis-a-vis Capital, any politics geared toward the reappropriation of the forces of production will continue to fall short of abolishing the relations of production that organize and form daily life for the simple reason that,

As we know…the Russians have always imported their technology from the west; but since Khrushchev’s day, they have also taken their economic models from there too […] Obviously it will not be by importing models of desire…that the Soviet bureaucrats will escape the fundamental impasse they have got themselves into, with their endless Five-Year Plans of which absolutely everyone is sick to death. Not merely are they starting no institutionalizing process by importing prefabricated car factories, but by the same token they are transplanting forms of human relationship[s] quite foreign to socialism, a hierarchization of technological functions proper to a society based on individual profits, a split between research and industry, between intellectual and manual work, an alienating style of mass consumption and so on…Not only are car factories imported, then, but also social neuroses and in hyperactive form. (Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History,’ emphasis mine)

Thus, destituent power is said to be a mode of collective struggle that prioritizes transforming the way in which individuals relate to the production process such that the distinction between labour-time and leisure-time is no longer that which structures and organizes everyday life. Or, as they put it:

The traditional revolutionary program involved a reclaiming of the world, an expropriation of the expropriators, a violent appropriation of that which is ours, but which we have been deprived of. But here’s the problem: capital has taken hold of every detail and every dimension of existence…It has configured, equipped, and made desirable the ways of speaking, thinking, eating, working and vacationing, of obeying and rebelling, that suit its purpose. In doing so, it has reduced to very little the share of things in this world that one might want to reappropriate. Who would wish to reappropriate nuclear power plants, Amazon’s warehouses, the expressways, ad agencies, high-speed trains, Dassault, La Defense business complex, auditing firms, nanotechnologies, supermarkets and their poisonous merchandise?…What complicates the task for revolutionaries is that the old constituent gesture no longer works there either. With the result that the most desperate, the most determined to save it, have finally found the winning formula: in order to have done with capitalism, all we have to do is reappropriate money itself! (Now, 85)

It is for these reasons that destituent power takes aim at capitalist social relations by giving a form and organization to struggle that not only sustain friendship as “fraternity in combat,” but that produce the necessary conditions for what comes after the barricades and the insurrectionary fervor, which inevitably subside. To destitute the economy, then, is but the collective construction of what is necessary for the actualization and generalization of our non-alienated living, or what they simply call community:

Without at least the occasional experience of community, we die inside, we dry out, become cynical, harsh, desert-life. Life becomes that ghost city peopled by smiling mannequins, which functions. Our need for community is so pressing that after having ravaged all the existing bonds, capitalism is running on nothing but the promise of “community.” What are the social networks, the dating apps, if not that promise perpetually disappointed? What are all the modes, all the technologies of communication, all the love songs, if not a way to maintain the dream of a continuity between beings where in the end every contact melts away? […] In 2015, a single website of pornographic videos called PornHub was visited for 4,392,486,580 hours, which amounts to two and half times the hours spent on Earth by Homo sapiens. Even this epoch’s obsession with sexuality and its hyper-indulgence in pornography attests to the need for community, in the very extremeness of the latter’s deprivation. (Now, 133)

To seek out the organizational requirements for reproducing “what is lived in the fight itself;”  for reproducing “that experience of fraternity in combat, of friendship” (Now, 133); for the reproduction of the fleeting experiences of a form of non-alienated living one encounters in the midst of struggle; all of these are so many iterations of the fundamental principle that what is revolutionary in moments of insurrection is the fact that individuals became accustomed to, comfortable with, and desiring of that form-of-life that no longer structures our existence according to the demands and temporality of the circuits of production and circulation. As one of the many participants in the 2013 Gezi Park protests remarked, perfectly capturing such a sentiment, “[T]he people who are coming here, for the past 18 days, are not spending money. And when they get used to not spending money, it’s like a revolution within themselves” (Taksim Commune, 11:18-11:32).

[3.] Eighteen Years of Giving Form To Shapeless Things: 2001-2019

Roughly thirteen years after the events that led Colectivo Situaciones to construct this notion of destitution power, they would come to identify this mode of struggle as more of a problematic impasse that needs revisiting rather than a simple set of proscriptions to be implemented:

If during what we call the ‘de-instituent’ phase, social movements attacked the neoliberal state constituting practices capable of confrontation in areas such as the control of money, or bartering; of counterviolence, as in road blocks; and of political command over diverse territories, as in assemblies; social movements, if we can still call them that, currently confront new dilemmas about whether to participate or not (and when, and how) in what could be called a ‘new governmentality,’ thus expressing the distinguishing features of a new phase of the state form and requiring us to problematize the concept of social movement itself. (‘Crisis, governmentality and new social conflict,’ p. 397)

What, then, are we to make of this recent and complicated history of destituent power? Is it the case that destituent power can once again be implemented given that the current cycle of struggles resemble those of Argentina in 2001 (i.e. a struggle between social movements and capitalist nation-states)? Or is it rather the case that we remain caught in the impasse Colectivo Situaciones already identified in 2014, thus making destituent power more of a problem than a resolution to the multiplication of crises of capital and the increased immiseration, which inevitably follows? With respect to the current conjuncture, it would appear that social movements have chosen to side with the former analysis; for destituent power is being hailed, once more, as the necessary organizational form that is to be assumed by present day social movements as well as the coming struggles against capital and its nation-states; and particularly with respect to the gilets jaunes movement in France and the impending climate catastrophe expected to make itself fully felt in little over a decade. In line with Lundi Matin’s editorial with which this article began, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright make similar claims in their 2018 text, Climate Leviathan, when reflecting upon the possible paths toward an anti-authoritarian and internationalist climate justice movement capable of integrating the history and lessons of anti-capitalist struggles and the knowledges and practices of indigenous and colonized peoples into a single movement — a mode of organization, which they tentatively nominate as ‘Climate X.’ As they put it,

“There are…two broad but distinct trajectories that might lead to Climate X. The first is a radical analysis and practice based in an open embrace of the tradition of the anticapitalist Left, spring from Marxist roots […] The second trajectory gets its momentum from very different sources: the knowledge and lifeways of peoples who have long historical experience with ways of being that are not overdetermined by capital and the sovereign state. It is no accident that Indigenous and colonized peoples are at the frontlines in the struggles sowing the seeds of any realizable Climate X […] The challenge that defines Climate X is bringing these two trajectories together; not to merge them, or subordinate one to the other, but to find some means by which they support each other, give each other energy and momentum. This is not impossible, although a left turn toward Leviathan or Mao will almost certainly undo the potential for synergy.” (Climate Leviathan, p. 189-190)

For Mann and Wainwright, it is equally important for climate justice movements to avoid the seductive fantasy of a planetary communist sovereignty that would strictly regulate and police the world’s energy consumption (what they dub ‘Climate Mao’) just as it is important to reject the trappings of any liberal optimism that encourages movements to reinvest their political energy into stricter cap and trade deals and the passage of legally binding environmental agreements between nation-states and international governing bodies. Against these two options, Mann and Wainwright view a fusion of the vision of communism articulated in The German Ideology with the Benjaminian/Agambenian appeals to destituent power as the revolutionary way forward in light of an ever warming planet:

The first opening might find inspiration in the categorical refusal that underwrites Marx’s critique of sovereignty and of communism…His clearest statement on the matter is a refusal of the possibility that revolutionary thought can “know” in a definitive manner where revolutionary activity is going. Communism, he wrote, is “not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things, the conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” The second opening might be grounded in Benjamin’s call for politically resolute witness to crisis, a stance that finds affirmation in Agamben’s appeal to a “coming community” and “destituent” power. We wager we need to say yes and yes, affirming both positions at once. In this view, Climate X is at once a means, a regulative ideal, and, perhaps, a necessary condition for climate justice. (Climate Leviathan, p. 183)

And so it appears that there remains at least one more chapter in the history of destituent power that is yet to be written; one more attempt made at testing the efficacy of the concept against the structure of capitalist reality. In any event, and given the preceding analyses, what is clear by now is that rather than a shared and working definition, the Committee and Agamben, in fact, operate under qualitatively different, if not altogether incommensurable, conceptions of the very term itself. While Agamben views destituent acts as the type of activity that all those coming communities of whatever-singularities must undertake in order to wrest back the pure potency of inoperativity from which it has been alienated from by Western political sovereignty, the Invisible Committee, following Guattari’s critical appraisal of the Russian Revolution, understand destituent power as the necessary means of resolving the problems that plagued the Bolshevik government from the outset (“they are transplanting forms of human relationship[s] quite foreign to socialism… between intellectual and manual work, an alienating style of mass consumption and so on…Not only are car factories imported, then, but also social neuroses and in hyperactive form” (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 243-44)). So, with respect to the current cycle of struggles and the conjuncture in which they find themselves, if communism is now said to be the real movement that destitutes the existing state of affairs; and if destituent power is the necessary organizational form struggles must take today given the objective material conditions of globally integrated capital; communism as the real movement of destitution remains a contested form of struggle.

For those who side with Agamben, destitution as the practical means for rehabilitating the originary being of humanity (inoperativity) implies a certain vision of politics that posits emancipation as a fundamentally ontological problem, before being a problem for politics. To detourn Heidegger’s well known dictum, destituent power is necessary because, says Agamben, we have forgotten the originary question of the meaning of the being of humanity. Thus, despite the best efforts of thinkers such as Bruce Braun and Stephanie Wakefield who attempt to find the resources within the work of Agamben to overcome the lingering Heideggerianism that plagues his thought as a whole — “Ultimately, a politics of destitution puts us in uncertain territory where being is again a question. If Western philosophy has always tried to determine life/being by giving it a name, a ground, a foundation, then following Agamben and Heidegger…we might begin to acknowledge that we cannot know what it means to “be” in advance…Being is not a state or a fact but rather a question, whose answers are rooted in space and time. The fatal, ongoing error of Western thought has been to forget this” (‘Destituent power and common use’) — Agamben’s notion of destituent power describes the type of collective action proper to all current and coming communities of whatever-singularities who struggle against the historical separation of life from its form, on behalf of a form of life that can only be conceived as existing prior to the history of Western governmentality. In the end, it is due to the idealist trappings that ground the opposition of the originary inoperativity of humanity to the separation of life from its form via political sovereignty that Agamben, abstractly, “calls out to Humanity. He tears the veils from universal History, destroys myths and lies, uncovers the truth of man and restores it to him. The fullness of time has come. Humanity is pregnant with the imminent revolution which will give it possession of its own being. Let men at last become conscious of this, and they will be in reality what they are in truth: free, equal and fraternal beings” (Althusser, ‘Feuerbach’s Philosophical Manifestoes).

By contrast, for those who side with the Invisible Committee (as well as Guattari and Colectivo Situaciones), destituent power is the necessary measure and organizational form that communities must take in order for the struggle against capital and its nation-states to succeed. For the Committee, human emancipation has never been a problem first posed at the level of Being and only subsequently is to be addressed at the level of concrete material collective praxis. Rather, for the Committee, there has never been any ‘originary’ meaning of the being of humanity toward which struggles can orient and organize themselves. The ‘truth’ of the being of humanity has never been a mere given, or an already accomplished fact; it is discovered to be subject to the perpetual becoming of what is made, re-made, and un-made: “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations” (Marx, ‘6th Thesis on Feuerbach’). For it is only by taking aim at, and ultimately transforming, the very “ensemble of social relations,” which is the essence of a humanity everywhere confronted by the accumulation of capital that struggles realize the necessary conditions for bringing about a real and concrete genesis of what Agamben uncovered in an idealist manner: the revolution immanent to the potency of inoperativity.

The Reality Of Destitution is the Destitution of Reality: Notes for a Genealogy of Destituent Power

(trans. There are no people. There are only classes. Fuck the bourgeoisie!)

[[ What follows is a draft of a longer essay yet to be written on the genealogy of destituent power covering Bataille, Blanchot, and Tronti, as well as Agamben and the Invisible Committee ]]

During the 1970s, in Europe, a disenchanted but not hopeless generation came to the fore to lay claim to the political not as an autonomous and totalitarian sphere, but as an ethical community of singularities; history not as linear continuity, but a history whose realization has been deferred too long; not work as economically finalized toward the production of commodities, but an inoperativity deprived of end [priva di scopi] and yet not unproductive. (Giorgio Agamben)

Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things. (Invisible Committee)

What becomes of communism if it is said to be “the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things?” Does the substitution of “destitution” for “abolition” signal a principled divergence from the vision of communism found in those pages of the German Ideology and as intended by Marx and Engels? Or does this destituent movement mark a progressive refinement in light of the failures of historical communism and its various workers movements? As the above epigraphs already suggest, any beginnings of an answer to such questions can be found in the works of Giorgio Agamben and the Invisible Committee; both of whom have perhaps gone farthest in reconceiving communism via the category of destituent power (or destituent gestures). With respect to Agamben, and as Jason E. Smith has already noted, when one reads Agamben’s more recent political writings alongside his 1993 text, ‘Form-of-Life,’ what becomes clear is that through his reworking of the set of ideas that came out of the workerist tradition, he is led to view society/social relations as asymmetric and antagonistic to the community that is the content of a form-of-life:

The workerist and post-workerist traditions understand the concept of antagonism in terms of the dynamic of capitalist social relations. This conflictual and asymmetric relation between living and dead labour is one in which living labour is always ‘primary,’…whose resistance to that form of capture drives capitalist development itself…Agamben’s rewriting of this scenario situates the antagonism less within the dynamics of capitalist production than within the relation between ‘massive inscription of social knowledge in productive processes’, on the one hand, and ‘intellectuality as antagonist potentiality and form-of-life’ on the other…Communist is the enemy of the social, that is, the objective or factual partitioning of society into classes…To the divisions of society Agamben opposes the multitude of community. The overcoming of capitalist society assumes the name not of socialism but of community: communism. (Smith, ‘Form-of-Life and Antagonism,’ 203)

It is for this reason, then, that Agamben goes onto reformulate the anti-work thesis of operaismo and autonomia as follows: “If the fundamental ontological question today is not work but inoperativity…then the corresponding concept can no longer be that of ‘constituent power’ [potere constituente] but something that could be called ‘destituent power’ [potenza destituente]” (‘What is destituent power?’ 70). Now, with respect to the Invisible Committee, what must be said at the outset is that their reconceptualization of communism as the real movement of destituent power may appear especially deceptive to some and thus leading to fundamental misunderstandings; for what could such an invocation of destituent power mean other than their tacit affinity and agreement with Agamben’s equation of the communal content of forms-of-life and the realization of communism as such?

As will be demonstrated in what follows, nothing could be further from the truth (for the Committee’s usage of destituent power/gestures actually finds common ground with the very figure (operaismo) from which Agamben sought to distance himself). If the Committee privileges destituent, as opposed to constituent, power it is not due to destituent acts being the very means of arriving at the pure potentiality at the heart of forms-of-life (the ‘antagonistic potentiality of forms-of-life’). Rather, communism as the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things since to destitute the present means (i) affirming the rupture with the current state of affairs in order to (ii) organize it and make it ever more real to the point that the crises and social problems that Capital has long since covered over become the open and public secret of social life that must be directly confronted precisely because it can no longer be avoided. And unlike Agamben’s left-Heideggerian revision to the workerist and autonomia movements, it is with thinkers such as Guattari, or even with Marx and Engels themselves, that we discover that which inflects the Committee’s own theorization of communism as destituent process.

Humanity’s Innocence: From Proletarian Existence to Prelapsarian Life

In the Summer and Fall of 2013, Giorgio Agamben delivered a series of lectures in central France and Athens under the heading, ‘What is destituent power?’ Now, despite the particularities to which Agamben was responding to in each lecture – the recent occupations and insurrections in Cairo, Istanbul, London, and New York (France); the necessity to think the end of democracy in the place of its birth (Athens) – what is consistent throughout is that, for Agamben, destituent power functions as a third term that is said to overcome the static opposition between constituent and constituted power (the former being counter-hegemonic practices and the latter being acts that defend or uphold the existing institutions of the state). And it is these series of lectures that mark a key development in Agamben’s overall thinking since destituent power appears as the means of realizing one of the central idea of his work as a whole: inoperativity, which is what Agamben discovers time and again, and regardless of the object of his analysis being that of theology, politics, or aesthetic and art practices. Whether it is with respect to St. Augustine’s reflections on the salvation of humanity where human nature is conceived as “blessed inactivity, which is neither doing nor not doing;” or Walter Benjamin who relates destituent power to Sorel’s proletarian general strike in his essay Critique of Violence; or regarding the relationship between poetry, communication, and language as such (“What is a poem…if not an operation taking place in language that consists in rendering inoperative, in deactivating its communicative and informative function, in order to open it to a new possible use?”); what is fundamentally at stake is how to conceive the reality of a form-of-life whose actions, when viewed from the vantage point of the existing order of things, cannot be understood as anything other than blessed/idle in essence, non-productive of value, and impractical for deliberation. However, the salient point here is that, for Agamben, these characteristics of idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity, are not understood to be products of history. Idleness, non-productivity, and inoperativity are ontological facts of human existence; so much so that Agamben will go on to claim that it is precisely these attributes proper to the being of humanity that capital appropriates and exploits:

Human life is idle and aimless, but it is precisely this lack of action and aim which makes possible the incomparable busyness of the human race. And the machinery of government functions because it has captured within its empty heart the inactivity of the human essence. This inactivity is the political substance of the West, the glorious nourishment of all power. This is why feasting and idleness resurface continually in the dreams and political utopias of the West…They are the enigmatic relics which the economic-theological machine abandons on the shoreline of civilization; mankind returns to them wonderingly, but always uselessly and nostalgically. Nostalgically because they seem to contain something that clings jealously to the human essence; uselessly because in reality they are nothing more than the ashes of the immaterial, glorious fuel burnt by the motor of the machine during its inexorable, relentless rotation. (Agamben, ‘Art, Inactivity, Politics,’ 138.)

For Agamben, it is to humanity’s originary idleness/inoperativity that one must center in any engagement with the questions posed by politics. In other words, it is only by attending to what is allegedly ontological regarding humanity (originary inoperativity) that we can adequately determine how best to overcome the political fact of our alienation as imposed by history. Hence, says Agamben, the shape of the politics to come is not that of a struggle over the State or between counter-hegemonies and hegemonic forms. To the contrary, “the coming politics will no longer be a struggle to conquer or to control the state on the part of either new or old social subjects, but rather a struggle between the state and the nonstate (humanity), that is, an irresolvable disjunction between whatever singularities and the state organization” (Means Without End, 88). Given such an analysis, one is led to the logical conclusion that the politics to come will be defined, not by its struggle with and over the State, but by the struggle between “humanity” (as the nonstate) and the State as various social forms of sovereign/governmental power, which pervert what we have always, originarily, been in truth: inoperative, idle, and therefore free.

However, confronted with a conclusion as bold as this (i.e. the coming politics begins by positing an originary idleness against history as a series of state-sponsored perversions of this essence) a few questions necessarily arise: Insofar as inoperativity and destituent power is said to be the essence of the being of humanity, does this not lead to an understanding of communist politics as a struggle between the ontological, on the one hand, and the historical and material, on the other? And to what extent does the notion of destituent power refer to what are allegedly the echoes of an ontological essence from which we have become estranged under capital? In any event, the crucial point to be emphasized is that what is operative behind such strong claims regarding the substance of humanity, is an equivocation between two conceptions of time: the time of eschatology and that of history. For it is this equivocation of eschatological and historical time that grounds Agamben’s understanding of inoperativity and destituent power as what is most essential to human being. And to make matters worse, one equivocation inevitably leads to another, but this time with respect to political analysis. For insofar as inoperativity/destituent power is said to be the originary substance of (human) being, the proletariat as the classical figure of revolutionary politics struggle is now nothing but a means of returning to our once innocent, unspoiled, prelapsarian life. In other words, for Agamben, politics is the price paid by humanity’s original sin of state-craft and the various, historical, forms of sovereign power, and each time realized as through a dispositif as its particular modes of capture: “The originary place of Western politics consists of an ex-ceptio, an inclusive exclusion of human life in the form of bare life. Consider the peculiarities of this operation: life is not in itself political, it is what must be excluded, and, at the same time, included by way of its exclusion. Life-that is, the Impolitical (l’Impolitico)-must be politicized through a complex operation that has the structure of an exception. The autonomy of the political is founded, in this sense, on a division, an articulation, and an exception of life. From the outset, Western politics is biopolitical” (‘What is a destituent power (or potentiality)?’ 65). That said, one may still wonder if we have been unfair with such a characterization of Agamben, for in his 2013 lectures Agamben goes on to provide further clarification to the way in which destituent power can be said to be the shape of politics to come; a politics made possible by virtue of

…living a life that a form-of-life can constitute itself as the inoperativity immanent in every life. The constitution of a form-of-life coincides…completely with the destitution of the social and biological conditions into which it finds itself thrown. The form-of-life is…the revocation of all factical vocations…It is not a question of thinking a better or more authentic form of life…Inoperativity is not another work…it coincides completely and constitutively with their destitution, with a life. And this destitution is the coming politics. (‘What is a destituent power?’ 65)

A passage such as this merits our interest for at least two reasons. On the one hand, destituent power is now said to be something innately bound to, yet distinct from, humanity’s originary inoperativity. And while it remains the case that it is by destituent means that we are returned to our non-alienated inoperative living, Agamben qualifies this previous iteration with the inclusion of forms-of-life as that previously missing mediator capable of overcoming the dilemma of capital’s historical separation of humanity ontologically considered and alienated being, which takes the form of bare life. Now, says Agamben, destituent power is accessible only through this experience of living a life inseparable from its (communal) form: “the destitution of power and of its works is an arduous task, because it is first of all and only in a form-of-life that it can be carried out. Only a form-of-life is constitutively destituent” (Ibid, 72). That is to say, it only by means of a collectivity that it becomes possible for individuals to “return it [the human activity that is the substance of value production] to the potentiality from which it originates” (Ibid, 73). And on this account it would appear that destituent power is no longer simply the immediate recuperation of alienated human being and rather an always latent possibility of non-alienated living perpetually deferred and rendered increasingly impossible. Thus, and put it a more direct relation to the prior ontological formulations

Contemplation and inoperativity are…the metaphysical operators of anthropogenesis, which, freeing the living being from every biological or social destiny and from every predetermined task, renders it open for that particular absence of work that we are accustomed to calling ‘politics’ and ‘art.’ Politics and art are neither tasks nor simply ‘works’: they name…the dimension in which the linguistic and corporeal, material and immaterial, biological and social operations are made inoperative and contemplated as such. (Ibid, 74)

Significant in this account of destituent power is the fact that Agamben now appears capable of addressing the issue of how originary being and our future inoperativity can be said to have any relation (insofar as it is the history of sovereign governmentality that has successfully functioned as that which perpetually obstructs our non-alienated living). That said, what is gained in logical consistency is simultaneously lost in terms of its concrete specificity. For while Agamen conceives of the destitution of capital as the process of transforming an overdetermined set of possible forms-of-life into an underdetermined set of possible forms, the potentiality that is (re)discovered through destituent processes cannot be attributed to human being alone; and whether considered ontologically, or historically and materially. Thus we are led to wonder, is a non-ontological conception of destituent power possible?

Destituons le Monde: Against the Management of Everyday Life

According to the Invisible Committee, destituent acts or gestures are realized according to the fusion of the positive/creative logic of founding the conditions for an other world in which many worlds fit and the negative/destructive logic of ending, once and for all, the present world fashioned in the image and likeness of Capital. That is, destituent gestures abide by a logic where ‘the One divides into Two’ (“The destituent gesture is thus desertion and attack, creation and wrecking, and all at once, in the same gesture”). That is, destituent gestures create and destroy in one and the same act. Moreover, these collective gestures belong to that class of acts, which rely upon the temporality proper to social reproduction and are actualized in times of decision, which is to say, in times of crisis. And what is ultimately realized along the way; in the bringing about an end to this world; is an altogether different solution to the two fold problem of the estrangement of bodies and fragmentation of worlds. However, destituent power is said to resolve the issue of separated bodies and of the discontinuity that structures the possible worlds of every form-of-life not by rehabilitating some sense of ‘unity,’ conceived as the coming-into-being of a still underdetermined (though latently possible) counter-hegemony of the Left. To the contrary, destituent acts resolve the crisis of estrangement and fragmentation through the construction of a different organization of the ongoing fragmentation of forms-of-life and their worlds. “Here is the paradox, then: being constrained to unity undoes us, the lie of social life makes us psychotic, and embracing fragmentation is what allows us to regain a serene presence to the world. There is a certain mental position where this fact ceases to be perceived in a contradictory way. That is where we place ourselves” (Now, 46).

What, then, is intended in this redefinition of “the real movement” as a process that abides by a destituent (as opposed to an abolitionist) logic? According to the terms that determine a properly destituent political logic, the virtue of any struggle against the state and capital is to be found in the potential harbor within each action that suggests a future that has finally done away with everything that encourages us to “hate Monday’s” when it is capital that is the cause behind the whatever-object of our lamentations. That is to say, actualizing destituent power is to give material reality to the potential of establishing the distance between movements and established institutions, in order for the former to better desert, or flee, or take flight from, everything that is involved rendering vacuous the relation we maintain to ourselves, to those we call comrade, friend, or lover, and to the world insofar as it is made in the image and likeness of capital. That is to say, and as a fellow accomplice recently pointed out with respect to the situation of the gilets jaunes movement in France: “It is not the radicals who are making the movement, it is the movement that is radicalizing people.” So, unlike those collectivities which tend toward “constituent” or “constituted” power and situate their strategy within the dialectical relation of recognition/negotiation with the ruling authority (in the hopes of taking possession of the state), collectivities that abide by a destituent logic adhere to, and seek to actualize, the vital need to disengage and distance itself from the dialectical trap of constituent-constituted power. But what would this alleged other form of unity mean, when conceived as a collective ‘abandonment’ of the economy and ‘disengagement’ from the dialectic between constituent and constituent power? At the very least, says the Committee, it would mean the reformulation of the communist question itself; for the equivocation that began with Lenin regarding the terms “socialism” and “communism” has given rise to a more profound confusion whereby liberal economists, socialists, and Marxists all have agreed that the question with which we are confronted is nothing but “a question of management” (Ibid, 138).

To destitute or ‘abandon’ the economy, then, not only means acknowledging the illusory gains of constituent power in theory. To abandon the economy implies an organization of collective struggle founded upon the fact that “capitalism is not a mode of management but a mode of production based on specific productive relations, and revolution targets these relations” (Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, 107). Thus the need for an other mode of organization and struggle other than that of constituent power (a form of struggle, which poses the problem of the abolition of the present state of things as being a question of management); and precisely since:

Communism is not a “superior economic organization of society” but the destitution of the economy. Economy rests on a pair of fictions, therefore, that of society and that of the individual. Destituting it involves situating this false antinomy and bringing to light that which it means to cover up. (Now, 137)

Thus, it can be said that destituent are those acts which are grounded upon a rejection of developing better and more equitable strategies of economic management insofar as communism is not a “superior economic organization.” So, insofar as this notion of destituent power seeks to cause the problems and crises capital “means to cover up” to appear in every day social reality, destituent gestures necessarily involve a certain level of organization of struggle in order to achieve the “bringing to light” of the problems and crises that affect the whole of society. What is more, it is precisely through the Committee’s understanding of destituent power as organizing struggles such that they are able to (i) resolve the problems of social reproduction through decidedly anti-capitalist (i.e. communist) measures while (ii) rendering social problems unavoidable and impossible to ignore mean, that we are returned to what Marx and Engels originally understood regarding that most general phase of the development of the proletariat:

In…the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where the war breaks out into open revolution, and where violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat. (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto)

Thus, we arrive at the central difference between Agamben’s and the Invisible Committee’s understandings of destituent power: while Agamben consistently conceives of destituent power as the capacity for forms-of-life to redeem the Humanity from which it has been ontologically estranged vis-a-vis Capital, the Committee, by contrast, understand destituent power as the general phase of proletarian development centered around anti-state, anti-bureaucratic, and communist social relations. And it is due to this discrepancy between destitution as messianic capacity of forms-of-life and destitution as the form and organization struggle takes when founded upon communist social relations that it comes as no surprise to read the Committee issue a decidedly anti-Agambenian statement as the following:

Only be means of this type of confusion did it become possible to imagine that a subject like “Humanity” could exist. Humanity – that is, all human beings, stripped of what weaves together their concrete situated existence, and gathered up phantasmally into one great something-or-other, nowhere to be found. By wiping out all the attachments that make up the specific texture of worlds, on the pretext of abolishing private ownership of the means of production, modern “communism” has effectively made a tabula rasa-of everything. That’s what happens to those who practice economy, even by criticizing it. (Now, 136-37)

For the Committee, then, such appeals are possible only insofar as one assumes that the lives of individuals are adequately defined in isolation for the attributes it comes to assume in the course of living; that is, insofar as one follows Agamben in confusing what is ontologically possible with what is actually an historical and material potentiality. At stake, then, in this debate regarding destituent power is the material possibility of directly appropriating the forces and relations of capitalist production. Moreover, and in contrast to Agamben’s understanding of destitution in relation to law upholding (constituted power) and law establishing violence (constituent power), the Committee conceives of destituent power as being ‘against the economy’ insofar as the question isn’t that of appropriating the means of production and rather poses the question of how to go about constructing the relations of social reproduction measured by something other than labour-time (or what is required for production). That is to say, for the Committee, what becomes evident is that given the present organization of global society vis-a-vis Capital, any politics geared toward the reappropriation of the forces of production will continue to fall short of abolishing the relations of production that organize and form daily life:

As we know-Trotsky pointed it out long ago in The Revolution Betrayed-the Russians have always imported their technology from the west; but since Khrushchev’s day, they have also taken their economic models from there too […] Obviously it will not be by importing models of desire…that the Soviet bureaucrats will escape the fundamental impasse they have got themselves into, with their endless Five-Year Plans of which absolutely everyone is sick to death. Not merely are they starting no institutionalizing process by importing prefabricated car factories, but by the same token they are transplanting forms of human relationship[s] quite foreign to socialism, a hierarchization of technological functions proper to a society based on individual profits, a split between research and industry, between intellectual and manual work, an alienating style of mass consumption and so on…Not only are car factories imported, then, but also social neuroses and in hyperactive form. (Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History’)

Destituent power, then, is a mode of collective struggle that prioritizes transforming the way in which individuals relate to the production process such that the distinction between labour-time and leisure-time is no longer that which structures and organizes everyday life. And it is for this reason that the Committee will claim the following:

The traditional revolutionary program involved a reclaiming of the world, an expropriation of the expropriators, a violent appropriation of that which is ours, but which we have been deprived of. But here’s the problem: capital has taken hold of every detail and every dimension of existence…It has configured, equipped, and made desirable the ways of speaking, thinking, eating, working and vacationing, of obeying and rebelling, that suit its purpose. In doing so, it has reduced to very little the share of things in this world that one might want to reappropriate. Who would wish to reappropriate nuclear power plants, Amazon’s warehouses, the expressways, ad agencies, high-speed trains, Dassault, La Defense business complex, auditing firms, nanotechnologies, supermarkets and their poisonous merchandise?…What complicates the task for revolutionaries is that the old constituent gesture no longer works there either. With the result that the most desperate, the most determined to save it, have finally found the winning formula: in order to have done with capitalism, all we have to do is reappropriate money itself! (Now, 85)

To seek out the organization requirements for reproducing “what is lived in the fight itself” (ibid, 80); for reproducing “that experience of fraternity in combat, of friendship” (ibid, 133); for the reproduction of the fleeting experiences of a form of non-alienated living one encounters in the midst of struggle; all of these are so many iterations of the fundamental principle that what is revolutionary in moments of insurrection is the fact that individuals became accustomed to, comfortable with, and desiring of that form-of-life that no longer structures our existence according to the time of labour and the time of “leisure.” As one of the many participants in the 2013 Gezi Park protests remarked, perfectly capturing such a sentiment, “[T]he people who are coming here, for the past 18 days, are not spending money. And when they get used to not spending money, it’s like a revolution within themselves.” For the Committee, then, destituent power takes aim at capitalist social relations by giving a form and organization to struggle that are not only sustain friendship as “fraternity in combat,” but that produce the necessary conditions for what comes after the barricades and the insurrectionary fervor, which inevitably subside. To destitute the economy, then, is but the collective construction of what is necessary for the actualization and generalization of our non-alienated living; or what the Committee simply call “community:” Without at least the occasional experience of community, we die inside, we dry out, become cynical, harsh, desert-life. Life becomes that ghost city peopled by smiling mannequins, which functions. Out need for community is so pressing that after having ravaged all the existing bonds, capitalism is running on nothing but the promise of “community.” What are the social networks, the dating apps, if not that promise perpetually disappointed? What are all the modes, all the technologies of communication, all the love songs, if not a way to maintain the dream of a continuity between beings where in the end every contact melts away? […] In 2015, a single website of pornographic videos called PornHub was visited for 4,392,486,580 hours, which amounts to two and half times the hours spent on Earth by Homo sapiens. Even this epoch’s obsession with sexuality and its hyper-indulgence in pornography attests to the need for community, in the very extremeness of the latter’s deprivation (Now, 133).

How Many Breakdowns For Every Breakthrough?

(tr. generation collapse)

Ultimately, one escapes from the structuralist impasse by recognizing that an effect of meaning only has repercussions at the level of the signified in so far as potentialities of subjective action are liberated, once there is a breach in the signifier…The machinic breakthrough, waiting, masked by the structure, is the subject in aspic, so to say, time at the ready. – Guattari, ‘Causality, Subjectivity and History’

What are the underlying set of concerns that renders consistent the various interviews and essays throughout Psychoanalysis and Transversality? What was the unifying thread that ran throughout all that preoccupied Guattari between the years of 1955-1971? Confronted with questions such as these, one is immediately signaled to an inquiry already underway; a search for the relevant experiences and conditions under which Guattari practiced analysis while also furthering his activist work. And the promise of this seemingly naive and biographical question is that of understanding what convinced Guattari to treat psychotherapeutic practice and revolutionary politics as inherently, and thus necessarily, implicated with each other? Biography, however, only establishes the scope of such a question. As Deleuze would aptly remarked:

a militant political activist and psychoanalyst just so happen to meet in the same person, and instead of each minding his own business, they ceaselessly communicate, interfere with one another, and get mixed up–each mistaking himself for the other…Pierre-Félix Guattari does not let problems of the unity of the Self preoccupy him. (Deleuze, ‘Three Group-Related Problems’)

The thesis we will put forward is the following: Guattari views psychotherapeutic practice and revolutionary politics as two distinct yet necessarily related endeavors since each is concerned with, and oriented toward, resolving a singular problem: What should one do when stuck in a situation? (Guattari, Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 73). In other words, schizoanalysis and revolutionary politics address themselves to those phenomena, which act as an impasse to the freedom of both desire as well as social life. Hence Guattari explains that

[T]he little subject clinging to its mother, or the dazed schizo…are entirely connected to this being. The subject is engaged with it and, paradoxically, it is only along the way that everything becomes blocked. This entire neurotic ball makes it so that at one point…there is longer any possibility of reconnecting, of being articulated with anything that is not fantasy. The problem is to dig a few new holes artificially so that it can reconnect somewhere. Recourse to absolute alterity is something that, in principle, should allow it to remain connected to the foundation of all value.  (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 74-75)

Now, with respect to institutional psychotherapy, the methodological starting point is still the one offered by psychoanalysis: “to know how to arrive at being a subject under these conditions. What does he or she have to do to continue being a speaking subject and to speak efficiently?”  – where the ‘conditions’ Guattari is referring to is one of blockage, aporia, and impasse where “signifiers…are blocked as significations such that a singular individual cannot express him or herself in it…” (PT, 68-69). In cases such as these, institutional psychotherapy locates the ‘subject’ not in the face to face meeting but in that place where they “have remained prisoner” Hence the necessity for constructing diagrams, whose function is to bring the subject in relation with the ‘Outside’ (alterity) – for it is this need of constructing diagrams that becomes all the more urgent for the subject’s liberation from that which renders it unable to express themselves. In other words, a therapeutic method based on the construction of diagrams maintains, for the subject, the very possibility of achieving a real separation between itself and what is essentially an aporia of the unconscious: “A factory, an asylum, or a patient, they stink…You have to look for something. The first item on the agenda is to open up to the complete alterity of the situation.” (PT, 73).

Subject-Groups, Subjugated-Groups, and Group Phantasies

With respect to the concerns of politics and questions surrounding the organization of a properly revolutionary subject, we once again encounter the same problem. As Guattari puts it,

the revolutionary organization has become separated from the signifier of the working class’s discourse, and become instead closed in upon itself and antagonistic to any expression of subjectivity on the part of the various wholes and groups. The subject groups spoken of by Marx. Group subjectivity can then express itself only by way of phantasy-making, which channels it off into the sphere of the imaginary. To be a worker, to be a young person, automatically means sharing a particular kind of (mostly inadequate) group phantasy. To be a militant worker, a militant revolutionary, means escaping from the imaginary world and becoming connected to the real texture of an organization, part of the prolongation of an open formalization of the historical process.  (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 218-219)

So, just as it is with therapeutic practices one of the fundamental problems encountered in politics – i.e.  how to realize a form of collective antagonism that avoids the trap of dogmatism, thereby leading to the ossification and curtailment of what is revolutionary within a certain organization. And these problems also take the form of blockages (of signifiers that translate into the silence of individuals) and are seen in those moments when some members of a group begin to speak for the group as a whole. Or, in the worst of cases, blockage develops into a fascistic mode of organization structured according to (i) the groups identification with a single image/signifier (Phallus) such as the leader; (ii) the foreclosure of any individual’s unconscious existence which leads to the substitution of the “I” for a generic, and impersonal, “we”; and (iii) the organizations group phantasy becomes increasingly insular, closed off from any relation to difference, and thus ultimately reinforces and demands the collective denial of individual and collective finitude. And with this final characteristic – a group’s denial of the finitude of its organization – we arrive at what is at work in what Guattari calls the ‘misunderstanding’ expressed phenomena such as racism, nationalism, and sexism:

…the great leaders of history were people who served as something on which to hang society’s phantasies. When Jojo, Hitler, tells people to “be Jojos” or “be Hitlers,” they are not speaking so much as circulating a particular kind of image to be used in the group: “Through that particular Jojo we shall find ourselves.” But who actually says this? The whole point is that no one says it, because if one were to say it to oneself, it would be something different. At the level of the group’s phantasy structure we no longer find language operating in this way, setting up an “I” and an other through words and a system of signification. There is, to start with, a kind of solidification, a setting into a mass; this is us, and other people are different, and usually not worth bothering with–there is no communication possible. There is territorialization of phantasy, an imagining of the group as a body, that absorbs subjectivity into itself. From this there flow all the phenomena of misunderstanding, racism, regionalism, nationalism and other archaisms that have utterly defeated the understanding of social theorists. (Psychoanalysis and Transversality, 223)

And it is precisely in light of this always present threat of fascisms resurgence (from the right and within the left) that Guattari proposes the distinction of subject-groups and subjugated-groups. To separate subject- from subjugated-groups, however, must be understood as an analytic distinction integral to schizoanalysis as method of analyzing the potentiality of the unconscious relations and habits sustaining one, or many, individuals, which allow them “to continue being a speaking subject and to speak effectively?” (PT, 69). By formally distinguishing subject-group and subjugated-group, Guattari’s main priority is determining whether the subject as ineluctably bound to a highly particular set of behaviors, ways of speaking, etc., repeats its existence in a manner that saves and/or liberates elements of the unconscious that may harbor the possibility of lines of flight within the unconscious from its reduction to ‘the repressed territories’ of the Ego:

The loss of consistency of a component will not have been followed…by a chain reaction of new inhibitions. It will instead have served as a sensitive plate, as a developer, as an alarm bell. But of what exactly? That is precisely the question! To which, actually, it is best not to answer too quickly. As there is perhaps no answer to it, strictly speaking. An a-signifying sign–the restriction on vocal performances–makes the halt of something without forbidding…that other things intervene. Great! This is already something! Certain paths marked out for a long time: singing, the moralizing surcoding of the mother, are experiencing a pragmatic transformation. Should these facts be considered liabilities and put down in record in the column of lacks a deficits: Nothing is less certain! But nothing is determined either! . . . It must be clear that all transferential induction…could have devastating effects, or, at the very least, bring us back to the depressive tableau which is “normally” expected under such circumstances. It seems less risky to me to think about the material qualities of this component of expression…Is it because of the presence of such a “luxurious” component that the song did not allow a preventative alarm to be raised and to suggest a bifurcation? From then on what was called to vegetate under the guise of inhibition was transformed into the beginning of a singularization process. (Guattari, ‘The Schizoanalyses’)

What is clarified with this example is that subject-groups and subjugated-groups, rather than corresponding to two discrete sets of individuals, corresponds to (and seeks to identify) the moments when a given subject finds itself in a relation with elements that offer an alternative to what Guattari views as the norm in Freudian and Lacanian analysis (i.e. a reductive treatment of the unconscious that continuously makes recourse to the Oedipal relation or the general linguistic structure underlying the whole of unconscious life). At this juncture what can be said with certainty is that, contrary to an analysis of desire in terms of its Oedipal or linguistic overdetermination, schizoanalysis aims to develop an analysis of desire where desire (or the subject, or the unconscious) functions as the guide and agent of analysis as such. In this way, then, to employ schizoanalysis with individuals and within and among groups is tantamount to constituting, within an individual or a group, “the conditions of an analysis of desire” that results in “analysis and desire finally on the same side, with desire taking the lead.” (Deleuze, ‘Three Group Related Problems’). Thus, we could say that what is at stake in schizoanalysis is the development of an analysis that returns desire to potentially liberatory elements, which have been deemed “irrelevant” or “meaningless” from the vantage point of Oedipal relations or linguistic structures.

And with respect to the social life within certain ‘militant’ or political organizations, Guattari identifies the same problem: where do we find the subject with respect to politics and under what conditions is it no longer able to creatively express itself? (218-19). In other words, how does the political subject free itself from structural impasses? (220-222). Just as the analyst takes recourse to alterity, so too must collective subjectivity develop the tools to ward off closing in on itself (through domatism or structuring group phantasy around a sign that assumes a Phallic function), policing its members (dictating, from above, legitimate and prohibited forms of speech, activity, etc.), and substituting a focus on how to identify and interpret, for itself, the unconscious traps that continuously hinder its expression. And it is this latter phenomena that obliges groups to  develop their own “transitional phantasies” or “transition objects,” whose function within the group is to liberate collective desire from grounding itself upon the dogmatic images of organization inherited from historical communism and the history of the workers movement. That said, one is still right to ask as to whether or not this development of transitional phantasies within subject-groups is simultaneously a sufficient reason for Guattari’s belief regarding the inherent link between psychotherapeutic practice and the concerns of (revolutionary) politics?

Breakthrough or Breakdown?

Just as he identifies the reductive work of psychoanalysis to be insufficient regarding the therapeutic aim of establishing, for the subject (i.e. the unconscious), a relation to a future that does not conform or repeat the structure of its past, so too does Guattari identify analogously reductive relations that inhibit the revolutionary potential of Leftist groups and organizations (e.g. the Party, the military, State, Capital). For Guattari, and with respect to Leftist institutions as historic as that of the Party-form and its mass organizations (union, youth organizations, women’s organizations, etc.), these forms have proven themselves to be an equally effective instrument of capitalist and state repression; achieved in large part by the alignment of workers’ desire with the interests of Capital as well as the Party’s collusion with bourgeois parties and the State in identifying and policing elements within the workers movement that continuously break with the Party line:

The demand for revolution is not essentially or exclusively at the level of consumer goods; it is directed equally to taking account of desire. Revolutionary theory, to the extent that it keeps its demands solely at the level of increasing people’s means of consumption, indirectly reinforces an attitude of passivity on the part of the working class. A communist society must be designed not with reference to consumption, but to the desire and the goals of mankind. The philosophic [sic] rationalism that dominates all the expressions of the workers’ movement like a super-ego fosters the resurgence of the old myths of paradise in another world, and the promise of a narcissistic fusion with the absolute. Communist parties are by way of having scientific “knowledge” of how to create a form of organization that would satisfy the basic needs of all individuals. What a false claim! There can be social planning in terms of organizing production…but it cannot claim to be able to give a priori answers in terms of the desire objectives of individuals and subject groups. (Guattari, ‘The Group and The Person’)

Moreover, says Guattari, it is only when groups undertake a schizoanalysis of itself that it can then develop “transitional phantasies” or “transition objects,” whose function within the group is to: “channel the action of imagination between one structure and another…To move from one representation of oneself to another, though it may involve crises, of at least retains continuity” (‘The Group and The Person, 229). More concretely, and as Guattari would argue with respect to the Italian State’s juridical and spectacular charges brought against Negri and the Red Brigades: “Violence is legitimate when it is the work of workers, women, and youths who are struggling to change their condition. It is no longer legitimate when it is only carried out by dogmatic groupuscules whose principal target…is the impact of their action on the media” (Guattari, ‘An Open Letter To Some Italian Friends’). Hence, Guattari writes:

Capitalism has only managed to consolidate those very bastions that the RAF and the Red Brigades claim too shake, insofar as it has managed to develop a majority consensus founded on social ultra-conservatism, the protection of acquired advantages and the sysmatic misinterpretation of anything that falls outside of corporate or national interests. And whatever works toward the isolation of individuals, whatever reinforces their feelings of impotence, whatever makes them feel guilty and dependent on the state, on collective agencies and their extensions…feed this consensus. To claim to lead a revolutionary movement without attacking these phenomena of mass manipulation is an absurdity. While the secret war conducted by the industrial powers along the north-south axis to keep the Third World is tow in indeed the main issue, it should not make us forget that there is another north-south axis which encircles the globe and along which conflicts of an equally essential nature are played out, involved the powers of the state and oppressed nationalities, immigrant workers, the unemployed, the “marginals,” the “nonguaranteed” and the “standardized” wage earners, the people of the cities and of the barrios, of the favellas, the ghettoes [sic], the shanty-towns, engaging the opposition of races, sexes, classes, age-groups, etc. To conduct this other war, in insure its social and mental control over the whole everyday, desiring world, capitalism mobilizes tremendous forces. To ignore this kind of opposition or to consider it of secondary importance is to condemn all other forms of social struggle led by the traditional Workers’ Movement to impotence or reappropriation. Like it or not, in today’s world, violence and the media work hand in glove. And when a revolutionary group plays the game of the most reactionary media, the game of collective guilt, then it has been mistaken: mistaken in its target, mistaken in its method, mistaken in its strategy, mistaken in its theory, mistaken in its dreams… (Guattari, ‘Like the Echo of a Collective Melancholia,’ 110-11)

Thus, it is for this reason that Deleuze will go on to claim, in his foreword to the text, that Guattari’s project has always been “about grasping that point of rupture where, precisely, political economy and libidinal economy are one and the same” (PT, 17) and that schizoanalysis refuses the misleading assumption that the problem of the Left is that of choosing between spontaneity and centralism, or between guerilla and generalized warfare: Guattari’s strength consists in showing that the problem is not at all about choosing between spontaneity and centralism. Nor between guerilla and generalized warfare. It serves no purpose to recognize in one breath the right to spontaneity during a first stage, if it means in the next breath demanding the necessity of centralization for a second stage: the theory of stages is the ruin of every revolutionary movement. From the start we have to be more centralist than the centralists. Clearly, a revolutionary machine cannot remain satisfied with local and occasional struggles: it has to be at the same time super-centralize and super-desiring. The problem, therefore, concerns the nature of unification, which must function in a transversal way, through multiplicity, and not in a vertical way…In the first place, this means that any unification must be the unification of a war-machine and not a State apparatus (a red Army stops being a war-machine to the extent that it becomes a more or less important cog in a State apparatus) (‘Three Group-Related Problems,’ 15-16).

May 1, 1977: “Taksim Square had become a battleground”

1 may taksim sqTaksim Square (May 1, 1977)

[An excerpt from Sakine Cansiz’s memoir Sara: My Whole Life Was A Struggle] 

The days crawled by, and May 1 [1977] approached. We decided to celebrate the workers’ holiday here in [the Buca] prison and discussed the program. In the outside world, preparations were running full steam ahead. In Istanbul all the leftist groups were planning to demonstrate at Taksim Square. I wondered how May 1 would pass in Kurdistan. Surely the friends would participate in the action at Taksim Square. In Kurdistan, police attacks were usually much harsher. I suspected there would be clashes. 

On May 1 we put on our best clothes. Red carnations had been sent to us from outside–we put them in cans and arranged them on the cabinets. At 9 a.m., out in the courtyard, we started with a minute of silence, then shouted slogans together. We heard slogans booming from other cells as well. We were loud even though we were only few in number. “Long live the first of May!” we cried, and in Kurdish: “Bijî Yeke Gulanê!” [long live
the first of May!]. 
Then, tensely, we turned on the TV news. State television was reporting mostly on police security measures, but sometimes it switched to showing crowds streaming into Taksim Square. Hundreds of thousands were marching with raised eft fists and roaring slogans. It was a splendid sight, strengthening our belief that this mass of humanity could really carry out a revolution. We all murmured with excitement at each new camera shot. Never had I so much confidence in the working class and the prospects for revolution in Turkey. I was fired up, even as I ached with longing for Kurdistan [. . .] The sight of workers in smocks and overalls was impressive. Occasionally they showed footage of the leader of the DİSK revolutionary trade union confederation, Abdullah Baştürk, and the chairman of the TİP, the Turkish Workers Party, Behice Boran. I listened carefully for the slogan “Down with colonialism” and scanned the crowds for banners saying “Kurdistan Revolutionaries.” Suddenly a commotion broke out. Continue reading “May 1, 1977: “Taksim Square had become a battleground””

Notes on Ciccariello-Maher’s ‘So Much the Worse for Whites’

las hilanderas - velazquez

If the face is in fact Christ, in other words, your average ordinary White Man, then the first deviances, the first divergence-types, are racial: yellow man, black man, men in the second or third category…They must be Christianized, in other words, facialized. European racism as the white man’s claim…operates by the determination of degrees of deviance in relation to the White-Man face, which endeavors to integrate nonconforming traits into increasingly eccentric and backward waves, sometimes tolerating them at given places under given conditions, in a given ghetto, sometimes erasing them from the wall, which never abides alterity (it’s a Jew, it’s an Arab, it’s a Negro, it’s a lunatic…). From the viewpoint of racism, there is no exterior, there are no people on the outside.  There are only people who should be like us and whose crime it is not to be. (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 178)

      /1/. Between the Universal & the Particular: Politics
In his review of Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, ‘So Much the Worse For Whites,’ George Ciccariello-Maher provides one of the clearest formulations of the seeming antinomy between the need to defend the rights and lives of exploited and oppressed social groups and the need to uphold the ideal of universalism that is so central to contemporary liberal-Democratic discourse. According to Buck-Morss, the Haitian Revolution was, ultimately, a truncated one insofar as it was a process of social transformation that culminated in pitting one part of the population (i.e. previously enslaved Africans) against another (i.e. previously slave-owning whites). However, as Ciccariello-Maher highlights:

For Buck-Morss, the rise of Dessalines, the slaughter of the whites, and the legislative uniformity of Haitian blackness all point in one direction: that of a simple inversion in which the last become the first but little else changes, yet another turn in the “recurring cycle of victim and aggressor. (Ciccariello-Maher, ‘So Much the Worse For Whites,’ p. 30)

And with this it is said to have been demonstrated that the political process we call the Haitian Revolution was originally a revolutionary process whose content was truly universal and served the interests for all, but ultimately became a means for the previously enslaved populations to seek out a form of justice indistinguishable from revenge and by means of the physical retribution inflicted upon their white, formerly slave-owning, counterparts. By contrast, Ciccariello-Maher begins his analysis of Buck-Morss’ assertion of the existence of a betrayal at the very heart of the revolutions universal dimension with an altogether different set of questions. For Ciccariello-Maher, we would be wrong to begin by asking ‘Where did the revolution go wrong?’ or ‘Which actor or event marks the point of no return and the beginning of Dessalines betrayal to the revolution?’ Instead, we should begin any investigation into the universal aspects of the Haitian revolution by foregrounding the colonial situation: 

Why was it “the violent elimination of the whites” and not the prior elimination of various maroon and Vodou and other leaders that “signaled” a retreat from the universal? […] Buck-Morss reduces all identitarian opposition to brutality, which can only contribute to an interminable cycle of violence…As a result, she misreads the dialectical content of both Dessalines’ Manichaeism…and the universal blackness of all Haitians (as formulated in the 1805 Constitution). (Ciccariello-Maher, 28) 

Now, unlike Buck-Morss, Ciccariello-Maher finds Dessalines’ role in the revolution not only less problematic but also indicative of how the promises of Enlightenment universalism (universal humanity) are not obviated by the emphasis placed on particular identity groups within the context of political struggle. While Buck-Morss views Dessalines’ elimination of former slave-owners as the betrayal of the revolutions universalism, Ciccariello-Maher reads this emphasis on Dessalines identitarianism not only as an important pre-dialectical step in the dialectic between colonizer and colonized, but as containing a qualitatively different kind of universality than that espoused by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the European Enlightenment. For Ciccariello-Maher, the universality embodied by Toussaint L’Ouverture was a universalism that opposed any form of ‘racial identity that interfered with the establishment of formal equality in the here and now.’

In other words, Toussaint embodied a universalism whose content was a form of liberty and right that, when solidified into law, instantiated a new set of divisions and social relations within civil society. In place of the colonizer/colonized and slave-owner/slave relation, there would now be the relation between the public and the private,  the individual/collective, and the citizen and the non-citizen. If this type of universal emancipation remains insufficient for Ciccariello-Maher (as it did for Dessalines) it is insufficient for the very reason Marx gave regarding the distinction between political and human emancipation: the formal universalism of political emancipation only considers individuals in terms of their alienation from others and their social totality and thereby only grants them liberties and rights appropriate to their alienated existence as opposed to abolishing the conditions of alienation as such. As Marx wrote, 

Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person. Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished. (‘On The Jewish Question’)

However, even if we accept the criticism of Toussaint’s shortcomings in the project of political emancipation, how is it that Ciccariello-Maher can claim that this as a false or empty universalism; a universalism that Toussaint supported, just as the French revolutionaries before him and just like Buck-Morss’ today? Ciccariello-Maher’s answer is two-fold. First, the Hegelian dialectic between master and slave remains a wholly idealist dialectic insofar as Hegel presupposes each individual in the relationship entering into the process for recognition on equal grounding. In an implicit reference to Fanon, Ciccariello-Maher remarks that insofar as we are concerned with understanding the historical development of revolutionary politics we cannot satisfy ourselves with this Hegelian presupposition because

if we see struggle as the necessary precondition for this recognition (Hegel), and if more importantly we see one-sided, pre-dialectical struggle as the necessary precondition for even this Hegelian struggle for recognition (Fanon), then our understanding of the temporal structure of the dialectic shifts accordingly. For Fanon, the ontological blockage of white supremacy creates a more immediate perspective that foregrounds identitarian struggle in the present. Despite his own yearning for the universal…Fanon finds identity repeatedly forced upon him, and his universal is deferred into the distant future. (Ciccariello-Maher, 33)

     /2/. Decolonization Is Not A Discourse on the Universal
So, against the empty formalism that posits humanity’s equality to itself as something that while being true in theory can now become true in our lived reality, Fanon’s critique of Hegel reasserts the non-identical and different material conditions definitive of colonizer and colonized as the real grounds for any dialectical progression toward mutual recognition. Thus, the formal or political emancipation promised by Enlightenment universalism is empty since it seeks to realize in the world that which was already discovered in theory: the (abstract) truth of a humanity that is equal to itself and thus allows no room for discrimination or privileging certain differences over others. As Ciccariello-Maher writes

Much like the avenging angel Dessalines, the colonized returns upon the colonizer the “same violence…which governed the ordering of the colonial world,” and as though rejecting reconciliation outright, Fanon insists that decolonization “does not mean that once the borders have been eliminated there will be a right of way…To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector” (5-6). As though responding preemptively to Buck-Morss’ approach, Fanon insists that decolonization “is not a discourse on the universal,” with emphasis on both “discourse” and “universal”: there is no convincing the colonizer in words, much less in the flowery words of human love that even Fanon himself often uses. (Ibid.)

Second, if Enlightenment version of universalism is said to be empty and limited by its formal equality, it is because it amounts to an approach that only grasps the universal ‘by negating, rather than truly passing through and inhabiting, the particular.’ To be sure, this grasping at universality by negating all particularity, is precisely what was missed and thus constitutes the betrayal of the Haitian revolution insofar as individuals such as Dessalines maintained their identitarian positions. For example, if freedom is said to be universal, it is because it something available to all persons without qualification. Thus, to propose freedom in a qualified manner; to struggle for the freedom of a particular group; presents a problem within the schema of universality Buck-Morss’ seeks to defend, since any struggle for the freedom of slaves or colonized peoples manifest themselves as a violation of freedoms universality, where universality here means ‘free of all particulars’.

Moreover, as Ciccariello-Maher points out in a series of rhetorical questions, it’s historically inaccurate to characterize the politics of individuals such as Toussaint, Dessalines, and Fanon as ‘identitarian’ or as thinkers who are not attuned to the intricacies entailed by defending a specific political identity: “Was Dessalines blind to porosity when he baptized some Poles and Germans as “black”? Was Fanon blind to porosity when he suggested that “some black can be whiter than the whites”? And was not old Toussaint performing the same maneuver when he mobilized on the basis of the nation, and even more so when he reputedly told his troops “leave nothing white behind you” (Black Jacobins, 288)?” For Ciccariello-Maher, then, liberatory struggles waged in the name of the particular are attuned to what is ignored by the tradition of Hegelian universalism: namely, that the universal is never given in advance and one reaches the universal insofar as one retains a commitment to all that is particular in a given situation. And in this way Dessalines appears not as someone who betrays the universal but as the one who makes the first real attempt at its historical, material, and therefore real construction. And so, it comes as no surprise that one finds in his recent text the following claim:

“…colonization and enslavement are not processes in which individuals and groups simply bump haphazardly into one another. Rather, they denote the sort of specifically one-sided operations to which Hegel was characteristically blind, the utterly nonreciprocal oppression of those deemed not worthy of recognition…and from whom only work, land, or simply death is desired as a result…colonial difference indicates a more concrete and precise way of grasping those oppositions not visible to a traditional dialectics but whose appearance does not mark the impossibility of dialectics entirely.” (George Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics)

Notes on Christian Jambet & the Question of the One

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If there is one conviction shared by the majority of contemporary philosophers, this is it: the one is not [l’un n’est pas]. . .Once affirmed, this conviction converts smoothly into various systems of thought, until either every attestation of the real is renounced, or at least until the real is thoroughly separated from its theological identity with the one. . .Whatever the merits of this decision may be, its unavoidable consequence is to conceal what is at stake, metaphysically, when the mind acknowledges that the highest power resides in the one. [1]

“Que peut la philosophie? « cette pensée avec laquelle on ne peut essentiellement rien entreprendre et à propos de laquelle les servantes ne peuvent s’empêcher de rire (Heidegger). Je suis voué à l’impuissance traditionnelle de la philosophie, plus simplement de la vie contemplative. Longtemps prisée en Occident comme le privilège, la meilleure part de l’homme, ce dont tout être qui mérite le nom d’homme ne peut être privé, ce par quoi l’on touche à l’éternité, cette heureuse impuissance a vu son sens renversé. Thalès ne vaut plus la servante. La vérité, séparée de la vie, ne vaut pas la vie qu’elle contribue à opprimer. [2]

Y a-t-il une philosophie française?

It would seem that Christian Jambet’s intervention in the history of philosophy have largely escaped the attention of the Anglophone reception of  contemporary “French philosophy.” Hence the importance of Peter Hallward’s reflections on Jambet’s life and work in his 2003 introduction to Jambet’s ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One’ published in Angelaki. [3] For Hallward, this relative neglect of Jambet’s work is a disservice to ourselves and to the image of French theory/philosophy that continues to be faithfully passed down within academia – especially given a person who was influenced by “Mao and Lacan” while also serving as “the translator of Rumi and Oscar Wilde” and “an attentive reader of Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou.” Given this range and diversity of Jambet’s thought, and as Hallward puts it, Jambet quite frankly “makes mainstream work in comparative philosophy look positively parochial” [4] and constitutes a blindspot regarding our understanding of the developments specific to the French tradition.

According to Hallward, Jambet’s intervention can be understood as constituted by its two main concerns: revolution and philosophy. Regarding the latter, Jambet defends a view of philosophy, not as the pursuit of knowledge or opinion, but as the reflexive undertaking that, when applied to oneself (“an entering into discord with oneself”), transforms both the subject and its image of thought. That is, philosophy is to be found in all those acts, which pursue a line of inquiry that is also defined by its qualitative break with every prejudice and acculturated habit that is recognizable by its belonging to a certain ‘common sense.’ As Hallward writes: “a genuine “philosophical act takes place when its subjects overturn their conception of the world,” when, breaking with prejudice or habit, they devise ways of thinking along lines indifferent to all received representations of the world. Philosophy…is a reflexive work of transformation applied upon oneself…so as to accord with a way of thinking that holds, in principle for anyone at all.”[5] For Jambet, what is at stake in the practice of philosophy is the transformation of the thinking subject such that this subject’s mode of thought is marked by a break with those forms of thought sustained by either tradition (“good sense”) or convention (“common sense”).

Qu’est–ce que la revolution?

Given Jambet’s experiences as a member of the Maoist groups Union des Jeunesses Communistes and Gauche Prolétarienne and ultimate disappointment with the direction taken by Maoism in both China and France, he returns to and refashions a theory of revolutionary subjectivity (as developed in his text L’Ange from 1976 and furthered in his 1978 work Le Monde) which allows him to begin theorizing revolution as a “spiritual affair” – a revolution whose “most immediate enemies are those…who seek to harness its forces to merely social or historical ends.”[6] However, we should not understand this spiritual definition of revolution as a regression or inherent mysticism regarding Jambet’s political thought. Rather, for Jambet, revolution belongs to the category of Spirit precisely because it is Spirit that is said to be the locus of the genesis of novel forms of both thinking and living. This revolutionary spiritualism opposed to a theory of revolution bound by the dictates of History (world), says Hallward, allows Jambet to directly address what is at stake in both emancipatory politics as well as the history of Islam:

“Jambet’s decisive encounter with Corbin…is what determined him to look for such points of reference primarily in esoteric Shi’ite philosophy, in which the struggle between world and spirit (between a literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran and one that urges the invention of new forms of interpretation) is particularly acute. The question posed today by the likes of Khomeini and bin Laden is the question that has divided Islam from the beginning: is God’s will essentially mediated by rules and institutions and thus caught up in the enforcement of law, or “is God creative freedom, pure spontaneity, such that true believers express this divine freedom in their own spiritual practice,” as so many instances of “boundless spontaneity”?” [7]

So, for Jambet, revolution is decidedly ‘spiritual’ insofar as it is precisely those instances which belong to Spirit that are also acts/moments/thoughts/lives/etc., that realizes that novel and creative force, which expresses, not the relative and particular intentions of human agents, but the logic of that which can only be said to be absolutely free, creative, and spontaneous. If Revolution no longer answers to the demands of realizing historical institutions such as law, or the state, this is because to do so would ultimately mean reversing the relation between the absolute and what is relative to it – which, as Hallward notes, when translated in practical terms is a reversal defined by the very agendas set forth by Khomeini and bin Laden since each, in their own way, valorize a policing relation based on a ‘literal and law-bound conception of the Qu’ran’ (a metaphysical reversal whose political correlate is categorized as World). So, if revolution is to mean anything it must necessarily be so many instances (i.e. so many moments of a coming-into-being and in accordance with substance and attributes of which it is an expression) of the divine attribute of “boundless spontaneity.” And in this manner, says Jambet, revolution is nothing if not a spiritual affair.

However it is at this point in Jambet’s reconsideration of the fundamental features of revolution that we would be right to ask the following: what leads Jambet to think revolution from the vantage point of a substance based metaphysics? What is it that compels Jambet to deny the dictum that l’un n’est pas [the one is not] and to recuperate the existence of ‘the One’? In any event, it is the radical transformation of oneself and the world that remains at stake. And as Jambet will show, it is only by virtue of ‘the One’ that (i) Thought has access to the reality of revolution just as (ii) it is by virtue of ‘the One’ that revolution becomes a real possibility in Practice.

So, on what basis is Jambet able to claim that Revolution is only said of Spirit and not of the World? On what grounds does Jambet’s theory of revolution avoid turning into a politics founded upon an underlying mysticism and whose subject is characterized by a properly agnostic paralysis; or a less prosaic variant of a heavily mediated idealism? These questions become all the more serious since Jambet’s position seems to go against the very method (historical materialism) that allowed Marx and Engels to develop a theory of revolution whose promise was the universal emancipation of humanity. So, all of this is to ask: ‘can revolution be accomplished in thought and action if we abjure our relation History, which would be, for Jambet, an attribute, not of Spirit, but of the World?‘ On this point Hallward is again instructive since, for Jambet, revolution undoubtedly belongs to ‘Spirit’ insofar as its defining characteristics are only many expressions, or emanations, of its attributes:

“Any conception of spirit as absolute creativity must have at least three fundamental attributes…In the first place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Spinoza)…an unlimited creative force can only be singular, unique…In the second place (for reasons similar to those embraced by Hegel)…pure creativity can only be thought as subject rather than an object, and the only subject adequate to the One is God himself…In the third place, then (for reasons similar to those embraced by Bergson), we ourselves can know God only in so far as God thinks through us…The only true principle immune to radical doubt here is not “think” but “I am thought (by God)” – cogitor rather than cogito.”[8]

 

endnotes
[1] Christian Jambet, ‘Some Comments on the Question of the One,’ Angelaki vol. 8, no. 2, (August, 2003), 36-41, 36.

[2] Christian Jambet, Apologie de Platon. 11.
[3]For more see Hallward’s introduction in Angelaki vol 8, no. 2, August 2003, 33-35.
[4] Ibid, 33.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, 34.
[8] Ibid.