Hobbesian reflections in times of elections: Giorgio Agamben

The recent electoral successes of political parties rooted in “citizens movements” in spain’s municipal and regional elections (and this in the wake of the Syriza victory in greece) may give some reasons for hope that social movements, especially the “occupy” movements of the last few years, can find political expression, and thus reform “the system” institutionally from within.  What follows is a questioning of this hope and the expression of a desire for something far richer …

“A people united will never be defeated!”  The slogan was perhaps heard for the first time in chile in the years preceding and during Salvador Allende’s “popular” government.  It would echo beyond the borders of the country, to reappear in other moments, other places, of rebellion (even as Allende’s government and chile’s “people” were being brutally repressed); to be taken up yet again in 2011, in the occupation of city streets and squares. The seductive power of the slogan however masks ambiguities, uncertainties.  For what is a “people”, a “people united”, and what threatens their “defeat”?

The questions are not new and can be traced back at least to early modern reflections on political sovereignty and democracy.  Following Giorgio Agamben (La guerre civil: Pour une theorie politique de la stasis, 2015 – and what follows is a summary of and extrapolation from Agamben’s reflection on Hobbes), we turn to Thomas Hobbes’ De Cive for the beginning of a possible response.  Distinguishing between the “people” (populus) and the “multitude” (multitudo), Hobbes identifies a paradox at the heart of all sovereignty.

“A people is a single entity, with a single will; you can attribute an act to it.  None of this can be said of a multitude.  In every commonwealth the People Reigns; for even in Monarchies the People exercises power; for the people wills through the will of one man.  But the citizens, i.e. the subjects, are a multitude.  In a Democracy and in an Aristocracy the citizens are the multitude, but the council is the people; in a Monarchy the subjects are the multitude, and (paradoxically) the King is the people.  Ordinary people and others who do not notice this point, always speak of a large number of men as the people, i.e. as the commonwealth; they speak of the commonwealth having rebelled against the king (which is impossible) and of the people wanting, or not wanting, what malcontent and murmuring subjects want or do not want; under this label of the people, they are setting the citizens against the commonwealth, i.e. the Multitude against the people.  These then are the main opinions which make the citizens ripe for unrest if they are steeped in them.” (De Cive, 1642, XII, 8)

The paradox lies in a division (multitudo/populus: the multitude of citizens is not the people) and an identification (rex est populus).  The people in other words is sovereign on the condition that it separates itself from itself, in separating itself out as a “people” from a “multitude”.  But how can the multitude of natural bodies become a unique person?  And what of the multitude of bodies once it is unified in the king? (La guerre civil, 48)

Hobbes’ answer is unequivocal: the very moment a people chooses its sovereign, it becomes a multitude dissolved.  This occurs not only in a monarchy, where once a king is chosen “the people is no longer one person, but a dissolved/disorganised multitude, since it was one person only by virtue of its sovereign power, which they have transferred from themselves to him” (De Cive, 1642, VII, 11), but also in a democracy or aristocracy, where “the people is dissolved at the instant of the council’s formation.” (De Cive, 1642, VII, 9)  To understand such a process, a distinction in turn must be made in the concept of the multitude, as well grasping the relationship between the people and the multitude.  The people, the political body, only exists in an instant, when its members make the choice “to appoint one Man, or Assembly of men, to beare their Person.” (Leviathan, 1651, XVII) This instant however coincides with its transformation into a “dissolved multitude”.  The political body is thus an impossible concept that exists only in the tension between the multitude and the people/sovereign: it is always already in the cat of dissolution in the constitution of the sovereign, this latter being no more than an artificial person whose unity is but the effect of a kind of mask, of an optical apparatus that renders it visible. (La guerre civil, 49-50)

The people therefore possess no body properly speaking.  That “the people is a distinct body from him or her that have the sovereignty over them, is an error.” (The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, 1640, II, 27, 9)  They exist only in the metamorphosis of a multitude into a people through the fictional body of the sovereign, a metamorphosis that in turn requires the dissolution of the people in a multitude anew.  The apparent contradiction is resolved then in the distinction between a disunited multitude which precedes the civil contract and the dissolved multitude that follows the establishment of the sovereign people.  The circle is only broken when an effort is made to return to the initial state, an effort that corresponds for Hobbes to civil war. (La guerre civil, 51)  The protagonists of this war though are not the sovereign State against the people, but the sovereign State-people against the dissolved multitude: a war of the people against itself.

It is a platitude to say that with Hobbes, the multitude has no political significance, that it must disappear for the State to exist.  But if a paradox underlies this transition, if a people is formed out of a disunited multitude, only to be dissolved again in a multitude, then not only does the multitude pre-exist the people/king, but as dissolved multitude, it continues to exist after it.  What disappears is rather the people that transfers itself to the person of the sovereign.  And while the sovereign reigns, the people herein find no place.  The multitude has no political significance; it is the impolitical element through the exclusion of which a State is founded.  However, within the State proper, the people are absent, and what remains beyond sovereignty is the dissolved multitude.  The latter is literally unrepresentable, except as a population to be surveilled, disciplined and controlled.  In other words, the multitude that remains after the constitution of the sovereign is but an object of duties and care/concern (biopolitics) of those who exercise sovereignty. (La guerre civil, 52-3)

It is in the thought of Hobbes that the profound contradiction specific to what is perhaps the fundamental concept of the modern western political tradition, that of the people, reveals itself.  The concept contains an internal division between people and multitude.  Accordingly, from the perspective of constitutional law, if, one the one hand, the people must already be defined in itself by a conscious homogeneity, whatever its nature (ethnic, religious, economic …), and therefore always be present to itself, on the other hand, as a political unity, it cannot be present except in those who represent it.  Even if the people is declared as the titulary of constituente power, as titulary, it must find itself necessarily outside all juridico-constitutional norms. (La guerre civil, 54-5)

“The people are therefore the absolutely present who, as such, can never be present and therefore only represented.  If, from the Greek term referring to people, demos, we call ademie the absence of the people, then the Hobbesian state, as with all states, lives in a condition of perpetual ademie.” (La guerre civil, 56)

If the dissolved multitude, and not the people, are the only human presence in the State and if the multitude is the subject of the civil war, that means that civil war is always possible within the State, something that Hobbes readily admits.  When “in a warre (forraign, or intestine,) the enemies get a finall Victory; so as (the forces of the Common-wealth keeping the field no loner) there is no farther protection of Subjects in their loyalty; then is the Common-wealth DISSOLVED, and every man at liberty to protect himselfe by such courses as his own discretion shall suggest unto him.” (Leviathan, 1651, XXIX)

This implies that as long as civil war is being pursued or that the final decision between the multitude and the sovereign is undecided, there is no dissolution of the State.  Civil war and commonwealth co-exist, in the same way that the dissolved multitude co-exists with the sovereign.  It is only when the internal war concludes with the victory of the multitude that one returns from the commonwealth to the state of nature and the dissolved multitude to the disunited multitude. (La guerre civil, 57)

Civil war, commonwealth and state of nature do not coincide, but they are united by a complex relation.  The state of nature is what appears when the State is considered dissolved, that is, from the perspective of the civil war.  In other words, the state of nature is a mythological projection of the civil war into the past and inversely, the civil war is the projection of the state of nature into the city; it is what appears when the city is considered from the point of view of the state of nature. (La guerre civil, 57-8)

And as long as out political thought and practice remain conditioned by such a mythology, they are condemned to repeat the gesture of the civil war without end; which serves in turn to regimes of State security, regimes of exception.  To question the mythology, to free ourselves from it, involves then putting into question the “people”, in opposition to the multitude, to possibly abandon the “people”, and thus free ourselves from the burden of sovereignty.

The multitude in this instance is not to be confused with the proto-revolutionary multitude of Empire, so celebrated by Negri and Hardt.  Or to the extent that it is, then whatever revolutionary virtues it possesses are illusory.  It is the very idea of the multitude, disunited or dissolved, along with the people, that must be abandoned.  (This opposition is but an expression of the opposition between zoe and bios analysed in Agamben’s Homo Sacer).  In its place then emerges not a new people freed of the State, but a community of anonymous subjectivities bound together by a way of life.  Stated differently, human communities need not, and do not, depend upon a State (which can only bind individuals together through a sovereign identity).  They exist, have existed and can exist beyond sovereignty, in ethical forms, in ways of life that move beyond regimes of duty, law and State power.  The tragedy of so many of the recent social movements of occupation is to have sought to perpetuate themselves in political parties (e.g. greece, spain), thus constituting themselves as a hoped for people.  When what is called for is the perpetuation of the “anarchy” of autonomous, horizontal, open collectives of non-sovereign communities.

Against the “People united will never be defeated”, let us cry out, “Down with the people (the State, representation, sovereignty), that freedom and equality reign.”

In a cautionary note that introduces the two seminars that make up the content of the volume La guerre civil, Agamben writes that it will be up to his readers to judge whether of not the theses proposed therein – which identify in civil war the threshold of fundamental politicisation in the West and in “ademie”, or the absence of the people, the constitutive element of the modern state preserve their relevance or if the entrance into a global civil war changes their meaning in an essential way.  If I may suggest a possible answer, the idea of global civil war, perhaps initially suggested by Hannah Arendt (On Revolution), dissolves the sovereign into an equally global network of interconnected systems of control, wherein the people are dissolved not in the representation of the sovereign, but in the indistinct multitude upon which total bio-political power is exercised.  From this, State authority is revealed for what it is, a gendarme; and against it stands not a people, but an anonymous many who have but to withdraw from the State for it to begin to crumble.        

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