Amador Fernández-Savater: Reaching for a politics of pure potentiality, or trying to keep power at bay

One never takes power, it is power which takes us.

Tomás Ibáñez

We follow Peter Gelderloos’ critical evaluation of spain’s “radical” municipalism with a more theoretical reflection, by Amador Fernández-Savater, on the political cycle in the country that began with the eruption of the 15M movement of 2011.

Inspired and borrowing from the work of Giorgio Agamben, Fernández-Savater endeavours to articulate a politics of destituent potentiality, a politics that aspires not to power, but to ways of life that keep creative potentialities open.

And though we share concerns and sensibilities with Fernández-Savater, it is unclear whether his notion of politics as a “potentiality at a distance from power” is robust enough to outline or sustain a radical anti-capitalist and anti-statist politics.

We share the essay below, in translation, as an invitation to through a radical politics that does not reduce itself to creating a counter-power to capitalist hegemony, or to seizing that power for a “socialist” politics.

There is no failure if there is a balance: power and potential in the 15M-Podemos cycle

Amador Fernández-Savater (Lobo suelto 29/06/2019)

Every ruin contains its past and ours. Every ruin is beautiful if it is able to tell us what the future hides

Juan Antonio Bermúdez

After the last general and municipal elections, there are those who speak of the end of the 15M cycle. What does the end of a cycle mean? We could think of it this way: the potential of the effects provoked by an event exhausts itself, it is no longer capable of new metamorphoses and actualisations. Today we see the old political order recompose itself, neoliberal policies deepen, the electoral spaces of change vanish, amid the decline of the kind of political life inaugurated by 15M, more concerned with openness to cooperation with anyone than with the reproduction of the existing identities.

This feeling of disappointment does not seem to me a bad condition for thinking. Diego Sztulwark, independent researcher and former member of the Colectivo Situaciones, has written a beautiful text about the power we can find in states of deception.

Disappointment is like a path of trials to go through. Along it, we can “clean” away a whole series of illusions and thus emerge stronger, more realistic, more strategic. We regenerate the desire for transformation by renouncing idealisms, utopianisms and voluntarisms. In the collapse of expectations and projections it becomes possible to see something new and recreate ties with the world.

In the state of disappointment, we no longer have any position to “defend”, no formula to “sell”, we are all, as it is said, “in the same shit”. It is a moment of not knowing where new knowledge can be elaborated, if we avoid falling into the crossroads of accusations, the settling of accounts, the search for the guilty and the logic of the court.

In this way, disappointment becomes a condition of thought and opens up the possibility for elaborating a collective balance regarding what has been lived, where collective does not mean “all united”, but “with everyone”.

A balance or a scattering/disbanding

What is a balance? Philosopher Alain Badiou says the following in a written text about it: there is no failure if there is a balance. That is, in the history of revolutionary experiences there are failures and failures. The worst of the failures is the one that does not think anything, does not record anything. If there is no thought, if there is no balance, there is a disbanding: the retreat of each person into her/his life, personal flight from foul politics, in bitterness and perhaps resentment, disorientation and orphanhood, loss of relations of trust, etc. The group disbands. The dispersion is not only physical, but above all mental and sensitive: a common perception and reading about the situation ceases to be shared.

The balance is company in solitude, the failures are rendered fruitful, meaning is found in the defeats. It does not prevent us from making mistakes again, but it allows us to make different mistakes the next time. The worst thing is to fail in the same way, the foreseeable failure.

If there is no proper balance, the balance of the adversary triumphs. And this is always absolute: the desire for social transformation is madness and ends badly. The proper balance makes relative an absolute failure: failure is not inscribed in the desire for transformation, but in the concrete path we have chosen. We always fail at a specific point, says Badiou. The balance is a topology: “we must locate, find and reconstitute the point at which the decision was disastrous”. The point, simplifying, is a crossroads or a critical moment in the process where we make bad decisions. If we want to say it colloquially: “where the thing started to buckle, to twist“.

What was that point, our point?

Return to Neptune

It is not even a question of a single point, but of an entire line of points along which a decision is made, an orientation of the movement.

I would like to point out as the first point, the protest Rodea el Congreso of the 25th of September, 2012 (25S), when thousands of people physically surrounded the Parliament of the Deputies, until they were violently evicted from Neptune Square by the police of today’s ousted Cristina Cifuentes. [See our contributions to the debate surrounding 25S here and here]

What was the goal of 25S? Raquel Gutiérrez, a Mexican theoretician and militant, asked us, a group of friends, during an informal conversation, as she passed through Madrid in 2017. This apparently simple question was left unanswered by those of us who were there and since then, it has continued to bounce around in my head .

It seems to me, seen in retrospect, that 25S could be interpreted in at least three ways:

-as a call for a general uprising against the political class: it is the image of the insurrection, so dear to the revolutionary imagination of the nineteenth century. Disorder, barricades, conspiratorial minorities and masses in the street, the brilliant overthrow of the established order that opens an empty space to the new. The “creative destruction” of Bakunin.

-a “radicalization” of the movement born in the squares through a face-to-face clash with political power. The passage from “they do not represent us” to “lets go after them”. A hardening of the logic of confrontation of the 99% against the representatives of the 1%, with the aspiration to change the rules of the game of power.

25S was a first attempt to “take” political power, considered from then on as the center that organises action (the occupied squares of 15M were rather the gesture of “turning one’s back” on power). We can think of the subsequent “institutional assault” as a continuation – by other, more effective means – of this first attempt. Since then, a typical political language of the twentieth century has been imposed: to assault, take, win, etc.

-as regards the third way of thinking of 25S, surely a more fertile political image for the 21st century, we will speak again of it, at the end of this article.

Recapitulating: from 25S a decision was being decanted: to put political power as the main objective of action and, consequently, to confuse and/or subordinate potentiality to power, the politics of movement to party politics, emancipation to management.

This is the idea that I would like to put into discussion, in the collective elaboration of a balance: the problem of the confusion between potentiality and power that – I think – has ended up trapping all the energies in the current state of affairs (the State). A “lesson” that we could then draw for the future would be to radically distinguish both, to “fail differently.”

Populist strategy and party-movement

Again, simplifying a lot again, I find two ways of con-founding potentiality and power in thought and action, in recent years.

The first would be the populist strategic thinking that comes along and says: movements are important but insufficient social or cultural or affective changes. The Party is the political “plus” that channels its energy towards the institutions, so as to transform them. 15M was indignation, expression of malaise, it had an impact on the “common sense of the time”. The Party then interprets and synthesizes the demands and discontents: it “politically translates” the movement.

It is a thought that subordinates potentiality to power: movements are important processes, but only as “preparations” for or “springboards” toward something else. These are the signs that the populist strategist must be able to read and organise – through the famous chains of transmission, etc. – in the operation of hegemonic construction.

This is a fundamentally sad thought – no matter how much energy Errejón throws into his harangues – because it approaches the real from the angle of the “lack”: movements are not seen as powers in and of themselves, but rather they are always “in function of” something else (a higher instance) that gives them value and meaning.

The second is the hypothesis of a “party-movement” or of an “organic party” around which currents as different as anticapitalists or autonomous sectors have met in confluences and municipalisms. It is the “movementist” hypothesis.

The party-movement is the assembled group of social, political and cultural forces active in the process of social transformation. It is distinguished from the “party-institution” because it is not just an electoral or management machine, but works politically in society. It goes beyond the conception of an “autonomy of the political”, the idea of the political as an autonomous and separate sphere, in the conviction that only a strong organized social support can sustain public policies of substantive change.

I think it’s a bad idea (theoretically) and that it has had bad effects (in practice). It is a poor theoretical idea because it is indebted to a unifying paradigm of the political, where the multiple is encompassed in the one: a single organisation, however complex and plural it may be. The “organic” metaphor is revealing: one thinks of a single body whose head would be a series of “frames” linked to the movements (“political direction”, “internal vanguard”). It is a bad idea also because the logic of potentiality and the logic of power are heterogeneous and do not join together: the Bolshevik party and the Soviets can not coexist in the same space. In practice, I think that this idea has captured the energy of many people in the movements, in the places of institutional power, thus weakening the story-line of potentiality.

Destituent power

My proposal would be to radically separate the potentiality from power, which does not mean that one does not have effects on the other, but that they not be subordinated one to the other or con-founded.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has been developing in this sense a thinking about what he calls “destitute power”. Agamben takes note of the “tragedy” of revolutions that consists in the repeated activation of a “diabolic mechanism” by which the constituent power is trapped again and again in a new constituted power (so similar to the old …).

The constituent is from that point on limited to the sole power to revise the new constitution and the new government, to “participation” within existing structures, but it is no longer able to question them radically (at the root). And this, in the best case. In the worst case, it is reduced to mere rhetorical and instrumental reference, to a fetish that bases and legitimises the new power, a “myth of origins”. This is the way that many leaders of the New Politics speak about 15M.

Is it possible to break this diabolical mechanism? Is a politics of the governed possible that is not expressed in a new power, where the governed are always defined, as Machiavelli said, by their desire not to be oppressed? Agamben proposes destituent power, a power/potentiality that never crystallises in power. To becoming and to remain ungovernable.

To think-create this destuituent implies a radical shift in the very understanding of the political. First, it means undoing an imaginary in which political power is at the center, polarising all energies.

Never has political power had as little power as today, run through and overwhelmed by global financial forces and neoliberal micropolitics. However, it has never been so present in our conversations and in our hearts. This is what I feel most painfully as a “generational failure” of the so-called “educated” in the potential of movements: the way in which we have yielded to political temptation, delivering our irreverence and deep indifference to power, assuming its language and categories , falling in love with it.

To distinguish then radically between potentiality and power. They do not fuse together, nor are they to be confused, one for the other, or as the same. They are of a different nature, they inhabit different worlds, they follow heterogeneous logics. The conflict between them is asymmetric (they do not fight for the same thing) and their eventual cooperation is never “organic”, but confined and ephemeral.

Potentiality does not “translate” into power: they speak two incommensurable languages, . The “real democracy now [democracia real ya]” of the squares and the assemblies is something other than the “democratisation of institutions”.

Potentiality is not “managed”: it actualises itself or it dies. It does not require the building of “institutions” that channel it, but the creation of ways that make it come to be or to occur: ways of passage, so that what is potential passes.

Potentiality is heterogeneous with respect to the time of power, its electoral calendar, it has its own times of maturation and growth, with its own rhythms.

Potentiality knows no distinction between means and ends, does not admit distinctions between forms and contents: in it, the means is the end, prefigures the end, potentiality is means without ends.

Potentiality is not a counter-power: it is not there to “control” or “watch over” power, it is not defined by opposition, but by its capacity to create new values, new ways of doing, new social relations. Destituent potentiality/power is affirmative and creates new forms of life.

Potentiality is not scarce: it is not a scarce good, a rival, an antagonist (or you have it or I have it). It multiplies itself when shared. It favors relations of cooperation and not of competition.

Potentiality, finally, is not quantitative, but qualitative: 40,000 people acting within the frame of their potentiality, in a city like Madrid, are an irresistible force, but 40,000 people acting within the norms of power (that is to say, voting) produce only sadness and frustration, because they do not exceed the numerical threshold required for political representation.

Power without potentiality

It may seem paradoxical, but power without potentiality can do nothing. Potentiality transforms society from within. Power is limited (in the best of cases) to “crystallising” an effect of potentiality, inscribing it in the Law: making it law.

First come the movements of affective-sexual difference that transform perception and social sensitivity, only after homosexual marriage is legalised. First comes the black movement that transforms the relationship between blacks and whites, only after the law of racial equality is enacted. First come the struggles of the labor movement that politicise labor relations, only after the conquests are inscribed as social rights.

None of these “crystallisations” is clear; they are always ambiguous and conflictual, precisely because the language of potentiality does not translate simply into the language of power. Each crystallisation supposes a certain narrowing of the expressions of potentiality, but it also supposes a space of dispute, always susceptible to activation by new subjects.

Potentiality creates new possibilities. Power is management within the framework of existing possibilities. We see it again and again: the powers that claim to be progressive see their possible margins of action reduced when there are no potentialities of action pushing things further and redefining reality. Could this be what explains the meager results of the government action of so many municipalities of change, rather than the lack of will or political audacity of the people who compose them?

Return to Neptune (2)

Now we can return to the last of the interpretations of 25S that we left in the air.

We have said: potentiality should not be confused with power, but that does not mean that it should be ignored. It can invent ways of imposing questions without putting himself in power’s place, of forcing the State without being a State, of affecting and altering power without occupying it or desiring it. Potentiality at a distance from power: a political image for the 21st century.

25S would thus be seen as an exercise in the destitution of power: not taking of power or an assault on power, its occupation or substitution. A heterogeneous potentiality to power that was born in the squares imposes a limit without proposing anything in return: “here you do not pass”. It is what Raquel Gutiérrez calls “the potential to veto”.

The power of the destitution says Agamben is an element that, to the same extent that it remains heterogeneous to the system, has the capacity to dismiss, suspend and render its decisions inoperative. The “veto power” of Raquel Gutiérrez is the best contemporary example of what Agamben looks for in the concepts of “pure violence” or “divine violence” of Walter Benjamin: a force capable of deposing power, without founding a new one. It is urgent to contaminate the theory of destitution – still so white, so European and so masculine – with reflections from Latin American feminisms.

Coda: to tell ourselves again

The French Revolution continues to give us food for thought, even if Napoleon came later. The Paris Commune continues to inspire us, even if it ends in a massacre. The anarchist experience in the civil war is rich in teachings, even if it was strangled by Stalinists and fascists. The political cycle of 15M must be read again within the frame of destituent power, so as to liberate the (the virtual) potentialities of the movement. To see potentiality as potentiality and not as a prelude to power. To remove 15M from the continuum of History, as something possible realised and still unrealised, as something still active. It is a challenge of taking a balance and of poetic recreation of the history of recent years; something yet to be done.

As other friends say, we have to look for what escapes in each era, that which escapes every epoch, because it is what can allow us to continue escaping today.

Text prepared for a debate with Monserrat Galcerán and Carlos Sánchez Mato at the 9th edition of the Socio-environmental University of the University of Guadarrama.


“La travesía de Naruto (notas sobre deseo y decepción)”, por Diego Sztulwark

“¿A qué llamamos fracasar?”, prologue by Alain Badiou to La hipótesis comunista.

Construir pueblo, Iñigo Errejón y Chantal Mouffe (Icaria, 2015).

On the movement-party and the organic-party: 123.

Giorgio Agamben and destituent potentiality/power: 123.

No existe la revolución infeliz: el comunismo de la destitución, Marcello Tarí, Deriveapprodi.

Horizontes comunitario-populares, Raquel Gutiérrez, Traficantes de Sueños.

Source: El Diario España

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