The Government of the Economy or the Economy of Government: Notes on/for Giorgio Agamben


The current problem is altogether different: it’s a matter of using up, without war, the unprecedented accumulation, which has turned the whole world into a colossal powder keg.

                                                                                       Georges Bataille, Sovereignty

Krauss misses his stroke, a lump of mud flies up and splatters over my knees.  It is not the first time that it has happened, I warn him to be careful, but without much hope: he is Hungarian, he understands German badly and does not know a word of French.  He is tall and thin, wears glasses and has a curious, small, twisted face; when he laughs he looks like a child, and he often laughs. He works too much and too vigorously: he has not yet learnt our underground art of economizing on everything, on breath, movements, even thoughts.  He does not yet know that it is better to be beaten, because one does not normally die of blows, but one does of exhaustion, and badly, and when one grows aware of it, it is already too late.  He still thinks … oh no, poor Kraus, his is not reasoning, it is only the stupid honesty of the small employee, he brought it along with him, and he seems to think that his present situation is like outside, where it is honest and logical to work, as well as being of advantage, because according to what everyone says, the more one works the more one earns and eats. 

                                                                                        Primo Levi, If This is a Man

The concept of democracy, Agamben tells us, is ambiguous, as those who speak of itunderstand by the term both a constitutional form of the body politic, as well as a technique of government.  In the first instance, we have to do with a conceptualization of public law, whereas in the second, with an administrative practice; two expressions of power with very distinctive types of legitimation.  Which is it then, when democracy is celebrated? Is democracy a juridical concept, or an economic-management concept?

It is Agamben’s conviction that we today live under the dominion of government and the economy.  What remains of popular sovereignty has been emptied of all meaning and accordingly any critical engagement with existing forms of “democracy” must consider the nature of government.  To do otherwise is to render all critique irrelevant.  (Giorgio Agamben, “Note liminaire sur le concept de démocratie”, in Démocratie, dans quell état?, 9-13).

The history, or more correctly, the genealogy and archaeology of government, arepursued in a number of different reflections, by Agamben.  Its’ origin lies in the oikonomia of ancient Greece, the household sphere where “men lived together because they were driven by their wants and needs”.  (Hanna Arendt, The Human Condition, 30).  Ruled by the exigencies of life, of necessity, the economy was seen as a space of silence, of rule without question, of management for the benefit of the reproduction of the family.  In opposition was the polis, “the sphere of freedom”, and what relationship there was between them was that of the economy as condition for the freedom of the polis. (Hanna Arendt, The Human Condition, 30-1).

What Agamben speaks to us of in this regard is the decisive role that oikonomia played in Christian theology.   Confronted by the enigma of the Trinity, of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the conceptual concern was how to secure the unity of God before this plurality.  Economy would offer the solution.  God in its being and substance is one, but in matters of economy, in the management of its house, of the world and the life that it had created, it is plural.  Christ, the Son, bears the task of administering the creation without thereby fracturing God’s singularity.  “The term oikonomia is made precisely to refer to the incarnation in the Son, as well as the economy of redemption and salvation”.  The oikonomia becomes the means by which the Trinitarian dogma and the idea of a divine providential government of the world were introduced into the Christian faith, with enormous consequences for political history.  (Giorgio Agamben, Qu’est-ce qu’un dispositive?, 24).

The unity of God so secured only came however to hide anther divide, that between God’s being and God’s action, between divine ontology and praxis.  (Giorgio Agamben, Qu’est-ce qu’un dispositive?, 25).  Action, accordingly, which is to say the economy, as well as government, loses any foundation in being, and becomes as a result, by nature, irrational.

The Latin fathers of the church would translate oikonomia as dispositio, in English, “device”, “instrument”, “apparatus”, “technique”, “plan”.  And as lacking a basis in being, the techniques of government, of the economy, always imply a process of subjectification/subjectivization.  As God created and governs nature through his Son, so government creates and administers its subjects.  (Giorgio Agamben, Qu’est-ce qu’un dispositive?, 26-7).

Government, the economy, techniques of power, is all that “has, in one way or another, the capacity to capture, intercept, model, control, secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions and discourses of living beings”.  (Giorgio Agamben, Qu’est-ce qu’un dispositive?, 31).  Government is thereby that which moulds raw life (zoe) into identifiable human life (bios), into a particular political life.  The politics of government, of economy, is accordingly a metaphysical power/process of producing identities, the identities of subjects of administration.   (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Le pouvoir souverain et la vie nue, 9).  Expressed differently, the subjects of government are the consequence of a relation between techniques of power and the living.  (Giorgio Agamben, Qu’est-ce qu’un dispositive?, 26-7).  And no subject is produced without simultaneously engendering its’ necessary opposite, the Homo Sacer of Roman law, the exception of Carl Schmitt, the other against which sovereignty and the law is defined.  “There exists no norm that is applicable to chaos.  For a legal order to make sense, a normal situation must exist, and he is sovereign who definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists”.  (Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, 13).

We tend to distinguish economies from politics, a distinction that results from the fetishisation of both domains as separate.  (“Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle”, Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, sec. 25).  And yet our politics as government, as a complex of techniques of subjectification/subjectivization, is today, more obviously than ever, the politics of economy.  Capitalism is the triumph of the Commodity over all other human relations.  We have become nothing more than subjects of markets, GDP statistics, and debt: bearers of fleeting bits of information of production and consumption, only to be beaten into place should aspirations exceed these limits.

Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?” is simple, dangerously so.  It points to aneed for tactics and strategies to create a counter-power, or revolutionary power, to contest, challenge and possibly overthrow government.  And yet, what is to follow?  Is it to be a new power, a novel administrative sovereignty of bodies, a new economy?  To triumph in a contest for power, for government, is to reproduce all that one sought to overcome.  Capitalism cannot be surpassed through a counter-power, or even by an anti-power, as John Holloway so eloquently defends (John Holloway, Change the World without taking Power), for power will constrain that which opposes it.  It is only possible to move beyond power by non-power.

In a reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Agamben emphasizes the importance of placing Paul in his messianic context, that is, to begin with an understanding of what Paul referred to as the “time of the now”.  (Giorgio Agamben, Le Temps qui reste: Un commentaire de l’Épître aux Romains, 10).  The messianic does not inaugurate a time of indifference towards what is, replacing in this way one way of life for another.  Rather, being without specific content, the messianic annuls that which is.  “But this I say brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away”. (1 Corinthians 7:28-31)  The essence of messianic life lies in this “as they had none”.  It calls for nothing and points in no particular direction (to which all politics of sovereignty, of power, are enamored).  It challenges no particular factual situation as such (historical, sociological, etc.), precisely because it suspends all situations.  It is thereby able to open itself to everyone for it amounts to a revocation of all vocation (function, duty, employment, and the like), a refusal of all power.  (Giorgio Agamben, Le Temps qui reste: Un commentaire de l’Épître aux Romains, 44-6).  “The messianic is not another figure, another world: it is the passage of the figure of this world”.  (Giorgio Agamben, Le Temps qui reste: Un commentaire de l’Épître aux Romains, 48).

The messianic vocation is without law, it constitutes no identity; it is a generic power that one uses without ever appropriating it.  “Messianic being, living in the Messiah, means the dispossession, under the form “as though they had none”, of all juridical-factual property; but this dispossession does not found a new identity, and the “new creature” is nothing more than the use and the messianic vocation of the ancient”.  (Giorgio Agamben, Le Temps qui reste: Un commentaire de l’Épître aux Romains, 51).

 “As though they had none” may be read as the power of “as if”, the power of a subject conditioned by circumstances.  Accordingly, the messianic would appear as a subject liberated from the present, into some future time/space; one would live “as if”.  Such a vision of the messianic remains however prisoner to an active, willing subject who has sufficient power to act “as if” (a utopianism of freed subjectivity).  The messianic “as though they had none” annuls above all the subject, its’ identity, its’ perspective, its’ fictions. (“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”, Galatians 2:20).

“He who holds to the messianic vocation is no longer familiar with the “as if” … He knows that, in messianic time, the saved world coincides exactly with the world lost. … The messianic subject does not contemplate the world as if it was saved … he does not contemplate salvation except to the degree that he loses himself in what cannot be saved”.  (Giorgio Agamben, Le Temps qui reste: Un commentaire de l’Épître aux Romains, 76).

Messianism is an ethics of non-appropriation, a politics without sovereignty, a gesture, a form of life which expresses itself not in a purpose, nor by following some rational means, but as a means without a purpose.  Or, put differently, between a praxis rooted in nature and action divorced from all being (government/economy), it is necessary to imagine and think an action/politics sufficient unto itself, possessing a non-normative form or law (Paul’s “law of faith”, Romans 3:27).

“The messianic is not the destruction, but rather the deactivation of the law and its’ ‘non-executability’”.  (Giorgio Agamben, Le Temps qui reste: Un commentaire de l’Épître aux Romains, 167).

Agamben will find in the work and life of St. Francis of Assisi an example of the attempt to think and live in a messianic present.  What Francis and his disciples sought was not to apply a form to life, but to live according to a form, to live a form, held to be good and just.  (Giorgio Agamben, De la très haute pauvreté: Règles et forme de vie, 135).  “Franciscanism may be defined as … the effort to realize a life and a human practice outside the determination of the law”.  (Giorgio Agamben, De la très haute pauvreté: Règles et forme de vie, 149).

What becomes of autonomy within the messianic?  It ceases to be an expression of sovereign or subjective power, or of a self-determination against heteronomy.  It is instead “the sovereign capacity to accomplish freely good works independently of the law”.  (Giorgio Agamben, Le Temps qui reste: Un commentaire de l’Épître aux Romains, 204).  Between faith and obligation, religion and law, Paul would call this autonomy grace, in all of its wondrous and beautiful excess.


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