Giorgio Agamben: On Anarchy Today

Photograph by Francesca Pompei, from the series The women of Rebibbia. Walls of stories, 2019

Below, we share Giorgio Agamben’s recent essay On Anarchy Today, whose english language translation by the ill will collective was generously shared with us by the same.

Giorgio Agamben conceives the “place” of anarchy as lying and maintaining the distance or non-coincidence between government and administration – a tertium, as he calls it in the essay below. If historical anarchism defended the administration of things against the state or state government (e.g., Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s “administration of things” against the “government of men”), it perhaps failed to see in the former a kind of governmentality that can only function with a state; that the state works through the apparatuses of governmentality, and that without these last, the state is impotent, an infinitely distant “first mover” that exists only at the level of ideas.

Anarchy then is the undifferentiated space of the non-coincidence of these two poles of power; an undifferentiated space where the sovereign is profaned and the pulls and pulleys of government are suspended, rendering other possibilities, other ways of life, possible as possibilities.

But what is this tertium? Is it even something that can be grasped in answer to a question about what it is? Agamben speaks about it as a form of life where the form of life and naked life coincide in a potentiality that aspires not to command or to ground itself, but to exist-live in a form that may always be otherwise, or simply not be.

How this “anarchy” might translate into an “anarchism”, or whether “anarchism” remains a possibility (it would be an “anarchism” without transgression, without revolution) , is a question we leave unanswered.

On Anarchy Today

Giorgio Agamben

Other languages: Español, Italiano

If, among those who think about politics, anarchy has never ceased to be relevant, given that it constitutes its extreme focal or vanishing point, it is so additionally today given the unjust and vicious persecution to which an anarchist is being subjected by the Italian prison system. However, to speak of anarchy, as one has had to do, on the plane of law necessarily implies a paradox, for it is contradictory (to say the least) to demand that the state recognize the right to deny the state, just as, if the right of resistance were to be carried to its ultimate conclusions, one cannot reasonably demand that the possibility of civil war be legally protected.

To think about anarchy today, it is therefore advisable that we situate ourselves within a completely different perspective, and instead question the way Engels conceived of it when he reproached anarchists for wanting to substitute administration for the state. In this accusation lies a decisive political problem, one that neither Marxists nor perhaps the anarchists themselves have posed correctly. A problem all the more urgent given that we are confronted today by an attempt to realize, in a parodic fashion, what was for Engels the avowed aim of anarchy — namely, not so much the simple substitution of administration for the state, but rather the identification of state and administration in a type of Leviathan that assumes the good-natured mask of the administrator. This is what Sunstein and Vermeule theorize in their book Law and Leviathan, Redeeming the Administrative State, wherein governance, the exercise of government, exceeding and contaminating the traditional powers (legislative, executive, judicial), now exercises — in the name of administration, and in a discretionary manner — the functions and powers that once belonged to them.

What is administration? A minister, from which the term is derived, is a servant or helper, as opposed to magister, the master, the holder of power. The word comes from the root *men, which means diminution and smallness. The minister stands to the magister as minus stands to magis, the less to the more, the small to the great, that which diminishes to that which increases. The idea of anarchy would consist, at least according to Engels, in the attempt to think of a minister without a magister, a servant without a master. Certainly an interesting attempt, since it can be tactically advantageous to play the servant against the master, the less against the more, and to think of a society in which all are ministers and none a magister or leader. In a sense, this is what Hegel had done, showing in his infamous dialectic that the servant ultimately ends up dominating the master. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the two key figures of Western politics remain in this way linked to each other in a perpetual relation, one which it is impossible to ever come to terms with once and for all.

In order for a radical idea of anarchy to release itself from the incessant dialectic of servant and slave, minister and magister, it can only situate itself resolutely in the gap that divides them. The tertium that appears in this gap will no longer be administration nor state, neither minus nor magis: it will rather stand between them as a remainder, expressing the impossibility of their coincidence. Anarchy, therefore, is first and foremost the radical disavowal not so much of the state or simply of administration but rather of power’s claim to make the state and administration coincide in the government of men. It is against this claim that the anarchist fights, in the name ultimately of the ungovernable, which is the vanishing point of all community among men.

February 26, 2023

First published in Una Voce. Translated by Ill Will

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