Giorgio Agamben: Political power and anarchy

René Magritte, Golconda

In a series of four short essays – in some sense, a summary of much more extensive earlier work -, Giorgio Agamben unveils the anarchy that lies at the centre of sovereign, political power, split between the constitution/state and the government/administration; an anarchy unveiled in the permanent state of exception of our times.

It is not then the task of “anarchism”, or of anarchy, to affirm one side of this duality against the other – for example, the “administration of things” against the state -, but to free anarchy from its capture by the political machine.

The two faces of power

All research on politics is flawed by a preliminary terminological ambiguity, which condemns those who undertake it to misunderstanding. Be it the passage from the third book of the Politics in which Aristotle, at the time of “investigating the politeiai, to determine their number and qualities”, peremptorily states: “since politeia and politeuma mean the same thing and politeuma is the supreme power of the cities (to kyrion ton poleon), it is necessary that the supreme power be either one or a few or the many” (1279 a 25-26). The current translations say: “since constitution and government mean the same thing and government is the sovereign power of the cities…”. Regardless of whether this translation is more or less correct, from it emerges what could be described as the amphibology of perhaps the most fundamental concept of our political tradition, which is presented now as a “constitution”, now as a “government”. In a kind of vertiginous contraction, the two concepts are identified and at the same time differentiated, and it is precisely this equivocation that defines, according to Aristotle, the kyrion, sovereignty.

That this amphibology is not episodic is what is precisely confirmed by a reading of the Athenaion politeia, which we translate as Constitution of the Athenians. Describing Pericles’ “demagogy” (27.1), Aristotle writes that in it demotikoteran eti synebe genesthai ten politeian, which the translators translate as “the constitution became more democratic”; immediately afterwards we read that the many apasan ten politeian mallon agein eis hautous, “centralised the entire government in their hands” (obviously, translating “the entire constitution”, as terminological coherence would have desired, did not seem possible). The ambiguity is confirmed in the vocabularies, where politeia is translated as both “state constitution” and “government, administration.”

Whether designated by the hendiadys “constitution/government” or “state/administration,” the fundamental concept of Western politics is a dual concept, a kind of double-faced Janus, now showing the austere and solemn face of the institution and now the cloudier and more informal face of administrative praxis, without it being possible to identify or separate them.

In his 1932 essay on Legality and Legitimacy, Carl Schmitt distinguishes four types of State. Leaving aside the two intermediate figures of the jurisdictional state, in which the judge who decides a particular legal dispute has the last word, and the governmental state, which Schmitt identifies with dictatorship, we are interested here in the two extreme types, the legislative state and the administrative state. In the first, the legislative or legal state, “the highest and most decisive expression of the common will” consists of regulations that have the character of law. “The justification for such a state system rests on the general legality of any exercise of power by the state.” Those who exercise power here act on the basis of a law or “in the name of law,” and the legislative and executive power, the law and its application, are correspondingly separated. Modern parliamentary democracies, with less and less reason, have been identified with this type of state

The type that ranks perhaps not surprisingly last on the list, as if all other state forms tend to ultimately converge towards it, is the administrative state. Here “command and decision do not appear in an authoritative and personal way, but neither can they be reduced to simple applications of superior regulations”. They rather take the form of specific provisions, taken from time to time in function of a state of affairs with reference to practical or necessary ends. This can also be expressed by saying that in the administrative state, “men neither govern nor do rules count as something superior, but, according to the famous expression, ‘things govern themselves'”.

As is fully evident today, but as Schmitt was already able to deduce at the time from the rise of totalitarian states in Europe, the legislative state tends progressively to become an administrative state. “Our state system is in a phase of transformation and ‘the trend towards the total state’ characteristic of the present moment […] today typically appears as a trend towards the administrative state.” While political scientists seem to have forgotten it today, Schmitt asserts without reservations as “a generally recognised fact” that an “economic state” cannot function in the form of a legislative-parliamentary state and must necessarily be transformed into an administrative state, in which the law gives way to decrees and ordinances.

For those of us who have witnessed the full culmination of this process, it is the meaning of this transformation – if it is a transformation at all – that deserves to be questioned. The idea of transformation implies, in fact, that the two models are formally and temporally different. Schmitt knows perfectly well that “in historical reality there are continuous mixtures and combinations” and that legislation, administration and government belong to every state. It is possible, however – and this is our hypothesis – that the mixture is even more intimate and that the legislative state and the administrative state, legislation and administration, constitution and government are essential and inseparable parts of a single system, which is the modern state, as we know it. Therefore, if it is tactically possible to oppose one of the two elements to the other, it would be completely misleading to believe that we can permanently isolate what is an integral part of the same bipolar system.

Something like a different politics will only be possible from the awareness that state and administration, constitution and government, are two faces of the same reality, which must be radically questioned. There is no power that can legitimise its exercise with laws, without presupposing an extra-legal order that grounds it, nor can there be a pure administrative praxis that intends to remain legal on the basis of decrees issued in view of a necessity. It is a matter, as Schmitt himself suggests, of two different ways of making obedience obligatory. As we clearly see today, the truth of both is, in fact, the state of exception. Whether acting in the name of the law or in the name of the administration, what is ultimately at stake is always the sovereign exercise of a monopoly on violence. And this is the kyros, the hidden sovereign that, in the words of Aristotle, holds together in a system the two visible faces of state power.

March 8, 2023, Quolibet

Giorgio Agamben

The two faces of power 2: politics and economics

The lapidary phrase that Napoleon uttered when meeting Goethe in Erfurt in October 1808 is well known: Le destin c’est la politique: “fate is politics.” This affirmation, perfectly intelligible at the time, although apparently revolutionary, has lost all its meaning for us today. We no longer know what the term “politics” means, much less do we dream of seeing our destiny in it. “Destiny is the economy” is rather the refrain that men called “politicians” have been repeating to us for decades. And yet, not only do they not renounce calling themselves such, the political parties to which they belong continue to call themselves “political”, while the party coalitions that form governments declare themselves “political”, along with the decisions that they ceaselessly take.

So what do we mean today when we utter, albeit without much conviction, the word “political”? Is there in it something similar to a unitary meaning or, rather, is the sense that the term conveys constitutively split? The terminological uncertainty in the translation of the term politeia, which we have already analysed, is not only recent. The Latin translation of Leonardo Aretino’s Politics, published in Rome in 1492, together with Thomas’s commentary, translates the term with gubernatio and respublica (more rarely, with civitatis status). If the passage we have quoted (1279 a, 25-26) in its Latin translation reads: Cum vero gubernatio civitatis et regime idem significant…, in the preceding passage politeia is instead translated with respublica (est autem respublica ordinatio civitatis). In Thomas’ commentary, working evidently from a different translation, politeia is sometimes translated as police and sometimes as respublica. The proximity of the term police to our “police” is not surprising: police is in fact, until the early nineteenth century, the Italian term for politeia. “Police”, one can still read in the translation of Plutarch by Marcello Adriani, published in Florence in 1819, “means the order with which a city is governed and its common needs are administered; and thus it is said that there are three police forces, the monarchic, the oligarchic and the democratic”.

With the German theorists of cameralism and police science, which took shape and spread across Europe during the 18th century, the science of the state became a science of government (Regierungwissenschaft), whose essential aim is the Polizei, defined – in comparison with Politik, which is only concerned with the fight against external enemies – as the administration of the good order of the community and the care for the well-being and life of subjects, in all their aspects. And it is no coincidence that Napoleon, who resolutely affirmed politics as destiny, was also the sovereign who gave the administration and the police the modern form we know. The administrative state theorized by Sunstein and Vermeule, which is taking hold in advanced industrial societies, is faithful in its own way to this model, in which the state seems to resolve itself into administration and government and “politics” transforms itself entirely into “police.” It is significant that, precisely in a state conceived in this sense as a “police state”, the term ends up designating the least edifying aspect of government, that is, the bodies obliged to ensure in the last instance by force the fulfilment of the governmental vocation of the state. And yet, the formal apparatus of the legislative state does not disappear, just as the laws that governments continue to enact despite everything do not disappear, nor are the positions and dignities that, according to the constitution, embody and guard the legitimacy of the system, abolished. Despite its transformations, the essential bipolar nature of the political machine is kept alive at least formally.

March 13, 2023, Quodlibet

Giorgio Agamben

The two faces of power 3: the kingdom and the government

“Le roi régne, mais il ne gouverne pas”, “the king reigns, but he does not govern”. That this formula, which is at the centre of the debate between Peterson and Schmitt on political theology and which in its Latin formulation (rex regnat, sed non gubernat) dates back to the seventeenth-century polemics against the Polish King Sigismund III, contains something like the paradigm of the dual structure of Western politics, is what we tried to show in a book published almost fifteen years ago. Once again, at its base is a genuinely theological problem, that of the divine government of the world, itself the ultimate expression of an ontological problem. In Chapter X of Book Lambda of the Metaphysics, Aristotle asked himself if the universe possesses the good as something separate (kechorismenon) or as an internal order (taxin). Thus, it was about resolving the drastic opposition between transcendence and immanence, articulating them through the idea of an order of mundane entities. The cosmological problem also had a political significance, if Aristotle can immediately compare the relation between the transcendent good and the world to that which unites the strategist of an army with the ordering of the soldiers that compose it, and a house with the mutual connection of the creatures that live in it. “Beings,” he adds, “do not want to have a bad political constitution (politeuesthai kakos) and, therefore, there must be a single sovereign (heis koiranon), that manifests itself in them in the form of the order that connects them.” This means that ultimately the unmoved mover of Book Lambda and the nature of the cosmos form a single system of two faces/sides and that power – whether divine or human – must hold the two poles together and be both transcendent norm and immanent order, both kingdom and government.

It will be the task of medieval scholasticism and, in particular, of Thomas, to translate this ontological paradigm into the theological problem of the divine government of the world. For this the idea of order is essential. It expresses, on the one hand, the relationship between God and creatures (ordo ad Deum) and, on the other, the relationship of creatures among themselves (ordo ad invicem). Both orders are closely related, and yet their relationship is not as perfectly symmetrical as it might seem. That the problem once again has a political aspect is evident in the comparison that Thomas establishes with the law and its execution. “Just as in a family”, he writes, “order is imposed by means of the law and the precepts of the head of the family, which for each of the ordered beings of the house is the beginning of the execution of the order of the house, in the same way, the nature of natural entities is for each creature the beginning of the execution of what corresponds to it in the order of the universe”. However, how can the law, as the command of one, be translated into the execution of the many with respect to those ordained? If the order – as the example, certainly not accidental, of the strategist and the head of the family seems to show – depends on the command of a leader, how can his execution be inscribed in the nature of entities so different from each other?

Here the aporia that will increasingly mark both the order of the cosmos and that of the city begins to become visible. Entities are in a certain relation to each other, but this is only the expression of their relation to the one divine principle, and, conversely, entities are ordered to the extent that they are in a certain relation to God, but this relation consists only in their mutual relation. The immanent order is nothing but the relationship with the transcendent principle, but this has no other content than the immanent order. The two orders refer to each other and are mutually based. The perfect edifice of medieval cosmology rests on this circle and has no consistency outside of it. Hence the complex and subtle dialectic between first and second causes, absolute power and ordered power, through which scholasticism will try, without ever fully succeeding, to put an end to this aporia.

If we now return to the problem of political order with which we began, and which refers explicitly to this theological paradigm, it will not be surprising to find in it the same circularity and the same aporias. State and administration, kingdom and government, rule and decision are mutually connected and are founded on and exist through each other; and yet – indeed, precisely because of this – their symmetry cannot be perfect or unequivocally guaranteed. The king and his ministers, “politics” and “police,” the law and its execution can come into conflict, and nothing guarantees that this conflict can be repaired once and for all. The bipolar machine of Western politics is always in the process of being corrupted and shattered, perpetually at the mercy of changes and revolutions that question its functioning and its bipolarity to the same extent that they seem to reaffirm it each time.

The primacy of the government over the kingdom and of the administration over the constitution that we live in today is not really unprecedented in the history of the West. It reached its first and radical formulation in the elaboration of the doctrine of rex inutilis by the canonists of the 13th century. It was on the basis of these elaborations that, in 1245, Pope Innocent IV, at the request of the Portuguese clergy and nobility, issued the decree Grandi non immerito, by which he deposed King Sancho II from the government of the kingdom, which he had shown himself unable to administer, assigning to his brother Alfonso de Boulogne the cura et administratio generalis and leaving Sancho, however, with his real dignitas. The dual structure of the government machine contains the possibility that the bipolarity in which it is articulated will be called into question if it stops being functional to the system. It is significant, however, that since neither side of power is self-grounded, that even in this extreme case royal dignity is not eliminated. The duality of legitimacy and legality is but one aspect of this bipolarity: the kingdom legitimises the government, and yet legitimacy has no other meaning than the legality of the government’s actions and measures.

March 15, 2023, Quodlibet

Giorgio Agamben

The Two Faces of Power 4: Anarchy and Politics

It was a German constitutionalist at the end of the 19th century, Max von Seydel, who posed the question that today, sounds inescapable: “what is left of the kingdom if you take away the government?” Indeed, the time has come to ask whether the fracture of the Western political machine has reached a threshold beyond which it can no longer function. Already in the 20th century, Fascism and Nazism had answered this question in their own way by establishing what has been aptly defined as a “dual state”, in which the legitimate state, founded on law and the constitution, is flanked by a discretionary state that is only partially formalized and the unity of the political machine is therefore only apparent. The administrative state into which the European parliamentary democracies have slipped more or less consciously is, in this sense, from a technical point of view, no more than a descendant of the Nazi-fascist model, in which discretionary bodies outside constitutional powers are situated next to those of the parliamentary state, progressively emptied of its functions. And it is certainly singular that a separation of kingdom and government has manifested itself today even at the top of the Roman Church, where a pontiff, finding himself unable to rule, has spontaneously deposed the cura et administratio generalis, while preserving his dignitas.

The most extreme demonstration of the fracture of the political machine, however, is the appearance of the state of exception as a normal paradigm of government, which has been in operation for decades and reached its final form in the years of the so-called pandemic. What, from the perspective that interests us here, defines the state of exception, is the rupture between constitution and government, legitimacy and legality — and, at the same time, the creation of a zone in which they become indiscernible. In fact, sovereignty manifests itself here in the form of the suspension of the law and the consequent establishment of a zone of anomie, in which the government nevertheless claims to act legally. At the same time that it suspends the legal order, the state of exception intends, in fact, to continue to be in relation to it, to be, so to speak, legally outside the law. From a technical point of view, the state of exception makes true, in fact, a “state of law”, in which, on the one hand, the law is theoretically in force, but has no force, and, on the other, the measures and provisions that do not have the force of law acquire their force. It could be said that, at the limit, what is at stake in the state of exception is a lawless fluctuating force-of-law, an illegal legitimacy matched by an illegitimate legality, in which the distinction between rule and decision loses its meaning.

It is essential to understand the necessary relationship that unites the state of exception and the political machine. If the sovereign is the one who decides on the exception, the state of exception has always constituted the secret centre of the bipolar machine. Between kingdom and government, between legitimacy and legality and between constitution and administration there can be no substantial articulation. To the extent that it marks the point of their coincidence, the hinge that connects them cannot belong to one pole or the other and cannot be legitimate or legal in itself. As such, it can only be the object of a sovereign decision, which articulates them precisely through their suspension.

However, for this very reason, the state of exception is necessarily temporary. A sovereign decision made once and for all ceases to be so, in the same way that a permanent articulation between the two poles of the machine would end up compromising its functionality. A normal state of exception becomes undecidable and, therefore, abolishes the sovereign, who can only define itself through decision. It is certainly not by chance that both Nazism and the contemporary administrative state have resolutely adopted the state of exception as a normal and not a temporary paradigm of their government. No matter how this situation is defined, the political machine has in any case renounced its functioning and the two poles —the kingdom and the government— are reflected in each other without any articulation.

It is on the threshold between kingdom and government that the problem of anarchy can be correctly located. If the political machine works through the articulation of the two kingdom/government poles, what the sovereign exception clearly shows is that the space between them is actually empty, it is a zone of anomie without which the machine could not function. In the same way that the norm does not contain its application, but rather requires the decision of a judge, the kingdom does not contain in itself the reality of government and the sovereign decision is what, by making them indiscernible, opens the space of government praxis. The state of exception is, therefore, not only anomic, but also anarchic, in the double sense that the sovereign decision lacks foundation and the praxis that it inaugurates moves in the indistinction between legality and illegality, norm and decision. And since the state of exception constitutes the hinge between the two poles of the political machine, this means that it works by capturing anarchy at its centre.

A power capable of liberating the anarchy that has been captured in the machine can then be defined as truly anarchic. Such a power can only exist as arrest and destitution of the machine. It is, therefore, an integrally destituting and never constituting power. In Benjamin’s words, its space is the “effective” state of exception, as opposed to the virtual one on which the machine is founded, which seeks to maintain the legal order in its own suspension. Kingdom and government exhibit in it their definitive disconnection and it can no longer be a question of re-establishing their legitimate articulation, as well-intentioned critics claim, nor of playing, according to a misunderstood conception of anarchy, the administration against the state. We have known for a long time, lucidly and without any nostalgia, that we move every day on this impassable and risky threshold, where the articulation between kingdom and government, state and administration, norm and decision is irrevocably broken, although the deadly spectre of the machine continues to spin in the void around us.

March 19, 2023, Quodlibet

Giorgio Agamben

A spanish language translation of the same essays can be found at Artillería inmanente.

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