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The permanence and possibility of the crisis

PHILOSOPHY / Agamben's sketches for a theory of civil war are thus perhaps also a contribution to a new theory of revolution. Revolution beyond politics. Where the revolution is finally thought beyond any notion of a state and standing upright like a soldier who salutes. MODERN TIMES has chosen to print the afterword to Agamben's book about the civil war.


In a recent text, the feminist Marxist describes Nancy Fraser the current historical situation as «an epochal crisis». The starting point for her text is the change that has taken place with the issue of the climate, which in a relatively short time has gone from being a focus area for climate movements to constituting an irreversible, urgent political issue that everyone must deal with. As Fraser writes, there is more or less agreement on the scientific side of the matter, but on the other hand, great disagreement about the political handling of the problem, what needs to be done. Not only is the issue of handling the climate crisis complicated in itself, it arises in a context of overlapping crises that have removed the foundation for coherent political projections.

The climate crisis thus folds into a long-term economic crisis that dates back to the slowdown of the world economy in the late 1960s, but which became seriously visible with the financial crisis in 2008, when it became clear that credit and local growth in Southeast Asia had masked a slow contraction of the so-called advanced economies. This narrowing of the economy has shown itself as falling real wages, not least in economies such as the US, UK, France and Italy, and a massive growth in local and global inequality. The "long neoliberal crash landing", as the left-communist Loren Goldner has called it, also manifested itself as a slow erosion of the national democratic systems, which were transformed into technocratic governance and neoliberal austerity.

Trump is just doing what he is supposed to do.

The emptying of the national democracies, where the major parties had ended up agreeing on the same 'neoliberal' policy, ie. after Mitterrand in the early 1980s, but decidedly from then on Gerhard Schroeder og Hooter in the 1990s, eventually opened the door to nationalist excesses in the form of xenophobia and racism. In Denmark, we know this story as the battle for the racist voices, which really took hold from the end of the 1990s, after several newspapers and morning magazines had run campaigns about "criminal refugees" and the need to "tighten" the Danish asylum and refugee policy. The empty professionalized democracies can apparently be animated today only through hatred and demonization of socially constructed others. In a first moment, political parties that present themselves as anti-establishment parties mobilize the voices critical of globalization and in the next moment, the state-bearing parties try to absorb the criticism by increasing the selection and the harsh treatment of refugees.

The climate crisis, or what Fraser calls the ecological crisis, is thus linked to an economic and social crisis and a political crisis. This is of course why Fraser speaks of an epochal crisis. We are confronted with a «general crisis whose effects are metastasizing everywhere and shaking confidence in established worldviews and ruling elites». As Fraser writes, the result of this development is not only "a crisis of hegemony", the ruling order has difficulty reproducing itself, but also what she calls a "'wilding' of the public space".

The public space is indeed characterized by violent struggles, exemplified by the protests that took place in the wake of the killing of African-American George Floyd in May and June 2020 in the United States. Not only was a police station set on fire in Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was killed, hundreds of thousands of people across the United States took to the streets in the largest multiracial, but African-American-led protest movement in recent American history, which, mind you, was not limited to a few ' black' neighborhoods, but spread to gentrified areas in LA, New York and a host of other large cities. The protests took the form of both riots, looting and statue toppling, where statues and monuments of Southern generals such as Robert E. Lee and presidents such as Andrew Jackson, but also Columbus, were toppled or painted over. Statues that in one way or another glorify racist colonialism. Citing the need to protect public monuments and property, then-President Donald Trump not only issued an executive order allowing up to ten years in prison for painting a public statue, he simultaneously deployed various national police forces, including the Border Patrol , which was deployed in i.a. Portland, where they abducted protesters masked and in license plateless cars and held them for hours without charge.

Trump's use of border policing sparked outrage among parts of the political mainstream in the US and globally. But the criticism is unfortunately misplaced. Trump is pretty much just doing what he's supposed to do. As Agamben has convincingly described in his comprehensive Homo sacer project, in which the present book is included as volume II.2, the state can use extra-legal means in order to secure itself. Every time a state establishes itself, it goes beyond the law it is trying to establish. This is the paradox of state sovereignty. A paradox that appears every time the state is challenged or in crisis. As was the case in the summer of 2020 in the USA. When the state is in crisis, it introduces a state of emergency to restore order.

The obvious example of such a state of emergency in recent times is the war on terror.

The obvious example of such a state of emergency in recent times is the war on terror. After the terrorist attack on World Trade Center og Pentagon in September 2001, President George W. Bush imposed a state of emergency that not only suspended a wide range of legal and political rights for US citizens, but also allowed for the establishment of a network of secret prisons and camps where the US military and allies detained people, without being brought before a judge or a military tribunal. The Guantanamo base in Cuba is one point in this network, which at one point also included the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where detained Iraqis were tortured, humiliated and photographed for fun by American prison guards. The point is not only that the executive branch of government continuously steps outside the formal legal boundaries, but also that anything can happen to the people placed outside the law, as was the case at Abu Ghraib.

As the executive branch did Trump thus, according to the logic of state sovereignty, nothing wrong in the summer of 2020. He kind of just did what he is supposed to do as president and sovereign.

Civil war

In the book stasis Giorgio Agamben outlines a draft theory of civil war, a statiology, based on analyzes of the political thinking of ancient Greece, the cover of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan and Carl Schmitt's rejection of play. The civil war is a matter which has hitherto been overlooked in political thought, it tends almost to constitute a scandal to political philosophy, where it assumes the form of a return to a state which lies before society. Agamben rejects this understanding of civil war. The thesis is that the civil war is «the fundamental threshold for politicization in the West».

Agamben tackles a phenomenon that has not really been analyzed, but has stood in the shadow of other concepts. War and revolution have been thoroughly analyzed and conceptualized, while civil war has remained underexamined. The three texts constitute three distinct contributions to such a hitherto lacking conceptualisation, even if they do not come together as an actual coherent larger theory of civil war. Rather, these are partial elements for a larger analysis of the relationship between naked life and political sovereignty, which unfolds in other parts of the Homo sacer project.

Agamben begins by analyzing static, the civil strife in the Greek polis. In dialogue with Nicole Loraux, he describes that the relationship between the home and the city is far more complicated in the Greek polis than is often assumed, it is an "ambiguous relationship", he writes, and stasis constitutes a transition between the two, between the non- political family and the political city. Oikos and polis are thus in reality always already folded into each other. And the civil war is a process in which non-political phenomena become political. As Agamben puts it: «This means that the civil war in the Greek political system functions as a threshold of politicization or depoliticization, whereby the home is extended to the city and the city is depoliticized to the family.» The civil war is a threshold, it stands – as Agamben writes, statis means to stand up and to stand – neither in the home nor in the city, but is a kind of double displacement, where the inner and the foreign are mixed together: «the political bond is moved into the home" and "the family is turned outwards as political belonging".

The emergence of the biopolitical paradigm in modern times.

We find here a variant of the basic relationship that Agamben analyzes in the first volume of the Homo sacer project, where he describes the inclusive exclusion of the naked life, zoe. Agamben thus revises Michel Foucault's analysis of the emergence of the biopolitical paradigm in modern times and describes how biological life was already the object of politicizing movements in ancient Greece. The exposure of this 'original' (de)politicization movement makes it necessary to revisit the regulatory notions of politics and democracy.

The next text, which like the first was originally a lecture at Princeton University in October 2001, is an analysis of the print that forms the cover of the first-
edition of Hobbes' Leviathan, which was published in 1651. Again we are dealing with a seemingly insignificant extraneous work or detail. It is of course the text that has been interpreted again and again, fewer have noted the illustration, which Abraham Bosse prepared according to Hobbes' instructions. But the image turns out to be quite significant. According to Agamben, the print shows that the political community is an optical illusion, where the sovereign exists outside and creates order in a dissolved, incoherent multitude. When the multitude becomes the people, it is represented by the king. Agamben calls this relationship 'ademi', the absence of people. The point is that academia is constitutive of the modern state. Every time the multitude tries to reject this situation and assert its voice, it disappears like the people behind the sovereign. It shows the cover, where Leviathan enthrones over an empty city where only some soldiers and a few pandemic doctors walk around. The multitude is dissolved and not to be seen in the city. It "has no political significance", as Agamben writes. On the other hand, Leviathan's body is filled with a lot of little people. It is the people who disappear in the sovereign. As Agamben writes: «The enigma that the emblem [image on the cover] poses for the reader is a city emptied of inhabitants and a state that is outside its geographical boundaries.»

Agamben concludes on this basis that the people are «the absolutely present, which for this reason can never be present and therefore can only be represented». We are thus once again confronted with a threshold or transition, where a (de)politicization takes place, where the multitude is excluded and the city is thus founded. The people are double, characterized by a fundamental fracture between bios and zoe, people and multitude. A fracture that prevents the people from ever being fully present.

In the book 'Stasis' Agamben outlines a draft for a theory of civil war.

In the third and final chapter, Agamben distances himself from the pro-Hitler jurist Carl Schmitt, who has repeatedly been involved in the Homo sacer project. In this text, which is a later addition to the book's two lectures, Agamben discusses Schmitt's definition of the political, and more precisely what Schmitt tries to push outside the political, namely play. The political and the war – Schmitt establishes a circularity between the enmity and the war which become each other's preconditions – are serious phenomena according to Schmitt. It is something completely different from entertainment and play. It is important for Schmitt to demarcate play from the war and thus from the political. Because if war is a kind of game, enmity disappears or is relativized. Agamben refers to ancient Greece, where war was a ritualized game that did not necessarily take the form of physical killing. Thus, a completely different war paradigm emerges. It is more than anyone else the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga who has described this other understanding of war, which directs a radical critique of the Schmittian concept of enmity and dissolves the divide between serious politics and play. Agamben's proposal is that we replace Schmitt's friend-enemy distinction and "political seriousness" with a Huizinga-inspired idea of ​​(civil) war as play or game. Instead of Schmitt's war, which culminates in the dehumanization of the enemy, be it soldier, criminal or migrant, we rediscover the agonal civil war, which is comic and opens the subject to other possibilities and forms of life. This playful model is constantly being rejected, the civil war is transformed into war, and the distinctions between war and peace, police and military dissolve.

Agamben does not mention Guy Debord in the text, but its legendary war game, which Debord worked on for more than 40 years, is an obvious contribution to the thinking of war as play. As is well known, the Situationists also described their activities as art-of-war, art of war, in which they emptied the figurative forms of domination of the acting society of meaning and lived 'criminally' without concern for the law.

Destitution of the state

Giorgio Agamben

Continuously in the three contributions to an analysis of civil war, we thus find marginal notes that point towards a counter-paradigm to the inclusive exclusion of the sovereign power, a thinking of a realization or annulment of the sovereign power's depoliticization of zoe, what Agamben finally in Homo sacer -project and in extension of Benjamin calls destitution. Destitution is a complex quantity. It is not a repeal or destruction, nor a rearrangement in the sense of replacement with another version of the same thing, as when you take power and establish a new government. To destitute is to disable, Agamben writes in several places. It is a rendering inoperative. Neither abolition nor realization, but a farewell to the divisive gesture that underpins Western metaphysics and politics. Agamben tries to leave this original split. It is not a political project, a goal in a political battle between the right and the left, for example, but a departure from the way in which we think about politics in general, where a non-politicized part is necessarily established, which is subsequently politicized, is really done.

Although Agamben starts out by writing that we already have a theory of revolution which shadows an understanding of civil war, I would think that with the Homo sacer project we have the starting point for a new understanding of what an actual revolutionary break means.

To describe the ongoing destitution and its potential as an affirmation of plurality in the world.

Agamben's sketches for a theory of civil war are thus perhaps also a contribution to a new theory of revolution. Revolution beyond politics. Where the revolution is finally thought beyond any notion of a state and standing upright like a soldier who salutes. The revolution as a farewell and suspension of the civil war. A real anarchy, and not the (dis)order of the state. What we may at some point again call class struggle, if we can get rid of the many connotations – the male industrial worker, 'socialization of production' – that cling to the term and perpetuate a long-obsolete opposition between right and left. Then we will have a concept of revolution that is neither a question of the realization of one or the other idea, nor something that can constitute a political program or be represented politically. This in itself will constitute a significant conceptual restructuring and a contribution to bringing the theory up to par with the already ongoing protests that continue to take place around the world. Rather than lamenting the weathering of a previous revolutionary vocabulary and describing the revolts as 'non-movements', it is about describing the ongoing destitution and its potential as an affirmation of plurality in the world.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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