Law Critique (2009) 20:259–270 DOI 10.
Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty, Governmentality, Economy
Arne de Boever
Published online: 11 August 2009 Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
Abstract This essay reconsiders Marx’ prehistory of capital through the lens of the work of Giorgio Agamben, who in the wake of Foucault has proposed a biopolitical theory of sovereignty that breaks down the analytical separation between sovereignty and governmentality that Foucault in his work tries to maintain. Although Agamben mentions Marx only once in his study of sovereign power, I argue that his study nevertheless contributes to our understanding of the capitalist relation as not only a governmental but also a sovereign power relation. In the ﬁrst part of this essay, I show through a philological commentary on Marx’ use of the adjective ‘vogelfrei’—translated as free, rightless, without protection, outlawed—to characterise the proletariat, that the Marxian proletariat is a ﬁgure of what Agamben in his study of sovereign power calls bare life. In the second part of the essay, I show that this sovereign dimension of the capitalist relation is also substantiated by Marx’ analysis of the logic of the capitalist relation as that of the exception. After Carl Schmitt, who wrote that ‘sovereign is who decides on the state of exception’, Agamben has argued that the logic of the exception is the logic of sovereign power. Reconsidered through the lens of Agamben’s argument, Marx’ account of the prehistory of capital reveals that there is a sovereign logic of the exception at work in the capitalist relation. In the ﬁnal part of the essay, I start from Agamben’s single reference to Marx in his study of sovereign power to discuss the importance of my conclusions for Agamben’s political message. Keywords Agamben Á Divine violence Á Economy Á Foucault Á Governmentality Á Marx Á Sovereignty Á Vogelfrei
A. de Boever (&) Department of English and Comparative Literature, Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University, 602 Philosophy Hall, Mail Code 4927, 1150 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027, USA e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
the parallel increase of its usefulness and docility. even though actual power relations can never be reduced to one mode of power that would be fully separate from another. but aims to make the people live in such a way that the organisation of their lives contributes to the consolidation of power (see Foucault 2007).260
A. guarantees the continuation of power. Although such an argument has taught us much about capitalism that would otherwise have remained in the dark. or would chronologically supersede each other. governmentality disposes things. security does not aim to control in this disciplinary or sovereign way. The idea here is not so much that these different modes of power are actually separate. Sovereignty As is well known. which is ‘centered on the body as machine: its disciplining. p. etc. births and mortality. ‘The governmentality of tolerance’. 139). changing people’s moral and religious values. Whereas discipline is centripetal and aims for ﬁnal control. it should be understood as a predominantly governmental relation (see Foucault 2004). governmentality aspires to security. Unlike disciplinary power. He used it to refer to a kind of power that is ‘focused on the species body. A government is secure when the population. etc. but that they operate at the same time. Whereas sovereignty imposes laws on people. Bio-power was a key term in Foucault’s analysis of what he called governmentality. When in the lectures. As Foucault explains. but operates through laissez-faire. security is centrifugal and operates through laissez-faire. Sovereignty is. Michel Foucault started using the term bio-power in his lectures ` at the College de France in Paris in the mid-nineteen seventies. 139) and sovereignty. pp. the extortion of its forces. Governmentality. Both in the lectures and elsewhere. one needs to take recourse to these analytical distinctions. speciﬁcally people in their relation to things such as natural resources. for example. de Boever
The Capitalist Relation. life expectancy and longevity […]’ (Foucault 1990. or the ways in which power regulates the life of the population. through marriage laws. Foucault maintains an analytical separation— stricter in some texts than in others—between the different concepts he deﬁnes. riches. quoted in Butler (2004. the level of health. an essential part of the prehistory of capital as Karl Marx tells it in the section in Capital entitled ‘So-called Primitive
See Brown. he thus implied that as a power relation. Foucault argued that capitalism is bio-political. 59–60). the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of biological processes: propagation. which is concerned with territory and imposes laws on people to protect the government against both civil war and external enemies. the optimization of its capabilities. by regulating commerce.1 In order to understand the dynamics of power. it also partly risks forgetting the ways in which sovereignty is implicated in capitalism. through the ways in which its life is organised. for example.
. in fact. between discipline and security. It does not force power onto the people. or between governmentality and sovereignty. its integration into systems of efﬁcient and economic controls’ (p.
speciﬁcally for the acts of divine violence that he is calling for in response to the problems of sovereign power that he analyses. It is this logic that produces the proletariat as a ﬁgure of bare life. 51–100). when we are witnessing a return of sovereignty within the ﬁeld of governmentality. such integrated modes of analysis are of crucial importance today. Agamben has argued that the logic of the exception is the logic of sovereign power. In the ﬁnal part of the essay. I start from Agamben’s single reference to Marx in his study of sovereign power to discuss the importance of these conclusions for Agamben’s political message.2 In this essay. I will reconsider Marx’ prehistory of capital through the lens of the work of Giorgio Agamben who.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty.3 I will argue that his study nevertheless contributes to our understanding of the capitalist relation as not only a governmental but also a sovereign power relation. which retains the indeterminacy of Schmitt’s pronoun ‘wer’ and translates ‘Ausnahmezustand’ not just as ‘exception’ but as ‘state of exception’ is more precise. in the wake of Foucault. a separation that he is then partly forced to undo when he turns to the particular historical examples he analyses. outlawed’. wer u ¨n ¨ber den Ausnahmezustand entscheidet’. Antonio Negri has emphasised the importance of Marx and Marxism for Agamben’s thought (Negri 2007). 5). as the power to suspend national and international law in the name of national security or a national emergency.
One of the most interesting things about the lectures is that they show Foucault trying to analytically separate between different concepts and kinds of power. See Butler. without protection.
. 5. Marx and Marxism remains relatively unexplored. It is perhaps for this reason that the relation between Agamben’s work. p. The capitalist relation demands an analysis of power that would integrate the different concepts and kinds of power that Foucault deﬁnes. Considering that Schmitt wrote ‘Souvera ist. My aim is not just to highlight the presence of sovereignty in Marx’ prehistory of capital. Marx’ account of the prehistory of capital reveals that there is a sovereign logic of the exception at work in the capitalist relation. ‘Indeﬁnite detention’. trans. I think the translation I offer here. by Marx’ analysis of the logic of the capitalist relation as that of the exception. This is my translation of the ﬁrst sentence of Politische Theologie. rightless. pp. After Carl Schmitt.4 In the ﬁrst part of this essay. mod. In George Schwab’s translation into English of Schmitt’s book. the sentence goes as follows: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’ (Schmitt 1985. namely the word ‘vogelfrei’ or ‘free. This sovereign dimension of the capitalist relation is also substantiated. I show that the proletariat in Marx is a ﬁgure of what Agamben in his study of sovereign power calls bare life. As Judith Butler has argued. who wrote that ‘sovereign is who decides on the state of exception’ (Schmitt 1985. In Butler (2004. has proposed a biopolitical theory of sovereign power in order to draw attention to the ways in which governmentality and sovereignty operate together. or to draw attention to the Marxist dimension of Agamben’s work.)5. p. as I show in the second part of the essay. I do so not by considering bare life through the lens of Marx’ theory of value (which is another interesting track to pursue) but through a philological commentary on the adjective that Marx uses again and again to characterise the proletariat and that partly gets lost in the English translation of his text. Reconsidered through the lens of Agamben’s argument. but also to explore a mode of power analysis that would integrate the concepts and kinds of power that Foucault deﬁnes. Although Agamben mentions Marx only once in his study of sovereign power. Economy
without the killing being considered a crime. sovereign power is the power to suspend national and international law in the name of a national emergency or national security. His work is ﬁlled with ﬁgures of bare life. which he also uses as the title of his book on sovereign power (Agamben 1998). has become the rule. All human life that is related to the legal and political order of the sovereign nation-state is related to it through the logic of exception. this ‘human as such’ is internally excluded within it. s/he will be held indeﬁnitely in a camp at the borders of the sovereign territory. Thus. Excavating this relationship can contribute much to our understanding of the capitalist relation as a power relation. and deconstructing the separation between governmentality and sovereignty that Foucault sets up. we all live in a virtual state of internal exclusion within the sovereign nation-states to which we belong or to which we relate. Bare life is the ultimate biopolitical substance: it is life that is produced—excreted. he deﬁnes sovereign power as the power to decide on the state of exception. Following Schmitt. One of the examples Agamben discusses that make this clear is human rights. one could say—by sovereign power. Contrary to what one may expect. He uses this term to refer to a life stripped of all its qualities except for the mere fact of being alive. as far as we are all instances of ‘the human as such’. s/he is in fact internally excluded within the legal and political community that sovereign power founds. Agamben proposes a bio-political theory of sovereign power. Agamben will polemically assert that all human life (both that of a citizen and of a refugee) relates to sovereign power as bare life. I found that my colleague Nate Holdren from the University of Minnesota was developing a similar argument on his weblog (Holdren 2006). and if s/he refuses to be repatriated also.
. Instead. In modern sovereign nation-states. If a human being does not want to assimilate to the identity the sovereign community believes to share. When I returned to the argument in 2007.262
A. Although Agamben does not discuss this. The camp is the bio-political matrix of the modern sovereign nation-state. As an outlaw ﬁgure. The very fact that they exist illustrates that there is no place within the legal and political community of the sovereign nation-state for something like ‘the human as such’. What interests Agamben about this ﬁgure is that s/he could be killed with impunity. The most important one. the possibility that is contained within the law to suspend the law in exceptional circumstances. Agamben calls the life that is produced in the camps at the borders of the sovereign territory ‘bare life’. Although this ultimately erases the concrete differences between a citizen and a refugee. I want to argue that the proletariat in Marx is a ﬁgure of what Agamben calls bare life. Whereas a citizen of a sovereign nation-state may think s/he is living under the protection of sovereign power. de Boever
The Proletariat is a Figure of Bare Life6 Taking his cue from Foucault’s work on bio-politics. he takes from Roman law: homo sacer or the holy person. the holy person was a person who was in between human law and divine law and could be killed but not sacriﬁced.
I began to develop the argument I offer in this section of my essay in Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Spring 2004 graduate seminar on Marx at Columbia University. the holy person belonged to the legal and political order of the Roman Empire by being excluded from it.
Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty. All the guarantees of the old feudal relations suddenly fell away and what remained was an extremely vulnerable kind of life that existed in between the dying feudalist and the emerging capitalist orders.
. as elsewhere.’’ literally ‘‘free as a bird. to forget about the role that sovereignty plays within these developments. how Marx describes the group of people—the ‘class that does not form a class’—that capitalism’s bio-politics produces. this process produced a kind of freedom around which two kinds of commodity owners arose: on the one hand. 874). what was produced during this prehistory of capital was a kind of life: whereas human life used to be a part of the means of production. Economy
The relation between the holy person and the proletariat becomes visible in the ﬁrst volume of Marx’ Capital in a section entitled ‘So-called Primitive Accumulation. in seven of those nineteen instances the word is accompanied by the adjective ‘vogelfrei’. a word that in combination with the other translations that Fowkes offers begins to reveal the connection between the proletariat and the holy person. Marx describes the historical process through which the producers (the workers) were divorced from the means of production.
Much could be said here about Foucault’s relation to Marx and Marxism. nineteen occur in the section on so-called primitive accumulation. by creating the desire for freedom that then leads to the people’s expropriation. ‘unattached’.e. it is now split from the means of production. or ‘unprotected’. Ben Fowkes variously translates ‘vogelfrei’ as ‘free’. But to limit one’s analysis of capitalism as a power relation to governmentality and biopolitics. As he points out. Although Fowkes’ translations of ‘vogelfrei’ are of course correct. i. and means of subsistence’. p.’ In this section. 896). but doing so would lead me too far away from the immediate concerns of this essay. means of production. and. Marx uses the word ‘‘vogelfrei. ‘rightless’. free but outside of the human community and therefore entirely unprotected and without legal rights’ (p. As Marx tells the story. Of the forty instances of the word ‘proletariat’ or ‘proletarian’ in the ﬁrst volume of Capital. This reorganisation pertains to the biological life of the people. would mean to overlook an important dimension of the prehistory that Marx narrates.7 The prehistory of capital tells the story of how people’s lives are being reorganised in such a way that they contribute to the consolidation of the new capitalist order. the life of the population. the proletariat. Governmentality. and therefore the sellers of labor’ (Marx 1990. Consider for example.’’ i. the ‘free workers. Fowkes does not comment on it until the beginning of the chapter on bloody legislation. ‘the owners of money. a split through which it enters into a freedom that Marx understands to be the absence of a protection that was guaranteed by the structures of feudalism. on the other. sellers of their own labor-power.e. Although the word is highly idiomatic and poses some difﬁculties for the translator. This reorganisation is not forced on the people but actually operates through laissez-faire. it also needs to be noted that the dictionary translation of the word is ‘outlawed’. which is produced as bio-political substance by the emerging capitalist order. and speciﬁcally of bio-politics. It is not difﬁcult to see how what Marx is describing can be read as an example of what Foucault called governmentality. where he adds the note: ‘Here.
It thus seems that for Marx. They show that the life of the proletariat is conceived by Marx as a kind of life that can be killed with impunity. this second semantic component becomes dominant. end of the 15th century) and also ‘rechtlos. the logic of the exception is that of theology. its primary meaning is actually that of ‘outlawed’ or ‘free. pp. unprotected’. da dem Ko ¨rper eines Gea ¨chteten das Grab versagt wurde’ (‘free for the birds to be eaten. ohne gesetzlichen Schutz. It literally means ‘den Vo ¨geln (zum Frasse) freigegeben. even though he is of course also interested in the word’s meaning ‘free from servitude’. This last semantic component actually works well with another ﬁgure of bare life that I mentioned earlier on. de Boever
This connection can be made more substantive by adding a few historical etymological remarks about the word ‘vogelfrei’. According to most dictionaries. i. frei wie ein Vogel in der Luft’ (‘free from [feudalist] servitude. The relation between the proletariat and the holy person becomes most explicit in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s explanation of the word: ‘exlex … verbannet … expositus ad necem’ (‘outside the law … banned … exposed to death’).264
A. 1951. free as a bird in the sky’. 408–409). These philological notes reveal that the proletariat is related to the holy person. ‘dem ko ¨rper eines gea ¨chteten wird das grab versagt mit der sich mehr und mehr vordra ¨ngenden vorstellung dasz der gea ¨chtete der to ¨tung ausgesetzt ist und nicht behaust werden darf’ (‘the body of an outlawed person cannot be buried. but also because capitalism acts in the ways that sovereignty does. through the logic of exception. ¨ outlawed’. p. rightless. The sovereign relates to the law from a transcendental position of exception. since the body of an outlawed person could not be buried’) (1916). this is not only because the proletariat is a ﬁgure of bare life.e. without the killing being considered a crime. without legal protection. i. gea ¨chtet’ (‘rightless. the sovereign needs to take up a position outside the law. the proletariat is a ﬁgure of a legal and political abandonment in which Agamben is also interested. From the 16th century onwards. As I show in the next section of this essay. s/he needs to except him/ herself from the law in order to take up a place from where the legal order can be founded and suspended. According to Schmitt. The literal meaning of the word ‘vogelfrei’ underlines the bio-political dimension of this abandonment. one can thus begin to see that there is something sovereign about the capitalist relation as a power relation. with the more and more foregrounded idea that the outlawed person can be killed and cannot be put up in one’s house’) (Wo ¨rterbuch et al. On the basis of Agamben’s study of bare life. 16th century) (Etymologisches Worterbuch des Deutschen 1989. it means both ‘frei von Herrschaftsdiensten. 1916).e. which means that by the time that Marx is writing (1867). which considers this kind of life to be inextricably related to sovereignty. the refugee. This is the situation that is evoked by the adjective ‘vogelfrei’.
Capitalism Operates Through the Logic of the Exception ‘Sovereign is who decides on the state of exception’. That the law contains the sovereign possibility of its own suspension also
. Agamben starts from there in order to formulate the paradox of sovereign power: in order to declare that there is nothing outside the law. Schmitt wrote at the beginning of Political Theology.
it gestures to a kind of power that would be greater than economic power. The problem is. governmentality and sovereignty. which is responsible for political and economic abuses of power. Marx’ use of the word ‘vogelfrei’ reveals his interest in the relation of the proletariat to the law. Marx’ account thus does not simply raise the need for law. the law became a capitalist law. What he describes in the prehistory of capital is. But he also discusses the relation of the capitalist to the law. but it does not come with sovereignty’s important ethical and political implications. human beings
. Reconsidered through the lens of Agamben’s bio-political theory of sovereign power. but a bio-political position of subjection. the law itself became ‘the instrument by which the people’s land is stolen’ (p. but also that sovereignty plays a crucial role in this development. in other words. ´ a phenomenon like the Guantanamo Bay prison. and would be able to limit and condition the claims of capitalism. it is ultimately the law itself that becomes the instrument of exploitation (see Agamben 2000). As Marx’ discussion anticipates. Its position in relation to the law is not a transcendental one. They were side-stepping the legal and political order that was guaranteed by the sovereign in a successful attempt to continue the relation of servitude that existed under feudalism. how capitalism came into being through a series of exceptional measures that are situated at the limit of the legal order. and through which politics has been eclipsed by bio-politics. I would argue that the prehistory of capital as Marx tells it actually opens up new possibilities for sovereignty in the resistance against capitalism.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty. i. Marx’ prehistory of capital shows not only that the capitalist relation as a power relation is bio-political. but ‘without any legal formality’ (Marx 1990. In order to understand the capitalist relation as a power relation.e. In the end. for example. the capitalists actually acted like little sovereigns in order to put through their reorganisation of the lives of the people. Economy
means that human life relates to sovereign power through the exception. it also reveals there is a difference between the two because the capitalists are actually side-stepping a legal order that is guaranteed by the sovereign. he writes. 884). Governmentality. that both sovereignty and capitalism suffer from the logic of exception. namely the proletariat. This side-stepping move may be a move that is familiar to sovereignty. since in the pre-history of capital. 883). but for its other uses. In this prison. As Marx sees it. Politics emerges here as that which could keep economics in check. the mere granting of rights— which is arguably associated with capitalism—does not necessarily overcome this problem. Their actions produce a ﬁgure of bare life. basically. however. Although this means there is a complicity between sovereignty and capitalism through the ways in which they both operate according to the logic of exception. we need to integrate the different kinds of power that Foucault ` outlines in his lectures at the College de France. according to the logic of exception. p. The prehistory of capital was carried out by legal means. Agamben’s aim is to dismantle the device of the state of exception through which life has been brought within the law. however. and that the transition of feudalism to capitalism is an example of what Foucault called governmentality. 885). This insight is particularly important today when we try to understand. It shows the capitalists to be acting like little sovereigns. It happened ‘without the slightest observance of legal etiquette’ (p.
2005b). a much more integrated analysis of power than the one that could all too easily be derived from the analytical framework Foucault sets up in his lectures. that within the legal and political order of the modern sovereign nation-state. we need to understand the exceptional. which opens up possibilities for other uses of both politics and economy. the ways in which its methods of ‘counting’ internally exclude human life and produce it as bio-political substance. These interests are similar. This shows that there is a relation between the economic exploitation that Marx was interested in and the relation between sovereign power and totalitarianism that Agamben addresses. there is no place for something like ‘the human as such’ is nothing but a critique of the political economy of the sovereign nation-state. de Boever
suspected of terrorist activities are being held indeﬁnitely. Agamben is interested in the relation of sovereign power to bare life. sovereignty. this does not mean such an integrated analysis should erase the differences between discipline. sovereign measures taken in the name of national security that make indeﬁnite detention possible and that produce human life as bare life—a life stripped of all its qualities. are revealed. Sovereignty is not capitalism. People and people will coincide and there will no longer be. Whereas Marx is interested in the question of economic exploitation. in other words. he mentions him only once in his study of sovereign power and bare life. In this last sense.
Sovereignty and Capitalism After Divine Violence At ﬁrst sight. Although Agamben has written about Marx in his aesthetic works and in his philological commentary on Saint Paul’s ‘Letter to the Romans’ (Agamben 1993. It is within the ﬁeld of political economy that the connections between Marx and Agamben. in the sense that they both concern questions of political economy. Marx is interested in the political economy of capitalism. Agamben in the political economy of sovereign power. strictly speaking. See footnote 4. and without the possibility of a civil trial. which I discuss in the next section of this essay. in order to understand its existence. on the basis of very little or no evidence. capitalism does not have sovereignty’s important ethical and political implications. security. I would argue. lived in suspense. Guantanamo Bay necessitates. In the ﬁnal chapter of this book. Agamben suggests we understand the Marxian ‘class conﬂict’ as ‘nothing other than the civil war that divides every people and that will come to an end only when. 1994. in the classless society or the messianic kingdom. there is a more dramatic relation between both. in a meditation about the notion of ‘the people’. Homo Sacer.
.8 As I have tried to emphasise above. bio-politics etc. This prison is not just an example of disciplinary power. at the borders of the legal ´ and political order of the sovereign nation-state. Agamben’s argument. Guantanamo is an ´ example of governmentality. though. Marx and Agamben seem to be thinkers who are interested in fundamentally different issues. and the complicities between capitalism and sovereign power.266
A. any people’ (Agamben
Butler provides such an analysis. It is from this insight. that we can begin to get a better sense of Agamben’s political message. for example.
Paul’s thought achieves something that puts us on the way to the ‘classless society or the messianic kingdom’ that Agamben is talking about when he refers to Marx in Homo Sacer. namely of the relation of Marx’ work— speciﬁcally. On this. as a name for the group of people—or more precisely. within the paradigm of modern power. which is that of the sovereign nation-state’s bio-politics (see Grelet and Potte-Bonneville 2000).
. but they need to be thought anew. he does reveal in interviews that the questions Marx raises are important for him. he nevertheless appears in the book’s closing chapter. in one of those frequent passages where Agamben is trying to gesture beyond mere diagnosis toward a vision of the legal and political community that would remain after sovereign power’s bio-politics has been dismantled. the ﬁnal section of this essay should make clear that I disagree with the conclusions he draws from this with respect to the political message that is contained in Agamben’s work. the practices through which power within the legal and political order of the sovereign nation-state separates citizens from second-class citizens). the bio-political theory of capitalism that Foucault uncovered in it—to Agamben’s theory of sovereign power. arguing that one can be a Jew in spirit but not according to the ﬂesh (i. Although I ﬁnd Thurschwell’s contrastive discussion of Agamben and Derrida’s philosophies and the role that messianism plays within them very helpful. See Thurschwell. is ‘to come’ in the here and now—proposed by Jacques Derrida.e. of the practices of internal exclusion through which sovereign power bio-politically separates the People from the people (for example. who both diagnoses the class situation of the proletariat and ﬁnds in the proletariat the potential for a revolutionary overthrow of class society. Governmentality. As he will explain in his later The Time that Remains. Class conﬂict would thus become an instance of the civil war that Agamben considers to divide every people. and I have offered here no more than a few philological notes and reﬂections that go in the direction of such a
One can see clearly here the difference between the task that Agamben sets before humanity and the vision of community as ‘to come’—even if by that ‘to come’ he means something that has always already happened. It is in this way that the proletariat becomes interesting for Agamben. If there is a relation between Marx’ work and Agamben’s vision of a coming community. 178). and for our time. then what is the place of Marx in the critique of sovereign power from which this vision emerges? Although Agamben so far has not explicitly addressed this question. They have not become obsolete. Economy
1998.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty.9 Because of the ways in which Saint Paul in his ‘Letter to the Romans’ divides the division between Jews and Greeks through the division between ﬂesh and spirit. Like Marx. Although Marx is largely absent from the bleak diagnosis of sovereign power’s bio-politics that Homo Sacer offers. p. in other words. Agamben considers the proletariat to be both a ﬁgure of bare life and the site from where the coming community emerges. as a name for the group that would come into being through the dissolution of the people—that is created by Paul’s division of the division. Agamben acknowledges this is a difﬁcult task. it is only through the division of this bio-political separation—by dividing the division itself—that we will enter into a classless society and that something like the community of ‘the human as such’ will arrive. This presence of Marx in Agamben’s vision of a coming community begs the question that I have tried to address above. there can be such a thing as an uncircumcised Jew).
more speciﬁcally a kind of human agency that would break with the mythical dialectic of law-making and lawpreserving violence that is characteristic of sovereign power (this should be clear from what I wrote above about the sovereign logic of the exception). How will the classless society or messianic kingdom that is announced in the closing chapter of Homo Sacer be achieved? Agamben argues this will come about through acts of what he calls ‘divine violence’. But what are the acts of divine violence for which Agamben is calling? Perhaps surprisingly. 163) that he (following Benjamin) considers to characterise sovereign power. p.e. criticism and translation (see Agamben 2007a). p. in order to begin to get a better sense of the political message that his work contains. and those who think otherwise. he is with Benjamin. they are all in some sense ‘poetic’. and liberate politics from its ‘lasting eclipse’ (Agamben 2005a. his concept of sovereignty. however. For his analysis of sovereign power. and that divides his critics into those who think he advocates the destruction of sovereignty and law. however. These ‘poetic’ acts of divine violence are intensely political according to Agamben because they achieve an ‘Aufhebung of the mythology’ (Agamben 2007a. deﬁned as the power to decide on the state of exception. Agamben is calling for non-violent acts of divine violence that would dismantle the state of exception. When he is proposing solutions to the problems that he analyses. He is arguing for a ‘poetic’ activity that would reclaim its place within the political. was born. Leaving aside what Benjamin means by this exactly. He takes this ﬁgure from an essay by Walter Benjamin entitled ‘Critique of Violence’ (Benjamin 1996. de Boever
rethinking. This has to do with severing the nexus between life and law through which human life has become bio-politicised. critics have cited passages in Homo Sacer or Agamben’s notes on politics entitled Means without End. What would such a politics look like. is not so much the politics of these poetic acts. Agamben seems to argue for the former. What Agamben is concerned with. 88). philology and criticism are directly implicated in the realisation of the coming community for which Agamben is calling. Interestingly. but whether there can be a politics that would remain true to its cohesion with the poetic. nonviolent violence that would dismantle the device of the state of exception through which life has been brought within the law. mark the end of sovereign violence. poetry. In certain places. pp. and what would be its effect on sovereignty and the law? This is one of the questions about Agamben’s work that is most difﬁcult to answer. i.
. the conservative juror Carl Schmitt—who could not tolerate Benjamin’s call for a human agency outside the law—brought divine violence within the law through the device of the state of exception. 236–252). Thus. In ‘Critique of Violence’. The examples of acts of divine violence that he gives in the closing text of Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience are: philology. Benjamin calls for a kind of human agency that is outside the law.268
A. Agamben is with Schmitt. however. in such a way that a politics true to its cohesion with the poetic would become possible.10 I nevertheless want to summarise brieﬂy Agamben’s understanding of it. Divine violence is a paradoxical. and maybe frustratingly so. that explicitly
I have written about this elsewhere (De Boever 2008). In response to Benjamin’s essay. Throughout his work.
I followed a course with Agamben at the College Internationale de Philosophie in Paris (Agamben 2008) in which the philosopher was largely drawing from the research he had done for this book. be used in a different way. but in another use of them. it may be that the alternative uses of sovereign power and law that will emerge from poetic acts of divine violence will inspire alternative uses of political economy also. but in a non-violent way introduces a minimal difference into it through which the device of the state of exception is dismantled. sovereignty-less community. one begins to get a sense of what such a transformation would look like. Il Regno e la Gloria. and the complicities between capitalism and sovereign power (or between the question of economic exploitation and that of the complicity between modern sovereign nation-states and totalitarianism) in order to open up possibilities of thought and practice within the economic. 64.11 But there are as many other places. Governmentality. also helpful in this respect is his discussion of the problem of Jerusalem. b.
. is what this entails for capitalism.
` A few months after I completed this article. Agamben acknowledged nevertheless that many relations between what he calls theological economy— the economy of the trinity—and its relation to the power Foucault calls governmental. Although Agamben’s investigation of economy’s relation to sovereignty and governmentality took an altogether different track than the one I have pursued here. and political order that would be liberated from the logic of the exception. where Agamben explicitly writes that he is not interested in the destruction of sovereign power and law. as Agamben explains (Agamben 2005a. As such. When Agamben proposes that the notion of ‘right’ be replaced by that of ‘refuge’ so as to dismantle the logic of exception that characterises the political economy of the sovereign nation-state. to take up a position that is against all political economies.
Thurschwell focuses on these passages in order to explain Agamben’s political message. especially in the more recent work. he engages with the question of economy in a way that is relevant to this project (Agamben 2007b). at this point. The poetic acts of divine violence that Agamben is interested in lead to a messianic fulﬁllment of the law. It makes no sense. or a time in which the law would not be destroyed but deactivated and rendered inoperative—that is. Is a similar ‘other use’ of capitalism possible? Maybe one should broaden the question here and ask about uses of the economic order that would be other than capitalist. Economy
advocate a non-statist. divine violence does not violently destroy the law. the question is.12 The present essay has been an attempt to explore the relation between Marx’ work and that of Agamben. although I have been informed that in his last book. p. The question that remains. a question of government: what kind of political economy do we want? How can the political economies that we have and in which we live be improved on? (But what does ‘improve’ mean? Improve for whom?) As I suggested above.Agamben and Marx: Sovereignty. This suggests that a reading of Agamben’s work as advocating a blind destruction of sovereign power and law is too easy and does not take seriously enough the difﬁcult task it sets before humanity. rather. and modern economy remain to be explored. Agamben himself has not yet addressed this question explicitly. obviously. and sovereign power and law are not abandoned but wholly transformed. pp. which he develops into a new model for international relations that would liberate the transnational constellation of Europe from the sovereign nation-state’s logic of exception (Agamben 2000). I would argue. 97–98). legal.
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