On Miguel Abensour’s Reflections on Savage Democracy and the Principle of An-Archy, Part 1. By Alberto Moreiras.

 Abensour departs from a programatic effort—to bring into relation Claude Lefort’s notion of “savage democracy” and Reiner Schürmann’s “principle of anarchy,” the latter understood as a “left-Heideggerian” approach to politics.   He has doubts about the latter that are trivial for our purposes, but thinks savage democracy is still in need of supportive reflection.

 Lefort, from the 1960s on, would no longer have been concerned with the distinction between an authentic and an inauthentic (bureaucratic appropriation) version of socialization, but would have contested the will to abolish social division from a will to indivision that cannot fail to be related to a totalitarian pragmatics.   Lefort moves from a communist to a democratic horizon.

 This amounts, for Lefort, to a rediscovery of politics as related, not to superstructural games, rather to the originary (and endless) division of the social.

 This division was defined by Machiavelli as the division between a desire to dominate and a desire not to be dominated—desire for power and desire for freedom.   But this means that there can be no stable manifestation of the social, as it would always be exposed to its fundamental division, which is also the risk and event of its dissolution and loss (as stable). A social structure must then be defined according to the position it takes regarding its fundamental, constitutive division, and in the face of it.

 Democracy constitutes itself through the radical acceptance of the originary division of the social, that is, by never refusing the fact that there is conflict.   Non-democracy is in the first place an attempt at suppressing the very possibillty of conflict.

 Conflict is therefore the very source of a “ceaselessly renovated” invention of freedom.  

“Savage democracy” makes reference to precisely such ceaseless and untimely dimension of conflict—a conflict for freedom against domination, on the democratic side, a conflict for domination against freedom on the non-democratic side.

 Hence there is no “established order,” no established ground for political deployment, no social pact. There is only a fundamental indetermination of the social.   But, if so, the social is something that refuses definition, that exceeds every definition, that challenges the very will to define.  Democracy is “savage” because it cannot be reduced, in any given case, to an institutional formula, a political regime, or an ensemble of procedures and rules.   “Savage” hence defines the “essence” of democray, to the extent that democracy is not but ongoing contestation and vindication: non-tamable, un-domesticatable, and also un-domestic. Democracy won’t come back into the house.

Right, that is, the law, must therefore not be considered an element of social stabilization, of social conservation, but must be seen as precisely an instance exterior to power, in excess of what is established, always available to new vindications.   Savage democracy is always in excess of the State of Law, or the Rule of Law, through law itself.

 So the social is always a battlefield between the symbolic and the ideological: right is the symbolic field, whereas the ideological is the ongoing attempt at appropriating the symbolic for a group, at giving it a determined content. But the symbolic exceeds every determination.

 There is, therefore, no conceivable subject of history from a savage democracy perspective.   Democratic struggles will not fall under the spell of the One. They simply deploy tumult, conflict on the necessarily empty site of power.

 Abensour brings to an end this initial explanation of Lefort’s idea with an ontological reference particularly important for us. He refers to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “the savage Spirit,” that is, “the spirit that makes its own law not because it has submitted everything to its will, but because, submitted to Being, it dreams itself always in contact with the event in order to contest the legitimacy of established knowledge.”  

 Savage democracy is therefore an experience of Being, of the opening of Being, of the principial unaccomplishment of every being.

[More to follow on the principle of an-archy]


7 thoughts on “On Miguel Abensour’s Reflections on Savage Democracy and the Principle of An-Archy, Part 1. By Alberto Moreiras.

  1. My questions are more in relation to things that came up in the seminar directly, but perhaps there is an indirect relation to what is said here above. Here they are:

    In this case, as it relates to the subject, would it be possible to relate infrapolitics (or perhaps “savage democracy as it is detailed above) as an attempt to write what psychoanalysts might call the objet a? I’m wondering about this. It seems that, in many regards this is an attempt to dream dreams that are not in any way constituted by constitutive ideology. Zizek talks about this in _Living in the End Times_ and elsewhere. It seems that a way to do this or attempt to do this is through following our desire and thus an engagement with the objet a. But the objet a is what cannot be articulated in language. Is infrapolitics an attempt to engage with what cannot be articulated and what those of us who live in an age that is supposed to be “post ideological” and post-ethnic and so on are told no longer exists?

    After the seminar last week I was thinking things that came up there as they related to my own interests in ethics or the ethical act as described particularly by Lacan and other psychoanalytical theorists. It seems that infrapolitics is in itself a practice of what Lacan might call the ethical act (roughly, the act that one engages upon by following his/her desire, that is not able to be articulated or understood from the perspective of the symbolic order and so on).

    No doubt I stand in need of correction since bringing these two things together is something that simply is not done.

    • John, I am sure you stand in need of corrections and even of some mortification, since we all do particularly when we ask for it (we know more than we know, which is very much a part of what we are discussing here.) But, in any case, I don’t think you stand in need of correction on these particular points. This is why I said at the seminar meeting that the next seminar should be on Lacan. There are too many connections for us to proceed as if they were not important. However, as Benjamin Mayer pointed out in the article on the post university he recently posted in CyT, the fields of engagement of psychoanalysis and what he called deconstruction–a name we can register here as appropriate without wanting to appropriate it thoroughly in the name of infrapolitics–are not exactly the same, and psychoanalysis engages with the subject of the unconscious, whereas infrapolitics perhaps could be said to engage with the non-subject of the political. I do not want to ethicize the political to the same extent Lacan would not want to politicize psychoanalysis thoroughly. And we must take into account that “the ethics of psychoanalysis” is a seminar that responds to a particular phase in Lacan’s development, and probably cannot take into account later developments that I am only starting to get into and am not prepared to discuss yet. Perhaps Yannis Stavrakakis might help us out here (unfortunately you cannot tag in a blog, so he may or may not see this.) But the point is, keeping the fundamental difference in ontological registers present, yes, I think there is a crucial connection between what goes under the name of deconstruction, what goes under the name of Lacanian analysis, and what might some day go under the name of infrapolitical reflection. It would be nice to have other people’s thoughts here.

      • Thanks, Alberto for that. I agree with what you say about Lacan, but, as you know and allude to here with the tip to Yannis, other Lacanians have pushed the question of ethics or the relation of psychoanalysis to the political in recent (and not so recent years). Lacan’s preoccupation in the later years (if that is the best word I don’t know) with the Real I think has to be seen in this light. At the risk of jumping ahead too far, I look forward to next year’s seminar! But am also excited about this one.

  2. Alberto, thanks for bringing up the work of Abensour on savage democracy and the principle of anarchy. I wonder if, perhaps, there is still a limit in Abensour’s framing in regards to setting up the concept of democracy as conflict. Would not that be also the conceptual limit at stake in the discussing of “radical democracy”, in both its agonic and antagonistic determinations, which ultimately end up caught (this is for debate of course) to a containment of the political as predicated between friend and enemy, and thus in the register of sovereignty? Does you see Abensour exceeding these limits, opening for something else (this could be clear in the an-archic principle)? Also, a terminological question : is there a substantial conceptual move between the “democratic”, and the “demotic”? It seems to me that for some time we have favored the second over the first (the first being installed, very deeply, in a hegemonic logic as subsumed in the people and the subject). Would that be a difference that must be posited in the thinking of infrapolitics?

    • Gerardo, I think Abensour’s invocation of Lefort’s notion of savage democracy does move beyond hegemony theory and would not rest satisfied with any hegemonic capture. At the same time, we must allow that Laclau’s theory is sophisticated enough to have an answer to this, and I suspect the answer would be in the order of “savage democracy must offer a positivity to be politically productive, and such positivity will always necessarily be a form of hegemonic articulation, even if fleeting and always ready to be substituted by a better or worse one.” I think the challenge here is not to dispute the terrain of the political–Abensour and Lefort’s savage democracy is very very close to Ranciére’s notion of political irruption, and Laclau said, in an essay on Ranciére, that he himself finds nothing to disagree with there, or something like that–but rather to move towards what the political cannot account for. All of this started there, looking for a limit beyond political closure that could be articulated in thought. This is the common denominator, I think, to radical subalternity, the non-subject, posthegemony, and infrapolitics. Regarding the demotic, I think we should for instance speak of demotic republicanism, but it is a terminological issue: democratic republicanism is a phrase that has been used by British theorists of liberalism, for instance. So demotic republicanism helps make a distinction. The French of course are also reluctant in general to speak of the Republic, since for them that amounts to nationalism. I like Ranciére’s take on the demotic, which I have tried to use in my essay on Ranciére and Derrida, which Ranciére himself did not like, it ought to be said. But, ultimately, the demotic is the radical element in democracy.

  3. Wondering if it would be necessary to add that democratic struggles do not fall under the spell of the One but that they also do not fall under the spell of the multiple. And that it is only in this that the empty site of power would not be filled-in. Neither the one nor the multiple, but also not the formalized empty set that Badiou confuses with being qua being. Infrapolitics would then be the opening toward the experience of something formless in politics, an anarchy of which we have no clear notion of what it would “look” like “on the ground” (i.e., not the anarchy of the “anarchists”)?

    • Jaime, in the essay under consideration, Abensour refers very positively to Arendt’s notion of multiplicity, “la condition ontologique de pluralité,” calling it “the proper element of acting.” I don´t know where that leaves us, and I get your point about the formless. However, once you thematize the formless, even at a remove, say, by touching upon it as you would touch “a reverse without an adverse,” or by hearing it as one hears a sound through its echo, the formless becomes singularized and yet not subsumable by any One. Does that not speak of some disseminated, untamable multiplicity?

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