On Miguel Abensour’s Reflections on Savage Democracy and the Principle of An-Archy, Part 2. By Alberto Moreiras.

Schürmann’s take helps make the ontological dimension of savage democracy appear. There is a certain over-insistence on Abensour’s part that he wants to have nothing to do with the left-Heideggerian approach, but of the reasons he gives one seems important enough: whereas Lefort would turn the originary division of the social into a primordial threshold of intelligibility, Heidegger would describe democracy, a regime of political sense, as derived from a non-political regime of sense, namely, technics. [If I may elaborate, for Heidegger, while the essence of technology is not technological, the essence of contemporary democracy is technological.]

 But what if we could use the principle of anarchy [which I prefer to call an-archy, to make clear that we are not discussing anarchism in any doctrinal sense] in order to show that it ruins any possibility of derivation/coordination of a political system from/with anything non-political?

 Let’s start: first thing to take into account, the classical metaphysical apparatus is opposed here by the claim that a new thought of the principle, or the thought of a new principle, can reinvent politics.

 The classical metaphysical apparatus is and has always been inspired on arkhai, on principles. Metaphysics is archic thought. Within its parameters, the unity of being and acting was given by the principle, by whatever principle was dominant at any given epoch of metaphysics (from summum bonum to the principle of sufficient reason to subject-as-substance to production, say). But the epoch of an-archy means, that unity is exploded. Not because acting gets forgotten in favor of the question of being, which is the banal understanding of certain hapless anti-Heideggerian militants, rather because there is no longer the possibility of referral of action to an ordering, foundational principle.

 So, why “principle of anarchy,” then?   Is an-archy a new principle? Yes and no: we cannot yet dispense with the notion of principle, and we can no longer have it. We live in a transitional time—which may last for a while. The principle of an-archy points, on one side of it, beyond the closure of metaphysics, but, on the other side of it, it remains within—it is not good to make exaggerated claims to a radical and impossible break, since we cannot dispense with language. If our acting can only be described as an-archic, we introduce the claim that there is a new principle, or a new understanding of the principle, and it says: the principle is denied. We announce the principle, an-archy, in order to deny it as principle. An-archy demands the non-principle, commands not to have it.   This is the transitional situation.

 And then: is it not the case that savage democracy also has to do with an-archy as a liberation from the enterprise of foundations? Is savage democracy not also an acting without foundations? Non-derived?

 Just to be precise: the end of the archic also means the end of the telic. Just as there is no longer a principle to follow, there is no end acting as final cause. Finality only belongs in the realm of fabrication, production, but production is, precisely, against Marx, not-all.

 For Heidegger a site is the space where a Versammlung, a gathering, obtains.   Politics is therefore, and has been, the site where the cohesive force of an epochal principle obtains. And it is this site that constitutes the State of a given principle. [It is precisely to that extent that Heidegger speaks of contemporary, that is, in the sixties, when he said it, democracy as thoroughly attuned to and derived from the essence of technology, but this is my note, not something Abensour acknowledges.]   So what happens to that thought when the an-archic turn obtains?   Perhaps the an-archic turn obliges us to substitute a topological approach—no Versammlung but dissemination within and with-out an an-archic politics of savage democracy.   Two notions of the political, then: before and after the metaphysical closure of the archic.   But the second one is a politics beyond the State, outside the State, against the State of the principle.

 So, the question: how does savage democracy, the manifestation of an experience of freedom, offer an economy that responds, that corresponds, to the internal organization of the principle of an-archy?

 Abensour certainly agrees on a series of “consonances,” and moves on to the possible “dissonances.”   Humanism, for instance, since Lefort is so insistent on the “rights of man” as crucial for savage democracy. But, Abensour says, for savage democracy, by definition, “man” is a threshold of indetermination. There is no anthropocentrism, and savage democracy deploys itself outside any “philosophy of the subject or [any] metaphysics of subjectivity.” Also for savage democracy, it is the test of Being that marks human indetermination.

 This indetermination, this undetermined “human element,” is also absolutely resistant to human engineering, which is the mark of totalitarianism. [This connects with the conversation with Jorge, transcribed a few days ago.]   Adorno could say that democracy ‘”is closer to man” than an actually existing communism that refused to accept the fundamental “strangeness” of the human, that wanted to tame the human for its own purposes, having decided in advance how it ought to be. [But, by the same token, it is also radically opposed to the sort of neoliberal human engineering that we see imposed on us every day in so-called Western democracies, whether in the name of security or in the name of collegiality or in the name of any version of political correctness.]

 At this point Abensour wants to bring in an ad hoc hypothesis that he says he will not really go into given its difficulty. It has to do with Levinas. And it asks whether this fundamental, post-humanist indetermination of the “human element” has to do with an interruption of being, with an interruption of perseverance and the conatus essendi.   This opens up the whole thematics of the Levinasian “otherwise than being” in the appeal to ethics as “first philosophy.” Abensour says that democracy, given its links to justice, to responsibility, and to non-indifference, cannot remain alien to the otherness of the human.

 This of course takes up the fundamental disagreement that Levinas enacted regarding Heidegger. Abensour wants to challenge Schürmann in the direction of a clearer commitment to democratic thought before fully sponsoring the notion of the principle of an-archy for savage democracy.  He does this partially through recourse to the notion of the law as the fundamental field of conflict, once we come to consider the law, not as the means to secure subjection, but as the means to secure an ever-expanding freedom. The law can be an-archic in that particular sense, and that, for Abensour, conjures away the “dangerous ambiguity” connected to the Heideggerian enterprise, and anchors it in concrete political work.

Part of that dissolution of the ambiguity is to cancel away the “transitional dimension” of the principle of an-archy by exploring, as Levinas does, the absolute break between principle and an-archy. [This of course refers to Chapter 4 of Otherwise than Being, that I will try to summarize and comment on within the next few days.]   Abensour says, following Levinas, that an-archy cannot be posited as principle. The dissolution of the ambiguity of the transitional principle of an-archy also ruins the ambiguity of the oscillation between order and disorder.   The latter would amount to a still-too-political understanding of an-archy.   Levinas solves that problem by positing an an-archy “that touches a deeper stratum, pre-political or rather beyond politics and beyond ontology.”

Abensour concludes with a summary reference to the negativity that obtains as a consequence. Yes, savage democracy overcomes and passes beyond the State. In the name of freedom. It disables the State, that can no longer consider itself a Whole. It ruins totalization.   [Does it then have a merely critical position? Infrapolitics has been pointed at, but the problems its invocation awakens have not been solved.]


2 thoughts on “On Miguel Abensour’s Reflections on Savage Democracy and the Principle of An-Archy, Part 2. By Alberto Moreiras.

  1. Thanks for this summary, Alberto, and for everybody’s comments which have been great to read. For me this has been very helpful for trying to understand what the specificity of infrapolitics is (as opposed to all of those concepts that it would adopt in some way but that it itself is not – an-anarchy and savage democracy perhaps being two of them). It seems to me that infrapolitics, like the an-archic principle and savage democracy, is something which becomes perceptible in the twilight or yet unfinished closure of metaphysics (or at least of a certain history of metaphysics). And I mean this both historically and conceptually. Historically, insofar as the supposed a-principialed moment in which we live that Schurmann announces allows for or opens up to such post-metaphysical thought. But conceptually, insofar as thinking infrapolitics itself could be said to represent something like the closure of metaphysics, the working away at or deconstructing of the totalizing pretensions of metaphysical discourse. Following Alberto’s summary of Abensour above, it seems to me that Infrapolitics would seek to point to a certain blind spot in the “archic” tradition of western politics, and by doing so make that blind spot somehow intelligible, somehow able to make an intervention on a political register, to challenge such things as the politics of hegemony and identity politics, perhaps to offer an alternative mode not only of “thinking” but “doing” the political. If this is the case, that is, if I understand how the word is being used correctly, then is infrapolitics, more than a political intervention, an epistemological one insofar as it is about making something like the “non-subject of the political” graspable in conceptual terms (without ever, of course, being captured)? Finally, there is a question here you put forward, Alberto, that I think is important: is the infrapolitical “merely critical” (and what would “merely critical” even mean? Does the critical apparatus itself not have a function beyond “mere criticism”)? These are the questions and doubts that I have regarding the term as I follow the discussions.

  2. Peter, thanks for this. I am as tentative in my own conception of infrapolitics as anybody else, which is the reason it calls for thought, at least to me. But I think the comment on Levinas I just posted might help further, even if it also at the same time muddles the issue. There is one thing, however, derived from Abensour/Schurmann, that I would like to insist on: within an-archic thought there can be no question of establishing a differentiation between politics and epistemology. The question, as well as the division of the world into ontological regions, is always already caught up in archic principle! There is no longer, in other words, a principle of action, that is, an epistemology prior to politics. Which does not mean that politics is therefore prior to epistemology. Rather, this calls for a different conception of division itself.

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