The French edition of Machiavelli and Us incorporates an article by Matheron, whose subtitle is “Althusser et l’insituabilité de la politique,” and which I hope I can comment on over the next couple of days, that throws some doubts as to Louis Althusser’s very understanding of politics. Politics became a curious undecidable for him, particularly in his later years, and against the background of the fetishization of the plenitude of the Party as the subject of history.
It is not therefore surprising that Machiavelli and Us, which is a text Matheron himself dates between 1971-72 and 1986, should incorporate some hesitations on politics as such.
So, on the one hand, it is clear that Althusser thinks political tasks are “assigned by history” (58), and that, to that extent, Machiavelli should have dreamed of the creation of a national State, even if necessarily under a New Prince, since national States under New Princes were already in successful existence in France or Spain; it is also clearly consistent with Althusser’s ostensible goals that the national State would have been imagined by Machiavelli from the perspective of the people, not the Prince; and it is equally consistent that Machiavelli be presented as a thinker of the conjuncture, not the structure, to the point of claiming that all the theoretical work in Machiavelli´s writings is clearly subordinate to the task of thinking the concrete situation, that is, the conjuncture, but not in the form of a thinking of the conjuncture, about the conjuncture, rather in the form of a thinking under the conjuncture, within the conjuncture.
The conjuncture is not invented by men—it is given by history, no matter how aleatorily. The political task attached to the conjuncture is therefore also given by history, and it sets obligations for everyone defined by everyone’s position in the class struggle. Althusser seems to move in this first chapter towards stating that it is the instance of political practice within an aleatory conjuncture, nevertheless binding as such, that determines theoretical needs, hence, that prompts thought towards concrete politics, at least for those who are thinkers of or with the people, that is, not litterateurs or ideologists of the ruling class. Such would have been the case for Machiavelli, who, in Antonio Gramsci’s words, “made himself people” in The Prince.
What I find particularly interesting in this first chapter, however, is the possibility that a certain “thinking under the conjuncture” could move towards infrapolitics as such. This may seem surprising. Machiavelli, everybody says, wants the emergence of an Italian national state ruled by a New Prince. Hegel thought so, Gramsci thought so. What is the point, then, of making sure everybody understands such a New Prince was going to be a despotic scoundrel? As Althusser puts it, Machiavelli “avows their unavowable procedures and puts their secret practices in the public square” (72). “La vérité du Prince apparaït alors pour ce qu’elle est: une ruse prodigieuse, celle de la non-ruse, une dissimulation prodigieuse, celle de la non-dissimulation: le grand filet de la ‘verité effective’ tendu en plein ciel où les Princes vont venir se prendre tout seuls” (72).
Rousseau attributed Machiavelli a “secret intention” and Diderot, the likely author of the Encyclopédie article on Machiavelli, thinks Machiavelli actually told his readers: “if you ever accept a master, he will be such as I have painted him, voilá the ferocious beast you will be abandoning yourselves to” (73).
If one accepts the hypothesis of the esoteric Machiavelli, I suppose one has a choice: to think that Machiavelli was a democratic republican whose understanding of history was radically committed to anti-despotic politics, and that he denounced avant la lettre the bad lesson of the national State under an absolute ruler; or, indeed, that he was not only a democratic republican, but was one always already captured by a radical foresight concerning the misfortune of politics as such. For this latter Machiavelli, there was no anti-despotic politics, only the possibility of “the void of a distance taken” (41), which is what we could call his infrapolitical turn.
It is not my intention to claim that Machiavelli was “the first thinker of infrapolitics” or any such thing. I am interested, rather, in following some of the more hidden nuances in Althusser’s understanding of the political-historical—precisely those that seem to subvert his good-boy stances. To be continued.