Althusser’s Machiavelli, 1. (Alberto Moreiras)

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.

6 thoughts on “Althusser’s Machiavelli, 1. (Alberto Moreiras)

  1. I find very interesting that you mention “ the possibility that a certain “thinking under the conjuncture” could move towards infrapolitics as such”
    This makes me think to what you said in Dallas replying to Emilio’s question about infrapolitics and temporality: you said that infrapolitics is temporality. More, you said, it is liberated temporality
    (a temporality of course understood in a teleological, directional, developmentalist sense; often a temporality understood under spatial terms – see Bergson -, uniform, divided by the ‘ages of the ego’ as the last Nietzsche would say etc.)
    I think that the idea of conjuncture shapes the idea of temporality in Althusser. Also the the idea of conjuncture is, in turn, striclty related to the “matérialisme de la rencontre” and to a certain extent to bachelard’s notions of epistemological breaks.
    So If infrapolitics can be understood as a sort of disturbance, dis-identifying move something mentioned with respect to Bram’s Illiteracy), I think that we can definitely consider the encounter, the alea, breaks, disturbance etc. as part that contribute to the working of the notion of infrapolitics (and the idea of temporality it carries)

    • Sorry I wrote badly the sentence between brackets: I meant liberated temporality with respect to a temporality understood in teleological etc.

  2. I question that we did not have the time to take up in the seminar is also this: are emotions like “fear” and “deception” that emanate from the Prince similar to what affect is for populism? What is interesting is that Althusser seems to frame these logics of “political passions” (as scholars of early modern political thought would argue) as integral elements of the state apparatus (see, p.82). Are fear, the character of fox-like character of the new political Prince, outside of hegemony, or are they mechanisms that keep hegemony at work, at its most efficient capacity? Isn’t fear and deception what melodrama and affect is for Peronism, if one follows Kraniauskas’ essay on Evaperonism, as well the Laclau of the Populist Reason? This complicates the determinate absence, as already determined by the need to constitute a long lasting government of the national-popular through a politics that only takes up the “viewpoint of the People” to achieve its ends, instead of seeing it as interrupting that process. What is unique perhaps (in Machiavelli, as well as in Althusser) in that they seem to give us a double perspective from constituent (People) and constituted powers (Prince). Infrapolitical turn in Althusser would have to interrupt both of these registers at work, and perhaps show their incommensurability, which in Althusser’s M is hinted but I am not convinced that it is fully fleshed out.

    • He says that love is not a good foundation for the lasting constitution–and hate would be of course counterproductive. Althusser settles for fear, as does Machiavelli. But then Althusser goes on and establishes this notion of “politics of friendship,” presumably one of the sources for the Derridean book. But I think the notion of a politics of friendship remains quite inconsistent in Althusser. In any case, from the moment the Prince, defined as a political being as the one who must be capable of radical evil, both in terms of illegal violence and in terms of fundamental deceit (not arbitrary, but always connected to the political end), hence, on that basis, the subject of fear–and I call that deceit fundamental because it sets the ground for the Prince to deceive all the time, even with the truth. The Prince is always a liar, because once a liar always a liar. But lying is never a condition of friendship: only of fear. So this is the problem, which we can process as saying that Althusser’s politics are inconsistent, or that Althusser understands that the only consistency of politics is its inconsistency. Friendship, in politics, can only be false friendship. Does this explain the “o friends, there are no friends”? I don’t know. How about the Lacanian theme of lying with the truth? In terms of affect, there is obviously a thinking of affect, but it never rises, given the inconsistency, to the status of an ontology of affect.

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