Monday, March 29, 2010

Agamben on Democracy

The more recent issue of Theory & Event begins with an “Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy” by Giorgio Agamben. It is a nice illustration of why it is that I find his work so frustrating. It has a disarming conceptual clarity that eventually reveals itself to be at once politically useless and even counter-productive. The short note begins by asserting that there is an obvious distinction in use of the word ‘democracy,’ so that it refers “to the conceptuality of public law and to that of administrative practice: it designates power's form of legitimation as well as the modalities of its exercise.” This in turn reflects a fundamental distinction between what Agamben eventually consents to call constituent power and constituted power. This he arrives at through first Aristotle’s politeiai (constitution) and politeuma (government), and then Rousseau’s general will or legislative power and government or executive power. The problem, of course, is the articulation of the two sides together, or, rather, keeping then just the right distance apart. This is the task of the kyrion, or the sovereign. Then we have the following paragraphs:

If today we witness the overwhelming domination of the government and the economy over a popular sovereignty that has been progressively emptied of any sense, it may be that Western democracies are paying the price for a philosophical legacy they have assumed without reservations. The misunderstanding that consists in conceiving of government as a simple executive power is one of the errors most fraught with consequences in the history of Western politics. It succeeded in ensuring that the political reflection of modernity got lost behind empty abstractions like the Law, the general will and popular sovereignty, while leaving without response the problem which is from every point of view decisive: that of government and its articulation with the sovereign…

The Western political system results from the knotting together of two heterogeneous elements, which legitimate one another and which give one another mutual consistency: a politico-juridical rationality and an economico-governmental rationality, a "form of constitution" and a "form of government." Why is the politeia caught in this ambiguity? What grants the sovereign (the kyrion) the power to ensure and to guarantee their legitimate union? Is it not a question of a fiction designed to conceal the fact that the centre of the machine is empty, that between the two elements and the two rationalities there is no possible articulation? And that it is from their disarticulation that it is a question of making that ungovernable emerge, which is at once the source and the vanishing point of every politics?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

here's a link to all the articles from the Theory & Event issue on Agamben