1. The Critique of Marxist Theory: Social Antagonism and the Autonomy of Politics
There are two fundamental criticisms that have been repeatedly addressed to Marxist theory in the last century. This theory has been accused of lacking an adequate account of the state and of politics, due to its reliance on a flawed metaphor of society as an edifice whose economic “basis” is determinant with respect to its political “superstructure.” Additionally, Marxist theory has been accused of lacking an adequate account of historical becoming, due to its reliance on a flawed assumption that history develops according to deterministic laws and processes. It is fair to say that these criticisms have remained substantially unanswered by those who claimed to represent Marxist theory. One of the few exceptions is constituted by Althusser. Around 1977 Althusser’s thought takes an unexpected turn, which is documented by the recent posthumous publication of his late writings. In these texts, Althusser assumes these criticisms, accepts their validity and their devastating consequences for Marxism-Leninism, and still manages to fashion, from out of the ruins, an innovative response that, in my opinion, ought to be of interest to anyone who cares about what is left of the Left today.
In 1977-78 Althusser writes “Marx dans ses limites” (posthumously published in 1994) , a remarkable text in which he recognizes the above-mentioned weaknesses of Marxist-Leninist theory as “absolute limits” of the theory, which contributed to the horrors of Stalinism and the political failures of Euro-communism . Two central interpretative theses move Althusser’s position beyond the perspective of “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état.” “For Marx, critique is the real criticizing itself,” says Althusser, citing from the The German Ideology where communism is famously identified with “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things.” Althusser understands the “real” to refer to “the primacy of the struggle between classes with respect to the classes themselves.” This distinction between “class struggle” and “classes” is absolutely decisive. Whereas the concept of class depends on a socio-economic grammar of production (in Marxist terminology: the productive forces, the means of production, the division of labor), the concept of a struggle that happens (and falls) between classes, while being antecedent to them, no longer depends on that grammar. Instead, Althusser associates it with a grammar of relations of production. These relations are inherently antagonistic, consisting of domination and resistance, always already political, and generative of the fact of exploitation, without which there would be no class formation to begin with. Moving against the grain of Marxist theory, Althusser understands “the primacy of the struggle between classes” independently from any purported necessity of overcoming the antagonism in a synthesis. In particular, the social antagonism is completely independent from the kind of teleological “transition” (advocated by Marx in the famous letter to Joseph Weydemeyer of 5 March 1852) from class struggle to dictatorship of the proletariat to a society without classes. Plainly stated, for Althusser the tradition of Marxism, in all of its variants, was never capable of thinking social antagonism, i.e., the struggle which is the “real movement” in all social relations, without an accompanying and resolving synthesis. Althusser breaks with this tradition to the extent that for him it is impossible to totalize social antagonism, and thereby to resolve it in a synthesis: social antagonism is permanent, there is no “end of history”.
The second interpretative thesis follows from the permanence of social antagonism. Politics, the state, and ideology (which, taken together, I shall refer to as “the political”) can no longer be conceived only as a reflection or expression of the social conditions of production, to be abolished once these change. The political must have a separate standing of its own: the permanence of social antagonism requires the permanence of the political. “The state is the permanent guardian … it makes sure that the class struggle, that is, exploitation, will not be abolished but conserved, maintained, and reinforced.” In Althusser’s judgment, Marxist theory never grasped the “superstructure” as such because of the fundamental misrecognition of the relation existing and this represents an “absolute limit” of the theory. Traditional Marxist theory generally follows the representation of the relation between the legal and political apparatus and its so-called “basis” (the “relations of production”) that Marx sketched in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859 according to which a “legal and political” superstructure “rises” [erhebt from the “economic structure of society, the real basis.” Althusser convincingly shows that Marx never questions this relation, this moment of emergence: the “institution” and “constitution” of the superstructure is never problematized.
The importance of “Marx dans ses limites” lies with its demonstration that the political cannot “rise” from, or be a “reflection” of the productive basis because, as a condition of its existence, the political is separated at the root from “class struggle.” This separate existence of the political has as its sole purpose the preservation of social antagonism, i.e., the reproduction of the relations of production in which exploitation occurs. Since it is the separation from the antagonism that characterizes the political, and since the political is what allows the antagonism (the exploitative relations of production) to reproduce itself, it follows that such an antagonism cannot possibly be the cause of the institution of the political. By thinking through the Marxist thesis that the state, in order to serve as “instrument” of the dominant class, must be “separate” from the struggle between classes, Althusser arrives to the conclusion, which is (perhaps) no longer Marxist, that the political must be self-instituting. The political, far from being an effect of the struggle, in reality “cannot be affected nor ‘traversed’ by the class struggle.”
In the 1977 text Althusser radicalizes his theory of reproduction with respect to the formulation given in the 1970 article on ideological state apparatuses: now the claim is that without the separation of the political there would be no “class struggle,” because it is only in virtue of its “separateness” that the political is charged with reproducing the relations of production. Marxist theory is criticized because it does not understand the sense in which the state is a separate instrument or “machine.” For Althusser, the state is the machine for the reproduction of the relations of production, whereas Marx “does not think the state in terms of the relation between reproduction of social conditions (and even material conditions) and production.” Althusser’s thesis is that the political reproduces the antagonistic relations of production (wherein the workers are exploited by the owners of the means of production), which in turn make possible economic production (i.e., the coming together of productive forces and means of production). The struggle between classes has primacy with respect to production (to the social division of labor, to classes), and, in turn, the political has primacy with respect to the reproduction, and so to the existence of the class struggle itself. Therefore the conditions (relations) of production have a political condition of possibility, a political cause of their reproduction. Althusser turns the Marxist basis-superstructure schema completely upside down, and thereby ruins it. The struggle between classes is a fact of politics before being an economic or social datum.
2. Machiavelli after Marx: the Recovery of Republican Freedom
In the posthumously published study entitled “Machiavel et nous” (1972-1986) Althusser attempts to provide a theory of the state and of politics that recognizes their primacy with respect to the so-called economic “basis.” What does the return to Machiavelli add to Althusser’s critique of Marxist theory? First of all, it adds a theory of the self-constitution of the political ex nihilo, out of the abyssal “basis” of an irreconcilable social antagonism. For the central question of the Florentine Secretary, and one that Marx never broaches, is precisely how a durable political state emerges out of nothing. This is the old Gramscian problem of the New Prince as constituent power. But what is innovative about Althusser’s reading is that he resolves this problem through an interpretation of the Discourses on Livy; he returns to Machiavelli’s republicanism. For Althusser, the republic contains the moment of duration of the state, it is charged with reproducing constituent power; whereas the new prince only contains the moment of beginning of the state. Through Machiavelli, Althusser comes to realize that what is essential about the political is actually contained in its republican form, in the republic as the “rule of law,” and not in its princely form. Implicitly, Althusser thereby rejects the Marxist idea of the state as a form of class “dictatorship,” still present in the 1971 text on ideological state apparatuses.
Through this reading of Machiavelli, Althusser adds a further degree of reflexivity to the problem of reproduction: whereas in 1971 the primary question only concerns the reproduction of production, in the text on Machiavelli the primary question becomes that of the reproduction of reproduction itself. The analysis of the relation between new prince and republic, between constituent power and constituted power, is meant to answer the problem of how the state (as power of reproduction) actually reproduces itself, and so lasts in time.
Althusser openly admits that his reading owes much to Lefort’s ground-breaking interpretation of Machiavelli. Althusser innovates with respect to Lefort by understanding the constitution of the “state that lasts” as an emergence “out of nothing.” Althusser articulates this “nothing” as the event-like or aleatory encounter of the political (virtù) and the social (fortuna) that falls outside any possible philosophy of history, any discourse about “laws of history” and “historical necessity.” In thinking about the self-institution of the political from the horizon of the eventual or aleatory (what he calls the “conjuncture”), Althusser seeks in Machiavelli the way to overcome the two fundamental theoretical limits of Marxist theory: its lack of a theory of the political; and its reliance on a metaphysics of history. Althusser returns to Machiavelli in order to find a way to conceive of history in terms of a materialist theory of events, where these events are thought of as the “encounter” or “conjuncture” of the political with the “real movement” of social antagonism. Except that such antagonism is no longer understood as a “basis,” consisting of a structural or substantive process (i.e., an ontology of production), that determines “in the last instance” the outcome of the political encounter. On the contrary, social antagonism is understood as “nothingness,” as the sole condition for the political encounter that leaves it indeterminable, and so free.
The main point is that the class struggle is not determinant of the political forms that emerge out of it: its antagonism is only the “insufficient reason” of an encounter whose result remains completely open-ended. The reason why social antagonism is not “determinant” in any causal sense is that for Althusser there is no longer a “fact of the matter” to the antagonism itself. From his reading of Machiavelli, Althusser comes to realize that antagonism is itself the “object” of contention in a conflict of perspectives.
There exists an irreducible duality between the site of the political point of view and the site of force and of political practice, between the “subject” of the political point of view, the people, and the “subject” of political practice, the Prince. This duality, this irreducibility, affects the Prince and the people…. This people, on which Machiavelli bases all the politics of the Prince, is characterized by nothing that imposes, or even suggests that it should constitute itself as a people, transform itself into a people, or even more to the point become a political force…. And nothing indicates that Machiavelli attempted anything whatsoever to overcome this division. History must be made by the Prince from the point of view of the people, but the people is not yet the “subject” of history.
The constituent project of the New Prince is analysed and judged from a perspective that lies outside this project and is more primordial: the perspective of the people, which is not that of another political subject, but is rather that perspective on social antagonism that prohibits its composition, and pacification, in any political form whatsoever. In my opinion, Althusser here opens a new horizon for the interpretations of Machiavelli to come. The important advance consists in bringing out the difference between the “political point of view” and the “point of view of force and political practice.” Since “the political point of view” cannot be reduced to the point of view of the constitution of political forms of government, the people’s perspective becomes the source of a politics that does not have as its telos the institution of a political form. This is an extremely significant insight for a renewed understanding of what a radical democratic politics should and should not entail.
The political is inherently perspectival because of the radically contingent character of the event in which virtù encounters the “real movement” of social antagonism. Since the latter can never be entirely composed in a given political form, there has to be more to the political event than the constitution of political form. The political is also about the “deconstruction” of form and its return to the conflictual event which haunts, both immanently and imminently, every emergence of a political form. Properly speaking, it is this return of the form into the event that expresses the “political point of view” as opposed to “the point of view of force and political practice.” It is a mistake to believe that a lack of “form-giving force” in the people means that they lack political agency. For this is to presuppose that the political is reducible to, or exhausted by, the practice of form-giving, a presupposition that the dualism in perspectives contests. Since the people, as Machiavelli never ceases to point out, are characterised by “a desire not to be dominated”, it follows that their political agency always exceeds their figurability in a form of political or legitimate domination, and indeed is best understood as deconstructive, rather than constructive, of forms of government.
But before I address the deconstruction of the state, what is the secret of its constitution? For a state to last, the constituted power of reproduction must, so to speak, captivate the people as constituent power and make it function as its “subject”, as its “origin”. This is what Althusser believes Machiavelli discovers in his analysis of the Roman Republic.
What interests Machiavelli is the foundation, the beginning of a durable state which, once it is founded by a Prince, will last thanks to a “mixed” government…. This center is Rome, a state that has lasted. The center of Rome is its beginning. The beginning of this republic was the fact of being a monarchy which gave Rome a kind of government that made the state last, namely, a mixed government, which has been pursued in the form of a republic.
The duration of the state requires the existence of a continuity between monarchy and republic: “two moments in the constitution of the state. The moment of the absolute beginning, which must be made by one alone. But this moment is in itself unstable…. The second moment which is that of duration, which cannot be assured but by a double operation: the giving of laws and the exit from solitude.” In this second moment, the state “roots” itself in the people through its ideological apparatuses: army, consent (i.e., religion), and above all the rule of law. The republican moment of Roman history corresponds to the moment of reproduction, which posits for itself an “absolute,” constituent beginning only in order to be able to understand itself as the “preserving” power of the state.
Althusser uses this reading of the constitutional development of the Roman Republic as a template from which to develop an account of how the state, which is itself the form of reproduction of relations of production, reproduces itself. The constitutional development of Rome contains, so to speak, the ideology (reproduction) of ideology (state as form of reproduction). What, then, is the state’s own ideology? It is none other than the system that generates political authority, and that the Romans institutionalized in their constitutional development from monarchy to republic: the auctoritas of the state depends on the relationship according to which one founder gives the form (agere) that many citizens augment (gerere). For, as Machiavelli explains, “if one individual is capable of ordering, the thing itself is ordered to last long not if it remains on the shoulders of one individual but rather if it remains in the care of many and its maintenance stays with many.” The political form can last through time only if the “many” are set on supporting it. This support requires that the “many” be deprived, a priori, of the possibility of beginning something radically new, of breaking with the first beginning, with the foundation, which, on the contrary, they are called upon to carry out. This call, coming from the founder to the citizens, and institutionalized in the representative political organs (foremost in the legislative assembly), closely corresponds to what Althusser famously termed (in “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état”) the “interpellation” made by the ideological state apparatuses: its function is to turn the people into the political subjectum, the constituent basis, of the state, which in turn founds the state, giving duration and legitimacy to its practice of subjection and domination.
In Machiavelli’s reading of the Roman republic Althusser finds confirmation for a crucial intuition that could already be read between the lines of “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état”: the state as ideological apparatus requires for its own foundation, duration or reproduction, that the people become the political subject par excellence, i.e., that the people be the constituent power and thereby offer itself as the basis of government. In his text on Machiavelli, Althusser moves beyond the “absolute limits” of Marx because he discovers that the foundation of the durable state is exclusively ideological: the state as ideological apparatus finds its ground or foundation not outside of itself, e.g., as an instrument of specific economic interests, but in its own ideology, more specifically, as the exemplar of the Roman Republic shows, in the form of a representative and constitutional democracy. A representative and constitutional democracy is that form of government that best allows the state to fulfill its vocation as ideological apparatus. This is the form that allows for the constituted power to create for itself a constituent power, i.e., the people as subject of the state, which in turn assures the greatest duration, the most effective reproduction, to the state itself.
However, if Althusser’s theory of reproduction finds support in Machiavelli’s republican discourse, it is also the case that his reading of Machiavelli is reductive, failing to develop the implications of such a discourse for an understanding, not of the secrets of political domination, but of the possibilities of political freedom. By claiming that “Machiavelli is interested only in one form of government: the one that allows a state to last,” Althusser collapses the point of view of the people into that of the prince: only for the latter is it essential to aim at a political form that is well-founded and can last in time, not so for the people. The people’s perspective cannot be reduced to that of being the subject-subjectum of the state.
The uniqueness of the Discourses on Livy with respect to all previous and posterior political thinking based on the Roman paradigm consists in its claim that civil life [vivere civile becomes a free life [vivere libero only if politics transcends and transgresses the ideal of well-founded rule of law, which is modelled on the Roman system of authority. The claim is made and defended throughout the third part of the Discourses on Livy, where Machiavelli argues that a political body can live freely only if it undergoes what he calls a reduction or return to beginnings (riduzione verso il principio). Both in content and in form a “return to beginnings” denotes a revolution. A return is made to the same “origin” of authority, the absolute beginning of founding, in order to strip it of its capacity to impress a political form on historical becoming, and instead reveal the radical contingency, what I call the event-character, of all political forms.
Machiavelli redefines the republic as an isonomical space-time from which all political forms must emerge and into which they can be lead back (Ital. riduzione, Lat. reducere: a leading-back or returning to) whenever the privilege or inequality that a given political form establishes begins to corrupt those that grow under it and are favored by it. Corruption means the reification of inequality that occurs through the fixation and perdurance of any given political form of domination. This is why the re-duction to the equality and freedom of the public space can only occur in an event that “returns to beginnings,” i.e., that re-volutionizes the political form and counteracts the process of corruption in the political body.
3. Towards a Materialism of Events
In his last innovative philosophical text, “Le courant souterrain du matérialisme de la rencontre” (1982), Althusser explicitly asserts the priority of the event over the form, and does so with references to a series of philosophers who had preceded him on this path: Heidegger, Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida. Althusser’s “materialism of the encounter” (also called “aleatory materialism” or “materialism of events”) is an attempt to think the emergence of the world of forms out of events. What Althusser calls conjuncture in “Machiavel et nous” is now more adequately referred to as rencontre (encounter), in reference to the Epicurean-Lucretian doctrine of the clinamen or swerve of atoms that account for their coming together and constituting a world of forms out of event-like encounters.
The world can be said to be accomplished fact [le fait accompli, in which, once the fact is accomplished, the reign of Reason, of Sense, of Necessity and of Purpose is established. But this accomplishment of the fact [accomplissement du fait is nothing but the pure effect of contingency, because it is suspended to the aleatoric encounter of atoms due to the swerve of the clinamen. Before the accomplishment of the fact, before the world, there is nothing but the non-accomplishment of the fact, the non-world which is nothing other than the unreal existence of atoms.
Nothing precedes the encounter of atoms, nothing determines such an encounter as a necessary one, so that the “constituent” dimension of the “accomplishment of fact” is itself a contingent event, in no way determinable by what Althusser calls “the non-accomplishment of the fact.” In political terms, if the passage from the “accomplishment of” to the “accomplished” fact describes the action of the prince or state, then the contingent character of this passage, the event-character of the “accomplishment” itself, which is due to its reliance on the “non-accomplishment” as a kind of power that remains in-different to its possible realization, corresponds to the de-constructive action of the people, where the people is no longer considered as a political subject of the state, as the constituent power posited by the state, but as the agency of no-rule.
In this text, just like in “Machiavel et nous,” the virtù of the prince is defined as the power that makes the encounter “last.” The prince corresponds to “the forms that give form to the effects of the encounter [des formes qui donne forme aux effets de la rencontre;” the prince is charged with “the becoming-necessary of the encounter of the contingents [le devenir-nécessaire de la rencontre de contingents.” But, in a departure from his previous reading of Machiavelli, here Althusser thinks the “submission of necessity to contingency,” which entails that
nothing ever guarantees that the reality of the accomplished fact warrants its everlastingness…. History is the permanent revocation of the accomplished fact by another indecipherable fact to-come [une autre fait indéchiffrable à accomplir. Without knowing in advance or ever, nor where, nor how the event of its revocation will occur. Simply a day will come when the games will have to be redistributed, and the dice thrown again on the empty table [les jeux seront à redistribuer, et les dés de nouveau à jeter sur la table vide.
The state-that-lasts is always already inscribed within the imminent and immanent possibility of its “revocation,” that is, when a “return to beginning” obtains that not only reduces the accomplished fact to the constituent power of the accomplishment of fact, but, more radically, that enables this accomplishment itself by remaining completely in-different to its happening or not happening. Such in-difference would correspond to the “other fact,” indecipherable in terms of a grammar of accomplishment.
Althusser never articulates a theory of the power of the people understood as the power to revoke the accomplished fact. Such power is not only the presupposition for a new constituent action, but, more primordially, it is the expression of a “sovereign in-difference” on the part of the people, and therefore of the political point of view, towards the project of government imposed by the state and by the system of political parties. By employing the term “sovereign in-difference to government” in relation to the idea of “power of the people” I mean to bring out three characteristics of the so-called “constituent” position of the people. First, the people is powerful only so long as it upholds its difference with the state’s project of foundation, only so long as it remains “in” this difference. (This qualification keeps at bay any traditional “republican” temptation that identifies the people with the ground of the state.) Second, the people as agents of no-rule do not have a “common interest” that can be formulated by the state and its project of government; their “in-difference” refers to a radical dis-interestedness in the outcomes of governance that permits a true judgment to be brought on these outcomes. To act as judges of the state, the people cannot function as a reservoir of particular interests that the state and the political system must recompose in order to gain legitimacy. (This qualification keeps at bay any “pluralist” temptation that identifies the people with civil society.) Third, the people’s “sovereign in-difference” refers to its unresponsiveness to parliamentary interpellation; the people do not want to be politically represented precisely because this form of political recognition, coming from the state, is the fundamental way in which their subjection is achieved. (This qualification keeps at bay any “liberal” temptation that identifies the people with the constituted public sphere of electoral democracy.)
In a revolutionary event, the people no longer consider themselves political subjects: what they desire cannot be, as a matter of principle, realized by the state, in a project of government. The desire for no-rule is unrealizable from the perspective of the state, and it is this desire that makes the power of the people truly “impossible” to manage for the state. Whenever the people act out their desire for no-rule, the process of reproduction as a whole suffers an arrest, and the machine of the state comes to a halt.
The idea of popular power which accounts for these failures of interpellation, for these sudden arrests of the state-machine, is just now beginning to be envisaged by some. What is already certain is that such popular power cannot be captured either by the Marxist formula of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e., with the conquest of state power for the sake of its eventual destruction), or by the participatory formula of “a government of the people, for the people.” Both of these formulae express forms of hegemonic struggle, that is, struggles for government, whereas what is called for is precisely the attempt to distinguish as rigorously as possible the struggle for no-rule, that will never rule, from its captivation by political practices and forces of hegemony. If the people is powerful, then it is impossible for the constituted power to master the separation between social antagonism and political form. The state masters this separation always in the form of a struggle for hegemony, a struggle over who is to rule. But as “real movement” the antagonism is not as such hegemonic nor about hegemony. The in-different and radically non-foundational character of this antagonism with respect to every constituted political form allows for both moments of the political, reproductive and deconstructive, constituent and revolutionary, to exist. Without their interplay, political freedom remains inconceivable.