The Political (1979)

The Political (1979)

“Introduction” to the edited collection Il Politico, in four volumes, Feltrinelli, Milan 1979.

1. The political has a history. It is the modern history of relations of power. To reconstruct, reread, to accumulate materials, to lay out the problems by following the unhurried course of time, to set out from the classics is not an escape into the past, it is an experiment, a test, the attempt to verify a hypothesis. Let us leave formulae to the arithmetic of politics. Let us leave the autonomy of politics to the newspapers. The difficulties encountered by the Marxist theory and practice of the workers’ movement in taking upon itself the fact of power all stem from this absence of knowledge, from this lack of reflection on the historical horizon of bourgeois politics. The Marxist critique of politics has no follow-up; it has not accompanied, not anticipated – here we must choose! – the Marxist critique of political economy. The idea of this book has, in its own small way, a great model: that fourth book of Capital [Theories of Surplus Value], where Marx collects, exposes, comments upon, attacks – that is, critiques – the economists, great and small, classical and vulgar; he does history of theoretical economics, a history of battle, for his own ends, so as to know, to understand, to beat the hegemony of bourgeois thought in a field that is immediately incorporated in the class relations of capitalist society. The fourth book of Capital, as everyone knows, was composed prior to the other three.

The political has a bourgeois history. It cannot be leapt over. One cannot immediately arrive at an “other” political without having traversed and tested and understood what there is already. The past is weighty. Up to now capitalism has produced power; but power has also produced capitalism. This latter thing is difficult to accept. And yet here there is one of those stubborn facts that do not allow themselves to be shunted aside even by the most revolutionary form of thought that has ever existed, that of Marx. It is the fact of a history that from its beginnings, above all from its beginnings, comes forth as a political history. The proposal that we read this political history of capital, in intellectual discoveries and practical choices, is a necessity for Marxist research. Each attempt to leap over a moment of theoretical delay naturally provokes the risk of imprecision, numerous examples of incompleteness, and some naïve enthusiasms. This proposal would like to act as a guide to a gathering of materials that are then to be taken up, one by one, through specific analyses and labors. It is an idea for investigation aimed at young intellectual forces. We also find here a first reply to one of their questions. The arc of historical development is long. Whoever thinks of politics today, thinks they are doing so in a new way. This is very much organic to the old politics, because it leaves it in the tranquility of its everyday life, it fails to reckon with it, it does not fight it and hence does not destroy it. The need for strategic breadth cannot leap over the angst of everyday practice; it must confront it if it wishes to strike it.

The political has a modern bourgeois history. Many of the things that we do badly today had been done well a few centuries ago. It is extraordinary how little that is new can be found under the sun of politics. No, this is not the banal thesis that politics is always the same. It is not. Depending upon the way that it relates itself to the problem of power, politics changes form. As the subjects of politics change, its laws also change. It is around the crux of the political history of capital that a unity is to be reconstructed. The iterability of political phenomena must be scientifically verified within a historically determined socio-economic formation. For this reason, in undertaking a unified reconstruction of political history, we cannot go back beyond the modern era. Otherwise one would have to speak of an eternal and ideal notion of the political. This we can do without. The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns does not present itself again here. In politics we are not dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. Capitalism, in the epoch of its great crisis, produces Great Politics, as it did at the time of its birth. And alongside the modern classics there are the contemporary classics of politics. There is an intertwining of the production of politics, theoretical and practical, and the production of culture, modern and contemporary, that must almost always be teased apart in original ways. The old interpretive categories of the great intellectuals are useless. One needs new forces, brains that have not been smoothed out by the hammer of tradition. One needs the taste for a new inquiry into new problems. This explains the method chosen for the composition of this anthology. Putting in direct contact a page of modern history or of political theory with a young scholar who is doing research or doing politics today already makes a spark fly that can illuminate possible discoveries. But only on one condition: that we possess a working theoretical hypothesis within a horizon of practical action. This project exists to bring Marxist research and the initiative of the workers’ movement to a transformative strategic confrontation with the political.

But what is the political? There is an image of it that is at once modern and classical. This image has undergone prodigious development and ruinous crises, it has shaped the history of the past centuries but also that of recent decades, and only today does it appear unable to gather within itself the new complexity of the social, incapable of governing the action of the forces that it itself contributed to putting into play. The powerlessness of power seems today to hint ambiguously at the end of politics. It is not so. But we should take on and follow through to the end the positive charge of this ambiguity. We must put up for discussion the classical modern canons of politics. A critique of politics is necessary. In a Marxist sense. Not mere critique of ideology, but critique of the practice embodied in the relations of power. Knowledge, which is insufficient, is nevertheless indispensable. Knowledge of the mechanisms, the techniques, the subjects and of the images of power. One cannot turn the State into a theoretical dogma, precisely today when it no longer works as the manager of interests and the controller of contradictions. The standpoint of the movements that contest the state-form must not be expelled from the horizon of reflection, because something of their theoretically aggressive charge must be brought to bear on the problem. The outlook of a possible government of the new figure of the social should not be moralistically thrown back into the hellfire of criminal actions, because direction and mediation, that is, authority, is not the past of politics, but its present in crisis. The oscillations between these extreme ways of looking at the political are in the things themselves, in the forces, in the relations and in the subjects. We can find their echo in the different treatment of the thinkers in this anthology. One cannot do a history of the political without doing politics.

What, then, is the modern bourgeois political? It is technique [tecnica] plus machine, political class [ceto] plus mechanism of domination, politics plus state. Each of these components has a history, but the history of the political includes them all. In the bourgeois consciousness of the modern political the totality is not brought in from outside; it is its nature, its tendency, its logic. Hegel is in nuce Machiavelli. Not in general, but on the basis of capitalism, the machine of the State is implicit in the technique [tecnica] of politics. For this reason, power cannot be the pure summation of techniques [tecniche] and politics the raw instrument of domination. Of course, the totality of the political is that of the classical bourgeois era. Then there is the crisis. In other words, there is our time: crisis of totalities, of organicist summings-up, of final products and results, the crisis of the Synthesis-State. One must stand in this new horizon of the broken, dispersed, non-organized political. In the knowledge, however, of the relationship that is established here with the preceding moments of unity, concentration, and force. It is not enough to look, one must change. This is also true of the political, and for its history. The crisis of the State-form poses practical problems of struggle. Is the schema, the passage, the contradiction “conquest of power – conservation of power” still valid? In order to know, we will have to retrace the entire development of the experience of the modern political at the level of the highest works of thought, on the battlefields of ideological alternatives, on the terrain of historic practical decisions. The consciousness of the past must not lead to the historicist knowledge of the present; it must push, practically, for its transformation. Hence the leaps will be privileged over the developments. What emerges is a history of Great Politics. This is a choice. Besides, the question comes from below. The last ten years have made an initial selection of the emerging forces of the young politics. The mass elite that has emerged from it is now being asked to stand up and be counted. Those who resist the return of moderation in small things, whether private or public, will find themselves having to make a grand reckoning anew. We must prepare instruments for reading the processes that are capable of grasping reality so as to return to the young intellectual forces the taste and appetite for great transformations.

2. There is, then, a practical origin to this theoretical interest in the history of the political. From the beginning, a close link is established between the terrain of the political and the birth and development of capitalism; an organic relationship, a reciprocal functionality. The present transition – that is, the strategic reversal that within capitalism puts crisis in the place of development without even a glimpse of a possible collapse of the system – and yesterday’s transition – that is, the great crisis and the exit from it through a new relationship between system of power and class struggle in America – all of this puts the role of the political back in play and makes that of the State visible. To grasp the sense of these transitions at its root it is necessary to retrieve the classical dimension of certain problems.

The birth of the political as a problem lies at the origins of capitalist society. The impact, the intertwining, the exchange, the conflict is between the state subject and the transition to capitalism. Without the State, from its origins, no capitalism. Without modern politics, immediately, from its beginnings, no bourgeois revolution. Let us reconsider the “Marxian” example of England. The English route to capitalism is simultaneously – not before and not after – but at once the English route to the modern bourgeois State. And the latter, before its birth as a liberal State, as a constitutional form, does not have a pre-history; it has a real history that leads to that result, which forces it to that transition. About this originary history, about this primitive political accumulation of the bourgeois State, Marxism is silent. And yet, as is Marxism’s wont, there are here elements not only for knowledge, but also for denunciation; moments not only for development, but also for struggle. And so it is. The political development, like the economic, drips blood and tears. The history of the State, like that of capitalism, is the history of force and violence, of conquest and domination, of ability and deceit. It is political, not ethical; it is history, not human progress. When individual rights made their appearance, power had already won, sovereignty was already absolute, and the modern State had already been born. How does one arrive first, along with capitalism, at this sovereign power of the State – this is the problem.

The hypothesis that runs through the pages of this first volume is that one passes from a theory of politics to a theory of the State, from Machiavelli to the threshold of Hobbes, from the Prince to the Leviathan. With respect to this strong line of interpretation of political thought and political practice in the 1500s and through to the middle of the 1600s, the differences of approach to the various protagonists of the epoch serve not only to articulate the framework of the interpretations, but also to register the objective blurring of the rigidity of the hypothesis. So we pass from the careful philological reconstruction of an author and his work to the brilliant discourse of someone who has fallen in love with a character, painting a portrait that cannot fail to be personal. At least at the start, I think this margin of oscillation cannot be eliminated. This is a tangled knot that belongs to cultural work on the modern classics. I do not believe that it will be possible quickly to arrive at a synthesis of a sophisticated interpretation of a text (as scientific as possible), and its cold, raw, practical use. This contradiction must be kept alive; its terms must be taken to their extremes, the opposite solutions must be set in opposition. This is a real conflict, as with all conflicts that cannot be eliminated, one must prepare oneself to use them.

As we said: from politics to the State, throughout that century of great political thought that the sixteenth-century was. Here the great islands of Bodin, Althusius, Suarez, Grotius are surrounded by an archipelago of lesser islands where realism and ideology, the recognition of things and the vain ambitions of universal palingeneses are interwoven, coexist and fight. No matter how and in any case, at the beginnings, in the process of formation of the bourgeois political horizon, the technique [tecnica] of politics comes forth as a technique [tecnica] of domination. Conquest and conservation of power: Machiavelli’s Prince and Discourses put the problem directly in this form. Modern society is founded not only on the domination of nature, through the development of technique [tecnica] and industry. Modern capitalist society is founded on the domination of men by men. As Horkheimer writes of Machiavelli: “The aggregate of the paths that lead to this condition, and of the measures which serve to maintain this domination, goes under the name of politics.”1 Whether we are dealing with a principality, a government of patricians, or a popular state, it is always like this – as Machiavelli said, “it is while revolving in this cycle that all republics are governed and govern themselves.”2

Let’s repeat. There has been an optical illusion, that is, an excessively passive Marxist reading of a bourgeois politics as being based on the “rights of man,” as a universalist ideology of the citoyen that masked the particular class interest of the bourgeois. Whence a workers’ horizon of thought as essentially a critique of ideology and as a retrieval of its ultimate truth in the Marxist doctrine of human emancipation. These things remain painfully present. What still has to be calculated is the politico-practical damage, the blockage of the development of the class struggle that has been occasioned by the incomprehension of the political origins of capitalism. Once again, these are the reasons behind this choice of a work of research that, over the long term, aims to remove this blockage, even, and amongst other things, putting a web of problems back into play. In reality, in modern classical bourgeois political thought there was not only a knowing false consciousness, which is to say ideology, but also realistic objective description of nodes, passages and, yes, problems – of course, this is truer in the case of great conservative thought than in so-called revolutionary thinking. So, I repeat, from Machiavelli to Hobbes, politics becomes State, technique [tecnica] becomes machine, accumulation becomes power and the practice of politics wins, that is, conquers and conserves domination. In between there are the wars of religion, social revolts, a civil war turning into revolution, the “general crisis” of the 1600s and a first crisis of bourgeois culture in which the unity and rationality of the Renaissance intellect crumbles. In the course of this fiery ordeal, it is a fact – as historically indubitable as it is politically rich – that the unity and concentration of power, and hence the reality of sovereign power, comes before and founds the liberty, sovereignty, and the very property of the bourgeois individual. It is on this latter material base that the need for the ideology of modern politics emerges and does so quickly, already in the sixteenth century with natural law theory and Calvinism. What follows, Locke, the liberal tradition and later democratic thought, cannot be understood without these ideological sources; but they also cannot be understood without those great material, structural processes of the organization of power as a function of what will become the history of the accumulation of capital. What emerges here is a weighty problem that has yet to find its great historian. Upon these two aspects of ideology and power the religious unity of the world is shattered. The protestant ethic operates as an ideological support for a very specific epoch of the spirit of capitalism: it appears as a tactical relation, not by chance expressed in certain sociological categories, Weberian ideal types that interpret, describe, explain but do not change and do not propose to change the conditions of the investigation according to a practical outlook. The historical nexus represented by the relation of power and capital – the conquest and exercise of power, the accumulation and development of capital – is posed in the form of the strategic nexus of the relation between Catholicism and capitalism. And on the side, more distant historically but conceptually tighter, it appears as the ambiguous functional interchange of theology and politics. This is where we must plunge the knife of discovery so as to uncover the nerves, the ligaments, and the relations of the political in a determinate historical point; here is perhaps the privileged field for an anatomy of power; without doubt, this is the terrain upon which for a long time it will be necessary to work with the means of production of the critique of politics.

With Hobbes, in the bourgeois epoch, a veritable age of the State begins. From Machiavelli to Cromwell – this is the age of modern politics. A doing, an acting begins, which is by a single individual but is for all the others, or over all the others. It is the public action of the isolated individual; it is political activity. The laws of action, the rules to direct men and women, the forms to dominate them are born. The rationality of politics is born: looking in, there is the iterability of human behaviour and the contempt for the naturally subaltern vocation of humanity, the citizen as subject; looking out, there is the taste for ability and the sense of force, the cultivation of virtù and the command over fortuna, “those princes are weak who do not rely on war.”3 This is the bourgeois horizon of politics: the only one that has existed up to now. Hitherto the workers’ standpoint has attempted to change this horizon; now the moment has come to understand it. Only a cold understanding can put a real transformation back on its feet. From Machiavelli to Cromwell politics wins: because it becomes State, it becomes power. The workers’ movement is the end of politics, or is it politics incarnated in the masses? In the first case there is a break in the course of history: “play crazy, like Brutus,”4 Machiavelli used to say. In the second case, there is the reversal of direction: “we should consider where are the fewer inconveniences and take that for the best policy, because nothing entirely clean and entirely without suspicion is ever found.”5 Death of politics or class politics? This sharp alternative should be left open. The knot must either be undone or cut. Before we decide, we must understand. This is why we need to traverse modern politics, looking at it with fresh eyes, rethinking it with young minds. At the end of the historical course of events, we will decide with theory.

3. Theory, precisely. In the current confusion of languages or, to be more up-to-date, in the present plurality of languages, it is difficult to understand if this crisis of Marxism exists or not. Insofar as it is a project of thought-transformation, Marxism is tied to the historical nature of the workers’ movement. There could be a temporary tactical crisis regarding the instruments, within the framework however of a strategic development of restructuring of objectives. That is, the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach does not go into crisis while there is even a single case of class struggle present. When there is none, if there is none, then we will see. In the meantime, parts of contemporary Marxism fall. Sectors of Marxist culture no longer find space for productive growth. There is a crisis, in the strong sense, of historical Marxist research. It has lasted too long and is too widespread for it to be down to mere accidental or immediate causes. There must be an underlying process that makes its effects felt on the general sense of the research, on the entire field of the analyses that refer back to Marxism. There is a crisis of historical materialism, of that complex of organicist, universalist, and (not coincidentally) economistic ideas that goes by the name of the materialist conception of history. These first centuries of modern history, this passé present, has refuted this aspect of Marxism. Indeed, as Lüthy writes: “The greatest wrong that the prevalent school of doctrinaire historical materialism has committed against history has been that of considering the State solely as an instrument in the service of others, and of the political regime as the reflection of the relations of power between social classes; and hence to have precluded for itself the true study of institutions, law, regimes, in short, of the political organization of society and of the evermore constraining and overpowering autonomous action of constituted power on the evolution of society and of economies. Because political history, in the full sense of the term, is not an epiphenomenon, nor a historical category alongside others: the economic, the social, the cultural, it dominates them and unites all of them as integrating parts of the history of the ‘city.’” Here there is a clear-cut inversion of direction that goes to the opposite extreme, assigning to political history a new totalizing, integrating function. This is certainly not the guiding hypothesis of our investigation. We seek a place for the political within a Marxist analytical horizon; a specific place for the political and hence also a determination of its history that helps us understand the function that it has played and thus the role that we can ask it to play. The history of thinking about politics and about the State, the history of certain great directions of state politics must also be read alongside the rest of modern history, that of class struggle and the relations of production, that of industry and science, that of society and movements. We want to hold open this historical spectrum; in each case, we attempt to understand its logic; we do not abandon the objective of a synthesis, but we do not preempt the results of the investigation. Besides, the logic of scientific discovery within the workers’ movement is interwoven with the struggle over political direction. I am convinced that a theoretical synthesis only begins to become possible when one starts to win in practice.

The centrality of politics must therefore be critical and problematic, it must carry contradictions – which it has done and continues to do. Immediately behind us lies the era of the victory of politics: in the workers’ camp, with the age of revolutions and the attempts at alternative societies; in the capitalist camp, with the macro-government of the great crisis and the programmes for the rationalization of development. The substantial failure of these attempts and programmes, both the great revolutionary ones and the great conservative ones, and furthermore the growth in the complexity, stratification, and disarticulation of the contemporary social, lead today (or appear to lead) the great forces as well as single individuals, to a “retraite” from the political. We are living through a moment of crisis of politics. It is a crisis of the ideological apparatuses, the criteria of belonging, the articles of faith, and it is a crisis of the technical instruments, of administration and mutation, State, parties, unions. The capture of active consent and the practice of subjective transformation become increasingly difficult. The functioning of politics becomes more difficult, both in terms of management-and/or-overturning and of government-and/or-revolution.6 Politics is suffering from a crisis of identity; there is a fall in the credibility of a political solution to the great problems of modern society and individuals. We are experiencing a crisis of political rationality. Here too one must think and live this transition; remain within it, traverse it and allow it to traverse us. We must take up a line of investigation that is open and provisional. This was precisely the “other” dimension of the autonomy of the political. Taking cognizance of a logic specific to the political and in this sense bringing about a revolution in the Marxist mode of thinking. But not as a project; not as a recomposition or as rationalization. On the contrary, as a moment of destabilization at the level of the theoretical tradition and, hence, with an awareness of the crisis of political rationality. The unveiling of the autonomous forms of political domination and so the anticipatory expression of anti-institutional movements understood, however, as new levels of class struggle that seek for themselves – and perhaps here is where the real novelty lies – a use of the political and an institutional politics. In other words: maturing of the class movement through a crisis of rationality of the very autonomy of the political of the bourgeoisie.

To know politics, and its history, is a weapon; an offensive instrument in the struggle for change. And it is not a struggle between cultures; it is not a battle of ideas. It is not a case of convincing intellectuals. And we don’t wish to titillate the specialists. I repeat and insist. There is an area of new militancy that has grown in the course of these ten years amid various disappointments; it now asks for a new culture of politics, a modern knowledge of transformation. There is a young intellectual force in formation, which has already experienced on its own body the failure of the “progressive” cultural horizons and is now ready to grapple with the other, even if the other is the enemy. This is the public for this discourse. Here there are vigilant eyes and minds ready to understand, deployed in such a way as to capture the true sense of the investigation and to utilize it for growth or for changing themselves. There is only one path towards the recovery of politics – as activity and as thought – and that is via the realistic recognition of its originary bourgeois nature. Once recognized, and only then, will we be able and will we need to go beyond.

Cassirer writes: “There is a scene in Goethe’s Faust in which we see Faust in the kitchen of the witch, waiting for her drink by virtue of which he shall regain his youth. Standing before an enchanted glass he suddenly has a wonderful vision. In the glass appears the image of a woman of supernatural beauty. He is enraptured and spellbound; but Mephisto, standing at his side, scoffs at his enthusiasm. He knows better, he knows that what Faust has seen was not the form of a real woman; it was only a creature of his own mind.”7 There is not only the “myth of the State,” there is also the myth of politics. It is possible that the exercise of this new power, “the power of mythical thinking,” has not erupted anywhere with greater violence than in the field of politics. Carr has spoken of “Bolshevik utopia;” it would have been better to speak of utopia with respect to the Bolshevik 1917, or of State and Revolution as active inheritance that brings with it the “most blatantly utopian element of Marxist doctrine,” the extinction of the State and, consequently, the end of politics; a Marx closer to Smith than to Hegel. Alongside other significant facts, is it not also this Bolshevik utopia that arouses the complete state-centeredness of the Soviet experience? “Mystical visions” are like the sleep of reason; they produce monsters. Only the realism of analysis, the critique of motives, the calculation of forces, and the disenchantment of values are able to save us from the fate of uncontrollable results.

And so: from Machiavelli to Cromwell; this is politics and this is the State. Here we find the history of origins. The rest, what follows, will not come about through spontaneous germination, or through peaceful development, or from the accumulation of data; it will only come through contradiction, contrast, via leaps, forward and back. Focusing on the origin does not help us understand everything, but it does help us to know the origin. Knowing where the theoretical roots of politics and the State lead is knowing where we must plunge the spade to tear out those roots in practice. To do this we must turn our hands to a labor of excavation. We cannot just exploit the labor of others; revisit their scholarship. We must get our hands dirty. Better to run the risk of error than to have the academic certainty of not knowing. In politics, in political theory, one cannot be Canetti’s Peter Kien, professor of sinology, a head without a world: “he remembered [the roses’] sweet smell from Persian love poetry.”8 The route is the other one. Confide in God but keep your powder dry. Machiavelli … but with Ironsides.

– Translated by Matteo Mandarini

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Feb 17 2016 07:05


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