Hostis – Destituent Power
The Anarchist Library
Title: Destituent Power
Subtitle: An Incomplete Timeline
Date: November 1, 2020
A proper genealogy of the destitution thesis has yet to be written. The names, dates, and texts that follow are necessarily incomplete. This is because the very nature of destitution is something that interrupts. It robs assumed modes of power of their sure-footedness by suspending the judgement implied by “class,” “community,” “nation,” or “people” as the ground on which to found a new form of authority. Even the name “destituent power” feels paradoxical to us. Perhaps it is because the word “power” seems to only roll off the tongue of those thirsty for something more. This lust for abundance makes the power-hungry condescend to the destitute. At most they treat it as a means to an end as the cost of redemption, like a guerilla roughing it in the jungle until they capture the glittering palace like a prize. What if destitution itself was enough?
Despite its incompleteness, this timeline serves as a preliminary documentation of both its actualization and counter-actualization (i.e. the materialization of the idea and the idealization of matter). This line zig-zags from the recent to the past, beginning in December 2001 in the midst of an Argentine insurrection, next visiting reflections penned from 1920 in Berlin following a right-wing putsch, only after which the term arrives in roughly 2014 on the lips of radicals in the Global North. And like so many things before it, the concept is treated like a miracle delivered by a high priest (in this case, Giorgio Agamben) rather than a term forged in the fires of struggle.
Insurrection climaxed on the 19th and 20th of December 2001 in Argentina. Remembered through the chant “¡Que se vayan todos!” They all must go!, the packed streets rejected both political parties and union leadership. Perhaps for a time, it may have even seemed like the government would never prop itself back up – a string of officials foolishly ascended to the presidency only to fall. Participating in the events by way of militant-research, Colectivo Situaciones named the emptying out of government, “destituyente,” “power which… doesn’t create institutions but rather vacates them, dissolves them, empties them of their occupants and their power.” Curious is how the socialist elements of North American anarchism reacted to these events. In contrast, they saw a democratic Leninism at play in the neighborhoods and streets. After touring the protests, they wrote back home about organizational forms for “building power” on a mass scale, touting it as a success story for ”direct democracy, popular assemblies, and self-management.” The lesson such North American anarchists took from it had nothing to do with vacating institutions, but a testament to how to found alternative ones.
Flash-forward to a published conversation from 2002 between Paolo Virno of autonomia fame and two Colectivo members. About halfway into a discussion on general intellect and exodus, Virno interrupts the conversation to pose a question (a question that is laden with all of the eurocentric elitism that one may hear): “Among the cultivated Argentine comrades, Walter Benjamin is read?” To which, they appropriately reply: “(Laughter). Yes, of course…” Of course… for it is Benjamin’s 1921 essay, “On the Critique of Violence” (“Zur Kritik der Gewalt”), with its technical usage of Entsetzung, which serves as the locus classicus of destituent power. Why? The events of 19th and 20th of December 2001 simultaneously marks both Entsetzung’s incarnation via collective social antagonism and the counter-actualization of destitution for understanding anti-state and anticapitalist struggles. When Colectivo Situaciones clarify what led them to the creation of ‘de-instituent’ power, they do so as part of a larger set of reflections whose themes are none other than suspended time, historical impasses, and what they call an exhaustion of a historical sense (or what Benjamin identified as the poverty of experience). The key: Entsetzung, which refers to the deposing of sovereign power without its replacement. Entsetzung serves as the ur-form of what now goes by the name of “destituent power,” understood not only as suspension, abolition, and deposing, but also in terms of die Entsetzung; that is, dispossession as our general condition.
Next comes 2014, which roughly marks the year of destituent powers’s popular reception within various leftist milieus in the global North. The two most widely circulated sources are speeches and fragments of Giorgio Agamben and the books of the Invisible Committee. Yes, a reception, but just as it is with every reception, a repetition. A repetition that refashions the weapons inherited from previous struggles. Consider two contrasting cases. In the closing pages of the second chapter of To Our Friends, the Invisible Committee writes, “Coming out of Argentina, the slogan ‘Que se vayan todos!’ jarred the ruling heads all over the world. There’s no counting the number of languages in which we’ve shouted our desire…to destitute the power in place.” By linking destitution to the announcement of a collective desire, the Committee directs our attention back toward the 2001 insurrections in order to grasp an arrested truth at the very moment of its realization. As Colectivo Situaciones put it, “The multitude does not present itself as people-agent of sovereignty. Nor does it operate according to its instituting power. We believe that the powers (potencias) of this new type of insurrection function in a ‘de-instituting’ way, as in the battle cry ‘Que se vayan todos!’ (all of them must go).” The same, however, cannot be said for Agamben. In place of the repetition at the heart of theoretical receptions, Agamben’s wager is that the destitution of capital and its nation-states is not a question of politics but of ontology; since the historical separation of life from its form is the separation of the Being of Humanity from itself. While this may seem a dubious characterization, Agamben himself formulates the primacy of ontology in no uncertain terms when he writes: “the machinery of government functions because it has captured within its empty heart the inactivity of the human essence. This inactivity is the political substance of the West, the glorious nourishment of all power.” On this account, destituent power is said to be the deactivation of the technique of sovereign power that splits forms-of-life into animal/human, bare life/power, household/city, and even constituent/constituted power. That is, for Agamben, destituent power is an attribute of the inoperative/inactive subject that is the Being of Humanity; a power or capacity that wrests back life’s own most possibility for assuming any form whatsoever from the truncated existence that defines us as the subject of so many dispositifs.