Constituent Power

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* Book: Antonio Negri. Le Pouvoir Constituant. Essai sur les alternatives de la modernite. PUF.

Key thesis: the basis for every political order is the 'multitude-in-arms' and the fear of it, which is why the constituent power is neutralized through the constituted power of constitutions.


By Michel Bauwens, 2003:

- This is complex book of political theory, on the original power of creating states and new social orders and its subsequent dilutions in constituted power, i.e. constitutions, judicial power and other institutions. Negri identifies a genealogy in modern thought which recognizes constituent power as radical power, going from Machiavelli through Spinoza to Marx. The notion of constitutent power is opposed by Negri to that of sovereignity which he clearly rejects. First Negri reviews the different attempts to neutralize 'constituent power', then he examines Machiavelli who turns out to be a democratic author, stressing the role of the people in good government. In fact, Machiavelli clearly identifies the the power of the Prince with the power of the multitude. He then looks at the reception of these ideas in different countries as time progresses.

- Negri then goes on to discuss James Harrington, the 'first English civic humanist' and 'machiavellian'. His 'anti-feudalism' is not 'pre-capitalist' but another line of modernity insisting on socialized property. The logic is: 'property creates power creates people in arms'. In the whole book, Negri focuses all the time between 'virtue' and 'fortune', and how the first creates the Republic, that is continuously corrupted by the latter.

- After Harrington, Negri discusses the American Revolution, focusing on how constituent power was neutralized in the Constitution.

- Follows a thorough discussion of the French Revolution and its aftermath, with events such as the Paris Commune. Negri discusses the interpretation by Marx, and then by reactionaries such as Edmund Burke. He stresses again and again the unique radically different nature of the event. Comparing the Revolution of 1688 (1st rev: 1648) which restored the monarchy, and reviewing subsequent developments, Burke insisted that freedom is concrete, a result of history and tradition, and not an abstract idea that can ignore the past. Thus the English Revolution was in concordance with Nature, but not the French. In his discussions of the interpretations of Burke, Toqueville and De Maistre, he notes that this is the real beginning of the tragic interpretation of modernity.

- This is followed by a detailed analysis of Capital, regarding constituent power. Negri stresses that Marx does not define communism except as the 'real movement of the masses', because his materialism refuses any Utopia and so wants to focus on the real tendencies. Next comes Lenin and his analysis of the Soviets. Negri shows how he subsumes and instrumentalizes everything to the revolutionary party and its struggles. Thus the Soviets are only respected in so far as they want to go 'all the way'. Even though Negri considers Lenin to have been the synthetic theorist of constituent power, the failure of his projects is evident. He contrasts Weber's analysis focusing on the failure of the objective conditions, and those of Rosa Luxemburg which said it is the very concept of the Bolcheviks which blocked the revolutionary but democratic activity of the masses, hence the problem of the 'subjective'. For her, there is no contradiction between the dictatorship of the proletariat and democracy: on the contrary, they are synonymous.

- Negri considers Lenin to be the 'highest expression of the Occidental tradition of constituent power". But the brillant theory failed. Why ? It is here that he refers to Max Weber who extensively studied the two Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 [1]. He stressed that none of the conditions for an advanced civil society were present, and thus he predicted that the Leninst machine would turn on empty, because there was no mediation and it would therefore become an infamous bureaucratic regime.