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* Book: Imperium: Structures et affects des corps politiques (2015)



Alberto Toscano:

"In his latest book ... Lordon attempts to give that strategy a political-philosophical basis. Imperium should be read as both a constructive and a polemical project, a Spinozist treatise on the passions of state and a conjunctural intervention in the current European political crisis, building on Lordon’s distinctive research programme. But if the polemical targets of La Malfaçon were primarily the ‘neurotic right’ of the French ps and German spd, Imperium’s arguments against a post-national consensus are mainly oriented leftwards—at potential friends, rather than political enemies. Lordon confronts contemporary anarchisant proposals for emancipatory politics with the fallacies—paralogisms—that beset a communism shorn of ‘belonging’, of the common affects and institutions that could hold it together. A transition beyond the state as we know it would not mean a termination of the state as such. Among the diverse targets of Lordon’s critique, sometimes explicitly addressed but rarely discussed in depth, are Badiou, Negri, Graeber, Dardot and Laval, the Invisible Committee; but he often seems to be speaking over their heads to Bakunin, as the quintessence of left-libertarian thinking.

The constructive complement to Lordon’s polemic involves enlisting Spinoza’s political theory of affects, as developed in the Ethics and the Political Treatise, to produce a general theory of the ‘state’—or, more accurately: a theory of the ‘general state’—grounded in a sociologically informed political anthropology. Building on Lordon’s prior efforts to generate Spinozist theories of capital and the social, Imperium proposes that a critical realism concerning the state can instruct left-wing thought in the weakness of a political optimism that would ignore our passionate and discordant nature. To ignore these minimal traits of political anthropology is to succumb to illusion. A Spinozist materialism, on the contrary, in a definition from Althusser that Lordon likes to recall, means at the very least ‘not telling ourselves stories’. The dictum is especially important in a moment of crisis, such as our own, in which the price of self-delusion is all the greater.


He ... embarks on a theoretical detour through a reconstructed Spinozism, to address the nature of state power—imperium in Spinoza’s Latin; often translated as sovereignty or dominion—as a general form.17 In the enigmatic formulation of the Dutch thinker’s unfinished Political Treatise, imperium is a right ‘which is defined by the power of a multitude’. What is a multitude? Not a sum of individuals, Lordon suggests, but the collective itself; the social as potentia—potency, capability, power. Who or what has the ability to affect a whole multitude? Only the multitude itself. Yet the multitude is always divided into ‘bodies’, parties, fractions or parts, themselves subject to centrifugal forces. Collectivities only exist where passions for convergence are stronger than those for divergence; they only endure when a vertical power arises out of that passion, a sovereignty ‘defined by the power of multitude’.

In a nod to the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan, Lordon’s book reproduces Hokusai’s woodcut, ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’, as a metaphor for the relation of imperium/sovereignty to the multitude—the crest of the wave rising up above the water of which it is made. In contrast to Hobbes’ image—the crowned human figure composed of myriad tiny subjects, looming over the Wiltshire landscape with his enigmatic smile—the wave that rises from the sea is far more dynamic and fragile, nothing but water. A sovereign body, Lordon will insist, is nothing but the multitude that composes it—whether that body is a commune, a nation-state or an empire. Ultimately they are all ‘unions of parts, held together in a particular relationship, by means of a common affect’. But, Lordon is at pains to stress, the multitude is a purely philosophical concept, an idea of collective power; it is not to be found on Earth—‘the worst mistake would be to take it for an actually existing object’. As a sociological category, ‘multitude’ in the singular makes no sense: populations are always already differentiated, institutionalized, divided; they need to be thought in terms of historical forms of social orders and structures. ‘Multitude’ is operative only as a philosophical construct, for thinking the ‘general state’.

Governed by divergent passions, humans will never be combined and pacified in spontaneous harmony, Lordon argues, following Spinoza’s Ethics. To simply assert a communism of reason is to wish away the weight of common affect. To avert implosion, all numerous collectives require a vertical right or power—which, having the multitude as its only basis, like the Hokusai wave, nevertheless rises up over it. Imperium seeks to transport the activist opposition of verticals and horizontals—a faded echo of the historical contention between Leninist and libertarian revolutionaries—into a more sophisticated theoretical terrain. A prescriptive ‘post-nationalism’ is for Lordon the denial of this fragmentary condition of human social life, its separation in different groupings of belonging; it is the stubborn but futile disavowal of the political, anthropological and social fact of human division. Yet, in a refrain that recurs throughout the book, he insists that this is no cause for despair: a general theory of imperium does not preclude the emergence of more emancipatory forms of verticality and allows (or perhaps demands) that we maintain the ‘maximal programme of emancipation’ as a regulative ideal.

Imperium then launches into a swingeing attack on the anti-nationalist left, targeting ‘the grotesque claims of the well-off’ for a ‘liberation from belonging’, without acknowledging how much they benefit from their own belonging. Lordon contrasts this to the reality of statelessness, the nightmare of absolute non-inclusion, surviving like the sans-papiers without rights—and indeed fighting for citizenship, for belonging. The experience of involuntary migration may rather serve to sharpen awareness of national difference: against protestations that the proletariat has no country, the workless proletarians in the Calais ‘Jungle’ are said to fight on a national basis: Eritreans against Sudanese or Syrians. To disavow national affects in the metropole while allowing them, romantically or condescendingly, for the subaltern, is mere hypocrisy. One is never totally free of national belonging: we are seized by a nation from our very first day, raised in its language and ways of thinking. Badiou, for example, is ‘profoundly French’. The Europeanist post-nationalism of Habermas and Beck is singled out in this acerbic catalogue as the grossest fallacy of all, its claim ‘to have done with the nation’ simply paving the way for a supra-national power endowed with all the characteristics its authors claim to abhor. Dardot and Laval’s Commun (2014) also comes under fire, while a detour through seventeenth-century theories of sovereignty, counterposing Bodin and Althusius, reveals the limits of a federalist political imaginary in the latter’s theory of consociatio. Ultimately, bodies are not delocalizable; the place where one lives—even as an enemy of the state, a secessionist group or a counter-cultural commune—is always part of the territory of a community. Rather than indulge in these ‘impossible disaffiliations’, Lordon calls for the sharpest critique of nationalist historiography, the record of internal repression and external aggression, as the best defence against national-chauvinist passions.

Central to Imperium’s critique of a post-national left is its dissection of the reliance of contemporary emancipatory thought on an ultimately liberal and contractual notion of society as an assembly of individuals. Against this, Lordon advances a Spinozian conception of the community constituted by convergence around a shared emotion—a common view of good and evil, for example—which the vertical of sovereignty then establishes as a condition of membership. The community’s feeling for itself exceeds the individual emotions of its members, creating something that is part of them yet goes beyond them. For Spinoza, this excess is the potentia of the multitude, which will duly bring forth a potestas. For Durkheim—a constant reference—it is the ‘moral force of a society’.

Drawing on the Spinozist mechanism of ‘imitation of affects’ to account for the genesis and closure of social totalities, Lordon argues that the verticality of power is a scalar effect, an inevitable product of social formations growing past a certain threshold, beyond the ‘synoptic condition’ in which humans can exist in mutual transparency.

As he turns to the question of social division and state power, Lordon presents us with a somewhat Hobbesian Spinozism—in stark contrast to Negri’s more Rousseauian, or anthropologically optimistic, variant.

Historically, the emergence of potestas, the vertical power required to stabilize any convergence between ‘inconstant and variable men’, in thrall to their passions, also entails a confiscation of the collective capabilities of its subjects. Shared emotion creates the opportunity for capture: if it focuses on a God who is Nature’s Rector, someone will declare himself Pontiff. Following Matheron, Lordon traces the theologico-political capture of common superstitions into ecclesiastical power. With the consolidation of institutions, its ramifications become endless: the student bending before the authority of a professor bows also to the authority of the department, which proceeds from that of the university, which in turn proceeds from that of the state. Here, with Spinoza completed by Bourdieu, but also brought into hypothetical alignment with Regulation Theory, the argument seems to be that the potentia of the multitude is realized through the institutional processes that constitute its various ‘regimes of capture’.

With capture comes pressure for conformity—the state’s ‘constant work’ of linguistic, monetary, fiscal and cultural unification. Lordon can share the libertarians’ hatred of institutional repression, but wants to make them recognize the authority of the ‘general state’ as an elementary structure of politics, its hard kernel, whose realization can take innumerable forms; in this sense, one can speak of a tribe-state or polis-state. The pathos of capture is expressed most vividly in the bureaucratization of oppositional forms, starting from an initial division of manual and mental labour. Lordon evokes the initial impulse to build a trade union—‘ten guys around a table decide to organize’—and its outcome, in the case of the cgt: huge office building in Montreuil, hundreds of thousands of members, a leadership radically separated from its base and very far from what anarcho-syndicalists might have dreamed of.27 Even the Paris Commune—which Lordon will soon use as a positive example—would in all probability have succumbed to the division of labour, stratification, institutionalization and the ‘endogenous force of the mechanisms of capture’, had it not had the luck to be overthrown before this rule could reveal itself.28 Lordon gleefully exposes a series of contradictions in Bakunin’s own writings: wanting to destroy the state, but bringing it in through the backdoor with ‘an association of associations’; reassuring his readers that ‘society must not be disarmed against parasitic, malfeasant citizens’ or ‘attacks on property’. But if libertarians’ ‘horizon of horizontality’ is constantly receding, this doesn’t mean there is no possibility of resisting capture. The state also produces its own limits, for other processes of unification necessarily develop beside it. The tension constitutive of both the ‘general state’ and emancipatory practice is that between capture, as the state’s inevitable excess, and a social ontology ‘from below’.

Lordon reads anarchist anthropologists—Sahlins and Graeber in particular—as evading the related problems of vertical power and human propensities to violence; rather than take stock of the ambivalence of the human social animal, they tend to treat antagonism and malignity as externally produced, by alien forces. More generally, the social sciences would reject all views of ‘human nature’ as essentialist, preferring to stress variety; but as Lordon suggests, human nature tends to return through the window, as the untheorized basis for rational choice or neoclassical economics. Against this, he asserts an approach derived from Spinoza: though subject to the law of the passions, human nature remains under-determined and open to the infinite combinatory possibilities of further, complementary social and historical determinants.

Man is only ‘like this’ in a given situation; human nature is constitutively open to change. Instead of an anarchist anthropology against the state, what is required is a political anthropology of the state, which grasps its ambivalent character in terms of the human passions that shape and innervate it. Since it is not possible to live without the law and without obedience, Spinoza docet, it is necessary to transform them.

In the last chapter, Lordon finally turns from the ‘general state’ to its historically realized forms. How to explain the fact that the ‘modern bourgeois state’ acts to defend and advance the interests of capital— ‘private ownership of the means of production’ is its cornerstone, Lordon writes — rather than those of the social multitude, whose essence state sovereignty is supposed to be? How can the multitude be alienated from its own essence—how is it that ‘our power returns to dominate us?’

To grasp this problem, Lordon returns to the question of structure—the relations between the different fractions of the political body—addressed only in abstract form earlier on. It turns out that these parts can be configured in such a way that a majority is subordinated to the domination of a minority. Under such a configuration, where the multitude surrenders its sovereign power to an absolutist monarchy, or to a distant parliamentary regime, the political body as a whole is weakened: sovereignty is expressed in laws and regulations, rather than dynamism and creativity; the multitude’s energies are taken up in reproducing the institutional instruments of its own neutralization.32 Transposing a distinction from the Ethics onto the terrain of group passions, Lordon distinguishes between two corresponding forms of joy: titillatio, in which, as Spinoza writes, ‘one or more of the body’s parts is affected more than the rest’, and hilaritas, in which ‘all parts of the body are affected equally’, and which receives full development in democracy.

Emancipatory strategy must therefore set itself the task of ‘demediatization’—an answer to institutional-bureaucratic capture, but also to the diminution of collective power. The Paris Commune returns as emblematic here—the highest example of demediatization. Accepting that some form of delegation was unavoidable—that a permanent assembly of all the citizens was not viable—its system of imperative local mandates and revocable mandataires established active links between the Commune and the quartiers, the streets. ‘People, govern yourselves by your public meetings, your press; bear down on those who represent you!’ demanded a Communard newspaper. To this project of collective empowerment Lordon would add subsidiarity— devolving powers downward, as far as possible—and a republican form of belonging, a closure of the political community on the basis of contributions to it; Chiapas is offered as an example of the ‘political nation’.

Lordon puts great stress on the national arena and on education, above all on developing a critical national historiography, though his position is not a straightforward reformism: ‘between necessity and the refusal of necessity’, ‘surrender and the waking dream’, he advocates a politics of ‘modification’. Imperium ends on a sober but combative note, with a Beckettian vision of emancipation—fail again, fail better—that stubbornly refuses to tell itself stories."


  • alberto toscano. A STRUCTURALISM OF FEELING?. New Left Review, 97 jan feb 2016, pp. 82+