The Contradiction in the Modern State

“But it is certain that the political philosophy of modernity will not be able to emerge out of its contradictions except by becoming aware of its theological roots.”

This sentence concludes Giorgio Agamben’s new book, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm. Agamben seems to have his finger on the pulse of history with the Paris killings raising the specter of a theologically inspired civil war.  Though some of the murderers came from the Middle East, a good number were residents of Brussels and Paris. Niall Ferguson points to the three massive political problems faced by the West: jihadism found in disparate parts of the world, the migration crisis, and a “fifth column” in many European cities.  Profoundly disconcerting is this last, the significant numbers of Muslims born and raised in Western cities who have little attachment to the West.

This fact requires theorists of law, politics, and morals to at least consider the topic of civil war. Stasis opens with the claim that a theory of civil war is “completely lacking today.”

Agamben, an Italian anarchist born in 1942, is one of contemporary Europe’s most original and widely published thinkers. Stasis is a thin volume, being in fact the publication of two seminars Agamben gave at Princeton just after the attacks of September 11, 2001. His books prior to 9/11 considered the relationship between the sacred and politics; but after, a consideration of theology proper came to the fore. His brilliant and innovative book, The Kingdom and the Glory, published in 2011, is his fullest statement on theology, with the two seminars revisiting many of the same themes.

A large, disaffected segment of the West’s population with religious passions might seem a phenomenon ripe for analysis through political theology. This mistakes what political theology is, however. Political theology is not about the idea-worlds of social movements but an analysis of the history of Western political theory. For Agamben, this conceptual history is intimately linked to Christian theology.

For many, political theology is synonymous with Carl Schmitt. His Political Theology (1922) is a touchstone and Agamben frequently engages with Schmitt.  However, as Schmitt himself points out, political theology has its origins in anarchism. Early 19th century anarchists were convinced that, with the killing of the French king in the Revolution, only half of the job was done. Crown and altar had governed France and full liberation was only possible once theology’s grip on politics was uprooted. Political theology is a method of exorcism: identify the continuing presence of theological concepts in politics and therewith hold them up to withering critical appraisal. Agamben is the latest in a long line of anarchists attempting this exorcism. Schmitt makes it perfectly clear that his greatest adversaries are anarchists and, of course, his task of political theology is to reify theology in politics.

Pace Niall Ferguson, Agamben argues that the greatest political problem facing the West is the West itself.

The basic drive of anarchist politics is toward collective solidarity without the state. Anarchists aim not for self-management, exactly, but certainly for micro groups to organize and manage themselves without government regulation and monitoring. Anarchists distinguish themselves from libertarians by stressing, not the self, but the group, and separate themselves from the Catholic ideal of subsidiarity by denying in principle that the state can worthily assist those in genuine need or deal justly in matters of the common good.

The state engages in what Agamben calls biopolitics. In this he follows French historian and theorist, Michel Foucault, and claims that the modern history of the West has been the stripping away of all institutions able to decentralize, diffuse, and resist power. On one side, the state, on the other, populations stripped bare—headless bodies, so to say, related to one another through management metrics. Agamben is fond of the famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: the State, in the figure of a man, hovers over a city, its streets empty of people; the city’s residents, with only their backs visible, are embedded in the torso of the man-State.

Why is this the contemporary form of power?

The modern history of the West has been percolating since the Middle Ages.  Christian theology posited a God both immutable and providential: a transcendent sovereign God who nonetheless has a care for every hair on every head, as the Bible says. How is it possible to mediate these two poles of the divine? Angels. Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory is a truly fascinating treatment of medieval treatises on angelology: texts that invented the managerial, administrative state, he argues.

In Greek, angelic management of human life is called oikonomia; oikos in Greek being the name for the economics of the household.  In the Christian theology of providence, or economy, managing the domestic life of the household became the task of the angels and, once secularized, the task of the state (God) administrators (angels) of the modern economy.  The household – its income, sexuality, education, health and welfare – is laid bare before the gaze of the state administrator. If this infantilization were not enough, the problem is compounded “when the polis appears in the reassuring figure of the oikos.” The state veils its power in images like “the Common European Home.”  Power inoculates itself from judgement as care of the family.

Beyond the veil, the reality is that each and every family member is exposed to the total and lethal power of the monitoring state. It follows, reasons Agamben, that acts of terror are really ruptures in the state’s total control of the population: as government control is exercised as domestic care, it also follows that terror is civil war; a war breaking out in the family house.  The theology that needs to be exorcised by the method of political theology is not Islam but a subtler and more wide-ranging effort of power, the angelology that gifted us the administrative and monitoring state.

As an analysis of conceptual history, political theology is strong on dramatic reversals of thought and light on concrete proposals. However, Agamben might have us look at a phenomenon in Kurdistan—that described, for example, in Wes Enzinna’s article “A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard” (New York Times, November 24, 2015). The Kurdistan Workers Party (PPK) has an anarchist faction in Northern Syria with effective control over an area the size of Connecticut where about five million people reside. The territory is divided into self-managing municipal assemblies. Anarchist, feminist, and environmental principles shape and link these assemblies in a defense alliance. The guiding principles are derived, says Enzinna, from the “libertarian municipalism” of an American thinker, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006).

What might this mean for the established polities of the West? Cantonization. The contradiction at the heart of contemporary Western political thought is that the state as domestic provider ushers in civil war. Agamben’s hope is that a final ridding of theology is also a final ridding of the provider state. The West must return to what it was not long ago: a patchwork of self-determining enclaves and “principalities.”

This is how the modern drive to the unified nation state is eclipsed: with a fragmenting of the field of power. These municipal assemblies, or syndicats, would surely also mean Muslim enclaves but, for Agamben, so long as the angels are banished, peace is likely to prevail.