Before we can think what a destituent power might be, we must first dispense with a concept that has surreptitiously dominated Western thought and politics, namely, that of realization. By realization, we understand the idea that political action consists in realizing in practice a doctrine, a philosophy, an ideal, a project, or whatever else you want to call this kind of obscure presupposition of every political practice.
One concept that we find ourselves speaking and hearing spoken of ever more frequently, though almost always without rigor or clarity, is the concept of destituent potentiality (potentiality [potenza], not power [potere]).1 When I began some years ago to reflect on this concept, I was sure of one thing: that it required a willingness radically to put into question the ways we think the grounds and strategies of politics. That is, what was needed was not just another variation on the paradigms of conflict and struggle that we have inherited from the tradition of the so-called revolutionary movements. Even if these paradigms could have still been tactically valid, it is certain that the strategy of destitution required other paths and other grounds.
However, I intend to deal not with strategy but, rather, with the concept of destituent potentiality itself, for it is certain that only by bringing the concept to its greatest possible clarity will we be able also to understand the strategies that it entails. Now, what I have come to think in recent months is that we can understand what a destituent potentiality is only if it is subjected to a decisive critique and if we free ourselves from a concept that has dominated and continues surreptitiously to dominate Western thought and politics: the concept of realization. What I mean by realization is the idea that political action consists in realizing, in facts or deeds, a doctrine, a philosophy, an ideal, a plan, or whatever else one wants to call this sort of obscure presupposition to every political praxis. If I've written surreptitiously, this is because even if it is not stated as such, the metaphysical paradigm of a realization—that is, of a necessity to translate into reality something possible that is clearly supposed not to be real or not yet real—underlies all of the theories and all the practices of politics that we know. I've written metaphysical paradigm because, as I will try to show, the separation of the possible from the real that this implies is one of the most effective apparatuses on which the metaphysics of the West has founded its dominion.
The idea of a realization of philosophy in politics is usually attributed to Marx. In truth, it is not at all straightforward how one should interpret the passages in the introduction to the Critique of Hegel's “Philosophy of Right” where he appears to state this thesis. He formulates it for the first time as an objection to a no-better-identified “practical political party” demanding the negation of philosophy: “You cannot abolish [aufheben] philosophy,” he writes, “without realizing [verwirklichen] it” (Marx 1970: 136).2 A little later, against the representatives of the opposing party, he adds that they believed they “could realize philosophy without abolishing it” (136). And after having defined the proletariat as the dissolution of all classes, the introduction concludes with a peremptory assertion that ties the realization of philosophy and the abolition of the proletariat in a circle: “Philosophy cannot be realized without the abolition of the proletariat; the proletariat cannot be abolished without the realization of philosophy” (Marx 1970: 142). Earlier still, in the notes to the dissertation on Democritus and Epicurus, submitted in Jena in 1841, Marx had written that when philosophy seeks to realize itself in the world, “as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly, [and] its realization is also its loss [ihre Verwirklichung zugleich ihr Verlust]” (Marx 1975: 85). Since Marx did not intend here simply to take up the Hegelian dialectic as such again, it is not at all clear what he could have meant by a revolution that would verify the two symmetrical theses: “abolish and realize philosophy” and “abolish and realize the proletariat.” And it is by playing on this defect of clarity that Theodor Adorno (1973: 3) was able to open his negative dialectic with the assertion that “philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” It is as if, had that moment not been missed, philosophy would no longer exist; in realizing itself it would abolish itself. But what does realize itself mean? And what does it mean to miss its own realization?
It is striking that nearly a century later Guy Debord takes the Marxian formula up again, referring it this time not to philosophy but to art. He scolds the Dadaists for wanting to abolish art without realizing it and the surrealists for wanting to realize art without abolishing it. As for the situationists, they intend to realize art and, at the same time, abolish it.
The verb that in Marx's text we have translated as abolish is the same one—aufheben—that, with its double meaning, plays an essential role in Hegel's dialectic, namely, to abolish or make stop (aufhören lassen) and to conserve (aufbewahren). Art can be realized in politics only if it is somehow abolished and, at the same time, conserved in it.
The verb aufheben, which guards the secret mechanism of the Hegelian dialectic, acquired its dual meaning by way of Luther's translation of the New Testament. Luther had to translate the passage in the Letter to the Romans (3:31) that had always caused problems for interpreters because Paul seems to affirm both the abolition of the law and its confirmation (“Do we then abolish [katargoumen] the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary we raise it up [histanomen]”). Luther decides to translate Paul's antinomian gesture of katargesis with aufheben (heben wir das Gesetz auf).
The apostle's intention, however, was necessarily more complex. In the messianic perspective in which he was situated, the advent of the messiah meant the end of the law (telos tou nomou [Rom 10:4]) in the dual sense the term telos had in Greek: end and, at the same time, completion, fulfillment. Indeed, Paul's critique is not directed at the Torah as such but at the law in its normative aspect, which he unequivocally defines as nomos tōn entolōn, law of commandments (Eph 2:15), or also nomos tōn ergōn (law of works; Rom 3:27). Paul's aim, then, is to call into question the rabbinical principle according to which justice is obtained by completing the works prescribed by the law (“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” [Rom 3:28]). What is Paul's target here? Precisely the idea that justice consists in a “realization” of the law, in a series of actions and works that execute the commandments of the law and make them real in facts. This is why he uses the verb katargein, which means not “to destroy” but “to make inoperative, to remove from the act.” It is the opposite of energeō, which means “I put into act, I realize.” That is to say, it means not to realize the law but to derealize it, to render it unrealizable and inexecutable.
The law ceases to be something that can and must be realized in facts and works, and the deactivation of its normative aspect opens the already perfectly real possibility of faith to the messianic.
Here we cannot properly speak of either abolition or realization: faith is not something that can be realized, because it itself is the sole reality and truth of the law. This is the opposite of what Hegel does. Hegel maintains the biblical idea of a realization of the law, and he complicates it dialectically through the Aufhebung. To realize also means to abolish: the realization remains, but insofar as the abolished is conserved and the conserved abolished, this becomes an infinite process. That everything rational is real means that the process of realization is properly without end, just as the spirit that realizes itself in history is infinite. What we call reality is a ceaseless process of realization. One of the results of my research into the genealogy of the word reality, which appears only in the thirteenth century in the Latin form realitas, is that this term in truth means “realization,” the becoming real of a possibility. It is from this paradigm that we must free ourselves.
I would now like to reflect upon two examples of a politics removed from the model of realization: Plato and Walter Benjamin.
You all know the paradigm of the philosopher-king, which Plato puts at the center of his politics and which is usually considered the highest form of utopia: “The evils that afflict the human race will never end until either those who are sincerely and truly lovers of wisdom come into political power, or the rulers of our cities, by the grace of God, learn true philosophy [philosophēsēi]” (Seventh Letter, 326b; Plato 1997: 1648). This peremptory thesis takes up the theory of philosophizing that Plato espouses in nearly the same words in a famous passage from the Republic:
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize [philosophēsōsi gnēsiōs te kai hikanōs], that is, until political dunamis and philosophy entirely coincide [eis tauton sumpesēi—the expression is meaningful: sumpegnumi also means to coagulate] . . . cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race. And until this happens, the constitution we've been describing will never be born [phuēi] to the fullest extent possible or see the light of the sun. (Plato 1997: 473c–e)
The common interpretation of this Platonic thesis is that the philosophers must govern the city because only philosophical rationality can suggest the right measures to those governing. In other words, Plato would be asserting that good governance is that which realizes the ideas of the philosophers and puts them into practice.
Michel Foucault has shown the inadequacy of this interpretation of Plato's theorem, which in this way gets unduly flattened onto the Aristotelian thesis of the philosopher counselor to the king. What is decisive is only the coincidence of philosophy and politics in a single subject. Foucault (2010: 294) observes:
However, from the fact that the person who practices philosophy also exercises power, and the person who exercises power is also someone who practices philosophy, we cannot at all infer that his knowledge of philosophy will be the law of his action and political decisions. What matters, what is required, is that the subject of political power also be the subject of a philosophical activity.
It is not simply a matter of joining a philosophical knowledge with a political rationality; rather, it is a question of a way of being or, more precisely, for the individual who practices philosophy, “a way for the individual to constitute himself as a subject on a certain mode of being” (294). That is to say, it is a question of
identity between the mode of being of the philosophizing subject and the mode of being of the subject practicing politics. If kings must be philosophers it is not so they will be able to ask their philosophical knowledge what they should do in a given set of circumstances. . . . There is no coincidence of content, no isomorphism of rationalities, no identity of philosophical and political discourse, but rather an identity of the philosophizing subject with the governing subject. (294–95)
What does it mean that, in Plato's words, dunamis politikē, political potentiality, coincides with philosophy and philosophy coincides with political potentiality? As Foucault has shown, it certainly does not mean the realization of one in the other; rather, it means their coincidence in a single subject. At the beginning of the Seventh Letter, Plato recounts how he decided to give himself to philosophy when he understood that in his city all political activity had become impossible—that is, that the possibility of philosophy coincided with the impossibility of politics. In the philosopher-king the possibility of philosophy and that of politics coincide, “by the grace of God,” in a single subject. The philosopher does not thus cease to be a philosopher and does not abolish himself by realizing himself in philosophy; rather, his potentiality gets identified with that of the sovereign. The coinciding of the two potentialities is the reality and the truth of both. Insofar as they are real, they have no need of realization; indeed, they are properly unrealizable.
Philosophy must not seek to realize itself in politics: if it wants the two potentialities to coincide and the philosopher to become king, it must, on the contrary, always make itself the guardian of its own unrealizability.
The second example is Benjamin's “Theological-Political Fragment.” The theoretical question of the fragment is that of the relation between the profane order and the Kingdom, between history and the messianic, which Benjamin (2002: 305) unreservedly defines as “one of the essential teachings of the philosophy of history.” This relation is all the more problematic since the fragment begins by unreservedly affirming the radical heterogeneity of the two elements. Since the Messiah alone completes (vollendet, brings to its terminus) all historical occurrence and redeems and, at the same time, creates its relation to the messianic,
nothing that is historical can relate itself, from its own ground, to anything messianic. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is not the telos of historical dunamis; it cannot be established as a goal. From the standpoint of history, it is not the goal [Ziel] but the terminus [Ende]. Therefore, the profane order cannot be built on the idea of the Divine Kingdom, and theocracy has no political but only a religious meaning. (305)
The kingdom—and the Marxian concept of the classless society, which, as the eighteenth thesis on the philosophy of history tells us, is its secularization—is not, then, something that can ever be posited as the end of a political action and be realized through a revolution or a historical transformation. From the perspective of Benjamin's “Theological-Political Fragment,” we can then say that the error of modern ideologies has consisted in their having flattened the messianic order onto the historical order, forgetting that the Kingdom, to maintain its own proper efficacy, can never be posited as a goal to be realized, only as a terminus (Ende). If it is posited as something that must be realized in the profane historical order, it fatally ends up reproducing the existing order in new forms. The classless society, revolution, and anarchy are, in this sense—just like the Kingdom—messianic concepts, which cannot as such become a goal without losing their force and their own proper nature.
This does not mean that they are ineffective or lack meaning on the historical plane. Indeed, there is a relation between them and the profane sphere, but this results paradoxically only from each of the two orders’ stubborn persevering in the direction that defines them. For its part, the order of the profane “should be erected on the idea of happiness,” while “the immediate messianic intensity of the heart, of the inner man in isolation, passes through unhappiness” (Benjamin 2002: 305).
Just as philosophy cannot and must not realize itself in politics but is already in itself fully real, and just as according to Paul the obligation to realize the law through works does not produce justice, so in the “Fragment” the messianic acts in historical occurrence only by remaining unrealizable in it. Only in this way does it guard possibility, which is its most precious gift, without which no space would disclose itself to the gesture and to the event. We must stop thinking of possibility as something that must, in passing into act, be realized; on the contrary, it is the absolutely unrealizable, whose reality, which is complete in itself, acts like a terminus (Ende) on historical occurrence, which has been petrified in facts—that is to say, breaking and annihilating it. This is why Benjamin (2002: 306) can write that the method of world politics “must be called nihilism.” The radical heterogeneity of the messianic allows neither plans nor calculations for its coming true in a new historical order, but can appear in it only as a real demand that is absolutely destituent. And a destituent potentiality is one that never lets itself be realized in a constituted power.
I had earlier described realization as a metaphysical apparatus. The time has now come to clarify this point. It is a metaphysical apparatus—indeed, the ontological apparatus par excellence—because what is at stake in it is the splitting of being into possibility and reality (or, in other words, into essence and existence). This is not the place to reconstruct the genealogy of this split. Suffice it to say that what we could call the ontological-political machine of the West is founded on the separation of the possible from the real and of potentiality from the act, which get split in the human sphere to then be rejoined in God.
We are so used to taking this fracture for granted that we do not see that it constitutes the aporetic nucleus of the apparatus on which ontology has founded its specific potentiality from the start. Possibility and reality, essence and existence, potentiality and act are the two faces or two sides of what we have called the ontological machine of the West. Indeed, ontology is not an abstruse excogitation with no relation to reality and history; on the contrary, it is the place where the most serious and consequential epochal decisions are made. Without the split of reality into essence and existence and into possibility (dunamis) and actuality (energeia), neither knowledge nor the capacity effectively to control and lead human actions that characterizes the historic potentiality of the West would have been possible. If we could not separate the possible from the real, if we had not suspended and put in parentheses the immediate and concrete existence of the things that surround us in order to think their essence (the “what”), Western science and technology would certainly not have known the totalitarian development that characterizes them. And if by some miracle the dimension of possibility separated from reality should disappear entirely, neither plans nor projects would be thinkable, and human actions could be neither directed nor controlled. In the ontological machine the incomparable potentiality of the West has one of its essential presuppositions. The split on which the machine founds its achievement is, nevertheless, anything but peaceful. For the machine to function, the two sides that it has separated must newly be articulated together, precisely in such a way that their harmonious conflict or their discordant consonance constitutes its arcane motor. This means that the passage between essence and existence and between possibility and reality constitutes the decisive problem of Western metaphysics, on which it never ceases to run aground.
In the history of philosophy, the place where the transit from possible to real was thought is the ontological argument. Recall the argument: if God is possible, then he exists. God is the place where the possible passes over immediately and is given reality in existence, in which the split of potentiality and act on which the ontological machine is founded finds its composition. Insofar as we insist on seeking a passage, a transit, or a transition from the possible to the real, the ontological argument still rests firmly at the very heart of politics. We are still blindly searching in praxis for this northwest passage, this opening in which the possible is magically or laboriously translated into reality and politics finds its definitive realization. This passage does not exist, because the possible is already real, and as such, it is absolutely unrealizable. This is why revolutions run aground every time on the problem of the transition, for example, in the Marxian model, from the society divided in classes to the classless society. The transition, insofar as it remains caught up in the paradigm of realization, cannot but go on and on.
If we do not understand that the in every sense decisive demand is unrealizable and must be maintained as such, that as Benjamin said it can act in the historical order only by giving up being posited as a goal, our political action will always fall back into the existing order. Since we have split the truth of our experience into possible and real, we cannot but lose it.
If instead we are able to fully take on the unrealizable, that is, the absolute and immediate reality of that which we think, need, and live as possible, then perhaps a further space might open for our life and our thought.
You understand that if we leave the model of realization behind us and enter into this other paradigm, our strategies will have to change completely. A destituent potentiality can never be something that must be realized. It is a matter not of executing or transgressing the law but of rendering it inexecutable. But of this we will speak another time.
—Translated by Kevin Attell
The present text was first discussed in Bologna on March 16, 2019, during a release party for the Italian translation of the books by the Invisible Committee, with Julien Coupat, Andrea Cavalletti, and Marcello Tarì.
English translations of cited passages have occasionally been modified.