The Power and the Glory: Giorgio Agamben on Economic Theology
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"The Power and the Glory", Giorgio Agamben, 11th B.N. Ganguli Memorial Lecture, CSDS, 11th January 2007.
Editor's Note: I have not adjusted the obvious misspellings and errors in this transcription.
This investigation concerns the reasons and modalities through which power has taken in western societies the form of an economy. That is to say, of a government of man and things. So we must speak about power in general as about a peculiar form of power, the modern form of power, that is to say, government. Of course I will therefore have to carry on Michel Foucault's enquiries in the genealogy of governance.
As you probably know, starting from the midst of the 70ies, Foucault began to work on what he called „le gouvernement des hommes". But – so I will not carry on, but continue his research – but I will also try to locate them, to dislocate them in a different context. Foucault once wrote that his historical investigations were only the shadow of his theoretical questioning of the present. And I completely share this point of view and also for me – the historical investigations I have to do – are just the shadow cast from y interrogation of the present. And – in my case – this shadow becomes longer. And reaches back to the very beginning of christian theology.
I will try to show that two paradigms derive from christian theology, from early christian theology: Political Theology, which grounds in the one god, the transcendence of sovereign power and – and this is the new thing – the economical theology which bases itself on the notion of an oikonomia, an economy conceived as an immanent order, domestic and not properly political, of both human and divine life. The first paradigm is juridical, or juridico-political, and will give rise to the modern theory of sovereignty, the second one is managerial and will lead to modern biopolitics up to the present domination of economy and management over all aspects of social life.
The starting point of my investigations was the amazing discovery of the essential role played by the greek term oikonomia, economy, in the strategy of the theologians, who in the second century of the christian era elaborated the doctrine of trinity.
You know that the greek term oikonomia means the administration of the oikos, the house, and thus Aristotle can write that economy differs from politics in the same way as the oikos, the house, differs from the polis, the city. And that is why in the aristotelian tradition, there is a sharp opposition between economy and politics. From a greek point of view, politics cannot be reduced to an economy.
According to Aristotle, Economy is a non-epistemic paradigm, something that is not a science, an episteme, but a praxis, which implies decisions and measures that can be understood only in relation to a given situation and a given problem. So the best translation of the greek term is therefore „management". And – by the way – this is a translation that you can find in the authoritative greek-english dictionary published by Henry Liddel who was the father of Alice, - a little girl so tenderly loved and immortalized by Lewis Carroll. Yes. The most authoritative dictionary comes from the Father of Alice.
Now, why did christians theologians need this term, Economy? It is quite simple. Just when the trinitarian doctrine begins to be developed, the theologians had to cope with a strong resistance within the church of a group of reasonable people called the „monarchians", that is to say the partisans of the government of one, who thought – and there were probably right – the introduction of the god of three persons, simply meant falling back to polytheism.
Oikonomia, Economy, is the concept by means of which theologians tried to reconcile the god, the unity with the Trinity. Their argument was roughly – simplified like that – the following: God, as far as his substance or being is concerned, is absolutely one. But – as for his oikonomia, his economy, that is to say the way he manages the divine house and life, - he is three.
Just as the master of the house – this was the argument – can share administration with the son or with other persons, without loosing the unity of his power, in the same way, god can trust the management of the world and the salvation of man to his son, the Christ. St. Paul in his letters, had spoken, referring to redemption, of an economy of the mystery of the salvation. Now, Theologians such as Irenaeus, Hipolitus, and Tertullian reverse this expression, this is a very important strategic reversal, and speak referring to the trinity, of a mystery of the economy. So it's not god's being that is mysterious, it is his economy, his action, his activity is mysterious. And they distinguished in this sense two logoi, two discourses: The ontological discourse, concerned god's being, and the economical discourse which refers to god's action, to the way he manages t he government of the world and the mystery of salvation.
You see, the Trinity was introduced not in the beginning, not as a metaphysical doctrine, as it became later after the great church council, but as an economy, as a managerial device. The hypothesis I am trying to suggest is that this mystery of the economy has functioned as the hidden ontological paradigm of modern governance. So I will use Theology in order to better understand government. I am proposing a return to theology not at all, I will just use theology to better understand governance.
I can not bother you here with the detailed reconstruction I had to do of this doctrine, which kept the church fathers busy for centuries, - I will just attempt to summarize a few points, the main results of my investigation.
So first of all: Which kind of activity, which kind of praxis is the oikonomia, the economy? What is the inner structure of an act of governance? Of the divine management? And why is something such as a government of man possible? Let my analyze this and I will propose five points which resume which summarize in a way the results from my research.
The first point could be called the paradox of divine anarchy. As we saw now, the doctrine of the divine economy was produced in order to safe Monotheism, but it ended up introducing into god a split, a division between being and action, ontology and economy. I mean that god's action, god's economy, according to the fathers, has no foundation in its being, is this sense, as they said literally, an anarchical mystery, - arché in greek means: Beginning, foundation. God's economy has no foundation, has no beginning, is completely independent from God's being.
In this, it becomes perfectly clear, we try to understand the meaning in this perspective of the great controversy on Aryanism, that so deeply divided the church between the fourth and the sixth century. Why was the fight so merciless and long-lasting? I think it altered also the profane Paradigm, the emperor took position.
What was on stake in that debate – I will not enter t he theological details – the most important point in the debate, was the anarchical character – that is to say without arché, without foundation without beginning - of the son, of the Christ. Aryus, he became after an heretical, maintained that Christ, the son, which was the logos, the word and the action of god, was grounded in the father, was not anarchical like the father, but he had his beginning and foundation in the father. The prevailing doctrine which became then the orthodoxy, stated firmly that the son, the Christ, is anarchos, without beginning or foundation, exactly like father. So Christ is completely independent, it is a divine figure, without beginning or foundation in the father.
This thesis of the anarchy of the Christ is perhaps the most ominous Inheritance that christian theology bequeaths to modernity. Why? Because it implies that language and action – as the divine language and the divine action – had no foundation in being, are in this sense anarchical. This means that the classical greek ontology with its idea of a substantial link between being and logos, being and language, but also between being and praxis, action, is ruined forever. Any attempt, since that moment to found language on being is doomed to fail.
You know according to Aristotle, for instance, god moved the world the heavens, but he didn't move them because he wanted this: His being coincided with the action. So the christian fathers completely reversed this point of view. God's actions has nothing to do with god's being. This inheritance we have to cope with, because if then: action has no foundation in being, - politics, ethics become extremely problematic. Moreover, it is precisely because being and action are both anarchical in this sense, precisely fort hat reason, something such as a government – the word government comes from the greek kybernetes, which mean the Pilot of a ship, to guide the ship. So precisely because being and action are both anarchical, a government becomes possible and even necessary. It is the groundless and anarchical paradigm of human action that makes it possible to govern this action. If being and action were the same we couldn't govern the action.
Butt his means as a consequence, oikonomia, that is to say governance is essentially anarchical, that there is a secret solidarity between government and anarchy. There is a government only because the elements that constitute this government are anarchical, groundless. When one of the main characters in Pasolini's film „Salò" says the only real anarchy is the anarchy of power and Walter Benjamin writes that there is nothing so anarchical as the bourgeois order, their statements have to be taken extremely seriously.
So. There is a Solidarity between governance and anarchy. So this was the first point. I am trying to analyze the structure of an act of governance. This was the first point.
The second point – I will call it – the Kingdom and the government, that is to say the double structure of government. So one of the points that was to have impact on the western culture is the strategic conjunction of this doctrine of the divine economy with theories of providence, that is to say of the divine government of the world. Providence just means the divine government.
The coming together of these two paradigms, which have different origins, providence comes from greek-stoic philosophy etc. is a really accomplished by Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second century. And trough to the end of the 17th century almost without interruption it has given rise to an incredible amount of philosophical and theological literature Perhaps providence is the subjects on which philosophers and theologians have written the most. Providence means – as you probably know – that god is constantly busy governing the world. And if he would stop for a single instance, then the world would collapse.
This is the theological basis of providence. But how does providence, how does this divine government of the world, function? So, since the beginning, this was a very, very important point, we see that providence is conceived as a double or bipolar machine. This is constant. Since the beginning of the Theory we have a double structure. God does not govern the world directly in all details up to the last small animal, or insect or sparrow, as the gospel says, but God governs the world through universal principles. Theologians distinguish therefore between a general providence which establishes the universal laws, the universal and transcendent laws. And the first causes and they call this ordinatio, ordering order, and then a special providence that is entrusted to the angels or to the mechanisms of immanent and secondary causes and they will call this execution, executio, So the machine of the divine government is a general law and execution.
No matter how theologians conceive the relationship between the two poles, in any case, the bipolar structure must be present. If they are completely divided, no government is possible. There would be on the one hand side an almighty sovereign who is effectively impotent, and on the other, the chaotic mess of the particular acts of interventions of governance. A government is possible only if the two aspects are coordinated in a bipolar machine. So I will define government when you will have the coordination of these two elements. General law and an execution, general providence and particular providence.
In the tradition of political philosophy one could say that this double structure is expressed in the old formula: The king reigns, but he doesn't govern. That is an old dictum, which already founds in the 16th century. In differentiation of modern democracy we have to think in the division in legislative or sovereign power which acts always through universal laws and principles and executive power which carries out in detail the general principle. I think that it is very amazing that the first time we find this vocabulary ordinatio and executio, order and execution, is in theology and not in political theory. We are here many, many centuries before that political theory articulates this. You will see that one of the discoveries of my investigations is t hat the vocabulary of public administration is strongly linked to theologic or religious. In this very case, it is very clear: ordinatio and executio.
So I would say the history of western politics is precisely the history of the various changing articulations, also conflicts, naturally, of this two poles of power. Reign and Government. Sovereignty and Economy. The father and the sun. Law and Order. Law and Police, one could say.
But his bipolar character must be there and remains there up to the end. Today we could say that the act of government or execution has the primacy, it is clear, the crisis of parliamentary and legislative power is evident everywhere. It is like dead, legislative power doesn't exist anymore in europe or the united states, an absolute primacy of government. But anyway – even in this case – both poles are there: So one pole can prevail on the other, like now it is the case for government and executive power, but nevertheless they must be there, otherwise no government, there is another form of power.
So the third point I am calling the paradigm of collateral damage. In the history of the doctrine of providence, the most prominent aporie is perhaps the problem of evil which will engage the theologians for centuries. If god governs the world and if god's economy is necessary the most perfect one, how can we explain evil in all is aspects? Natural catastrophes, ,moral crimes etc... So this problem really kept busy philosophers and theologians for centuries. And the attempt to find a solution to this Aporia resulted in the invention of a paradigm that is perhaps the most significant theological legacy of the contemporary theory of governance. The argument was the following: God in his providence establishes general laws which are always good. Evil results from this laws as a collateral effect. The criteria is really absolutely literary this: providence, as a collateral effect, as a side effect of the divine government of the world. So the evil is just a side effect of the good government. Thus from general laws of the movements of the bodies and of the warming of earth, it rains, which is very good, but as a collateral effect you might have rain fall where it should not have fallen. So this would be just a collateral effect of a good thing.
Alexander of Aphrodisia, who was a late Aristotelian Commentator around the second century after Christ, expounded this theory in four, which is particularly relevant for our purpose: God, theos, cannot bother himself with details, therefore each act of the divine world government is directed to a primary and general end, but just as the head of the house divided the food for his family, feeds also as a side effect the little animals, the worms and the birds who live in the house, in the same way, every general act of divine providence will result in side-effects which can be positive. Then you have the paradigm of Liberalism, or negative. Alexander argues – this is a very important point – that collateral effects are not accidental but define the very structure of the act of governance. Neither general nor particular, neither intentional nor casual, neither foreseen nor unforeseen, neither reign or government, the collateral effect is the way in which the divine government becomes effective, which providence realizes itself. And only therefore can the governmental machine, which only moves on the horizon on two separate levels, general and particular, only as a side-effect, the machine can become operative.
When today, military strategies give the name collateral damages or in french bavure to the calculated effects of military interventions which can result in the destruction of cities, and in human causalities, they unwillingly develop this very old theological paradigm. But – if our hypothesis is correct – also in this case, the collateral effect is not something secondary or something casual but defines the very essence of an act of governance. There are no casualties in the act of governance. Because the act aims to collateral effects. In a way the american military says: We killed one thousand persons. This was just a collateral effect of an actually good act. We have to reverse: It is t rue, but the collateral effect is the way which the act of government is realized.
So that is another one. The fourth point is point which already Michel Foucault has emphasized. The character which defines the government of the world is t hat providence cannot be simply an act of force and violence, which abolishes and subdues the free will of the governed ones. The main character of divine government is t hat it works through the very nature of the creature, such that – as a 17th century french theologian, Bossuet, puts it – god makes the world as if god where absent from it. This is incredibly intelligent. God governs the creatures as if they freely governed themselves. A quote – because that is just an extreme formulation of a very old theologian theory – god allows us to be as if we could be on our own. God allows to be a man what is a man, a body what is a body, thought what is thought, necessary what is necessary and free what is free. So this is an incredibly sophisticated fiction, this subtle economy of power according to which god in order to govern absolutely must act as if the creature where governing themselves, strongly influenced authors such as Rousseau. Rousseau was deeply influenced by a french theorist of providence, Malebranche, who is one who invented the theory of volonté general, general will. And in this way, especially through Rousseau, this idea became the theologian paradigm of modern democratic theory according to which the governed govern themselves.
So the fifth and last point. That has to do with the vicarious character of the governmental power. Governmental Power is essentially a vicarious power. In which sense? In the eschatological messianic kingdom of which Paul speaks in the first Letter to the Corinthians Christ receives his power from the father and will therefore after subduing all earthly power return the kingdom to him. Paul says it exactly like that: The son will reign until the moment he destroys all earthly power, then he will give back the power to the father. The messianic power of christ seems thus to be a vicarious power, executed in the name of the father.
But we saw that in the trinitarian economy each divine person and especially the sun is anarchical, has no foundation in the father. The intra-trinitarian relation between the father and the sun can be considered in this sense as the theological paradigm of the intrinsically vicarious character of governmental power. Trinitarian Economy is t the expression of an anarchical power which moves to and through the divine persons according to an essentially vicarious paradigm. There is no way to assign to one person the original foundation of power. Power has a trinitarian form, it circulates vicariously in this form.
And this is why the supreme sovereign power in the history of western politics presents itself as vicarious. You probably know that history of western politics, especially the moment of the struggle between he pope and the emperor. Both powers, both the emperor and the pope, claimed for themselves the title of vicarious christi, vicarious dei, vicar of Christ, vicar of god: So the emperor says: I am the vicar of good. And the pope says: No. I am the vicar of god.
But more deeply this is also why in western public law, the source of power is in its last resort impossible to describe, and moves always in circles between for instance - a very important point – constitutive and constituted power. Sovereignty and execution, legislation and police. In the end it is impossible to describe also to find a real responsibility to someone. Because the power has a deeply vicarious structure. So you will never see who in the last end has the power. It moves always in dialectics between the two poles. In it is especially true to understand this very important character of the body of political theory the difference between constitutive and constituted power. They also move in circles. Apparently constitutive power is founded by constituent power, but when you try to grasp it, you will see that there is a continuous dialectical movement between the two powers. Because governmental power is essentially vicarious.
These are the five characters with which I try to define an act of governance: You would have understood it if I would have located my study of the genealogy of governance in a theologian context, because there, the peculiar bipolar of governmental power is perfectly aided. One of the main results of my investigation is t hat the history of western politics is the history of the crossing and the intertwining of two divided and yet unseperatable paradigms. Reign and government, Kingdom and governance, the father and the son, Sovereignty and economy, law and order, legitimacy and legality.
And we can now better understand why the fundamental problem of western public law has the form how to ground government in sovereignty, how to ground order in law, economical practice in juridical patterns. Legality in legitimacy. Very big problem in political theory.
Modern democracy can be seen from this perspective as a desperate attempt to link in a stable structure the two anarchical poles of the machine. But this is precisely why democracy is so fragile. Always exhilarating between a lack and an excess of government, always looking for an holy spirit or an charismatic principle that could be able to hold together the anarchic powers that it has inherited from christian theology. With few exceptions, modern political scientists and political philosophers fail to confront the two both poles of the governmental machine. Beginning with Rousseau modern theory began to consider sovereignty as the central political category and to reduce government to executive power. As a result, political philosophy, and this is especially true fort he democratic tradition, fails to understand the real nature of government and focusses instead on universal problems such as Law, State, Sovereignty. What my investigation has shown is t that on the contrary the real problem – the secret core of politics – is neither sovereignty nor law, it is government. It is not the king, but rather the minister, it is not god, but rather the angels, it is not law but rather the police and the state of exception. Or, more precisely: It is the governmental machine that function through the complicated system of relations that binds this two poles together.