At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, one meme circulating on the internet read as follows:
Character 1 – c’mon, how bad can this be?
Character 2 – Radical anarchists are urging people to obey the state.
Character 1. Shocked face.
For its issue #13, La Deleuziana invites original contributions on the theme of “the State of Institutions and the Institutions of the State” in the light of the current multidimensional crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the past decades, part of the academic debates on notions of global capitalism and neoliberal governance have been divided over the role of the state. Some, such as business management theorist Kenichi Ohmae, have readily claimed that state sovereignty —its authority over its population and its territory — has been destituted in the context of what seems to be an increasingly borderless world (Ohmae 1990; O’Brien 1992; Ohmae 1995). Post-structuralist critiques have adopted a more interesting approach by interrogating the locus of power in modern society. Drawing from the work of Michel Foucault, they have argued that modern political theory’s focus on the state has blinded it to the diffuse nature of power. Power circulates throughout society in various institutions that work “to conduct the conduct” of individuals and ultimately produce self-regulating individuals. The notion of state sovereignty, the production of norms through legal instruments, has given way to a focus on governmentality, technologies of power such as discipline, biopolitics, control, or surveillance.
An alternative thread of anarchist-inflected critiques of capitalism mobilize the concept of governmentality to argue that social change cannot be achieved by a direct confrontation with the state, but instead through tactics of engaged withdrawal, fugitive planning, and other circumventions (Bey 1991; Graeber 2005; Harney and Moten 2013). They advocate for the creation of intentional communities, which prefigure and enact the changes they seek to realize, in the cracks and vacancies of the state. These critiques also widen their focus from labor organization and economic production to new forms of exploitation, grounded in recent transformations in information and communication technologies. These new forms extend exploitation to forms of subjectivity and life itself, including its cultural, gendered, and racialized dimensions. With the state no longer conceived as the ideological apparatus or armed wing of the capitalist mode of production, the creation of non-state alternatives work to empty the state of its substance by showing its uselessness without directly engaging with it (Zaoui, 2013).
A final group of theorists argue that the contemporary state has simply been reconfigured in the contemporary world. For some, such as political theorist Wendy Brown (2010), the state reorganized its sovereign power around matters of territorial security and domestic order in a war against internal or external threats (e.g., immigration, terrorism, etc.), hence the worldwide proliferation of borders and walls. For others, such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000), a new form of sovereignty has emerged in which the nation-state has given way to a decentralized and deterritorialized power that they call Empire. Still others have shown that neoliberal governmentality does not necessarily entail a reduction of the state’s role in relation to the market. They emphasize partnerships, combinations, and sometimes competitions between nation-states and non-states forces, public actors and private actors, domestic jurisdictions and international laws, etc. Notions such as the anthropologist Aihwa Ong’s “graduated sovereignty” (2006), Marxist theorists Sandro Mezzandra and Brett Neilson’s “sovereign machine of governmentality” (2013), or architect Keller Easterling’s “extrastatecraft” (2014), these thinkers highlight complex models of multiple, plastic governmentalities (sovereign, disciplinary, biopolitical).
The Covid-19 crisis made it starkly clear that the state remains an important political concept at the center of relations of both power and capital. What role does the economy play in the face of the “biopolitical” demands to save lives, if not to ensure the reproduction of social relations? Various states of emergency, spaces of exception, travel restrictions, or border control have brought the juridical and state-centric model of sovereignty back at the heart of critical analysis (Agamben 2020, Butler 2020, Zizek 2020). However, the crisis has also laid bare the heterogeneous natures of states from “populist” (USA, Brazil, England), to “formerly socialist” (France, Italy, Spain), to “ethno-nationalist” (Israel, India) or to “social-democratic” (Germany, Sweden) regimes.
At the same time, the Covid-19 crisis illuminates what Etienne Balibar has termed a “deficient governmentality,” stemming from neoliberal policies of austerity that thoroughly dismantled public services (2020). This crisis has shown how important institutions, starting with hospitals and universities, are for the well-being of people. Yet, over the past decades, the state has systematically undermined its own institutions by overburdening their public services while cutting their budgets, constantly demanding they do more with less. To a certain extent, the current crisis results from the state’s paranoid deconstruction of its own institutions. This process might be better termed a deinstitutionalization of the state rather than its mere destitution.
Institutions are not solely based on imposing disciplinary norms through internalized constraints; they can be places where other modalities of social becoming are invented and nurtured. As a collective way of thinking and acting that pre-exist its individual members, institutions prevent the reduction of norms to rules imposed from the outside. Activists have long worked toward what might be termed a becoming-institution through the self-organization of factories, the occupations of universities, or the creation of mutual aid. Institutions also, and perhaps primarily, shape what is in common; they institute the common and inscribe it in time (in this sense we also call institutions language, religion, social media, etc.).
Amid the Covid-19 crisis, community-based initiatives have compensated for the state’s deficiencies (e.g. food distribution, mask manufacture, etc.), contributing to fostering the public conversation on the politics of the common. Are these initiatives simply intended to replace the failures of the state? Do they reveal the contours of a new, different kind of state? Do they contribute to the maintenance or renewal of “public services,” situated “halfway between the state and the Common” to use Balibar’s title? Public debate over the role of the state has not adequately addressed alternative models of institutions, that is, different ways of being in common. This question can reveal the fault lines between different political positions—for instance between the Comité Invisible (Invisible Committee) and Frédéric Lordon. While the former blames the latter for being unable to “picture a revolution that is not a new institution,” the latter defends a theory of “the general state” as the immanent production of the multitude’s power, a socio-anthropological necessity located at the borders of the political.
Finally, we would like to dedicate part of this issue more specifically to the question of the university since, as scholars and teachers, it is often the institution that concerns us the most directly. Worldwide, universities have been under attack by a dangerous combination of neo-liberal austerity and populist anti-intellectualism, which directly benefits economic and political elites who play into the hands of the far right. Remote teaching and online classrooms might represent a step toward the dream (or nightmare) of few prestigious universities to create and dominate a global market for education. In light of the crisis, we need more than ever a reconceptualization of education as a liberatory practice (Freire 1970, hooks 1994, Harney and Moten 2013).
At stake here is the possibility of developing collective reflections on “becoming-institution” — both the process of institutionalization of institutions and the converse movement of destitution of the already given. This includes, but it is not limited to, the institution’s modes of existence, its role of social organization, and its relationship with the state and political freedom. Rather than diagnosing institutional sclerosis, the main aim of this call for papers is to deconstruct the assumption that economic, social, political demands always hold institutions to ransom. Freed from these arborescent forms, institutions may unleash this double process of institution and destitution, undoing the tight knot of established power and clearing the way for radically new perspectives on the state of institutions and the institutions of the state.
Thank you to Quentin Badaire and Alexander Campolo for their helpful comments.
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