Revisiting the Concept of Revolution

A Conversation with Marcello Tarí

Translated and Edited by Nikola García

Emergent Conversation 15

This interview is part of the series Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power

Book cover, Marcello Tarí, There is No Unhappy Revolution: The Communism of DestitutionCommon Notions, 2021. Cover design by Josh Macphere recontextualizes January Suchodolski’s painting, “The Battle of Palm Tree Hill” (1845), which depicts a struggle between Polish troops in French service and Haitian slaves in revolt during the Saint Domingue Revolution. Public Domain, https://64parishes.org/entry-image/battle-for-palm-tree-hill-saint-domingue;  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_for_Palm_Tree_Hill.jpg.

In this interview conducted by POLAR Digital Editorial Fellow Nikola Garcia, Marcello Tarí explains how the framework of destituent power responds to the growing need to revisit the concept of revolution and move beyond the concept’s western-centric origins.  Marcello Tarí is a self-described “barefoot” researcher of contemporary political movements and struggle. He is the author of There is No Unhappy Revolution: The Communism of Destitution, recently translated into English and published by Common Notions.The age of revolution is back,” Tarí argues, “and with it, instability and uncertainty as major markers of our times.” Tarí has published works in both French and Italian and is also known for his Italian translation of The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection. In this conversation, Tarí discusses the contributions within this collection, his recently translated book, and his current research project on the spiritual belief and communal practices of early Christian communities. An attention to destituent power, he argues, enables a deeper understanding revolutionary processes beyond programmatic doctrines and political economic systems to instead understand how people develop new relationships to themselves, each other, and the broader world during processes of social upheaval.

Nikola García: The past 3 years have been marked by a wave of social upheaval and uprisings around the world, many of which has been written about by anthropologists in POLAR and on PoLAR Online. In this context, destituent power has emerged as a framework to understand the diversity of worldwide social movements that operate outside of the classical notions of political revolution.[1] Walter Benjamin, Mario Tronti, and Giorgio Agamben are the major western thinkers that have influenced this perspective and have all been influential in your recent work. In your own terms, what is the definition of “destituent power” and what is its relationship to “constituent power”?

Marcello TaríWhen, in 2010, I started thinking about destituent power, the idea came from reading an interview with Mario Tronti, the “father” of Italian Operaismo (Tronti and Vinale 2008)[2]. A good approximation of the definition of destituent power as opposed to constituent power, at least at the level of political theory, is Tronti’s assertation that the primacy of destituent power, “is not so much to the project of building something, but to destitute what there is, to put in crisis what already exists.” Tronti began his argument from the observation of an irreversible crisis of the modern subject and therefore of its formation, including the idea of the revolutionary subject as a part of the modern concept of revolution. According to Tronti, the defeat of the working class in the twentieth century put an end to the historical event of modernity and the subject of constituent power which Abbot Sieyes theorized in his famous 1789 speech “What is the Third Estate?” Once that revolutionary subject and that history are over and capitalism has won everywhere in the world, then destituent power takes on all its meaning.

Later, Giorgio Agamben expanded on the concept of destituent power through describing the messianic meaning of destitution, particularly through the categories that he derived The Letters of St. Paul (Agamben 2005). Finally, I found the text of the Colectivo Situaciones (2002), which drew on the concept of destituent power to describe the change of perspective that has taken place in Argentine social movements since 2001, to be extraordinarily enlightening on the impact of the Argentine insurrection against neoliberalism 20 years ago.

An attention to destituent power means an attention to the politics of crisis rather than politics of political power, even if this were conceived in revolutionary terms. Once we distinguish between destituent power and constituent power, I believe we can see that it is precisely the concept of revolution that needs to be profoundly revisited.  As Jean-Claude Milner (2016) shows in Relire la Révolution (Re-Read the Revolution), the problem is that the very concept was born in France in 1789 and remains the obligatory imaginary and normative reference point for all the following revolutions, from the Paris Commune to the Russian Revolution, up to the Chinese Revolution, and in general for all modern revolutionary movements. The normative categories contained within the concept of revolution all emphasize constituent power which, inevitably, binds our understanding of revolutionary processes to a dynamic of legal-state legitimacy. Some thinkers, such as Walter Benjamin, have tried to break that link by showing that it is necessary to internally split the concept of revolution.[3]

Our task now would then be to separate the thought and practice of revolution from its modern, Western-centric origins, and thus also from Marxism. If we remain ideologically linked to western-centric origins of the concept of revolution we will not get anywhere. And I say ideologically because reality has already taken charge of showing the fictive ideas within our understanding of revolution, which renders ineffective our analysis of revolutionary practices. What I propose, therefore, is to think of communism as a form of life and not as a doctrine or a political-economic system. It is a serious mistake to believe that the notion of communism is reducible to Marxism and the history of the organized labor movement. Rather, it is an inclination that has existed for millennia, with traces of it since the Bible.

Lately, I have been working on the idea of a power that is both destituent and instituting. Instituting is something very different from constituent power and it must be understood in the anthropological sense that was developed by Roger Bastide or even Victor Turner. It seems to me that if a destituent movement does not involve some form of construction which elaborates a positive social form, even if provisional, it would lack that minimum of realism necessary to really believe in its capacity to overthrow the world as it currently exists.

NG:  Many anthropologists, when turning outside this Marxist framework, have also found it useful to draw on the work of Victor Turner and the concept of liminality he developed to study ritual practice and belief. Igor Cherstich, Martin Holbraad, and Nico Tassi (2020) have written a great review of Victor Turner’s influence on political anthropology in their recently published book Anthropologies of Revolution: Forging Time, People, and Worlds. While the notion of liminality has frequently been used as a synonym for uncertainty, or even chaos, Turner understood liminality as part of a social process already known by its participants, in which people undergo a form of social death before being reborn. In rites of passage for example, a select group of people pass through a liminal state before they can change their position within an existing social order (or perhaps institute new ways to arrange their social order). Do you think a renewed attention to belief as a guiding element in social processes can help us better understand the destituent and instituent elements of revolutionary processes in ways that unsettle the “obligatory imaginary” and “normative reference point” of the French Revolution?

MT:  What I would like to propose is to think about the dynamic of “destituent instituting” (destituzione istituente), in theological-political terms and in terms of spiritual belief. For example, scholars such as Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben have already begun to do in their analysis of early Christian religious practice and the Letters of Saint Paul (Baker 2013).I believe that we could have a better understanding of this dynamic if we go deeper than Giorgio Agamben by contextualizing the Letters of Paul within the entire biblical narrative and social context from which the apostle himself drew the inspiration for his preaching. For example, in an interview recently published on e-flux with a colleague involved in an autonomous social center in New York City, I reflected on the communism of goods in the nascent Christian community of Jerusalem. (https://Tarì.e-flux.com/journal/118/391829/there-is-no-unhappy-love-the-communism-of-destitution/).

In my opinion, it is in the belief of Holy Spirit as a nonhuman social actor that shows a dynamic which is both destituent and instituting. If we look at the Gospels, especially at the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christian communities believe that it is the Holy Spirit’s actions that dismisses existential misery and the sickness of body and soul. Therefore, it is through the Holy Spirit that the dominant political and religious Law is dismissed. Along with this destituent element, the Holy Spirit also institutes a new form of being together, that is, an ekklesia (an assembly) in which koinonia (communion) culminates as a form of life. Within Christian spiritual belief, the Holy Spirit itself acts through the freedom of men and women by giving them the strength to overthrow sacrosanct structures when they become suffocating and oppressive. The power of the Spirit in the Scriptures appears to dismiss all worldly power, even to the point of dismissing death itself of its power over humanity, but at the same time it institutes a form of life, that is, it creates a new life.

Part of the early Christian belief in the Pentecost and the sharing of the Holy Spirit allowed for the creation of a community in which the primacy of individual property was displaced so that a new form of common life that breaks all social separation could be instituted. However, it is also important note that a foundation must never be identified with structures, which are always temporary and precarious. I am not only referring here to the structures of the State, but also to the structures of social movements and to the structures that we ourselves construct to understand them. It is when that identification and categorization occurs, as it always does in constituent power, that we become trapped.

NG:  The term form-of-life has come up several times in our discussion, which frequently has been used in discussions of how destituent power emerges in response to biopolitical governance. In this Emergent Conversation, Ryan Chance uses the term to refer to the everyday lives that South African shantytowns defend through politics of ungovernability. For scholars who study Greek and early Christian notions of life in their analysis of biopower, such as Giorgio Agamben, the form-of-life is defined as bios, the qualified and political life. This is contrasted with and in turn elevated above zoē, or “bare life”. How does an examination of destituent power differ from studies of biopower?

MT:  Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito take on an Aristotelian hierarchy to develop their ideas of biopower:  bios, the “qualified life”, that is the political life determined by social identities, is elevated above the zoē, the “bare life,” that is the biological life or the animal or the slave life. But the Christian Gospel subverts this hierarchy, especially looking at the Gospel of John where Eternal Life is called “zōē aionion.” This eternal zōē is immediately experienced here and now, and therefore is raised to the status of true and free life. As a result, it is zōē which constitutes the livability of the Kingdom. I believe that this reversal of the hierarchy is of enormous importance. The use of zōē in the gospel implies the destitution of every social identity, of every bios, in the process of instituting a communal form of life.

NG:  This elevation of zoē over bios is particularly interesting if we consider how many decolonial and feminist theorists have criticized Agamben’s scholarship for presenting a totalizing perspective of biopower. For example, in Blouin’s contribution to this Emergent Conversation, he concludes his analysis of Indigenous politics of restitution by calling for an examination of Indigeneity as a form of life to better understand Indigenous demands for justice and self-determination.

MT:  Blouin reminds us that it is important to acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples have an inviolable emotional relationship with their territory so that claims of Indigenous territorial sovereignty does not equate to claims that they are the masters of those lands. The “restitution,” in my opinion, should therefore be considered an affective and spiritual fact before being legal and political in the traditional sense. Or rather, political restitution should be a consequence of the recognition of the spiritual and emotional bond that a people has with a territory.

In my book I pointed out that the relationship with territory is something strategic and is revealed in the ways we inhabit it, in the use we make of it and in the way we let the territory act on us. This implies the examination of one’s relationship to territory not as “ownership” but instead as “affection. ” A territory is not reducible to a physical, geographic, and juridical datum because it is also a linguistic, cultural, historical, and spiritual composition. Therefore, we must become the “keepers” (custodi) of the territory, not its masters or occupants. For example, the philosopher Donatella Di Cesare speaks of living as “resident foreigners” in her book dedicated to the philosophy of migration (Di Cesare 2020). At the same time this term is an evocative theological, existential, and political image it also displaces the dominant image of national belonging. So, again, we should measure the norms and ideals of occupying territory against the ways we inhabit our homes in our neighborhoods or villages. It would never be possible to form a territory by pooling together separate, segmented spaces over which each of us has are own individual dominion and acted like little lords. Here, too, I believe it is useful to recall how Early Christians understood the Holy Spirit to have a role in shaping their communities and action in the world, “Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” That is, the Holy Spirit breaks down every boundary and belongs to no one in particular.

NG:  What also appears key to this idea of restitution, along your term “destituent instituting” (destituzione istituente) is that it entails more than transforming modes of governance. Instead, it also entails a broad transformation of political subjectivities.

MT:  I have always tried to show that the concept of destituent power only has meaning and utility if it is not only treated as something that concerns the deposition of external powers—governments, states, norms, laws, etc.—but as a power that also transforms the personal relationships to oneself, between oneself and others, and to the world. An attention to destituent power is therefore an attention to how people refuse their own social and existential identities while also attempting to change what is outside of them. As Paul says in the Letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer man or woman”—and I believe that in this sense turning towards the zoē, the element of life which all beings have in common, can be a more useful category for those who criticize Agamben’s representation of bare life. I realize that it is difficult to show all of this in a few words right now and I am still working on it, I hope to be able to show this perspective more clearly soon.

NG:  It seems like to a large extent destituent power gives a framework to understand the values and practices of those who seek to transform the world in the here and now. This is particularly pertinent when considering Sam Law’s analysis of how the Panchos’ distinct values and beliefs impact their struggle to confront inequality in the metropolis of Mexico City. As they adopt urban farming and food distribution along with protesting in their neighborhood, Law notes that such infrastructures confront an issue of scale as they are unable to provide all that is necessary for their community. Regardless, he argues that the Panchos value their attempts to institute new ways to meet everyday community needs as more than attempts to gain material self-sufficiency.

MT:  The relationship with the city and even more so with the metropolis or megalopolis is always dramatic. Yet it is always in the cities that revolutions take on their full meaning and fullest communal effervescence. For it is in cities that oppression and liberation practices reach a peak of intensity. You are right to emphasize that the Panchos find it important to remember that they ultimately seek to develop practices of liberation. When living in metropolitan territories, the quality of sharing is more important than the quantity, because the quantity of shared resources will always be insufficient when compared to scale of governmental welfare. The old socialism, in fact, was lost in the futile pursuit of quantitative accumulation at the expense of the quality of life. In the terms of the early Christian evangelical thought, we would say at the expense of agape (the highest form of love between man and God, God of man, and man of community). In fact, I believe that it is best to define a “real” revolution as a qualitative transformation of the world and of life, rather than in an activity of pure destruction and even less an activity of productive acceleration. I believe asking how experiences provide a qualitative transformation is a question of the utmost importance to orient us. It appears to me that we may unfortunately have too few examples and too few inspiring experiences, especially in the West. Perhaps there is also little courage on the part of activists. And of those experiences that do exist, I have the impression that they are not valued enough. Therefore, I don’t believe that we should be afraid to proceed from our small experiments in sharing with the caveat that we are not closed in on ourselves and within our small communities.

NG:  A central theme that has emerged in this Emergent Conversation is the relationship between local communities and self-defined revolutionary militants, activists, and community leaders. While Law, Blouin, and Magaña focus on activists, García and Chance describe the everyday work of people who do not believe their practices are a part of a broader, revolutionary process. What are the differences and similarities between the forms of life instituted by social movements and the forms of life instituted by people when attempting to solve their immediate problems, especially the precarious and the poor?

MT:  How to live is a central question for everyone. In my book, I provide a “Pauline” solution to what I call “the crisis of the figure of the militant.” A Pauline form of life is not based on a social and political identity. Instead, it is instituted when one’s own subjectivity relates affectively to alterity:  it is in covering the distance between me and the other without abolishing it that we receive our truest form. This means living “as not”: renouncing to represent oneself and refusing to act from one’s own ideological identity. Here again, one must become “poor in spirit” in order to truly share an existence with others. This would be a real revolution in how we live and understand the human condition.  As Kerry Ryan recounts, this could mean defending the existing forms of life of the poor against new laws or, as Walter Benjamin would say, against the catastrophe of progress. This, by the way, was the intent of the largely misunderstood Pier Paolo Pasolini.[4]

The biggest mistake we can make about destituent power is to consider it in the same way as any other, typically Western political concept. Even when such concepts are represented as revolutionary, they always operate in a homologating way that disregards historical and cultural differences. On the contrary, it should not be thought of as a concept at all but as a salvific praxis that creates its own subjects, a “wind” of justice that disarticulates every deceptive power, government and policy and establishes new forms of living and co-existing. A new world, we should know, can only begin to exist when a people of prophets appear in history who, driven and sustained by a force greater than themselves, begin again to spell out an alphabet of justice and creation.

Marcello Tarí is a “barefoot” researcher of contemporary struggles and movements. He is author of numerous essays and books in French and Italian, including Il ghiaccio er sottile:  Per una storia dell’autonomia (DeriveApprodi, 2012) and Autonomie!:  Italie, les années 1970 (La Fabrique, 2011). Tarí has lived in the last few years between France and Italy. There Is No Unhappy Revolution is his first book translated into English.

 

Nikola García is a cultural anthropology PhD Candidate at Emory University, Atlanta, GA. Their research interests focus on whether cross-racial interdependencies provide the conditions through which participants can articulate, debate, and implement their visions of how to rectify historic inequalities and colonial legacies. Their dissertation project, “Emergent Citizenships: Mapuche (Indigenous) and Chilean (non-Indigenous) Politics and Belonging in the Peri-urban (Santiago, Chile)” examines how Mapuche and Chilean neighbors have cooperated since the 1960’s land occupation movements to develop organizations and manage shared resources. They utilize traditional ethnographic methods, archival methods, and visual ethnography and employ ArcGIS and online mapping to spatially represent the transformations in neighborhood projects. In doing so, their research tests the hypothesis that Mapuche and Chileans’ history of neighborhood co-management has led to the emergence of intercultural citizenship practices that enable residents to articulate broader visions of how social and political life should be organized in Chile that contrast to the national discourses of neoliberalism. As a 2021 Digital Editorial Fellow, they have curated Emergent Conversation 15, “Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power.”

Notes

[1] For a timeline on how political theorists and writers have developed the term “Destituent Power” see Destituencies. 2020. “Destituent Power an Incomplete Timeline.” https://destituencies.com/2020/destituent-power-an-incomplete-timeline/.

[2] Operaismo as a political analysis and practice that emerged from Italy in the 1970’s. According to Pizzolato (2017), Operaismo emphasized “the autonomous agency of the working class, outside unions and political parties, in the form of grassroots activity and self-organisation on the shop floor and, later, beyond the factory; the idea that capitalism was reactive to the workers’ struggle (rather than its opposite) and workers’ struggles as a political variable uncontrollable by capitalism; a service role of intellectuals in relation to the working class, but not one of direction, in a Leninist sense; the recognition that technology was not a neutral tool, but one used to undermine workers’ control; the belief in the existence of a capitalist ‘plan’ to neutralise class conflict, in synergy with the economic policy of the state; the idea of ‘class composition’, in other words, the diverse composition of technical skills and the cultural and political identity of the working class; and the endorsement of sabotage and the refusal of work as legitimate forms of political action” (453-4).

[3] See McLaverty-Robinson (2013) for a review of how Walter Benjamin’s notions of messianic time sought to delink revolutionary processes from legal-state legitimacy. Messianic time, according to Benjamin, “is associated with the experience of immediacy, and the creation of non-linear connections with particular, past or future points. The present revolt is connected in spirit to past revolts. The present generation of activists is always potentially the messiah which past revolutionary movements were waiting for. If our own resistance ‘fails’ in the present, it may nevertheless be redeemed by some future movement, and is not in vain—unless the system wins so absolutely that the past is also ‘lost.’”

[4] See Fennel’s (2017) review of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life and work. Pasolini was an acclaimed Italian filmmaker, poet, and writer, from the 1960’s and 1970s whose “esoteric blend of poetry and politics, myth and history, passion and ideology, is harder to define yet equally impossible to ignore” (PAGENO, or link) In his later work, Pasolini distanced himself from theology—reflecting later that his Gospel contained moments of “disgusting pietism”—and moved towards the death of ideology and exotic escapism. Hawks and Sparrows (1966), Theorem (1968) and Pigsty (1969) represented his growing disillusionment towards any possible social alternative to a revolutionary future.”

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Trans. By Patricia Daily. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Baker, Gideon. 2013. “The Revolution Is Dissent: Reconciling Agamben and Badiou on Paul.” Political Theory 41(2): 312–35.

Cherstich, Igor, Martin Holbraad, and Nico Tassi. 2020. Anthropologies of Revolution Forging Time, People, and Worlds. Oakland: University of California Press.

Colectivo Situaciones, and Fontana, Edgardo, (eds.). 2002. 19 y 20, Apuntes Para El Nuevo Protagonismo Social. Buenos Aires: Ediciones de Mano en Mano and Colectivo Situaciones.

Di Cesare, Donatella 2020. Resident Foreigners. A Philosophy of Migration. Cambridge-Boston: Polity Press.

Fennel, Chris. 2017. An Introduction to Pier Paolo Pasolini. British Film Institute. Updated February 27, 2017. Accessed March 28, 2022:  https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/introduction-pier-paolo-pasolini.

Gavroche, Julius. 2020. “Colectivo Situaciones: Complete Works.Autonomies. August 17, 2020. Accessed March 28, 2022:  https://autonomies.org/2020/08/colectivo-situaciones-complete-works/.

McLaverty-Robinson, Andy. 2013. “Walter Benjamin: Messianism and Revolution—Theses on History.” Ceasefire. November 15, 2013. Accessed March 28, 2022:  https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/walter-benjamin-messianism-revolution-theses-history/.

Milner, Jean-Claude. 2016. Relire la Révolution [Re-Read the Revolution]. Paris: Verdier.

Pizzolato, Nicola. 2017. “A New Revolutionary Practice: Operaisti and the ‘Refusal of Work’ in 1970’s Italy.” Estudos Históricos (Rio de Janeiro) 30(61): 449-464.

Tarí, Marcello. 2021. There is No Unhappy Revolution:  The Communism of Destitution. Translated by Richard Braude. Brooklyn, NY:  Common Notions.

Tronti, Mario and Vinale, Adriano. 2008. “Potere destituente. a conversation with Mario Tronti.” In Potere destituente: le rivolte metropolitan [Destituent Power: The Metropolitan Revolt]. Milan: Mimesis.

 

 

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