The Roots of the Present Uprising: The Threefold Pandemic of Racism, Covid-19, and Disaster Capitalism

For my friend Alexey Ilyusha and his beautiful children

  1. What Can We Be? Destructive Potentialities

Barack Obama’s slogan, “Yes We Can,” the English version of the United Farm Workers’ slogan, “Sí, se puede,” was emptied of its real meaning by Obama’s failure to promote the sense of hope he so much liked to talk about. But talk is cheap, as they say. Obama’s promises and his ‘audacity’ melted before the very pathetic and ridiculous regard for his predecessor, G.W. Bush, possibly a war criminal. Obama decided that it was better to look at the future rather than try to establish degrees of accountability for the horrific crimes committed by the Bush administration after 9/11. Now we see what that future was: our present of disaster, vulnerability, and a stifled future, the nothingness of a time (not) to come—unless it is brought about by revolutionary desire. Now, Bush says he’s “anguished,” he and his wife are. But if he really were anguished, he would go and ask forgiveness from the people of Iraq. Yes, we can destroy, kill, and conquer. We can also, however, do the exact opposite –or perhaps, in a Spinozian, Nietzschean and Marxian fashion, not the opposite, but what is essentially different— destroy, yes, the old lies, destroy stupidity, and build a better world. We bear in mind the great lines from Sophocles’ Antigone, “Many wonders, many terrors, / But nothing more wonderful than the human race / Or more dangerous” (lines 332-334). Before we turn to the wonderful, let us continue with the dangerous and frightening, the despicable and –to say it in the manner of James Baldwin—the moral monstrosity. The Bush administration, before the vain promises and hopes of Obama, was the continuation of a history of contempt for life, what is dear in life, as well as contempt for intelligence and care. At the same time, Bush and his administration intensified the history of violence typical of this country, they enhanced disrespect and cruelty (with their “enhanced interrogations,” for instance, an idiotic euphemism for the torture inflicted on prisoners of war who, against the Geneva Convention, were not given the status of prisoners of war), and they promoted a culture of extreme violence and exterminism whose strange fruit is now apparent everywhere. Obama and his administration did not reverse course, but they instead strengthened and institutionalized, though in an apparently gentler (more liberal and thus more hypocritical) manner, that paradigm of violence. The war against intelligence continued under Obama as we saw the greatest ever number of prosecuted whistleblowers –though at the end of his second term, he did commute, to his credit, Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence; the drone assassination program initiated by Bush was escalated with Obama; the Guantanamo camp was not closed, and deportation of immigrants reached new heights. All these (and other similar) elements paved the way to the ‘current occupant,’ as some refer to the white and white-supremacist guy currently in the White House. (We even find mentioning his name offensive and odious.) The point is not to deny the historical importance of the election of Obama as the first Black president in U.S. history. Rather, the point is to see the continuation of business as usual under him, and thus the fact that his two terms in power ultimately constituted a useful link between what came before and after him, between these two times of great danger and, especially now, with the current occupant, especially if he is reelected (a very possible thing), of the looming end of civilization as such, the end of human care, where care is to be understood as the time between birth and death, origin and destruction. To be sure, this state of affair is not an absolute novelty, nor is it an exception; rather, it is the rule, which must be subverted and dismantled.


  1. What Can We Be? Constructive Potentialities

In a very sketchy and cursory way, I have attempted above to give a sense of the context in which the ontology of unrest expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement rests (and does not rest). The threefold pandemic of Covid-19, racism, and disaster capitalism constitutes what Walter Benjamin calls the time of now, the time for a real state of emergency, and thus the time for revolution. In his Eighth Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin says, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism” (257; emphasis added). I have highlighted what is possibly the most important moment in Benjamin’s passage. However, the final moment about the struggle against Fascism is today very important again, especially after the vile and odious attack against Antifa and Black Lives Matter itself by the current occupant. But let’s briefly look at each aspect of the threefold pandemic.


a) The Covid-19 pandemic started as a natural phenomenon (pace all conspiracy theory and negationist positions, typical for the most part of very reactionary and right-wing mindsets); it started as a health crisis. Much is still unknown about the novel Coronavirus, as epidemiologists and virologists say. A virus mutates. It is in the nature of viruses to do so, and this is, parenthetically, a form of perfection in the sense of Spinoza, if you will: they mutate in order to endure. Nothing wrong with that, one might say. However, containing or failing to contain the spreading of a virus is no longer part of the cycle of the virus itself. Viruses, whether they are life forms or not (this is still being debated in virology and biology), or perhaps forms at the threshold of life, they have a pattern and follow a cycle as all parasites do. Indeed, parasitology in general is a very fascinating subject. However, with a pandemic the mutation is not simply in the order of biology. There is another, perhaps more dangerous (or at least equally dangerous) mutation of the health crisis itself, for it reaches into the order of the economy and society, politics and culture, as we have seen and will continue to see with the current pandemic. Thus the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed all possible shortcomings and abuses in the mismanagement of governance and society. It is interesting to notice that, as we speak, the U.S. and Brazil, governed by the two most inept and dangerous among the extraordinarily many useless (and truly harmful) ‘leaders,’ have the greatest numbers of Covid-19 cases in terms of both contagion and deaths. But let’s leave this at that for now. The mutation, not of the virus, but of the viral crisis, has enhanced the society of surveillance and control under which we have been increasingly living for the past forty or fifty years, and certainly with the novel power of digital technology. It has changed people’s habits and routines, thus people’s ethos, in a way that seems to be, once again, an exception, but that in fact normalizes and institutionalizes to ever greater degrees. It has displaced economies, impoverished people who were already at the margins or near the margins of economies and society, and it has enriched those few who, as Marx says, “have long ceased to work” (1977: 873). It has exacerbated problems of economic inequality at the local and global levels. In the U.S. in particular, where Black and Latino communities have been hit hardest by the pandemic, it has also exacerbated structures of oppression and inequality that make up the history of racist violence of this country. This situation becomes particularly evident and dangerous when one looks at the concentration camps at the U.S.-Mexico border, where detainees are contracting the virus but lack adequate care, or have no care at all, and in the prison industrial complex, where the situation is similar to that of the camp and that just like the camp must be dismantled and abolished, as many voices, notably that of Angela Davis, in the prison abolition movement constantly point out.


b) Racism is another aspect of this pandemic, or rather it is a pandemic in its own right. I cannot now rehearse the history of racist violence in the U.S. Certainly, with the public lynching of George Floyd last May, something has happened whereby racism has become the primal mask of this country’s face. For some reason, this brutal police murder made racist violence more visible in its institutional and behavioral forms. Perhaps this was in part due to the fact that in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the police did not halt or diminish their attitude of extreme violence, but augmented it. What everybody saw in the police killing of George Floyd was the brutal and tragic contraction of centuries of racist violence: the beatings, the lynchings, the burning of houses and churches, and so on. Of course, police brutality cases are at the order of the day in the U.S. Just in the past few years, we can remember the names of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and in the past few months those of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. In fact, police brutality is a redundant expression, for the police are brutal in their very essence. This is not only true in places like Egypt or the Philippines, governed by more openly cruel and ruthless dictators, but in Western democracies as well, with the remarkable primacy of the U.S. Indeed, as Walter Benjamin says in a very important passage of his Critique of Violence, “And though the police may, in particulars everywhere appear the same, it cannot be finally denied that their spirit is less devastating where they represent, in absolute monarchy, the power of a ruler in which legislative and executive supremacy are united, than in democracies where their existence, elevated by no such relation, bears witness to the greatest conceivable degeneration of violence” (287). Perhaps the tide is beginning to change. Demands for defunding the police are growing exponentially after the murder of George Floyd, and in Minneapolis some weeks ago the City Council unanimously voted to disband the police department and replace it with community-led structures for safety and, I imagine, care.


Yet, in addition to the more institutional forms of the police, the prison, and the camp, this type of racist violence remains systemic at the behavioral, ideological, and, if I may use this word here, ‘private’ level. Right-wing and white-supremacist individuals systematically practice this type of violence with a strange, and obviously false, sense of legitimacy. But the fact that their sense of legitimacy is false does not mean that it is not real at the same time, with real and tragic consequences in the lives of others. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two white men, father and son (the father, a former police officer) last February is but one of the latest examples of this type of extreme violence. But since the death of George Floyd and the powerful protests of Black Lives Matter and other revolutionary movements and formations, we have been witnessing many cases of sick and sickening whites exerting violence or calling the police because, for instance, a Black or Brown person is walking in their neighborhood or is telling them to put their dog on a leash in accordance with the law, as it happened some weeks ago in Central Park. Often those who practice this type of violence are supporters of the current occupant. But it is important to notice that it is perhaps not the case that they think and act the way they do because they are his supporters, but the other way around: they become his supporters because they think and act that way. The current administration has given shelter and (an odious and false kind of) legitimacy to all these misguided people. Therein lies one of the gravest among the many dangers we face today. At the same time, the current occupant multiplies and intensifies his attacks against those who long and struggle for a better world and the possibility of happiness and the good life for all. In his latest speech, he attacked Black Lives Matter activists, but also the Marxists and anarchists, and so on. Truly, the whole thing comes down to a question of joy and sadness, in the sense of Spinoza, of love and hate. As Sigmund Freud says, “in the last resort we must begin to love in order that we may not fall ill, and must fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we cannot love” (66). It is then essentially a matter of health and care versus private and public illness and social pathology. It is the struggle between these two things: care and stupidity, love and hate, joy and sadness. But it is a struggle that presents the elements, the seeds, of a civil war, exemplified by the resentful and fearful stupidity of slogans like “All Lives Matter,” or “White Lives Matter,” trying to contrast the profound historical and ontological meaning of Black Lives Matter (which of course is a guide not only for Black and Brown people in the U.S., but, everywhere, for all those who have a sense of history, the ability to think adequately, the desire for love, happiness, and care, as well as the power, as potency, to move away from servitude and sadness towards freedom and joy. In other words, Black Lives Matter has nothing to do with identity politics.) This struggle is also exemplified by the war around monuments and statues. It started with the righteous demolition of monuments dedicated to racist people, like Christopher Columbus, and it has had a significant impact at least at the symbolic level. However, on July 4th, a statue of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass was torn down in Rochester, NY, in a retaliatory manner. Needless to say, Christopher Columbus signifies servitude and sadness, the history of conquest, enslavement, murder, and the brutal accumulation of capital; Frederick Douglass signifies freedom and joy, human accomplishment and love. Thus, all this whining about racist monuments being torn down –not to speak about the violent reaction to it—makes no sense whatsoever. Yes we can. As Nietzsche says in On the Genealogy of Morality, “If a shrine is to be set up, a shrine has to be destroyed” (65-66; original emphasis).


c) The third aspect of this pandemic –and, again, a pandemic in its own right—is provided by capitalism, and disaster capitalism. In Chapter 26 of Volume I of Capital, Marx says that “the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic” (874). The history of capitalism is, in fact, “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (875). Extreme violence –and racist extreme violence, at that—has been a constant of capitalist development from its beginning; it is the motor of its individuating process, its innermost thisness, and the sinister glow of capital as “a general illumination” (Marx 1973: 107). Marx says, “In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” in creating the preconditions of capital, its primitive accumulation (Marx 1977: 874). In fact, as I have said, in addition to constituting its preconditions, this form of extreme violence has continued throughout the centuries, and it continues today. It is in this sense that David Harvey prefers to speak of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003), a concept close to that of disaster capitalism, defined by Naomi Klein (2007). However, the extreme violence inherent in capitalist accumulation, expropriation and dispossession, its modus operandi, is always based on a logic of destruction and disaster, and in this sense it constitutes a terrible pandemic of its own. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels, interestingly touching on “the epidemic of overproduction” (163; emphasis added), point out that the crises through which capital proceeds always happen within the paradigm of violence, conquest, exploitation, and destruction we have seen above. Marx and Engels say, “And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented” (164). This is disaster capitalism, which brings about its own end, its own death, as it cannot withstand forever –or even just for long—the political struggles that will put it to rest. As Marx and Engels say, the capitalist and racist class is “unfit to rule because it is incompetent” (168). Indeed, “its existence is no longer compatible with society” (169).


  1. What We Can Be: Malcolm X and Working Class Kids

In an important page of his Autobiography, Malcolm X recounts the experience he had with his English teacher, a white man, when he was very young. He says, “I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day. I doubt that he meant any harm. It was just in his nature as an American white man. I was one of his top students, one of the school’s top students—but all he could see for me was the kind of future ‘in your place’ that almost all white people see for black people” (36). The teacher asked Malcolm what he wanted to be when he grew up, and Malcolm replied he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher said that one needed to be realistic. He told Malcolm that everybody liked him at the school, yet, he said, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger” (ibid.). He continued, “You need to think about something you can be” (ibid; emphasis in the original). And he advises Malcolm to consider becoming a carpenter. Malcolm X says that the more he thought about this, the more he felt uneasy. He repeats the fact that he was among the best students at the school, yet “apparently I was still not intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be” (37). Then, the most important moment in the whole passage is when he says, “It was then that I began to change—inside” (ibid.). It is this change, an ontological term, a term of unrest, that is intimately related to the ontology of potentiality, of the can. What can be? Indeed, from history we now know what Malcolm X could be. Negation produces transformation, and as Langston Hughes says in his poem, a dream deferred will explode. Hughes says, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun / Or fester like a sore— / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over— / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?” It is the explosion we are witnessing and participating in at the present moment, the now time of the convergence of negation and transformation, necessity and potentiality. In the midst of the global health pandemic, when all that seemed certain and unshakable is shaken and crumbles, what has long been deferred, kept from coming about, comes back with the potency of the possible, the “Yes it can be.” I have noted above that the Black Lives Matter movement has nothing to do with identity politics, but it has everything to do with human emancipation at all level of life: the dismantling of capitalism and all systems of oppression. The task of the present uprising is to reshape the world and make the good life, joy and happiness, available to all. What is obsolete and odious will have to be superseded and abandoned. The story recounted by Malcolm X can be applied to many other situations of oppression and exclusion, of negation and consequent transformation. To give just an example, I will quote the title of a great book that deals with much of the same problematic, where the central moment, however, is not race but class. I mean Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, which highlights the “counter-school culture” (52), the anti-intellectualism and the open attack on intelligence, so widespread today. This is very similar to what we saw in the passage by Malcolm X. Yet, the time has come for destinies of negation, servitude, and capture, to become lines of flight towards the poetry (as poiesis) of the future.

[Note: The Italian translation of this article can be found in Effimera: Critica e sovversioni del presente,, for which the article was written to begin with.] Link to the Italian version:


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations, trans.

Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken Books.

____________. 1978. “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott.

New York: Shocken Books.

Freud, Sigmund.1991. “A Note on the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis” (1912). In General

            Psychological Theory, edited by Philip Rieff. Simon & Schuster.

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University


Hughes, Langston. 1995. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage.

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York:


Malcolm X. 1964. The Autobiography as Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books.

Marx, Karl. 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin      Nicolaus. New York: Vintage Books.

_______. 1977. Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage.

Marx and Engels. 1994c. “The Communist Manifesto.” In Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H.      Simon. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1997. On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe. Cambridge, UK:

Cambridge University Press.

Willis, Paul. 1977. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class          

            Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Dark Times: Trump, Racism, Sovereign Violence, and the Banality of Evil

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is nothing less than terrifying. In the few days after the elections, he made it clear that the rhetoric of hate and violence that had characterized his campaign was not simply an expedient to get votes, but that had a real content and rested on a very precise, frightening ideology. This is the ideology of white supremacy, which brings together the most retrograde and politically violent groups in the US, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Christian fundamentalists, from Neo-Nazis to skinheads. The names Trump has been considering  for key positions in his administration all share his determination for establishing a society of law and order and a more or less open, explicit disdain for all people, all singularities that still go under the name of minorities.  From Stephen Bannon to Jeff Sessions and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to name just a few, all have a history of racist abuse and contempt for whomever they consider to be the other, who must be kept under surveillance and control, subjected to odious police practices such as Stop-and-Frisk in New York –a practice initiated by Giuliani, later found to be unconstitutional, but one that during his campaign Trump promised he would extend nationwide. As journalist Jeremy Scahill said on Democracy Now!, Trump’s cabinet will be made of neocons, war criminals, and white  nationalists (Democracy Now!, 11/21/2016:



Trump’s call for law and order is of course an ill-disguised mask for the total lawlessness characterizing sovereign violence. The symmetrical and inverted relation between the sovereign and those who are subjected to him (usually, it is a ‘him’) is the most basic trait of the sovereignty paradigm. Michel Foucault describes in this way the relationship between the body of the condemned and the king (1977: 29). Giorgio Agamben speaks in the same way of the two figures of the sovereign and homo sacer, the person who may be killed and yet not sacrificed, in other words, the person who may be killed at will (1998: 84). What we are witnessing at the dawn of Trump’s America is a return to this fundamental mode of sovereign power and sovereign violence. Trump has now explicitly rejected the idea that he may in any way be bound by the law ( In this, he is following Giuliani, who has recently said the same thing on a couple of occasions. On one occasion, during an ABC interview, Giuliani said that anything is legal in war (, showing a total disregard for international law, and in particular for those laws governing and regulating war, the rules of engagement. Leaving aside the fact that, for reasons I will mention in a moment, the word ‘legal’ is incorrect here, it is apparent that Giuliani is speaking –consciously or not—from the standpoint of the original theory of sovereignty, where sovereignty (the law) is constituted and preserved by exceptional violence. He is thus thinking of war in the pre-political sense highlighted by Thomas Hobbes in his fictitious account of the natural condition of humankind in Leviathan: war as a situation in which anything goes and “every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body” (1994: 80). However, for Hobbes what characterizes that condition is the absence of law, the neutrality of legal and illegal, just and unjust. To be sure, for Hobbes this original condition of violence (and terror) is transferred to and in the person of the sovereign (see Agamben 1998: 35).  The sovereign, who makes the law and truly is the law, is not bound by the law. He remains outside the law, above it, or at the peak, able to step outside the law and suspend it. The sovereign, “he who decides on the exception” according to Carl Schmitt (2005), is now the only one who has “a right to everything,” even to everybody’s body, to paraphrase Hobbes. Giuliani has in the past also applied these theoretical notions to the war against the poor and minorities in New York City. When he was mayor of New York, Stop-and-Frisk and other similar policing practices, which continued well after he stepped down as mayor, were instrumental in establishing an oppressive regime of law and order under the flawed assumption that, if there is a war, anything is ‘legal.’ In fact, as I have mentioned above, Stop-and-Frisk, which disproportionally targeted young African American and Latino men on the basis of racial profiling (thus claiming a right to their bodies), was later found to be unconstitutional.


Sovereign violence, the violence in which lawmaking and law-preserving are suspended in a spectral and nefarious exception (the violence defended and endorsed by Hobbes), becomes the true, if unnamed, subject of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. Although Benjamin uses the expression ‘sovereign violence’ in a completely different sense at the end of his essay, for he identifies it with revolutionary or divine violence (1978: 300), still sovereign violence in the sense in which we use it today (the sense stated above) is precisely what he is speaking about, especially as he deals with the police and what later comes to be known as sovereign policing. Parenthetically, the lack of Benjamin’s explicit focus on sovereign violence per se is explained by Agamben as possibly due to the fact that “in 1920, at the time Benjamin was working on the ‘Critique,’ he had not yet read Schmitt’s Political Theology” (Agamben 1998: 64). Agamben admits that sovereign violence should not be confused with divine violence, the law-destroying violence which is “lethal without spilling blood” (Benjamin 1978: 297). The latter is, we might add, the counterviolence of resistance. However, Agamben stresses that sovereign violence is neither lawmaking nor law-preserving. For him, sovereign violence is the “violence exercised in the state of exception.” It “clearly neither preserves nor posits the law, but rather conserves it in suspending it and posits it in excepting itself from it” (Agamben 1998: 64). He also says, “Sovereign violence opens a zone of indistinction between law and nature, outside and inside, violence and law” (ibid.). This is precisely Benjamin’s notion of police violence, in whose authority “the separation of lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended” (Benjamin 1978: 286). The generalization of police violence as sovereign policing in democratic societies is described by Benjamin as follows: “And though the police may, in particulars, everywhere appear the same, it cannot finally be denied that their spirit is less devastating where they represent, in absolute monarchy, the power of a ruler in which legislative and executive supremacy are united, than in democracies where their existence, elevated by no such relation, bears witness to the greatest conceivable degeneration of violence” (287). The type of police state looming after Trump’s election fits this description very well. Even if one only considers what I have already noted above, the possible spreading of Stop-and-Frisk and similar practices of surveillance and control on a nationwide scale, the configuration of what is coming should be readily discernible. As a matter of fact, Trump’s stated intention to build a wall at the US-Mexico border, to deport all undocumented immigrants, including those protected by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), to deny all Muslims entry to the US and implement a Muslim registry, extends and deepens the logic of sovereign violence and sovereign policing by making it reverberate beyond the confines of the American nation-state.


The movement that has brought Trump to power is informed (and most often misinformed) by global conditions of politics and the economy. Ultimately, all nationalisms represent a conflict between the global and the local, the particular and the universal. They emerge as a desperate (and obviously wrongheaded) solution to that conflict. This is also true of all racisms. It is true that, if Bernie Sanders had not been forced to give in to the Democratic Party machine, he might have had a chance to withstand and oppose the ideological forces that sustained Trump. Indeed, he might have swerved some of those forces into a completely different direction –away from populism and toward a socialist-like vision of the future. I have personally spoken to people here in Brooklyn who admitted they had supported Sanders and later switched their support to Trump, at times even just on the account that ‘after all a man is always better than a woman’ as president. Obviously, sexism, just like racism, fascism, and nationalism, belongs in the same type of defensive ideology (which then, like all defensiveness, soon becomes offensive) that works well for sovereign violence. Thus, it is true that, for all her terrible political past and untrustworthy plans for the future, Hillary Clinton’s victory would not have been as terrifying as Trump’s is. It would at least have carried some symbolic value in relation to the very important question of gender in the US and, as they say, it would have made history. It would have had the same historical and symbolic importance that the election of Barack Obama had in 2008. Moreover, with Clinton everything would probably have been business as usual, the keeping of the status quo. It is of course important to realize and stress that this status quo is in itself terrible.  Under Obama’s two terms in office, the degeneration of violence typical of the sovereign police has increased, on a global and domestic level. Notably, the drone assassination program initiated by George W. Bush was escalated, and it will not be ended before Obama leaves office, but it will be handed over to Trump’s terrifying political machine. In addition to this, under Obama, deportation of undocumented immigrants also increased to unprecedented levels; so did the persecution and imprisonment of whistleblowers. Indeed, the choice was between a terrible situation and one which is extremely terrifying. One way to understand this is to think about the ever-increasing levels of police brutality and terror in the US. At least, Clinton would and did meet and work together with a group of women, family of police brutality victims (Sandra Bland’s mother among them), who are organizing to end this racist and genocidal police practice. With Trump and the likes of Giuliani in power, the culture of impunity for sovereign policing will become a permanent exception. It will be unparalleled at the local level, in the cities and counties here in the US. But it will most likely also escalate in the various declared and undeclared conflicts and wars in which the US has been involved since G.W. Bush.


It is difficult to imagine something worse than the violence we are already sadly all too familiar with. From police terror to the violence of the prison-industrial complex, from engineered poverty to war atrocities of all kinds, what can be worse than this? I have already mentioned how under Obama, the seemingly cool, sophisticated, and highly educated president, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of hope and change soon after he took office, the violence mode was not reduced but augmented: Guantanamo was not closed, extra-judicial killing went on a rampant, and so on. The “original proximity” between the sovereign and the criminal described by Agamben in his short essay “Sovereign Police” (2000, 107) is now visible in its entire spectral splendor. As Agamben says, “There is no head of state on Earth today who, in this sense [namely, in the sense of being involved in sovereign policing], is not virtually a criminal” (ibid.; emphasis in the original, brackets added). The same of course is true of the police force engaging in sovereign policing at the local level everywhere. So, what can be worse than this? And yet, it can get worse than the worst with the resurgence, solidification, and spreading of what Hannah Arendt has called ‘the banality of evil,’ that is, to paraphrase Arendt, of people not realizing what they are doing (Arendt 1994: 287).


What Trump himself will say and do from now on is perhaps not even the greatest danger. He has already abundantly showed that he is an adept of the banality of evil, and, as unpredictable as he is, we can expect anything: a reversal of his positions, the reversal of the reversal, and the reversal of the reversal of the reversal. To be sure, this is very important and extremely dangerous. However, it is the people he is surrounding himself with that cast an even more ominous light on what is looming ahead. And yet, what is perhaps even more frightening than the possible actions of the future president and his cabinet is the heinous power Trump has unleashed at the level of political daily life and culture. He has certainly empowered groups and individuals that thrive on racial hatred. Although he is now saying he disavows them, it is likely that this only amounts to paying lip service to it, and, in any case, what he says now cannot shake their mistaken certitude of having finally found legitimacy. Any misguided, racist individual will now feel legitimated in harassing a Muslim woman on the streets for wearing a hijab. From David Duke, a Louisiana former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a Holocaust denier, and a white supremacist, to Richard Spencer, founder of the Alt-Right (short for ‘alternative right’) movement, a white supremacist group, Trump has invited a congeries of hateful individuals, groups and ideologies to come forward and establish themselves in a way that is now very difficult to contain. They have had, and they will probably continue to have, media attention. Perhaps in weakened, yet still troubling and disquieting, forms they will have an impact on daily life, for instance in the field of schooling and education. Teachers will be watched and tested in their classrooms, something which is already happening to an extent. For instance, as of now, the Alt-Right feels it can favorably compare Trump to Hitler, even if implicitly. Its members do so when they say ‘Heil Trump! Heil our people! Heil Victory!’ and use the Nazi salute (see However, if a teacher, in a critical way, draws a parallel between our present-day danger and the situation at the beginning of the Third Rich, he or she will be in trouble, under some type of suspicion (see  Yet, as even some alarmed scholars of the Holocaust have noted, the Holocaust did not begin with the death camps, but with words and ideology. The situation is very dire.


The gravity of the situation is underscored by the fact (unusual I think after a presidential election) that college and university administrations have issued statements to their students, especially in relation to the threat of deportation for undocumented immigrants, but also, more generally, to stress the values of tolerance and democracy that are supposedly foundational in US society and culture. Mayors of main American cities (including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles) have declared their cities sanctuaries for immigrants threatened by deportation. A nationwide movement of faculty, students, and staff, has also sprung up within college and university campuses to adopt the same policy of resistance and declare themselves sanctuaries. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets throughout the country in the days after the election, including many protesting just outside Trump Tower in Manhattan, in what seems to be a growing movement of resistance against the logic of sovereign violence and the banality of evil that triumphed with Trump’s election. Those of us who teach or engage in other educational and political activities are well aware of the very dark times ahead, the looming danger. The need for strengthening critical thinking and education has never been greater. Indeed, due to the widespread acceptance and inadequate application of the notion of freedom of speech, many hide behind the platitude that ‘everybody is entitled to their opinion.’ It must then be shown that, however, the truth has nothing to do with entitlement. In other words, it must be shown that, regardless of anyone’s opinion, the odious views expressed during the presidential campaign and after the election by Trump and his many violent supporters, including the members of the Alt-Right movement (from misogyny to racism, from homophobia to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism), before being politically problematic and morally despicable, are logically and ontologically inadequate and wrong. What I am saying is that any supremacist ideology, before becoming politically and practically dangerous, is theoretically fraudulent and logically flawed. It makes a claim that cannot be sustained by any sensible argument, and, because of this, it needs to resort to violence. When this type of ideology is allowed to pass unchecked, it opens the door to the mode of thoughtlessness that for Hannah Arendt was at the roots of the banality of evil. What now must be done is resist and seek to deactivate all of this, as resistance starts with thoughtfulness, with thinking.



Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel

Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

______________. 2000. “Sovereign Police.” In Means without Ends: Notes on Politics,

translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1994. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York:

Penguin Books.

Benjamin, Walter. 1978. “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections, translated by Edmund Jephcott,

277-300. New York: Schocken Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan

Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1994. Leviathan. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Schmitt, Carl. 2005. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, translated

by George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


This article was first published in Italian (translation by Andrea Fumagalli) in EFFIMERA: CRITICA E SOVVERSIONI DEL PRESENTE (


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Sovereign Violence and the Ethics/Esthetics of Resistance

Diversity Week

Nov 3, 2016: Social Justice: Moving Past Tolerance

MAC Rotunda (M-240)

(Below is the text I read today at the Social Justice Conference at Kingsborough Community College)

Sovereign Violence and the Ethics/Esthetics of Resistance

(Bruno Gullì, Assistant Professor, Philosophy)

I want to start with a quote from Walter Benjamin. In an essay called Critique of Violence, he says that “though the police may, in particulars, everywhere appear the same, it cannot finally be denied that their spirit is less devastating where they represent, in absolute monarchy, the power of a ruler in which legislative and executive supremacy are united, than in democracies where their existence, elevated by no such relation, bears witness to the greatest conceivable degeneration of violence” (287). In this essay, Benjamin looks at the twofold function of violence as lawmaking and law-preserving (law enforcement). He says that police violence is “emancipated from both conditions” (286), in the sense that it really subsumes (or includes) both. Indeed, Benjamin says, “the ‘law’ of the police really marks the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent connection within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system” (287) its promise of security and order. At that point, you have the power of the police, which is “formless, [just] like its nowhere tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states” (ibid; brackets added). This is especially true of the society of surveillance and control in which we live today: the society of war and the prison industrial complex (a new documentary shows that 80% of those held at Rikers Island have not been convicted of a crime), of police brutality and solitary confinement. Hence, this power, this violence, is all too real, and it is supreme. The police thus become the sovereign police.

In a short essay called “Sovereign Police,” Giorgio Agamben writes, “The sovereigns who willingly agreed to present themselves as cops or executioners, in fact, now show in the end their original proximity to the criminal” (2000: 107). Indeed, as he says, “There is no head of state on Earth today who, in this sense, is not virtually a criminal” (ibid; emphasis in the original). By taking on the character of the police, the sovereign shows its proximity to the criminal. Yet, the police do the same as they take on the character of the sovereign. In fact, what is close to the figure of ‘the criminal’ is precisely the figure of the sovereign. They are both outside the law, or they are at the limit, inside and outside at the same time. As Carl Schmitt says, the sovereign is a borderline and paradoxical figure.

This situation is explained by Agamben as follows, “the police are perhaps the place where the proximity and the almost constitutive exchange between violence and right that characterizes the figure of the sovereign is shown more nakedly and clearly than anywhere else” (104). This is a reference to Benjamin’s description of the twofold function of violence as lawmaking and law-preserving. That the substance of law, right as law, is violence, is something that Thomas Hobbes, long before Benjamin and from a completely different point of view, had already demonstrated. In this sense, the law is nothing but institutionalized violence. For Hobbes, the law is the result of the process of transferring to the sovereign the originary violence of the state of nature, where there is a war of everyone against everyone. Indeed, in Hobbes, the word ‘right’ names that original violence in a rather direct and distinct way. In the state of nature, a state of war, “every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body” (Hobbes 1994: 80; my emphasis). This is the type of right transferred –by “a voluntary act,” Hobbes holds (82)—to the sovereign. The sovereign will establish the law; in fact, the sovereign will be the law, namely, he will be (usually it’s a ‘he’) the common, coercive power that keeps everybody “in awe” (76) “by the terror” of punishment (89). I hope it is clear at this point how the nature and substance of the law are nothing but violence, or the threat of violence. If we follow Hobbes, we see that the law allegedly finds its legitimacy in the voluntariness of the act whereby the sovereign receives everybody’s right, power, and freedom. However, it is easy to show that this is pure fiction and that consequently there is no legitimacy whatsoever, but only the never-abandoned possibility of going back, if need be, to raw violence and terror.

The ability to resort to raw violence and terror is inscribed in the character of both the sovereign and the police, and it characterizes the sovereign police in an eminent way. This is also the proximity between the figures of the sovereign, the police, and the sovereign police on the one hand and the criminal on the other. It is the character of the outlaw, in a literal sense. The sovereign has to have the ability to step outside the law in order to suspend, change, or reassert it. This is the state of exception, or state of emergency. This is what typically happens in declaring war, throughout the course of war, in situations of strong institutionalization (such as the prison, capital punishment), and in cases of police brutality. The state of exception can become permanent, as is the case today both at the global level and within each country, each city.

Today, despite the crisis of sovereignty at the level of the nation-state (i.e., the Westphalian model of sovereignty), we are witnessing a newly arising form of it, precisely in the sense of Agamben’s notion of the sovereign police. But sovereign police means not only that policing now happens on a global scale (i.e., that even heads of state can be arrested, removed, and executed, as highlighted by Agamben, or more importantly, that entire populations can be kept under a regime of surveillance and control), it also means that the police everywhere retain the character of the sovereign. They act according to the modality of absolute and supreme power typical of the sovereign. Basically, they act as if they had power of life and death over their subjects, namely, those who are subjected to them.

Perhaps the emergence of the sovereign police is based on the assumption that there is an immediate and undisputable identity between law and justice, and it is this relation that Walter Benjamin examines in Critique of Violence. The relation between law and justice is a very problematic issue. For simplicity’s sake, let me say that there are two ways of understanding it. One is to reduce all justice to the law, as Hobbes does, for instance. In one of the most important passages in Leviathan, Hobbes says, “Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice” (1994: 78). For Hobbes, in the natural condition of humankind, in the “war of every man against every man, this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust” (ibid.). Contrary to this, the second position points out the existence of a sense, a horizon, of justice over and beyond the law. This is what we usually mean today when we speak about social justice; and this is what in the past has been named in various ways: divine justice, natural law, moral law, and so on. Both positions are problematic. The former because it basically says that if there is no law, anything goes, and everything is permissible. Not only that, it also rules out the notion of an unjust law. The latter is problematic because it raises the difficult question of how and where to locate this sphere of justice beyond the law.

In the context of this discussion, there is little to add to the first position, the reduction of all justice to the law. I have already said enough about Hobbes, who is certainly one of the most representative thinkers in that sense. Instead, I want to say more about the second position, the notion that there is a sphere of justice beyond the law, a sphere which is really independent from the law. This is certainly the notion we find in Kant’s moral philosophy, the distinction between ethics and the law, the autonomy of what he calls the moral law. Yet, the split between ethics and the law, the problematic relation of law and justice, can be found in many works and authors, ancient and modern. What is important is that this opens up the question of the ethics (but also the politics and esthetics) of resistance; in particular, what in modernity is known as civil disobedience. I want to say a few words about this on the basis of Sophocles’ Antigone and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

In Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter and half-sister, sets about burying her brother Polyneices in contravention of the emergency decree of Creon, new king of Thebes and Antigone’s uncle. Antigone’s two brothers, and Oedipus sons and half-brothers, Polyneices and Eteoclês, simultaneously killed one another as they were fighting against one another. Creon decides that Eteoclês, who was fighting on his side, will receive all the proper burial and so on, while Polyneices, who was fighting against him in the civil war that followed Oedipus’ death, will be left unburied, his corpse to be destroyed by birds and dogs. Eteoclês is to be honored as a hero; Polyneices banned even in death, as a criminal, terrorist (we might say today), and traitor. Creon also establishes that whoever dares contravene his order will be executed by stoning. Failing to enlist her sister Ismene (also Oedipus’ daughter and half-sister) in her cause, Antigone goes ahead and buries her brother. Ismene, on the other hand, takes a very legalistic position: We can’t do this because we can’t go against the law. But for Antigone, Creon’s law is null and void compared to what she calls the unwritten, unfailing law of the gods below. She defies Creon and his state of exception: Who are you, a mere human being, how dare you go against the unchanging law of justice? In an act of ethical, political, and esthetic resistance –an early act of civil disobedience, Antigone defies the sovereign. To be sure, she is executed, but then everything turns against Creon and the city of Thebes, destroyed by misery and the plague. Creon himself becomes a miserable man by the end of the tragedy.

The tragedy highlights the rift between justice and the law as well as the violence which is constitutive of the law. At the end of Critique of Violence, after highlighting once again the “pernicious” (1978: 300) dimension of both lawmaking and law-preserving violence, Benjamin suggests the notion of revolutionary or divine violence, which is law-destroying. Contrary to the former type of violence which is “bloody,” divine violence is “lethal without spilling blood” (297). I bracket the fact that Benjamin also calls divine violence “sovereign violence” (these are the very final words in his essay). In fact, I have been using the expression “sovereign violence” in a completely different way. What Benjamin means is that, if we apply his analysis and description to Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone’s decision, her act of defiance, is ‘sovereign’ in its own way. Yet, due to my problematization of the concept of sovereignty, I here part with Benjamin’s account.

What is important, rather, is to grasp how Antigone’s position and action call into question the stability and self-assurance (and self-referentiality) of the law. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King addresses the distinction between ethics (or justice, social justice) and the law by saying that “there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws” (1992: 89). He continues, “I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all” (ibid.). For Augustine, a law is just or unjust depending on whether it coincides with the moral law. Any law, just or unjust, is human-made; however, the moral law, with which any human-made law may coincide or not, is “eternal and natural” (ibid.). King’s philosophical reference is not Kant but St. Augustine, and he also refers to St. Thomas Aquinas. King says, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (ibid.). From this it is clear that his description of the just or unjust law is not simply moral in character, but it is existential (political and esthetic as well). King applies his distinction, between the power to uplift and the power to degrade, to the segregation laws of his time, which is the issue he deals with in his Letter, and he shows with logical and moral (but also political and esthetic: existential) rigor why they are wrong. We can apply the same distinction to today’s laws and practices based on racial profiling, such as stop-and-frisk or broken windows policing. King says, “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority” (ibid.). This false sense of superiority is, once again, typical of the sovereign police. Yet, all is the result of the construction of a false, ideological conception of the world, which happens through and by means of violence. This is what informs King’s view of right and wrong, namely, the distinction between the true and the false; or, to use Spinoza’s language, the distinction between adequate and inadequate ideas. In this sense, King introduces the crucial distinction in his work between obedience and disobedience. One has to obey what is “morally right” and disobey what is “morally wrong.” To oppress is morally wrong; to resist oppression is morally right. It is in this sense that King could “urge” people to disobey what was wrong, something that his critics called incitement to violence. Yet, with an explicit reference to civil disobedience and to Socrates who, King says, practiced it, he shows that the origin of violence lies in the system of injustice that makes acts of resistance necessary. Indeed, for King, the fact that resistance may precipitate violence is not a good reason to call it off.  He says that “it is immoral to urge an individual to withdraw his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest precipitates violence” (92). We would here have to deal with the work of Frantz Fanon and his concept of counterviolence, namely, the acts of resistance that precisely counter violence. Yet, what I have said above speaking of Antigone and of Benjamin’s concept of divine violence may guide our thought. To go back to Martin Luther King and thus conclude, the essential point is that “[o]ppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever” (93).


Works cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 2000. “Sovereign Police.” In Means without Ends: Notes on Politics.       Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Benjamin, Walter. 1978. “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, 277-300. New York: Schocken Books.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1994. Leviathan. Indianapolis: Hackett.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1992. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).” In I Have a Dream:   Writings and Speeches That Changed the World, edited by James M. Washington.  New York: HarperOne.

Sophocles. 2001. Antigone. Translated by Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett.

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Migrant and Refugee Crisis in Europe

Social Justice: Moving Past Tolerance

Diversity Week

Nov 1, 2016: Immigration Day

MAC Rotunda (M-240)

Kingsborough Community College – CUNY

(Below is the text I read today at the Social Justice Conference at Kingsborough Community College)


Migrant and Refugee Crisis in Europe

(Bruno Gullì, Assistant Professor, Philosophy)


I want to thank Professor Indira Skoric and the other organizers of this important day event for giving me the opportunity to share with you some reflections on the so-called migrant and refugee crisis in Europe, and really on a global scale. I say so-called because, as I will try to argue in a moment, the crisis should indeed be individuated at a different level –not at the immediacy of those who, displaced by war and other human-made disasters, have to endure the difficult experience –if not the nightmare— of migration, exit, and escape, but rather at the level of the ‘grand politics’ of the nation-state. I will not be concerned here with the technicalities of the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ migration, but I will treat the issue as an existential one, an existential experience and a way of being in the world. In this sense, the distance between the figure of the migrant and refugee is already reduced and perhaps eliminated. We can then consider the two figures as interchangeable, or look at them in light of their intersectionality. The refugee is certainly also a migrant, and the migrant is in many ways also a refugee. However, the question we will be concerned with here is that in both cases –of the migrant and refugee – the crisis is elsewhere.


I want to quote at length from a book by Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher. The book is titled Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, and it was originally published in 1995. Agamben says, “If refugees (whose number has continued to grow in our century, to the point of including a significant part of humanity today) represent such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state, this is above all because by breaking the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality, they put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis. Bringing to light the difference between birth and nation, the refugee causes the secret presupposition of the political domain –bare life—to appear for an instant within that domain” (Agamben 1998: 131).


Let’s begin with the concept of bare life, which is also included in the book’s title. Bare, or naked, life becomes, according to Agamben and other thinkers, a concern –perhaps the main concern—of the modern political paradigm, the biopolitical mode of governance, whereby the control of entire populations becomes necessary. Bare life is “the secret presupposition of the political domain” in the sense that this biological, natural fact is extended into the political domain and becomes its ground. There is a difference between birth and nation, nativity and nationality, the former being a biological occurrence, the latter a social and political construct. Usually, this difference is forgotten under the assumption (a false and ideological assumption) that we belong in a nation by right of birth, and thus our nationality is understood as a biological given. We are citizens, have a passport, and so on. But our citizenship or passport can be revoked, our legal, political, civil rights taken away. We can be expelled, banned, forced into exile, solitary confinement, and so on. We are then thrown back into a condition of bare life, where anything can happen to us, and there is no protection whatsoever. This is the meaning of ‘homo sacer,’ sacred man, in the title of Agamben’s book. Homo sacer is the person who can be killed and not sacrificed; in other words, the person who can be killed at will, made to disappear in the depths of the ocean, the desert, a solitary confinement cell, a ghost prison. The figure of the refugee causes this hidden reality, this hidden truth, to appear. As Agamben says, today we are all “potentially homines sacri” (sacred men and women; 84); we can all become refugees –and to an extent we already are.


In the passage I quoted above, Agamben speaks of “the originary fiction of modern sovereignty.” This is what really is in crisis. The modern nation-state, which formally emerged with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, was already a reality since the beginning of the modern age itself –we can choose the year 1500 as a useful divide, or perhaps the year 1492 would be an even better choice. The modern nation-state makes its crisis reverberate on a global scale. The history of the modern nation-state, the history of sovereignties, is, as another thinker, Jean-Luc Nancy, says, “a history of violence.” We know: the history of conquest, of genocidal attacks against indigenous people (that continue to our own day), the emergence of capital, now in its neoliberal and most determined form. This is the meaning of the word “fiction” in Agamben’s quote. Modern sovereignty, the modern form of the nation-state, is a fiction because its claim to legitimacy is empty and void. There is no legitimacy whatsoever, but only violence or the threat of violence. Borders, for instance, have no other validity than what the self-referential nature of the law assigns them. Yet, it is at the borders, in the twilight zone that defines them, that the contradiction, the truth, comes to the fore. There, the possibility of bare life appears.


Let me switch gears and focus on the situation in the Mediterranean for a moment. For the past few decades, the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea has become an important venue for migrants and refugees to seek security and a better life in Europe. Often, during the crossing, hundreds of people die in tragic shipwrecks determined by European policy on the one hand and the recklessness of smugglers on the other. But before I offer some reflections based on personal observation in the area of Southern Italy, it might be good to ask again the question of what causes this ‘crisis,’ that is to say, the question of dispossession and displacement, of economic and existential insecurity that forces people away from their places of origin. The twilight zone of the borders is not to be found only where borders are marked and recognized as borders, but even within the confines of any given political entity (a country, a city), which is supposed to have unity and security. In this sense, I want to remind you of the situation that gave rise to the Arab Spring, which certainly complicated and worsened the so-called migrant and refugee crisis in Europe (think about the horrifying consequences we are still witnessing of the collapse of the Syrian political and social fabric, or think of Libya). The Arab Spring started after Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor immolated himself at the end of 2010. He set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, and he later died of his wounds on January 4, 2011. His death brought down the 22-year-long ‘presidency’ of Ben Ali in Tunisia –a clear example of the lack of legitimacy in sovereignty and the modern nation-state. Bouazizi’s sacrifice was the ultimate act of resistance and defiance of a young man who had reached the bottom of hopelessness and despair in a situation of systemic police brutality and state violence. Burdened with debt, Bouazizi had tried all he could to support himself and his family. The Tunisian police had often harassed him on the basis that he did not have a license to sell on the streets. Then, on December 17, 2010, they confiscated his merchandise, mistreated, and humiliated him once again. They had destroyed his humanity, his dignity, and Mohamed reacted in the tragic way we know.


Bouazizi has become a symbol, but he was an actual human being, whose humanity was crushed by the state and its police. However, what determined Bouazizi’s situation and his tragic death was not simply the local and corrupt police force and the equally corrupt and repressive government of Ben Ali, but also the global and neoliberal forces of capital creating unlivable conditions for the vast majority of people everywhere. This is what causes displacement and migration on a global scale. Debt, unemployment, and poverty are material instruments of violence equal to the brutality of the police or the agony and misery of war. They all participate in the making of a global political order that maintains itself in power by exploiting, marginalizing, oppressing, humiliating, and crippling people’s lives –indeed by killing and exterminating them.


Bouazizi was a worker, but he was destitute. He was a worker, but didn’t have a job. He was unemployed. He worked anyway in the so-called informal sphere of the economy. He was brought to the point that he could not even do that. Many young men from Tunisia, other countries in North Africa, and those in sub-Saharan Africa undertake the nightmarish journey from Africa to Europe, about which I will say more in a moment. Bouazizi did not do that, did not migrate or cross the border. As is common in the informal economy, his life became work and his work became life. The two, life and work, coincided. Indeed, migration is one of the most striking examples of the identity, in contemporary societies, of work and like and the disappearing of the distinction between the time of life and the time of work, between being at home and not being at home. Migration calls into question the existence of borders, including the border between life and work. Obviously, the condition of migration –alienation and homelessness—can be experienced in one’s own place of origin, one’s own country, either because of internal migration or because of a type of displacement that is perhaps more subtle, less visible in its process, yet no less destructive. The latter type is the homelessness experienced by an increasing number of people in the world’s largest cities that brings about anxiety and depression, fear, and loneliness, as marginalization, unemployment, underemployment, poverty, and oppressiveness rise. The self itself is thus displaced. One is lost in a meaningless world with the injunction to go on, live and work, or try to find work and make a living in conditions that are entirely destructive of the human spirit. This was the experience of Bouazizi in Tunisia, but it is also the experience of a multitude of people throughout the world. It is a borderline experience, where extreme danger is constant.


Unlike Bouazizi, those who do choose to migrate do not do so in ways that are less compulsory and potentially fatal. Migration, whether we think of the US-Mexico border or the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea or any other specific context, always presents the same general characteristics. It is a central moment in the friend-and-enemy logic. The migrant, or the refugee, is the potential or actual enemy. Usually, little thought is given to the fact that irresistible and unavoidable forces determine migration. People lose their source of livelihood in their places of origin and their right to remain where they are. They are forced to embark on a journey whose outcome is uncertain and that all too often ends tragically. Those who make it potentially face all kind of violence in the new places where they try to work and build a new life. The violence goes from arrest and deportation to discrimination, exploitation, constant humiliation, and even murder. The violence is institutional as well as noninstitutional. Of course, there is a difference between legal and illegal migration, but, as I have said earlier, in the context of this discussion, which does not deal with the technicalities of the law but the political and ethical and existential issue, that difference can be overlooked. The institutional kind of violence that often sets in is similar to the violence of gangs and organized crime to the point that it is difficult to say which is more original, which mimics and reproduces the other. (In this sense, I may suggest the movie Sin Nombre, which describes the journey of Central American migrants through Mexico to the United States).


To go back to the Mediterranean area, to Europe as a field of struggle, as some say, let me give an example from personal observation. It has to do with the situation in Lampedusa, a tiny and beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Tunisia. Belonging geographically to Africa but politically to Italy, Lampedusa has become one of the main ports of entry to Europe for many African –as well as non African—migrants. They undertake the perilous journey across the Mediterranean leaving from Libya, where they often arrive after a similarly dangerous journey across the Sahara and where they are often abused, imprisoned, and tortured. Finally, they find themselves in the hands of cynical human smugglers, who very often leave the migrants to their own fate in the open sea. In a book called Darkness before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today, published in 2012, Hans Lucht notes, “How many people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean is unclear” (p.120). Terrible tragedies keep happening, where each time hundreds and hundreds of people die. In the meantime, the Mediterranean has become increasingly militarized. The Italian navy now intercepts fishing boats arriving from Libya on the high sea before they get to Lampedusa, identifies the migrants, and sends them to detention centers throughout Italy or back to Libya and other African countries. Those who are not sent back become the target of what is often described as a vicious policy, for having been fingerprinted and identified in Italian territory, they will in the future –by a European Union Law— not be able to move to other European countries, which is what most migrants who arrive in Lampedusa and Italy desire and intend to do.  There is an expression that describes this situation, ‘Fortress Europe,’ to name a Europe inaccessible to what is deemed to be ‘irregular’ migration. Just think about the camp in Calais, France, known as ‘the Jungle,’ where migrants from all parts of the world had been living, waiting to find a way to go to the UK, before it was demolished by French authorities this past week. This brings us back to Agamben’s concept of bare life, and the way in which it may always reappear. Interestingly, in the same book Agamben also says that the camp has become the paradigm of political modernity.


And I stop here –though of course much more could be said about this important issue. But perhaps we may have some time for discussion.

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Lazzarato, Foucault, and the Cynics: Highlights


-for Nino


In the final sections of Signs and Machines, Maurizio Lazzarato reads Foucault’s last lectures at the Collège de France (Foucault 2011), which he compares with the philosophy of the Cynics and contrasts with that of Jacques Rancière. One of the notions he highlights is that of parrhēsia, telling the truth. Parrhēsia is “the ‘seizure of speech’ of someone who rises in the assembly and takes the risk of stating the truth concerning the affairs of the city” (Lazzarato 2014: 227).  The point is to understand the question of democracy and the role that equality might play in it. Lazzarato criticizes Rancière’s distinction between politics and ethics and endorses Michel Foucault’s ethico-political –and in the sense of Félix Guattari, existential—project.


Lazzarato argues that true democracy is not discursive or formal, but existential, and it has to do with the production of new subjectivities, singularities that –through ‘ethical differentiation’ (Foucault’s phrase)—break with and escape the social subjections and machinic enslavements of the system of capital. “The creation and production of the new are not made possible through knowledge, information, or communication, but through an existential mutation, a transformation, which involves the non-discursive focal point of subjectivity” (222-223). For Lazzarato, it is this existential transformation, a “transformation of the self” (225), that Foucault and the Cynics (and Guattari, for that matter) allow us to think and hopefully experience and practice.


Lazzarato points out that “Foucault’s last lectures resonate with Guattari’s aesthetic paradigm, with his understanding of politics as invention and experimentation” (225). Earlier in the text, with a reference to Vico’s “topical art,” Lazzarato speaks of Guattari’s notion of existence as self-existentialization (211), namely, the “self-relation to the self, self-affectation, and self-positioning” (ibid.). Self-existentialization happens through parrhēsia (truth-telling) and experimentation. And insofar as it entails “a critique of existing society,” it is “revolutionary” (Foucault quoted in Lazzarato: 225).


What is revolutionary is the production of a new ethos and a new self, “new forms of subjectivation and singularity” (227). This happens through the “ethical differentiation” provoked by parrhēsia, truth-telling. Lazzarato then highlights the difference among four notions Foucault works with: parrhēsia (truth-telling), politeia (the constitution that guarantees the equality of all citizens), isēgoria (the right to speak), and most importantly, dunasteia, which represents the ethical differentiation “because it means taking a position in relation to the self, to others, and to the world” (230). Dunasteia is the “effective exercise of parrhēsia” (ibid.). One does not engage in truth-telling only (or even mainly) because one has the right to do so, for this right by itself can be an empty and void formality and on its account alone truth-telling can also be conveniently evaded. This is why it is problematic to translate parrhēsia with ‘freedom of speech’ –as some do. Rather, one engages in truth-telling because one finds the force or power to do so through self-positioning and self-existentialization, and it is thus that the ethical differentiation occurs. To think and live differently –this is the first and foremost meaning of the ethical differentiation: to experiment with one’s own singularity, not so that one may become an entrepreneur of the self, but precisely in order to challenge and break that injunction (See also Lazzarato 2012). Thus, one contributes in any way possible to decreasing the power of the system while creating the new. This shakes the community, and it is in this sense that parrhēsia is “a risky and indeterminate act” (230).


As Lazzarato says, truth-telling “presupposes a force, a power, an action, upon the self (to have the courage to risk telling the truth), and an action upon others in order to persuade them, guide them, and steer their conduct” (ibid.). This is, he continues, what Foucault means by “ethical differentiation”: “a process of singularization initiated and opened by the parrhesiastic enunciation” (ibid.) – an enunciation which is not only, not necessarily, verbal, but, in the sense of Guattari, existential. It is existential because telling the truth (parrhēsia) “implies that political subjects constitute themselves as ethical subjects, capable of taking risks, posing a challenge … in other words, capable of governing themselves and of governing others within a situation of conflict” (230-231).  Perhaps, at this point, it would be good to insert a very recent illustration of what parrhēsia concretely amounts to. What I have in mind is the University of Yale dishwasher, Corey Menafee, who recently smashed a racist stained-glass window in a dining room in Yale’s residential dorm Calhoun College. “The college is named after former Vice President John C. Calhoun, one of the most prominent pro-slavery figures in history” (see Democracy Now!  On the Democracy Now! show, Menafee describes and justifies his action in parrhesiastic terms. His action could not be performed on the basis of any granted right, but rather on the denial of rights; not on the basis of a dialogue, which Menafee says it is a modality he would prefer, but as an exclusion from any dialogue. The action, the enunciation, necessarily –and regretfully, Menafee admits— had to take the form of, and be sustained by, power or force (as dunasteia).


Lazzarato stresses a very important point having to do with the vexed question of force or power versus rights. He says that truth-telling depends on both, “two heterogeneous regimes, one of right (of politeia and isēgoria) and one of dunasteia (power or force),” and this makes “the relationship between true enunciation (discourse) and democracy … ‘difficult and problematic’ [Foucault]” (231; brackets added). In this sense, Lazzarato also problematizes the difference between Foucault and Rancière (and Badiou) around the question of equality. Indeed, equality is “the necessary but not sufficient condition of the differential process in which ‘rights for all’ are the social bases of a subjectivation that builds ‘an other life’ and ‘an other world’” (242). The most important fact –important from an existential point of view—is that “parrhēsia does not presuppose any status; it is the enunciation of ‘anyone at all’” (234). It is then not a matter of equality, but of courage, power, and freedom. In fact, “equality hinders freedom, equality prevents ‘ethical differentiation,’ it drowns subjectivity in the indifference of subjects of rights” (236).


Here Lazzarato speaks of the “crisis of parrhēsia,” a crisis which is particularly evident in the neoliberal paradigm of “freedom,” where truth-telling “is no longer exposed to the risks of politics” (236). Instead, there is a move back toward Platonism, the moral subject, and a “metaphysics of the soul” (236-237).  In this sense, the focus is on “the other world” and “the other life.” This move is contrasted by the philosophy of the Cynics. Their thought provides an exit from, and a resolution to, the crisis. Here, the focus is on an “aesthetics of life,” the creation of “an other life / an other world” (237). Lazzarato says that the Cynics “counter ‘true life’ by claiming and practicing ‘an other life’ – a life, he continues quoting Foucault, “whose otherness must lead to the change of the world. An other life for an other world” (237; Foucault 2011: 287).


Equality-based political discourse leads to a crisis, to a formal notion of democracy, and it changes parrhēsia to a vague and empty exercise of freedom of speech. As we know, this freedom is not at all free, but preestablished and controlled by institutionalized forces and powers. In fact, it rests on the exclusion and neutralization of dunasteia, the genuine force or power to speak in one’s own singular voice. This is apparent when one considers the mainstream discourse of politics and the media. In this type of discourse, what is excluded is not even included as excluded, but rather is made totally invisible, thrown out of existence altogether. What remains is the space for political discourse, political dialogue among “equals.” All this happens through a process of institutionalization and normalization, in which paradoxically equality obtains in the midst of the worst situations of inequality, the many inequalities.


Following Foucault, Lazzarato says that the Cynics “go beyond the ‘crisis’ of parrhēsia, the powerlessness of democracy and equality, to produce ethical differentiation, by binding politics and ethics (and truth) indissolubly together” (Lazzarato 2014: 237). He takes issue with Rancière, whose philosophy aims at inclusion and recognition. For Foucault, Lazzarato continues, “the issue is not ensuring that those who have no part [Rancière’s phrase] are counted, nor their demonstrating that they speak in the same language as their masters [Rancière’s requirement]” (240; emphasis and brackets added). The issue is instead a “transvaluation” of all values and the invention of new subjectivities and singularities. “In transvaluation, equality combines with difference, political equality with ethical differentiation” (ibid.).


It is precisely because the model of equality does not include those who have no part in it –and yet, they exist—that a claim to inclusion should be rejected or evaded. Making such a claim only results in a waste of creative time, and an impoverishment of one’s existence and singularity. Instead, there must be –as we have seen—a turn toward an other life and an other world. Lazzarato says that the Cynics “do not ask for recognition, they do not seek to be counted or included. They criticize and scrutinize the institutions and ways of life of their peers through self-experimentation and self-examination and the experimentation and examination of others and the world” (ibid.).  In the approach of the Cynics there is not a renunciation of language and discourse. But language has now an existential, ethico-political, function. With a reference to Guattari, Lazzarato says that language, understood as ‘performative’ language, “helps construct existential territories” (243).  Language itself becomes a form of existence, not mere representation. Lazzarato quotes Foucault who speaks of “the function of the true life” (an other life) “as at the same time, form of existence, manifestation of self, and physical model of the truth, but also enterprise of demonstration, conviction, and persuasion through discourse” (243-244; Foucault 2011: 314). Persuasion. This is different from making a claim, perhaps a plea, for inclusion in a system which, even when it becomes willing or forced to concede, will still and only include the excluded as excluded.  We know the long history of this: slavery, work, the prison, and the camp. This is different from constructing new existential territories, new subjectivities and singularities. Today, however, against capital and the State, the issue is building “a relation to the self, that breaks with subjections” (246). This is a “militant” (a word also used by Foucault) and “transindividual” (see Read 2016) task, which “does not represent the teaching or expression of a new moral code” (Lazzarato 2014: 247). It is rather a way of “reorienting the question of politics by opening up an indeterminate space and time for ethical differentiation and the formation of a collective self” (ibid.).




Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. 2011. The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II. Lectures at the Collège de France 1983-1984, trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2014. Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity,trans. Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

______________.  2012. The Making of the Indebted Man, trans. Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Read, Jason. 2016. The Politics of Transindividuality. Leiden and Boston: Brill (Historical Materialism Book Series 106).


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Discussing Humanity and the Enemy on City Watch WBAI (from minute 12 to 30)

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On Freddie Gray and the Baltimore Uprising

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“Hey, come here for a minute.” Racism and Sovereign Violence

There are two versions of the events that led to the death of Michael Brown, the African American teenager killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. One is based on the account given to the grand jury by Dorian Johnson, the man who was with Brown when the incident happened and witnessed the killing. The other is based on the account given by Officer Wilson himself, who was not indicted on any charges.

I am not reviewing the two versions. I only want to point out that they mainly diverge in the description of the attitude, actions and language of both Officer Wilson and Michael Brown. Darren Wilson describes himself as extremely courteous and polite when he addresses the two men from within his police car and throughout the confrontation, and he describes Michael Brown as extremely abusive and violent, and indeed as a demon (not differently from the way George Zimmerman described Trayvon Martin.) However, Dorian Johnson narrates the events differently. I want to focus on the very first moments of their encounter and altercation, when, according to Johnson, Officer Wilson tells them, “Get the F on the sidewalk!” while, according to Wilson, he very politely says, “Hey guys, why don’t you walk on the sidewalk?” Still according to Wilson, it is Michael Brown who escalates the situation that leads to the confrontation and finally to his death. In fact, even assuming that Officer Wilson’s account were true –which is however impossible to believe—it is what he maintains he says immediately after the first exchange that I want to highlight here. In his account, he says, “Hey, come here for a minute.”

The sentence “Hey, come here for a minute” contains all the arrogance and abusiveness of sovereign violence. It is of course a perfect example of what Louis Althusser calls interpellation. It is, in fact, almost precisely the example given by Althusser: a police officer yelling to someone, “Hey, you there!” When Wilson gives the grand jury and the media what is most likely a totally false account, he is certainly not aware that even according to his own words he is admitting to participating in the system of original, historical and institutional violence that is sadly the only explanation for Michael Brown’s death. This is why Ferguson is on fire and demonstrations have been taking place in nearly one hundred cities across the United States – because this is not the isolated case of an abusive and overreacting police officer; it is rather an instance of the system of abuse characterizing the US as a police state.

I first want to note that the police don’t really have the right to address anyone in that fashion. I am not speaking legally, and I am here not interested in the technicalities of the law. I am speaking from an existential, ethical, and human point of view: the point of view of life. When a police officer says, “Hey, come here for a minute,” the abuse and aggression of police brutality have already begun. The meaning of that sentence is, “Your body doesn’t belong to you, and your life isn’t your life. As far as I am concerned, you are already subjected to my ruling, to the law, and now you have to show me that you understand that.” In truth, anyone has the right not to ‘go there for a minute.’ This ‘minute’ is the time during which your life is lost, the time of no time, the stoppage of time. It is also important to note that a police officer wouldn’t just address anyone that way. Darren Wilson was a white police officer addressing two African American men in Ferguson, Missouri –though that might have been in New York, or anywhere else in the US.  A white police officer believes that it is okay to tell an African American teenager, “Hey, come here for a minute.” What about dignity? The white police officer wouldn’t know what we were talking about –what we meant here by dignity.

This is my second notation. The US police state is a racist state. Frantz Fanon once noted that the “world has a racist structure.” The US, the monstrous offspring of racist Europe, shows that in a particularly strong way. Obviously, racism today doesn’t only mean white versus black and so on (though that dimension is of course eminently included in the above-mentioned structure), but it also means, more generally, a bio- and thanatopolitical approach, a genocidal approach, toward and against whatever is construed as difference –a difference first of all individuated in the fact of poverty, the war against the poor.  It is only people like former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani that may not get it and still say –as he did—that police violence against African Americans would stop if only they stopped killing one another. Such childish and racist logic, which is unfortunately very common, only reinforces (and tries to justify) the politics of death and the genocidal machinery of the state under the guise of security and…what is that word? legality. This is the meaning of racism today.


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Benevolence and Murder

The following link is to the news of the arrest of Ramsey Orta, the 22-year-old man who filmed the NYPD murder of Eric Garner:

There are two things I want to comment upon, two statements made by the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. One is that it is “criminals like Mr. Orta who carry illegal firearms who stand to benefit the most by demonizing the good work of police officers.” The other statement reads, “Sadly, in the effort to keep neighborhoods like Tompkinsville safe, a tragedy occurred. But that doesn’t change the fact that police officers routinely risk their lives for the benefit of the community.”

To the former, I say that the “good work” of an individual, a group of individuals, an organization, or an institutional entity cannot be defined a priori, but it must be determined and shown in actual practice. In fact, it is increasingly the case that the actual practice of the NYPD or other police departments in the US or elsewhere does not support the definition or characterization of their work as “good work.” Below, I will go back to the use of the words “demonizing” and “benefit.”

To the latter, I say that, first of all, it is false (or at least inaccurate) to state that “a tragedy occurred.” What occurs is an accident, which is by definition unexpected. A tragic accident, or a natural disaster, may occur. But the tragic event of July 18, in which Eric Garner lost his life, was no accident. It was a tragedy, for Eric, his family and friends, the community, the city, and the world. But it did not simply occur. It didn’t simply happen, or come to pass. It was rather willingly brought about, forced upon Eric Garner; it was the direct result of the predisposition toward violence typical of the police. The Benevolent Association, shedding crocodile’s tears, insists that this tragedy, however, “doesn’t change the fact that police officers routinely risk their lives for the benefit of the community.” This is one of those lies that, repeated often enough, are finally accepted as valid and true notions. But they are false. They are false because, first of all, everybody’s life is constantly in danger, and the police offer no exception to that rule; secondly, it is increasingly hard to claim that the police are actually working for the benefit of the community.

I now go back to a brief discussion of the words “demonizing” and “benefit.” What we are told is that criminal Ramsey Orta benefits from demonizing the police and that the police themselves, who “routinely risk their lives for the benefit of the community,” are instead depicted as criminals. Astonishingly, the context of all this is the murder of Eric Garner. However, as is clear from the video Ramsey Orta shot on July 18, in which Officer Daniel Pantaleo is clearly seen putting Garner on a chokehold while other officers cooperate with him or busy themselves chasing onlookers away, there is no “demonizing” of the police whatsoever. Watching the video, few (perhaps no one) would be in doubt as to who the criminals are, and who those risking their lives; who benefits from what, and who demonizes whom. It is, once again, astonishing, that the police engage in this type of public relations exercises. They may brutalize and kill. Yet, why would they expect anyone to be persuaded by their cynical and shallow reasoning?

P.S.: A friend pointed out to me that three days after Ramsey Orta’s arrest, his wife was also arrested:

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On the NYPD Killing of Eric Garner

one thousand words

July 18, 2014, was the latest in a series of police brutality cases that end with the death of the person targeted by the police. Eric Garner was a 43-year-old African-American man from Staten Island. The confrontation he had with the police, which led to his death by suffocation, was filmed by an onlooker, and the link is here:

The video shows very clearly that there was nothing that justified any use of force by the police, let alone excessive force. One hears Garner arguing with the police, saying he has done nothing wrong and wants to be left alone. Suddenly a few police officers are on top of him; he soon cries, “I can’t breathe!,” but they continue holding him to the ground, one officer using a choke-hold that kills Garner. At the end of the deadly confrontation, there are about ten officers at the scene, and some…

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