Power, Powerlessness, Thinking, and Future

Translated by Daniel Ross

Power, Powerlessness, Thinking, and Future

“TO EXPERIENCE POLITICS is today, for most of us, to experience powerlessness”: this is one of the opening sentences in the “Manifeste pour une contre-offensive intellectuelle et politique” published by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and Edouard Louis in Le Monde on September 27–28, 2015.

Having been inundated by critiques of power, in particular by Foucault but more generally by “French theory,” now we must think political powerlessness — which is obviously not the disappearance of all power, and which is obviously an impotence that is not just political. To think powerlessness is difficult because it is also and firstly to think the impotence of thinking itself, its inability to pass from dunamis (power or potential in Greek) into action (energeia). This also and at the same time necessarily involves thinking the relations between knowledge and power, or knowledges and powers, and so on.

The manifesto by de Lagasnerie and Louis raises necessary questions. But in my view their way of asking them lacks perspective. And it contains some sweeping statements, perhaps in the hope of striking and mobilizing minds and spirits, but, as is so often the case, what they achieve proves to be the opposite of the intention — and such statements therefore seem to me to be not only questionable, but dangerous. When they write, for example, that the phrase “‘right-wing intellectual’ is based on an oxymoron, or better: an impossibility,” this is totally unacceptable — and for several reasons.

In the first place, for any thinking that claims to think powerlessness (and “to say things other than what is already agreed”), the common noun “intellectual” (“an intellectual,” “intellectuals”) must not only be the subject of critique, but should be scrupulously avoided. Intellectual is not a noun but an adjective. The substantive is already mired in the impotence of political thinking and political action. The figure of “the intellectual” is an unfortunate invention that unquestioningly internalizes the opposition between “manual workers” and “intellectuals,” an opposition that clearly belongs to the “class discourse” of whose existence de Lagasnerie and Louis rightly wish to remind us.

According to this insidious vocabulary, wallowed in by those who refer to themselves as “intellectuals,” there would be specialists of the intellect, and therefore of thinking, and then there would be everyone else, who thus often feel they are being taken for fools — to speak plainly.

Behind all this lies proletarianization, which today affects all forms of knowledge, and firstly as a destruction of knowledge — of how to live, do, and conceptualize. Those who define themselves as “intellectuals” internalize this situation, oblivious to the fact that today they themselves have been proletarianized. And here we should recall that in The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels defined proletarianization not in terms of poverty but by the loss of knowledge (one consequence of which is pauperization), which in the end, they say, affects “all layers of the population.”

After its destructive effect on savoir faire, on knowledge of how to do, proletarianization began to destroy savoir vivre, knowledge of how to live, shared culture, when consumer capitalism replaced this knowledge with the behavioral prescriptions produced by marketing. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it is conceptual knowledge that is finding itself ruined, proletarianizing the “intellectuals,” who try to hang on to their existence by adopting attitudes and poses rather than by producing concepts.

I describe in a recent book how Alan Greenspan, appearing before a House Committee on October 23, 2008, and asked to explain what responsibility he bore for the breakdown of that year, defended himself by arguing that economic knowledge had been transferred to machines and automata: he thereby sketched the figure of a new kind of proletarian, upholding the Marxist analysis according to which proletarianization is indeed bound to affect “all layers of the population.”

It is here that the issue of powerlessness arises. And it continues when, failing to understand this, and to understand how it now affects all of us, whoever we may be, we internalize this fact, and all of a sudden find we are incapable of overcoming it: of identifying it and struggling against it, and of opposing to it a new rationality. For proletarianization is also the widespread generalization of entropic behavior, that is, behavior that leads to the destruction of life. Such is the horizon of the new question of rationality.

Let us recall that entropy came to prominence in the 19th century, understood as the unavoidable dissipation of energy — whereas in the 20th century life was defined as what opposes to this universal tendency a negative entropy, a negentropy characterized by its ability to organize entropic chaos. When we refer today to the Anthropocene, we are referring to a process leading to an immense chaotic disorganization, involving a considerable increase in the rate of entropy, among the consequences of which is, for example, that systemic mutation we refer to as “climate change.”

Returning to the question of the “right-wing intellectual,” a phrase that according to de Lagasnerie and Louis amounts to an oxymoron, let us consider instead “right-wing thinking.” I believe there are countless great thinkers of the right, among them Sigmund Freud, who the “leftist intellectual” Michel Onfray would consign to oblivion, himself being among those who, if I correctly understand the manifesto in question here, would be in the course of betraying the left. Among the thinkers of the right one can also find Heidegger, Luhmann, Blanchot for a time, and many others it would be too tedious to name.

Instead of producing sweeping statements that are merely a smokescreen (through which we cast our impotence upon others), is the point not rather to know what “right” and “left” mean, and to understand how they relate to what this word “intellectual” supposedly designates, and which it is not difficult to believe is something that requires thinking? But to think this, we must remember that there was thinking before the right and before the left, and there will be thinking after — inshallah.

The current crisis of thinking derives from an immense transformation unfolding not only in the political spheres (French, European, Western, and throughout the entire world), not only in economic and financial organizations (and therefore in the relations between capital and work, and between work and jobs), but indeed in anthropogenesis as such.

Marx and Engels showed at the beginning of The German Ideology (1845) that humanity consists above all in a process of exosomatization that pursues evolution no longer through somatic but through artificial organs (which was already glimpsed by Herder 70 years prior to these two early theorists of the role of technology in the formation of social relations and knowledge). But humankind has discovered to its stupefaction that this exosomatization is now directly and deliberately produced by the market — and, with respect to the immense transformations to which it gives rise, without offering any choice other than, in the best case, the profitability of investment, or, in the worst case, the pure speculation involved in the increasingly tight connection between the casino economy, marketing and R&D conceived according to inherently short-term, and therefore speculative, models of disruption.

Technology is disruptive because the pace of its evolution and its transfer to society (so-called “innovation”) has become extremely rapid, causing what Bertrand Gille called the social systems (law, education, political organization, forms of knowledge, and so on) to always arrive too late. Now, it might be objected that, as Hegel said, the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk — and hence that philosophy has since long ago always arrived too late. Certainly. But I believe that today, in this disruption, this lateness is unsustainable and irrational, and that it must be in advance overthrown, not by rejecting technology, that is, exosomatization, which could only be purely illusory, but by elaborating a new politics (evoked in July 2014 by Evgeny Morozov in a remarkable article in The Guardian).

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie and Edouard Louis deplore the absence of intellectual debate. For my part I deplore that, like Manuel Valls, they have apparently never heard either of Pharmacologie du Front National or of States of Shock — in which I argue that so-called “post-structuralism” has significantly contributed, in France and elsewhere, to the legitimation first of neoliberal discourse and then libertarian discourse, the libertarians being those who are the practitioners of disruption.

This is occurring not only because “intellectuals” yield to the drive-based ideology of the extreme right as it continues to gain ground. It is because there is no thought of the present age worthy of the name — and here, where I am resolutely “on the left,” I would never say that such a thought “worthy of the name” would necessarily be on the left.

The “intellectuals,” whether of the “left” or the “right,” are stuck in an antiquated opposition between “intellectual” and “manual” that refers in a more profound way to the opposition between logos and tekhne against which Marx fought, and which he posited as the basis of the ideology that was then called “bourgeois.” This has largely been forgotten, in particular by the heirs of Althusser and firstly by Alain Badiou. For the consequence lies in the fact that, contrary to what Badiou’s hero, Plato, wants to prove, knowledge is always constituted by technics, which in so doing always constitutes a social relation.

It is by starting out again from these questions that the relationship between right and left must be rethought. This is profoundly tied to industrial history. If the distinction between “left” and “right” occurs during the French Revolution, this is because the latter was the effect of a transformation of society by the bourgeoisie, and where the divide that organizes social dynamics and historical blockages ceases to be the opposition between “nobles” and “peasants” but becomes instead that between capital and labor.

The left defends labor and the right defends capital. Freed from the constraints of the Ancien Régime, the bourgeoisie were able to constitute industrial society, which was the major achievement of the First French Empire, and in which two completely different dynamic contradictions co-existed: on the one hand, the Ancien Régime and Revolution, which endured long after the French Revolution — as evidenced by the Restoration and the Counter-Revolution — and on the other hand, right and left, which are different categories again, describing the new division arising when the Ancien Régime was truly gone — a transitional world lasting until Napoleon III, which was described, notably, by Balzac and Flaubert.

It is in this context that the notion of “Progress” arises, and consequently the notion of the “Enlightenment”: the discourse of the left is a conception of what is rational in an industrial society, that is, such that it can be characterized as “Progress.” “Progressive” then means “left-wing.” The discourse of the right is another conception of what is rational in this respect, often consisting in wanting to limit “Progress” — but not always. There have been, rarely, right-wing discourses that would intensify “Progress,” but that question whether the priority of “Progress” is the reduction of social inequalities.

Today, the promoters of what is now called “innovation” rather than “Progress” are frequently “right-wing.” And those who criticize it, and sometimes oppose it, are often “left-wing.” All this has gone through many stages. As for Marx and Engels, what they admired in the bourgeoisie was its ability to concretize this “Progress,” and what they denounced was the social injustices to which it gave rise (all this can be found in the opening of The Communist Manifesto — 1848).

Rarely have these evolutions been analyzed and consequences drawn — Morozov’s analysis of what he calls technological solutionism is one of the few examples. Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, too, represents a moment in which these changes were analyzed, but I have tried to show why this analysis is no longer sufficient, and the disastrous (for the left) ambiguities contained in this work, which also open up a thousand fundamental questions.

The context of these questions is disruption. In this disruption, society is literally disintegrated by innovation, in turn driven exclusively by the market, itself in the hands of shareholders. This can lead only to what Nietzsche (rather an opponent of “left-wing” thinking, if not himself “on the right”) called ressentiment. And Nietzsche distrusted those who were called not yet “leftist intellectuals” but “democrats” and “socialists,” because they seemed to him figures of ressentiment.

The great question of our time is that of becoming in the Anthropocene, in the course of which exosomatization, of which Marx and Engels were the first thinkers, has passed completely into the hands of the most speculative, irresponsible, and self-destructive capitalism. And here the question of surrogate motherhood, which has stirred “social debate” in France (thereby diverting attention from social, political, intellectual, and economic poverty), would merit a debate on some basis other than the indigent logorrhoea incited by this “social issue.”

Surrogacy, along with genetically modified organisms and other technologies of life, constitutes a new age of exosomatization. It is as such that these issues must be addressed, and it is as disruptive technologies that the market promotes them. “Progressive” or “conservative” attitudes are nothing more than two ways of denying this new state of fact, which remains to be thought — that is, to be transformed into a state of law, rather than exploited in order to distract attention from the fundamental issues, of which these technologies of life are cases.

Immense unrest has seized hold of the world. The risk is that this unrest will turn into something more than just disquiet, and more even than anguish: into terror. This danger is obvious to anyone who is not too afraid to look at what is taking place, and it is fundamentally connected to the becoming of the Anthropocene: the direction in which this geological age is unfolding is increasingly seen by humankind as an inexorably fatal form of becoming.

All of us more or less think that this eventuality — the fatal becoming of the Anthropocene — is the most likely outcome. Why do we not ourselves say so? According to Hegel it is by starting from unrest that we begin to think. If we do not think with unrest, the latter engenders fear, then regression, then terror. Ought we not engage ourselves in thinking what everything suggests is the context and the horizon of what de Lagasnerie and Louis call the experience of powerlessness, and undertake an experiment of thought by posing the enormous question of disruption that is the current stage of the Anthropocene?

I write here in my capacity as president of Ars Industrialis, which is engaged in debating these questions in the European context. We argue that to combat the protean regression afflicting our age, we need to look clear-sightedly at the world, in order to propose a new macro-economic organization. The latter must be based on the systemic and systematic valorization of negentropy — which requires a redefinition of the theory of value, as Marx called it in his “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse, a text ignored in France (except by Lyotard).

Entropy is becoming, devenir. Negentropy is what inscribes within it a future, avenir. Becoming and future have until today been confused. It is this confusion that makes us powerless, and it is what the impasse of the Anthropocene reveals. Such a perspective is also an immense building site for intellectual construction — open to all those who still have the ability to think for themselves, rather than vainly repeat received ideas. This implies in principle the need to constitute a neganthropology by reopening the questions raised by the theories of entropy and negentropy in the second half of the 20th century, in France and elsewhere.

Providing these specific proposals is also a way of offering a salute to Edgar Morin.


Bernard Stiegler is a French philosopher of technology and consumerism and the president of Ars Industrialis.

LARB Contributor

Bernard Stiegler is a French philosopher of technology and consumerism and the president of Ars Industrialis.


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