Homo Lupus Felix: Against Civilization. Notes for a presentation in the Eckhardt S. Program, Lehigh University. by Gerardo Muñoz

There is no question that Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro felice (2018) is a marvelous cinematic work insofar as it measures up against the epoch by radically questioning the principles that have upheld what we know as civilization. This slight adjustment is critical given that ideology, political economy, or subject oriented frameworks of analysis have become insufficient to deal with the crisis of civilization. As a matter of fact, they have become functional (mere deployments of technique, to put it in Willy Thayer’s vocabulary) to the infrastructure, and its specific philosophy of History that promotes the maintenance of Order after the liquidation of its legitimacy. I would like to clarify that I am understanding civilization in a twofold register: as a genetic process of human anthropology based on the matrix of “appropriation, distribution, and production” of the world (a techno-political grid popularized by Carl Schmitt); but also as the total realization of an economic or political theology, which we can directly link to the function of “credit” (and the process of abstract dialectic between credit and debt, as a ground of a new “faith”) that is deployed as the medium of the total sum of social relations that commands beings in the world. Civilization is the general matrix of a process of optimal rationalization of the events that take place in the world, making us potential reactionary agents of the time of its phenomenality.

Aside from all the Christian and religious imaginary, Lazzaro felice is a theological film, but only insofar as it takes the irruption of the mythical remnant very seriously. There is something to be said here – and I think the film stresses this in several parts of the story – between religion and theology, dogma and the spiritual (anima), and the sacred and the commandment solicited by faith (pistis). In other words, Lazzaro felice enacts a destruction of a political theology by insisting on the civilizatory decline towards reproduction of as mere life of survival; a life that is delegated to the abstract faith of credit. In this sense, it is no mistake that Lazzaro’s homicide takes place in a bank and executed by the community of believers (capital, in the end, has already been incarnated; it is the Subject). The laboratory where this takes place is the metropolis, which as I have argued elsewhere is the site of devastation and optimization life in our epoch, which unifies world and life putting distance into crisis, in a suspense of the experiential [1]. The consumption of the new political theology of unreserved equivalence between humans and objects is what Rohrwacher interrupts through the fable of the beatitude of Lazzaro as a life to come in the threshold of the highest phase of the metropolitan stagnation. I will limit my commentary here to three nodes that allow the Lazzaro felice to expand this critique of civilization and the principle of the “civil society”, a notion that we will return to.

First, there is the fable, a capsule of an ancient gnostic wisdom. The fable is what can radically alter evil by tipping its objective realism into a real of the imagination against the grammar of order. Avoiding the order of narration based to account for the history of progress and developmentalism from the rural to the civilization of the metropolis, Rohrwacher’s strategy resorts to the ancient craft of the fable. This is fundamental for a number of reasons. First of all, because the fable allows to withdrawal from pure counter-narrative of historical development and its justifications that allow for the interruption of the time of development, while offering a possibility of an otherwise transformation of the world. This is the gnostic texture of the fable that Hans Blumenberg identified in this form, since obscuring of the distinction between humans and animals relaxes the burden of proof of the absolutism of reality as predicated in the matter of facts [2]. It through fables that something escapes, because there is always an image that escapes the narration of the events of this world. But the fable also offered something else: the beginning of myth as the site of legitimation for foundations of social relations. This is why, as T.J. Clark has reminded recently, Hegel associated the fable with the origin of master and slave dialectic, as a new form of domination of world once the world’s enchantment and mystery was dissolved: “In the slave, prose begins” [3]. The end of a paractical poetics? Perhaps. This means that the price to be paid to enter into the prose of “civilization” is to assimilate the unfathomable and invisible contours of the world into the polemos of storytelling; to be a subject of a story, and as a result, of historical transition. This is what civilization mobilizes through the fable as its posited legitimacy. It is in the fable where the abyss that separates us from the world becomes animated, ordered, and narrated in order for the apparatus of production to commence. It seems to me that Alice Rohrwacher goes to arcanum of civilization when she treats the fable of the wolf, which has functioned to legitimize the passage from the state of nature to the modern concept of the civil in Hobbes’s theory of the state. We should remember the brief fable in Lazzaro felice:

“Let me tell you the story of the wolf. A very old wolf had become decrepit, he could hunt wild animals anymore. So, he was excluded from the pack…and the old wolf went to houses, to steal animals, checks and sheep. He was hungry. The villagers tried to kill him in every way possible, but they didn’t succeed…as if he were invisible.”

It is a remarkable fable that inverts the political fiction of the wolf in Hobbes; mainly: a man is an arrant wolf to another man (homo homini lupus), which justifies the exodus from the state of nature as the “miserable condition of civil war” between men. The stakes are clear: by repressing civil war (stasis), civil society emerges as a divided but unified body under a sovereign principle of authority [2]. The wolf is first established as creature of fear and depredation in order to allow for the principle of civilization to emergence as uncontested and necessary. The fable of the wolf is the protofigure that guards the history of perimeters of civilization as a way to pacify and repress the latency of civil war. Rohrwacher, against the Hobbes political fable, gives us a fable of the wolf that not only is uncapable of waging life as war, but that it enacts full refusal and desertion to be hunted; that is, to be invisible, which ultimately entails a life not outside of a politics of hunting and the secondary pacification by which the end of hunting mutates to the enclosure of domestication [4]. 

If the wolf stands for the invisible it is because it occupies the excess of total legibility of a new civil order, that is, of a world administered by technique of order. The wolf is a prefiguration of the invisible that is improper to every life (and thus to all biopolitical domestication proper to civilization) in the passage from the organic community of the living to the civilizatory topos of the metropolis. The wolf condenses the instructive character in every life; that is, what cannot be reduced to the fiction or the depredatory total war of the civilization nor the fiction of the community lacking an open relation to the world.  This fable, then, is not just what unveils the fictional grounds of the legitimacy of civilization (its “black magic” under the light of rationality and control) but also what reprepares another community. A community in which what we have in common is not an attribute, a substance, or an identity, but an irreducible ethical relation in which civil war cannot equate total hostility and what establishes an absolute difference between life and the “principle of the civil” that formalized the aspiration of isonomic equality:

“The immemorial bad reputation of the wolf (wolf bashing) informs us about one of the oldest tricks of civilization. This consists of bearing the weight of predation on what is heterogeneous to it. To be able to say that man is a wolf of man, the wolf must first have been disguised as a “predator.” We do not mean that the wolf is gardener of daisy flowers, we mean that he behaves neither as a tyrant nor as a bloodthirsty animal, and even less as an individualist (the famous “lone wolf”). In fact, the wolf may have taught communism to humans. The cub that opens its eyes among humans recognizes them as part of its clan. Two lessons: 1) friendship ignores categories; 2) the common is the place where we open our eyes to the world. What the human, for his part, has “taught” to the wolf – like an angry father yelling at his son “I’ll teach you!” – is the servility of the good puppy and the good cop”. [5]. 

               The end of the film comes full circle with the only condition of finding a way out, producing a break in the infrastructure of the domestication, opening a path within and against the metropolis. It is almost as if the film, like in life, was a preparation for the moment of exodus and retreat. In fact, the wolf deserts the metropolis passing through and beyond the highway in plain rush hour. According to Alice Rohrwacher, the wolf leaving the city and not being seen was a reinforcement of the invisible ethical dimension that is proper to every life (an ethos, which in the old Pindaric sense that refers not only our character, but also, and more fundamentally to our abode and habits that are world-forming), and that is devastated by the anthropological crisis of the species in the wake of the process of civilization [6]. However, the wolf exit from the metropolis is not an abandonment of the world in the manner of a monastic communitarian retreat; but rather the pursuit of liberating an encounter with the events of the world foreclosed by topological circulation of credit that amounts to borrowed life without destiny. 

Now to the question that signals an instance of construens in what follows the desertion: what about happiness? It is here, it seems to me, where the beatitude of Lazzaro could be thought as an ethical form of life – as preparation to learn to how live a life against the abstract processes of domestication – that exceeds the two hegemonic paradigms of happiness offered by Western civilization: on the one hand, happiness understood as an equilibrium operative to virtue (aretē); or, on the other, the community of salvation as a compensatory effect for the structural gap of the fallen subject, original sin (felix culpa). One could clearly see that politics at the level of civilization could now be defined as the instrument that manages the production of happiness as a temporal exception in life, but never a defining form of our character.

The wolf that is Lazzaro’s form of life – at a posthistorical threshold that dissolves the anthropological divide man and animal – offers us a third possibility: happiness understood as the refusal to partake in the promises of civilization in order to attune oneself to an errancy of life that allows itself to be hunted by an experiential imbuing of the world. Happy Lazzaro? Yes, but never a Sisyphus who is incapable of experiencing the vanishing horizon between earth and sky in infinite divisibility of the world. The wolf unleashed traverses a geography against domestication, revoking the phantasy of home (the oikos). I will let the last words be made by some fellow-travelers contemporary American thinkers: “Civilisation, or more precisely civil society, with all its transformative hostility was mobilized in the service of extinction, of disappearance. Fuck a home in this world, if you think you have one.” [7].



1. Gerardo Muñoz. “Dix thèses sur Lazzaro felice” en tant que forme de vie”, Lundi Matin, May 2019: https://lundi.am/Dix-theses-sur-Lazzaro-felice-en-tant-que-forme-de-vie

2. Hans Blumenberg. “Of Nonunderstanding: Glosses on Three Fables” (1984), in History, Metaphors, Fables (Cornell University Press, 2020), 562-566.

3. T. J. Clark. “Masters and Fools”, LRB, vol.43, No.18, September 2021. 

4. Thomas Hobbes. Man and Citizen (De Homine and De Cive) (Hackett, 1991), 11.

5. “Éléments de descivilisation” (part 2), Lundi Matin, april 2019:  https://lundi.am/Elements-de-decivilisation-Partie-2

6. Jerónimo Aterhortúa Arteaga. “Creer en las imágenes: entrevista a Alice Rohrwacher.”, Correspondencias, May 2021: http://correspondenciascine.com/2021/03/creer-en-las-imagenes-entrevista-a-alice-rohrwacher/

7. Stefano Harney & Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013), 132.

The technification of thinking: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (V). by Gerardo Muñoz

In the “Fourth Prison Notebook”, Gramsci offers a treatment of the science of “historical materialism”. A science that is not to be understood as a region of thought, but rather as a totalization and condition of possibility of the very opening of a new epoch. At some point in the notebook, Gramsci writes the following (which is also exemplary exposition of the reduction of his program): “As a matter of fact, historical materialism has no need for extraneous support: it is itself so robust that the old world turns to it to supply its own arsenal with some more effective weapons. This means that while historical materialism is not subjected to hegemonies, it has itself stared to exercise a hegemony over the old intellectual world. (156). We do not want to put too much pressure on the term “intellectual” here, but it is a notable expression. There is a dual logic of “hegemony” at play: hegemony is both the archê that can sustain an epoch phantasmatically never fully closing it; while, at the same time, it is also the opening of the epoch of the “reign of freedom”, which is the discovery of historical materialism as a science of totality. When Gramsci writes that historical materialism has potential hegemony over the totality of the intellectual world, he is strongly positing a civilizational principle as a new conception of the spiritualization of the world. From this basic condition of transitional political thinking, it is difficult to see how Gramscianism can ever be freed from Hegelianism, given that Hegelianism is what informs substantially the theory of hegemonic reduction. Hegemony: what reduces the world.

         At the same time, and in order to secure this transition to this new epochal principle, another operation comes to the forefront: to obtain hegemony over the totality of the old intellectual world requires a technified form of thinking as such vis-à-vis its intellectual class as an active player in the process. A few pages later after he treats the exception to epochal hegemonies, Gramsci writes that: “…the importance of the technique of thinking in the construction a pedagogical program; here, again, one cannot make the comparison between the technique of thinking and the old rhetorics…the technique of thinking cannot be compared to these things, which is why one can say that it is as important to teach this technique as it is to reading and writing.” (160). This thematizes the political hegemony that harbors above the alleged organic development of the new epoch; as if, the menace of the deviation from hegemony is a “bad adventure” in thought, a derailing of intensity that needs to be straighten out by the force of pedagogic reinforcement. Gramsci recognizes that thought does not have a technique, but it is in virtue of said absence that its instrumentalization must be set tightly. There is no doubt that this is catastrophic. This is the internal catastrophe of any thought when reduced to hegemony. By positing thought as pedagogical techne, Gramsci cancels any possible relation to the world. The world has already been annihilated, since it has been taken to the limit of its realization, making it only accessible from the condition of the specie’s alienation with reality. To a certain extent, pedagogy and the “common school” program stands for the performance of the laws that make up the new science of history. Hegemony becomes the accessory that guarantees the entry into a theoretical totality that pushes out any relation with the world. 

There is a “genetic problem” that can be contested even at the level of its own “scientific” assumptions. Already Hans Blumenberg in The Genesis of the Copernican World (1975) argued that the configuration of a totality of knowledge is impossible given its heterogenous conditions and “inherent pressures of its workings”. There problem of epochal hegemony, then, it is not that it elevates a supreme and all-inclusive principle; but rather that, as a concept, it cannot name a process of rationalization required to advance a civilizatory principle. Indeed, Gramsci calls “the conquest of the historical world, a new civilization” (164). This is why Gramscian appeals again and again to Catholic ecclesiastical administrative capacities for the formation of the new communist integral state. However, whereas for Weber “bureaucratic rationalization” was an organic process within history; for Gramsci, on the contrary, it is conceptual and pedagogical. In other words, it is a mimesis that transforms itself as a command of the Party, the militant, and disciplinary orientation. The Gramscian cosmos of production is a secular form of angeology for the intellectual class that must guide the working class (203). Of course, as we know, angels are not mere mediators between God and the sublunar world, they are also the keepers that glorify the dogma. And dogma here is the secular science of historical materialism. 

One last point about the date of this notebook (1932). This is most certainly a Gramsci that is no longer the one writing in the 1910s full of enthusiasm and good convictions; a Gramsci that could sense the trembling of gates of the revolution conquering the world. On the contrary, the Gramsci writing in the wake of the 1930s is one that is already noticing that “workerism” is dominion and form, or form that is already the byproduct of total mobilization. It is no coincidence that Ernst Jünger’s The Worker is published this year. At this point the worker is no longer a fixed transcendental category of the philosophy of history, but rather an energetic gestalt driven by mobilization and will to power. This means that formation – giving form – is always infinite, while the world remains objectivized into this total encompassing movement. Gramsci would mobilize intellectuals – but also thinking and imagination – to accomplish the labors of hegemonic politics.

The problem, already in 1932, should have been contested at the level of the form of life and distance between domination and world that I call post-hegemony. The false exit was taken: the multiplication of the modes of production, including the production of an “intellectual class” in an attempt to tilt the bourgeois order towards true hegemony. By 1930s it becomes clear that Gramsci cannot stand up to a problem oriented at the level of the critique of metaphysics. By adopting the science of historical materialism, Gramsci seems only capable of giving us a regional political practice masked by the metaphyisical pretensions of universality and totality. It wasn’t enough then, and it is most definitely not enough today. 

Notas de seminario sobre el pensamiento de Emanuele Coccia (IV). por Gerardo Muñoz

Cuarta sesión sobre el pensamiento Emanuele Coccia (las anteriores puede consultarse aquí: I, II, III). Rodrigo Karmy lee un fragmento de su ensayo sobre el “atravesamiento” en La vida de las plantas (2016) para indicar que las plantas han sido un “impensado” en la filosofía. La planta sería el depositario de una “comunicación medial” cuyo mundo se da mediante una “fuerza física” que atraviesa a todas las cosas. Ya desde aquí estamos ante la rehabilitación del hyle, mens, deus panteísta de David de Dinant. El atravesamiento recorre y desplaza la problemática del hombre-animal reactivando la cuestión del mundo como problema del “afuera”. En este sentido, Coccia no es un pensador civilizatorio, sino, en cada caso, de lo que se escapa de la reducción de la civilización. Y, sin embargo, las plantas son una entidad nutritiva del sol. Aquí aparece todo el tinglado de la metafórica de la luz y del proyecto copernicano que abre la pregunta por la “génesis” misma de la modernidad como “época definitiva”.

¿Hasta qué punto Coccia no es un pensador moderno? Esto es, en un sentido estricto, ¿un pensador de la modernidad o de una modernidad transfigurada? Una afirmación en esta dirección aparece explícita en el nuevo ensayo sobre Van Gogh titulado Le Semeur – De la nature contemporaine (2020) [א]. Sabemos que Hans Blumenberg puso todo el peso de la fisura del cosmos moderno en el acontecimiento copernicano. Una vez más la dicotomía mundo-cosmos reaparece en el centro de la escena. Rodrigo recuerda que en el libro El imperio científico (2017) de Fernando Beresñak, el problema de la revolución copernicana no queda aislada de la institucionalización de la Iglesia como matriz antropológica. Y, sin embargo, quedaría por ver si el “instancia copernicana” de Coccia es igual al Copérnico de la legitimidad de la “ontología matemática”, o si, más bien, se trata de un movimiento anárquico que libera energía. Cuando digo energía digo luz, y luz es fuerza física. Pero ¿esto sigue siendo filosofia? Aquí aparece Spinoza y el problema de la inmanencia. Sobre esto volveremos después.

Ángel Octavio Álvarez Solís lanzó una distinción importante: luz no es lo mismo que sol. Cuando Coccia dice que los atributos de Dios ahora están en la naturaleza (physis), de alguna manera está poniendo de cabeza la tesis de la secularización “moderna”. La energía del sol sería el cuidado de todas las cosas, y no objetivación de las cosas como entes disponibles para la producción (¿aunque sí para el cultivo?). Esta inversión le garantiza a Coccia otra entrada a la cuestión de la naturaleza y de la vida. Sin embargo, el problema de la inversión es también el de la inversión de la alienación de la especie en su forma de auto-antropomorfización destructiva que Camatte ha asociado con la interiorización del hostis. La estrategia de la inversión debería ser, en cada caso, inversión del curso de la metafísica. Pero sabemos que no es así en Coccia, donde la metafísica es el espacio tenue que despeja la “inversión”.

Aquí es importante un señalamiento de Ángel: tal vez el problema de Coccia no sea la “metafísica” en cuanto tal – y es cierto, recuerdo en una de mis conversaciones con Coccia, él no aceptaba que cosas así como “épocas fantasmáticas de la metafísica”, al estilo Schürmann, fueran necesarias para la labor del pensamiento – sino un problema cosmológico. Una cosmología sin monismo. Por eso a Coccia no le interesa hacer una crítica del capitalismo. Aquí José Miguel Burgos dio un paso provocador: el capitalismo en el pensamiento de Coccia es como una planta; o sea, puede abonarse en cualquier parte del mundo. Esto es lo que nos llevaría directamente al lujo en el sentido más estricto. O sea, no todas las prendas de vestir son “equivalentes”, pues Prada o un vestido de Valentino no son lo mismo que una factoría china. La moda es el umbral de la irradiación del sol sobre el ex-corpore del ser. Contra Heidegger: no hay pastor del ser, hay “jardineros de las especies”.

Llegamos a un punto decisivo: todo el cosmos de Coccia remite a una ordenación espacial, mas no temporal. ¿No hay aquí una abstracción velada? Obviamente que, a nivel de las clasificaciones filosóficas, estamos ante una confrontación entre David de Dinant y San Pablo. El primero como representante del hyle espacial sin corte; el segundo como el representante de la temporalidad mesiánica de salvación. Dos teologías. En ambas, sin embargo, se presupone un todo con el mundo. ¿Habría posibilidad para una “tercera figura”, una “teología transfigurada” ligada a una física del corte, ya más allá de la vida como siempre localizada en el medio vital? Pareciera que este fuera un “impensable” en Coccia, lo cual exige poner en discusión la cuestión del corte, que es, en última instancia, la pregunta por la experiencia. En este punto, Rodrigo recuerda que este fue también el reparo de Santo Tomas ante el escándalo del averroísmo: el intelecto común carece de persona. Pero, ojo, persona no es singularidad, sino sustancia en reserva para la gloria de una economía de salvación y para el pastoreo del “bien-común”.

Le recuerdo a Rodrigo que en estos días Alberto Moreiras había circulado una llamativa cita de Spinoza sobre el uso de la “razón común” [אא]. No solemos pensar a Spinoza con Aquino, ¿pero no es el mismo problema? Dicho en otras palabras: si hoy estamos ante la dominación técnica que lleva por nombre “cibernética”, ¿la tarea del pensar no radicaría ahí donde se establece un corte contra un común integrado como proceso inmanente de abstracción? Hay pruebas para pensar que esto es un impensado en Coccia más allá de los “usos” tomistas o espinosistas. Por ejemplo, Coccia escribe en el ensayo de Van Gogh que: “la relación múltiple de las especie es lo que produce una equivalencia absoluta entre las especies que hacen coincidir el árbol de tejo con la figura humana en el acto mismo de ser semillero”. Esto es lo que lleva a Coccia a decir que el museo hoy prepara la producción de un futuro activo y consciente. Si la mixtura consta de un privilegio espacial, entonces no hay corte relativo en el tiempo, por lo que no hay mediación con el afuera de la vida (y sus muertos), que es la región insondable y la via órfica.

Estoy de acuerdo con José Miguel que entonces se trataría de entender qué o cómo se hace un corte. Obviamente que “cortar” no puede ser algo así como cortar un pastel a partes iguales. Tampoco puede ser figurado como cortar las ramas de un árbol para que florezcan sus hojas. De más está decir que cortar no es una “unidad de intensificación” de lo político entre amigo-enemigo. Y por ultimo, cortar no es cortar nomos en el espacio, que es el arte de la agrimensura. Podemos decir que cortar es lo que el encuentro eruptivo en el tiempo que me aplaza en el espacio. Una “física del corte” sería el suplemento a la metafísica de la inmanencia de Coccia que, de otra manera, quedaría inscrita en el avatar cibernético contemporáneo. Por lo que cortar supone fijar una violencia allí donde algo en el paisaje me encuentra.

Pensemos en el amor (también porque es un problema central para Coccia). El amor no puede ser una inmanencia de cada cosa con todas las otras. Cuando “recorro” el amor (con una cosa, con un rostro, con un movimiento, con ella que regresa), la intensificación de esa experiencia con todo lo demás corta el mundo de manera tan radical que ya no puedo establecer una “equivalencia” con las cosas que se anidan en el infinito. Creo que la poeta italiana Patrizia Cavalli lo enuncia de una forma inmejorable: “Ti darò appuntamento sopra un ponte, in questa mezza terra di nessuno”. Esa es la violencia del corte que participa y abre una experiencia. El amor es solo uno de sus modos. Pero cada vez que hago un corte, me encuentro con lo irreductible. Y en lo irreductible aparece mi existencia sin ser propiamente algo de esta “vida”.




א Emanuele Coccia: “It is this agricultural, and hence artistic, project that we should recognize in every landscape; not just the random accumulation of desperate living individuals, but also a way of inventing a modernity of nature. Each specie is the agroecological territory of the other; each being is a gardener of other species and a garden for others in turn, and what we call “world” is ultimately only the relationship of reciprocal cultural (never purely defined by the logic of utility, nor by that of free use). In this sense, there is no wild space, because everything is cultivated and because being in the world means gardening other species, and at the same time and in the same act being the object of other’s sowing”. Le Semeur – De la nature contemporaine (2020), 15.

א א Alberto Moreiras: “Spinoza says in a famous passage:  “Acting on command, that is, from obedience, does take away liberty in some sense, but it is not acting on command in itself that makes someone a slave, but rather the reason for so acting.  If the purpose of the action is not his own advantage but that of the ruler, then the agent is indeed a slave and useless to himself.  But in a state and government where the safety of the whole people, not that of the ruler, is the supreme law, he who obeys the sovereign in all things should not be called a slave useless to himself but rather a subject.  The freest state, therefore, is that whose laws are founded on sound reason; for there each man can be free whenever he wishes, that is, he can live under the guidance of reason with his whole mind” (TTP, Chapter XVI).  So, my question: are faculty members within the “nueva universidad” slaves or free humans?  The problem is of course with the definition of reason.  In the “nueva universidad “reason is determined algorithmically or cybernetically, and there is no other reason.  The presumption of a unity of reason was probably Spinoza’s mistake, perhaps even a metaphysical mistake or a mistake of metaphysics.  So it would follow that only faculty members that submit to algorithmic reason are free, whereas the rest of us are slaves.  The faculty outlaw that refuses to comply with algorithmic reason, in addition to being subjected to the punishment of the sovereign when caught every time, has no recourse to reason. What does he have recourse to?  Some fantasy of an alternative reason?  Some natural law?  Or is it the case that algorithmic, that is, cybernetic reason makes Spinoza´s entire philosophy flounder together with the notion of reason as natural law it puts forth?”


*Imagen: Plantas del Longwood Gardens, PA, 2018. De mi colección personal.

The triumph of res idiotica and communitarianism: on Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. By Gerardo Muñoz.

Patrick Deneen’s much-awaited book Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2017) is a timely contribution that, in the wake of the Trump presidency, vehemently confirms the epochal crisis of political liberalism, the last standing modern ideology after the demise of state communism and short-lived fascist mass movements of the twentieth century. It is difficult to distinguish whether liberalism is still a viable horizon capable of giving shape to citizenship or if on the contrary, it endures as a residual form deprived of democratic legitimacy and popular sovereignty [1]. In fact, contemporary liberalism seems incapable of attending to social demands that would allow for self-renewal. In a slow course of self-abdication, which Carl Schmitt predicted during the Weimar Republic, liberalism has triumphed along the lines of a logical administration of identity and difference through depolitization that has mutated as a global war in the name of ‘Humanity’ [2]. The catastrophic prospect of liberalism is far from being a schmittian alimony of political exceptionalism. In fact, Mark Lilla in his recent The Once and Future Liberal (2017) claims, quite surprisingly, that the “liberal pedagogy of our time is actually a depolitizing force” [3]. What is at stake at the threshold of liberal politics is the irreducible gap between idealia and realia that stages a moment where old principles wane, no longer accounting for the material needs in our contemporary societies [4].

Deneen confronts the foundation of its idealia. Deneen’s hypothesis on the failure of liberalism does not follow either the track of betrayal or the path of abdication. Rather, Deneen claims that liberalism has failed precisely because it has remained “true to itself” (Deneen 30). In other words, liberalism has triumphed in its own failure, crusading towards liberation as a philosophy of history, while administrating and containing every exception as integral to its own governmentality. If modern liberalism throughout the nineteenth century (an expression of the Enlightenment revolutionary ethos) provided a political referent for self-government, the grounds for the rule of law, and the exercise of liberty against divine absolute powers (the medieval theology of the potentia absoluta dei); contemporary liberalism has found consolidation as a planetary homogeneous state that reintroduces a new absolutism that interrupts modern man’s self-affirmation against divine contingencies [5]. Since its genesis, liberalism was held by two main anthropological assumptions: individualism as the kernel for the foundation of negative liberty and the radical separation of the human from nature, both by way of an economic-political machine that liberates the individual at the same time that it expands the limits of the state. The rise of the securitarian state is the effective execution of this logic, by which politics centers on governing over the effects in a perpetual reproduction of its causes. These ontological premises are the underlying infrastructures of a two-headed apparatus that ensembles the state and the market in the name of the unrestrained conception of liberty. As Deneen argues: “…liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection; its ideal of liberty can be realized only through a powerful state. If the expansion of freedom is secured by law, then the opposite also holds true in practice: increasing freedom requires the expansion of law” (Deneen 49).

But the same holds true for the unlimited market forces that today we tend to associate with late-modern neo-liberal laissez-faire that presupposes the expansion of functional units of state planning as well as the conversion of the citizen as consumer. The duopoly of state-market in liberalism’s planetary triumph spreads the values of individual autonomy, even if this necessarily entails the expansion of surveillance techniques and the ever-increasing pattern of economic inequality within an infinite process of flexible accumulation and charity that maintain mere life. In this sense, globalization becomes less a form of cosmopolitan integration, and more the form of planetarization driven by the general principle of equivalence that metaphorizes events, things, and actions into an abstract process of calculability [6]. This new nomic spatialization, which for Deneen discloses the erosion of local communitarian forms of life as well as the capacity for national destiny, is the epochē of sovereignty as the kernel principle of liberalism. In other words, Liberalism’s sovereigntist traction was always-already exceptio through which the governance of the nomos is only possible as the effective proliferation and rule over its anomic excess.

The substantial difference with early forms of liberalism is that only in the wake of contemporary globalization and the post-industrial reorganization of labor, this exceptionalism  no longer functions as a supplement to the normative system, since it is what marks the subsumption of all spheres of action without reminder. In this scenario, liberalism is no longer a political ideology nor is it a horizon that orients a modern movement towards progress; its sole task is to control the imports of identity and difference within the social. One could say that liberalism is a technique for containing, in the way of a thwarted katechon, a society without limits. Paradoxically, liberalism, which once opposed sovereign dictatorship, now endorses a universality that cannot be transmitted, and a principle of democracy that has no people (populus).

In the subsequent chapters of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen turns to liberalism’s imperial mission in four distinct social paradigms: culture, technology, the Liberal Arts in the university, and the rise of a new aristocracy. The commonality in each of these topoi is that in each and every one of these social forms, liberalism has produced the opposite of what it had intended. Of course, it did so, not by abandoning its core principles, but precisely by remaining faithful to them, while temporalizing the hegemony of the same as eternal. First, in the sphere of culture, Deneen argues that liberalism’s inclination towards an anticultural sentiment is consistent with multiculturalism as the “eviscerated and reduction of actual cultural variety to liberal homogeneity loosely dressed in easily discarded native garb” (Deneen 89). The culturalism promoted by liberalism is a process of deletion that knows only a fictive transmutation within the logic of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ that seeks to exhaust the cosmos of the singular. The price to be paid for policed inclusion of cultural differences into liberal anticultural norms, aside from leaving the economic accumulation untouched, is that it forces a form of consent that tailors the radically irreducible worldviews to standardized and procedural form of subjective recognition. Although Deneen does not articulate it in these terms, one could say that culturalism – which Deneen prefers to call liberalism anticulturalism-, amounts, in every instance, to a capture that supplies the maintenance of its hegemonic thrust.

Nowhere is this perceived with more force today than in liberal arts colleges and universities across the country, where from both ideological extremes, the Liberal Arts as a commitment to thinking and transmission of institutional knowledge is “now mostly dead on most campuses” (Deneen 113). From the side of the political conservative right, the way to confront the ongoing nihilism in the university, has been to completely abandon the liberal arts, pledging alliance to the regime of calculative valorization (the so called “STEMS” courses) on the basis of their attractive market demand. But the progressive left does not offer any better option, insisting by advancing the abstract “critical thinking” and one-sided ideological politization, it forgets that critique is always-already what feeds nihilism through the negative, which does little to confront the crisis in a democratic manner. The demise of the liberal arts in the contemporary university, depleted by the colonization of the dominance by principle of general equivalence, reduces the positionality of Liberal Arts to two forms of negations (critique and market) for hegemonic appropriation [7]. In one of the great moments of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen declares that we are in fact moving slowly into the constitution of a res idiotica:

“The classical understanding of liberal arts as aimed at educating the free human being ids displaced by emphasis upon the arts of the private person. An education fitting for a res publica is replaced with an education suited for a res idiotica – in the Greek, a “private” and isolated person. The purported difference between left and right disappears as both concur that the sole legitimate end of education is the advance of power through the displacement of the liberal arts” (Deneen 112).

Liberalism idiotism is invariable, even when our conduct is within the frame of public exposition. One must understand this transformation not merely as a consequence of the external economic privation of the public university (although this adds to the decline of whatever legitimacy remains of the Liberal Arts), but more importantly as a privatization of the modes of the general intellect into a dogmatic and technical instrumentality that “can only show their worth by destroying the thing they studied” (Deneen 121). The movement of liberalization of higher education, both in terms of its economic indexes and flexible epistemic standardization, dispenses the increasing erosion of institutions, whose limits have now become indeterminate within the general mechanics of valorization. The res idiotica is the very exhaustion of the res publica within liberal technicality, where any form of impersonal commonality is replaced by the unlimited expansion of expressive subjectivism. In a total reversal of its own conditions of possibility, the outplay of the res idiotica is satisfied in detriment of any use of public reason and freedom, if by the latter we understand a commitment to the polis as a space in which the bios theoretikos was never something to be administered, but constructed every time [8]. The emergence of res idiotica coincides with the decline of politics as a force of democratization in the public use of reason.

In the economic sphere, the assault of the res publica entails the emergence of a new aristocracy, which as Deneen argues, was already latent in liberalism’s great ideologues’ (Locke, Mill, and Hayek) commitment to a ruling class formation and arbitrary economic distribution. For Deneen, one did not have to wait for Hayek’s experiments in active market liberalism to grasp that what J.S.Mill called “experiments of the living” as the promise of liberation from the social shackles, but only to consecrate an even more stealth system of domination between expert minorities rule and ordinary people. What remains of Liberalism in its material deployment is not much: a res idiotica that fails at constituting a public and civil society devoid of cives, and a state that expands the limits of administration in pursuit of freedom only to perpetuate an aristocratic class. In broad strokes, Deneen’s narrative about liberalism could be well said to be a story about how a “living body” (the People) became an absolute in absentia that only leave us with a practice of idolatry to a supreme and uncontested principle [9].

The idolatrous character of liberal principles is rendered optimal in recent theoretical claims against democracy, where the latter is seen as an obstacle for government rather than as the premise for the legitimacy of popular sovereignty. Hence, democracy is turned into a mechanical arrangement that includes whatever supports liberal assumptions and beliefs, and excludes all forms of life that it sees as a threat to its enterprise. In this way, liberalism today is a standing reserve that administers the proliferation of any expressive differential identities, while scaffolding an internal apparatus for self-reproduction. In one of the most eloquent passages of the book, Deneen evokes the anti-democratic shift of liberalism in the contemporary reflection:

“…the true genius of liberalism was subtly but persistently to shape and educate the citizens to equate “democracy” with the ideal of self-made and self-making individuals – expressive individualism – while accepting the patina of political democracy shrouding a power and distance government whose deeper legitimacy arises from enlarging the opportunity and experience of expressive individualism. As long as liberal democracy expands “the empire of liberty”, mainly in the form of expansive rights, power, and wealth, the actual absence of active democratic self-rule is not only an acceptable but a desired end”. Thus liberalism abandons the pervasive challenge of democracy as a regime requiring the cultivation of disciplined self-rule in favor of viewing the government as a separate if beneficent entity that supports limitless provision of material goods and untrammeled expansion of private identity” (Deneen 155-156).

The triumph of the res idiotica works in tandem with the expansion of the administrative state at the level of institutional reserve, and through the presidentialist charismatic populism in covering the void of an absent demos. These two cathetic instances of hegemonic closure maintain the democratic deficit that organizes the polis against any attempt at active dissent against the unlimited forms of commence and war that, according to Deneen, “have increasingly come to define the nation” (Deneen 172). At the very core of its innermost material practices, liberalism amounts to a technical-war machine that, in the name of a homogenous and uprooted ‘humanity’, liquidates the commitment to the res publica as the only political system that can uphold any form of consistent and durable endurance against the imbalanced domination of an unruly and anarchic power. If the political as a modern invention it is said to be a flight from the condition of servitude and slavish subordination, as Quentin Skinner has observed, we are in a position to claim that contemporary liberalism is as much a movement forward in unlimited freedom that articulates a regression to the form of dependence of the slave [10]. Once the singular is dependent on a power that he interiorizes as fully spectral and all encompassing, freedom amounts to a slave restraint over the potentiality of desiring and retreating. In the planetary stage governed by equivalence as the administration of cultural identity formation, the singular comes to occupy the position of the slave that, although is free to exercise his self-command in an unlimited region for self-recognition, any transgression of the normative regime is always-already anticipated by the securitarian apparatus. Politics, as we know it, has come to a close in the liberal paradigm.

Why Liberalism Failed does not shy away from offering a way out, a ‘what is to be done’ to the liberal dominium that puts in crisis the relations between thinking and action, imagination and political ideologies. For some contemporary thinkers (in particular, the post-Heideggerian tradition opened by the work of Reiner Schürmann and Giorgio Agamben) have endorsed a positivization of an-archy as a way for clearing the path beyond the saturation of apolitical liberalism [11]. But if we grant this speculative move, we forget that liberalism is an economy that governs the very excess of foundation that is already well within the anarchy principle. In other words, failure is not an exception or achievement or telos of liberal rationality; it is rather something like its irreducible latent force that gives semblance to the ‘actuality’ of the idolatrous principle. However, if liberalism is only semblance without material substance (barren from popular sovereignty), then it is no longer a constituted principle or archē. Anarchy is thus a false option, although it is not the option that Deneen subscribes. The question remains: what is to be done at the end of liberal politics that have brought to ruin the triad of action, freedom, and even citizenship?

Deneen’s wager is not an endorsement of a new and better theoretical articulation, but the affirmation of a community form that he associates with Tocquevillian ‘schoolhouse of democracy’ as well as with Wendell Berry’s practical communitarianism as a “rich and varied set of personal relations, a complex of practices and traditions drawn from a store of common memory and tradition, and a set go bonds forged between people and place that is not portable, mobile, fungible, or transferable” (Deneen 78). It is at this critical point in the conjuncture, where I see Deneen’s proposal as insufficient on grounds of both his own intellectual premises in his critique of liberalism, as well in relation to what the community form if understood as a locational and identitarian structure.

First, it is not very clear that community as understood here can do the work to retreat from liberal machination. The community form, assumed as a foreclosed and identitarian contained social form, can offer only a thetic instance of what liberalism promotes in its rule through management. The community as a countercultural reaction to liberalism’s promotion of identities leaves intact its own identitarian closure reduced to propriety and consensus [12]. Could one reconcile democracy with a communitarian horizon for a singular that opts for dissent against the communitarian majority? Probably not, because the horizon of communitarization, like that of liberalism, rests on the production of exclusion for anyone that chooses to retreat from the community. The fact that these questions are left unanswered by Deneen’s proposal is a sign the community form does not offer any substantial alternative to atomized identity. Rather, the community form only call to legitimacy is a set of metaphysical niceties such as ‘inheritance’, ‘location’, and ‘practicality’.

By subscribing to organic communitarianism, Deneen postulates a theoretical archē of the community that thrives on what it excludes in order to properly define and constrain itself. In other words, as conceived under the banner of “practical” (not ‘theoretical’) forms of life, the community form becomes an active self-reproductive logic that bars dissent before any threat from the outside. However, there is a second consideration when thinking about community form. Essentially, that it is not convincing that Deneen’s affirmation of the community can claim to be an exception to liberalism’s empire. By retorting that liberalism amounts to a “demolition that comes at the expense of these communities’ settled forms of life”, Deneen immunizes the community as an impolitical form that can be extracted from the logic of real subsumption (Deneen 143). In an ironic endgame, Deneen’s practical communitarianism as a ‘personalized and settled form of life’ recasts contemporary Marxist and current vice-president of Bolivia Alvaro Garcia Linera’s thinking of the community form as organic entelechy that accelerates use value against global transnational capitalism [12]. But whereas for the Bolivian thinker, the task amounts to an actualization of the community form in order to radically transform the state, in the case of Deneen’s proposal, the return to the communitarian patchwork amounts to the fantasy of a radical detachment from the administrative state and national popular structures. These two positions, although from opposing extremes of the ideological spectrum, do not provide an exit from the crisis of politics, but rather the full realization of politics as ongoing nihilism against the negative labor of liberalism. It would seem that the best that either the Left or the Right can offer today is a form of communitarianism.

If community form is always one of theological salvation – as a set of practices that would include care, humility, and modesty at the level of local communities (Deneen 191-192) – then this entails that communitarism works through a theological foundation of faith as the dissuasion of any possible instance of the profane interruption. As Elettra Stimilli has observed, the Christian community of salvation is always already consigns an unknown dimension of freedom, which reintroduces the dependence model of servitude [13]. The factical life of Christian community of faith can only be maintained as an ascetic practice for those that already within the parameters of its beliefs. In short, community form does not only leave unperturbed the functioning of the liberalism’s empire of liberty, and unfortunately can only provide the same broken idealia that fails to confront the interregnum that today names the fracture between theory and practice of the political.

Could it be, rather counter intuitively, that Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is actually an esoteric defense of liberalism? I would like to read the consequences of the book in that direction, by slightly displacing the question of liberalism to that of the anthropological genesis of modernity. This speaks to the book’s admirable tension between the triumphs of liberalism as a failure (or as always failing), while at the same time liberalism’s appeal to realize the admirable ideals that liberalism often only promised (Deneen 184). What if these aporias could allow us to rethink the Enlightenment as a project ‘to come’ that can guarantee open universal conditions for reform and in pursuit of modern man’s self-affirmative counter-communitarian, and institutional durability? What if the Enlightenment could desist on being a triumphalist account of humanist withdrawal, and instead be rendered as a project of radical deficiency, of the crisis of modern science, and the scope of singularity that can never amount to a metaphorization of the idea of liberty, but one that allows for the disturbance of myth (as well the theology) against transcendental action? [14]

The failed triumphalism of liberalism, and here I must agree with Deneen, was confined on its reducibility on subjectivation and subjectivity as an absolute anthropologism. This metaphysical anthropology, in fact, made the psychic life of the singular into identity reproduction between duty and guilt as the dual symptomology of becoming ‘subject’. Liberalism has been a compulsive and failed politics, not because of what it has not achieved by remaining all too faithful to its promises, but because it has substantially realized subjectivity as the uncontested hegemonic principle of the political. Against the servitude of liberalism’s imperial drive, and the communitarian countercultural obligations, the task remains to think the emergence of a universal, marrano, and non-subjective democratic enlightenment that could reinstate the res publica from within the ruins of the res idiotica, only if it is not already too late.


  1. The retraction of legitimacy in all political systems of the West has been argued by Giorgio Agamben in The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days (2017). Slightly in a different register, what I am arguing here is that the exhaustion of popular sovereignty in liberal hegemony, in part, is due to liberalism’s extreme distance, and at times even explicit rejection, from any transaction with the ‘popular’. At the same time, one could also claim that the emergence of populism in contemporary societies is a latent expression that seeks to ground popular mobilization to readdress the democratic deficit in technocratic governance.
  2. See La Guerra Globale (2002), by Carlo Galli.
  3. Mark Lilla. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017). 137-138.
  4. The epigraph of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, we read: “When the gap between ideal and the real becomes too wide, the system breaks down. Legend and story have always reflected this in the Arthurian romances the Round Table is shattered from within. The sword is returned to the lake; the effort beings anew. Violent, destructive, greedy, fallible as he may be, man retains his vision or order and resumes his search”. The question is whether in the current interregnum the capacity for ‘myth’ can still provide a source to cope with the fissure between a desirable political horizon and a theoretical set of concepts capable of giving form to a new order.
  5. This is the argument for the legitimacy of modernity beyond the theological-political underpinnings in the wake of secularization advanced by Hans Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1985).
  6. Although the term general equivalent spans from Marx to Jean Luc Nancy to account for the logic of exchange, for an assessment of the question of equivalence as the logic of nihilistic measurement at a planetary scale, see “Infrapolitical Action The Truth of Democracy at the End of General Equivalence” (2016), by Alberto Moreiras at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/pc/12322227.0009.004?view=text;rgn=main
  7. The insufficiency of hegemonic politics today has nothing to do with a partisan, theoretical, or ideological inclination. If we say that the theory of hegemony is no longer viable today, it is because it can only work as a collectivization of identity proliferation, whether in the form of the equivalent demand or in through the closure of the community form, failing to provide in either case for a demotic impersonal region. For the crisis of the modern university and the insufficiency of critique, see La crisis no moderna de la universidad moderna (1996), by Willy Thayer.
  8. As Arendt writes in her essay “What is Freedom?”: “The way of life chosen by the philosopher was understood in opposition to the bios theoretikos, the political way of life. Freedom, therefore, the very center of politics as the Greeks understood it, was an idea which almost by definition could not enter the framework of Greek philosophy”.
  9. I am thinking here of Adrian Vermeule’s important critique of the idolatrous conception of the separation of powers by legal liberalism in his most recent Law’s abnegation: from Law’s Empire to the administrative state (2017).
  10. Quentin Skinner. “A Genealogy of Liberty”, unpublished lecture read at Stanford University, October 2016.
  11. See, “On Constituting Oneself an Anarchistic Subject” (1986), by Reiner Schürmann.
  12. For an important assessment of the limits of the communitarian model, see “Consensus, Sensus Communis, Community” (2016), by Maddalena Cerrato, at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/pc/12322227.0010.005?view=text;rgn=main
  13. Elettra Stimilli. The Debt of the Living: Ascesis and Capitalism (2017). 9-10.
  14. This is the moment where Hans Blumenberg, who labeled himself as a disillusioned child of the Enlightenment, took maximum distance from the Kantian unlimited freedom as a necessary presupposition of reason: “However, the danger of using an absolute metaphorics for the idea of freedom can be discerned in Kant himself, and its grave, necessarily misleading consequences can be seen in the introduction of the conception of transcendental action. This makes it natural to regard as freedom anything that can be represented as a transcendental action of understanding”, in Shipwreck with spectator (1997), 101.