Glosses on Philippe Theophanidis on community and obligation. by Gerardo Muñoz

These are further notes on the mini-series of conversations within the framework of the course that I am teaching at 17 instituto on contemporary Italian political thought. This second installment we had the opportunity of discussing a few ideas with Philippe Theophanidis on Roberto Esposito’s notion of community and its general horizon of inscription within contemporary discussions on immunity, the commons, and communication (a topic already explored with Philippe a couple of months back a propos of the publication of Dionys Mascolo’s La Révolution par l’amitiè, in which he participated). Although Philippe recommended reading and focusing on the first chapter of Roberto Esposito’s Communitas, his presentation intentionally exceeded the mere philological and description exposition. He suggested, perhaps too prudently, that the vocabulary of Italian theory or contemporary political thought is expressively ambivalent. This is already food for thought, as it puts pressure (at least in my reading) to the ‘conceptual’ register of Italian theory, while reminding us of the necessity of thinking against every moral or ideological political analysis. This also seems to traverse all of contemporary Italian theory regardless of what P.P. Portinaro claims on this ground. But I would like to register a few movements of Philippe’s talk in order to provide continuation in the upcoming discussions.

1. Theophanidis began insisting on the relationship between community and language. Because we are speaking beings, capable of saying, we are in the common of language regarding what or how we speak. Beyond and prior to any substance of community and its predication, there is a koine of language as sayability. This of course connects to the vulgar language or the poetics that marks the Italian tradition and that it enters into crisis with the acceleration process of modernization in Italy the postwar scenario, and to which names such as Pasolini, Zanzotto, Morante, or Levi will respond to. The crisis of community is, first and foremost, the crisis of the commonality of language in its rich materiality of the living community of beings. Here I am reminded that in the same way that there is no “theory” of language – as it remains purely inconceptual before grammar – there is no theory of substantive community, nor can there be one. To posit the community in the economy of predication is already to instrumentalize the very need to liberate it from whatever is done in its name.

2. For Theophanidis the conversation about community emerges in the wake of the collapse of 20th century communism and the absolutization of individualism due to the rise of economic management. But this does not imply restitution; it rather points to an ambivalent sense by which the very separation of the modern installment of individual and collective, community and substance, the person and the law, collapses. The unity of ‘munus’ in Esposito is a way to think the irreducibility of what is common between more than one without a securing a principle of mediation. Now, this unbridgeable gap is the negative foundation of the community in Esposito after Bataille, and the French tradition of the 50s.

3. However, Theophanidis assesses Esposito’s insistence in notions such as debt and obligation as an attempt to escape the nihilism of equivalence and the modern delegation of state sovereignty to fully become individuals capable of accumulating the spiritualization of freedom. However, what to make of Esposito’s dependence on categories of the Christian metaphysical tradition such as obligation? I mentioned to Philippe that this registered could be contrasted to the position of natural law, which also emphasis on foundational obligations as to delimit a set of normatively public goods (this typology is most clearly expressed in John Finnis classic Natural Law and Natural Rights). From this it follows not only that Esposito would be close (even if residually) to natural law principles but inscribe his conceptual grid in tension with the mediation of obligations on the one hand, and the reality of a concrete community on the other. In other words, it seems to me that if Esposito cannot guarantee a mediation for the notion of “obligation”, then this notion insofar as it is freestanding concept cannot do the job for any community. It could only stand as such: that is, a merely conceptual. This is something that has reemerged somehow in Esposito’s most recent work in institutions, human rights, and political anthropology in his Pensiero istituente (2020) where mediation does play a role, suggesting that he does not want to be taken as merely conceptual. Of course, I agree with Theophanidis that munus is void, a schism that Esposito does not want to suture, and so in this sense (also as a critic of personalism and the persona) he differs fundamentally from the general ends of iusnaturalism. However, it seems to me that the difficulty regarding the operativity of obligation in Esposito’s renewal of community does not disappear, quite the contrary.

4. A question emerged as to whether community can transform the crisis of political form, or whether any talk about community had to be done ex politico or infrapolitically. Theophanidis defended separating community and politics, if by politics we mean a return to the classical principles of sovereignty and representation; but also, if by politics we imply a general morality that would inseminate direct consensus and legislation across the members of the community. Any reworking of the political has to be done from a counter-communitarian perspective insofar as what is ruined is precisely the community of salvation guaranteed by those that confess or by those that assent to a principle of representation that marks our crisis. Perhaps the negative community (the community of a poetics of language and use) is what remains the fiction of socialization that drags the collapse of political representation. Otherwise, community is a sort of aggregate form of administration that exist comfortably well within the regime of biopolitics (another ambivalent term for Esposito).

5. Finally, Theophanidis expressed, rightly so, some skepticism at the famous Thomas Müntzer’s motto Omnia sunt communia, which on the surface established a totalization of the commons, but in actuality it rendered a moral legislation of what is understood as commons on behalf of a consent of total ownership of property. In this sense, the communitarian claim of Müntzer was a precursor to Carl Schmitt attack against humanitarianism: whoever says Human wants to fool us, since the outermost limit becomes the inhuman or the uncommon that must be obligated, erased, and destroyed whether it is in the name of the Human or the Commons. This is ideology at its finest, and it explains why the itinerary of both humanity and community have experienced such a happy voyage well into our present: it has consolidated a dominating morality veiled under the guise of a contingent good of and for the community. Of course, the price to be paid, just like Thomas Müntzer had to pay, is that the price of one’s head: the figure of acephaly now funds the differential structure of equivalence. Any reworking of community must be thought from and against collective equivalent execution, which is the real truth latent underneath every consensus and every morality.

Politics as substantive morality: Notes on Gramsci’s Prison Writings (VI). by Gerardo Muñoz

In section 79 of Gramsci’s Notebook 6 we are offered a strong definition of “politics” that I think illuminates the core of the Gramscian program fundamentally as a substantive morality. Gramsci writes the following against the “particularism” of normal associations (say the aristocracy, the elite, or the vanguard): “[an universal] association does not set itself up as a definite and rigid entity but as a something that aims to extend itself to a whole social grouping that is itself conceived as aiming to unify all humanity. All these relationships give a universal character to the group ethic that must be considered capable of becoming a norm of conduct for humanity as a whole. Politics is conceived a process that will culminate in a morality; in other words, politics is seen as leading towards a form of sociality in which politics and hence morality as well are both superseded.” (30). It is an astonishing definition, given the precise way it mobilizes the content of this new politics. Of course, there is the explicit the Hegelianism of the ‘universalist’ translation through the dialectical conflation between state and civil society, which just a few sections prior to 79, Gramsci deploys in order to posit the ultimate goal of communist society. 

But in this section he goes further, since it becomes clear that the state and civil society, as they march towards an ‘integral state’, dissolves politics into pure morality. But Gramsci immediately clarifies that it is not just a “morality” of a new dominant class (which could still be contested vis-a-vis other values), but rather a “morality that is superseded”. This is an absolute morality beyond value disputes. In other words, it is an absolute morality that needs to be so because state and civil society have become a unified whole. Concretely, this means the dissolution of politics and of any concrete order of the republican tradition, which recognizes that, precisely because civil war is the latent in the social, no morality can be granted hegemonic status. At bottom, this is the reason why we need politics and institutions to mitigate conflict. The Gramscian moral universe frames a world in which the conflict not only disappears, but rather it becomes pure morality towards a “substantive common good” in which every person is obliged to participate. Indeed, one could claim that the theory of hegemony as morality has never appeared as strongly as in this fragment. I think it is fair to say that the telos of hegemony is, in every case, a drive towards the consolidation of this uncontested morality. 

Needless to say, this is a frontal assault on positive law, which aimed, from Hobbes to H. L. Hart, to clearly differentiate between politics, institutions, and morals. In a surprising but direct way, Gramsci’s definition of politics as substantive morality is closer to the tradition of “Thomism” in at least three compartments of Aquinas’ thinking. First, because it posits a substantive morality as a unified conception of aims, which negates any competing positions between values. Secondly, the substantive morality of politics informs the Gramscian theory of the state, which, very much like the Thomist subsidiary structure, understands institutions not as a concrete order of conflict (stasis), but rather as a depository for the reproduction of civil society (that is why Gramsci also in notebook 6 will speak about the “state without a state”) in the image of the state. However, if we are to be fair to the natural law tradition, I think we can claim that Gramsci is really an archaic and not a “modern” (or revolutionary) Thomist, since even John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford, 1980), in an attempt to square natural law with modern liberalism, countered Hart’s objection of unified moral aims in this way: “…there are basic aspects of human existence that are good leaving aside all the predicaments and implications…all questions of whether and how one is to devote oneself to these goods” (30). Finnis distinguishes between general principles and personal elaborations of aims. However, Gramsci is not interested in establishing generic “principles” for plural aims, but rather he seeks the actualization of a morality that is substantive because it is understood as “superseded as morality” as such. The kingdom of the Gramscian integral state is only realized if the heterogeneity of the social is captured by the hegemony of a supreme morality of Humanity. 

The distance between Gramscian moral politics and the modern natural law foundation (Fuller, Finnis) is driven home when later in section 88 of notebook 6 he claims that: “…one should not think of a “new liberalism” even if the beginning of an era of organic freedom were at hand” (76). This confirms that Gramsci is interested in crafting a morality tied to the efficacy of immanent individual ends and desires, and not at the level of generic principles of a common order. If one takes this moral politics seriously, then it becomes difficult (impossible, in my opinion), to square the primacy of this morality with positive law and the republican tradition at large. At its “best light”, the Gramscian absolute morality can only yield a faith in “Humanity”, which feeds from the production of enmity (turning dissent into ‘inhumanity’) in a civil war, as it cannot be otherwise.