Rene — Agamben — What is a People?

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What is a People?
Any interpretation of the political meaning of the term _people_ ought to start from the peculiar fact that in modern European languages this term always indicates also the poor, the underprivileged, and the excluded. The same term names the constitutive political subject as well as the class that is excluded – de facto, if not de jure – from politics.
The Italian term _popolo_, the French term _peuple_, and the Spanish term _pueblo_ – along with the corresponding adjectives _popolare_, _populaire_, _popular_ – and the late-Latin terms _populus_ and _popularis_ from which they all derive, designate in common parlance and in the political lexicon alike the whole of the citizenry as a unitary body politic (as in »the Italian people« or in »giudice popolare« [juryman]) as well as those who belong to inferior classes (as in _homme du peuple_ [man of the people], _rione popolare_ [working-class neighborhood], _front populaire_ [popular front]). Even the English _people_ – whose sense is more undifferentiated – does retain the meaning of ordinary people as opposed to the rich and the aristocracy. In the American Constitution one thus reads without any sort of distinction: »We, the people of the United States …«; but when Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address invokes a »government of the people, by the people, for the people,« the repetition implicitly sets another people against the first. The extent to which such an ambiguity was essential even during the French Revolution (that is, at the very moment in which people’s sovereignty was claimed as a principle) is witnessed by the decisive role played in it by a sense of compassion for the people intended as the excluded class. Hannah Arendt reminds us that:
»The very definition of the word was born out of compassion, and the term became the equivalent for misfortune and unhappiness – _le peuple_, les malheureux m’applaudissent_, as Robespierre was wont to say; _le people toujours malheuereux_, as even Sieyès, one of the least sentimental and most sober figures of the Revolution, would put it.« [1].
But this is already a double concept for Jean Bodin – albeit in a different sense – in the chapter of _Les Six Livres de la Republique_ in which he defines Democracy or _Etat Populaire_: while the _menu peuple_ is that which it is wise to exclude from political power, the _peuple en corps_ is intended as entitled to sovereignty.
Such a widespread and constant semantic ambiguity cannot be accidental: it surely reflects an ambiguity inherent in the nature and function of the concept of _people_ in Western politics. It is as if, in other words, what we call people was actually not a unitary subject but rather a dialectical oscillation between two opposite poles: on the one hand, the _People_ as a whole and as an integral body politic and, on the other hand, the _people_ as a subset and as fragmentary multiplicity of needy and excluded bodies; on the one hand, an inclusive concept that pretends to be without remainder while, on the other hand, an exclusive concept known to afford no hope; at one pole, the total state of the sovereign and integrated citizens and, at the other pole, the banishment – either court of miracles or camp – of the wretched, the oppressed, and the vanquished. »There exists no single and compact referent for the term people anywhere: like many fundamental political concepts (which, in this respect, are similar to Abel and Freud’s _Urworte_ or to Dumont’s hierarchical relations), _people_ is a polar concept that indicates a double movement and a complex relation between two extremes. This also means, however, that the constitution of the human species into a body politic comes into being through a fundamental split and that in the concept of _people_ we can easily recognize the conceptual pair identified earlier as the defining category of the original political structure: naked life (_people_) and political existence (_People_), exclusion and inclusion, _zoe_ and _bios_. _The concept of people always already contains within itself the fundamental biopolitical fracture. It is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a part as well as what cannot belong to the whole in which it is always already included._
Hence the contradictions and aporias that such a concept creates every time that it is invoked and brought into play on the political stage. It is what always already is, as well as what has yet to be realized; it is the pure source of identity and yet it has to redefine and purify itself continuously according to exclusion, language, blood, and territory. It is what has in its opposite pole the very essence that it itself lacks: its realization therefore coincides with its own abolition; it must negate itself through its opposite in order to be. (Hence the specific aporias of the workers’ movement that turns toward the people and at the same time aims at its abolition.) The concept of people – brandished each and every time as the bloody flag of reaction and as the faltering banner of revolutions and popular fronts – always contains a more original split than the one between enemy and friend, on incessant civil war that at once divides this concept more radically than any conflict and keeps it united and constitutes it more firmly than any identity. As a matter of fact, what Marx calls class struggle – which occupies such a central place in his thought, even though he never defines it substantially – is nothing other than this internecine war that divides every people and that shall come to an end only when _People_ and _people_ coincide, in the classless society or in the messianic kingdom, and only when there shall no longer be, properly speaking, any people.
If this is the case – if the concept of _people_ necessarily contains within itself the fundamental biopolitical fracture – it is possible to read anew some decisive pages of the history of our century. If the struggle between the two peoples has always been in process, in fact, it has undergone in our time one last and paroxysmal acceleration. In ancient Rome, the split internal to the people was juridically sanctioned by the clear distinction between _populus_ and _plebs_ – each with its own institutions and magistrates – just as in the Middle Ages the division between artisans [_popolo minuto_] and merchants [_popolo grasso_] used to correspond to a precise articulation of different arts and crafts. But when, starting with the French Revolution, sovereignty is entrusted solely to the people, the _people_ become an embarrassing presence, and poverty and exclusion appear for the first time as an intolerable scandal in every sense. In the modern age, poverty and exclusion are not only economic and social concepts but also eminently political categories. (The economism and »socialism« that seem to dominate modern politics actually have a political, or, rather, a _biopolitical_, meaning.)
From this perspective, our time is nothing other than the methodical and implacable attempt to fill the split that divides the people by radically eliminating the people of the excluded. Such an attempt brings together, according to different modalities and horizons, both the right and the left, both capitalist countries and socialist countries, which have all been united in the plan to produce one single and undivided people – an ultimately futile plan that, however, has been partially realized in all industrialized countries. The obsession with development is so effective in our time because it coincides with the biopolitical plan to produce a people without fracture.
When seen in this light, the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany acquires a radically new meaning. As a people that refuses integration in the national body politic (it is assumed, in fact, that its assimilation is actually only a feigned one), the Jews are the representatives par excellence and almost the living symbol of the _people_, of that naked life that modernity necessarily creates within itself but whose presence it is no longer able to tolerate in any way. We ought to understand the lucid fury with which the German _Volk_ – representative par excellence of the people as integral body politic – tried to eliminate the Jews forever as precisely the terminal phase of the internecine struggle that divides _People_ and _people_. With the final solution – which included Gypsies and other unassimilable elements for a reason – Nazism tried obscurely and in vain to free the Western political stage from this intolerable shadow so as to produce finally the German _Volk_ as the people that has been able to heal the original biopolitical fracture. (And that is why the Nazi chiefs repeated so obstinately that by eliminating Jews and Gypsies they were actually working also for the other European peoples.)
Paraphrasing the Freudian postulate on the relation between _Es_ and _Ich_, one might say that modern biopolitics is supported by the principle according to which »where there is naked life, there has to be a _People_,« as long as one adds immediately that this principle is valid also in its inverse formulation, which prescribes that »where there is a _People_, there shall be naked life.« The fracture that was believed to have been healed by eliminating the people – namely, the Jews, who are its symbol – reproduced itself anew, thereby turning the whole German people into sacred life that is doomed to death and into a biological body that has to be infinitely purified (by eliminating the mentally ill and the carriers of hereditary diseases). And today, in a different and yet analogous way, the capitalistic-democratic plan to eliminate the poor not only reproduces inside itself the people of the excluded but also turns all the populations of the Third World into naked life. Only a politics that has been able to come to terms with the fundamental biopolitical split of the West will be able to arrest this oscillation and put an end to the civil war that divides the peoples and the cities of the Earth.
[1] Hannah Arendt, _On Revolution_ (New York: Viking Press, 1963), p. 70.