Power and Utopia

/An excerpt of the chapter from the upcoming 3rd [blueprint] of AVENIR INSTITUTE, steɪt əv nəʊlænd: resisting empire, sovereignty and nation/

The are limitless ways of starting the conversation about power, none of which is ‘correct’ beyond the mix conscious or unconscious ideological pre-suppositions of the speaker(s). Power is transgressive, material and ephemeral at the same time. Power is energy that moves the wheels of political mechanisms. Art theorists speak about ‘aura’ within the objects and subjects of aesthetic and artistic; while in politics we can define a similar undefinable category of energy - ‘plasma’. Plasmatic political actors and institutions, just as in case of art, might not be immediately evident and visible. They are rather perceivable: the invisible and thick thrill in the air in the space of presence of the power-holder. When tourists arrive to Brussels and head to the site of the European Parliament or in Washington to see the Capitol Hill, there are not there (whether they reflect it or not) to see the architecture. They are attracted, magnetically driven towards the space by the power they symbolise.

The language of conversation about power is not an easy subject. The contestation of the field spans beyond any particular discipline as power has infinite ways of manifesting itself and bending the real. 

Power is a solemn and sacred resource of politics and the only versatile matter that combines both material and immaterial essence in indistinguishable synergic mix, form and futures of which is hardly programmable. As Aristoteles famously highlighted, the man is a political animal: meaning that human is a relational subject, specifically in assigning value and defining meaning of things. Relations are characterised by ordering and policing distribution of power in social constructs of the society. Power is not just mere means to reach out for a gain or value, but it is a thing in itself. This important characteristic of power has long tradition of being ignored. You can convert power into anything you want, however you cannot easily make the reverse conversion of ‘something’ into power. For example, the augmented perception without neoliberal capitalist mode of thinking suggests that financial resources can be converted into political power. Indeed, the current matrix of socio-political relations unfairly puts financial resources in the privileged position and can easily ‘seduce’ into trading power for money. Those who do often find themselves doomed and destroyed. The institutional uniqueness and ontological fundamentality of political power proved over the course of history it doesn’t stay loyal or fixate ‘exchange rates’ with any resource. The successful politician is not the one who want to obtain power for the sake of becoming, for example, rich - but the one who values power over any other resource it can be converted into. Political power provides the one who gets hold on it to define norm, reality and value of the things that can it has limitless potentiality to be converted into. 

Power has numerous disambiguations: authority, control, enforcement of the will, etc. The historian of the present and archeologist of knowledge(s) Michel Foucault over the years of working with the notion of power elaborated the field of research that he called ‘cratology’ (from ‘cratos’ - Ancient Greek for power). Cratology, or the knowledge about power, highlights the fundamental difference between ‘the political’ and ‘politics’.

The political, as understood in the early school of political realism, which counts Carl Schmitt and Paul Morgenthau as its core representatives, defined by the latter in the following manner: “…the Political is to be understood as a force that exists within the individual and is necessarily directed towards other people in the form of “desire for power”. 

Schmitt focused his analysis on the figure of a sovereign, as “…is he who decides on the exception”. A sovereign through the imposed domination and exercise of power is the source of justice. Interestingly, the term “justice”, as “righteousness”, etymologically originates in Proto-Indo-European religious cults. The nature of ‘the political’ is theological and the reality, which is constructed politically, is not much different from religious world views. We believe in justice, fairness, freedom as some of us believe in Jesus, angels or afterlife. 

Nietzsche in his opposition of Dionysian, bare life, and Apollonian ‘filter’ of bearable representation of it pinpointed the nature and the appearance of ‘the political’ in a strikingly visual way. The bare essence of life with its animalistic rules, as he was elaborating in The Birth of Tragedy, are so tragic and unbearable that we require the ‘filters’ in order to keep on living it: we require concepts of meaning, such religion and political ideologies, the norms and values of ordinary micro-level living, such as family, children and so on. These institutions and narratives create a distance from the stage where the wild beast of power exercises the bare violence and multiple murders for the sake of getting hold and gripping the structure of the political in the most effective and long-standing form. 

In order to make this bareness bearable, filters create the notion of visibility in social and political life. None of them, any religion or political ideology, are capable of covering the narrative of existence perfectly, although they certainly claim and try to achieve it. As soon as the individual has clear analytical vision, the crack within any of them are omnipresent and disturbing. For that reason the regimes of power, of those Apollonian filters of meaning, need to create a theatrical stage of events with very very accurate lighting system. You cannot afford to make too many things and cracks on the stage visible: as soon as the props and costumes become too ridiculous, the audience stops pretending it believes in it. Just in bad theatre it can cause  the revolt leading to the change of the director, the particular sovereign. Jacques Ranciere in Aesthetics and Politics spoke about this methodology as notions of visibility in politics - as soon as something becomes problematic within the organised image of the constructed by the particular Goliath real, it needs to be actively ignored or even forcefully silenced. The action will largely depend on the character of the regime, but the desirable result is always the same. There is an inherent similarity between sometimes semi-conscious ignorance of particular news stories in the democratic media and violence against the opposition in more autocratic ones: all of them are the methods of controlling the visibility. 

Those constructs lead us to another important notion in conversation about power - utopia. It was discussed since the very beginning of epistemology in a form of Atlantis, but most probably has much earlier forms in unwritten shape. 

Utopia however can be analysed and approached from different perspective: as a strategic attempt to address the ontological problem of ‘the political’ as a source of domination and oppression. The utopian genre was born in Renaissance and appropriated the way we approach utopia as a literature, rather than an attempt to curb the political and power. It is looked at as a form of criticism of socio-political apparatus, escapism from impossibility to inflict a lasting large enough change in politics of the day. 

The approach towards utopia as a praxeological form of creative criticism, where the radicality of the proposal is balanced by the tactics of making the manifestations of ‘the political’ bare and naked, is much more potent in a sense of potentiality to cause fundamental shift in thinking about the alternatives to the status quo. Our approach to analysis of the notion of utopia as well as its concrete manifestations departs from the premise of it being a critical tool of the state of politics in which ‘the political’, and its agent the sovereign, a Goliath, hides itself under the ideographs of freedom, justice and fairness. Utopia is an analytical gesture of reinvention of the past in order to criticise the present for constructing desirable future. David’s taking on seemingly hopeless struggle against Goliath ended up in valiant success. The role of David in our case played by utopian thinking, while Goliath is the Leviathan of the imperial nation statehood.