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Beyond powerlessness

If we want to escape from our situation of powerlessness and anxiety, we must re-examine our relationship to the political, and strive to produce new types of political practice. Français.

Wikileaks billboard. Wikileaks billboard. Shutterstock. Ric Frazier. All rights reserved.One of the questions that critical theory must pose concerns our relationship to the present. One of the essential tasks of philosophy is to render a diagnosis of the present. But there are many ways of rendering such a diagnosis, many ways of understanding how we came to this situation, and thus many ways of relating and reacting to the present. 


I am not normally prone to dramatic or theatrical formulations. But I believe that, today, we are living in a critical moment. We are confronted with the necessity of radically interrogating who we are, our ways of thinking, our ways of acting – indeed, our very state of being. If I had to characterize the contemporary political situation using only one term, I would use the concept of powerlessness. If I had to use... only one term, I would use the concept of powerlessness.

For many months, indeed many years, and in almost all aspects of social life, the policies that western states have enacted have been guided by a logic that we know to be dangerous, harmful or unethical. And yet, we find it hard to combat, curb or guide governments towards more acceptable solutions. There is no shortage of recent examples: the authoritarian management of the European debt crisis, most notably in Greece; the migrant crisis – which has led to the re-emergence of borders, walls and camps throughout Europe – the establishment of mass surveillance on a global scale and control of the Internet, and, finally, in France, the imposition of a state of emergency just two months ago… These are just a few examples.  We must begin with the truth.

Of course, the mere fact that states are animated by a conservative logic that we find ourselves struggling against is nothing new. But what is unique, or perhaps exacerbated, today is our growing inability to influence the course of events. Whenever we intervene, whenever we protest, whenever we make demands of the state, these actions seem to yield ever-diminishing transformative results.

We must look upon the present situation with lucidity. We must not lie to ourselves. We must begin with the truth: for many years now, whenever we’ve situated ourselves in the camp of progress and emancipation, we’ve lost the struggle.

And there are many people today who, consequently, live through their political lives in sadness and dismay. As I recently wrote, along with Edouard Louis, in a public manifesto that appeared in Le Monde and the LA Review of Books, the experience of politics, for most of us, is increasingly an experience of powerlessness.  

Obviously, we are not, as intellectuals, artists, activists, etc., responsible for everything. Why do emancipatory politics seem condemned to impotence?

Much of the responsibility lies in the mechanisms of state rationality, the unresponsiveness of the political field, the ideologies propagated by the media system, etc. But we can no longer afford to dwell on these types of analyses. If we want to escape from our situation of powerlessness and anxiety, we must also re-examine of our relationship to the political, and strive to produce new types of political practice.

Fundamentally, I wonder if we have become so used to losing that we no longer question this situation. We think of our failures as inevitable. Against this habit, I think that we must politicize this situation. We must ask why emancipatory politics seems condemned to impotence, and how it could be otherwise.


Confronting our state of powerlessness first of all demands some reflection on our dominant modes of political practice. I think we take far too little account of the fact that the space of contestation is one of the most codified spaces of social life: dissent is always conducted according to established forms. Strikes, demonstrations, petitions, lobbying, civil disobedience even violent riots, constitute recognized forms of dissent. In other words, we exist upon a political terrain in which the expression of political dissent is already inscribed with the logic of the political system, and is, in a sense, programmed by it. The expression of political dissent is already inscribed with the logic of the political system…

We can only move beyond our powerlessness by conducting a critique of the traditional forms of political action. In fact, we must ask ourselves: what it is we do when we use the established modes of democratic dissent.  Are we taking action? Or are we simply protesting to express our disagreement? If our protests accomplish nothing - or, in any case, only rarely produce substantive changes - doesn't this mean that the normal forms of action function as traps? 

When we resort to them, we feel we are taking action; when in reality, we do nothing more than express our discontent. Haven’t the traditional forms of protest lost their efficacy and become routinized?

What would a mode of protest look like that is not already prescribed by the system? If we are to seriously challenge the state, should we not try to take the state by surprise? In this respect, I think that the anonymous leak constitutes one of the most significant political developments of the past several years. I wonder if the solitary actions of whistleblowers... might help us to rethink the entire scene of contemporary politics itself.

I know very well that much contemporary political theory concentrates its attention on mass protests or occupations such as Occupy, the indignants movement in Spain, or the Arab Spring. These are undoubtedly very important movements. But I wonder if all this attention actually reinforces traditional notions of politics and classical categories (like “The People”, the “We”, the “Common”, the “Public Space”), instead of interrogating how politics actually functions and then opening new possibilities.

And I wonder if the solitary actions of whistleblowers represent an unprecedented form of political action, one which might help us to rethink the entire scene of contemporary politics itself.


We must also rethink our relationship to politics in terms of strategy and temporality. I suggest that if we continue to lose battles, it’s because we continue to situate ourselves in relation to the state, and we do so in response to the actions of the state. We continue to situate ourselves in relation to the state.

We are living in an epoch of such political regression that political critique tends to limit itself to the task of reacting against state actions. We constitute ourselves as a political subject according to what the state does: it’s ‘the State’ that sets the terms of debate, that chooses the parameters of our political temporality, and the states plural that establish the topics we debate. Criticism is thus undertaken from a reactive and subordinate position. This is the reason why the state dominates: it imposes itself upon us and, as a matter of strategy; we are incapable of imposing ourselves upon it. 

Rethinking politics thus means rethinking our relationship with time. We must find a way of resisting the state without reacting against the state. We must be careful not to continually situate ourselves in relation to the state. We must try to use the element of surprise by generating our own mode of temporality, by attacking the state where it doesn’t expect, and by creating new themes that it hasn’t yet considered …In short, it is crucial to try to establish a new political temporality.

Critical theory

Thirdly, we must consider the problem of language and the associated modes of analysis that we deploy. If we want to invent a new mindset in order to escape from our disempowerment, we need to redefine the space of critical theory.

My thesis is that the dominant narratives used by contemporary critical theory to understand the present tend to block or limit our capacities for resistance, rather than enliven them. The problem of our “critical vocabulary” interests me very much, especially since writing my book on Foucault and neoliberalism, where I interrogated what it means to develop a forward-looking, non-reactionary critique of the present: how, I asked, are we to critique neoliberalism without erecting the past as a norm or privileged referent? How are we to critique neoliberalism without erecting the past as a norm or privileged referent?

I believe that our contemporary political impotence stems from the fact that, in most areas of analysis, we struggle to formulate a genuine and collective critique of the past and the present – and thus we fail to produce inventive modes of critique.

And while it would undoubtedly be unfair to say that most critical theorists are backward-looking, I think it is nonetheless correct to point out that the way in which operations of power are codified in critical theory often reifies the a prior political regime as a positive referent that is placed beyond question. 

According to our contemporary vocabulary, operations of power are often theorized in negative terms, as something that subtracts from some pre-established reality: power defeats, it destroys, it dismantles, it removes, it weakens, etc. Most analyses of neoliberalism, for example, articulate neoliberal rationality as a force that erodes pre-existing institutions, undermines the values at the center of our collective frameworks (the welfare state, state laws, moral norms, etc.,) and which destroys something like the Common, public political space, etc.

Consider another example taken from critical discussions of mass surveillance. The critique of the state and its intelligence agencies on this subject usually speaks of the way in which mass surveillance ‘erodes’ traditional privacy protections and ‘dismantles’ the limitations that kept state power from intruding into our private lives. And so these traditional protections and limitations function as criteria we use to characterize the negativity of the present situation.

The rhetoric that I’m interrogating here is especially present in France at the moment with respect to current debates about the “state of emergency.” Since the attacks last November, the French government has declared a “state of emergency” that grants far greater powers to the police and the state administration, at the expense of the powers of the judiciary.

While this situation is, of course, very serious, criticism is nonetheless often limited to the decision to create arbitrary suspensions of common law. Resisting these new powers has therefore led to a valorization of common law and its return, through a discourse that characterizes the traditional court system as the guarantor of liberty, and which champions judiciary power as an indispensible protective institution.

When we criticize something by characterizing it as exceptional, we tend to want to return, and hence preserve, that which came before, when really it is precisely this prior order of things that we should be attacking in the first place: for common law contains, in effect, almost as much arbitrary power as the state of exception, it’s just that we fail to see this.  The past order... gradually becomes a positive referent.

This is not to say, of course, that there are never any “regressions,” nor that the past, in some instances, can indeed be considered “better” than the present.

However, my thesis is that if we want to develop a new political mindset, we must generate new narratives of power. We need to move beyond negative concepts like “dismantling,” “destruction,” “reduction,” “precaritization,” “exception” etc., This vocabulary logically leads to a position in which a previous state of power relations functions as an unquestioned axiom upon which all criticism is based. This vocabulary, therefore, produces a very specific mode of critique, one that necessitates a critical silence about a prior state of power relations as its fundamental condition of possibility.

Thus little by little, we cede political terrain: the past order, which we once criticized, gradually becomes a positive referent and becomes constituted as such. And the state, little by little, gains ground, and we continually lose the capacity to imagine different configurations.


Today, our modes of action, our relationship to time, and our narration of power functions in a paradoxical manner: at the very same moment in which we constitute ourselves as political subjects, we also constitute ourselves as subjects dominated by a system of power, by the state. It is this paradox that explains why we continue to fail. Snowden, Assange and Manning… have managed to rupture the traditional rules of the political game.

While such a conclusion may appear desperate, I do not believe it need to be so. In the first place, it is much less despairing to clearly perceive our present situation than to continue to deceive ourselves, and to continue to stagnate as a result.

But above all, we need not despair because experimentation with new modes of action has already taken place. Some interventions undertaken in recent years can act as sources of inspiration from which we can begin to re-fashion ourselves as political subjects. In particular, I am thinking of the actions of Snowden, Assange and Manning, the struggles against state surveillance, the leaks published by Wikileaks, etc. I am not necessarily saying that these acts of resistance should be held up as models that we all must imitate. Rather, I argue that we should look to these figures, and these struggles, as instruments with which we might interrogate our own political unconscious, and re-invent a broader art of insubordination in every domain of social life.

For if people like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange compel such fascination for us today, and if the repression that has been brought to bear on them is so intense, it is, in my opinion, because they have managed to rupture the traditional rules of the political game.

Indeed, I would say these figures constitute the most developed or advanced examples of what could be described as a form of political autonomy, inasmuch as they were able to invent their political modes of action instead of using the traditional ones. In the first instance, they managed to alter traditional political temporality: they took the state completely by surprise. Their dissent originated from a place the state did not at all suspect. Whistleblowers, almost by definition, are insiders, conformists, individuals who are integrated within state institutions; they are not, at least at first, outsiders or traditional figures of dissent. 

Secondly, Snowden, Assange and Manning were all able to impose their agenda upon the state. They posed questions of the state that the state did not want posed or did want to hide.

And they acted in a way that destabilized the state. We could mention here the importance of anonymity, which denies the public character of politics, refuses identification to the figure dissent, and which challenges the traditional operation of public space. One could think of Snowden and Assange’s acts of fleeing and sedition, which refuse to partake in the rules of the political game, as not only a means of escaping the penal system and national belonging but of questioning the right of the state to judge our political actions and their legality. 

I could cite many other examples. But what is most important for me is to emphasize the extent to which Snowden, Assange and Manning have not merely raised questions about the erosion of our liberal-constitutional orders, though they have certainly done this. More importantly, they have invented new questions, new ways of being in the world, and have increasingly defied sovereignty, the liberal rule of law, and therefore defied our entire political scene itself. They stood up against the established rules of democratic contestation, and have accordingly forced the state to occupy a reactionary position. One could think of Snowden and Assange’s acts of fleeing and sedition… as… questioning the right of the state to judge our political actions and their legality.

The sheer intensity of state repression that has been brought to bear on these dissidents can only be understood in this context: the repression against these figures may, ultimately, have less to do with the mere punishment of crimes and may really be more about re-imposing a classical conception of citizenship upon them, in an attempt to re-inscribe them into a system they have sought to unravel. It is a strategy on the part of the state to suppress a new way of doing politics that is unrecognized by the state and which therefore eludes it.


If we want to escape from the state of powerlessness gripping us, if we want to generate a new kind of political mindset, it is my view that these activists and their actions provide a rich source of inspiration. And while it is surely not the only source, it is an important one: for our goal should be to act as they have acted across every domain of social and political life.

We must find a way to place the state in a position of deprivation with respect to us, and force it to react to what we do. Our goal should be to invent new forms of resistance that are not merely oppositional but also inventive, not merely expressive but also active. In other word, we have to invent what would be an autonomous way of being and struggling.


Thanks go to Matt MacLellan for translation to the English.

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