Derrida, ANTIFA, and the Question of Sovereignty

NOTE: This is part 3 in a series called “Deconstructing Anarchy.” You can find the first part HERE, and the second part HERE.

Who is sovereign?

What is sovereignty?

The question of “sovereignty” is at the heart of the question of anarchism. As we discussed in the first two parts of the series, sovereignty comes up as in the first translation of anarchism by Proudhon as the absence of a master, of a sovereign, and also addressed by Graeber in his argument for primitive democracy. In other words, anarchism is in tension with that which it lacks: the sovereign, the privileged, le souverain.

Again, I repeat the questions, “who is sovereign?” and “what is sovereignty?” for the arkhos remains conditioned and defined by that which is sovereign. To answer that we must look first at the word le souverain. Here, le souverain appears as a link, a trace between two forces: between that of the force of law (le droit), and that of democracy — of the force of the people, demos-kratos. In liberal democracies, these forces are in tension and work together to maintain nation-states, and subsequently, maintain sovereignty that delineates between nation-states and international order.

Jacque Derrida repeatedly took up the question of sovereignty throughout his career, and for this investigation, I want to look at two of his final texts: Rogues (2005) and his final lecture The Beast and the Sovereign (2009, 2011). In doing so, I intend to get to the instances where anarchism has been left to interpretation, critique, and, offer a critique of my own looking at the way that the group Antifa has followed within the context of anarchist theory.

The first problem that Derrida addresses is the question of sexual difference and gender. Le souverain as a masculine noun and adjective, which Derrida repeatedly meditates on as in a relationship with the feminine beast. The masculine sovereign and the feminine beast. He starts many of the lectures in The Beast and the Sovereign this way, (“le souverain … la bête …”) as a constant reframing of the subject at hand, both the subject of the lectures and the subject of the sovereign and beast. The gendered approach to sovereignty falls in line with our traditional approaches to democracy, namely the concepts of paternalism and fraternalism. Paternalism as the father-state, the masculine authoritative government, which, in the eyes of modern anarchism, must be a part of the dismantling of state-hood. This returns us to the anarchist notion of rejection of hierarchy itself as a means to true egalitarianism.

After establishing the gendered dynamic of sovereignty, the question of sovereignty moves to the question of law. Who is sovereign? What does that make the beast? Where do each stand in relationship to the law, and how the social order is organized around these principles of sovereignty, law, and human rights? Derrida identifies the two definitions of sovereignty: Thomas Hobbes’ definition — that is, that the sovereign has the ability to create and invent the law out of a religious right and a closeness to God — and Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty — sovereignty as the suspension of law to a group or individual. These two definitions should interest us, as we are trying, in some respect, to define the absence of sovereignty, to be without arkhos, an organization of a society without arkhos.

Hobbesian sovereignty comes from the Leviathan (1651), which proposes the state as an all-encompassing beastly and monstrous thing. Hobbes followed the logic that sovereignty constituted a God-given right grounded in theological, psychological, and political closeness to God (B&S, 54). That is because the sovereign being has the language to understand God, talk to God, know the laws of God, and stands in relative proximity to God, as a way to understand the world. This is in contrast to the figure of the beast, who is excluded from the realm of God, cannot communicate with Him, and must be, in effect, indoctrinated, or, in the case of the animalism of ‘beasts’, domesticated of their ‘brutishness’. Basically, the definition of absolute sovereignty is one who is the maker of law and, therefore, above the law.

The sovereign does not respond, he is the one who does not have to, who always has the right not to, respond [répondre], in particular, not to be responsible for [répondre de] his acts. He is above the law [le droit] and has the right [le droit] to suspend the law, he does not have to respond before a representative chamber or before judges, he grants pardon or not after a law has been passed. The sovereign has the right not to respond, he has the right to the silence of that dissymmetry. He has the right to a certain irresponsibly. (B&S, 57)

Carl Schmitt — the Nazi jurist and social theorist — took up the concept of sovereignty in Political Theology (1922) where he proclaimed “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Later he expanded on this in subsequent works as a critique of liberal humanitarianism. In The Concept of the Political (1932), he developed a concept of politics as similar to war and about identifying the difference between friends and enemies, which Derrida explores in The Politics of Friendship (1990). Sovereignty, for Schmitt, becomes about identifying the enemy and suspending their rights, their humanity, and turning them into beasts. This transformation from citizen to beast, from a friendly member of society to enemy of the state appears as the modern concept of the partisan — the political as a state of total warfare.

This is the nature of the partisan — he rules by fear, or what Schmitt calls schrecklich — the induction of fear as a political weapon — when claiming a humanitarian end-goal. Derrida is critical of Schmitt on this point (74) for being hypocritical in nature and form of this argument (for what were the Nazis if not engaging in the same type of schrecklich as liberal democracies?). However, the observation is not to be thrown away, and the admittance of this humanitarian inhumanity becomes integral to the nature of our modern conception of sovereignty — that those proclaiming to be the most virtuous and sovereign also appear as the most beastly and destructive.

At bottom, when a hypocritical imperialism combats its enemies in the name of human rights and treats its enemies like beasts, like non-men, or like outlaws, like werewolves, it is waging not a war but what would today be called a state terrorism that does not speak its name. It is itself behaving like a werewolf. (The Beast and the Sovereign Vol. 1, 74).

This statement gets to the heart of Derrida’s criticism of sovereignty — that is the figure of the werewolf appears as a deconstructive figure caught between the sovereign and the beast. It appears, instead as a rogue. As someone or something that is also “above the law” and also the extreme breaker of laws. For Derrida, this is the nature of humanitarianism in the post-World War II era, which has seen the designation of ‘rogue’ states by sovereign nations, who, in turn, act in a way like ‘rogue’ states themselves by intervening with illegal military action.

Since Derrida is writing in the period immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and before the invasion of Iraq, he makes a note of the sovereign United States designating Saddam Hussain’s Iraqi regime as a ‘rogue’ state. He makes note to show how the United States, despite their declared sovereignty, in turn, acts like a ‘rogue’ state themselves. That they act, in essence, ‘above the law’. These tensions and contradictions are both unconditional in their relationship to arkhos and authority, and condition in the time, and is a defining feature of the ‘rogue nation’.

Derrida further addresses this problem in Rogues, where he analyses the precarity in which rogues nation-states sit independent of global international laws, which the United States embodies. He problematizes Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty by noting the concepts’ multiplicity — the sovereignty of an omnipotent God, the sovereignty of the nation-state, and the sovereignty of the citizen. Here, he points out the temporality of sovereignty. It cannot be reduced to anything but a present state, sovereignty is present because it is coming and it is already happening. It is arriving. This arrival at a sovereignty-to-come is inevitably attached to the universal rights which act as a question on the sovereignty of nations:

It is already under way. It is at work today; it is what’s coming, what’s happening. It is and it makes history through the anxiety-provoking turmoil we are currently undergoing. For it is often precisely in the name of the universality of human rights, or at least of their perfectibility, as I suggested earlier, that the indivisible sovereignty of the nation-state is being more and more called into question, along with the immunity of sovereigns, be they heads of state or military leaders, and even the institution of the death penalty, the last defining attribute of state sovereignty. (R, 157)

Once again, Derrida takes Schmitt to task on his definition of sovereignty. If sovereignties are irreducibly attached to the suspension of law, then where does that leave the global matrix of universal human rights? Can they suspend the suspension, so to speak? Are global approaches to nation-state problems an antidote to the question of sovereignty? International global sovereignty, while irreducible, is in tension with a certain type of freedom, and Enlightenment ethic of personhood, and is always looking towards a future, more humane humanity.

Perfectibility — the notion that human rights are in a state of perfectibility, or becoming perfect, is key to the internationality that the global community experienced following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This perfectibility, which was supposed to be unattached to profit, the spread of capital, and the tensions within the individual nation-states, reinstate a binary of international suspension of law and the localized suspension of law (or the installing of so-called martial law). The question of sovereignty, the question of who is capable of suspending law becomes stuck between competing interests of national and international humanitarianism.

On some points, Derrida expresses skepticism of the sovereignty of this international system of laws that condemns actions in the name of a perfect, or becoming-perfect, form of international humanitarianism. This perfect humanitarianism is, at once, attached to the Enlightenment as a scientific certainty, and yet the effects of this condemnation are impotent to the will of the state concerning the international global community, and the rights of the individual, which was at the center of the Enlightenment project. That, for Derrida, is where national state sovereignty, in some cases, can critique the arkhos of the internationally agreed-upon world order.

One cannot combat, head-on, all sovereignty, sovereignty in general without threatening at the same time, beyond the nation-state figure of sovereignty, the classical principles of freedom and self-determination. Like the classical tradition of law (and the force that it presupposes), these classical principles remain inseparable from a sovereignty at once indivisible and yet able to be shared. Nation-state sovereignty can even itself, in certain conditions, become an indispensable bulwark against certain international powers, certain ideological, religious, or capitalist, indeed linguistic, hegemonies that, under the cover of liberalism or universalism, would still represent, in a world that would be little more than a marketplace, a rationalization in the service of particular interests. (R, 158)

And here we see the relevance to our topic, that of anarchism, and Proudhon’s translation of anarchy as the absence of authority/sovereignty/ruler. Derrida observes, quite explicitly in this passage, the conflict that has plagued anarchist political movements — that of a hierarchical sovereign nation-state (with all its internal bureaucratic or autocratic self-contained authority, and, indeed, autonomy on the global scale) and classical principles of freedom and self-determination. Both concepts were borne out of the philosophical and political traditions of the Enlightenment as a bourgeois attempt to achieve egalitarianism, and anarchism has tried to contain these contradictions in his opposition to sovereignty while promoting individual liberty.

Anarchists, since Proudhon, have contended that one can and should combat all sovereignty and social hierarchy in the name of self-determination. The practical methods of going about this vary but generally consist of careful ethical lifestyle decisions and direct action intended as defensive actions to awaken the ethical consciousness of the people in relation to the oppressive state. This has led to political engagement stuck between the collectivist organization and individual action and has led to different perspectives on the role of the state concerning the individual, and consistent dismissal of working-class communist organizing as reactionary statism infringing upon the liberties of the individual through another form of sovereignty.

Setting aside, for the moment, the differences between the separate schools of anarchism, the broad principles by which anarchism contends for a world without sovereignty and for an individual’s freedoms are based on the actions of individuals in the face of oppressive state sovereignty. This form of argument is itself based on this contradictory notion that the sovereignty of the nation-state, and, indeed, the sovereignty of political organization, workers, and those arguing or fighting for communist futures within nation-states are directly opposed to the individual freedoms of its citizenry.

Framed this way, the anarchist position seems to be that individuals’ relationship to the nation-state should be rogue-like, between beast and sovereign, and outside of the bounds of law and nation-state. And perhaps that’s how many anarchists view their direct actions, as rogue-like behavior. Is this true? What evidence is there of this? And if there is this impulse to be rouge-like, then what evidence is there of the beast? Next, I would like to address the animal in the room, is the portrayal of anarchists, especially in the media, as exactly that of the beast.

Let’s return to the figure of ‘the anarchist’, to the ANTIFA protester, and the man covered in black battling police in the street. In Derrida’s socio-political-psychological formulation with the ‘nature’ of man, man is strung between the binary of sovereign and beast, with rogue being the figure that synthesizes the two (acting as both beast-sovereign and sovereign-beast, he/she who is close to nature and endowed with a transcendental law-of-laws). Anarchists see themselves in opposition to sovereigns, as rogue agents in pursuit of a higher ethical justice, while trying not to retain their sovereignty. However, not everyone sees them as such, and it is the sovereign who has the power to suspend their rights, but also the power to define ANTIFA figure as the ‘beast.’

This brings up an interesting question: is this image of the ‘beastly’ ANTIFA protester imposed by the sovereign as a pejorative, or is it self-imposed?

Here we enter a convergence of philosophical questions, one that is part ontological but also part phenomenological, and taking a side quest into the realm of media and media caricaturing. Are anarchists portrayed as beasts? And why? To some, the definition of anarchy as “absence of a master, of a sovereign” would suggest that it is easy to portray them as primitive archetypes of beastly beings that are more in touch with chaos, nature, and destructive ends, than of the civilized cultural touchstones that are constantly bombarding the definitive ontology that the so-called civilized world prides itself on. Then there’s the media, the apparatus that defines the anarchist far more than the anarchists define anarchists.

After a cursory search for Antifa in conservative media spheres, you can find numerous examples of headlines that read: “ANTIFA animals,” or depictions as “Lowlifes and Thugs” or a clever video titled: The Wild Antifa, where someone edited together the sound of Animal Planet with images of Antifa members on video. These depictions of anarchists fall in line with Derrida’s analysis; that is, the dehumanization of those “without sovereignty.” This “without sovereignty” — or, at the very least, an absence of rulers keeps them subjects to something else, nature. This defining of civilized vs. uncontrollable nature is key to this beastly definition.

What is ‘the beast’ for Derrida? He contrasts two depictions which will be important for our analysis. First, it is the bestial, or someone who is more predisposed to nature over culture (B&S, 15), they who are cast away or rejected by society, and most importantly, they who are farther away from God than the sovereign man. Consequently, Derrida reminds us that the beast is a feminine being, la bête who is at once ignorant, uncontrollable, and, above all, viciously destructive. This figure of the beast is dominated by the sovereign, and cannot understand the sovereign language or cultural mores.

Derrida, again, points to Hobbes and Schmitt to describe how the modern world has come to view the figure of the beast. For Hobbes, the beast is someone who cannot communicate with God. For Schmitt, the beast is the enemy of the sovereign state, the inhuman political partisan. It strikes at the heart of what it means to be a “political” being. It is not necessarily about which “side” the partisan is on, it’s about who has the authority to take that sovereignty away from the other. It’s about friends and enemies. It’s about which friends can turn which enemies into beasts. Stripped of all its juridical-religious and metaphysical rhetoric, the question of sovereignty becomes about who can dominate whom, and who has the right to call another person/group a beast, who defines the other, and so forth.

We arrive at the modern treatment of the figure of ANTIFA as the animal, as the feminized destroyer of businesses and western civilization. This treatment of anarchists has been widespread in media, from the description of protesters to the depiction of Occupy participants, to CHAZ autonomous zones holds some interest to us when it comes to the beast-sovereign binary. The constant description of Occupy participants and Antifa as ‘looters’, ‘criminals’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘domestic terrorists’, and more has the unwritten intention of dehumanizing these figures by projecting the beastly animalism contrast to the civilized notion of “peaceful” protest. Derrida describes this through Schmitt situated the animal that is the brutal being-outside-the-law:

The question [of law and sovereignty] is all the more obscure and necessary for the fact that the minimal feature that must be recognized in the position of sovereignty, at this scarcely even preliminary stage, is, as we insisted these last few years with respect to Schmitt, a certain power to give, to make, but also to suspend the law; it is exceptional right to place oneself above right, the right to non-right, if I can say this, which both runs the risk of carrying the human sovereign above the human, toward divine omnipotence… and, because of this arbitrary suspension or rupture of right, runs the risk of making the sovereign look like the most brutal beast who respects nothing scorns the law, immediately situates himself above the law, at a distance from law. For the current representation, to which we are referring for a start, sovereign and beast seem to have in common their being-outside-the-law. (16–17)

Being-outside-the-law. Suspending law. Enacting human-divine omnipotence. This is the fascist underpinning to the removal of humanitarianism, and consequentially, reflected inversely by liberal humanitarianism. However, with this removal comes a reification of all of the contradictions that plague humanitarianism, such as the privileging of the sovereign, and excluding those beasts outside the reaches of the Leviathan. There is a certain strength to this notion, but there is also a danger. Because this Being, which is outside-the-law, and presumably, within a Derridian formula outside-of-time, as in, the time is out-of-joint for the sovereign, beast, and especially the rogue. What is sovereignty if it can just be suspended? What is authority if there is a higher authority that can remove it? What does this look like, this transformation from sovereignty to beast?

These questions are all pertinent to the anarchist notion of ontology and the self. It appeared in Proudhon and in Graeber as a point to “returning-to,” to view it as a strength, this animality, this returning-to the natural insights, anthropologically exploring the alternatives to civilization and making presumptions about the future based on these definitions of the sovereign man. But the real risk, as elucidated by Derrida, is that Schmitt is correct about the nature of sovereignty — that the path for anarchism is not forming autoimmune pockets of autonomous collectives and miniature societies because those can always be removed of its self-sustaining autonomy when someone with sovereignty in a nation-state of sovereign beings decides that these anarchists are beasts.

Let’s return to Proudhon for some insights into his thoughts on animality. Unsurprisingly, it turns out he has many thoughts on the difference between the sovereign man and the natural beast. In What is Property? there is almost an affirmation of this point of view; anarchists see themselves as returning to nature, the nature that borne them, but did not produce the laws and sovereignty that they see themselves above. Nature and laws are put in opposition to one another and humans are closer to beasts than they are to the artifice of civilization. Instead, humans are closer to beasts, and that by returning to animality, the political is returning to nature, much like Rousseau, but without the Social Contract which links Nature and Property.

Contrary to Derrida’s analyses, Proudhon finds beastliness and animality to resonate from strength. The ‘beast’ is outside-the-law, and therefore, conquesting and dominating its natural state. He rejects Rousseau’s artifices of the social contract relationship between state, sovereignty, and the need for protection of private property (106), and also rejects the notion of human rights as ordained by a sovereign state. This rolls into Proudhon refutation of the Enlightenment notion of the difference between beast and sovereign:

Between man and beast there is no society, though there may be affection. Man loves the animals as things, — as sentient things, if you will, — but not as persons. Philosophy, after having eliminated from the idea of God the passions ascribed to him by superstition, will then be obliged to eliminate also the virtues which our liberal piety awards to him.

If God should come down to earth, and dwell among us, we could not love him unless he became like us; nor give him anything unless he produced something; nor listen to him unless he proved us mistaken; nor worship him unless he manifested his power. All the laws of our nature, affectional, economical, and intellectual, would prevent us from treating him as we treat our fellow-men, — that is, according to reason, justice, and équité. I infer from this that, if God should wish ever to put himself into immediate communication with man, he would have to become a man.

Three figures appear: the beast, the sovereign, and God. They are all above-the-law, as Derrida posits, but their interaction conforms with that of primitivism — that there is a breakdown between a civilization full of sovereign citizens and a “natural state” that is separate non-society. Proudhon argues, instead, that between man and beast there is no society, which is an ambiguous phrase and deserves some investigation. Nature is linked, for the sovereign man, to affection and superstition which must be abolished. This abolishment would result in the absence of sovereignty, but also see the rise of scientific rationality (which is linked to the natural and, therefore, to beasts) as an antidote to sovereignty, a gauze for the wounds brought on by property.

What does Proudhon mean when he says between the man and beast there is no society? Does it mean there is no communication between man and beast? He immediately follows through in the next statement and says that there is affection. But in what form does this affection come from? In Rousseau’s terms, this would be the social contract that one makes between man and beast, civilization and nature. Proudhon firmly rejects this hypothesis and subverts it. Instead, the implication is that there is no difference between the society of man and the society of the beast. The sovereignty is with nature, not society, and to move past the question of property, we must socially move past civilization as different from the natural states, and the rights they afford.

Then, Proudhon does something very interesting for our purposes. He links the beast and sovereign to communication and non-communication with God. This link shows an important aspect of classical anarchism — that the sovereign man is closer to the natural beast, and then must return to this natural state to imagine a better, anarchistic world. The only way that man could communicate with God if God were another man, which is a break with the belief that the sovereign man can communicate a language of God, and therefore, can build and grow civilization. This question of communication comes up for Derrida from Of Grammatology onward, where he critiques the logocentrism of Rousseau’s origin of language because it was indebted to the privileging of a certain type of language (the language between the sovereign and bourgeois social classes) with God, and the marginalization of language by those who are in a state of becoming-sovereign-beings.

Thus, we have this break from Enlightenment tradition on sovereignty. To be an anarchist, is to remove the difference between beast and sovereign. To break off the communication techniques between sovereign man and God, and to build a civilization in the eyes of a more natural world, which, for Proudhon, is a world without property. A world without property is a world without sovereignty, and a world without sovereignty is a world of scientific rationality conforming with the natural and strong masculine beast. However, to those that are already sovereign, who is absent of scientific rationalism — Kings, Monarchs, Matriarchs — scientific rationalism is the new sovereignty to replace the King. For Proudhon, though, scientific rationality communicates with nature and is, therefore, closer to a more democratized world without property and the need for servitude withers away.

This is not so different from how Derrida characterizes his project of the beast and the sovereign. He notes, poignant that the two figures are almost indistinguishable once you get past the sexual difference and host of other characterizations. Essentially, the two are linked by being outside-the-law, by being “outlaws,” without faith or laws, according to a Roussean definition (98). The analysis unfolds as a matter of psychology, a conversation between the unconsciousness by Freud, and the ambiguous nature of stupidity as analyzed by Lacan. In a broad stroke, the question of stupidity is linked to the beast by way of its translation of bestiality and la bête.

But not to trace over Derrida’s footprints too much, the difference between sovereign and beast is marked by proximity and communication with God. This communication endows a masculine sovereign to either invent or suspend law from the realm of man and citizenry, and it positions a feminine beast out of the earshot of God and more in the realm (or state) of nature, irrationality, difference, and agency. The law, under a Rousseauian doctrine of Social Contracts, mediates the communication from the god-endowed sovereigns to the beasts that cower before the law, before the doorman that has access to the law. This contractual nature between God and Sovereign and Beast is the exact type of nature that Marx calls into question when he theorized the spiritual nature of commodity and Capital.

For Proudhon, the problem is not Capital — this is before Marx’s Das Kapital — the problem is property. Proudhon lashes out at Rousseau for this contractual relationship that he finds to be a corruption of nature that “would be null in the eyes of justice, and an action to enforce it would be illegal.” The contractual obligations of citizens, for Proudhon, is an affront to their “manhood” and “nature.” He says as much that his project is a repudiation of Rousseau, and a reorientation of man in relationship to its natural hierarchy, which anarchists would later challenge.

On one hand, this meditation — as flawed as it is in its phallogocentrism of sexual difference between the figures of beast and sovereign — has its usefulness when we look at the current state of discourse around anarchy and anarchism, specifically when we talk about the difference between (Antifascist) Protesters and the (Fascist) Police Officers. Note the language we use around protesters is within the Lockean language of natural rights — those sovereign individuals are afforded the natural right to gather and protest in peaceful assembly. However — and here is the tricky part — once that peaceful assembly, as defined by a natural state of inaction and passivity before the law and property, has been broken, then those protesters are no longer peaceful protesters, but criminal beasts: rioters, looters, property-destroyers, and are effectively suspended of their natural rights by those that are sovereign in the eyes of the law — by the police officers, who, as dictated by the state, maintain a God-given right to sovereignty, to therefore dictate the law, dictate the violence to protect property.

In this formulation, it’s easy to see why so much violence is tolerated by a society that believes itself sovereign in the eyes of rationality and godliness. The movement of time is in correspondence with ideology and ontology and the second that there is a threat of violence against the property of the sovereign, protesters are suspended of their rights as sovereign individuals, and they become beasts. Beasts who are outside the law, and indeed, outside the law of laws. This didn’t happen spontaneously, no. The fact remains that they had in them the potential to have their humanity suspended by the sovereign. they were always in the state of becoming-beasts, it was only a matter of time before the fascist suspension of rights turned its gaze upon the rights of those protesting and deemed them in the state of animality. That is why there is a language change, of recognition and descriptive humanism between the sovereign policeman and the beastly agitator, insurrectionist, or anti-fascist. They become a mob, animals, a more natural force, conjurors of flames, communicators with their base instincts.

On the other hand, we see the same type of transformation of the figure of the sovereign, fascist policeman into the beastly savage if his violence is ever, for whatever reason, deemed unjustified and against the law. This transformation happens under certain and specific material conditions and must jump through the hoops of an amorphous sense of comradery with the Law that is endowed to the enforcement-of-law, and the law-of-laws which is taken from a virtuous place of societal-juridical-religious authority.

It doesn’t happen very often that the law-enforcer is considered a savage beast as there is a liberal institutional and procedural bureaucratic mechanism that is in place to reinforce the sovereignty of the police-law-enforcer (and they are characterized as the sovereigns and whose violence and lawlessness are following in the rights afforded by sovereignty), as viewed as a beast. But, as recent events have shown (with the trial of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd), this is exactly the type of discourse that prevails. Interestingly, it wasn’t that policemen writ-large were considered beastly beings, it was that this one policeman had relinquished his sovereignty and given into his beastly, savage impulses, and acted more like a ‘vicious thug’ than a law-enforcer.

This transformational relationship between the beast and the sovereign gets to the heart of Derrida’s deconstructive project when he thinks about the short philosophical tradition investigating the nature of sovereignty. As I have just attempted to show, this relationship interacts with how we define ourselves as beings that live in a societal structure, and how we interact with the lawful, law-enforcers, and the ambiguous questions of standing before the law and being above the law. These two ‘figures’ act as stand-ins for larger questions of ethical standing, and interrogate differences in social settings, and the way that we can relate to nature as a functionary of civilization’s metaphor, and vice-versa. They are also very similar figures, who, as Derrida points out, ‘resemble’ each other while retaining their difference:

The beast and the sovereign resemble each other, as we have been saying insistently since last year. They resemble each other in that they both seem to be outside the law, above or alongside the law. And yet, even if they resemble each other, they are not fellows [semblables]. Nor are they or so we think, our fellows. (The Beast and the Sovereign Vol. 2, pg. 45)

What does Derrida mean by this, this lack of fellowship? It is, of course, a matter of political import, of political opposition rather than fraternity and friendship (as Derrida discusses in The Politics of Friendship). The beast is not the friend of the sovereign, nor the sovereign a friend to the beast. In Marxist terms, their material interests — and therefore their politics — are in conflict by their relationships to the modes of production, but in Schmittian terms, the politics-as-conflict have a ‘zero sum’ endpoint, and the end is domination over the other, and a repudiation of humanist qualities — a suspension of humanity rather than a reinforcement of humanity. They are not fellows, they are foes.

This alignment between friends and enemies, between sovereign beings and beasts, has enormous consequences when it comes to situating theory, practice, and action associated with the groups loosely defined as “Antifa.” When on the pavement acting out political violence in the name of a better world, they are virtuous rogues standing up to a corrupt and viciously dehumanizing system of order of things that oppress, malign, and rob from the vulnerable and marginalized. By the time the footage hits the nightly news, the actions are presented as animalistic, baseless, chaotic, and, above all, beastly manifestations of irrational forces threatening property and sovereign stateliness. This transformation is not incidental. It is a matter of time, it is a matter of material interests, it is a matter of the media working within a state that continues to survive, in all its oppressiveness, through the burning flames of Molotov cocktails in the night and into the next morning.

Finally, let’s return once more to our previous meditation on the anarchist-sovereign-beast figures. First, of the Enlightened anarchist, whose return to nature means a returning of masculine rationality to replace the King. Second, the Occupy Wall Street participant whose Being-Malagasy returns us to a more natural state of direct democracy. Third, as we just outlined, the Anti-Fascist protester committing violence in response to police violence. These figures are linked by a commonality of other-as-enemy. Inside the realms of power (the sovereign being) defining the outside the realm of power (as the beastly animality protesting the state). The goal seems to be the same, then, to transform the beast into the sovereign, to transform society back into its natural state, to return it to a state of ‘natural’ and direct democracy.

This transformational nature of anarchism has always been a contested point. In the next segment, we’ll discuss and distinguish between the questionable binary between theory and practice, and how each is supposed to transform the world. What is the relationship between thought and action, and how should theory and philosophy interact with the world to imagine a better one? Already, this rigid set of differences has some areas of problem that we’ve identified in previous articles. For now, though, we’ll end with the difference between the beast and the sovereign being instrumental to the way in which we think of theory and we act in practice, and that it, of course, reliant on an external force of law, an external form of sovereignty.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store