Right to resistance

Paolo Virno

Translated by Nate Holdren, 2004.

How do we conceive of the use of force in the epoch in which the modern State and its monopoly of political decision falls into ruins?

Seattle, Nice, Prague, Genoa: The new global movement has gained visibility and credibility thanks to the repeated dramatic rupture of the public order. To negate it is not a crime: just as it can not be maintained that storks bring babies. It is only a stupid self-qualification. If we don't want to "leave the 19th century" and move backwards, that is, debating the excesses of the Paris Commune or frown at the memory of the sanguine arrogance of Cromwell, it makes sense to pose a Spinozist question: how to conceive of the use of force today, in the epoch in which the modern state and its "monopoly of political decision" falls into ruins? It would be easy to explain to Giampaolo Panso (who in La Repubblica yesterday intoned a livid mantra against the movement of 1977) why it was a good and just thing for Luciano Lama [then secretary general of the CGIL] to be thrown out of the University of Rome in February of that distant year.

Easy, but pointless. What matters it to orient ourselves in the present, after the old compasses have been broken. Everything advises us not to indulge in any form of fetishism with regard to nonviolence and violence. And it is stupid to identify the radicality of a struggle with its level of illegality. But it is no less stupid to elevate docility to an unquestionable criteria/guide for action. On the other hand, it must not worry us too much: the passage from latent to visible conflict is delegated to the "eternal principles" adopted at the moment by the political professionals. Over the old (but not exhausted) question of forms of struggle, the discussion turns around itself, abandoning itself to empty sophisms and multi-use quotations. Seen clearly, this discussion suffers the effects of a chain of drastic mutations in the theoretical paradigm. A mutation that splits up what seemed inseparable and places together what had been antipathies. In a few words: the struggle against waged labor, as opposed to the struggle against tyranny or poverty, is not longer connected to the emphatic perspective of the "taking power".

Precisely in virtue of its summarily advanced characteristics, it outlines a total social transformation, that confronts "power" without dreaming of an alternative organization of the State, but rather rigidifies and extinguishing every form of command over the activity of women and men and, as such, the State tout court. As it is said: while the "political revolution" was considered the inevitable premise for modifying social relations, now this earlier treasure becomes a preliminary. The struggle can carry out its destructive nature only if it leaps in full relief to an other way of living, of communicating and producing. Only if, in short, if it has more to lose than its chains.

The theme of violence, idolized or exorcised, has been the flesh and bone of "taking power". What happens when one considers as existent the last possible form of the State, which deserves to be corroded and fall into runs, and not from a view that seeks to replace it with a Hyperstate "of all the people"? Does nonviolence become perhaps the new officiating religion? It does not seem proper. It is an unforeseen oxymoron, the recourse to force should be conceived in relation to a positive order that is being defended and safeguarded. The exodus from waged labor is not a concave gesture, an algebraic minus. In fleeing, one is obligated to construct diverse social relations and new forms of life: it requires much pleasure in the present and much inventiveness. As such, the conflict comes in the preservation of the "new" that has been instituted. The violence, when it happens, does not advance toward a "radiant future" but rather tries to preserve something that already exists, even informally. In the face of the hypocrisy or the simple-minded credulity that characterizes the discussion today over legality and illegality, it makes sense to return to a premodern category: the ius resistentiae, the right to resistance. This expression of medieval jurisprudence does not indicate the obvious faculty to defend oneself when one suffers aggression. Nor is it a general uprising against constituted power. The distinction is clear with respect to sedition and to rebellion, in which strikes against the set of institutions in order to create others. This right can be exercised when an artisan league or the community as a whole or even an individual sees their positive prerogatives – held valid by fact or by tradition – altered by the central power.

The most salient point of the right to resistance, what it becomes in the last cry in theme of legality/illegality, is that it is the defense of an effective transformation, something tangible and already occurred in the form of life. Small events or large, landslide or earthquake, of the struggle against waged-labor admits an unlimited right of resistance, which excludes a theory of civil war.

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