The State as a Virtual Object [[or how Max Stirner can get you hanged]]
Rethinking Marxism 2013
PS: after discussing it w/ Gregg Flaxman, I’ve decided to “deontologize” the whole paper to sharpen the ontology/virtuality divide.
Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 film “Death by Hanging” begins with the execution of an ethnic Korean man, R. Miraculously, the hanging does not kill him; in fact, its only effect is that it erases his memory (08:23). Taken by surprise, officials debate the law and decide that execution is only just if a person realizes the guilt for which they are being punished (10:55). In an effort to make R admit guilt for a crime that he has no memory of committing, the officials simulate his crimes, which only leads to an absurd comedy of errors that exposes the racist, violent dimension of the nationalist law and history. R finally admits to the crimes but he maintains his innocence, which motivates him to debate the officials (49:30). “Is it wrong to kill?” R asks. “Yes,” they respond, “it is wrong to kill.” “Then, killing me is wrong, isn’t it?” R replies and then extends his argument “… A fine idea. First we kill the murderer… …then, being murderers, we’ll be killed, and so on and so on.” The official rejoinder is a predictable one: “Don’t say such things! We’re legal executioners! It’s the nation that does not permit you to live.” To which R responds: “I don’t accept that. What is a nation? Show me one! I don’t want to be killed by an abstraction” (52:52).
Less than a decade later, French historian Michel Foucault aired similar frustrations to R, though in the context of the genealogical study of power. Intellectually dissatisfied that “the representation of power has remained under the spell of monarchy,” he claims that long after the rise of the Republic, “we still have not cut off the head of the king” (Foucault, History of Sexuality, 88-89).
There are two targets to Foucault’s criticism, Marxism and Anarchism, and their state theories in particular – he charges the first with functionalism whereby the state is an epiphenomenal effect of a model of production, while he accuses the second of treating the state as a ‘cold monster’ to be universally feared (Security, Territory, Population, 109; 114fn39). In turn, Foucault suggests that political analysis should minimize the importance of the state, because perhaps “the state is only composite reality and a mythicized abstraction whose importance is much less than we think. What is important for our modernity, that is to say, for our present, is not the state’s takeover (éstatisation) of society, so much as what I would call the ‘governmentalization’ of the state” (Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 109).
Anglo-American social scientists have taken up Foucault’s approach in earnest. Interestingly, their initial inspiration draws from a single lecture on governmentality, which comes from the much longer lecture series entitled Security, Territory, Population – the lecture I quoted from above. Even without the associated three-year lecture series where Foucault completed a genealogy of the liberal rule, Anglo-Americans still developed a highly original methodology for Foucaultian state theory that took seriously Foucault’s enjoinment to study ‘the governmentalization of the state.’
Governmentality Studies is profound in that it does not study the state as such, but rather, “forms of power without a center, or rather with multiple centers, power that was productive of meanings, of interventions, of entities, of processes, of objects, of written traces and of lives” (Rose and Miller, Governing the Present, 9). The empirical bent of governmentality studies thus brackets the state altogether and contends that, to the extent that the state exists as an object of investigation, it exists only in “governmental practices” and “state effects” (Birth of Biopolitics: 2; Mitchell, “Society, Economy, and the State Effect;” Mitchell, “The Limits of the State”). Or as Bob Jessop writes, “to study governmentality in its generic sense is to study the historical constitution of different state forms in and through changing practices of government without assuming that the state has a universal or general essence” (“Rescaling States,” 37).
The recent publication of Foucault’s three-part state genealogy provides ample material to bolster the governmentality study approach. In Birth of Biopolitics, for instance, Foucault critiques “state phobia” by putting forth both a political argument, that state phobia laid the groundwork for neo-liberalism, as well as a methodological argument. In his methodological argument, Foucault argues that the “interchangeability of analyses” that results from state-phobic scholars contributes to a “loss of specificity” that allows these opponents of the state to evade possibly-invalidating empirical and historical facts and thus “avoid paying the price of reality and actuality” (188). Demonstrating the significance of ‘paying the price’ and substantiating Foucault’s political argument, the best governmentality scholarship shows how the claim that contemporary liberalism ‘governs best by governing least’ belies the fact that state sovereignty is neither limited nor in decline, but in fact neoliberalism is governance expanded by other means (Rose and Miller, “Political Power Beyond the State.”). This expanded governance serves as the subject of most governmentality research, which has documented the hidden fist at work behind the invisible hand in privatized risk-management, community empowerment initiatives, and governmental influence over market forces through entrepreneurship initiatives (O’Malley, “Risk and Responsibility”; Cruikshank, The Will to Empower; Rose, Inventing Ourselves).
Returning to Foucault’s critique nearly thirty years later, we can reassess whether or not Marxist and Anarchist scholarship should remain condemned to hanging. Should Foucault’s arguments against state phobia be repeated, that it enables neo-liberalism and lacks singularity, or can Marxist and Anarchist state theory be rescued? Of course there are already numerous scholars who have squared Foucault with Marxist and Anarchist thought, and that such scholarship offers exemplary critiques of actually existing neoliberalism (one being our respondent today). Already in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Foucault’s work was incorporated into Structuralist Marxim and Italian Autonomist Marxisms, and more recently, Foucault’s theory of power has inspired the creation of Post-Anarchism. In fact, Foucaultian scholarship is so thoroughly disseminated today that among Marxists and Anarchists, perhaps Fredric Jameson is the last holdout.
Instead of saving Marxism and Anarchism, then, what may be called for is a renewed defense of two things: state phobia and non-empiricism. My defense of state phobia is political. While governmentality studies describe power well, they lack external grounds for critiquing that power. A study of governmentality can of course analyze power according to its own self-professed aims, but without something like Derridean deconstruction or Adornian immanent critique, the study is not political but descriptive. Leading scholars says this themselves, expressing that studies of government “are not hardwired to any political perspective” but “are compatible with other methods” (Rose, O’Malley, Valverde, “Governmentality,” 101). Marxism, anarchism, or other critiques of power thus offer the external ground to challenge actually existing governmentalization, and state phobia provides the point of condensation for common struggles that share an anti-authoritarian critique of power. My defense of non-empiricism, which is less commensurate with the study of governmentality and is the focus of the rest of this paper, is methodological. Methodologically, I disagree with those scholars within governmentality studies who argue for a shallow definition of the state, which they justify through ‘brute’ empiricism. For these scholars, governmentality is strictly “an empirical mapping of governmental rationalities and techniques” to “turn away from grand theory, the state, globalization, reﬂexive individualization, and the like” (99; 101). I contend that this empiricism leaves no place for the state as an abstraction, and the project of amending the study of governmentality to include abstraction requires revising its methodology.
Contrary to Foucault’s shallow definition of the state, French Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari treat the state as a ‘virtual object’ that is neither an ideological effect nor solely repressive – thus avoiding the crude terms of Foucault’s brief argument from the classic governmentality lecture. Through a broader typological survey of the State in the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari show that the state is evinced in more than its institutions but rather in a whole cultural history of sovereignty that constitutes a philosophical anthropology of becoming. The state, Deleuze and Guattari hold, is an apparatus of capture that is not only actualized in its state-effects, as studied by Foucault, but also as a virtual abstraction of power. The ontology of the state is not an empirical object of study, as studies of governmentality would have it, but a philosophical concept. I am not the first to suggest this – Mitchell Dean suggests the importance of the Deleuzian concept in the new introduction to the second edition of the popular book Governmentality, yet he calls for empirical concepts and not philosophical ones (13-14). For that reason, the philosophical concept of the state remains beyond the purview of governmentality studies; this is because philosophy is not studied “through structure, or linguistics or psychoanalysis, through science or even through history,” for it “has its own raw material that allows it to enter into more fundamental external relations with these other disciplines” (Deleuze, Negotiations, 89).
Ontologizing the state as a virtual object requires an explanation of the virtual in Deleuze’s work. By ‘the virtual,’ Deleuze does not mean simulated, as in virtual reality, but the really-existing potentials of the world and the things that inhabit it and their potential to differ. Both science and philosophy create images of the virtual – images that made by intersecting the virtual, much like a plane sections a cone, to isolate workable sections. Science descends, clarifying the virtual by isolating variables and laying out patterns that predict change. Weather forecasters use such science when they identify patterns in the weather and construct ways to communicate it to their audience, a process that uses physics to determine the potential changes in a physical system that proceeds by way of scientific functions to describe an actual state of affairs and its virtual potential to transform.
Philosophy, on the other hand, ascends from a concrete present to the concepts residing in the virtual. Philosophy does not represent reality, but provides a fresh orientation to the problems of this world that, in part, points toward a new world – a revolutionary commitment not shared by science. In this way, contemporary philosophy connects “with what is real here and now in the struggle against capitalism” for the purpose of “relaunching new struggles whenever the earlier one is betrayed” (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 100). Yet, while philosophy is practical, it does not deal with any particular historical event. In fact, the philosophical concept “does not refer to the lived” but consists “in setting up an event that surveys the whole of the lived no less than every state of affairs” (33-4). Therefore, if philosophy can leave behind the certainty of science and open up the world “without losing anything of the infinite,” then it succeeds at something science cannot do: renew the drive for creation (42). The ultimate aim of philosophy is therefore not only revolutionary but utopian because creation breaks through the limits of this world and “turns it back against itself so as to summon forth a new earth, a new people” (99).
We can even look to Foucault for concepts that do the philosophical work of virtual mapping. Two well-known examples are the concepts of the archive and diagram. In Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault proposes the archive as “the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” (130). The archive is not empirical, however, it is not a sum of texts – it is an image of the surface of discourse that “reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification” (130). Foucault goes on to explain archaeology, the method for studying the archive. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the Bentham’s panopticon as a diagram of power (205). He carefully outlines what he means by diagram, writing that it is “a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form,” “abstracted from friction” to become a representation, “a figure of political technology… detached from any specific use” (205). Said otherwise: the diagram is too abstract to be a model because it combines two things that are independent of any particular state of affairs: a function, the anonymous and immanent observation of subjects to individualize and classify them without their knowledge, which is independent from a specific spatial arrangement, and matter, any human multiplicity made countable or controllable by confinement (such as Marxian abstract labor), which is independent of their qualification (Deleuze, Foucault, 72). Each of these philosophical concepts are virtual objects and they have corresponding actual states of affairs: the archive and the statement, the panopticon and disciplinary institutions. From this, it seems clear that Foucault himself was not allergic to ontologizing systems and power as virtual objects, and he granted them a philosophical existence independent of their actualization.
How might we then ontologize the state as real but not actual? If it continues in the same way that Deleuze and Guattari ontologize capitalism, then the creation of the state as a virtual object begins with a negative move. This move is to ‘do away with the judgment of God,’ which means giving the state a specific not universal existence – tearing it down from the heavens of natural fact and show how it is a thing of this world, though without denying that it may be a nearly omnipresent figure today (Deleuze, “To Have Done With Judgment”). The method they specify for this task is a détournement of Hegel and Marx’s universal history that is retrospective, contingent, singular, ironic, and critical (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 163-4; Read, “A Universal History of Contingency”). And on this point, such an approach is not in conflict with the study of governmentality, which similarly disarticulates the state through critical history. Where we part ways is in the positive task: the construction of a virtual ontology of the state. In particular, I contend that the state is an abstraction capable of producing incorporeal transformations.  As an abstraction, it is “what is not actualized or of what remains indifferent to actualization” that includes but exceeds the material state effects, “since its reality does not depend on it” (What is Philosophy?, 156). And the state is capable of producing incorporeal transformations, which are qualitative transformations (in kind not in quantity) not directly accessible through experience, although they produce effects that are empirically measurable. The classic example of an incorporeal transformation is the performative speech act, for instance ‘I pronounce you husband and wife,’ which transforms two people from being engaged to married without changing their bodies (Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 5). These incorporeal transformations may appear as natural attributes, as they lie at the heart of social segmentations – “gender, race, class, work, family” and now “debt and credit” – though as much as we feel them, these transformations are not themselves material, only their effects are (Buchanan, “Deleuze and the Internet,” P2; P7). Ontologically, then, Deleuze suggests that we say virtual objects ‘insist,’ ‘subsist,’ or ‘persist’, while it is only in their effects that anything ‘exists’ (Deleuze, Logic of Sense, 52-54).
Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have a useful illustration of a similar abstraction in their 2000 book Empire. According to Hardt and Negri, colonialism works as an abstract machine, a term synonymous here with abstraction or virtual object. The abstract machine of colonialism, they say, creates a dialectic of identity and alterity that imposes binaries divisions on the colonial world (Empire, 128-129). And while differences and identities are created by colonialism “as if they were absolute, essential, and natural,” they in fact function “only in relation to each other and (despite appearances) have no real necessary basis in nature, biology, or rationality” (129). Hardt and Negri do not go as far as to call Empire an abstract machine, but perhaps we should. Customary definitions of Empire usually focus on a polycentric sovereignty of global governance as it intersects with the postmodern production of informatized, immaterial, and biopolitical products. In contrast, I contend that Empire arrives as an entirely incorporeal entity – an abstract machine – that lacks its own body and is deprived of a material existence to call its own. However devoid of existence, Empire persists as the force behind a concept for organizing and directing the capitalist world market. As a result, Empire operates through management and circulation, but it is not extensive with its products.
The most powerful example of the incorporeal transformation given by Deleuze and Guattari is the transformation that occurs when a judge declares the accused to be guilty of their crimes, which transforms an alleged criminal into a real one and thus sets in motion a series of material effects that end in punishment and sometimes even death (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 80-81). Following this understanding of incorporeal transformation, we can now return to the interrupted scene of Oshima’s film, knowing more about the abstraction that intends to kill R. In the conclusion to “Death by Hanging,” R asks the officials to show him a nation so he can name his executioner. Perhaps it is the Public Prosecutor or the Security Officer, as they represent the nation? (52:56). No, they respond, they are only “a small part, not the whole thing” (53:06). R continues his line of questioning, telling the prosecutor, “If you were the whole thing, you would be evil for killing me. The next Prosecutor will kill you, and he’ll be killed in turn…and finally no one will be left” (53:32). The prosecutor becomes frustrated enough by R’s Derridean deconstruction of the mythic force of law to offer R his freedom (54:26). As R opens the door to leave, however, an intense light representing the inability of Koreans to fully enter Japanese society compels him back into the courtroom. Back in the room, R submits to being hanged, to which the prosecutor declares that even if the nation is invisible, R now knows the nation, because “the nation is in your mind, and as long as it exists there, you feel guilty” (56:02). In spite of this, R still maintains his innocence by proclaiming “A nation cannot make me guilty” (57:20). And “with such ideas [he] shall not be allowed to live,” so they hang him not his initial crimes, but his dangerous and treasonous ideas (57:24). In a final shot of a hanging noose, the prosecutor thanks the Education Officer “for taking part in this execution,” and then thanks the Security officer “for taking part in this execution,” and then he thanks “you,” “and you,” “and “you,” “and you,” and then finally “you, dear spectators, thank you for taking part in this execution” (58:12-finish).
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 Despite the recent acceptance of Foucault’s theory of the state as an essential part of his oeuvre, its status deserves comment – after the success of Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Foucault suffered from a ‘silent’ seven years. In that time, he ceased publishing books although he meticulously constructed book-length genealogies of liberalism that chronologically moved through sovereignty, early modern statecraft, and 20th century economics, which he presented as lectures to the Collège de France (“Society Must Be Defended”; Security, Territory, Population; The Birth of Biopolitics). The famous “governmentality” essay was a lecture in the Security, Territory, Population series. These lectures have been released in full in the last decade, but their unfinished quality and Foucault’s decision not to publish the material raises methodological questions – in particular, whether or not he ultimately agrees with his own claim on the significance, comparative preference, and veracity of the theory of state he presents in these lectures.
 Rose, O’Malley, and Valverde (2006) also note that the Power/Knowledge anthology gave rise to some proto-governmentality scholarship before the 1979 publication of “Governmentality” in Ideology & Consciousness.
 In regards to structuralist Marxism, Althusser’s students cite Foucault generally favorably from the 1970s onward, in particular Balibar, Macherey, Lecourt, Pêcheux, and Rancière. The Italian reception is less clear, as Franco Berardi and others claim that Foucault’s work was not widely circulated within Potere Operaismo until the 1978 translation of The History of Sexuality, although there was a small group of scholars associated with the movement who had read Foucault, including Antonio Negri, who cites Foucault in the famous 1977 essay “Domination and Sabotage;” for that essay and Berardi’s reflections, see Autonomia: Post-Political Politics. Post-Anarchism was founded as the union of post-structuralism philosophy and contemporary anarchism, making the works of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Jacques Lacan canonical.
 In responding to this criticism, Rose, O’Malley, and Valverde argue that, “Empirical studies and genealogies of government are full of accounts of conﬂicts and struggles, although resistance seldom takes the form of a heroic meta-subject. Thus, Rose’s (1996b) account of the emergence of advanced liberal rationalities is at pains to stress the role of those who opposed government through the social; but there was, here as elsewhere, no single movement of resistance to power, but rather a conﬂict of rival programs and strategies (Rose 1996b).” (“Governmentality,” 100). Absent from their defense is the Nietzschean spirit of writing untimely histories against the present that would give life to new becomings, and for this, they avoid playing the most persistent note of Foucault’s politics.
 Earlier, he also describes the camp as a “diagram of power that acts by means of general visibility” (171).
 As an interesting aside to telegraph a future distinction: Hardt and Negri make this same argument in Empire in pages 329-330. It should also be noted that Deleuze makes this comparison in Foucault, pages 31-34.
 An additional reason why it must be an abstraction and not a model, according to Deleuze, is that the actualized content and expression bear neither resemblance nor correspondence, and so must have a common immanent cause (Deleuze, Foucault, 33). For more on this, as it defines an abstract machine, see Ronald Bogue’s Deleuze and Guattari, 130-135.
 Foucault explicitly describes his philosophy as ‘incorporeal materialism’ in two places: his inaugural Collège de France lecture, “The Order of Discourse,” which is included as an appendix to the American version of The Archaeology of Knowledge, and in his book review of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, “Theatrum Philosophicum,” which is collected in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice.
 As Jason Read suggests, perhaps abstraction should be discussed as abstractions that are the result of practices, such as abstractions like the market of labor that follow from Sohn-Rethel’s Marxist critique of epistemology, and abstractions that have material effects, such the incorporeal transformations that result from Deleuze and Guattari’s abstract machine.