“Decontainment, Standing Reserve, the Central American Migrant, and the Question of Dignity”. Paper presented at “All’ombra del Leviatano: tra biopolitica e postegemonia”. (Universitá Roma Tre, May 2017). By Gareth Williams.

In this presentation I will focus on a recent essay by Carlo Galli, titled “Left and Right: Why They Still Make Sense” (Sovereignty in Crisis, 2017) in order to underline what strikes me as being an important inconsistency in the relation between that recent essay and Galli’s previous theses on global war, and, as such, on the question concerning contemporary technology and violence. In particular, Galli’s work on global war is predicated on the ongoing demise of modern political space, yet his recent distinction between left and right appears to uphold the historicity, state-form and Enlightenment tradition that allows for the continued understanding and experience of modern political space. This will then allow me to examine the question of the “equality of dignity” that Galli upholds in relation to the sustained biopolitics of the left. In light of Galli’s biopolitics of the left, I will then contrast Simone Weil and Marx’s ideas on labor and dignity in order to suggest an infrapolitical turn toward existence. My proposition is that all of the above is particularly pertinent for understanding the regional problematic of technics, death and space in the relation between the U.S., Mexico and Central America at the current time.

In his 2013 book Campo de guerra the Mexican journalist Sergio González Rodríguez presents us with an interpretation of recent techno-militarist and security infrastructures in the Mexican-Central American arena that resonate directly with a number of the basic premises of Carlo Galli’s theses on global war. In particular, González Rodríguez examines Mexico’s technological absorption into the U.S. military security apparatus, as exemplified in the legal ratification in 2008 of The Mérida Initiative, or “Plan México”, which in the last 8 years alone has led to $2.5bn in military and security appropriations destined for the Mexican state. In this book, González Rodríguez strives to examine the “twilight of sovereignty” (Marramao) at a time in which the Mexican state has come increasingly into focus as one of the prime perpetrators of extra-legal narco-violence. González Rodríguez speculates that the absorption of Mexican sovereignty by the U.S. military apparatus indicates that the extreme, un-absorbable violence of the last decade on Mexican soil is already being re-converted into new forms of securitized domination in the sphere of the economic and political elites of the North. There is a lot to criticize in this book. However, what can be said, when taken in conjunction with Galli, is that the current indistinction between war and peace is simultaneously post-katechontic (indicating the twilight of the modern nation-state understood as the restraining force against uncontrolled civil conflict within and across borders), and neo-katechontic (indicating that the very perpetuation of the dissolution of the modern nation-state is the force that globalizes as a katechontic principle of our times). More than ever, surplus value and the force of the ontology of the subject that seeks and guarantees its extension reign supreme as both spatial decontainment and katechon simultaneously. The process of post-katechontic re-conversion of Mexican sovereignty into the U.S. military-security complex ultimately upholds the sovereign performance of the Leviathan, but locates its restraining force exclusively in the United States intelligence and military apparatus (the DEA, FBI, Pentagon, CIA, The National Security Agency, The Department of Homeland Security etc).

Without doubt, it is still too premature to consider the military technological absorption of Mexican sovereignty into the U.S. military-security apparatus as a definitive, unquestionable historical process of post-katechontic re-alignment of hemispheric proportions. Having said that, it is certainly the case when we look beyond the U.S.-Mexico border—that is, toward the militarization and securitization of Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize ( “Programa Frontera Sur”)—that we can glimpse the absorption of Mexican national territory into a new security and spatial architecture: that is, we can perceive the re-definition of Mexican national territory as a military and paramilitarized zone of security and self-defense beyond the boundaries of the U.S. state proper, yet extending the unique interests of the United States.

This southern geographical arrangement of homeland security establishes a military and paramilitary territory of fixed and mobile immigration checkpoints from Chiapas and Tabasco to Oaxaca, Veracruz and beyond, via the installation of a security network characterized by formal and informal patterns of surveillance, espionage, intimidation, fear, harassment, racism, abuse and extortion, as well as by new protocols for the illicit, increasingly sophisticated and cut-throat industry of drug and human trafficking from Central America to the southern states of the United States.

“Programa Frontera Sur” (2014) is, in rhetorical terms, a humanitarian program. However it also extends the security-intelligence agendas of the DEA and U.S. immigration, customs and border protection all the way down to the Mexico-Guatemala border and even into Honduras and El Salvador. In the process it transforms Mexican territory into the place of execution of U.S. homeland security. It does this by essentially converting national territory into a buffer zone, an architectural network for mass arrest and deportation. What was formerly guaranteed legally as national territory is reconverted into the ritualized performance, living geography, and paramilitary end-game of postkatechontic force, thereby realigning Mexico’s military-economic relation to the north, while also redefining and intensifying Mexican paramilitary force’s relation of dominance over the impoverished political spaces, and the migrant bodies that flee from the social violence of, the south. The national territory of Mexico becomes the new border, the tomb of the proper, the negation of space by the formalization of technological indifference in the relation between the spatial and despatialization.

It is in this sense that “Programa Frontera Sur” inaugurates the pure techne of a new form of Mexican post-katechontic nonsovereignty, or active sovereign abdication. With this, I wish to indicate that this recent humanitarian Program highlights a fundamental double shift in the relation between the principle of sovereignty, post-territorial dominium, and the standing reserve. By becoming absorbed by U.S. security agendas Mexican sovereignty relinquishes authority, yet, in the renunciation itself, increases its regional military and paramilitary strength over Central America under the banner of (non)sovereignty.

I begin with this transnational techno-military landscape precisely because it attests directly to Carlo Calli’s formulation of global war and techno-military force, in particular relation to the ongoing dismantling of modern political space. In contrast, in his 2017 essay “Left and Right: Why They Still Make Sense” (Sovereignty in Crisis, 2017, 64-99), Galli presents ‘left’ and ‘right’ as two ways in which the modern, Enlightenment tradition still manifests itself (75). For our purposes today, I wish to highlight what is for me a constitutive short circuit in Galli’s defense of the precise sense of left and right. Specifically, I wish to highlight the moment in which Galli affirms that the Left “cannot go against the impulse for the free flourishing of subjectivity”, because, he continues, “praxis, which is obviously central to the world of politics—prevents it” (85). But why does praxis pre-empt absolutely everything (including the crisis of the modern understanding of political space and state-form) except the flourishing of subjectivity? Galli continues: “It is precisely the presence or absence of the political centrality of the subject and its equal dignity that makes the difference. This is the case”, he says, “regardless of the awareness of the epistemological crisis of subjectivity” (85). Ultimately, in order to offer a “new vision of the world” (97), Galli affirms, “the left must dynamically incite the power of populism” (97) in the name of the “equal dignity” of the subject, for this is what “makes the difference regardless of the awareness of the epistemological crisis of subjectivity”. Therefore, for Galli “the left has the task of taking on the existence and value of individuals as they ought to be, and of firmly articulating the rights of the subjectivities, but not in an essentialistic, identity-making way; in other words, not to turn the individual into a weapon against the other, but rather to arrive at it in all its concreteness” (97). Ultimately Galli wants a new populist biopolitics of the left capable of administering an “equality of dignity” that is neither identitarian nor constructive of antagonisms. In this privileging of praxis or the centrality of the subject, Galli appears to conflate subjectivity and existence, but does so explicitly sanctioning the active concealment of one of the essential determinations of our times: that is, “the epistemological crisis of subjectivity”.

Against crisis, then, the concealment of crisis in the name of leftist populism. Is this a short circuit created by the primacy of politics? It is striking that in order to reach these conclusions Galli has fallen short of addressing a number of constitutive factors, such as the Christian underpinnings of the “equality of dignity”; the question of historicity, other than that of the already collapsing Enlightenment teleology of progress; and the question of contemporary technology that we see, for example, in the double shift I’ve just traced in the relation between the principle of sovereignty, post-territorial military dominium, and the standing reserve, which is another way of referencing global war in a specific, cross-regional context. These are not insignificant absences in Galli’s essay. Indeed, it might appear that the essay is at least partially predicated on their absence.

In the end, however, one is left wondering whether in the current conditions of techno-militaristic globalization there could really be any difference between the “equality of dignity” in Galli’s modernist formulation, and Heidegger’s definition of the standing reserve as the place assigned to human doing—to praxis, for example—in a world dominated by techne (Heidegger, 1977, 17). For example, I wonder in what way the equality of dignity that Galli wishes to extend—an equality that appears to remain sutured to the modern teleology of progress—would not also be constitutive of technology’s order “to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so it [that which is allowed to have a standing] may be on call for a further ordering”. Jacques Derrida recuperates the question of the modern standing reserve and its relation to equality in the following terms, highlighting the constitutive concealment—the person, the unique self— upon, and against which, it is erected: “The individualism of technological civilization relies precisely on a misunderstanding of the unique self. It is the individualism of a role and not of a person . . . Equality for all, the slogan of bourgeois revolution, becomes the objective or quantifiable equality of roles, not of persons” (1999, 37).

In a slightly different though intimately related register, Jean-Luc Nancy (2007) echoed the standing reserve in his notion of “general equivalence” beyond the specific money-form, to the extent that global capital operationalizes—biopoliticizes—humanity itself: “If globalization has thus a necessity—the necessity that Marx designated as the ‘historical performance’ of capital and that consists in nothing other than the creation by the market of the global dimension as such—it is because, through the interdependence of the exchange of value in its merchandise-form (which is the form of general equivalency, money), the interconnection of everyone in the production of humanity as such comes into view” (2007, 37).

Derrida and Nancy’s formulations lead to a question regarding Galli’s recuperation and understanding of the equality of dignity: For example, if biopolitics is the technological production of life that places itself (life) in the role of self- production, and if it does this as a means of re-appropriating social roles in such a way as to accomplish politics, then is there anything in Galli’s equality of dignity other than the biopolitical concealment of the unique self, or person, which accompanies the production of the subject? Within Galli’s formulation, it appears that the thinking of the left is necessarily a thinking of biopolitics—a thinking, that is, of the standing within the order of the social that is sutured to capital in such an intimate way that it preconditions and orients every hegemony, determining our understanding of praxis.

But what if, in the epoch of global war, the question were no longer exclusively that of producing life and reproducing the centrality and will to power of the subject? What if we were to confront the possibility of thinking at a distance from biopolitics, (at a distance, for example, from the technological anthropologization of “equal dignity”) in the name of freedom from the standing-reserve that every biopolitics presupposes, and naturalizes. Can our understanding of the political, and of its limitations, only ever be immanent to the brutal perpetuation of techno-economic force and the ontology of the subject that perpetuates it? Or is there available to us an infra-political turn or distancing from the ontology of the subject? Let us not forget Reiner Schurmann’s fundamental insight in Broken Hegemonies, when he observes that “A thinking of being, which has been disengaged from subjectivism—if such a thinking is at all to come within our reach—forces one to think the political in another way”.

It is with this in mind that I would like to approach the distinction between Simone Weil and Marx, who had fundamentally interconnected though in the end different conceptions of the relationship between dignity, freedom and praxis. Technology lies at the heart of this distinction, as does the relation between attentiveness, or contemplation, and the decision. Weil was correct in highlighting that Marx “had failed to give sufficient attention to the degree to which science and technology themselves tend to reinforce alienation” (Sparling, 92). She was also correct to think that Marx had failed to see that inequality could not be erased “through the abolition of bourgeois property because it was an inherent part of technological life itself” (92-3). Clearly, Weil and Marx are very close (Weil notes, for example, that “the idea of labor considered as a human value is doubtless the one and only spiritual conquest achieved by the human mind since the miracle of Greece” (106). But Weil was certainly closer to Heidegger in her insistence on technology.

Whereas for Marx praxis emancipates man from his alienated, contemplative existence, for Weil it is attentiveness that liberates, opening labor up to the dignity of thinking, which she would also equate with attentiveness to God. In Weil, in other words, labor—the ontical experience that takes place only at the level of the ‘they’ and nowhere else—cuts through to something that is not political, and even lets come forth the possibility for an existence. Whereas Marx sought to turn contemplation into creative activity, thereby transforming philosophy into praxis and, as such, into a form of self-creation akin to un-alienated labor, Weil sought to transform labor into a contemplative activity; not into a means for, or another zone of, instrumentality, but as the forging of an unforeseen path toward the un-concealment of a dignity of thinking that extracts labor from mediocre banality. In Marx philosophy becomes the creative action of the subject, who alters reality; in Weil labor—the creative action—becomes a form of contemplation that alters the relation between thinking and world. Marx’s is a thought of life that produces a common auto-production or auto-creation whose vitality accomplishes politics in itself. In contrast, Weil holds to the possibility of a becoming that is not necessarily subservient to auto-production or self-creation. Her thinking of becoming exists in a register that is slightly different from that of self-creation as the sole pathway toward praxis: “Nothing on earth can stop man from feeling himself born for liberty. Never, whatever may happen, can he accept servitude; for he is a thinking creature . . . the time has come to give up dreaming of liberty, and to make up one’s mind to conceive it”, for, Weil continues, “in order to cease being delivered over to society as passively as a drop of water is to the sea, he would have to be able both to understand it and to act upon it” (83-97).

Perhaps we could say that what distinguishes Weil is a decision for thinking not as manufacturing, not as surrendering passively to the sea of biopolitics or to the standing reserve. For Weil, what is at stake is the possibility of un-concealing a beyond to the productivist suture of biopolitics, an un-concealment in which what is disclosed as previously concealed is the fact that existence cannot be produced entirely through politics, while politics is only ever produced within, and against, existence. In Weil, the purely ontic experience of labor can be uprooted from the disclosedness of the ‘they’ in order to be exposed to the undecidability that is existence.

In contrast, and perhaps in a relation of proximity to Carlo Galli’s notion of the ‘equality of dignity’, Giorgio Agamben ends his essay on stasis by noting that in global civil war “the sole form in which life as such can be politicized is its unconditional exposure to death—that is, bare life” (nuda vita). There is no doubt that this is currently the common sense politics of the left in relation to human rights and the politics of inclusion. Consider, for example, the relation between dignity and the standing reserve in the following rendering of the Central American migrant, which is designed to inspire in the reader both humanist respect and the equality of dignity:

There’s an image from the migrant trails that I’ll never forget. A man missing his right leg, a crutch under each arm, stepping into the darkness toward the train tracks. It was 2009. Before leaving, the man told me: It has stolen so much from me, I don’t think there’s much more to take. It was the train, which sliced his leg off two years before I saw him step toward the tracks in Ixtepec . . . the train—The Beast—devoured his right leg . . . When I saw him, he was about to catch his second train of the trip. Two years and one mutilation later the man had the same goal: make it to the United States to work . . . I write this scene to explain something to the reader: undocumented migration to the United States will not stop. (Martinez, 269-70)

This is the humanist dignity not of an exodus from biopolitical reproduction, but of the journey from one form of bare life to another; a journey traversing the differential conditions of the standing reserve, from subordination to subordination, from will to power to will to power, across the geographies of global war. But bare life’s perpetual inscription of its exposure to death is never a thinking that can be disengaged from subjectivism. In other words, it never forces us to think the ontical experience of labor (such as reading and writing) as a possibility for uprootedness, or exscription, from the political in the name of existence (Nancy, 107), (in which case exscription would announce the problem of the text exposed to labor). Rather, bare life reinscribes the metaphysics of subjectivism as the primacy of politics.

In contrast, the infrapolitical register for thinking the decision for existence, rather than for exposure to death, is a decision for thinking not in light of bare life or the equality of dignity. This would be a completely different register of decisiveness, of decision-making, and of dignity, beyond the biopolitical administration of life and the subjectivity that underpins it, and most certainly beyond the primacy of politics or the centrality of subjectivity and the preconceived notions of praxis that accompany it. It would be an infrapolitical register in which the decision would be “the own-making event of the disclosedness” of existence as “fundamental ownlessness” (Nancy). This infrapolitical register would be an opening to the thinking of the singular—to Being as ownlessness—and, as such, to the thinking of a fundamental modification in our understanding of praxis that would never cease to uncover the question of the relation between justice and the community of beings, certainly, but would do so in light of Being and the ontological difference, rather than in light of the biopolitical administration of life and its assignation of social roles, general equivalence, and the standing reserve, for the latter are only ever indicators of the history of a certain subjectivist nihilism that always underlies both hegemony and counterhegemony.