On Felipe Martínez Marzoa, “The State and the Polis.”

It is very difficult to summarize what Felipe Martínez Marzoa tells us–his writing is very involved, complex, and premised on everything else he ever wrote, making reading him something like a cult activity: difficult to just take a part and try to make sense of it.  Having said that, perhaps the essay “The State and the Polis,” from 1999, is the clearest summation of what he meant to convey on the subject, but take “clearest” with a grain of salt. 

His overall project has to do with taking the equation of modernity and nihilism (“nihility,” he says) seriously.  And with it the notion that modern civil society and the modern State are already accomplishments of nihilism.  Keep in mind he was a Marxist for many years and that one of his most important books is A Reading of Das Kapital.  But he did take Nietzsche, and then Heidegger, seriously.

Metaphysics is for him the establishment of an “unlimited continuum,” Being as “unlimited continuum,” where every cut and every distance, every distribution and qualification, are merely contingent and arbitrary.  This of course culminates on universal equivalence, universal exchange value as only value.  Within the unlimited continuum, within universal time-space, exchange value reigns supreme, and civil society and the State, and the entire system of rights, are simply ways of codifying that state of affairs.  Needless to say, universal equivalence is the underlying principle of technology and the condition of possibility for the total objectification of the world as standing reserve.  Climate change and planetary destruction are mere consequences.

So, he says, how can we determine that?  What is the point of comparison that may give us the minimum distance to understand the state of affairs as the state of affairs, to thematize it and bring it out of self-concealment? 

Well, archaic Greece, of which we only know by inference for the most part.  We mostly know what is knowable by projecting backwards from a few extraordinary decades that were at the same time the culmination and the implosion of the Greek polis. 

Take what Herodotus says Cyrus said:  “I have no fear of men whose character is defined by the fact that the center of their cities is an empty space in which they gather to deceive each other under oath.”  Martínez Marzoa thinks Herodotus is unconcealing what the Barbarians understood of the Greek community: a strange community that already regulated exchange internally in the agora.   At the time, presumably, the exchange was yet an exchange of things, not of commodities.  Community was still central.  But the agora, by signifying a particular modulation of community, and a successful one, based not on demokratía (a later concept) but on isonomía, and by leading men to reflect on it, through thematizing it, through making it explicit, at the very same time it constitutes the polis as such, also explodes it. 

The empty space, the hole at the center, destroys the opacity of community.  If the community is totally opaque to itself, then it could be said there isn´t one.  So it is only when the community unconceals itself as community that communitarian links become relevant.  This becoming relevant of communitarian links is the polis as such.  It is also the end of the polis.  The gathering place, the agora, is also the place of separation.  When the game one plays becomes explicit as a game, when the game moves towards its own self-understanding as a game, the game breaks down.  It stops as game.  We can only understand community through the implosion of community. 

Communitarian links decay and vanish.  If the “empty space at the center” was the very opposite of the unlimited continuum, its very success moves it towards becoming the unlimited and uniform space of the continuum.  In a sense isonomía becomes demokratía, the Socratic disaster happens, and the polis implodes as such.  It is the beginning of politics. 

There are of course centuries of decline, mediated partly by an idea of faith, towards the construction of a new legitimacy, which ends up being the bogus, nihilistic legitimacy of the modern State where equality, as Hobbes put it, only means that everyone has the power to kill the other, etc.  The only legitimacy has to do with the fact that there is no legitimacy. 

The polis, in the inceptual Greek moment, is a vanishing act, like being itself.  When it finally appears, when it shows itself, that is the very moment of its disappearance. 

A corollary: if politics becomes or is a consequence of the very thematizing of communitarian links, in other words, if politics is the attempt to distribute what is undistributable, then politics is the catastrophe, it happens as catastrophe.  The demos has always already been the very condition of politics but it is a poisoned condition, because when the condition is unconcealed as such, then community vanishes.  At that point the demos needs to be imperialized, hegemonized.  Politics becomes the exercise of command in precisely the way Heidegger’s 1942 Parmenides lectures describe as a Roman practice, always already a translation of Greek practices (although he never put it in those terms, those lectures indicate a theory of hegemony as political command.  But–is hegemony something other than political command?).   The imperium marks the politics of the West to the point that Heidegger could still say in 1942 that we only understand politics “imperially, like the Romans.” 

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