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Dual Power Revisited: From Civil War to Biopolitical Islam


I.     In 1917, during the tumultuous interregnum between the collapse of tsarism and the October revolution, Lenin stressed the unprecedented emergence of a wild anomaly in the panorama of political forms: dual power. As he remarked in Pravda,  ". . . alongside the Provisional Government, the government of the bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies" ("The Dual Power," April 9, 1917). The rather sterile disputations over the evils and virtues of the seizure of State power tend to obscure the far greater challenge posed by thinking revolutionary politics in terms of the sundering of power—not just in the guise of a face-off between two (or more) social forces in a situation of non-monopoly over violence and political authority, but in the sense of a fundamental asymmetry in the types of power. The power wielded by the Soviets is incommensurable with that of its bourgeois counterpart, however "democratic" it may be, because its source lies in popular initiative and not parliamentary decree; because it is enforced by an armed people and not a standing army; and because it has transmuted political authority from a plaything of the bureaucracy to a situation where all officials are at the mercy of the popular will and its power of recall. The model for this power of a new type is the Paris Commune. And it is the incipient, larval form of "a state of the type of the Paris Commune" that, in the spring and summer of 1917, coexists with the parliamentary type of State, the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." But the Soviets, which were not yet under Bolshevik hegemony, live in the constant menace, exacerbated by the partisans of reform, of a neutralizing absorption into a State power that in principle suffers no duality. In such a conjuncture, the only strategy is to strengthen the new type of power, "clarifying proletarian minds ... emancipating them from the influence of the bourgeoisie," since "as long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to [State] power." The problem of constituting a potent communist bloc and of consolidating the new type of power into a force that can truly sap the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is thus a problem of autonomy and separation, of the disciplined, painstaking constitution of a proletarian political capacity that takes its distance from the apparatus of the state precisely in order to prepare its "smashing." This process of constitution is marked by an inexorable temporal determination. The "interlocking" of two dictatorships gives rise to an exceedingly volatile amalgam, whence the axiom: "Two powers cannot exist in a state" ("The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution [Draft Platform for the Proletarian Party])," September 1917). Dual power is thus both an opportunity and a menace, the terrain where autonomy and initiative can be quashed or squandered. This is the sense in which, in June 1917, Lenin, facing a capitalist offensive in the domain of production itself, declares: "The root of the evil is in the dual power" ("Has Dual Power Disappeared?"). And the culprits of this crisis, the harbingers of the "evil," are precisely those subjects which seek to serve as hinges between the two powers, the "Narodniks and Mensheviks" who lead the Soviets (the power of the majority) in the interests of the bourgeoisie (the dictatorship of the minority). In any case, "this dual power cannot last long." This merely transitory kairos which dual power represents, founded on the lethal contest between the two dictatorships—the two types of power—means that Lenin cannot accept the "fetishism" of the Soviet as an organ of self-government (which might even be compatible with certain bourgeois parliamentary forms) but will seek, through the fundamental instance of the party, to "fix in the Soviet the expression and immediate political form of class insubordination against the general form of exploitation" and to maintain the dyad "autonomy-organization." For without class autonomy there is no organization and without organization, class autonomy—independent proletarian political capacity—dissipates (Antonio Negri, Trentatre Lezioni su Lenin, 1972-73). In this context, dual power, as Negri notes—and contrary to the Menshevik vision of incorporating the Soviets within the state as a "regional" instance of worker’s self-government and self-management—is "not an institutionalizable juridical relationship" (for how could one make civil war into an institution?). For Negri, the ambiguity of dual power "must be confronted and resolved from the workers’ perspective: first of all, its intensification must be advocated, then the proletarian moment of antithesis must be exalted until the foundation of the dictatorship of the proletariat in its Soviet form."

II.     As Negri presents it, Lenin’s is a constant struggle against the "constitutional mummification" of dual power, the transmutation of the Soviets into

organs of democratic representation and not of class dictatorship, inserted into the international process of revolution. Communists must always reject this transformation; the movement must continue, it must surpass itself.
Indeed, some of Negri’s most interesting pages in his lessons on Lenin bear on the manner in which capital, in its high reformist moments (e.g. the New Deal), inoculated itself with the Soviet form; how it institutionalized the apparatus of self-government in the guise of workers’ self-management and their collaborative insertion into the mechanisms and the ideology of industrial work. Against this recuperative dialectic, the autonomist imperative is that of an institutionalization of antagonism, the creation of "institutions of the class, in the class, for the class," the "institutionalization against capital of what capital can only institutionalize for the sake of domination, the consolidation of struggle in function of power, the irreversibility of struggle from the point of view of struggle itself, of the process of destruction of what exists." Negri’s wager, then, is that the task of repeating Lenin must pass through a reckoning with the transformation in class composition (that is, both in the subjective capacity of the class and its insertion into the dynamics of capitalist development) as well as in the very meaning of power. Dual power retains its pertinence, but it is no longer thought exclusively in terms of the State as separate apex and possessor of power but in view of a "tendential identification of capital and the State (a total fusion of organization and command)." Under these conditions of real subsumption, there is a plenitude of power,
a fullness of capitalist power and a fullness of workers’ power: the capitalist unification of society and its totalizing organization reproduce over the entirety of the social fabric the full potency of class antagonism, which is essential to the definition of capital.
But if the overall concept of power under conditions of the real subsumption of society under capital cannot be identified with the seizure of State power per se, then, following Negri’s argument, we could say that there emerges yet another "new type" of (proletarian) power. For Lenin’s vision of dual power as a critical and explosive but still transitory stage depended on a certain conception of power that Negri calls a "non-dialectical absolute," not so distant from the bourgeois theories of power qua monopoly. On the contrary, the workers’ struggles of the 60s and 70s, according to Negri (who does not flinch, in these pages, from invoking Mao as a distant witness), determine a new experience and a new concept of power, understood as a "dialectical absolute" allowing "dual power to spread over a long period, as a struggle that upsets the capital relation by introducing into it the worker variable as the conscious will of destruction." This newer type of proletarian power is paradoxically qualified as a form of extremist gradualism, a "gradualness of power and its management which is the gradualness of the destruction of capitalist power, of the capital relation." Whence the thesis that underlies the new Sovietism which Negri, at the time immersed in the experience of Potere Operaio, proclaims to be "the transformation of the concept of insurrection into that of permanent civil war." Without entering into the virtues of such a provocative proposal, or indeed how it might relate to a strategic (mis)calculation of class forces and class composition, it is worth remarking that the vision of this permanent civil war, and of its new type of prolonged, gradual/destructive dual power, led to an attempt to practice an appropriation and defense of physical areas of autonomy and "self-valorization"—"red bases" or liberated zones. The presence of these notoriously Maoist concepts points to a key aspect of the autonomist theorization of dual power under conditions of real subsumption, namely its fusion of two models and practices of dual power: the intensive and metropolitan "general strike scenario" (present in the Paris Commune, the Petrograd Soviet, the insurrections in Hamburg, Canton and Barcelona) and the extensive and territorial prolonged "popular war scenario," for which the Chinese revolution serves as a paragon (Daniel Bensaďd, "The Return of Strategy," 2007; see also Ben Brewster, "Armed Insurrection and Dual Power," 1971). On the basis of the conviction of the full (and irreversible?) power of the metropolitan proletariat in its new class composition, the long duration of the people’s war is injected into the fabric of the city.

III.     In his more recent work with Michael Hardt, Negri has given a biopolitical twist to these earlier reflections on dual power. Writing of the legacy of guerrilla warfare, he notes that it

increasingly adopted the characteristics of biopolitical production and spread throughout the entire fabric of society, it more directly posed as its goal the production of subjectivity—
economic and cultural subjectivity, both material and immaterial. It was not just a matter of "winning hearts and minds," in other words, but rather of creating new hearts and minds through the construction of new circuits of communication, new forms of social collaboration, and new modes of interaction. In this process we can discern a tendency toward moving beyond the modern guerrilla model toward more democratic network forms of organization. (Empire, 2000)
Is the contemporary horizon for a recovery and recasting of the theme of dual power a biopolitical one? It is difficult to ignore that whether we are talking about the non-antagonistic forms of participatory dual power in the "Porto Alegre" model, the Zapatista attempt to defend zones for the self-organization of "civil society" against oligarchic repression ("Second Declaration of the Selva Lacandona," 1994), or the attempts to articulate forms of democracy-from-below with national-popular projects in Bolivia and Venezuela, the biopolitical element (understood both in the sophisticated sense of Hardt and Negri, but also in the simple sense of welfare) is prominent. The Lebanese Hezbollah is a key figure in this respect, representing the rise of a kind of "biopolitical Islam" in a context of dual power. Determined by a very unique historical and political constellation—which combines the anti-Israeli national resistance struggle, a Khomeneist party ideology profoundly modulated by the conditions of a multi-confessional Lebanon permanently threatened by relapse into bloody sectarianism, the contradictory support of Syria and Iran, and a wide proletarian Shi’ia social base—Hezbollah has thrived in the systematic use of dual power (military, territorial, moral) and represents a variant of this political form which is irreducible both to the model of the Leninist kairos as well to that of the people’s war. This variant of dual power instead functions within something like a permanent interregnum, where its power is wielded forcefully (as in the recent strike) but never in the sense of a unilateral seizure. Within this volatile geometry of forces, the "biopolitical" element provides much of the substance of dual power. In the "planet of slums" anatomized by Mike Davis we could even say that the "biopolitical supplement" to the neoliberal evacuation of services and solidarity is inextricable and primary vis-ŕ-vis any mere military strategy. As Judith Palmer Harik remarks, much of Hezbollah’s hegemonic trajectory depends on addressing key questions of the government of life, adopting a "process of advocacy based on extensive-fact finding and teamed with grass roots support." In these "Islamist inquiries," issues such as water problems are addressed through scientific-academic methods (Hezbollah’s Center for Developmental Studies) and by encouraging "the formation of residential and professional groups" that can provide the territorial rooting for these biopolitical ventures (Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism, 2005). In a situation of prolonged dual power where the stakes, contrary to those envisioned by Negri, are precisely based on averting civil war whilst gaining relative hegemony over a population sidelined by a fragmented, unequal and threadbare state (what Palmer Harik simply calls "the abandoned"), dual power is biopower, and "daily garbage collection," "large-scale health service delivery" and "emergency water delivery" are weapons of the first order. Though little if anything can be directly extrapolated from a unique situation in which the notion of "balance of power" takes on an intense and tragic connotation, Hezbollah’s important variant of "biopolitical Islam" hints at some of the contemporary conditions for the rethinking and exercise of dual power, where the separation of an autonomous political capacity and the generation of new types of power (whether revolutionary, conservative or reactionary) cannot bypass the dimension of the production and reproduction of social life—in short, the question of survival.