- Lacanian Anarchism and the Left
The overall goal of Saul Newman’s new book, From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power, is to offer a critique of the way power, and specifically political power, is commonly conceived. He avoids the standard approach to such discussions that runs through an embrace or modification of Marx, turning instead to the more neglected arena of anarchism and articulating it with current thinkers associated with the term “post-structuralism.” Newman argues that what he calls the “place of power,” the idea that treatments of power seem often to constrain it conceptually to a certain region or type — in effect, essentializing power into a natural kind — misconceive the true operation of power. Power is, as many recent thinkers have argued, more diffuse and uncircumscribed than traditional progressive treatments of it, especially Marxism, have been able to recognize.
The book starts with a treatment of Marxism, showing that, for Marxists, the place of power is always in the economy, and that non-economistic approaches to power are not considered. The discussion here focuses on the idea that, since Marxists have often thought of the state as determined by economic power, they have not been loath to assume state control in order to change economic relations. The consequences of such thought, long criticized by anarchists, have been manifest throughout the history of our century.
Anarchism, by contrast, rightly sees that Marxism has missed the role of state power in social relations. Unfortunately, anarchists seem to want to place all power at the state level, and thus merely substitute one place of power for another. On their view, the state is the site of power, and resistance lies in the natural impulses of a humanity uncontaminated by such power. Eliminate the state, and deleterious power relations will fall away by themselves.
At this point, Newman turns, in an interesting twist on the standard accounts, to the anarchist Max Stirner in order to criticize the kind of humanism inherent in much other anarchist thinking. For Stirner, the human is not a natural resource of uncontaminated resistance, but rather an empty site, a project to be realized. This project can be realized either in oppressive or non-oppressive ways. The question is, then, how to conceive power and resistance if neither is relegated to a natural place.
Michel Foucault begins this process through his analyses of the multi-form ways power operates. However, he falters because, by seeing power everywhere, he seems to preclude the possibility of conceptualizing resistance without returning to a site outside of power that is uncontaminated by it. Such a site would be as essentialist as that offered by anarchism.
Deleuze and Guattari, by seeking new conceptual categories for power, undermine the idea of distinct places of power and resistance, especially in their concept of the “war machine.” However, by counterposing desire and the social, they return to many of the categories their work was designed to resist.
Derrida, by dislocating much of the oppositional structure that characterizes political (and other) thought, offers an opening for re-conceiving power and resistance. If power and resistance are intermeshed in ways that preclude separating them into distinct sites, then a thinking that involves Derridean categories such as differance and infrastructure may be more appropriate to understanding their operation. Derrida does not, however, offer a treatment of the subject of resistance, the political actor.
Here, finally, Lacan, the real hero of Newman’s book, becomes relevant. For Lacan, power contains its own lack. The signifier is internally riven, allowing resistance to occur within power rather than outside of it. If the Lacanian subject is both encrusted in and resistant to power in its very structure, then both power and resistance exist without distinct and essential places, are dispersed and multi-form, and can be thought without the problems that have characterized treatments from Marx to Deleuze and Guattari. A post-anarchist thought, which takes seriously the anti-authoritarian impulse of anarchism while jettisoning its humanist treatment of power and resistance, would start from here.
Newman believes that...