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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.3 (2002) 15-22

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Is Everything Political?
(a brief remark)

Jean-Luc Nancy
Université de Strasbourg

Translated by Philip M. Adamek, State University of New York at Buffalo

AN OFT-HEARD CLAIM HOVERS AT THE HORIZON OF OUR THOUGHTS, PROnouncing that everything is political [tout est politique]. 1 The claim can be proffered or received in several different ways: on certain occasions, according to a thought of distribution (the moments or diverse elements of shared existence all in some way belong to the moment or element called the "political," to which falls a privilege of diffusion or of transversality); on others, in a domineering gesture (in the first or last instance, the "political" sphere is that which determines or controls the activity of the other spheres); and, on other occasions still, in a form of integration or assumption (the essence of existence as a whole is of a political nature). In each of these cases, the tone of the enunciation or of the reception can be resigned, disconcerted, affirmative or contentious.

This claim, before ever simply and vaguely "hovering" at the horizon, served as the axiom of an entire modern elaboration. It most certainly constituted and consolidated the horizon itself during a long period—perhaps, [End Page 15] one could say, from 1789 to the present time— and may continue to do so without our being able to say whether the "present time" is still or no longer circumscribed by the horizon. (In particular, the claim served as a maxim or slogan as much for the various forms of fascism as for those of communism: it was even most likely, notwithstanding all their differences, their true point of contact.)

(So as not to delve, in this brief remark, into that which preceded modernity, we will make do with the following formulation: politics was not "totalizing" for Antiquity, which no doubt invented politics but conceived of it only within the condition of a city of "free men": of an essentially differential and "non-totalizing" city. By itself, slavery, with its economic corollaries, prevents one from understanding, on the basis, for example, of an "everything is political," the "architectonic" place of politics within Aristotle. In this particular political space, the free man benefits from the polis for other ends than those of political administration (for example, the biostheoretikos, the leisure of the contemplative life), in the same way that the polis subsists on infra-political bases (slavery and subsistence primarily by family-based unities). The politics of sovereign nation-states, for its part, was upheld by a relation to a common, religious, or symbolic destiny that always, in one way or another, disregarded politics—while, from another perspective, the same sovereignty led towards a "politics in totality" that became the politics of the moderns.)

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If it is sometimes said today that politics is held in check or at bay by economics, this happens only as the result of a hasty confusion: what is thus called the "economy" is actually nothing other than what was once called "political economy": that is, the functioning of the administration of subsistence and prosperity, less at the level of the relatively self-sufficient family (the oikos, the household), than of the city (polis). "Political economy" was nothing other than the consideration of the polis as an oikos: as a collective or communitarian reality presumed to belong to a natural order (generation, kinship, inherited property: land, goods, slaves). It followed logically that if [End Page 16] the oiko-nomia took on the dimensions of the polis, the displacement could not be simply one of size, but implied as well that politeia, the knowledge of the affairs of the city, had itself been reinterpreted as an oika-nomai. But the latter was itself reinterpreted, simultaneously, no longer simply in terms of subsistence and prosperity (of the "good life"), but in terms of the production and reproduction of wealth (of "having more").

Indeed, it is always a question of how one interprets the grouping of men, which can be...