what is man without the state?

March 17, 2011

In his text “Means Without Ends”, Agamben defines State power as being inherently opposed to individual power, and urges that a life of power may only be possible with a rejection of, and withdrawal from the State: “A political life, that is, a life directed toward the idea of happiness…is thinkable only starting from the emancipation from such a division, with the irrevocable exodus from any sovereignty”(Agamben, p1.6). The division to which he refers is the division of the condition of merely being alive as apposed to dead (referred to as “naked life”) from the condition of life as an experience of choice and possibility (referred to as “form-of-life). Where the former is common to all living things, the latter requires the possession of human consciousness or thought, and equates to a political life.

Agamben’s thesis is that political power as held by the State is founded upon the separation of “naked life” from “form-of-life” and hence the disempowerment of its citizens. This disempowerment occurs most apparently in any given “state of emergency” which, as Agamben notes, is both frequently referred to by governments to legitimize violations of human rights, and which is likely generated by governments as a means to supplement their power. Recent local examples of a state of emergency being at once engendered by government and used as a means to legitimize violations of human rights include the invasion of Iraq by the USA and Australia, as well as the Australian government’s offshore processing facility for asylum seekers. In the case of Iraq, a “state of emergency” was evoked during the early stages of the war as a means to apprehend and imprison its own citizens without warrant or trial for indefinite periods. The offshore detaining of all asylum seekers by the Howard and now Gillard government enables the State to detain the refugees for indefinite periods, denying them the right to legal consult. One cannot help think of the dictum “war = peace” in Orwell’s 1984: a maintenance of the state of constant war to enable total control over the citizenship.

Agamben declares that the salvation of the people is in their collective “thought” or collective intelligence – “thought” being the tie that binds our humanity to our state of being alive, that “must become the guiding concept and the unitary centre of the coming politics”(Agamben, p1.10). This coming politics of ‘statelessness’ is one that is already in existence for millions of people the world over, as both Agamben and Hannah Adrent illustrate: since WW2 it has become a mass phenomenon. The refugee, once on the periphery of, or outside of politics, is becoming the vanguard of their people (Agamben, p2.2) as growing numbers of men and women are no longer represented by the nation state. The question of what we are to become, stripped of the “human rights” our sovereign grants us, is yet to be answered.

One Response to “what is man without the state?”


  1. We might also ask what happens ‘beyond human rights’? This question becomes urgent in the situation of the state of exception, which Agamben argues is now a permanent state of exception. This is a situation within which the erstwhile rights of the citizen are stripped away. And then those who were never citizens in the first place, well, they were never able to lay claim to those rights. WHat’s more, we might ask, who decides what these rights are to be, and can we ever hope to agree on a charter of rights?


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