I. Civil War

A most ambiguous superiority

To designate ‘sedition,’ revolution in the city, Greeks use the word stasis, which they borrowed from the root most evocative of firmness, permanence, and stability. As if stasis were an institution for them!” -Henri van Effenterre

“Shameless Hubris, flourishing with shifty greed and lawless empty-headedness, will swiftly bestow on a man someone else’s wealth and power, and then send him into deep ruin —Hubris destroyed the arrogant sons of the Earth, the Giants.” -Bacchylides

Allow us to begin with an old myth. It’s a silly story we keep hearing over and over but in different ways. It goes like this: before the Gods, there were the Giants who were more beastly than divine. They gave birth to the Gods. The Gods, angered by a property infraction, turned against them in war. The Gods defeated them in a magnificent battle called the Gigantomachy, “the battle of Giants,” subsequently bestowing the gifts of hospitality, organized warfare, and codified love-rituals to humankind. This is the story the old Greeks told around campfires to remind each other that they brought civilization to a barbaric universe, that they were the ones who won out over the forces of chaos. This was the magnificent triumph of nomos, of norms and law, over anomie, or the lack thereof.

While most have forgotten the original, the West has never ceased telling itself this story with the names changed. In American mythology, we usually tell the story of the rebels who fought against tyranny. Some still tell the now less popular myths about the southern rebels who fought against northern tyranny, or the Western expansionists who fought against “savagery.” American politicians today have a more modern version about beasts called “terrorists” and the forces of democracy that will defeat them. Activists have a more complex version about triumphing over the “divisions” created to tear them apart. Hell, even the Republican Party talks of its battle against “barbarism” within its ranks. In the cacophony of mythology, we can’t help but wonder whether shameless Hubris did triumph first with his lawless empty-headedness above all the rest…

Muslim Conference
Gigantomachian myths rely on binary, black and white (sometimes literally!) divisions

But the oldest variation of the myth for Western Civilization, and the one that defines the structure of the rest, is the story of democracy triumphing over barbarism and chaos. This myth ultimately takes us back to two historical events: the victory of the Athenian democrats against the barbarous Persians, and their subsequent victory against the city of Sparta and its allies. This latter event is known as the Peloponnesian War. The myth of the Gigantomachy doubtless loomed large in the minds of the first citizens of a democracy in Athens when they finally drove out the Thirty Tyrants in 403 BCE. after a year of violent rule and exile. The cause and course of events of the Peloponnesian War are still contested facts today. According to Thucydides, the conflict between the Athenian democrats and the Spartan oligarchs has its origins in the latter’s fear of Athens’ —a major naval empire by this time— growing military strength. Sparta believed that a war was inevitable, and so the only question was when to fight. Athens knew this as well, and so when conflict broke out between Sparta’s ally Corinth and its colony Corcyra, they decided to get involved and fight on the side of Corcyra. The naval battle that followed was unusual at least for the fact that, as Thucydides records, “this was the greatest naval battle, for number of ships, that ever had been before of Grecians against Grecians.” Athens, expecting an attack from Corinth, preemptively sent generals to demand Potidæa, a colony of Corinth, to tear down its walls and provide hostages. Sparta guaranteed that if Athens attacked they would invade Attica. With that promise, Potidæa “revolted, and together with them the Chalcidians and Bottiæans, all mutually sworn in the same conspiracy.” The Spartans and their allies (the Peloponnesian League) decided then that their previous peace with Athens was definitely broken and it was time to go to war. What followed was the most brutal and ambiguous war either Athens or Sparta had ever fought.

After nearly 30 years of war, during which the tides of war turned multiple times in the favor of the opposing forces, Athens finally surrendered in 404 BCE. Sparta refused to destroy Athens, preferring instead to install an oligarchic regime of the so-called Thirty Tyrants, who brutally suppressed their opposition with a cruelty and violence the democrats found inconceivable. The group was made up of twenty die-hard oligarchs led by Critias, and ten moderates under Theramenes. In addition to killing thousands, the group also confiscated the property of the wealthy landowners, and exiled many prominent democrats. After a year of tyranny, a group of democrats rallied under Thrasybulus and finally rose up to defeat the oligarchs, restoring the city to the people and the democracy they held so dear.

Air force Capt America
Auto-mythologization: US Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh as Captain America

At least, so the story goes. But the myth didn’t hold up. It was complicated by the thousands of democrats —plus their friends and families— who were brought into the inner circle of the much despised oligarchs. The rule of the Thirty was, by all evidence, a trauma for the democrats, and one it would be necessary to put in the past. The democrats found that the only way to ensure peace was to grant amnesty to all except the Thirty themselves. Those who never cease to praise the “Greek miracle” claim with misplaced pride that perhaps it was the first occurrence of amnesty in history. In every possible way, this amnesty resembles amnesia: amnesia of the conflicts, amnesia of the divisions, amnesia of difference. If we still live today within the Greek horizon of truth, we would argue that here, on this practice of forgetfulness, on the foundation of war and its denial, the Greeks were the first to practice what we still call “politics.” We would argue, moreover, that if there are any institutions of power in the West, they are only instituted on the condition that they also make a principle of that denial, that they exclude precisely that which founds them and gives them substance.

To understand the force of the amnesty requires us to make first a preliminary sketch of the concept that most terrified the Athenians and cast a long shadow over the cradle of democracy: stasis (see Stasis). A cursory survey of the branches of meaning bound up together in the word reveals its sustained centrality in the Western political tradition. Stasis is a noun derived from the verb histemi, which means to stand (up), or to be standing. It maintains both this active and middle voice simultaneously. From this one word, two divergent ways of viewing politics emerged. From the tradition of translation centering on the middle voice, we get the word state. The concept of the state evolved out from the discourse around this thing stasis.

In contrast, the active sense of standing up was more predominant in the 5th century, and stasis was commonly understood as sedition, factionalism, and civil war. This meaning was transmitted through the Latin seditio, from which we derive sedition. When Hobbes translated Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, he regularly translated stasis as sedition, and he had good tactical reason to do so. Hobbes was acutely aware of the strategic value of distinguishing a history of the state from a history of political acts. By doing so, he was able to make the state appear as an a-historical condition of the collaboration and cohabitation of men, while inversely presenting non-sanctioned political and collective acts as setting the stage for a nasty, solitary, and brutish life.

It is essential that we recognize that stasis did not have two distinct and separate meanings. It evoked both permanence and division simultaneously. This immobile mobility so difficult for us to fathom was no problem for the old Greeks. It was the status, for example, of Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” his original principle, which, incapable of being moved itself, moves everything else in the cosmos. Alcaeus, the lyrical poet from Lesbos, admits that he “fail[s] to understand the stasis of the winds: one wave rolls in from this side, another from that, and we in the middle are carried along in company with our great black ship, much distressed in the great storm.” Here, stasis is invoked to indicate not just the direction of the wind, but also the spot where their conflictual movements clash and create a restless repose.

We must retrieve what has been lost in the Latin tradition of translation that makes the two seem worlds apart because — from complete stability to civil war, from constitution to total breakdown — stasis contains within it the whole range of our political imagination, which makes it the threshold of the political itself, its effective limit, and the basis of its existential potential. It was through their experience with this thing the Greeks called stasis, which we are calling civil war, that the West began to talk about “politics” in the first place; it was through their reactions to it that the Greeks produced the political concepts they passed down to us.

From here it is possible to say: In the beginning, the Greeks instituted conflict.

Ares and his many faces

The concept of war was not always negative in the ancient world, which, after two world wars, seems perverse and barbaric today. Our own “civilized” ethic of warfare as total defeat, then extermination, and now permanent war with the Middle East has overwhelmed us so that we have trouble imagining a concept of war that does not imply the destruction of one side or another, or its eternal management. The wars of death camps and poison gas are certainly possibilities of war, but not the only ones.

The concept of war in general refers not to battle or series of battles, but to the real possibility, the permanent existential potential, of conflict. War is waged in many ways, but it is that dangerous potential that defines its limits. The liberal and humanist traditions have completely failed to efface that possibility. As they set out to identify themselves more and more with all that is human, pacifist, or rational, their enemies —the terrorists, pirates, rebel militias, and subversives— appear more and more inhuman, irrational, violent, and worthless. The tradition of humanism has progressively developed a concept of man who appears to stand on one flat plane, on one single ethical continuum.

Anyone who adopts an inconceivable ethic appears inhuman and monstrous, and is not so much killed as wiped out and exterminated. Hence the relative apathy today toward extralegal drone strikes, even as details emerge about their unreliability in identifying their targets. Simply appearing to be a potential terrorist in a territory is enough to justify your assassination.

The Greeks —and with them the ancient world as a whole— did not have one word, one broadly cast understanding, for war. “Just as water retains no constant shape,” Sun-Tzu wrote, “so in warfare there are no constant conditions.” Nor was it a special or separate phenomenon. Benveniste wrote that peace, for the ancient world, was considered the suspension of war, and not the other way around. The philosopher Heraclitus claimed that polemos, conflict, was the precondition for the cosmos: “Polemos is the father of us all and our king. Polemos discloses who is godlike and who is but a man, who is a slave and who is a freeman.” This is a cosmic warfare, a warfare that decides, through opposition, what can be defined and understood against something else in the first place.

War names the encounter or the decision that makes a qualification about something possible at all. German has retained this relation of conflict to conception in their word Auseinandersetzung, which means both conflict and, literally, setting one thing out and apart from another. This is not a war where some party wins, or could win, but the endless process of conflict that reveals difference in the world in the first place.

Even earlier than Heraclitus, Homer “erases the distinction between war and the assemblyhe attributes to the assembly a characteristic of war, the kudos, at once a sign of election and a talisman for victory in battle,” (Nicole Loraux) and he’s not the only Greek to do so. The Greeks did not make a clean distinction between conflict on the battlefield and conflict of words in the assembly, in the courts, in their competitive games, or in any other public place. Jean-Pierre Vernant writes that “if, in the context of war, the force of arms can replace the force of argument, this is because they are considered the same kind of power.” This is because, for the Greeks, violence was not even formulated as a question. What was essential was conflict, force, and effect.

What must be stressed here is that cosmic war or the war of the trial are not appropriations of military conflict. The most difficult thought for us moderns is that there is no ancient true form of war from which every other kind of war would derive as an analogy. There is no evidence that a crystallization of thought occurred around the existent forms of military conflict, which were called “war,” to be later exported and applied elsewhere. For example, Mars’ (in Latin), *Tîwaz’ (in proto—Germanic), or Ares’ (in Greek) role in mythology is much more complicated than generally indicated by the title “god of war,” if one only understands this as “god of military engagement.” To quote De Vries: “These two conceptions (god of battles, god of law) are not contradictory. War is not, in fact, the bloody hand-to-hand combat of battle; it is a decision, arrived at by combat between two parties.” Whether you engaged in combat with words or weapons was irrelevant to the question of power.

The Greek understanding of war is even preserved in the word democracy —the kratos, the domination or the superiority, of the demos, the people (see: Democracy)itself which was often avoided by political orators and writers at the time to avoid its association with temporal conflict and with war, to avoid being seen as just another party in a basically open conflict.

The greatest misfortune and the art of denial

Stasis, which is enmity, is what [lawmakers] are most anxious to banish.” -Aristotle

“We should observe that […] whenever Greek civic thought condemns stasis, it must erase its political origin — for example, by assimilating it to an illness malevolently fallen from the sky — in order to preserve the consensual form of the political, which is supposedly the political itself.” -Nicole Loraux

“All civil government [is] ordained… for the avoiding of Confusion and Civil War.” -Thomas Hobbes

Of all the words the Greeks had for conflict and war, none evoked the repulsion or fear of the founders of politics and democracy as did stasis. Seldom is it mentioned without being contrasted with the just war against the outsider, dispelled with a woeful plea (“don’t speak of such awful things!”) or simply put to the side in the same breath it is mentioned. And yet, despite that, it seemed inescapable and everyone took it for granted. It is a fact that civil war was a monstrous presence at the dawn of politics. Democritus, the first atomist and “father of the sciences,” assuming a posture of political neutrality, expressed a common sentiment when he stated that “stasis is harmful for both parties; for both to the conquerors and the conquered, the destruction is the same.”

Aeschylus’ dramatic trilogy The Oresteia provides us with a paradigm of sorts for the Greek reaction to stasis. The story begins with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War. His wife Clytemnestra, angered by the sacrifice of their daughter, and who also wants to continue a love affair, murders her husband. The son, Orestes, though beset by conflictual demands to avenge his father and to fulfil his obligations to his mother, decides to break the familial bond to his mother and, in the end, murders Clytemnestra. As Orestes leaves the scene of the murder, he is pursued by the Erinyes, or Furies. These earthly goddesses traditionally exact revenge on those who break an oath. Orestes, although he believed to be fulfilling his oath to his father and to Apollo, broke his familial oath to his mother. He seeks out Athena, the patron of Athens, to preside over a trial where the furies speak as his prosecutors and Apollo as his defense. The citizens of Athens constitute the jury. The jury is evenly split, which, according to the rules established by Athena, acquits Orestes. Nevertheless, the Furies threaten to torture the inhabitants of Athens out of anger. Athena then directly addresses the Furies:

Only in this place that I haunt do not inflict

Your bloody stimulus to twist the inward hearts

Of young men, raging in a fury not of wine,

Nor, as if plucking the heart from raging roosters,

Engraft among my citizens that spirit of war

That turns their battle fury inward on themselves.

No, let our wars range outward hard against the man

Who has fallen horribly in love with high renown.

No true fighter I call the bird that fights at home.

Athena ends by offering the goddesses a new role: they will protect justice as opposed to vengeance, and will henceforth be known as the “venerable ones.” This is how the Athenian mind makes peaceful arbitration win out over blind and endless fury: they will redirect the anger of men towards the enemy, who really deserves it and whose defeat will create glory for the city! Though it is not named, stasis is the horrible “spirit of war that turns their battle fury inward on themselves.”

Replica Greek armour
Reproduction of a Greek Hoplite Shield with a Rooster

The reference to birds and roosters here is probably obscure for the modern reader, but is directly related to the problem of stasis in the text. Every year, the Athenians organized rooster fights at public expense. These were popular events and there are many references to the practice from this time. In a speech, Themistocles claims to be the founder of the event. When he was leading his citizen army against barbarians during the Persian Wars, he is said to have spotted two roosters fighting relentlessly in his path. “These birds,” he said “are not fighting for their country or their fathers’ gods; they are not enduring pain to defend the tombs of their ancestors, their reputation, freedom, and children; each of the pair aims to avoid defeat and not to yield to the other.”

Roosters fight to win. Although this is said to have given the soldier’s newfound strength, the passage also, as Loraux points out, denies “all the reasons the Greeks gave for waging war: glory, of course, but also, very specifically, the values listed in Aeschylus’ Persians.” This leaves only one reason: desire to fight. This is certainly an aspect of war, but it was something that made the Greeks uncomfortable. When explicitly thematized, it tended to delegitimize the claims for a higher purpose in war and makes it merely a contest of furious and bloodthirsty desires. Instead of seeing the rooster fight as a metaphor for the arbitrariness and brutality of military conquest, the Greek, to protect himself from this degenerate threat of war, will characterize stasis as that form of war that contains everything terrible about war in general. Even though the story explicitly ties external conquest with mere desire for domination, the Greek can claim to have “banished stasis” from the city and thus to have protected himself from his own excesses.

The Cockfight Mosaic discovered in the House of the Labyrinth in Pompeii. First Century AD.

Stasis was so terrifying for the partisans of democracy that their conceptions of it must be viewed as strategies of limitation, of taming it or assigning it a place to avoid letting it reign as a principle. The thought seems to be: we cannot deny stasis outright; we must affirm it, but if we can establish its exceptionalism, we can cast it into the distance and suspend its appearance to the most unlikely of circumstances. This explains the curious phenomenon in the history of civil war in general where those who fear it most tend to talk about it incessantly, as if once they really understood it and assigned it a neat orderly place, they could rest easy. Plato, in the Laws, tries to make it a species of polemos (see Polemos), the war against outsiders, by calling it “emphylios polemos,” a “war among the same people,” which is also the modern Greek for “civil war.” To call stasisemphylios polemos” would be to say that every conflict is one of exteriority, and involves first considering the enemy to be essentially other in some way before the beginning of a conflict.

Aristotle, on the other hand, uses it synonymously with a variety of terms that signify any activity that undermines the foundation or the stability of the constitution. For instance, it is often used in the same way as metabolai, the semi-constitutional process of reforming or re-instituting constitutions, viewed often as a quasi-natural process. Nevertheless, the unbreakable connection between law and stasis, between political life and civil war, was so strong that Solon, the great lawmaker of the 6th century, enacted a law which proposed that “anyone who should refuse to place his arms at the disposal of either side [of a stasis], he should be outlawed and have no share in the city.”

Law, the home, and the possibility of confrontation within them are all aspects of the word, but both Aristotle and Plato are attempting to limit the term by characterizing it as solely belonging to one sphere or the other. It is difficult to grasp the full range of what a Greek living in the fifth century would have heard in it all at once. It is, in a way, a word at conflict with itself, and maintains oppositional meanings without resolving them. It evokes both the permanence of the city or of a faction in the city (a thing that is standing) and also of a force that rends the city apart (a thing standing up). It necessarily includes the entirety of the city. Nobody can be neutral where stasis is the principal, hence Solon’s law. Each citizen must choose a side or else they are no longer political in the original sense of the word. And yet, insofar as it involves everyone in the conflict, it also is the thing that tears apart any consistent traits of centrality, any definite center to which every political fact can be related. And, as we’ve said, it evokes this not as two separate moments, or two separate branches of distinct meanings, but —and this is what is essential— at the same time.

This contrasts sharply with the image of Greek political life passed down to us from the Greeks themselves and from our own political historiography stemming from the Founding Fathers (“What Athens was in miniature America will be in magnitude” [Thomas Paine]) to Obama today (“Two hundred and thirty-six years ago, a new American Nation was founded on an old Greek principle —democratic rule by a free people”). Let’s review the basic features of this representation: according the popular narrative, the founding of the city destroyed the older kinship or tribal organization of the citizens and established the “artificial” relations of public life. The kinship-based patriarchal rule of the father would now be confined to the household, called the oikos. Freemen would now gather publicly in the assembly (ekklesia), and vote on measures directly. Here, they had the ability to grant citizenship, declare war, elect officials, make decrees, and act as a criminal jury (an ability later shifted to a court system). Another major institution was the council (boule), made up of 500 individuals selected by lot and heavily vetted. This body drafted the topics of debate for the assembly, advised military strategy, and were given special emergency powers in the case of a crisis.

It is estimated that only one-fifth and maybe even as little as one-tenth of the actual population of Athens was allowed to participate in either of these institutions. The rest were women, slaves, children, and foreigners who lived in the household (oikos). Athenian democracy made a sharp distinction between the household (oikos) where one organized one’s basic necessities (What will I eat? How? How will I organize my daily life? My property?); and the public sphere, the city (the polis) where one engaged in action and speech, and from which all questions about those biological necessities and the organization of daily life are banished.

To rule by brute force was from this perspective considered either something pre-political, i.e. the way “barbarians” continued to manage their affairs; an aspect of the household, the oikos, where the despot, the head of the household, had the right of coercion over his slaves, wife, property, and children; or it was associated with “oriental despotism,” represented mainly by the Persian model of rule. Consistent throughout all the different self-representations in Western political history is this production of such a pure outside, the monstrous other: the “orientals” and “barbarians” who take on merely the negative attributes of the West’s self-representation. So powerful was this representation of the outside that when the foreigners who fought with Thrasybulus to take the city back from the Thirty and restore the democracy applied for citizenship, the Athenians voted against it.

Since the Greeks defined their “new political sphere” as being one where one dealt with issues using speech, rhetoric, (what we call a politician was then called a rhetor, one who uses rhetoric) to be non-political meant to be devoid of the capacity not to speak in general, but more precisely to be devoid of the capacity to use speech to solve conflicts.

The other side of the complex that recognizes in the “outsider” only a “foreigner” was the impulse to externalize all forms of conflict. War, for the Athenians, was necessary. Athens was a colonial power. It was also a sparsely populated mountainous region. Slaves, who outnumbered citizens in Athens, were mostly acquired through military conquest, and the resources they required —grain and metal— were primarily obtained through colonial extraction and tributes from colonized cities. Thucydides, Aristotle, and others acknowledged that the longer a war raged on, the greater risk there was for the formal structure of the conflict to break down, and for personal, factional, or intra-city struggles to replace formal intercity conflicts. By all accounts, then, the Peloponnesian War was an unmitigated disaster. And it carried this risk right from the beginning, since a polemos was only properly waged against barbarians or anyone who didn’t speak Greek (literally, those who say “barbar,” apparently the sounds Greeks heard in foreign languages). Now the Greeks and their allies were killing each other, in brutal and unimaginable ways, and the war encouraged colonies to rebel to take advantage of the weakening of the two great powers in the Greek world. Thucydides claims that “practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed, with rival parties in every state.”

It was necessary for the Greek to imagine that, despite the existence of conflicts of varying sorts, in contrast to the inequalities of the household or the barbarian kingdoms, the Greek city was a place of perfect equality. This equality contrasts with the modern concept because it was never conceived as general or human equality. In fact, to be equal, which meant specifically “to live among one’s peers,” was predicated on the fact that the majority of Greek city inhabitants were unequal: slaves, women, metics (foreigners with no civic rights), and children, all of whom would take care of the base necessities under the direction of the father/husband. This “equality” was characterized by what the Greeks liked to call “harmony.” Harmotto is a verb that describes, materially, the contract of marriage. More abstractly, harmony means for the Greek citizen the “love that seals the community” or even the cosmos, as in Empedocles. War must take place outside the internal harmony. This outwardly waged war is considered as a part of that internal harmony, and perfectly natural to it within prescribed limits. Ares is even one of Harmonia’s parents.

Eris, the goddess of discord, is the counterpart to Harmonia and the much maligned figure of the impossibility of consensual politics. The agreed-upon codes of traditional warfare begin to fall apart under Eris’ watch: she instigated a war among the eternal gods; in the Illiad, she remains after the battle’s end as armies on both sides begin to fall apart and fight whomever stands before them; she is said to be the “last to close an argument,” (Aeschylus) instead letting it continue long past its useful end. When harmony and complete cohesion covers the entire world, it “eliminates the gap through which we can discern the world,” and becomes “an absolute darkness, blacker than night” (Nicole Loraux). With no difference, we have no term with which to conceptualize anything at all, and a great nothingness covers the earth. Thus, the Greeks needed Eris in addition to Harmony. Without Eris, Harmony isn’t Harmony. If Harmony blankets the entire world, might as well say that it’s nothing at all. This is why the Greek could not and would never be able to exclude civil war (Eris). When he realizes that he can’t simply get rid of it, it then becomes a question of merely controlling it, by stopping the external war when it is still under control; and of managing it, by limiting its manifestations to predictable avenues.

Eris Apple.jpeg
Eris and the apple. 470 BC.

Yet, according to Aristotle, politics is what begins when civil war ends. It serves to reason then, that if civil war never “ends,” political life as the West has imagined it never truly began either. This would amount to saying that all the relations —between oikos and polis, between civil war and external war, and between disease and health— above must be reimagined and rethought. It is our task to uncover how the Greeks managed to confine stasis and construct an image of this ideal political life.

At this early stage of the banishment of civil war, the maneuver was quite transparent and intentional: after banishing the Thirty from the city, the democrats returned victoriously to their city armed with a ban and an oath. Their ban stated: me mnesikakein, “it is forbidden to recall the misfortunes.” The oath: ou mnesikakeso, “I shall not recall the misfortunes.” The “misfortunes” of the ban and the oath was the stasis of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, the division of the city between the oligarchs and the democrats, where no-one could be neutral, citizens threatened the political order, colonies rose in rebellion, women threw stones from rooftops, and slaves left their homes.

The prerequisite to civic life in the newly conquered city was to take the oath not to recall the past and its betrayals, its confusions, and its sadness. The banning of remembrance was nothing new to Athens, and it should be pointed out that its application was quite concrete. They were ready to enforce punishments if necessary. Herodotus records that, in the beginning of the 5th century, when the playwright Phrynichus staged a drama on the recent capture of Miletus by the Persians, “the whole theater burst into tears; and the people sentenced him to pay a fine of a thousand drachmas, for recalling to them their own misfortunes. They likewise made a law that no one should ever again exhibit that piece.” Aristotle later records that, after the ban on memory following the expulsion of the Thirty, at least one democrat continued to “recall the misfortunes.” The moderate leader Archinus then found it necessary to bring this democrat, whose name has been lost to history, before the council and put him to death.

“To not recall” does not make an absence. The democrats made forgetting the necessary prerequisite to political harmony, and in so doing, they placed the forgotten thing, civil war, at the very core and foundation of civic life. Far from casting civil war into the distant past as they hoped, the founders of politics constantly brought it to the fore as they fabricated their civic identity. Insofar as the citizen must first begin on that foundation of forgetfulness, they made civil war the most, or perhaps even the only, productive concept in the tradition of Western political thought, the one all the other require in order to have any concrete meaning. Far from “ending” war, the Athenians found themselves in eternal war with it: evading it, managing it, decrying it.

By all accounts, civil war was the original political experience in the West, the curious political tradition “obeying a law it doesn’t even know, but that it could recite in its sleep” (Joseph Goebbels). This is the matrix in which every “political” force must situate itself within to exist as such. The first act of naturalization occurs on the battlefield of memory. Prior to every discursive regime is a reorganization of the conflicts that preceded it. Democracy is the truth of the governmental paradigm in the West insofar as it attempts to neutralize all forms of civil war that are incompatible with it before it “properly” begins. After neutralizing the enemy, all effort must go towards forgetting that fact, and claiming to begin “as equals.” If we understand that “to banish,” “to exclude,” “to constitute,” and “to forget” all only make sense within the context of war, then democracy can be seen in its original light as a peculiar form of civil war that fights with exclusion and neutralization by means of their discursive opposites: “inclusion” and “active participation.” But it never truly manages to banish the thought, the “prevalent feeling, that, in a certain sense, the doom of Athens is already ours” (Herman Merivale).

In the Athenian ban against remembering civil war, the verb “mnesikakein” did not signify a recalling to oneself, but rather a recalling against. The verb requires the accusative object. The ban was not so much on “bringing civil war into your memory,” rather, the ban was more precisely on “using memory as a weapon.” 

We must learn to wield memory like a weapon in this hostile terrain of forgetfulness.

Civil war as pathology

“The One is always in revolt against itself” -Gregory of Nazianzus

When the economy isn’t doing so well, we say it is “crippled.” When it is doing well, that means it is “healthy.” When politicians propose to fund counter-terrorist programs, they cite the “plague of radicalism” taking root. At the same time, when doctors and researchers spend more time on looking for cures or treatments for a new disease, they have “declared war” on it. Why are politicians and economists talking like doctors, and doctors talking like generals?

Crusaders line
Children “crusaders” against tuberculosis were instructed to educate others about how to prevent the disease. Most important was “not to spit” and to maintain good hygienic practices. 1920s.

The mixture of epidemiology and politics (of treating political problems like medical ones, and medical ones like political ones) goes back to the very beginning of Western politics and has remained ingrained in our language. “The art of legislation is but the art of healing practiced upon a large scale,” wrote Jeremy Bentham, “It is the common endeavor of both to relieve men from the miseries of life. But the physician relieves them one by one; the legislator by millions at a time.” Not that long after him, one of the first modern men of medicine, Rudolf Virchow, would say that “Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine at a larger scale”

Stasis and civil war are the concepts around which this mixture of medicine and politics coalesces. Stasis, in addition to its connection with stability and civil war, also meant “disease.” It actually still survives today as a term for diseases or infections in medical expressions like “stasis of the blood.” In the ancient world, this meaning was often applied as a metonym for civil war where the seditious factions would be understood as a “disease that befalls the city.” In both its political meaning and its medical meaning, stasis here is understood as that which destabilizes the unity of a body, or that which scrambles or halts the circulation between the parts of a body. But groups of people aren’t literally a body, and they can’t actually have a disease. What are the implications then of imagining that the political can be imbued with a disease? Carl Schmitt, who believes that the outsider or the foreigner is the true political enemy believes that “stasis is a self-laceration… it is the dissolution of the state as an organized political entity, internally peaceful, territorially enclosed, and impenetrable to aliens.” How will it influence political action when political unity is said to be infected with a disease it can’t do away with, a disease which operates like a question mark to all clean notions of internal unity and external antagonism?

crusader against consumption.jpeg
A “crusader against consumption.” 1920s.

If a political problem like civil war or stasis could be seen as a disease, it’s because the civilian population as a whole could be conceived as a functioning body. It was not at all problematic for the Greeks to think of the city as a subject. Aristotle, for example, does not feel the need to explain to his audience how he can attribute desire to a city when he writes “the city desires to be composed, as far as possible, of equals.”

Likewise, when Greeks would refer to stasis, they would more often say the citizens were “fighting themselves” rather than “fighting each other.” Any attack on the city is reflexive: the citizen harms himself. This leads us into Plato’s Republic, where an unstable correspondence and relationship is set up between the individual citizen and the city. A series of reversals in the text makes any simple or temporal relationship impossible. At some points, he refers to “polis kai idiotes” or “city and individual,” granting each their own simple existence and implying a relationship of participation. Of course, we think, it must be so. Even Socrates seems to agree. “Do you suppose,” he asks, “that constitutions spring from the proverbial oak or rock and not from the character of the citizens?” And even more emphatically: “it would be absurd to suppose that the element of high spirit was not derived in states from the private citizen [idiotai].” The citizen gives birth to the city and it emerges from him. But the citizen is not just the beginning of the city, he is also the end, for the city must aim to be in a condition “most like that of an individual man.”

The city emerges, then, from the private citizen only to ultimately aim back towards him for a model. Simple enough, except that the opposite is simultaneously put forth. We are still far from liberal contract theories of the state. Here, the city becomes, in the same text, the paradigm and the end of the private citizen:

If we found some larger thing that contained justice and viewed it there, we should more easily discover its nature in the individual man. And we agreed this larger thing is the city, and so we constructed the best city in our power, well knowing that in the good city it would of course be found.

Here, “in a very Greek way,” writes Loraux, “the city gives meaning to everything. Thus, if we take Plato at his word, the whole Republic […] would constitute a simple prolegomenon to understanding the individual.” And just as the city is split by factions and threatened by civil war, so too is the individual citizen. The soul, like the city, becomes home to a variety of parties who threaten it from inside and out. Anger, reason, and the stimulation of outside objects are all presented as contentious parties in the same soul. And so, in the end of the Republic, Plato can say that the perfect city exists in the soul where harmony rules, but “make no mistake: if harmony rules, it is because Plato has firmly installed a kratos [a dominating force], that of reason, in the inner city of the soul” (Nicole Loraux).

When the body is threatened by conflict from within and the harmony is disrupted, this is called disease. And since neither the body nor the city come first, but rather emerge together and end together, disease was used to refer to perceived dysfunctions and disharmonies of the city. Stasis becomes, then, a disease, and, like a disease, it needs to either be eradicated or managed. This relation was probably more fluid than ever in the 5th century, since, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, around 426 BCE, Athens was beset by the plague while its citizens took refuge from the Spartans behind city walls. Present day commentators and historians of medicine have had particular difficulty diagnosing the plague described by Thucydides, so much so that attempts to identify the plague with a modern disease was said to be “at best seriously inadequate, at worst meaningless” (Poole and Holiday). The modern epidemiologist is disturbed by the fluidity in his account between the disease and what he would consider its separate social and political effects. After prayer did not heal the disease, many turned away from organized religion. With Thucydides, this breakdown of belief is presented as a symptom of the disease and not a social consequence. Thucydides does not make a clean distinction between the breakdown of the body and any social breakdown that potentially occurs. Both are referred to as elements of a “disease.” Health management for the earliest democracy was already political management, and political management was already seen as health management.

Although they may be disturbed by Thucydides’ frankness in maintaining a spectrum between physiological and political health, the founding texts of modern science and medicine were not able to escape such a spectrum. Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological historicizes that very spectrum in the works of the scientists, physiologists, and philosophers who variously claimed to have achieved an “objective” or “purely scientific” conception of disease. He begins by describing two tendencies in the history of medicine and its relation to disease: one is localizing, the other dynamic. The localization tendency holds it as a truism that “in order to act, it is necessary to localize,” and has thus created a “vulgar hierarchy of diseases […] based on the extent to which symptoms can —or cannot— be readily localized, hence Parkinson’s disease is more a disease then thoracic shingles, which is, in turn, more so than boils.” Canguilhem traces the dynamic understanding of disease to the Greek Hippocratic tradition of medicine, which sees the body as a dynamic totality, characterized by its own internal harmony and equilibrium. The disturbance of this harmony is disease, and it is not present only in symptoms, but in the whole of the organic body. We’ve already pointed out the problematic nature of this harmony. Both interpretations metaphorically imagine disease as a polemical force: “either a battle between the organism and a foreign substance, or an internal struggle between opposing forces.” (George Canguilhem) The Greeks at least were honest about one thing: that there is no quantitative or absolute measure of health and sickness. Thucydides, for instance, equated disease of the body with stasis in the city without hesitation. Admitting of the qualitative measure of disease means exposing your notion of health and normality to its historical environment, and thus to contingency, decay, and rupture.

Canguilhem then gives the reader some examples of this attempt to establish the quantitative and objective criterion for normality from 19th century medical writing. Auguste Comte was one of many writers who have tried to equate disease and health by making the former merely a quantitative diversion from a norm. He found the idea of the identity of health and disease in the work of the physician François-Joseph-Victor Broussais noting that “[u]ntil Broussais, the pathological state obeyed laws completely different from those governing the normal state, so that the exploration of one could have no effect on the other. Broussais established that the phenomena of disease coincided essentially with those of health from which they differed only in terms of intensity.” There were thus therapeutic benefits to making such an equalization: if they are merely measures of degree, then studying a diseased man can tell us about how normal men’s bodies function. We can measure normality by measuring the deviance of the diseased body. Such a method is laden with problems. For one, he was not a physician and provided no specific medical examples to illustrate his point. Second, he claims that pathological phenomena are merely an intensive divergence from the “norm” of health, but he provides no tools or criterion with which to establish what that “normal” state is or how one could identify it.

And, further, “when it comes to defining the limits of pathological or experimental disturbances compatible with the existence of organisms, Comte identifies these limits with those of a ‘harmony of distinct influences, those exterior as well as interior’” (Canguilhem). Now we can see how he actually centers his discourse. By linking health or the natural/normal state to the concept of “harmony,” he is showing that, although there may be quantitative traits discovered after the positing of a center with which to establish those quantities, the center itself, harmony, is a qualitative term based on his interpretation of a specific norm of existence. His supposedly quantitative terms are also more aesthetic and political than scientific:

the vagueness of the notions of excess and deficiency and their implicit qualitative and normative character is even more noticeable, scarcely hidden under their metrical pretensions. Excess or deficiency exist in relation to a scale deemed valid and suitable —hence in relation to a norm. […]This normal or physiological state is no longer simply a disposition which can be revealed and explained as a fact, but a manifestation of an attachment to some value.

Most importantly for us, Comte, after establishing the objectivity and truth of his notion of pathology, assures us that it will be of great use for political actors and theorists:

In the general system of positive education, besides its direct usefulness for biological problems this principle will be an appropriate logical preparation for analogous procedures in any science. […] I do not hesitate to state that Broussais’s principle must be extended to this point and I have often applied it to confirm or perfect sociological laws. But the analysis of revolutions could not illuminate the positive study of society without the logical initiation resulting, in this respect, from the simplest cases presented by biology.

Comte wants to have it both ways by simultaneously laying out the “objective criterion” for medical notions of disease while also “scientifically” creating a political science of the “normal” state. A revolution, like a disease, does not really alter or change anything, but is rather merely an excess that needs to be treated with political therapy to return back to the normal harmony.

We’ve noted that Comte was not a clinician or a physician, but the problem with establishing a “really objective basis” for disease does not disappear in the work of those with actual experience. Claude Bernard, the celebrated physician of 19th century France, is the next writer whose notions of health and disease are highlighted by Canguilhem. Bernard writes

In reality, between these two modes of being [health and disease], there are only differences of degree: exaggeration, disproportion, discordance of normal phenomena constitute the diseased state. There is no case where disease would have produced new conditions, a complete change of scene, some new and special products.

Canguilhem points out first that there are in fact cases where a new quality does appear in the body in the case of a “disease.” For example, he points to the presence of sugar in the urine of the diabetic making it qualitatively different from urine with no sugar at all. He also highlights the fact that the quantitative notions being utilized here by Bernard as scientific measures are all qualitative, and make sense only in relation to a norm invested with value. Dis-proportion and dis-cordance obviously imply that one begin with a non-controversial and positive notion of what good proportion and equilibrium are from which one could measure the negative deviation. But, Canguilhem explains, if one establishes a continuity between health and disease, divided into small intervals of degree, as Bernard does, one effectively erases both health and disease. If the extremes are “perfect health” and “disease,” then that can only mean that all people are sick, or else that nobody is sick. So, again, there is no objective state of perfect health, and even the practitioner must always have a point of view from which to judge what is normal and pathological. There is no concept of health that is not also a value statement, or, in other words, “the concept of health is not one of existence, but of a norm whose function and value is to be brought into contact with existence in order to stimulate modification.”

A number of other issues face the “scientific” perspective of disease: individual variation, the lack of a stable average, cultural and geographical variation, and a lack of accounting for the qualitative experiences of the body undergoing changes in an environment. Just as the normal has no existence outside of the normalizing relation with that which is called abnormal, so to does health exist only in relation to disease. Disease is experientially first, in that health would be unnoticed and meaningless if it was all life experienced all times. In this sense, health requires disease in order to have something to overcome and be experienced as such. The criminalization and demonization of sickness and disease —the attempt to banish it and prevent it from the body like a civil war from the city— does not eradicate sickness, but ultimately destroys life. Life is normative —we don’t deny that— in that one produces norms in the vital practice of living in constant balance with disease. It is when one fixes on a single notion of health, one based on the abstraction of an image of health and then the purported expulsion of disease that health as the experience of hardship and breakthrough morphs into health as constant management. For the managers of social health, disease is not an experience or a passage but a mistake, an error of nature to be corrected. The civilized laugh at the savage who uses magic to conjure away the inevitable experience of negativity while they seek every assurance against the threat of the disease that surrounds them at all sides.

What is so disturbing about stasis, then, and why did the Athenian democrats put so much effort into forgetting it? How is stasis a disease in the political body? We will see this persistent medical discourse pop up again and again in the course of our investigation. The way one approaches this disease will form part of their strategy of civil war. For those obsessed with order, with clean divisions, with consensus and purity, the disease of civil war is something to be expunged, eradicated. But it keeps on appearing. It’s a losing battle. Some will continue on in fury, burning infections and cutting off infected limbs, but signs of the infection keep coming back. The adversary, the deviant, has appeared again and again as diseased, mentally ill, sick. The purists will cut off the tumors, self-medicate and manage their precarious health with no end in sight. Such is their infernal harmony. The disease of civil war affects all bodies and their bodies of discourse. A simple question, even a questioning look, can be a mark of a disease.

We, on the other hand, believe no person is objectively diseased, that no one even “has” disease, for all experience both disease and health at all times. We live by the idea that they require each other to be experienced at all. We accept our restless repose, the impossibility of completion, as the beginning of a prospect — a prospect of friendship.

“Beyond their nature”

“The women also joined in the fighting with great daring, hurling down tiles from the rooftops and standing up to the tumult with a courage beyond their nature -Thucydides

“[T]he moment that civil order breaks down, women arise […] When civil war rages, the women erupt, often in a group, into the breach that has been opened in this fine totality” -Nicole Loraux

If one were to casually read the works of the ancient philosophers and historians, one might be led to believe that at the dawn of democracy, only the men walked the city streets. Well, not all men. Only Greeks. And yet not just any Greek, only adult, free Greeks. It isn’t that there weren’t any children, any women, any slaves, or any foreigners —in fact, historians agree that these groups drastically outnumbered the free men— nor is it the case that they were all confined in various hidden places and never emerged into the public sphere. And yet their existence takes on a preeminently private representation. What could these people, if anything, have in common?

In order to understand the roles of the woman and the slave in the Greek world, one must see them in the light of the distinction made between the oikos (the household) and the polis (the city). Although the Greeks are credited with creating and passing down a democracy of autonomous citizens, they actually passed down two complementary concepts of government that correspond with two fundamentally different concepts of who or what is human: autonomy and heteronomy, or self-government and the government of others. When we use that word “other,” we mean those who have been thought of as truly “other” on an ontological level (i.e. not human, subhuman, incomplete, or defective) and not merely those who have different attributes or come from different geographical regions. When we say “on an ontological level,” we are saying that the discourses that assign the characteristics and limits of life itself characterized these groups in such a way that they were closer to objects or animals than what we would call “human.”

Autonomy in Athens was called democracy —  and sometimes oligarchy —  while heteronomy took place in the oikos (the household) or else in the colony. The dogma of the political thinkers of the 5th century and onward would have it that it is a defining feature of politically qualified life, of the political citizen, that the life of the oikos (household, private life, necessities of life, “economics”) has been segregated from public life and qualitatively distinguished from the polis (city-state, public sphere, political sphere). In Solon’s law, to not take a side in stasis, or civil war, means more specifically that one will be banished to the oikos, to the household, the private sphere, and will then cease to be “political.” They will become an “idiot,” the Greek term for someone who only has a private life —including, let us remind you, slaves, women, and children— from which we derive our derogatory term. Hence there is a strict division between the two forms of governance, although the former could not materially function without the latter.

It is important to stress that autonomy and heteronomy were considered two parts of the same form of government and not contradictory. When historians act baffled by the fact that the American government could simultaneously glorify the ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice while also being one of the largest slaveholding nations in the world, they are ignoring the fact that this coexistence of heteronomy and autonomy reaches back to the origins of Western politics. They forget that when partisans of democracy speak of the “liberty” of men, they have already decided beforehand who qualifies as a man and who does not. They always have in mind those cretins who are not men, but criminals, slaves, weaklings, women, psychos, perverts, retards, and idiots who need to be managed. Slaveholders or other household managers speaking of freedom is not an aberration, it is a requisite feature of democracy. Indeed, the first freedom of democracy is the freedom of qualified individuals to manage their inferiors. More than that, managing your household is a necessary prerequisite to being an autonomous citizen. “The state” according to Aristotle, is nothing other than a collectivity of “households.” One could define “citizen,” then, as “one who has proven himself capable of participating in equal decision based on their ability to manage the objects [slaves, children, women, animals, property] of their household.”

It is especially important to distinguish the household from our familial notions of “home.” The household is not a family unit. Historically, a “household” may or may not contain actual blood—related families. This conflation of the household with blood relation comes from the misunderstanding of the Latin familia, which was ruled over by the paterfamilia. Familia is nothing other than a household, an oikos, and calling it a “family” in terms of blood relation is misleading and anachronistic. Patriarchal (from patriarcha) power, or domestic power, is the power of the head of a household over the household. The origins of patriarchal or domestic power do not lie in blood or kinship. This power does not develop from some primordial power of the father over the son, or the husband over the wife that just exists. That is the myth of the patriarchs. Since its origins, patriarchal power has extended over the household: servants, slaves, wives, sons, animals, property. In terms of their being, these things are the same (they are considered only as things). They are defined by their being manageable objects of the household. In terms of their functional relation, they most definitely differ.

The household is generally be divided into three basic forms of human relation: the “despotic” relation of the master and his slaves (the despot is the head of a household); the “paternal” relations of a father and his children; and the “gamic” relations between husband and his wife. But it should be emphasized that the management of the objects of the household is not seen as essentially different, but merely functionally different, in that it requires a different kind of management. Household rule is not “anti-human” or “immoral,” it is ahuman and amoral. These “economic” (oikonomia) relations are those concerned solely with the procurement of the essentials pertaining to beings legally and ontologically considered only as biological life. These essentials are also called their “welfare.” The Roman paterfamilias, the head of the Roman household, was, for example, only legally permitted to discipline the members of the household when their activity was perceived to disrupt the administration of the welfare of the members. In the household, the head has at his disposal everything in his household to increase the welfare of those inside. “These instruments are of various sorts,” according to Aristotle, “some are living, others lifeless.” Household management is resource management and is not concerned with a subject’s political capacities.

So, if one accounts for slaves or women, there appears to be two forms of history in the West: one that lurches forward with the great deeds and decisions of men —free men— and one which recounts the familiarity of the city’s rituals, its relations, and its households. Two cities in one. The thought didn’t escape the Greeks. In the Iliad, Hephaestus reproduces two cities on Achilles’s shield. In the first city, a wedding ties the man and the woman, and a trial the man to the collectivity; in the other, an army attacks at the gates. In the first, the city recounts its own daily life and the practices that allow it to reproduce itself in the smooth aeon, the always renewed eternity. It is a way of thinking that assigns the correct places to all social manifestations, tied by marriage, by religion, or by discourses that reproduce the classic Greek “types:” Man and Woman, Adult and Child, Slave and Freeman, Citizen and Foreigner. The Woman will continue to reproduce the men who will make political decisions, and more women to make more men; the slaves will continue to tend to the animals, to cook, to take care of the household; the children will attend to the same requirements, learn the same stories, go through the same processes. Why does nothing happen? How do these types maintain their regularity? Well, events do take place, and changes occur, but not there, not in those practices. The men live in both cities: they not only recount these rituals, they recount their deeds in the assembly and at war, where they affect the world politically, where they change it rather than merely recreate it. For the Greeks, everything else was in the aeon, where events happened again and again in a regular way, without friction, without force.

Despite this representation, the reduction of a body to mere economic behavior is itself a political operation and often requires a great complex machinery of coercion. Historically, the administration of these life-processes is carried out in accordance with ephocally variable conceptions of “natural hierarchy” based on age, gender, and degree of civility; what is considered a “necessary” part of life; and what is considered “cyclical” or eternal. The despotism of household rule can appear as the direct use of force as in a feudal manor, concentration camp, or the classical household; it can be indirect as in the use of local leaders to establish order in colonized territories; or it can be the “no-man’s-rule” of tentacular bureaucracy and technocracy. These heterogeneous relations do not form a system of laws or a science (though they will claim to be both), but are concerned with the functional order of the different part of the oikos, the household, in maintaining stable relations. This is why the textual history of household governance is so spotty. Aristotle is one of the few who attempts an explanation of the type expected by what we would consider a “political power.” Political power requires a principle of legitimation: consent, contract, even force, and thus political tracts are generally concerned with setting one of these as the legitimate origin of political power.

But the texts concerning household rule read more like manuals for householders. Neither the Oikonomia of Pseudo-Aristotle and the Oikonomikos of Xenophon, two of the earliest of such texts, are concerned with justifying household rule nor with discovering its true origin, but rather with discussing the principles of its smooth order and discipline. “Oikonomia” says Pseudo-Aristotle, “tells us first how to acquire a household and then how to conduct its affairs.” This textual tradition will live on in the plantation manuals of the American South for managing slaves, in counterinsurgency manuals for managing insurgent populations, in monastic manuals, and finally in police conduct manuals. Consistent throughout all domestic relations is the emphasis on order. It is this practice of maintaining and administering the life of the household in a patterned and ordered fashion that is called oikonomia, management of the household, from which we derive “economic” (see Oikonomia). To organize an entire city using household administration as a model was considered by the ancient Greeks to be a form of “Oriental despotism.” The main task of this administrative kind of government is not to rear the overbearing paternal head of repressive violence, but rather to share calculated amounts of the nourishing power that feeds you, tends to you, assuring you all the while that without it, you would die. In other words, this power produces its objects as those beings which only exist because the managerial householder “lets” them. When we hear “government services,” we must not understand by that a government whose task it is to serve, but rather services whose task it is to govern.

There is at least one field where women and slaves emerge from the circularity and rituals of binding and reproduction that tie them to the city: stasis or civil war. When stasis is mentioned, suddenly women appear outside of the household, throwing stones or hurling insults at the enemy. Twice in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war, the “household objects” appear in a new light, first “in a terrible tumult,” the women and slaves “shouted and cried from the houses, at the same time hurling stones and tiles down upon them;” then, in another city, the women “boldly assisted the people” by “hurling tiles from the tops of houses” and acting “beyond their nature” to “face the tumult.” Why is it necessary to make a differentiation between the “people” (demos) and the women? Because the demos, the “people,” which means the citizens here, does not include those who need to be managed by householding male citizens. They are not people, but objects of household management. This has been the blindspot of liberal historians who denounce the contradiction between the ideals of liberty, equality, and freedom and the practices of slavery and domestic authority. They have failed to see that “people” was never intended to represent “all the people insofar as they are biologically human,” but those qualified as people according to their capacity to be a part of political processes. The “people” of the founding documents of this country likewise were not intended to represent those cast as criminals, the insane, women, children, and, in this case specifically black slaves and natives. “Democracy” itself, from demos-kratia, means the “domination of the people,” specifically over and against another “people.” The demos was never “all people.” For Athens, it meant simply “the democrats and their property.” For the Founding Fathers, it meant property-owning white men. When historians say that democracy ideally represents all people, and has been progressing towards this reality, they have failed to historicize ontology, and instead recast history in the light of the idea of the modern sovereign individual.

Thetis, a goddess who transforms into different forms (the lion is portrayed here), is wrestled and held fast in her woman form by Peleus so that he can marry her. (~470 BC, Terracotta)

The question about the liberty and individuality of household objects, or the question concerning the supposed contradiction between liberal theories of liberty and the objecthood of slavery, isn’t even new. Aristotle already asked and answered it over two millennia in the past:

Is any one intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a matter not only necessary, but expedient; from the moment of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule….Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind […] And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life. Nature tends to distinguish between the bodies of freemen and slaves, making the one strong for servile labor, the other upright, and although useless for such services, useful for political life in the arts both of war and peace […] There is a slave or slavery by law as well as by nature. The law of which I speak is a sort of convention —the law by which whatever is taken in war is supposed to belong to the victors. […] Even among philosophers there is a difference of opinion. The origin of the dispute, and what makes the views invade each other’s territory, is as follows: in some sense virtue, when furnished with means, has actually the greatest power of exercising force; and as superior power is only found where there is superior excellence of some kind, power seems to imply virtue, and the dispute to be simply one about justice (for it is due to one party identifying justice with goodwill while the other identifies it with the mere rule of the stronger). If these views are thus set out separately, the other views have no force or plausibility against the view that the superior in virtue ought to rule, or be master. Others, clinging, as they think, simply to a principle of justice (for law and custom are a sort of justice), assume that slavery in accordance with the custom of war is justified by law, but at the same moment they deny this. For what if the cause of the war be unjust? And again, no one would ever say he is a slave who is unworthy to be a slave. Were this the case, men of the highest rank would be slaves and the children of slaves if they or their parents chance to have been taken captive and sold. Wherefore Hellenes do not like to call Hellenes slaves, but confine the term to barbarians. Yet, in using this language, they really mean the natural slave of whom we spoke at first; for it must be admitted that some are slaves everywhere, others nowhere.

Since the beginning of the domestic power in the West, there has been a “scientific” and political rationale explaining both its necessity and naturality. Even here, at the beginning of democracy, we see that they did not at all assert that “might makes right” universally as the ancients are supposed to have believed. Aristotle directly refutes this. For him and other Athenians, a slave was not an equal individual who was only a slave because a more powerful individual had conquered him. Rather, it has always been assumed in the West that some “by nature” are intended to serve, and others to assert political power. Herodotus recorded a popular and paradigmatic myth on the “naturality” of slavery. According to his version, the Scythians invaded Medes in the 6th century, and stayed there for 26 years. The men left, and when they returned they found that their wives and the slaves they left behind had children and these slaves, with their new sons, were ready to fight the fathers for control. The Scythians fought a long war, but one day realized that by using weapons, they were sending a message to the slaves and their children that they were fighting as equals. The Scythians then put down their arms and picked up whips, after which the slave army understood that they were slaves and fell into line.

This has not changed. It has only become more complicated. As long as democratic power continues to exist, every “progressive” move that seems to be chipping away at the existence of hegemonic masses who are incapable of participating in politics (i.e. women, black people, immigrants, the disabled) coincides with an expansion of the vague categories of “criminals,” “crazies,” and “social deviants” who are obviously not capable of participating in any way. The abolishment of slavery, for example, coincided with the more fluid and vague power of producing objects of management by criminalizing them. This transition was written into the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The “slave” was functionally replaced by the “criminal.” The objects of household management have not disappeared. Instead, they have exploded as stable masses into a huge variety of fluid social deviances, marked by shifting signs of deficiency and the equally fluid mechanisms of correction that accompany them.

The slave plantations depoliticized the body of the slave by treating it as a “natural object” in need of outside management; Nat Turner’s rebellion was the reemergence of a dormant, but not dead, political capacity. This capacity is unstable by definition, and generally, the more confined it is, the more explosive its resurgence. When Solon banned those who did not participate in civil war to the household, he was banishing them to the mere administration of their life processes: to depoliticized existence, a life worse than death for many. The banishment to the household depoliticizes insofar as in the household, every subject is pre-defined, and their contact with one another unfolds according to the efficiency of management techniques. But even household space couldn’t be entirely free of conflict or the possibility of civil war. Its emergence isn’t always as heroic as a slave insurrection: hysterics, depression, laziness, and avoidance should also be understood as the expression of political capacities of resistance to household management. Much of the writing on domestic government concerns itself with the management of unruly subjects, the quelling of slave revolts, with reinstituting submission through consensus machinery or direct force and the manipulation of access to life’s vital needs, if necessary. Economic power, the power of household management, is said to be an “art” or even a “science,” whereas politics must always be something decided by the actors, and thus could never comprise a closed “art.” The greatest ideal of the domestic kind of power, on the other hand, is order, not law, and anything is permitted to maintain it.

Stasis thus functions as the limit — albeit the one the new “political” thinkers were anxious to bury — that defines the possibility of political experience. To state this all more explicitly: stasis, and the network of reactions to it, mark the limits of the political, the economic, and their distinction from one another. Greek political thinkers asserted that there was no possible mobility between the objects of the oikos and the subjects of the city. No mobility, except in the case of civil war. Suddenly men who did not participate in stasis became objects of household management, and women and slaves acquired a — brief, for the most part — role in politically shaping the city. Politics, for the West, is thus the sphere defined by the spectrum Objects-of-management Political-being. Stasis is the only process that allows beings to move across or disrupt this ontological spectrum, which is why it was conceived to be both necessary and threatening for the entire social order.

The householding men require the possibility of stasis in order to fabricate their status. Afterwards, all effort must go into defining the position of stasis in such a way that it would not reoccur. Then they can go about classifying the others who need now to be managed, and the organic quality of such management, to prevent such a recurrence. Neither the city nor the family and bonds of kinship could possibly represent a “substance” of politics. The political has no center, no substance, no central truth. The political is the name we give to a field traversed by relations of conflicts and transformations marked by irresolvable tensions. The Greeks, being unable to resolve these tensions, will be the first to develop the West’s particular ethic of civil war: managing it, primarily at the level of its representation.

The operative destabilization in remembering stasis works to complicate the classist and racist understandings of history by reintroducing the conflicts, choices, and antagonistic elective associations that the teller of these histories has tried to exclude back into circulation. Stasis is not identifiable with class war nor race war, nor any history that presents a subject moving in a linear way through time. It acts as an operative disorder when introduced into any binary exposition of world history. It would be entirely possible to talk about how stasis undermines the different workerist movements’ attempts at internal unification. Nicole Loraux expressed surprise that “stasis introduces disorder, and suddenly, in Thucydides account of the events of 427 B.C at Corcyra, women and slaves, usually forgotten in such narratives, slip through the crack thus opened and are fighting alongside the popular party… Here we see women, usually confined to the house, climbing up on roofs and slaves serving as comrades in arms.” Stasis changes the political relation between legitimate political actors but in unauthorized ways and mixtures, or it politicizes previously non-political actors like slaves. The fact that slaves as a whole or in a broad region have rarely organized in a coherent way against their condition as slaves or the existence of slavery is essential in this regard.

This is not at all to say that there was no resistance against the master. There is evidence of resistance in every slave society. Although the literature on slavery is sparse, it is telling that the Greeks considered the obedient slave a blessing. References to slaves in literature often make use of the “lazy slave” and “disobedient slave” tropes, ready to betray their masters at the first opportunity. In Rome, the fear of slaves lashing out or attacking their masters dictated decision-making about them. For instance, one law demanded the death of everyone in the familia should the paterfamilia be murdered by a slave, in case the other slaves would learn disobedience from this act. Further, Rome, like the American South, had a system for identifying and catching fugitive slaves, which of course implies that it was a big enough problem to organize a force like this. According to Moses I. Finley,

we have material remains of instruments devised to prevent flight, such as chains and metal collars. Slaveowners did not suffer such loss of property lightly. They sought help from friends and associates, they offered rewards by public advertisement, they consulted oracles, astrologers, and dream interpreters, they appealed to the public authorities and they engaged professional ‘slave-catchers’ (fugitivarii).

Maroons, or communities of runaway slaves, seem to have also existed in the ancient world. Cicero, then the governor of Cicilia, reported in 50 B.C.E that the town was “inhabited by people who have never given obedience, even to kings, which is shown by the fact that they regularly receive runaway slaves.” There were also tales of a slave named Drimacus, who may have lived in the 3rd century B.C.E, who escaped and led an organized rebellion against slave traders on the island before quickly signing a treaty allowing a certain amount of legal pilfering to prevent the uprising from spreading.

Although accounts of all these forms of resistance and rebellion exist, they were not considered by any recorded party to be the organized interests of the slaves, or of enslaved people. For Karl Marx and Jean-Pierre Vernant, the lack of a political or even a human identity in the slave prevented the development of a class consciousness. They were “living tools” and lacked even the most basic features of commonality: they spoke different languages, came from different regions, performed wildly different tasks, were treated with varying degrees of severity and benevolence, and lived in a variety of different social environments. Is it a surprise that slaves rarely unified as a single class against a single class of slaveowners? The principles of household management necessitates differentiating the treatment and management of one’s tools as much as possible in order to maximize the order and welfare of the household. This functional differentiation prevents the crystallization of clear social interests. The history of household management reveals a different set of fault lines of history —  not those between the classes, which, at a certain point of development, will clash (today, this seems farther than ever), but between the organization of the world by managerial practices and its failure and disruption in civil war. Frank Wilderson has argued that “from the coherence of civil society, the Black subject beckons with the incoherence of civil war.” We take this to mean that for those who have been defined by their being manageable objects of a household, there exists no pre-existent set of interests, which could be presented to civil society and bartered over. Rather, their transformation gestures toward the dissolution and breakdown of the household that defines their existence itself (or lack thereof). Their actions beckon toward civil war.

Stasis means that conflict and history are asymmetrical, and have no center to take shelter in. To think of history in terms of civil war and the reactions to it is to challenge the idea that there is a determinate or legitimate political sphere from which we must begin: “What characterized the Greek faction was that, unlike the tribal kinship unit or the modern parties, they were not corporate bodies. Thus though certain factions might have been rooted in the social ‘classes,’ the Greek staseis [factions or those who participate in a stasis] were not parties, and it is the fluidity and the ad-hoc character of the Greek faction which should be stressed” (Mosche Berent). Stasis is persistently local. Every site, every body, and every moment contains seditious potential. It is the breakdown of the universal into the partiality of the local. Even more than “challenging” claims of legitimacy and determination, arguing that conflict originally takes place within a civil war is to argue that those claims of legitimacy are themselves operative, that they are local acts of civil war themselves. Those who attempt to create a unified subject (the “proletariat,” the “99%,” “the human race”) to face off against “injustice” in the state or capitalism or whatever must first neutralize the difference that exists within that subject body. Such a group must manage the visible elements of the disease internal to its identity before it can appear as such.

77 kids.jpeg
The “Movement of 77” in Italy derived its power from the its inability to be unified, or, in other words, from its difference from itself. Rather than gather under one roof all the disparate interests, ideas, and dispositions, the workers, students, women, and dispossessed of Italian cities decided to pursue their visions in tandem without being afraid to come into conflict with one another. Pictured here are those who expelled Luciano Lama, a trade union leader close to the Italian Communist Party from the campus of the occupied Rome University.

Our point is not that we must “integrate” all of the “oppressed categories” of people into a greater subjectivity to create some mega-democracy. Within those supposed “categories” there are always the elements that must be suppressed before the “respectable” elements can be included in majority democratic discourse. Notions of peace and stability conceal the way in which disorder and instability were suppressed and managed. Though we have invoked the problematic categories of “black,” “woman,” “native,” and others, we do so with the understanding that in many situations these markers can bring about unauthorized contact, conflict, or reappraisals as symbolic or material forces of great power. In such matters, civil war implores one to think of all reversals simultaneously: femininity is a conflictual category with regards to patriarchal power, but it is itself subject to its own internal conflicts. If these are merely seen as inessential problems to the real ideal task at hand, the positive assertion of an identity construct (Woman) ceases to be a conflictual force and becomes a discursive tool for managing “minor” conflicts. Consensus smooths out conflict by integrating frozen features of these symbolic groups stripped of their real functional relations.

Lotte feminista
Lotta Feminista, 1977. The women of the “Movement of 77” often came into conflict with male workers or students.

In his book The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, James Boggs captures this double erasure perfectly. Early on, he lays out the way in which the worker’s organization, the union, left to circle around itself and closed to its own history, eventually became more interested in its own self-preservation through managing factory life than in subverting it. Boggs offers a wonderful exposition of black history up to the radicalism in the 60s that sacrifices nothing —  he emphasizes that the “Negro question” is not merely a “race issue” but includes “class, race, and nation.” “The working class has from the very beginning been divided” he states, and in so doing prevents the subordination of the race question to the class question, or vice-versa. It is not so simple that one could claim race was invented to divide the working class without questioning the existence of some pre-existing independent body like “the working class.” “The working class” is defined primarily by economic capacity and status. It is comprised of those who sell their labor. But in America, the division has existed since African slaves arrived on shore. Were African slaves ever a part of the “working class,” if their economic status was and forever has been fundamentally different from the masses of white wage workers since that arrival? For that matter, were those who participated in waged labor not fundamentally different from those who came as indentured servants? If so, then it is not correct to say that the primordial “working class” was divided by the capitalist class, but rather that the concept of “working class” attempts to unify groups who were already separate from one another. If, as Boggs states, the American nation acquired its wealth on “the backs of the Negroes,” then the situation confronting black people in America (even from this limited economic angle) is unique and must be dealt with as such. In other words, Boggs asserts that there is no “race question” in general, nor a “class question,” rather, it is a matter of how race and class have functioned historically and how they have taken on their own lives.

Boggs’ account of the radicalism of the 60s illustrates how consistently including conflicts and divisions allows one to avoid hypostatization and fictional centers. It is necessary to quote at length to capture the symphonic quality of his writing:

The sit-in movement started, astonishing Negroes who had migrated North in the belief that Southern Negroes would never rise up and fight for their rights […] Unlike any previous Negro movement, it aimed at creating the issue, provoking it […] Their movement created pandemonium in the whole apparatus of the Southern courts — local courts, appeals courts, and federal courts contradicted each other right and left, often in the presence of hundreds of Negroes who jammed the court-rooms. As the movement enlisted support and participation from thousands of white students on Southern and Northern campuses, pandemonium also began to be created in the relations of these youths to their parents. In 1961 the movement took on national scope with mixed groups of Freedom Riders converging on Deep South cities from both North and South […] Negro youth employed the non-violent tactics that had been evolved by Martin Luther King in the Montgomery boycott. These tactics were extremely effective insofar as they enabled the youth to take the initiative in a disciplined manner, achieve cooperation between white and Negro youth, and dramatize the realities of Southern justice […] the Black Muslims began to consolidate and multiply, attracting to their ranks hundreds of thousands of the lowest layers of Negro workers—domestic servants, the unemployed made expendable by automation, and outcasts from society in the prisons and hospitals. Through the militant black nationalist philosophy of the Muslims, these Negroes are now being rehabilitated and their social personalities liberated, but not for integration into this society […]”

The only party he really denigrates in this situation is the NAACP, which, according to Boggs, has “at this stage of the struggle has been by-passed by harsh realities . . . [just] like the union.” Boggs refuses to choose one group in which to invest his hopes and desires at the expense of the rest. But he goes even further than that.

There are others, like Malcolm X, for example, who recognize that there is difference, but ultimately argue that the movement “needs unity.” Often, there are calls to forget “petty differences” and to “come together when it really counts.” Of course, who decides “when it really counts” and what is “petty” depends on your idea of who is ultimately correct, and thus erases difference by framing it in terms of truth and falsity. By making it a matter of the true and false, the party means to assert that they have reached their conclusions emotionlessly (or with the exact right amount of passion, and only the right ones), objectively, and rationally, unlike those who act otherwise. The boycotters may have said that the rioters were divisive and ruining the unity, while a Marxist might have said the students did not have the correct ideology and thus were standing in the way of unification. Boggs refuses that kind of unity. He begins a wonderful passage by noting that “[a]ntagonisms among Negroes themselves have grown as debate and disagreement have sharpened over methods of struggle.” He does not see this as an inherently bad thing. He believes that these antagonisms should in no way be reduced to the needs of false democratic unity, but instead says that “Negroes have begun to realize that they will also have to fight Negroes before they win their freedom.” He concludes the piece by assuring the reader that for power to continue to grow, “It will be necessary for the many not only to fight the powerful few but to fight and clash among themselves as well.” Taking a cue from Boggs, we believe that every great majority inclusion of women, black people, or homosexuals that makes the setting aside of differences the basis of its inclusion requires first that one get rid of or isolate anyone who challenges the function of the democratic consensus itself, or who only understands a way of life that involves another way of speaking or acting. By saying so, we in no way intend to claim that admitting of civil war means denying the existence of patriarchal power or racism, it merely means that we must historicize and treat them as powers, as processes and physical restructuring projects that accompany every democratic movement big or small. The challenging of such powers does not come from one homogenous block, but from heterogenous understandings, groupings, and styles which do and will continue to come in conflict with one another.