On The Communism of Jean-Luc Nancy
22 June 2022
Community, Vicente Manansala; Image Credit: Wikiart
Daniel Tutt examines the relation between the current pandemic and what Jean-Luc Nancy calls our ‘being-in-common.’ As he articulates in his article, the Covid-19 virus has revealed the otherwise hidden class system of the global economy. The pandemic has also caused a seeming political paralysis on the left across the world, especially now as we face the precipice of a return to ‘business as usual’ with austerity policies and wealth inequality continuing to run amok. Tutt believes that in this collective political paralysis Nancy saw a form of solidarity and therefore any thinking of the individual must also confront the communism of collective existence, which he defines as the space in which individuals come to realize themselves in their true singularity.
The pandemic has thrown us into a tailspin and the impact that lockdown policies have had on our collective political life – aside from the obvious toll it has taken on our mental health – will live with us for generations. The late French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy saw in the pandemic a shift in our collective social life or what he called our “being-in-common.” Among the major philosophers of our time that weighed in on the pandemic, Nancy’s articles stood out as hopeful and optimistic. It is clear in these reflections that his philosophy of communism – a philosophical project he dedicated his life’s work to – was still deeply at the forefront of his thinking at the end of his life. Why did Nancy see in the pandemic a form of communism, what he named the “communovirus”? (1)
The lockdowns spurned on by the COVID-19 virus revealed the otherwise hidden class system of the global economy. Workers in service, shipping and other productive industries were responsible for keeping the global flow of commodities in circulation and they had to show up in-person to work each day. The professional classes moved to online work during this time, and many remain online even as the virus begins to seemingly wind down. The ruling class has benefited greatly from the pandemic and by some estimates they have already witnessed the single largest upward transfer of wealth in recent times. (2) This inequality only compounds the problem of global inequality which was already at levels that resemble the society prior to the French Revolution, even before COVID-19. But aside from the Black Lives Matter protests for racial justice during the early spring-summer of 2020, more radical forms of politics have been mostly absent.
In this context of seeming political paralysis, Nancy located a form of solidarity. The communism that Nancy speaks of is not the state communism of China, and nor is it exactly the communism of class struggle that Marxists place at the very center of praxis. Nancy’s communism is committed to the Marxist tradition insofar as it aims to think what he considers an unfinished aspect of Marxism, namely “the characteristic of the individual.” But this is not a theory of communist individualism (a term already invented and still now monopolized by the bourgeoisie). Nancy’s thought is concerned with how the individual can be thought as “incomparable, incommensurable and unassimilable – even to themselves.” (3)
He taught us that any thinking of the individual must also confront the communism of collective existence, which he defines as the space in which individuals come to realize themselves in their true singularity. This is a space of affect, feeling and fraternal relations. This is the space of a community in which existence is permitted a certain level of flourishing and free time to experience a more singular mode of becoming. This space is not, for Nancy, a question – at least directly – that concerns material goods and resources etc. It is rather a form of existence that can be thought and can be found in what he calls the “inoperative community.” The inoperative community is one in which collective existence derives a sense of uniqueness and singularity from its own work.
As Nancy writes in his classic work Inoperative Community (1991), “a community is not formed when a set of previously independent and self-sufficient beings unite and form a collective enterprise, as say, social contract theorists would have it.” (4) In order for the community to have an identity that is immanent to it, it needs to be brought out and put to work, which means that while the community is inoperative, it is also producible. Importantly, what the community produces is different than capitalist production. The inoperative community produces a subject that emerges from the space of its fraternity; a space where what it means to be real, effective, and to exist in a unique way is enacted and possible.
A New Theory of Fraternity
Nancy saw something in the panic and crisis of the pandemic; he saw an opening for collective existence. We should not neglect to think, despite the cynicism of our age and the bleakness of our future, that the political dynamics of the pandemic have afforded us the means to interact with this space of being that Nancy points our attention to. For a more common frame of reference, we can name this space of relation the fraternal dimension of politics. And we should never forget the collective demand of Fraternité from the French Revolution has remained a part of modern collective life; it has remained an unmet demand. Fraternity was captured and re-routed into transcendental and more total forms of expression historically, from the political party of fascist and communist parties to the nation that organized patriotic affects for war-making and imperialism. Fraternity has also been subjected to the law of what Nancy calls “general equivalence” in capitalism. Fraternity under capitalism does not exchange in the singularity of the individual that the inoperative community does, it rather forces singularity into a relation to a certain figure of community that envelops it entirely.
Part of the reason Nancy is optimistic about our age – despite all its seemingly powerless political potential and injustice – is that our age is one in which we have a grasp of the inoperative community perhaps more than in prior ages. In tandem with his philosophical partner Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe Nancy wrote, at the dawn of our neoliberal age, that the figures that used to capture fraternity or “the feeling of community” have all retreated. In this retreat, or what they call “the retreat of the political” – which can be read in a related way to the Fukuyamaist thesis of the “End of History” – Nancy identifies a new mode of expression for the fraternal space of collective existence. In Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe’s opening invocation to the Centre for Philosophical Research on the Political in 1980– a center dedicated to examining the question of the political in our time– they said the retreat of the political is not to be understood as a closure of the political, but as the retreat of every projection of community. (5) In the retreat of the political we thus witness a new form of being–in–common emerge that replaces the old essence of community.
Philosophically, this emphasis on existence of the community as preceding essence situates Nancy in the line of existential philosophy initiated by Sartre and his reading of Heidegger. Sartre’s famous maxim that “existence precedes essence” can be translated in Heidegger’s lingo to say: “the essence of dasein lies in its existence.” But the existence that Nancy articulates in his idea of the inoperative community is meant to convey the idea that one is unable to give oneself a ground, i.e., the essence of any community today recedes from existence if it is explicated as nature, idea, or as that which was to be, potential, or meaning. (6) It is existence itself, separate from identity and essence, that must be thought. But to add a twist to this philosophical analysis, he and Lacoue-Labarthe argue that existence does produce its own essence in what Nancy will call “being singular plural.”
Being singular plural refers to a form of relation in which each individual is different from one another such that in their non-relation, they come to define their commonness itself. In other words, in the absence of community as a total or transcendental form we now have an inability to think the “in” of the “in-common.” There is thus a communism of weakness of the common that is at play in Nancy’s philosophy and theory of communism. This is a subtle paradox at work here and Nancy’s use of the term ‘inoperative’ is meant to convey the idea that our shared existence cannot bring back the transcendental figures of the community that historically endowed the community with a metaphysical destiny.
One of the only ways to understand Nancy’s unique blend of left-Heideggerian ideas is to realize that his theory of community is based on a historical account of the retreat of the political; a retreat that means the way we come into relation, or what Heidegger called the mitsein (being-with) is now contemporaneous with dasein (existence). Because the essence of dasein is to exist “each time just this once as mine” the singular “mine” is itself already plural because “each time is simultaneously another time – each time makes a discrete relation of “me” to “me.” There is thus a freedom that comes in this form of relation which “withdraws being and offers relation.” (7) What ‘being in common’ means is that “being is that being that we share, it is a form of exchange within the community that is fundamentally different than capitalist exchange.” (8)
Importantly, an inoperative community does not mean that community is impotent; it simply means that it lacks a common work of being. Nancy says the inoperative community is empty because it “contains no subjects, it is idle, because it lacks an essence that can be put to work.” What this means for politics is significant:
If politics is again to mean something, and mean something new, it can only be in touching ‘this essentiality’ of existence – which is itself its own essence, that is to say, which has no essence, which is ‘arch-essentially’ exposed to that very thing – and of an exposure that in its structure and nature contains at the same time the finitude of all singularity and the in-common of its sharing. (9)
What lurks within this space where fraternity might come into a relation without a transcendental guarantee, without calling forth a project? This is the space of the fraternal and the originary space of communism. This is not the space of the political decision, of class struggle, or of revolution per se.
Being Singular Plural and Acid Communism
One way to think of the inoperative community is to think of it as analogous to what Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism project aimed to enact. Acid Communism refers to the unmet demands of the 60s and 70s counterculture, i.e., to the demands for a “revolution of everyday life” and the necessary relations of care, joy and art that must accompany political activity on the left. There is a lot of similarity in Fisher’s vision of a revisitation of that more nurturing space where the left can experiment with living that Nancy’s theory of communism as being singular plural also shares. Acid Communism sought to balance this commitment to the weirdness of left community building but to retain an equal commitment “Leninist asceticism” at the same time. Nancy’s philosophy of community helps us to see how these two tendencies of political organization on the left – militant agitation and struggle and patient culture – building and care-based experimentation in-common – must be thought together.
Nancy writes: “before all else we are in common. Then we must become what we are: the given is an exigency, and this exigency is infinite.” (10) The communist demand in Nancy’s thought issues from singular plural being itself, thus any thinking of a political event, rupture, or even of a revolutionary political community must be thought of from this position. As we hinted at above, this is an originary ontological communism in the sense that its mode of exchange is an exchange that defies the reigning capitalist form of exchange which operates on a system of ‘universal exchangeability.’ Nancy defines capitalism as “any society that takes the decision that value is in equivalence.” (11) Capitalist ontology has two types of incommensurability: one with the ‘other’ and one with the ‘with.’ What is demanded in both instances is always “an effective equality of the unique and incommensurable emergence of a singularity that is not measurable in terms of any signification fraternity understood as the act of tying the act of appropriating and interweaving that, as such, has no sense but gives place to every event of sense.” (12)
Singular plural being resist capitalism’s general equivalence because it does not circulate value as a “general equivalent.” It is a form of relation to value that circulates value as incommensurable, and this incommensurability cannot be taken back up into a representation. From Nancy’s perspective, capitalism deprives existence from experiencing this inaugural relation to freedom that the inoperative community opens, i.e., capitalist community “alienates by self-appropriating social Being.” (13)
Only an ontological communism can resist dissolving into capitalism’s general equivalence; only an ontological communism can challenge the atomized ontology of general equivalence. (14)
If this sounds abstract and difficult to pinpoint, that is because the theory of community Nancy presents is not meant to be a sociological category or theory. Nancy is articulating a philosophy that begins from Rousseau to Marx and on to Heidegger who constituted the fact of the existence of the community – which is our contemporary problem – when he said that being-with is the same as being-there. (15)
As a left-Heideggerian, Nancy argued that we must think “absolutely, and without reserve, beginning with the “with” as the proper essence of one whose Being is nothing other than with–one–another.” (16) The retreat of the political is simply the laying bare of being-with and a “re-opening of the space of inaugural sharing”; (17) it is a space of fraternity that presents to being a fundamental equality founded in the sharing of the incommensurable itself. What makes beings free is the freedom that exposes them to one another, and what they are in this exposure. (18) Nancy will speak of this zone of fraternity as the “pre–ontological basis of society” which affords us a “knowledge about Being,” but “not the particular regions of being, or social being.” (19)
A Different Politics of the Decision
How does politics relate to this zone of being? Nancy says the political is the place of the in-common as such, or rather; it is the place he calls “being-together.” The political is brought about through a decision, but a decision that is far different than the “friend-enemy” decision that founds the political in the tradition opened by Carl Schmitt. The decision in Nancy’s philosophy is not built around the establishment of a new sovereignty or social contract, but rather, a decision is fundamentally tied into “existence as such, and existence, inasmuch as it does not take place for one alone or for two but for many, decides itself as a certain in of the in-common.” (20) Decision consists precisely in what we have to decide on, in and for our world, and thus any political decision is a decision on the “we,” on who “we” are, on how we can say “we:” and can call ourselves we – and this “we” is forged in the fraternity of ontological communism.
As the interpreter and translator of Nancy, Christopher Watkin has argued, Nancy’s sense of justice is also far different than liberal ideals of justice. For Nancy, justice is a certain sense that emerges from the fraternal relation of being, this “sense would be an infinite and incommensurate dimension of singular “ones,” each “subverting,” in its freedom, the closure that an appropriative politics, a substantial community and a paradigm of “formal” justice would promise. (21)” Justice is thus an “archi-ethical” imperative that puts the very meaning of justice into circulation as an ethical question, asking what type of freedom it necessitates. (22) Justice is not a right or a privilege; it is a challenge and a demand that each singularity attests. For this reason
Communism must not be put forward as a hypothesis… and consequently less like a political hypothesis to be verified by a political action that is itself caught in the schema of a classic struggle – but must instead be posited as a given, as a fact: our first given. (23)
Nancy’s theory of communism strikes a different chord than his contemporary Alain Badiou and his re-formulation of the “hypothesis” and idea of communism. For Nancy, communism is a pre-given of any democracy, and it comes prior to any break with the reigning status quo.
I want to argue that although communism is presented in this picture as ‘our first given’, it still requires a constructive process. When we think of what Nancy’s theory of community means for the left today one way to think about it would be to examine how in our preexisting communities of solidarity – protest movements, political collectives, militant study groups – these communities form the bedrock of relations that are expressive of a more originary relation of care, togetherness, and vulnerability. It is these experimentations in living that we have inherited from Utopian Socialism, socialist feminism, and the New Left and these are the spaces where a different basis of fraternity can be enacted. It is the experience of these relations that changes the way we think about what qualifies as a political decision and forces us to re–think the very category of justice. Political decisions learn from and are informed by the space of the in–common because what is produced in these spaces is a different mode of exchange in which the capitalist law of equivalence is not the main value produced. Nancy writes: “it is only an ontological communism that can challenge the atomized ontology of general equivalence that sustains political capitalism.” (24)
How does a community not re-produce the law of equivalence? How does a community fend off marketizing logics? Nancy does not offer strategic answers to these questions but rather invites us to shift our philosophical emphasis. His theory of communism informs a politics of patience and experimentation, a way of thinking about communist modes of relation that we should read as continuing the project of the “revolution of everyday life” that the New Left developed. We don’t have to think of a mode of communism after a sudden or magical insurrection that throws us onto a post-apocalyptic commune; rather, the work of being-in-common that we experience already forms the basis of something significant. Nancy helps us to think a politics that is built on expressing the ways that we can develop new ways of sense, of listening and even of political speech that are formed in these spaces of community. Nancy said that communities produce a different mode of speech, what he called “adoration” or the speech of being singular plural. Adoration is a type of speech whose content is inseparable from its address; it is a mode of speech that opens a new space for sense. A community set on an exchange of-and-in incommensurable singularities is one that can no longer measure any signification other than the being in-common. Perhaps this different mode of speech, this realization of a more originary relation– a relation which is not merely a social one but an existential relation– is what the pandemic made visible, at least for a time.
1. See Jean-Luc Nancy, “Communovirus.” Trans. David Broder. Verso, 27 March 2020, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4626–communovirus. Accessed 25 October 2021.
2. See the latest report on inequality.org during the pandemic: Chuck Collins, “US Billionaires 62% Richer During Pandemic, up $1.8 Trillion; Wealth gain could pay for half of Biden’s $3.5 trillion package.” inequality.org, 18 October 2021, https://inequality.org/great–divide/updates–billionaire–pandemic/. Accessed 25 October 2021.
4. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1991, 144.
5. Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, Retreating the Political. Trans. Simon Sparks. London and New York: Routledge, 1997, xxvii.
6. Ibid, xxiii
7. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom. Stanford UP, 1993, 67–68.
8. Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural. Trans. Robert Richardson and Anne E. O’Brien. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000, 71.
9. Nancy, The Inoperative Community 390.
10. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy. Trans. Michael Naas and Pascale–Anne Brault. Fordham UP, 2010, 54.
11. Ibid., 45.
12. Jean-Luc Nancy, Sense of the World. Trans. Jeffrey Librett. U of Minnesota P, 1997, 114–115.
13. Ibid., 49.
14. Christopher Watkin, Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux. Chippenham and Eastbourne, UK: Edinburgh UP, 2011, 239.
15. Nancy, Being Singular Plural 34.
16. Ibid., 34.
17. Ibid., 79.
18. Ibid., 144-145.
19. Ibid., 70.
20. Ibid., 93.
21. Nancy, Sense of the World 114, 139.
22. Watkin, Difficult Atheism 140.
23. Ibid., 45.
24. Ibid., 222.