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Sergei Prozorov “Like a Thief in the Night”

Prozorov, Sergei 2017. Like a Thief in the Night: Agamben, Hobbes and the Messianic Transvaluation of Security. Security Dialogue 48(6): 473–487.

I shall argue that in the messianic approach, security does not figure as an unquestionable good or as a necessary (or even unnecessary) evil but rather as the problematic aspiration, whose failure itself brings about the messianic event in an oblique manner, ‘like a thief in the night’. Rather than denounce or renounce security, the messianic approach retains it as a demand at the same time as it maintains the impossibility of its fulfilment. The state’s claim to provide security thus becomes the effective means of its undoing. (474)

What messianic politics thereby seeks is only security from the existing apparatuses that are undermined by the demands they could not possibly fulfil. This affirmation of ‘security from security’ reorients security studies towards at once a greater appreciation of security as a desirable good and the dissociation of this good from the structures and institutions that have derived their legitimacy from claiming to provide it. (474)

Rather than read Hobbes’s theory in the familiar terms of the exchange of liberty for security, Agamben insists that the Hobbesian commonwealth ensures no such trade-off and the Leviathan and Behemoth, nomos and anomie, remain entwined to the point of indistinction in every secular order. Insofar as it is not and cannot be the kingdom of God, the security state is forever resigned to the insecurity of stasis. (474)

Since Tertullian, the katechon has been identified with the Roman Empire, a worldly power that delays the end of days and secures public order. For Carl Schmitt, who brought the concept of the katechon into late-modern political-philosophical discourse in his Nomos of the Earth (2003), the idea of the katechon endowed Christianity with a historical dimension, serving as the ‘only bridge between the notion of an eschatological paralysis of all human events and a tremendous historical monolith like that of the Christian empire of the German kings’ (Schmitt, 2003: 60; see also Hooker, 2009: 49–54; De Wilde, 2013; Hell, 2009). (475)

It is a real kingdom, in which God reigned not merely over all beings but also commanded, in a literal sense, such ‘peculiar subjects’ as Adam, Noah and his family, Abraham, Moses and others, with whom he spoke and made covenants. It is this real kingdom with God as its real king that will be restored after the Second Coming and it will be restored here on earth and not in heaven (Hobbes, [1651] 1985: 480–484). (476)

The analyses of the civil commonwealth in the preceding chapters of Leviathan are therefore only valid until the second coming of Christ, after which a different kind of kingdom takes hold, for all eternity. The two kingdoms are perfectly autonomous and only coordinated from the eschatological perspective: ‘both take place on earth and the Leviathan will necessarily disappear when the Kingdom of God is realized politically in the world’ (Agamben, 2015: 48). (476)

The impossibility of fully separating the state of nature from the civil state of the commonwealth, whereby the former survives in the latter in the form of the state of exception (1998: 35–36, 105), only testifies to the transitory and ultimately unsuccessful character of the commonwealth as the project of attaining unity and peace, tranquility and security. Until the kingdom of the God at the end of time, ‘no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into the multitude and the Leviathan can only live together up until the end with Behemoth – with the possibility of civil war’ (Agamben, 2015: 49). (477)

While Benjamin’s text is notoriously elliptic, Agamben’s reinterpretation of Hobbes actually helps us to understand this point. ‘The Leviathanstate, which must ensure the “safety” and “contentments of life” of its subjects, is also what precipitates the end of time’ (Agamben, 2015: 53). It does so precisely by repeatedly failing to ensure the security that should render it legitimate. It is precisely the understanding of this failure as necessary and inescapable that underlies the messianic disposition. At the very end of Stasis, Agamben makes an allusion to Paul’s famous claim in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, the consideration of which will help us understand the messianic approach to security: ‘For you are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and security”, destruction will come upon them suddenly, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in the darkness so that this day should overtake you like a thief.…’ (1 Thessalonians 5:3, cited in Agamben, 2015: 53). (478)

The accelerationist disposition is thus an important part of the Western ontopolitical tradition that has served as an explicit or implicit antagonist of the arguably more dominant katechontic disposition. What is common to different strands of accelerationism is their impatience with the katechon and its politics of restraint, which keeps at bay the danger that accelerationism views as pregnant with possibility. (479)

While continuing to be obsessed with security as a scarce good, the neoliberal state no longer posits its own function in the katechontic terms of restraint or delay. Instead, it simply seeks to manage things as they are, with no end in sight in both senses of the word, there being no ultimate goal of government and no recognition of its finitude. (480)

The neoliberal state may therefore be termed a postsecurity state, not because it relinquishes the katechontic function, but rather because in its concern with its own efficiency it loses sight of the effects it was meant to produce. In the post-security state, the katechon which does not delay any end joins forces with the accelerator which does not have any end in view. Critical studies of neoliberalism that emphasize its ‘zombie-like’ status as ‘dead but still dominant’, repeatedly surviving every proclamation of its demise albeit in an ever more dysfunctional state (Peck, 2010; Smith, 2008), illuminate a highly important feature of neoliberal government – its drivenness with no direction and hence no possible end; only a perpetual imperative for acceleration. (480)

The responsible and resilient subject must instead make its security its business: come to terms with a perpetual presence of insecurity, invest in insuring itself against it, learn to bounce back after suffering from it, etc. In this manner, the apparatuses of the Leviathan have not only learned to coexist with Behemoth, but also succeeded in making this coexistence the basis of a veritable ‘ethics’ of eternal insecurity. (480)

In the messianic perspective, little would be gained from a return from a ‘postsecurity’ discourse of risk, responsibilization and resilience to some ‘proper security’. The significance of Agamben’s reinterpretation of Hobbes in the messianic key consists precisely in demonstrating that the katechontic promise was void already in and for Hobbes. The contemporary developments in the governance of security that downgrade, diminish or devolve the katechontic function only make this void character painfully clear. And yet, if the katechontic claim to hold back the disaster is no longer credible, should we then welcome the disaster in question with open arms and even hasten it as the condition of possibility of our emancipation? Such an extreme version of the accelerationist position would locate the problem in our very desire for security, on which the state feeds to justify its existence and then proceeds to convert into the production of insecurity, all in the name of the aversion of the greater catastrophe. Thus, wars are fought in the name of our presumably threatened way of life, while our rights and liberties are trampled on in the name of our physical survival. If it is our desire for security that leads to the production of insecurity, then perhaps this desire should be renounced and (at least a modicum of) insecurity should be affirmed as such (Neocleous and Rigakos, 2011). (481)

The affirmation of insecurity over security ends up in a fatal contradiction, since it was precisely the production of insecurity in the name of security that was the problem in the first place. If we desire security, we could not possibly affirm its opposite. Yet if we happen, for some reason, to desire insecurity, then we do not seem to have a problem because our apparatuses of security already provide more than enough of it to go around. A critique of security would thus find itself with precious little to criticize. (482)

The insecurity that the state produces in the name of security must be exposed and opposed not in the name of a better security to come (or in the name of the insecurity that we should tolerate and come to terms with), but solely in the name of twisting loose from the existing apparatuses and the dangers they pose. The messianic disposition affirms neither a pure security that cannot be attained nor the insecurity that no one could possibly want, but rather security from security, safety from the harm that comes with being secured by the Leviathan that always uncannily resembles Behemoth. (482)

Thus, security in the messianic approach is neither valorized as a glorious end-state nor scornfully refused in a quasi-heroic posture. Instead, it is what we desire and demand but, having seen that our demands lead to nothing more than insecurity, we are now content to be secure from it. Messianic security is a modest and transient – but still eminently real – experience of relief, of being without care or at least of having one of our cares lifted off our shoulders. (483)

The messianic disposition thus resonates with one of the famous slogans of 1968: by demanding the impossible, the security that Leviathan/Behemoth could never provide, messianic subjects act as genuine realists who have freed themselves from all illusions of better security and only seek security from the apparatuses of security themselves. (484)

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