Leibniz and the antinomy of modern power

RP 168 () / Article

The critical ethos that stands behind much of the most impressive and important work on modern forms of power seems to have constructed its own prison. A free and open concept of power – the concept that has guided so many enlightening histories of the present – has revealed itself as yet another technology of foreclosure. Two apparently opposed approaches to power in political philosophy – political theology and biopower – are the contemporary heirs to this critical tradition. Each can be described loosely as a post-Marxist discourse on power advancing something like a theory of radical democracy on its normative edge. Despite the shortcomings I set forth throughout my discussion, and those I omit, these remain the farthest reaching, the most provocative and the most sophisticated theories of power and democracy in circulation today. Together, however, they compose an antinomy. Its resolution would carry us swiftly out of democratic theory and, therefore, beyond the principle of modern power.

Applying pressure to the antinomy yields an alternative concept of power that belongs to a non-democratic discourse. Rather than implanting power in an indeterminate situs, a field of contestation premissed only on the persistence of contestability, in short a fully democratic context, we will see power taking on a fundamentally delimited quality. More concretely,we will see that this form of power is integral to the formation of a macroeconomy of mediations that is inaccessible from the perspective of contemporary political theology or biopower, indeed of democratic theory itself. The antinomy, as I treat it, finds resolution by way of the non-democratic thought of G.W. Leibniz, and pursuing this thought confronts us with the need to reformulate the nature of power, its delimitations and its connections in political space. Although the usual constraints preclude a fully adequate and satisfying elaboration in this text, the outline of a new vision of Leibniz’s political philosophy accompanies this exploration of power. In the process of unpacking these allegations, in fact, the received image of Leibniz’s politics is complicated and a number of minor interventions – most notably a rereading of Leibniz’s theory of sovereignty through his monadology – serve to reconfigure it. The conclusion restates some key findings that gesture towards a finally non-democratic political philosophy for the present.