The final chapter of Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception adds a third term for power to the couplet of constituent and constituted power: to potentia and potestas is added auctoritas, “authority.” I suspect that this concept is a useful corrective or addition to Negri’s theory of power, and that it might clarify some of what remains obscure or contradictory in his and Hardt’s theory of Empire.
Auctoritas is a figure of sovereign power, and yet it “has nothing to do with the potestas or the imperium of the magistrates or the people” (78). Auctoritas supplements and legitimates potestas: “the auctoritas patrum intervenes to ratify the decisions of the popular comitia and make them fully valid” (78).
At the same time, it is auctoritas that has the power to suspend potestas, to announce the state of exception, and it is auctoritas that is the force of suspended law (“force of
law,” as Agamben calls it) that holds sway in the absence of constituted power. Agamben therefore concludes that
auctoritas and potestas are clearly distinct, and yet together they form a binary system. [. . .] auctoritas seems to act as a force that suspends potestas where it took place and reactivates it where it was no longer in force. It is a power that suspends or reactivates law, but is not formally in force as law. (78, 79)
The “essence” of auctoritas is that it is a “power that can at once ‘grant legitimacy’ and suspend law [. . .]. It is what remains of law if law is wholly suspended.” It is, adds Agamben, in this sense “not law but life–law that blurs at every point with life” (80).
Auctoritas is the very figure of biopolitics, the sovereign pole to be set against Agamben’s other paradigmatic image of the biopolitical, the “bare life” of the camps, of Guantánamo. Agamben can therefore contrast “the biopolitical tradition of auctoritas” to “the legal tradition of potestas” (84). Auctoritas is the biopolitical anchor for constituted power.
The Roman principate [. . .] is not a magistracy, but an extreme form of auctoritas. [Richard] Heinze has described this contrast perfectly: “Every magistracy is a preestablished form, which the individual enters into and which constitutes the source of his power; auctoritas, on the other hand, springs from the person, as something that is constituted through him, lives only in him, and disappears with him.” (82)
Auctoritas is therefore an affective form of power, comparable to what Weber termed “charisma,” which also “coincides with the neutralization of law and not with a more originary figure of power” (89).
Incarnate in the leader, in the Führer, in the President, auctoritas is something like the shadowy mirror image of potentia, of the constituent power embodied in the multitude. It is as though, with the figure of auctoritas, sovereignty offered a biopolitical double for potentia, in order to ground its (un)constitutional order.
Auctoritas might also be the figure for what elsewhere goes by the name of hegemony: some kind of explanation to the question as to why constituent power so often ends up, alienated and inverted, as constituted power. (A question that Negri never answers.) It is in and through auctoritas that potentia is harnessed to potestas: auctoritas is the transmission mechanism that simultaneously gives constituted power its (borrowed) life and deadens, blocks, constituent power.
Auctoritas, then, would be the fundamental articulation, “effective though fictional” (87), between multitude and state, “the fiction that governs the arcanum imperii [secret of power] par excellence of our time” (86).
But something has gone awry with this mechanism, in these posthegemonic times. Rather than articulating constituent to constituted power, auctoritas now stands revealed as the sole principle of power in the permanent state of exception whose roots Agamben traces in the period immediately following World War I. All that remains is the fictive embodiment of charisma, of affect, in individuals: Bush, Cheney, Blair (Saddam, Osama, Fidel?).
This is a mechanism that has “today reached its maximum worldwide deployment” (86), but only because it is simultaneously in crisis:
The ancient dwelling of law is fragile and, in straining to maintain its own order, is always already in the process of ruin and decay. The state of exception is the device that must ultimately articulate and hold together the two elements of the juridico-political machine by instituting a threshold of undecidability between anomie and nomos, between life and law, between auctoritas and potestas. (86)
But here Agamben has too quickly assimilated auctoritas back into potentia: for surely auctoritas is the fictive link itself, rather than one element in what it articulates.
And that articulating mechanism (perhaps, following Deleuze and Guattari, we would do better to think of it as a machinic synthesis) is predominant in the age of Empire, preserving only the remnants of transcendence in its immanent capture of potentia, found now in displaced form as charismatic gift of leadership, aura of self-confidence, but also corruption incarnate.