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The Ethical Political Continuum 2

An overview of some concepts from Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Image by Howard Chandler Christy — The Indian Reporter, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

This is the second of a series on the ethical and political theory of Gilles Deleuze.

Western Liberal Political Theory

Traditional western liberal political theory has centered on the individual as the relevant ontological unit for analysis.

The central question of liberal theory is: on what basis should the individual agree to be governed?

If governments represent individuals and their interests, the question becomes: what interests of the individual is the government responsible for promoting or protecting?

And there are different theories of the individual: what it means to be an individual; what the inherent rights of an individual are; what interests, social, political, economic, of the individual the government is mandated to promote and protect.

The Social Contract

While the answers to these questions may differ, the one idea that does not is that government represents the individual; and any government that fails to meet this mandate, no longer has the right to govern.

Liberal theory gives this a name: the social contract.

Stability under liberal thought is the ongoing relationship between government and the individual such that government represents and balances the interests of the individual in political, social and economic concerns.

The Individual and Process Philosophy

The portrayal and centrality of the individual under traditional liberal thought does not sit well within Gille Deleuze’s philosophical system.

For an ontology, epistemology and ethical theory based on a process of becoming, pure difference and repetition, the actualized individual of liberal thought cannot be said to be the correct ontological unit for a theory of politics.

The individual is temporary, changing, an effect only, which falls back into an ongoing virtual of becoming.

Further, the vision of the individual under liberal theory invites back representation and transcendence into thought. The individual is abstracted to be the carrier of inalienable rights.

The individual is the transcendent pole that stands apart from the field of politics and government; the individual’s rights and interests are not immanent to the political field itself.


Deleuze and Guattari’s starting point is to question whether we can approach political theory in another way that does not involve this image of the individual.

They proceed by attempting to reconstruct political theory on a concept more fluid, more congruent, with a philosophy of change, difference and becoming; one that addresses the ongoing process of desiring-production.

The concept Deleuze and Guattari turn to is that of the “machine.” As is usual with Deleuze, words and concepts are given new and refreshing meaning, and so the concept of a machine is not the one we normally associate with the word.

The machine is a flexible term: it can be at the level of the individual, pre-individual, groups, society as a whole, or the state.

The machine is a mobile concept defined by its connections.

Claire Colebrook, in her book Gilles Deleuze, depicts the concept of machine as follows:

Deleuze uses the machine to describe a production that is immanent: not the production of something by someone — but production for the sake of production itself, an ungrounded time and becoming… Because a machine has no subjectivity or organizing centre it is nothing more than the connections and productions it makes; it is what it does… and has no closed identity.

Machines are open not closed, in a state of change, connecting and disconnecting and reconnecting to other machines.

Organisms and mechanisms on the other hand are closed, at a specific moment in time, an actualization of the process of desiring-production. Desire has a machinic quality, a drive to connect; likewise machines produce as a flow of desire. To desire is to connect with others, psychologically, socially, economically, politically, and produce.

Lack and Productivity

Lack is central to liberal theory. Liberal theory looks at relations between individuals in terms of what they lack. Individuals are defined representationally as atomistic and whole, but they lack the means to relate to one another.

The social contract fills this lack as a means of coming together, connecting, to fulfill the lack in our social relations.

Individuals consent to being governed because they cannot relate to other individuals without government.

Machines, on the other hand, produce via relations. Defined only in terms of their relations, machines engage in an ongoing and virtual process of becoming via connections, disconnections and reconnections.

Machines are positive, mobile producers of connections.

Machines are an immanent virtual reality. In a process of desiring-production, machines are the equivalent of singularities formed via intensities, connecting as multiplicities and forming actualities from time to time.

The connections, the pure difference of the machine, is the progenitor of history and politics.


Machines as the variable political unit of connection leads to what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as “micropolitics” and examination of the “molecular,” as opposed to “macropolitics” and the “molar.”

Micropolitics focuses on desiring-production, investigates the dynamic as machines connect, disconnect and reconnect. Such connections are molecular, driven by difference-in-itself, always in a process of becoming.

Machines produce at the molecular level. The micropolitical and molecular are expressed in “quantum flows”: such forces of desire are fluid, engaged in the creation of the new in the context of the social and political. They are lines of flight, the virtual in a political context.

Macropolitics, the whole, is an effect only.

Desire at the level of machines creates wholes, creates the molar, but the wholes remain open, unfinished.

Machines connect and form the molar as actualities or social formations in society. Molar social formation is representational, an actuality at a moment in time in the socio-historical continuum. The molar is akin to a segmented line with recognizable borders.

Social Formations

The social formation can oscillate between the immanent and the transcendent, depending on whether desiring-machines can cause their immanent connections to continue to change and alter the social formation. Alternatively, the social “overcodes” desire via transcendent representation:

We cannot allow the difference in regime to make us forget the identity in nature… There are no desiring-machines that exist outside the social machines that they form on a large scale; and no social machines without the desiring-machines that inhabit them on a small scale. (Anti-Oedipus)

When the molecular produces the molar as social formation under certain conditions, the social formation becomes transcendent and crushes the molecular desiring-production machines that produce them. In this case:

We have lost sight of the pure desire as production that underlies the social formation.

To view politics solely from the macro, the state or other political organ of a representative nature, is to disregard the processes that underlie change in the social and political.

When we come to see the social and political whole or state as primary, cut off from the process of desiring-production, and through the lens of the macropolitical only, our thought necessarily becomes representational and transcendent; even though:

The state, the individual, are effects of an ongoing process of becoming in society.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!


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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.



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