A friend sends me a copy of The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, an elegant and timely book by the Italian scholar and public intellectual, Giorgio Agamben.

I have thought for some time, in the lazy way one reverts to hobbies in moments of pique, that a solution to many social ills of the present day would be a revival in some form of the monastic life: the removal of a significant number of people from invidious consumption, a refusal of the involuntary humiliations of poverty and unemployment, the carving out of a zone of freedom beyond law, into a world in which life is not constrained by rules but is rather constituted in them.

The danger in such a fantasy of withdrawal, if translated into present realities, is that it may amount to no more than idle distraction, gap-year pootling. Worse, a sort of workfare hell, the creation of a reserve army of redundant human leftovers doing useless things, a panic-response to the discourse of strivers-and-scroungers that animates much of the right. Worse yet, to use another term of Agamben’s, his “state of exception” (this in turn related to his larger project on Homo Sacer), is the dark place beyond law, the tendency to invoke under the license or pretext of public emergency a new kind of non-being, a creation of categories of non-persons who may be freely killed or subjected to torment without limits. What is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go but a sustained warning that a state of exception in Agamben’s sense may come in the guise of a communal form-of-life whose rules have become equivalent to life itself?

Yet Agamben’s book on monastic rules shows that the dream of use without appropriation, of a space of political freedom not defined by law, was at the heart of the European project for centuries, explicit in the monastic, especially Franciscan, resistance to both secular and ecclesiastical control, a dream in the end unfulfilled and now unimaginable in any polity or form available to us.

Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey in the Oakwood, 1810

Certain details in his account brought back to me forcefully a determinative episode in my own life, the three years I spent, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, in a so-called Bible school, an academy or training-ground for future missionaries, pastors and evangelists.

I put it this way because this is how the institution defined itself officially, and on the basis of which it received financial support from a parent denomination, not to mention the subsidies from families and home churches that supported the students directly. Thus, officially, the minute governance of daily life, the regulation of sleeping time and prayer time and eating time, the control of social encounters, the many prohibitions touching sex, alcohol, tobacco, dress and personal adornment, the emphasis on transparency in all things and the encouragement of public confession, the threat of expulsion for transgressions, were seen as instrumental in the achievement of this training mission. The rules were not only held to be of secondary importance in that context, but were subordinate, naturally, as well, to an overriding religious essentialism: to salvation, to the pursuit of holiness, to the love of God, to the fulfillment of a calling. In recollection, for many people, it is this last, the essentials, that are timeless and permanent, the rules on the other hand only the prejudices of an era, a cultural moment gone unregretted and unmourned.

Yet one may easily invert this picture. In practice, in daily experience, the rules were not felt as means to an end, but constituent parts of a form-of-life: the use of bodies and things without appropriation and self-governance without law. To have turned the Bible school I attended into a monastic order it would only have been necessary to understand the rules as constitutive of an exemplary pattern, a model, in which both the practical function and the doctrinal and cultic higher-order concerns flowed from the form-of-life and not the other way around. This form-of-life-as-rules was the greatest achievement of my school, now unrecognizable as such because we routinely relativise the natural desires and needs of human life, and essentialise the forms of law and possession.