Brief Remark on Recent Event

It’s never been more obvious that mainstream conservatives take the moral superiority of communism over fascism as a sacred principle.

This observation, from Nick Land’s “Outsideness” twitter feed, holds the key to all political rhetoric in the US. The framing of every single issue, every discussion, in the US, takes the moral superiority of communism over fascism for granted, and this is one of the few things American mainstream conservatives actually want to conserve. All American, perhaps all liberal, political discourse also takes for granted, even more latently, that all political questions can ultimately be reduced to the epic communism vs. fascism struggle—“mainstream” liberals are never more animated than when defending some brand of communist against someone vulnerable to being labeled “fascist.” What this also means is that breaking this “inequivalence” is the key, at least on the rhetorical level, for those who engage “mainstream” discourse, to making anything outside of that mainstream thinkable. President Trump’s magnificent performance at the press conference yesterday was probably the first breach of this “sacred principle” since it became a sacred principle. Yes, he felt it necessary to condemn “white nationalism” in order to establish a communism/fascism equivalence, but I think he tilted things ever so slightly towards an inequivalence favoring “fascism” by making an argument I haven’t ever heard an American politician make. I happened to be listening to talk radio in my car and the host was playing the press conference live and I was stunned to hear Trump lay out the annihilatory logic of communism—who’s next? George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Exactly right—at the end of it lies endless cultural revolution, Mao-style. Dunce caps for professors teaching Shakespeare, some kind of collective punishment for “traditional” professionals, the whole thing. Even more remarkable is what started Trump on the path of these reflections—a defense of the “innocent” (Trump’s word), law abiding protestors who want to preserve the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee/Emancipation park. The left—including all the reporters baying and snarling at the press conference—insist that anyone who wants to commemorate some part of their tradition considered “triggering” in the present year be indelibly stamped as a “Nazi.” Rhetorically, then (and that’s all I’m really talking about here), it seems that the way to not only make communism the most horrible thing ever but also to make it possible to stain everyone who puts in a good word for it with its horribleness is to frame things as follows: we want to preserve this one thing (which isn’t hurting anyone), they want to destroy everything (including things anyone listening to this loves). Trump’s question is really the way to do this: who/what are you coming for next? And after that? This resets things very effectively, because what the alt-right and white nationalists want to do is mostly stop things: stop immigration, stop quotas, stop foreign wars, stop attacking whites and whiteness. Sure, they may want some rollback, but you would satisfy a large part of the alt-rightists by simply stopping these things and enforcing the law. In other words, the question can’t be turned around very effectively. Also, if you’re engaging them, they’re coming for you right now, so the question always has some referential grounding. The left cannot help presenting itself as on the attack—they are coming after all kinds of things, ultimately everyone (even their own future selves). So: who and what are you coming for next? It would be very interesting to see what addressing anarchist ontologists every single time with this question would yield. (And, by the way, for rhetorical purposes no one should say “communist” or, even less, “anarchist ontologist”—the latter is too technical, the former completely played out. The name they have given themselves, “Antifa,” is perfect—perhaps Trump will start referring to the “antifa media.” [To concede the initiative to Trump, himself, though, the term “alt-left” should certainly be given a fair try.])

Formalism all the way down

Sacral kingship is weakened, ultimately fatally, by the elevation of the king beyond the reach of the community—that is, once the king is no longer available as a scapegoat. If the king is no longer available as a scapegoat, he can no longer be held directly responsible for mediating the community’s relation to the divine and the divinely controlled universe (he may still be held indirectly responsible in a general sense, for ensuring the prosperity of the country, ensuring the gods don’t turn against it, and so on—but not for this plague, this earthquake, etc.). The king has introduced layers of mediation between himself and his subjects, with these layers of mediation being the “elites” to whom the king has delegated powers. If the king is now to be overthrown, that as well must be mediated through the elites. The structure is still the same, insofar as the king at the center is scapegoated so as to avert intra-elite rivalries, but the players are now a more restricted group, who furthermore must prosecute their resentments indirectly, in the name of some obligation the king has left unpaid. The king may have in fact governed poorly, indeed must have, if intra-elite rivalries have gotten to the point where they must be deferred, but very rarely poorly enough that the elites could not have deferred their rivalry by bolstering rather than subverting his rule. When the elites levy the subjects they control to remove the king because he has not respected their rights, or has the left the country undefended against an invader, or has favored one section of elites over another, or has wasted the resources of the kingdom on debauchery, they may have a point but are simultaneously producing the very violations they complain of: they are making it impossible for him to respect their rights, to defend the country, to refrain from choosing sides among the elites, or from wasting resources on his own insular projects or desperate attempts at saving himself. But we can see that the more layers that have been interposed between the king and his subjects, more the reasons for challenging the king must fall within the scope of things the king can actually do. There is a kind of rationalization process at work, but it is telling that the rationalization process rarely, if ever, extends to the act of removing the king—that still relies upon gesturing towards the sacrality of kingship, as the king must be charged with something like usurpation or treason (or inheriting the fruits of them). It would be impossible to make a case for removing the king on purely rational grounds (assuming such a thing exists): you could never show that the superior management skills of prospective king B outweighs in importance the disruptive effects of removing actual king A on grounds of inferior management. It would always be more rational for the prospective king to help the actual, to contribute his superior management skills (especially if that was his real reason for seeking the throne in the first place). The final residue of sacral kingship, which still invests our elected heads of government, is simply that someone must be at the center, and actually being at the center is a kind of a priori proof that it is you that should be there. The resentment toward the figure at the center merely confirms his sovereignty.

This means that genuinely overthrowing the figure at the center would require an equal and opposite sacrality. This is so difficult to imagine that you could make a very good case that it has never actually happened. Kings and governments have been overthrown many, many times, of course, but always in one of two ways: either the new figure at the center is presented as “always already” having been there (in which case the overthrow was merely correcting a previous one) or, in the modern revolutions, the central figure is overthrown, not in favor of a new figure, but in favor of a procedure for selecting rulers. Obviously neither Hitler nor Stalin ever contemplated surrendering the power they had seized, but neither declared himself the start of a new dynasty either—they were just holding power, for the Aryan people and proletariat respectively, in trust, until some form of rule (or transcendence of rule, in the case of communism) could settle the question definitively. Conservatives and reactionaries tend to dismiss and even despise “postmodern” thought and culture, but it might simply be that postmodernism recognizes, more explicitly than liberalism was previously willing or able to do, the absent center that nevertheless structures our frenzied political existence. The obsession in postmodernism with ghosts, traces, absence, silence and doubling might be read as an oblique commentary on the failure of the slaughter of the king. Democracy is an increasingly broken method of restoring the central figure—investing it once again with the signs of legitimacy, i.e., sacrality—only to smash and remove it once again. It’s not a surprise that this process has become more like an uncontrollable nervous tic than a genuine investiture. It’s as if the present day celebration of men who mutilate themselves and put on wigs is a parody of the once tragic process of bringing down the king—now, “cisgender normativism” is the best we can come up with for a figure to place at the center and undergo ritual vandalization.

We can see Moldbug’s formalism as a kind of “reduction” of sacrality to the simple occupancy of the center I referred to above—we can no longer believe in kings being placed on the throne by God, or in the integrity of imperial lineages, but we can see that we can’t get past, or transcend, or deconstruct, the simple fact that someone has to be at the center, and that actually being there is irrefutable proof that you should be there. If that’s the only criterion we can have for political centrality, or sovereignty, that criterion must be extended throughout the entire social order. If there’s a center, there are margins; every move made from the center reconstitutes the margins. If we assume the formalist principle that powers that liberalism has made implicit, all the better to carry on political struggles behind and under the scene, should be made explicit, the implication here is that absolutist rule involves an ongoing commentary on the relation between center and margin. If the center declares war, social institutions are recruited for this purpose and are therefore re-“baptized” as war or war-related ministries and industries. When peace comes they are renamed again. Here, again, there is a very illuminating parallel with modern and postmodern art. Traditional art, and this is the case through the realism of the 19th century, is predicated upon the spectator or reader ignoring the means by which the artistic effects are produced. We all have a sense of how, for example, a narrative is structured—there is a hero, a goal, there are obstacles to achieving the goal, the hero overcomes them, and so on. It’s all fairly formulaic, and even great and original works of art stick to the formulas. But enjoying the artwork requires one to forget the formulas—to accept that the villain is “evil,” and to ignore the means used to produce the “evil effect” in the reader. The explanation of evil offered by the word might be very powerful and truthful, but assimilating the explanation is incompatible with directing attention to the “devices” the artist has used to produce an appearance you go on to interpret as an “explanation.” Modern and especially postmodern art just goes ahead and says this is the hero, this is what makes him look heroic—look, if I have him do this, he won’t be heroic anymore, but this also means that heroism is not exactly what it appears—and the effect of this direction of your attention toward the devices is that the “exchange” or conversation between artist and viewer/reader concerns your expectations of an art work, and the habits and traditions through which you engage them.

This transparency and self-reflexivity is central to absolutism. In constructing for myself some possible objections to absolutism I considered that someone might be horrified at all the people who would be disempowered by transference of power to an absolute ruler. The answer, of course, is that this is not the case: for the vast majority of people, nothing would change regarding their share in power within the social order. They have no power now, and they would have no power under absolutism. The difference is that now they are told that they have all kinds of power that they should understand, exercise, and seek to increase (because there are evil forces, whose evilness is constructed through such transparent narrative devices that only addiction to power seeking can blind one to them, that are always trying to rob you of them), whereas under absolutism they would be provided with a range of ways in which they can participate productively in their community. Under absolutism, we could freely admit that we’re working with formulas, which is to say traditions, all the way down, even in the very language that we use. Again, there are just centers and margins, subordinate to the constitutive center/margin relation, your role on the margin is (to invoke Derrida) to “supplement” the center and you do this by clarifying the basic command script articulating center and margin. As a thought experiment, we can examine the assumption that there just is a center, even if posited arbitrarily; but if there has to be a center it can’t simply be arbitrarily posited because organizing all social practices accordingly would surface the hierarchies constitutive of those practices and hence of centrality as such.

That residue of sacrality, which inheres in even the most everyday relationships and professions, is never eliminated by considerations of professionalism, managerialism, efficiency and so on. Calling it a “residue of sacrality,” though, suggests an unhelpful nostalgia—as if we’re trying to hold onto a few crumbs from a table that has long been overturned. It’s better to think, instead, in terms of constraints: foundational names and rules for articulating them that we can’t get “behind,” or place on a “rational basis,” because that process of “enlightenment” would just entail having to get behind and rationalize the tacit assumptions that enabled us to reform or replace the previous set of tacit assumptions. You can’t but preserve something of the center-margin relation that now allows you to reform that relation. It’s neither rational nor irrational: it’s like accepting that in one community men greet each other with a handshake, in another with a head nod, and in another with a high five. We can imagine a Swiftian comedy in which the social scientists in the handshaking community arrive at a proof for the rational superiority of the head nod, and seek to have this preferable mode of greeting enforced through society. It would be funny (if handled right, of course) because in order to institute the new practice, you’d have to draw upon the resources of solidarity contained in the old practice—you’d have to shake hands with the men you now hope will trust you enough so that you can instruct them that they are no longer to shake hands.

Once we realize that all our practices are constrained, though, we can make these constraints explicit, that is, formalize them. I think this may even provide a way for developing absolutist economics. In Jerusalem, for example, all buildings must have a specific kind of stone on the exterior. Of course, this takes away a lot of economic freedom—you can’t build a red brick building, even if that’s what you prefer. But any city would develop some generally shared sense of aesthetics, some sense of what kind of buildings belong and which don’t—the constraint simply establishes a general rule within which that “sense” can develop more coherently. Presumably, the constraint would be drawn from existing evidence of what the city is already comprised of. At any rate, once you have this constraint, you know that you will have a permanent market for a particular kind of stone. The market will expand and contract, because the city will not always grow at the same rate, but you know that you always want access to this kind of stone—and you need architects who are good at building with it, and perhaps other goods and skills as well(who knows what the implications of a specific kind of stone might have for the market for doors, windows, draperies, yards, etc.). A convenient and economical way to rule a city or any order is through constraints, with the trick being to make them distinctive, assessable and flexible: here, minimally, is what a “block” must be, what a “neighborhood” must be, what an “employer-employee relation” must be. This would encourage those on the block, in the neighborhood, and in economic institutions to develop complementary and corresponding constraints—the neighborhood is to have these subdivisions, modeled on the constraint defining the neighborhood—and so on, all the way down. The entire social order becomes an exploration in the ramifications of the center-margin relation constituting it. Economically speaking, this would introduce an irreducible ingredient of stability—much of what is needed, and therefore what is needed to supply what needed, and what is needed to…—can be known with a far greater degree of certainty than in the free market under divided power.

This means the social order is conceived as a disciplinary space comprised of disciplinary spaces. In the Kuhnian sense, a disciplinary space is held together by shared concepts and tacit practices that enable us to attend to the “same” thing. Think about the experience of being in a lab and having a scientist tell you to look through the microscope—whatever you’re supposed to see is there, but you won’t see it unless you’re primed to see it. You need to separate foreground from background. Again, this is the most common, everyday, human experience. You see a crowd looking at something. You go over—what are they looking at? Well, it might be obvious—a dead body, a wrecked car—but it may be that someone will have to single out something for you. Even in the obvious cases, everyone already there is looking in a way you don’t yet know how: some significant feature of the dead body, some sign on the car of how the crash happened, has already become an object of shared attention. You need to be shown how to “see” that dent. Again, this is neither rational nor irrational—it is a result of all attention being shared attention. You can only see what others teach you/learn from you how to see. Again, formalism just makes it explicit that this is what we are always doing. This doesn’t prevent change—it just means that change will emerge on the terms of the discipline, which undergoes a crisis once an accumulation of observations under the existing hypothesis generates a set of new hypotheses to try out. The dent then becomes one element of more systemic but more subtle damage we are now able to notice.

We can redefine “universalism” in these terms. Universalism is the fantasy that all humans are occupying the same disciplinary space. You’re a rational being so you already know how to see the dent. You just need to set aside all the other disciplinary spaces that have warped your view and made it invisible—that is, you must simply set aside everything you are. But this just means a particular disciplinary space has usurped all the rest. Which one? The disciplinary space focused on exposing the unjustified assumptions of all the other disciplinary spaces. But the assumption that all assumptions need to be “justified” cannot itself be justified. That’s why universalism is fraudulent—just like atheism can dismantle all the arguments for believing in God (what, exactly, is God made of, etc.)  but can’t explain why people believe other than their stupidity (they should have, from the beginning, “spontaneously,” seen the “dent” in religion that we now see), universalism can expose the constitutive constraint of all “particularisms” but can’t examine its own. All universalism is good for, paradoxically, is division—for power struggles against constrained order, i.e., all order. Liberalism is nothing but an endless war against all forms of humanity in the name of a humanity that not only doesn’t exist, but can only be imagined as the negation of all actual forms of humanity. This is not a new point—the stripped down human being liberal universalism defends turns into the literal stripping down of millions of human beings who must be saved from their particularities—from what we know as the “middle” which the elites target from all sides in their proxy wars.

Absolutist Economies

A partial summary of David Graeber on markets and money, with some additions: Markets are created and maintained by sovereigns. Money is used first of all for internal bureaucratic accounting in the ancient empires. Money is then used to pay soldiers in the imperial army, and markets are created in order to enable soldiers to spend that money. The accepted currency is whatever is accepted by the sovereign for the payment of taxes. Debt is monetized (beyond the gift economy) when standardized payments for injuries are necessary in order to prevent violence—the sovereign as judge establishes standardized penalties and settlements. In other words, the introduction of money into the sovereign order coincides with a system of hostage taking overseen by the sovereign: human beings are exchanged in one way or another. Money and markets therefore accelerate that system, abstracting individuals from their social relations, enhancing the power of the sovereign, while generating new power bases that might destabilize power. It further makes sense to assume that the origin of technology is the military: the organization of large masses of men is the model both for mass labor and the technology that eliminates that labor, originating in Lewis Mumford’s “megamachine.”

What sustains the value of any currency, in that case, is the stability and reliability of the sovereign issuing and approving it. Rather than labor or subjective desire, currency reflects the “value” of sovereign security. If the sovereign will accept a certain amount of money to settle your tax bill, and maintains an orderly circulation of money, the value of money will reflect that. Sovereign security itself, though, is determined by the oscillation between the abstraction of individuals and the hierarchically ordered pyramid of power articulated by the sovereign: the acceleration of abstraction destabilizes money, the ordering of power stabilizes it. The problem for an absolutist order is to re-embed individuals in ordered hierarchies, which is to say “de-abstract” them. The liberal argument is that the abstraction of individuals (the “free market” or “economic freedom”) has been necessary for the massive increase of wealth and technological development over the past several centuries, and I think there is some truth to that.

Let’s say I’m ruling over 1,000 people. They are all ordered hierarchically, with well-defined roles and obligations—landowners, farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, teachers, fathers and mothers, etc. They live within the kind of reciprocal, pre-money, system of credit described by Graeber. The shoemaker makes shoes for everyone because he knows the farmer is growing food for everyone, the teacher teaches everyone’s children, and so on. Marriages are arranged through families, children tend to enter their parents’ professions. The sovereign and his appointed officials intervene in any disagreements that threaten to get out of control. Now, one day I tell them all: you are all free individuals. You have only those obligations you choose to have, only those reciprocities you have contracted for, you can enter any line of work you want, sell your products and labor for whatever price you want, etc. Whatever land, homes and tools you have right now you will receive a property deed for. Whatever happens to you is because of what you did or failed to do.

After the initial shock and confusion, what’s going to happen? A large number, let’s say 250, will very quickly lose everything they have and fall into debt, destitution and criminality. Let’s say another 400 will hang on indefinitely, maintaining some property and the ability to become good enough at something to gain employment and have families, while never quite freeing themselves from the fear of falling into the “underclass.” Another 200 will become useful to the elites within the state or the new private economy, as managers, merchants and bosses of various kinds. That leaves us with 150. 100 of them become “elites,” on boards of directors, high up in the state bureaucracy, running institutions like banks, schools, and prisons. But the remaining 50—they will do great things, for good and for evil. For them, the revelation that they are free individuals, for whom everything is possible, who are limited only by the breadth of their imagination, etc., will be an inspiration to invent, explore, innovate and create. They will be the source of economic dynamism, abstracting themselves and everyone else ever more thoroughly, and generating new forms of technology out of all the newly possible configurations. Yes, they will depend upon the state, creating subsidized technology for the military and turning spin-offs of that technology to commercial uses—but not just anyone could do that. They will create everything that the elites will divide up among the others, and the pressure from all the newly abstract individuals and their recognized class interests will give the top 50 and the elites the incentive and models for including enough individuals in the economy to maintain enough stability to keep the process growing—especially if doing so gives the social order a founder’s advantage over other communities now forced to play according to the same rules. There will be some hope for societies based on divided power as long as that top 5% or so, and some means of distributing the benefits of their activities to a substantial majority, are not completely shut down. Political arguments and struggles will focus on whether the “freedom” of that top 50+100 is beneficial to the other 850, and will be fueled by struggles between the 100 (the 50 will, for the most part, be disgusted by power struggles, but may show some surprisingly sharp elbows on occasion).

There may be sovereigns willing to sacrifice that economic dynamism for restored order, and no other sovereign genuinely interested in getting their own house in order should be concerned with or interfere with that decision. I want to think about those sovereigns who would like to combine secure power with continual wealth creation. For one thing, taking that approach will give us more to say about the strategies and results of wealth creation and technological development in the societies we hope to transform. Now, that markets are created by, and maintained for the benefit of, states, only “taints” markets for anarchists and leftists, but not at all for absolutists. Nor does this dependence of markets upon states mean that markets don’t operate in certain ways that we can identify, and that rulers can try to improve. If I tell 5 subordinates to get some job done, part of getting that job done will involve studying the reality of the situations, the necessary means for accomplishing the task, the best way of acquiring those means, the various possible ways of dividing up the task, and of cooperating in various ways. Clearly at every point along the way there are choices to be made and those choices depend upon elements to be brought under control, and therefore as yet under the control of something else. These things can’t be done in an unlimited number of ways. So, we could speak about something like “laws” within the limits determined by sovereignty, and we should try and understand those laws.

But all this looks very different from within an absolutist rather than anarchist ontology. Let’s say the task is to build an outhouse, and we need bricks in order to do so. We need, then, to buy 200 bricks. From whom? From a range of brick sellers—let’s say 3. Those 3 (not 10, not 1) brick sellers exist because they have been more efficient in moving volumes of bricks than other sellers, and also because they have followed the rules set by the government for selling bricks better than others, and quite likely because they have cultivated patrons within the state which helps them to write, follow and where necessary skirt the rules. And also because there are enough people doing enough building who need a steady supply of bricks. It also means that if the building industry slackens, the state might step in and carry out some “internal improvements” to help the brick business through the rough patch. What absolutist ontology adds to this is that all this depends upon a certain “amount” of order, and therefore hierarchy, which can be qualified if not precisely quantified. It should not be taken for granted that the owner of the brick business applies for a permit, has it approved, has that approval acted upon (it’s not ignored, for example, by some lower level bureaucrat), that this owner orders a certain amount of bricks to be sent out and his employee carries out the order (and if the employee doesn’t, the employer will be able to fire that employee and count on hiring someone who will), that the employee tasked with receiving the bricks does not abscond with them and sell them on the black market, etc. The real source of value is a well ordered system, and a well ordered system is absolutist. We should be able to find a way of calculating economic value in terms of the relative dominance of anarchist vs. absolutist ontologies within a given social order. Think of all the forms of disorder that would make it impossible to obtain or rely on permits, to assume the honesty of employees and of employers, of the stability of a government that won’t on a dime start agitating for workers or subsidizing their defiance, or cede ground to various illegal and semi-legal enterprises that have their own patrons within a divided government. (Of course, many of these forms of disorder were previously forms of order, within some kind of honor system. Order being brought into these systems which at some point produce scapegoating crises—the origin of power struggles within the state—undermining the sacral mode of kingship they depend upon is what creates the possibility of economic calculation in the first place—that is, economic calculation depends upon deferring the convergence upon the central figure.)

If the state always creates and sustains markets, starting first of all with meeting the needs of the state (provisioning its soldiers, etc.), an observation confirmed by the rise of the East Asian “tigers” (S. Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong) which not only had authoritarian rule but deep involvement in the production needs of the US Cold War military economy, then we can think about those enterprises most directly associated with the state as the epicenter of innovation. Here, the state is the customer, and here is where we can see the defects of divided power most forcefully in the kind of cronyism that accompanies, for example, military contracting in a democratic society. With the state a single-minded, discerning customer, which it must be given a sovereign whose mind must always be on his own survival, we can expect a heightened focus on accomplishment and qualifications—this part of the economy would create an aristocracy of both management and labor. The graduates of the best schools and the most accomplished military men would gravitate toward these industries. More distant from the center, in successive concentric circles, would be other industries, working with spin offs from military technology (as has always been the case to a great extent), with less urgency and with less demanding tasks. Not everyone will be a top tier engineer or scientist. It should be possible to synthesize the production of consumer goods with respected and meaningful work for most of the population.

Buckminster Fuller asserted that it was worth it to provide free education to 1,000 children because one of those children will end up invented something that pays for the education of the other 999. Massive investment focused on generating singularities will in the end take care of the masses as well. Of course, investment might be focused more precisely on those segments of the population most like to be the source of singularities, but this kind of decision will itself be a marker of the wealth and risk-aversion of the center. Under conditions of extreme scarcity, investment might be focused on those communities likely to produce one singularity out of 400 students, and those where you could reasonably expect only 1 out of 1,500 would be left aside. Gradually, the sovereign could reach further afield in the search for singularities, and also widen the scope of what is to be considered a singularity, which is to say open up more fields. At first the 1/400 communities might be both bulwarks against and mentors to the 1/800 communities, which in turn would play this dual role for the 1/1,000 community, and so on. Securing rule would look towards privileging the mentor role over the bulwark function. Everyone is ultimately oriented toward the center, but in a way that makes convergence upon the center unthinkable. Resentments are contained so as to apply only to those directly above, and are framed as requests for a further shift toward mentoring. Limited competition between regions in attempts to move up the hierarchy would allow for the expression and containment of resentments.

In this way, the articulation of centering and de-convergence, which I have posited as the logic of post-sacral kingship sovereignty, can be turned into an economic concept, a measurable proportion between singularity and the recirculation of the products of singularity into the production of further singularities. We could define singularity in terms of both monopolization and models of “centered ordinality.” How singular an innovation is (and, therefore, ultimately, how singular the innovator) depends, first, upon how long the implementation can maintain a monopoly position, first of all for the sovereign himself, as prime customer; and, second, whether it models a form of social relation that is both center-oriented and productive of hierarchy. For example, in a recent interview, David Gelernter, who invented an early version of what eventually became Twitter, argues that the Internet “should be structured like a recursive net, so that you’re encouraged to return to what you were looking at. Instead, the way it is, if you click you’ll probably never go back.” This addition would make Google a more singular invention, requiring more complex algorithms that account for items that initiated inquiries, were at the center of networks, rather than just the number of clicks. Google would create more value because it would encourage the development of more structured minds, in part by providing access (indirectly) to the results of more structured minds, which means more singularities, and so on. Other technologies could similarly be judged on how they directly organize workers and consumers, and indirectly structure communities—every technology models and is modeled on a mode of human interaction, and human interaction is the ultimate source and measure of wealth.


Absolutist Morality

The destruction of sacral kingship, “the political common sense of humankind,” has driven us mad. That’s what happens when functioning common sense is destroyed. We need some way of restoring a political center, a clear chain of command, an articulation of political, communal and personal order, and of social with natural causality. We cannot do all this, though, in the manner of sacral kingship, that is, by holding the center responsible for everything that anyone might imagine someone should be responsible for. If the king can be held responsible for a drought, or a devastating storm, or a flood, or a plague, then anyone—a “witch,” a “demon,” the “deformed,” the “weird,” etc.—can be held responsible for anything for which we feel compelled to attribute responsibility. And, of course, the king himself might very well deflect responsibility this way, setting up an extremely dysfunctional system.

Now, we can of course hold the king responsible for not preparing for the drought, not effectively organizing rescue and rebuilding efforts in the wake of the storm, not enforcing proper hygiene to prevent plague, etc., insofar as all these methods of preventing of minimizing catastrophes are known. But the hardest thing to do in thinking about how we got to where we are is to avoid projecting the things we know (and think we know) back to those in the midst of the process by which we ultimately came to know them. The sacred center first of all not only ensures peace in the emergent human community, but maintains and even completely defines it as a community. Language is only meaningful insofar as it refers to the center, which means that the history of humanity, considered as a (language) learning process, is the history of dialogue with the center, differentiating the various things it has to tell us. There’s no position outside of this process from which we can say “this is irrational,” “this is stupid,” “ridiculous!,” “how could they not know better,” etc. You can say these things, of course, but all you’re doing is removing from scrutiny your own assumptions about rationality, intelligence, common sense, obviousness, and so on. And the fact that we are so chock-full of accusations of irrationality and all the rest is itself just part of the madness I referred to above—we are all trying to sort out clear lines of communication and command with the center, trying to ensure there is a worthy occupant of the center, trying to make ourselves worthy of a center deserving of the name, and keeping in mind both the difficulty of doing all this and the frenzy that this uncertainty can drive us to is the best way of restoring  some sanity and continuing the learning process.

The only way anyone could have come to consider that good hygiene is a way from preventing plagues is by resisting the compulsion to locate the source of all events, good or evil, in the sacral king occupying the center. This was always possible, to some extent—alongside of, and more or less approved of, appointed by, and subordinate to, the sacral king, was some kind of “shaman” or priestly figure, who established some kind of divination and curative method that to some extent relied upon “observation” and “trial” (primitive tribes, for example, have very extensive knowledge of the harmful and curative properties of plants and animals). And it might also be that often the ritual practices associated with the application of various medicines was therapeutically helpful as well—being ritually assured that you indeed remain within the community can be expected to improve your mental and physical health. But none of these ritual practices eschewed the use of scapegoating when the limits of control are exposed, and none can remain effective in mitigating events that irrevocably shattered or transformed the community, especially social events like wars and conquest. They can’t establish traditions that transcend the local community.

These conquests, along with the mass killing, displacement and enslavement they bring, restore sacral kingship on what are on one level more secure grounds: a god-emperor is not going to have his residence stormed and himself cannibalized during a really bad patch of weather—that’s what palace guards are for. It becomes possible to plan, to differentiate communal and political functions, to create cults and ideologies that help perpetuate the existing form of power. On another level, though, new forms of insecurity are built into this form of sovereignty: for one thing, empires create war machines and massive automatons constructed out of humans, and these machines require markets, and marketeers, and marketeers poach from vulnerable communities, turning them into abstracted human resources which in the long run cannot support the imperial “superstructure.” As David Graeber points out, out of these “materialistic” social conditions materialistic and anti-materialist modes of thought emerge—both those who say that all human interests can be reduced to the “pragmatic” and those who respond by saying, no, there is some human value that is beyond all price. Both attitudes actually help in creating what we know as “rationality,” i.e., both calculation of costs and benefits (looking at a plant’s properties, say, without any reference to its ritual uses) and a skepticism about sacrificial rituals that lead to a disaffection with those rituals. Once social crises can be attributed to actions that might not have been taken, that can be located in a specific time, place and agent, it becomes possible to explore a range of plausible “causes.”

None of this guarantees secure sovereignty, though—on the contrary, once a purpose is posited for sovereignty—once it’s no longer simply a given—whether that purpose be conformity with God’s will, the salvation of the soul of the members of the community, or peace and prosperity, the sovereign can be judged in terms of that purpose, and presumably deposed—which means that someone must have the power to determine whether those purposes are being served—pretty much the definition of imperium in imperio, or insecure power. The “modern” world, considered as the unfolding of insecure power on the terms of a marketized social order and “Axial Age” intellectual and moral concepts (which is to say on the very terms on which the ancient empires tentatively aimed at accomplishing the transition from sacral kingship), has proposed a kind of compromise, a breakthrough attempting to resecure power. We could call this compromise, the “self-disposing subject.” The individual on the market, who nevertheless eschews slavery, sacrifice and hostage-taking in general, enslaves, sacrifices, and takes hostage himself. Each of us is both enslaver and enslaved, priest and victim, kidnapper and hostage. We drive ourselves, work ourselves, school ourselves, indenture ourselves, to work, community, family and country. Of course, this is “ideology”—it is what Foucault called the “disciplinary” institutions that ensure that we construct ourselves this way. And it is these disciplinary institutions that seek to secure the state on new, scientific and therapeutic terms. But the disciplinary institutions do work, and we do indeed discipline ourselves, and we endure insults, violations and even violence with patience and calm that would have been unthinkable for just about any other people in the history of humanity. In accord with the approach I proposed above, I have no intention of ridiculing the self-disposing subject—there is certainly an increment of discipline included here that represents significant historical learning.

But the self-disposing subject has taken us as far as it can. This subject can orient us toward a center, vaguely—there is some sense of “the good of the whole” in self-disposition—and it also introduces “relays” between accumulated resentments and the arbitrary targeting of whoever stands out at the moment. It takes some of that targeting on itself—whatever the social crisis is, at least some of it must be my fault. But what it could never accomplish, intellectually or morally, was the task Plato set for moral thought, all the way back at the birth of metaphysics—seeing the moral individual as inextricable from a well-ordered social order. The training we undergo as self-disposing subjects compels us to set the imperium at odds with the imperio—the disciplinary institutions continually disgorge reformist projects for disciplining the state that its most exemplary disciples undertake as careers. The state needs to be more educated, more scientific, more compassionate, more therapeutic, according to the pedagogue, scientist, social worker, therapist. And “pedagogue,” “scientist,” “social worker” and “therapists” are masks of virtue we are all encouraged to wear. They all devolve into a single form of priesthood that acquires holiness by excoriating the existing order for its sins. Once the sins have all been forgiven (by those we have sinned against), maybe sovereignty will be secured. This process is compulsively decentering, endless and spiraling out of control.

The way to affirm and clarify the center while defusing convergence upon centrality is to recuperate superseded and marginalized remnants of sovereignty. I agree with RF’s patron theory, contending that unsecure power and the consequent social conflicts result from rival power centers using proxies to undermine one another. I would add that the pressure points patrons end up pushing and the proxies they employ mostly reside in already existing cultural forms. There was already an “Islamic extremism” combating more “moderate,” colonial/Westernized and “corrupt” forms of Islam, even if it took the usefulness of jihadis as proxies in the Cold War to elevate their profile to world-historical agents. I think it is very rare that proxies are created out of whole cloth. But what are these “already existing cultural forms” other than former and latent modes of sovereignty still attracting adherents within a divided system? A modern Catholic with even the slightest devotion to the Church as an institution is reproducing the memory of the Church as a sovereign power at odds with “temporal” ones. That’s why it might be possible for some enterprising political entrepreneur to use Catholics, somewhere, sometime, as a destabilizing force in a non-Catholic (or insufficiently papal-centered Catholic) country. All dual loyalties, however quiescent, involve obedience to opposing, perhaps emergent and residual, perhaps real and fantasized, sovereigns. There are always levers for a patron willing to try and err a bit to pull.

The imperative, then, is to claim those sovereign remnants in the name of center, or (when absolutely necessary) expose them for their incompatibility with the center and thereby nullify their imperatives. This seems to me a way of dealing with all group identities, which may be worthless as governing principles (there’s no coherent way to make “race” a basis for a social order—but, then again, the point of white racialism is really to preserve a form of sovereignty overridden by immigration and civic nationalism) but nevertheless useful in restoring workable hierarchies and middle level forms of responsibility (and extremely difficult or harmful to try to eradicate). The implication of stereotyping groups, and holding all members of the group responsible for the actions of each of its members is that there are no lone individuals, and that individual responsibility on moral terms abstracted from social order is a chimera. If you’re in this group, do your part to improve their behavior, because we’re holding you accountable; if you disavow this group, to which you appear to belong, then demonstratively join some other group so we can know who you are. Insisting on everyone’s responsibility for the actions of groups they belong to is a way to start reversing the abstraction of subjects effected by liberalism. But it’s also a good way of flipping discussions around: OK, you’re for “X”—what would governance, national, regional or institutional, in terms of X entail? (It won’t always be a rhetorical question.) Most of all, though, it may be a way of competing on the field of proxy formation, by focusing directly on the form and “quantum” of power applied by each utterance, act, organization, concept or institution. (Who is pushing for this to be said about Jews, gays, Muslims, or whoever right now? What else can be said about them to expose that power structure, that imperative order, and reveal the possibility of another?) In this way we can act morally, in the sense of heightened responsibility to the center.

Roots of PC (continued)

In a book written 28 years ago, David Pryce-Jones critically examined contemporary Arab societies, their pervasive violence and lack of economic-political progress. He also analyzed how the West enables Arab corruption by our tendency to self-criticism, what is sometimes called “white guilt” (The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones [Ivan R. Dee, 1989]).

In the following passage, Pryce-Jones looks at the international context for the emergence of the PLO in the 1960’s: their rise to a political importance radically disproportionate to their objective significance on the international stage:

At the onset of industrialization in the nineteenth century, a sense took hold in Europe that a wrong turning was at hand. People of influence believed that in factories and cities the masses were being submitted to a life more abusive than the customary ways. Consequent attitudes of willful pessimism can be seen with hindsight for the romanticism that it was.

After the Second World War, once again people of influence questioned values everywhere in the West, creating another climate of pessimism which was contrary to the evidence. The West, it was widely argued, had acquired scientific and manufacturing power on a scale that was dehumanizing, irresistibly eroding other cultures and even threatening its own progress. In this view, those who opposed the West were to be encouraged and welcomed, no matter what their purpose of motivation might be. Defined simplistically as an assertion of Western power, colonialism was hastened to its close in this climate.

Citizens of democracies incline to attend to their critics and to accommodate through intellectual speculation even the most hostile views. Elements of doubt, therefore self-doubt too, must always be in play within democratic societies in the process of opinion-forming. With hindsight again, the West since 1945 can be seen in reality to have entered a new industrial age of exceptional vitality, leading to increasing choice and freedom. Temporarily, the unexpected confrontation of the Cold War had proved unnerving. To applaud experiments in collective socialism or communism alien to democratic traditions and values, to praise the China of Mao Ze-dong and the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh or the expedition of Che Guevara into the Andes, to conceive that the “winds of change” detected by Harold Macmillan in Africa were autonomous and beneficial to Africans, to listen either with fear or joy to Khrushchev’s threat that the Soviet Union would bury the West were facets of latter-day romanticism. Imminent doom had its Byronic fascination. In any case, to believe that the blame for the ills and barbarities of other nations or cultures lay with the West was another instance of Eurocentric self-importance, a gratuitous posture.

The Palestine Liberation Organization was a phenomenon of this aberrant period. (280-1)

Pryce-Jones calls this an “aberrant period,” but the tendencies he describes have proven to be a veritable juggernaut in Western society in its relation with any group that differs by race, ethnicity, and so on. He traces the roots of “white guilt” to Romanticism, which is accurate I believe, and the connection could be explored further.