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The Constraints of Sovereignty: Value and Order

Eric Gans, in his reading of the Illiad in The End of Culture, identifies the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon as one between “value” and social order. “Value” here simply means being more valuable to someone, for some purpose, under specific conditions: Achilles is the best fighter the Achaeans have—you’d want him on your side more than you’d want anyone else, and if he’s on your side you want him out there in the field, as much as possible. Gans argues that war is the first “market” in the sense that it is an overt testing of values. Achilles is certainly a far better fighter than Agamemnon, and his quarrel with the king of the Achaeans is over his not being paid at his market value (Agamemnon takes his fairly won slave girl). It’s probable that Agamemnon is better at what he does than Achilles, who doesn’t seem to have the patience or organizational or diplomatic skills to build and sustain a military coalition, but it’s also possible that others could do what Agamemnon has done as well as or better than Agamemnon himself. Agamemnon is simply the one who has done it—he represents order, even if his value, taken alone, is less than other potential candidates. The poem regards the resolution of that conflict, which is to say the resolution of the resentment of one whose evident value (no one disputes Achilles’s superiority) goes unrecognized in the name of social order.

We can sharpen this antagonism, and thereby make it more interesting and instructive, by further considering Agamemnon’s value. The poem doesn’t focus on him, so it’s hard to tell how good he really is at what he does—the war has dragged on a long time without much progress, but maybe that’s not his fault (still, how, exactly, did he expect to get past that wall?); when the victorious strategy is finally arrived at, it was Odysseus’s idea, but, presumably, Agamemnon saw its value and approved it—and, moreover, was wise enough to trust and seek Odysseus’s judgment and advice; meanwhile, back home Agamemnon is being cuckolded and his murder prepared, but who could have seen that coming? Agamemnon’s value is testified to by the fact that Agamemnon initiated and sustained the project, and, perhaps, was the only one who could have done so, insofar as it was on behalf of his brother Menelaus, making him a highly motivated party while still not necessarily incurring the skepticism Menelaus himself might have as leader—assuming, of course, one sees the project as valuable one, or at least one worth concluding once started, or once a certain threshold of investment has been reached. So, one could say that Agamemnon is just as valuable to this project (if he were to be killed, could the Greek armies have been kept together?) as Achilles, maybe even more so, in which case we would have a clash of two values: skill or excellence in the primary activity, on the one hand, and initiative and organization in a collective project, on the other. The poem provides no internal resolution to this conflict—Achilles returns to battle for his own reasons, that have nothing to do with any reconciliation with Agamemnon (although his determination to avenge Patroclus does suggest ways of manipulating and governing the man of one-sided excellence).

Sometimes Achilles will be more easily replaced, sometimes Agamemnon—and it’s not always possible to know in advance which will be the case. So far, we are dealing with what de Jouvenel called “additive” actions, in which a group is gathered for a specific purpose, upon the accomplishment of which (or its failure) the group disperses. What happens when we speak of what de Jouvenel called “aggregates,” that is, groupings meant to continue in existence over an indefinite period of time, and which therefore develop institutional structures, rules, and inertia—how does the relation between value and order stand there? The existence of the aggregate tends to make sustaining the aggregate the primary value, which means being a team player on the part of the skilled and talented individual and preserving, enhancing and where necessary reforming the institutional structures and rules on the part of the sovereign. But this just resets the entire conflict—an insufficiently cooperative but brilliant individual who gets marginalized by the team, and a more energetic leader impatient with sclerotic institutional structures and cautious, complacent leadership comprise the elements of an insurgency, especially in times of great danger or opportunity.

The implication is that the greatest failure of and danger to the sovereign is the failure to recognize value, and the greatest responsibility is therefore to cultivate and respect value. The difficulty in doing so is illustrated by the fate of the Biblical king Saul, who promoted the extremely valuable David and in doing so unintentionally named his own successor. The market is public: David’s successes were universally acknowledged, his charisma universally experienced. The problem, then, is to identify and elevate but also contain value—something even an over the hill monarch without any of David’s charisma has to be able to manage. In a longstanding political order, with clear guidelines and traditions for succession, this wouldn’t seem like much of a problem—until an especially inept ruler, under particularly trying conditions, and faced with capable challengers emerges and makes the problem far worse than in less established orders that still remember the virtues required for their founding. The problem is to both create and contain markets for value—this problem, grounded in the inevitable differences in value between individuals and groups, is the main, maybe the only, constraint on sovereignty.

Within this market, the sovereign must be both primary “producer” and ultimate “consumer.” The sovereign produces, not simply “order” (which only he can provide, the demand for which is universal, but which is only experienced as a need when it may be already too late to supply it), but central power—and both Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault were right to insist that power doesn’t repress but produces, creates and articulates social relations that did not exist previously. Central power sends forth to the margins the obligation to return to the center the full measure of honor, duty and investment conferred by the center. This power structure represents the accumulated results of past “markets” (honors, duties and properties have always been rewards for some service to the center, i.e., the recognition of some value) and in turn frame the ongoing market—new bearers of value must respect and become literate in the existing forms of “social capital” while showing an ability to innovate where necessary. The sovereign must support both the established terms and guardians of the market and the often vulnerable innovators—perhaps the most difficult part of ruling. He does this by being an active and informed consumer of these values, by compelling the guardians of the disciplines to regularly present candidates for honor and promotion that the sovereign (with the help of advisors) must be sure to be capable of judging for himself. That “must be sure to be”—that is the fundamental constraint on sovereignty.

We can perhaps discern this tension between value and order in the powers spawned by (but also creating) unsecure power—all those billionaires that Reactionary Future has been researching, creating foundations that in turn created disciplines like “political science” and “international relations” undoubtedly thought themselves more qualified to rule than the demagogues and bureaucrats whose only skill was rising the greasy pole of the party machine or gaslighting the populace—after all, these were men who had created the means of transportation, production and energy for the modern world. The values they produced as businessmen certainly had their recognition, but not the value they represented as word creators. Today’s tycoons are far more arrogant and with even greater reasons to consider themselves superior to mere political authority, illustrating the primary challenge of any attempt to restore sovereignty in the forseeable future. Those possessing unrecognized value will seek recognition by doing “privately” what they feel the sovereign should be doing publicly, and they will promote precisely those values they believe they possess: expertise and intelligence, certainly, but also freedom from parochialism, tradition and convention. They will try to produce the people capable of recognizing (“consuming”) their value. In doing so they impose their “market” on all others, which means the work of reaction includes resetting the upset markets, perhaps beginning with the market Chateau Heartiste (leading “producer” in the “manosphere”) asserts is primary: the sexual market. Without power behind you, you can’t resist power, but the protection and restoration of “primary” markets implies a tendency towards central power. By “primary markets,” I mean those to which the application of law can only mean violence and distortion. Law can smooth the exchange of commodities; it can’t smooth the processes of seduction, family formation or the reliance on the more talented and trustworthy members of a group—de Jouvenel’s “additive” acts. At best the law can help clean up the fallout when these activities go very wrong. These spheres depend upon tacit rules that can never be adequately formalized. Ultimately central power will have to mediate the relation between these markets and the powers of the disciplines in the way sketched out above, but central power thrives on tacit dimensions that take for granted a permanent order of things—it is centrifugal power that finds it necessary to keep uprooting them.

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