GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 29, 2016

America First, but there’s no “American People”

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:35 pm

Most commentators and, I assume, most citizens, are still in the habit of referring to the “American people” as the protagonist in the election drama: will the American people go along with this, will the American people support that, will this alienate the American people, etc. This is a habit that must be broken if we want to think about elections and American political life in general clearly. The reason why the Democrats are so confident that they can continue moving to the left without consequence is that they consider their demographic advantages to be insuperable. They have good reasons to think so. Think about the Supreme Court: on every significant question, everyone knows how the four leftist judges will vote—no one ever even speaks about whether Kagan or Breyer might jump ship on this case. On the other side, everyone distinguishes between the invariant and the variable: Thomas and Alito are reliable (and Scalia used to be)—although even here there have been disagreements—but Kennedy and Roberts are wildcards. The same is the case for the voters for each party. The Democrats will get 90% of the black vote, 70% of the Hispanic vote, 75% of the Jewish vote, 70% of the Asian vote. There is very little room for movement here (except, perhaps, among the very heterogeneous “Asian” vote)—maybe the numbers can go 5% one way or the other. This gives us important information about the number of American citizens who see identity politics, a massive welfare state and the vendetta against their “Amerikaner” (a term of I have taken from the Amerika blog) or “badwhite” enemies as more important than allying with the American middle. In fact, now that insistence on the enforcement of immigration laws makes one a “hater,” we can say that these are the voters opposed to America as a sovereign entity. On some level, they rightly realize that according to any rigorous and non-legalistic definition of “American,” they would be excluded, or at least “graded.”

All appeals to these groups (again, with the very minor exception of “Asians”) are as much a waste of time as making legal arguments to Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Kagan and Breyer—except insofar as some of the white voters you want need to salve their conscience with the recognition that some kind of gesture has been made. But that just underscores that a Trump victory (probably even more than any other Republican victory) relies completely upon winning a white landslide. Everything else is irrelevant: Trump needs something like 65% of the white vote to win. (Of course, the number varies according to turnout—obviously, if more white voters than usual come out, and they vote mostly for Trump, maybe he’ll only need 63% or so.) Whether he and his supporters say so publicly or not, if they don’t know this they are throwing the election. Now, we can get even more specific about the demographics—of the 2% or so of sexually “other” whites, at least 75% will vote Clinton. Among single women who see themselves as single women (i.e., not young women looking forward to marriage and family), probably 80% at least will vote Clinton. And how many fit that category—I’m not sure there are, or even can be, real assessments of that. (We’d have to factor in those who work for the government in some capacity as well.) But we can probably say that among normal, married with children, or expecting eventually to be married with children, employed in the private sector, with (or reasonably hoping to have) homes, etc., Trump will need something like 75%. Now, that’s a good way to focus your attention. How many people in this (most unequivocally “American”) category are already likely to vote for Trump, and how many would need to be won over? Whatever campaign masterminds Trump has could not spend their time more productively than on trying to answer that question. In other words, it’s not a question of what the “American people” think; it’s a question of whether there is enough of a constituency (a large enough super-duper majority) among normal Americans for restoring American sovereignty.

Now, Trump and his advisors can (and if they want to win, must) think like this, but it would be extraordinarily risky to speak like that, even in heavily “coded” terms. That itself is a large part of the problem. Last night, at the Democratic convention, a Muslim father of a soldier killed in Iraq attacked Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim entrance into the country. But if mass Muslim immigration, or increased Muslim presence at any level, poses a security risk, then a Muslim who sees himself as an American first of all would agree that we at least need to consider our policy toward further Muslim immigration. All that father was telling us, then, was that he considered his (merely potential) grievances as a Muslim more important than his obligations as an American—and that he was willing to exploit his son’s death to make that point. Even Trump will not make this uncontestable observation. Nor will he observe that those Hispanic citizens who vote on the basis of their support for leniency for illegal aliens are voting their ethnic interests over their duties as citizens and the good of their fellow citizens, even to the point of endorsing massive, systematic lawlessness. Something similar could be observed regarding every reliable Democrat constituency. But nothing like this will be observed, if for no other reason than that it will make it harder for Trump (or any Republican) to get to that 75% of normal Americans—that is, some margin of that 60% or so of the country must have their ethnomasochism (John Derbyshire’s term, as far as I know) appealed to before they can vote their own interests. Which means that we can narrow our election speculations even further, to that tiny margin where the right rhetorical and symbolic balance between white guilt and white interest must be struck. What this also means, though, is that we can tell when the country will really fall apart: when that balance can no longer be struck, or when it no longer matters: when white guilt and white interests are irrevocably, and unmistakably, at odds with each other—at that point whites will have to eschew white guilt or concede the right of non-whites and goodwhites to disregard their interests, even their lives, altogether.

If we were to begin to speak about the obligations of Americans and their differential attentiveness to their patriotic obligations (rather than endlessly demanding the “details” of “plans”), how would we do so? I’ll provide a sample. I’ve been curious about the inability or lack of interest of the leftmedia in going after Trump’s favorite slogan, repeated quite a few times in his convention speech: “America First!” As I have seen some media figures mention, this is a slogan with a “notorious” legacy, the name of a movement that, briefly, in the late 30s and early 40s, horror of horrors, argued for keeping America out of World War II. I would very much like to read a history of how the perfectly reasonable and patriotic Charles Lindbergh and his associates came to be tarred as near-Nazis for their efforts—it would teach us a lot about the history of image management and propaganda in the US (I would look for the red thread). For the left, running a campaign based on the slogan “America First!” is rather like running on “McCarthyism”—don’t these idiots know that we have banished these phrases and ideas from public life? I suppose that to others, though, it must sound so obvious and positive that, rather than being scandalized, most Americans are trying to figure out why this isn’t the slogan of every campaign—so much so, that the media has not yet been able to find a way to crack it. At any rate, here is perhaps the most “notorious” of all of Lindbergh’s speeches for the America First Committee, which lasted up until Pearl Harbor, at which point all its members unequivocally joined the American war effort (without even having to be ordered to do so by the Comintern):

Lindbergh, here and elsewhere, gives plenty of good reasons for America to stay out of the war—all of them debatable of course, which is why Lindbergh is offering arguments—and doing so in an honorable way, pointing out the consistency of his approach to the issue as opposed to the opportunistic propaganda of the pro-War side. He deals with the basic “ideas,” in other words, explaining why the war would, from America’s perspective, do far more harm than good. But he doesn’t stop there (where all of today’s Republicans and “conservatives” would insist we stop), and goes on to ask, who wants the US to enter the war, and why? Given that they represent a small minority, what makes their arguments so effective and, from Lindbergh’s perspective, dangerous? So, he lists three groups: the English, the Jews and the Roosevelt administration. Can anyone really disagree that these groups had powerful interests in drawing the US into the war? Lindbergh does not demean these groups (although he’s highly critical of the administration which, strictly speaking is not really a “group”) or characterize their interests as illegitimate—quite to the contrary, he understands very well why the British and the Jews would want the US to enter the war, and I see no reason to doubt, since I don’t see what he would have gained by it, Lindbergh’s expression of sympathy for the Jewish plight under the Nazis and his condemnation of their persecution. Nor could we refute his claims regarding Jewish influence in the media and entertainment. We could readily question his claim whether American entrance into the war would harm Jewish interests by weakening the tolerance upon which Jews depend—it didn’t work out that way, and Lindbergh is too generalizing here (“war always…”); we could also ask whether there were other groups (German Americans? Italian Americans?) who had a special interest in keeping America out of the war. All that would be fine as a rebuttal to Lindbergh’s argument, but the larger point is that his argument could not even be made today, and to see why, you would just have to see what my above observations on the Muslim father and Hispanics defending illegal immigration would look like extended a bit further along the lines modeled by Lindbergh’s analysis of the British and the Jews. (“It’s easy to understand why Mexican-Americans would feel closer to their brethren in Mexico, with whom they share ethnic and cultural ties going back many generations, then to their fellow Americans, and would wish to help them enjoy the advantages of life in the US, while increasing their own political influence and maintaining their Mexican roots…”)

Well, it’s not true that the argument can’t be made today—such arguments are starting to be made—it would be more precise to say that they cannot yet be made by a winning Presidential campaign. But the gap between the way political figures must think and what they can say can close—indeed, at a certain point, if it doesn’t, that gap will get wide enough so as to make political survival impossible; to put it another way, closing this gap is part of making sovereignty more certain. Of course, if both the SJWs and the patriotic right were to close the gap, they would make explicit that they no longer live in the same country. Ultimately, “law and order” and “crime” may, in fact, be code words for “white” and “black,” respectively; and “gay rights” and “feminism” may very well be code words for the destruction of monogamy, and “Black Lives Matter” for “kill whitey,” or “off the pigs.” The more people who know they are codes, the less they are codes. All arguments have a demography to them, and part of bio-politics is making the demography explicit, even explicit enough to make the arguments mere tokens. In that way we find out if they are in fact real arguments. Through this bio-political process we arrive at the same choice I have taken these discussions to before: either follow the path of least resistance of virtually any commonsensical line of inquiry and end up speaking in such a way that will transform the “conversation,” most likely catastrophically, or go about systematically eliminating “badthoughts” and “hatefacts” from your mind so as to reduce yourself to imbecility. Interestingly, if you choose the latter, the former will never occur to you, and so there’s no way to make an argument in favor of one or the other approach. It’s really just a question of what’s involved in living with yourself. At any rate, tracking that white guilt/white interest needle will be a good way of cutting through a lot of noise and measuring our progress or regress regarding sovereignty restoration—the more white interest can be spoken, even in the indirect form of anti-anti-whiteness, and white guilt silenced, the closer we are to restoration.

July 27, 2016

The Left, Classical and Contemporary, and Sovereignty

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:54 am

In his latest “Civilization in Crisis” Chronicle, Eric Gans addresses, forcefully and generously, the theory of the left I have been advancing in these blog posts. Gans seems to find my definition (“obedience to the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality”) to be relevant to the contemporary left but not to the “classical” left, the prototype of which is the anti-Monarchists of the French Revolution, who objected to what we could call the indiscipline in the King’s distribution or rewards according to status rather than merit, and preferred a bourgeois order in which value, and therefore discipline, would be accurately measured and rewarded on the market. Indeed, these and future generations of leftists encouraged the discipline qua regimentation of the working class, both on the factory floor and in union and political organizations and schools. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any real continuity between those earlier struggles against aristocratic, inherited privilege and today’s Black Lives Matter, “rape culture” feminists and pro-Palestinian BDS groups.

I don’t really want to disagree with any of this as much as I’d like to examine different ways of looking at the right/left dichotomy. Gans distinguishes “institutionalized firstness in the traditional sense” from “discipline,” but that presupposes that “discipline” is solely economic. If “discipline” involves all kinds of deferrals, including the deferral of the desire to overthrow the sovereign in favor of one’s own faction, or committing murder in the name of “honor,” then “institutionalized firstness in the traditional sense inherited from the Big Men, kings and emperors of old” is the first form of discipline—not only historically, but as the mode of discipline which all the others must presuppose. It is part of the discipline exercised by the Big Man, and the discipline he imposed upon the rest. The following sentence—“No doubt the essential innovation of the big-man, as we learned from Marshall Sahlins, was precisely his exercise of discipline, both in producing more than the others and in restraining his consumption in order to accumulate a surplus.”—seems to contrast the original big man with the modern European monarch, but that must mean either one of two things: one, that the French monarchy had abandoned the discipline that originally legitimated its institutionalized firstness; or, the institutionalized firstness embodied in the monarchy no longer involved the accumulation of a surplus, in which case the loss of an economic function justified the resentment towards (presumably obsolete) institutionalized firstness. The two claims by no means contradict or exclude each other: the monarchy’s decline into impotence could reflect its historical irrelevance. Still, the distinction is important: in the first case, the French monarchy would have, perhaps, lost its right to rule, but the monarchy itself as a legitimate and in fact, at the time, America excluded, the only legitimate form of sovereignty, would be unaffected. In the second case, the monarchy itself is rejected as “unproductive,” based, perhaps, on the assumption that the purpose of sovereignty (at least at that historical moment) was to facilitate the rise of the market order.

If the problem was a decadent, degraded monarchy, the solution was a rejuvenated, restored monarchy. Insofar as the left rejected this possibility, it clearly rejected monarchism as such, making that the foundational leftist gesture. If it rejected monarchism in the name of a more “productive” or “functional” form of sovereignty that would protect basic property rights and smooth the rise of the bourgeois order, then it is certainly rejecting the form of discipline requiring respect for at least the accumulated results of previous increments of discipline (how else could firstness have been institutionalized if not by, first, establishing local orders and then setting aside feuds and vendettas in the name of national order presided over by the king? Can we ever be so sure that those problems have been solved once and for all that we need no longer consider the best way to defer them?). The rise of the monarchy, that is, was the civilizing process in Europe, coinciding with a half a millennium of steady moral, intellectual and technological progress. Monarchy brings power and responsibility to a single center by essentially making the king the owner of the country: kings would vary in the extent to which they carefully tended to this property, but the identity of property and sovereignty in monarchy is not necessarily a concept we have since improved upon. The corruption or weakness of a single king is not an argument against the institution, but the left, from the beginning aimed at discrediting and destroying rather than qualifying or reforming a mode of institutional firstness we have never found a replacement for—on the contrary, the founding anti-monarchical gesture gets replayed over and over against obsessively-compulsively in reaction against any attempt to institutionalize firstness in any field whatsoever.

The protection of property in the new order will still require public discipline: the discipline of the armed forces, but more importantly of the citizen who doesn’t force the sovereign to turn too much of the population into armed forces. So, the claim that the classical left of the French Revolution represented a disciplinary force depends upon whether it did so politically as well as economically. But, politically, did the slogans of the French Revolutionary Left represent, at best, anything more than a release of those social powers best equipped to dominate on the market (that is, Marx’s description of the Jews would have in fact been true of someone); and, at worst, devolution into mob rule? Once you introduce the notions of equality and consent of the governed into political life, you embark on an endless career of discovering new inequalities and abuses of the consent of the governed. The brief and devastating career of the French Revolution demonstrates this democratic axiom—Hannah Arendt may have been right that the American Revolution avoided this fate by avoiding the “Social Question” and focusing on attaining public freedom, but those limitations on the applicability of “equality” and “consent” were ultimately arbitrary and sure to be breached—just as was the distinction between the economic right to have the state protect your property and the economic right to have the state provide you with a living. One interpretation of “equality” and “consent” is just as valid as the other, which means these concepts themselves introduce extreme indiscipline into public life, however much the new powers they release might benefit from discipline in economic life.

Even the 19th century liberals, the original “leftists,” represented disorder politically, and that is where the continuity from the free marketers of the late 18th-early 19th centuries, to the socialists and communists and anarchists, to the SJWs of today lies. The left’s obsession with equality has been a civil war machine from the very beginning: the concept of “equality,” more than anything else, provides a mechanism for discovering “oppressors.” The genius of liberal democracy seemed to be that it institutionalized this civil war in political parties battling for power through the ballot box. The gamble was that growing and spreading prosperity would make a renewal of actual civil war a bad bet for a substantial majority of the population—but the actual terms remained the same: while Gans sees these terms as firstness vs reciprocity I think they are actually firstness vs. the latest discrediting of firstness (or, as I would say, “lastness”). Firstness in the fullest sense already includes reciprocity—monarchies and aristocracies have reciprocity built into them, far more so that democracies, which can only construct ad hoc reciprocities and otherwise rely on reciprocal indifference. Firstness involves using inherited or innate advantages for the common good along with renewing the “capital” invested in those advantages, on the one side; and deference to and emulation of those who so enact those institutionalized advantages, on the other side. When this reciprocity breaks down, both sides are likely at fault, while the greater responsibility must lie with those who have misused their power (the responsibility is not abdicate or deny, but to better use that power).

I’m not arguing for monarchy, and I’m also not arguing against it; the same goes for aristocracy—it’s obvious enough how unlikely a restoration of these institutions would be (but why exclude the possibility?); they would only be considered in the midst of a terrible crisis, but such a crisis would no doubt suggest other possibilities as well. I am arguing, much more modestly, for sovereignty: for there being someone within a determinate territory, whose name everyone knows, whose proclamations everyone receives, who publicizes and enforces all laws, and who resents sharply any other power, formal or informal, that aspires to law giving or law enforcing authority. Anything that happens under the sovereign is overtly or tacitly approved by the sovereign—that might mean lots of laws, lots of police forces, lots of interventions in everyday life; or, it might mean a firm setting of general terms and unremitting enforcement of those terms—such things will depend upon the character of the people and the skill and intelligence of the sovereign. If your question is, why was this done, or left undone, the answer is: the sovereign. If foreigners are pouring over the border, that’s the sovereign’s decision—not “international human rights law” or “labor market imbalances”; if thousands of people are laid off in a small town, that’s the sovereign’s decision, not “the global market.” (What about a child dying, a descent into addiction, a failed love affair…? If holding the sovereign responsible for a particular event could only lead to unfocused anger, then responsibility must be taken by the individual or attributed to God. The sovereign is responsible, though, for ensuring there is no empty space between his responsibility to his subjects, their responsibility to themselves, each other and him, and God’s responsibility to enable us all to find the proper level of responsibility.) The sovereign redirects all resentments toward himself as either arbiter of those resentments or visible consequence of pursuing them past a certain clearly defined point. Unlike “popular sovereignty,” where the “people” are guaranteed sovereignty and therefore must do nothing to preserve it, and opportunistically (like their representatives) disavow responsibility whenever convenient, a genuine sovereign knows that his power must be earned every minute. There will always be internal and external powers that would prefer another sovereign (or would simply like to evade the strictures of this one) and know enough of history to know how many other forms of sovereignty there have been—the sovereign must continually act so as to frustrate their designs, to encourage those who find peace, order and freedom under his rule, and to make a sustained case for the elevating character of that rule. Sovereigns might compete for the best people, so each will have an incentive to make his own territory exemplary. Social life certainly obeys “laws” (economic, anthropological, racial, geographic, moral, etc.) that are not reducible to sovereign power: the sovereign must try to understand these laws and make them serve his own rule—again, unlike the “people,” he can have no interest in ignoring or falsifying them. Sovereigns will make mistakes, and may have to ask forgiveness of their people; their actions will have unintended consequences which they will have to “colonize” with new intentions. There will be lots of trial and error, and failed sovereigns are not likely to survive.

It seems to me that anything other than this kind of sovereignty must be considered “leftist”; or, to put it another way, only this mode of sovereignty will be immune to leftism. Absolute sovereignty will be unaffected by wordplay regarding “rights,” “equality” and “consent”—its only concern will be with preserving its own sovereignty, which will mean leaving no doubt that it says what it means and can do what it says, and only says what it means and only does what it says. Staging, limiting and harnessing rivalries to enhance the common wealth will be its primary means of self-preservation. The kind of present politics that will lay the groundwork for absolute sovereignty will involve pointing to everything happening today as examples of failed sovereign responsibility (things said but not meant, meant but not said, said but not intended to be done, and done without statement of intention) and show how a genuine, absolute, sovereign would deal with it (and how a people worthy of such a sovereign would rise to meet sovereign decisions).

Such an approach seems to me sufficiently generic to be a banner people rally behind once a crisis causes them to lose their faith in that final false god, democracy, and to give us powerful ways of speaking about things in the meantime.

July 25, 2016


Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:39 pm

Do we need truth? This may be the most interesting of many interesting questions raised by Eric Gans’s latest Chronicle, “Civilization in Crisis?”: “Today as at the first human scene, the primary purpose of symbols is not to tell the truth, but to permit human survival.” The truth may be necessary for certain scientific and technological purposes, but otherwise “humanistic truth-telling” is something we can hope will survive, but may, we would have to concede, be inimical to human survival. My proposal that “parrhesia” be seen as a fundamental political concept to originary political thinking makes the question of truth unavoidable. Whatever takes place on the originary scene is not a revelation of truth in a propositional sense—but it’s not a lie, either: presumably, the scene only “takes” because there is actually an object of desire in front of the group. We could all willingly delude ourselves into sharing a belief in something false, as in the “the king is wearing no clothes” fable, or the “gentle giant” Michael Brown legend, but it’s a lot more economical and stable to share a belief in something that’s actually there. Still—there are other possible “economies” of truth. The inner circles of the left presumably know the truth of the Michael Brown case, just as Stalin no doubt knew that Trotsky wasn’t plotting with the Japanese to attack the USSR. Maybe a lot of leftists know they are spreading lies here, and just don’t care because they believe they are combatting a greater evil, and bigger, more vicious lies, coming from their enemies on the right. Truth still provides a kind of anchor if you know you are deliberately lying—it may even be like telling kids stories about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. The victimary lies we are discussing here don’t seem particularly “noble,” but if they provide the only way of managing the unbridgeable gulf between those secure within and those barred by their own incapacity from the increasingly “symbolic” economy, then they are noble enough. So, truth might be something, and even essential in its way, but not the main thing—not the thing to build a civilizational politics on.

I would add that the alt-right, in taking up the nationalist cause of (in particular) those working class whites displaced by the globalizing economy over the past 35 years ascribe this development to the self-interest of elites to an extent well beyond what the facts merit—there’s a bit of a stretching of the truth here as well. A lot of us remember the late 70s, when we had the national economies, strong labor unions, and relatively high wages for the white working class so many yearn for today, and if we remember it honestly we also remember how unsustainable it was. The unions priced the workers they represented out of business, the collaboration with unions and governments made the giant corporations increasingly inefficient and unprofitable, liberal urban policies (and liberal politicians were not only empowered, but made a single ruling party by default by the union-corporation-government troika) turned America’s cities into dystopian hell-holes. (The situation was even worse in the UK, which is perhaps why they produced somewhat superior punk rock.) The technological breakthroughs over the past few decades, including those in finance, were more than a ruling class conspiracy to to undermine the “native” middle class and provide the rulers with access to more pliable global sources of labor (even if they have had that effect)—they did, in fact break through the logjam of the late-70s “malaise” while generating, inevitably, a whole new set of problems. Much of today’s “ruling class,” a member of which spoke at the Republican National Convention, was not “to the manor born” but is rather comprised of people (like the founders of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, PayPal, Twitter and Apple) who actually invented things no one had imagined before and lots of people wanted. Donald Trump might be able to compel/persuade Apple, say, to produce more of its products in the US, but there’s a good reason he doesn’t make that promise regarding any of the other companies listed in my parentheses, because they don’t (except for the declining Microsoft) don’t really produce much of anything at all in the traditional sense. There is a great deal of disruption here that cannot be blamed on anyone, even while, like any large-scale disruption, creating a huge vacuum that can only be filled with some kind of resentment. For things to have gone this wrong for so many people, someone must be stealing something big.

We can see the filling of the vacuum created by unintended effects by various resentments as a kind of mythical thinking. All events have an unintended dimension, which is intolerable for us humans—we must saturate that space with intentions. I will here again call attention to Gans’s analysis in The End of Culture of the emergence of myth as an “explanation” of ritual that, as I put it in a previous post, “anthropomorphizes” the early human groups by ascribing intentions and therefore responsibility to more actions and on deeper levels. The figures in the ritual become, to use E.M. Forster’s term, increasingly “round” characters, and so do the people worshipping and imitating them. This mythical thinking lays the groundwork for the Big Man, who becomes the roundest character of all (until we get to God, who is so round that His center is everywhere and his circumference nowhere). We still do this—culture still abhors the vacuum of the unintended—but how do we do it? Gans, in The End of Culture and elsewhere, is positing a kind of historical learning process, whereby mythical thinking generates ever more incisive and inclusive anthropological insights—otherwise, we could hardly speak of “mythical thinking” from a presumably “post-mythical” perspective. Even if we can in this way track something like “progress” from early myth to modern social science, insofar as more and more activity can be accounted for and new forms of activity imagined, are we getting closer to some kind of “truth” here or, as many postmoderns would have it, or are we ultimately just mythicizing in ways more appropriate to our own conditions?

Those of us committed to the originary hypothesis, which makes a higher kind of truth claim than the other human and social sciences, must recoil from such a conclusion. But I think we can find grounds for resistance to this “postmodern” conclusion in the very notion of “unintended consequences.” If our most powerful desire as “symbolic” creatures is to saturate historical events with intention, realizing that doing so leads inevitably to conflict (to the attribution to others of so many injuries that we could never be done counting them and seeking to exact retribution) and that therefore we must concede that consequences often, maybe always, outrun the intentions informing the acts that produced them, represents a form of intellectual and moral discipline. Fine, let’s say that—but is it the truth, or just another convenient fiction? Well, in the space of the “unintended,” we can find consequences to which many acts, many of them at cross purposes to each other, have contributed. To say that what person or group X did in 1920 led completely, inexorably, and with full knowledge aforethought to what happened to group Y in 1960 would require deliberately ignoring and suppressing all reference to what anyone else did in those years, including members of group Y. We can always bring more intentions into our analysis, and we can make the inter-play of intentions consistent with our increasing knowledge of events. If many groups (and many individuals within these groups) acted in ways to generate the consequences under consideration, then we can try to untangle the various intentions and the ways they all played out in their interactions—we could argue about it, and hypothesize whether the actions of group Z made a “large” or “small” contribution to the outcome. But we could only argue about such things if we assumed we would thereby be getting closer to conclusions we would all be more likely to agree on, and that future inquirers, with more information at their disposal, would be even more likely to agree on (even clarity on what is worth disagreeing on is progress in this respect). Once, in such inquiries (which in ancient times it was the purpose of institutions called “universities” to promote), we realize that we don’t even know how our present inquiry would affect the process of saturating the social space with intentions, that is, once we can’t tell whether our conclusions would help “our” side or not, we could only be searching for the truth. At any rate, such epistemological modesty and rigor is appropriate if all we can really do is defer the most imminent crisis caused by our own epistemic pride.

Some notion of the truth goes back to the beginning of language, but it is only with the reframing of the imperial Big Man by Greek and Jewish antiquity that the Truth becomes central to morality and culture. At this point we don’t have true and false claims about specific facts and events, but an assumption that larger and highly consequential Truths lie “behind” such everyday truths. I think that these larger truths are curtailments of the Big Man’s power. Once resources and the means of violence are centralized by the monarchs of the ancient empires, it would seem obvious to attribute all events, human and natural, to the God-Emperor—the God-Emperor brings the sun and the rain, defeats his enemies provides peace and prosperity to his loyal subjects, and so on. The emperors no doubt had their own advisors who told them at least some truths, but the bigger Truth, that the sun and the rain come independent of the emperor’s intentions, that prosperity depends upon the efforts of those who will benefit from it, that his enemies might in fact defeat him, meaning the emperor himself might be an instrument of some larger purpose are all truths spoken in defiance of the emperor. If the emperor’s power was thereby curtailed, everyone else’s power and imperial desire might thereby be stimulated—the truths about us all, truths of “human nature” regarding our rivalries and unattainable desires, are then discovered and made a common possession. “Truth” as we understand it, then, as something worth dying for, is grounded in an understanding of the limitations of our intentions, precisely as those intentions are unleashed. And, of course, the very origin of propositional truth lies in the declarative sentence, which tells someone making a demand or issuing a command that some reality makes the fulfillment of that demand or command impossible. Truth, then, is always about discovering what we can’t completely know or do, what we must discipline ourselves to accept, even if as a precondition for rectifying the situation. We need truth, especially in a world of sovereigns, to resist being consumed by self-destructive fantasies.

In a sense, the most authentic argument for inquiring into the truth is the one that leaves aside the question of what the truth is good for. Gans’s almost Straussian conclusion, hoping for a space “in the shadow of victimary ‘correctness’” might be all we could hope for and, maybe, as inquirers, all that we really need. But this is all very abstract—we’re not living in monasteries, after all. What do you do when confronted by the lies? You must at least be grateful to those who discover for us that they are lies—the prosecutors and witnesses, for example, in the Michael Brown case, who did their jobs as officers of the court and fulfilled their responsibilities as citizens and thereby exposed the lies. But if you’re grateful to them, you must be sorry if they are denounced, if they lose their jobs, become “non-people” (none of that, to my knowledge, happened in this particular case, except, very significantly, to Darren Wilson, the exonerated officer in question, who has been essentially blackballed from American society, but it has happened in many other cases to people who just did their job and told the truth, and will surely happen in many others)—your gratitude must take the form of at least wanting to help them, to expose the lies, built upon the previous ones, that have destroyed them. The SJWs are not really capable of an orderly process of what is in essence a system of human sacrifice—that is, they cannot assure us, as could the Aztec kings (or priests) of old could, that a certain number of victims will slake the thirst of the victimary gods (say, 10 Darren Wilsons a year) and that we could otherwise go about our business with a conscience sullied but not completely charred. No—the SJWs are a bringing their show to a workplace, a neighborhood, a TV station, a school, a company, a local government, an institution, near you. You will, or your children will, surely have to decide whether to help spread the lies (and heap slander upon their victims and those who rebut them) or to combat them, and trying to figure out which will be more likely to extend the life of our civilization a bit longer (based on what evidence and analysis?) is at best an evasive way of deciding which to do. It seems to me better to further anthropomorphize ourselves by combating the lies while acknowledging the contribution our own desires for social peace, for an image of virtuousness and feeling of superiority to others, flawed social theory (or mythicizing) and mislaid guilt (all attempts to saturate the intentional space) have made to the lies. If we are going to have faith in something, let it not be in idols or BS, but in the possibility that economic gaps will be addressed in ways we cannot yet imagine. (Although we should, of course, make every effort to imagine them, reducing what must be attributed to “unintended” ever further [but also, thereby, paradoxically increasing more of the unintended].)

It also seems to me that those who combat the lies will be far better defenders of civilization—why should those who consider the West an enterprise indelibly tainted by “ascription” fight against others who also despise the West? Just as little, though, can we expect vigorous defense to come from those who think the West is fine but, for the sake of social stability, we shouldn’t mind all kinds of vicious lies being spread by the disenchanted and those who manipulate them politically. Such cynicism is demoralizing and contagious (that would mean that the truth is energizing, because it either confirms the promise of the sovereign order or frees you you pledge allegiance to a more worthy one). You can tell soldiers that you’re sending them to war not to protect the country, or to defend freedom, but because it’s the best way of modulating current levels of global resentment—but don’t be surprised if they come back and vote for someone a lot worse than Trump. (The same goes for telling policemen they are not battling crime, defending the innocent or preserving order, but keeping resentments within the limits we have determined, never you mind how, acceptable.) More simply put, to try and take a “systems perspective” from within the system is epistemic arrogance (no one is in a position to “do the math”)—defending the truth is the only modest alternative. Telling the truth, as you see it, is the one thing everyone can do. The sovereign should be happy to hear it, but if not, well no one can tease out all the possible consequences. Going along with a bit of this lie here, and that lie there, while trying to sneak in a bit of inoffensive truth here and there, is just too complicated. It may be that a qualified defense of a hypothetically contained Left seems better than the alt-right alternative, and that, indeed, is the choice—but not only is the question of whether the Left is more of a vaccine than an immunological breakdown an open one, but presuming that you have the Left in a box is the very thing, as the folk wisdom of the horror movie genre informs us, that proves that the situation is not under control at all.

July 23, 2016


Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:54 am

Power has always been a bit of a mystery for political thought—some people do what other people say—why? Maybe because they will be harmed if they don’t obey—but that just means that the person giving the command can also command others to harm the disobedient, which just pushes the question back another step. Maybe because they agree with the command—but in that case, they would agree no matter who issued the command, and their obedience has nothing to do with the person giving the order which means that power is not involved at all. All of this is still true if, instead of speaking of “hard” power (commands) we think of “softer” versions, like the power of an example (why did people follow Martin Luther King Jr., whose opinions and proposals were no truer or more remarkable than plenty of other people’s?). We can follow Hannah Arendt in distinguishing “power” from “strength,” insofar as the former involves “acting in common” while the latter is the capacity to have effects—that is, dropping a bomb on a village has nothing to do with power (other than the power the commander has over the bomber), but why do people act in common when they do and why—an element of power Arendt seems to me to have neglected—are some people more capable than others of initiating such action, of directing and sustaining it? Here as well, someone has to go first—but you have only gone first when others have gone after you. So, the question of power is, why do the others go after?

I think that power is simply a display of discipline greater than those impressed by that display consider themselves capable of. I’m drawing here, as I have often done, on Philip Rieff’s theory of “charisma,” the original meaning of which (exemplified by Moses) he took to be obedience to a higher imperative manifested in extraordinary levels of abstemiousness. The individual you see resisting temptations you give way to and controlling impulses you are overpowered by has power over you—you will defer to him because you know that your own indiscipline (revealed to you by this example) blinds you to cause and effect, good and bad, and that the more disciplined individual will have more insight into these matters. Rieff also contended that the notion of “charisma” has been debased and reversed in modern times (he sees Max Weber’s study as the crucial turning point) so that it now refers to the individual willing to transgress against established norms. It is still the same concept, though—for the modern, over-civilized and over-regulated individual, temptations and impulses are channeled into the market system, and it is breaking with that system and its norms that seems to require courage and therefore greater self-control and self-command (in the American context, Ralph Waldo Emerson is probably the central figure here). To transgress—quit your job, leave the rat race, have an affair, tell your neighbors what you really think of them, whatever (it has all become clichés by now)—in a sense does call for greater discipline, as the temptation to back down, give in, try and fit back in, recover the benefits one discovers one has thrown away, is very powerful. And this kind of disciplining of the fear response is different from mere criminal activity (criminals also must master fears that would cripple normal people—which is why their activity can be represented as more than “mere” criminality) insofar as it is driven by self-sacrifice rather than self-interest.

The same logic holds for intellectual power—the founder of a discipline has managed to control, set aside, and think outside of assumptions that everyone else has so far taken for granted and have been incapable of challenging. Such a founder opens up a world others can then move freely within, making the modes of thought previously adhered to constraining by comparison. It takes discipline to take those founding assumptions and, one by one, control for commonsensical ways of accounting for things and replace them with this new way. In the normal operations of power, where we obey fairly uncharismatic (by any definition) people and most resort to familiar ideas in making sense of things, it is the residual power of the founding, replenished unevenly over time, that attracts us. The politician is clothed in the dignity of the office, the manager embodies the accumulated capital and knowledge present in the enterprise, the mediocre academic plays by the rules of and takes on a patina of the prestige of, an institution that has been a home for geniuses and site of discoveries and innovations—in which case, power is conveyed by a tacit reference to the founding and maintenance of the institution, which did require degrees of discipline well beyond the capacity of the average individual. The same people who ordinarily obey figures legitimated by past discipline (but also by the disciplinary demands, iterating the demands met in the original founding, required to enter and remain within the institution) can be brought to rebel against them, to follow a new form of power, by a new display of discipline, whether it take the form of exposing what has been hidden by those institutions, including their “mythical” foundings, or by a claim to hew more closely to that founding, or even by a simple show of insolence towards authority figures you yourself would never have considered challenging.

This approach to power might be compatible with Michel Foucault’s notion of power as all-encompassing, as always involving an interaction with some “counter-power,” and as working through the myriad “capillaries” as much as through the main “arteries” of the social order—as long as we keep in mind the fundamentally qualitative dimension of power I am examining. “Power” is not just what one is capable of doing to others, with those others in turn capable of doing something back in turn—if we ask where this capability comes from, we just go around in circles. But if we follow the reactionary futures blogger in prioritizing power (over culture, morality or economics), then the sovereign power Foucault wanted to make secondary to “micro-power” does indeed work on all kinds of micro levels we’d need to attend to. But the real problem is distinguishing between Rieff’s two modes of charisma, evidenced in what we might call the power of deferral, on the one hand, and the power of transgression, on the other. The distinction is not so easy to make—as I have been suggesting, transgression relies upon a certain kind of deferral, while Rieff’s favored form of charisma might take on transgressive forms—can anything be more transgressive than Moses challenging the divinely sanctioned might of the Egyptian empire?

Perhaps, though, we can distinguish between sovereignty clarifying and sovereignty confusing power—it may not always be obvious which is which, but we can improve our analytical perspicuity, and assume that disinterested inquiry over time will settle such questions. We can call the sovereignty clarifying power, defying one of the most popular modern maxims, “absolute” power, and the sovereignty confusing power, “dispersive.” Absolute power models itself on sovereign power, trying for minimal application (issuing orders and using force only where strictly necessary), clear lines of authority and identity of power and accountability (when something is done, everyone knows who wanted it done). Even more, absolute power seeks delivers its own power to the sovereign power as soon as possible, and seeks out the most likely candidate for sovereignty when sovereignty is uncertain, taking sovereign power itself if no other candidate emerges. Dispersive power tries to generate more power centers, to uncover potential new centers within existing ones so that no one really knows who’s doing things and why and to turn sovereign power itself into an agent of dispersal, an enemy producing machine for eternal civil war. And this brings us back to Rieff’s two modes of charisma: the kind of discipline yielding absolute power knows and even respects the power of transgression, which is an indispensable discovery procedure—but realizes that transgressive, dispersive power is itself ultimately just another temptation, an excuse to lower inhibitions and act barbarically. Transgression cannot, in the end, produce anything new (it can only disperse), except esthetically, but even there only insofar as the transgression is constrained by some esthetic form and therefore discipline. Absolute power, meanwhile, enhances itself by telling the truth, about itself and about transgression; dispersive power eventually resorts to lies and slanders about any potential form of sovereignty. So, Moses before Pharaoh is not transgressive insofar as he obeys a form of sovereignty superior to that of Pharaoh, even if it’s a form of sovereignty (and here is where Moses is breathtakingly daring, even if not transgressive) that has yet to be vindicated by being housed in an adequate human form (and any form of power must have been so imagined before being realized).

This line of thinking was instigating by my finding myself making extensive use of the notion of “informal power” in my previous post. Even the tightest, more totalizing sovereign, as understood in “reactionary” terms, will delegate power and rely upon institutions the sovereign has not itself created—even when strict orders are given in a clear chain of command occasions arise where those orders need to be interpreted in light of changed circumstances, and the relationship between the individual charged with the order and his subordinates as well as superiors must have an informal, tacit dimension to handle such revisionary situations. How do his subordinates know they should obey? Well, they’ve followed him before, have found him loyal and reliable, and have seen him rewarded by his superiors—in the light of that experience, which cannot be completely formalized, they will interpret this unorthodox proceeding in his favor—no sovereign, however efficient, benevolent and far-sighted could have ordered them in advance to obey in this situation. In that case, ensuring that informal powers—which will always emerge and develop unpredictably, as charisma cannot be planned—reinforce sovereign power is the central problem of reactionary politics. This tacit dimension is, further, rooted in the nomos, and ongoing reformations and deformations of the nomos: new powers emerge when the originary distribution no longer sufficiently accounts for social relations because some members of the community, being more disciplined, have made more of their “part” than others. All social crises, all sovereign uncertainty, can be traced back to such developments, and an assessment of the various forms of power is needed to resolve those crises.

July 22, 2016

Sovereignty, Nomos and Parrhesia

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:10 am

Carl Schmitt took the Greek word “nomos,” usually translated as “law,” but in a broad sense including “norms,” to refer to an originary division of land, a partition, by its first inhabitants. Whether the land has been conquered, discovered, or shared with another people, the nomos grounds the community in a more or less equal distribution and a more or less tacit covenant. The distribution may be according to contributions to the founding, or pre-existing power relations, and the covenant might be retrojected to the origin in order to conceal a more unilateral event, but, either way, the nomos provides a point of reference for all communal events going forward: they can be judged by the degree of their conformity to the nomos. But whoever’s judgment is decisive is sovereign, and such judgments are made necessary by either internal disputes or external threats. The nomos, that is, implies the need for judgment and the occasional organization of the community as an armed camp; while judgment and organization are legitimate insofar as they respect and reinforce the nomos. Sovereignty is ultimately exercised by a single individual—by whatever arrangement, there must be a single voice obeyed when one side in a dispute is favored or troops are ordered to fire on the enemy. The sovereign is both inside and outside the system insofar as its decisions constitute the system. Republicanism doesn’t dispute this, but considers the nomos to be safer if sovereignty is plural and distributed—one person judges, another decides whether we are at war, another commands the troops, etc. The more undisputed the nomos, the more sustainable republicanism is likely to be, but if the nomos is not shared unquestioningly then there will eventually be situations where the troops are commanded independent of a declaration or war or one side in a dispute is favored but the decision is not enforced, etc. Sovereignty then becomes uncertain, which means undesignated sovereigns, forms of power previously or formally auxiliary to the sovereign will, informally, step into the vacuum thereby created, confusing sovereignty further.

As sovereignty becomes uncertain, there are several possible responses: some will accelerate the disintegration of the original sovereign forms, believing that doing so will allow for a rearrangement of the nomos for their own benefit; some will gloss over the disjunction between formal and informal power, pretending that nothing fundamental has changed (this is essentially what Americans, who think we still live under the Constitution of 1789 do); while others will direct their attention to rendering sovereignty certain again: now, among this last group, we can distinguish between those who want the original formal power to be restored and those who believe that a new form of power is preferable or necessary—and, among these last, we can make a distinction between those who want to formalize the informal power relations that have emerged and those who see those informal power relations as incommensurable with the nomos, which can in turn lead to attempts to reorder power relations and/or found a new order on a new nomos. We could say that the left aims at accelerating the disintegration of original sovereign forms and ultimately dissolving the nomos; the “center” obfuscates the disjunction between formal and informal power while assuming the nomos is more or less intact; the “principled conservatives” want to restore the original formal power (return to the Constitution) but conflate the nomos with that (by now largely imaginary) formal power; the alt-right seeks to restore the nomos in opposition to existing informal power relations (from what I have seen the alt-right is uninterested in Constitutional forms, and has little to say about “regime types” in general); and the “reactionary” position is to make sovereignty certain, whether by dominating, coopting or sweeping away the existing informal powers—this set of alternatives, meanwhile, introduces a large degree of uncertainty into the reactionary project.

The reactionary project is ultimately the only coherent one, and the one that can assess and contain whatever is valuable in the others, but singularizing sovereignty can only realize that coherence by clarifying the relations between the nomos and the formal and informal powers. Very little thought has gone into this, and the alt-right and resurgent nationalism fall into victimary stances themselves when they rail against the informal powers (from Wall St. firms to Facebook and Google, to the EU and UN) as excrescences upon an otherwise healthy nomos—what kind of power, exactly, exercised by whom, will be brought to bear on global corporations closing down plants in the US, moving them overseas, cutting wages at home, etc.? You can speak of tariffs, but that presupposes the intactness of the existing regime of formal power (Constitutional government)—and if that power was really intact, would we be having these problems in the first place? “What is to be done” may have been Lenin’s question, but it is a good one nevertheless. A direct attempt to capture the sovereign power and make it certain would be to attempt to grab the bull by the horns—an expression which, for some reason, is usually used positively, to refer to determined, effective action, even though, literally speaking, it’s obviously insane.

A good way to start thinking about these problems is to pay attention to the way we talk about political matters. When we say we are “for” something and “against” something else, when we outline or approve of one or another policy proposal, we are presupposing a particular model of sovereignty. In fact, most such talk presupposes clear sovereignty, and clear hierarchies of command: if someone says they are “against abortion,” they presumably want a law passed forbidding abortion, complete with penalties and punishments for offenders, an executive who will give orders to law enforcement to, e.g., enter buildings where abortions have been suspected of being performed, and then place in custody those performing them, for a certain period, according to certain procedures, etc. Everyone along the line, you presuppose, will follow orders—if the local law enforcement agencies refuse to investigate reports that a particular building is housing an abortion clinic, and there are no repercussions from agencies higher up in the hierarchy, then in effect, there is no law against abortion, and, regardless of the changes to the criminal code, the commitments made by politicians, precedents set by the courts, etc., the “anti-abortion” people have not gotten what they want (unless they “really” want something else, some form of informal power, perhaps). And no one says, “I’d like Congress to pass a law forbidding abortion, I’d like the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, and I’d like a President ready to enforce that law, but I don’t really care whether local law enforcement agencies are on board or not.” It would hardly occur to anyone to think in such terms, which is what I mean when I say we all take clarity in sovereignty for granted when discussing political preferences and goals.

So, most of our political talk only makes sense if we presuppose clarity in sovereignty—if we presuppose that what we “support” can be implemented in such a way that we would recognize it as the thing we support. But all the relations between the nomos and formal and informal powers are neglected in such discussions and, in fact, almost no one really gets what they thought they were supporting. So, meaningful political talk would have to include these relations. To some extent this is the case for more involved partisans, for example, those on the left who target political funding—for the leftist (and, for sure, some rightist) scourges of “money in politics,” being for or against something doesn’t really matter because the big money donors override our opinions by making politicians dependent on them, so before we are for or against any reinforcement of the nomos, we need to be “against” this form of informal power. There’s always some truth to such critiques, but they are so tedious, useless and ultimately mendacious because they only target the informal powers the critic in question doesn’t like (that same critic is no doubt very happy to see other informal powers unhindered in their operations) and, more importantly, they invariably presuppose a stereotyped version of the nomos, as if, once all the “Big Money” were removed from politics, our respective civic consciences would automatically vibrate in tune with each other’s movements (and those of of the critic in question, of course), leading to spontaneous unanimity.

This is what we need parrhesia for. I noticed that Peter Thiel, in an interview he did with National Review, contended that “political correctness” is the biggest problem we face because it prevents us from talking about all the other problems in open and honest ways. No reader of this blog will be surprised to hear that I agree with this completely. The task of parrhesia is to talk about the informal powers when others want to talk about the nomos as a self-contained entity; to talk about the nomos when others are obsessed with informal powers; to talk about formal powers when other complain about how the informal powers run roughshod over the nomos, etc. If parrhesia is focused on the misalignment of nomos, formal and informal power, the intelligibility of its discourse relies upon the possibility of their being realigned. The practice of parrhesia, then, is to interject where one element of the total sovereignty package is ignored and point out that the question regarding nomos, formal power or informal power cannot be addressed without it. This involves pressing insistently on the most sensitive political questions: the question of nomos requires free inquiry into, for example, who counts as an “American,” and why; the question of informal power directs our attention to all kinds of interest groups that would prefer not to make explicit their relation to either formal power or the nomos, such as “moneyed” interests but not excluding groups qualifying their relation to America along race, ethnic, gender or other lines; and the question of formal power gets us examining, relentlessly, whether those officially delegated certain powers in fact have those powers and use them (which are really two ways of saying the same thing). The telos of parrhesia is showing us the way to make sovereignty more certain, and this practice will be necessary and welcome even as sovereignty is made increasingly certain, because it can never be certain enough. (Perhaps the irreverent parrhesia of the ancient cynics, when directed at rulers, aimed at deflating the sovereign’s pretensions by pointing out all that that exceeds the sovereign’s grasp—taking the point, then, would involve clarifying sovereignty—and remembering that sovereignty in the state required sovereignty of the soul, which politically corresponds to an intact nomos.)

Having raised the question of “political correctness,” i.e., the victimary, it seems to me that the victimary is almost exclusively concerned with breaking up the nomos. It is the originary distribution, according to family, and therefore a specific family and sexual order, and a system of marriage uniting families into a ethnos, that sets the terms of inclusion for future members, whether they be immigrants or those (e.g., native peoples or slaves) who were excluded from the nomos. The left uses various forms of informal power to “occupy” formal power, and it seems to me their endgame is to hollow out the nomos and make it an adjunct to their own reprogramming of formal power.

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