GABlog

July 13, 2016

Absolute

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:09 pm

It is only possible to engage in peaceful activity insofar as someone protects that activity from those who would interrupt it violently—to rob or coerce or take revenge on one or more of the participants, or just for the hell of it. The participants can protect themselves, but as the predators get more sophisticated—as they specialize and hone their predatory skills—it will be hard for the participants to keep up, because they are too busy specializing in their peaceful activities to compete as self-protectors in the arms race against the predators. The law of comparative advantage suggests they will eventually farm out protection duties, either to private security or the state. Even the most primitive communities will probably delegate self-defense, except perhaps in the most extreme circumstances, to the strongest and most aggressive young men. It is probably at least as true to say that, once communities have been stratified, any peaceful activity is not only protected by but has the at least tacit permission of whoever controls, which is to say, owns, the territory upon which that activity is conducted. Much early trading was no doubt carried out between members of different communities, but it nevertheless took place somewhere, and therefore required the sanction of one or both of the sovereigns involved (for example, through treaties).

Once communities are sufficiently differentiated so that various non-ritual interactions take place regularly within a sovereign territory, the sovereign is primarily distinguishing between the peaceable and the predatory amongst his own people (“his own” in the sense of those he rules over). The sovereign is either capable of doing this, or he isn’t—if he is, then he permits all activities that he does not prevent, because he can prevent any of them; if he isn’t, then he simply isn’t sovereign, which means someone else is, or others are—perhaps some incompletely subdued Big Men are sovereign over at least parts of the territory, perhaps street gangs are sovereign over some inner city neighborhoods, etc. Now, central to liberal political thinking is that liberty or prosperity or happiness of good government (the emphasis shifts from thinker to thinker) requires limitations in sovereign power. There are certain human or civil rights that can’t be violated, or there is a constitution that prevents the government from using its power in certain ways. The problem with this approach is evident in the operations of our contemporary governments—who, exactly, decides whether the government has violated someone’s rights, or has overstepped limits placed on its exercise of power? Whoever decides is, then, sovereign. In theory, liberalism would like to situate this “ultimate” sovereignty with the “people”—but the people could only exercise this sovereignty through revolution, in which case the resultant sovereign would not exactly be the “people” but whichever party or militia manages to concentrate power in its own hands. Otherwise, the decision is made by some branch of the government itself, which means there’s a kind of shell game going on here. At higher levels of civilization, the game of ping pong between the legislature, executive and judiciary might preserve a sense of moderation and cooperation on the part of all parties, but there is nothing in this haphazard and informal distribution of powers that helps to preserve that level of civilization—on the contrary, the more power that seems to be lying around unclaimed, the more people will try and figure out how to pick it up. We go from uncertainty to uncertainty, and struggles for power come to permeate the entire social order. So, for example, we might say that, in effect, in the US the Supreme Court is sovereign insofar as it has the final word on what the executive and legislative branches do. Maybe—but that only lasts as long as some enterprising President, sensing popular winds at his (or her!) back, decides to defy the Supremes (how many divisions do they have?). Even more, the Supreme Court justices emerge from a broader judicial culture, comprised of the lower courts, the law schools, professional associations, and so on—so, must we locate sovereignty elsewhere? (Should we accept the assertion, made, I think, mostly seriously, by more than one “Reactionary” blogger, that Harvard is, in fact, sovereign?) Sovereignty in this case becomes both highly impenetrable and extremely unreliable and unstable. Maybe, indeed, sovereignty is mobile, taken up by different agencies depending upon needs and circumstance—this is an attractive idea, and I can imagine it working fairly well in small, closely knit communities, where charismatic individuals would step forth and be acknowledged by the community in emergencies. That, in fact, seems to be the model of sovereignty in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Judges, but it hardly seems transferable.

Liberal theory not only fails but fails disingenuously precisely because it allows no one to claim sovereignty even though someone must. Liberalism is extremely hostile to anyone saying something like “alright, I’m going to do what it takes to maintain order here,” even though there are obviously times when someone needs to do that. We could see liberalism as a kind of pathology, a phobia—it is possessed by the idea that if anyone ever does “take over” and impose order they will do so forever, and in unaccountable, inscrutable and terrifyingly destructive ways. I think we can describe this pathology even more precisely and more personally—that guy, that dictator, that Alpha, that Bad Daddy who takes over will stop me from doing something that I very much want to do. The fact that in a post-romantic West everyone likes to see his/her deepest desires as “subversive” feeds into this phobia. But that just means you want your deepest desires to be sovereign, and how is that supposed to work? Someone will be sovereign—the question is, is it better that we all know exactly who that is? If you say yes—the more emphatically you say yes—because the more uncertainty there is, the more the purpose of sovereignty is defeated, and the less protection we can expect for peaceful interactions, then you are led inexorably to absolutism, without all the fuzziness introduced by rights, limited and divided powers and the rest of the liberal machinery.

The biggest problem, then, is how to get someone into that position (whoever chooses that someone, if he is indeed chosen, is, at least for that moment, sovereign—so, how are they chosen)? Democracy is a proposed solution to this problem, probably prompted by the realization that monarchy cannot be separated from an inadequate selection process, far too dependent upon accidents of birth. Democracy is just a way of dividing sovereignty by providing the electorate with a kind of punctual sovereignty on election day; once the elected officials take power they are sovereign, and I am far from the first to note that what the people thought they were voting for may have very little to do with what those elected choose to do with their sovereignty. And, of course, the electorate as sovereign can do what it likes, and there is no reason to assume that what it likes bears any relation to the purposes of sovereignty in the first place. (Your good democrat will bristle at that very formulation—that someone might dare to assert that sovereignty has “essential” purposes beyond what the people would like those purposes to be—but if the sovereignty of the people, such as it is, is simply presumptive, why should the people school themselves in the preservation of sovereignty?) If the sovereign is genuinely sovereign, he can decide on matters of succession, so will we not very soon find ourselves back in a hereditary monarchy?

Since I began playing with the notion of absolutism, the problem the notion seemed to pose for me is how to integrate it with the other political/anthropological concepts I have been taking on board recently: nationalism, parrhesia, and producerism. In principle, absolutism could rule over a multinational empire; for that matter, it could break up a nation and impose some other ordering principle. And, needless to say, the absolute sovereign can quickly shut up any aspiring parrhesiac. And will an absolute sovereign not see imaginative, charismatic producerists as a threat? But I then considered that the problem might, in fact, be a solution. A successful sovereign would want all of these things. Ruling over a nation is far more likely to provide the sovereign with the “middle” (Cf., my previous post) he needs to govern as minimally as possible—not to mention the ballast a cohesive nation provides in possible conflicts with other sovereigns. (If force of circumstance requires a sovereign to incorporate alien peoples, the wiser sovereign will seek to integrate the new people into the existing one.) The producerists, meanwhile, will be the source of wealth, advice, and political and military leadership. The question of parrhesia is more difficult. It’s a democratic prejudice (confirmed, though, by 20th century dictatorships) that an absolute sovereign will suppress all criticism and deviation from the “party line.” Nothing in the concept of absolute sovereignty requires this (and, for an obvious counter-example, the absolute monarchs of early modern Europe allowed for a very rich and often dissonant artistic and religious culture). Still, some discourses will be marked as heresy and sedition and, at any rate, the sovereign will always have the absolute power to classify them as such. (Some are in even the freest and most democratic countries, but let’s leave that aside for now—these nagging “double standard” comparisons and charges of “hypocrisy” are especially irritating when we are trying to think something through.)

I will try this formulation: the more successful and secure a sovereign, the more he will allow for and embrace public criticisms of his decisions, exposures of corruption, satirical representations of powerful figures and a vigorous intellectual and artistic life. A less successful sovereign will be unsuccessful in other ways, so his oppressiveness regarding open discourse will just be part of a bigger problem; a sovereign who is less secure through no fault of his own might have good grounds for tightening the reins, and a responsible class of artists and intellectuals will tailor their works accordingly and find new ways to speak freely within the imposed limits. In the case of the failed sovereign, well, we may get to the point where he needs to be removed—there is nothing more dangerous than the revolutionary abyss of radically uncertain sovereignty than a catastrophically failing sovereign. Given the presumption in favor of absolute sovereignty, we can assume that revolutions will only take place as a last resort, and will not be carried out until the leading figures of the middle, the best judges of the status of sovereign power, have been convinced there is no other way. (Now, along with the failed sovereign we are likely to see a corrupted and compromised middle, but that doesn’t change anything—it just means the situation is worse, and we have fewer leading figures to rely upon.) Considering this possibility gives us the solution to the problem of sovereign selection and succession. A successful sovereign, who is successful because he has cultivated the middle and the producerists, and listened to the public conversations of his subjects, can be expected to choose his successor well, even if it is his own child. The leading subjects will support as best they can the less successful sovereigns, and try to shepherd the people through harder times, including reckless choices of a successor. Ultimately the salvation of order will depend upon the sovereign being persuaded by those leading subjects (and first of all allowing them to try, without any fear—although if they are indeed “leading,” they should also be courageous). As for the first post-liberal absolute sovereign—that in fact is the easiest choice, because it will be whoever is brave, resourceful, intelligent and charismatic enough to lead a lot of imperfect people through some very desperate times—and there won’t be an over-supply of candidates.

I will briefly note that I am not just building utopian castles in the sky here—or, perhaps, I should note that the point of constructing utopias has always been to find better ways of talking about what is right in front of us. You can see from my discussion that to speak in terms of absolute sovereignty as a measure of good and true order is necessarily to speak in very different ways about social interaction and order. You end up speaking much less about interests, desires and resentments as the basic elements of social order (which leads to all the liberal problems of “balancing” and the Machiavellean plans to distract through amusements, etc., and gnawing sense that continued social order depends upon a good quarter of economic growth) and much more about deferral, discipline and charisma (in Philip Rieff’s sense of the attractive power “given off” by the more disciplined). Once you commit yourself to clear and certain sovereignty, because it’s the only way of preventing resentments from splintering society, you become interested in all the ways we can expect ourselves and others to transcend those resentments through devotion to a center. When I was watching the TV mini-series The Tudors a couple of years ago, I was struck by how most of the people executed (sometimes, especially in the case of Anne Boleyn, for the craziest of reasons) on order of King Henry VIII made a point, in their speech before those assembled to witness the execution, to praise the king and implore the people to be grateful and obedient toward him. This seems outrageous to almost any modern—why, they should have declared their innocence, denounced the injustice, railed against the king, called upon the people to rise up against the tyrant (what did they have to lose, after all?)—but I found it very impressive, checked to make sure it was historically accurate, and was very grateful to the producers for including such “counter-cultural” sentiments. (They were only a generation away from some terrible violence carried out in the name of contesting the legitimacy of the king, but that they had so internalized this lesson and translated it into civic and religious terms that it informed their final act is remarkable.) I would say that overt and sustained renunciation of violence precisely when the desire to give oneself over to it is almost irresistible is the highest form of parrhesia—which means that following the discipline of parrhesia might be especially likely to lead one to absolutism.

I have always insisted that on the originary scene the assembled could not have put forth their respective gestures simultaneously. I have some very good (to my mind) reasons for doing so, but the one relevant here is that the assumption of simultaneity excludes any representation of a threat to social order on the scene itself. If everyone is an equal participant on the scene—equal in commitment, enthusiasm, understanding of the implications of what they are doing—then “anti-social” activity must be secondary and contingent, explicable in terms of specific circumstances, not a perennial threat (at most there will be resentments that are always already contained, at least within the prevailing form of order even if not the specific regime). We could assume that, ultimately, everyone really just wants a seat at the table. That’s not necessarily the case, though. If the sign was first put forth (with whatever degree of intentionality) by one, then a couple more, then a majority, then it makes sense to further infer that the final participants, those who came last, did so out of fear of a now imposing group force, or even needed to be restrained by those determined to protect the center. No one can dispute that there are lots of people who behave acceptably for fear of punishment or social approval, and really have contempt for (or simply no comprehension of) the norms in the name of which they would be subject to censure. The current relaxation of norms makes this very obvious, and is certainly why the existence of psychopaths and sociopaths has become such an interesting subject (how many are there? How can we recognize them? Where does the boundary lie between psychopathy and sociopathy and normalcy? Do they have advantages over normal people when it comes to acquiring wealth and power?). The political relation between those who live by the sign and those who live in contempt/fear of those who live by the sign is very different than the political relation between those assumed to be bound by roughly symmetrical reciprocity. If you are working with the latter model, you will find divided and uncertain sovereignty much less of a concern (and maybe even a source of social vibrancy) than if you are working with the former.

Powered by WordPress