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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