GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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.

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