GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 1, 2016

What is to be Undone?, 1

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:37 am

It’s time to try something along the lines of Machiavelli’s The Prince, or all those “mirrors for kings” they used to write in the Middle Ages—instructions and advice for restoring and maintaining sovereignty in the contemporary world. But as we’re quite a ways from having anyone resembling a new reactionary ruler, it seems like the “activist” or, as some neo-reactionaries would prefer, the “passivist,” is the only one who could use such a manual. I don’t really have anywhere near enough readers on any political scene to “advise,” though, and there are actually plenty of blogs out there with some very good advice (quite likely based on a lot more experience than I’ve ever had) regarding the kinds of political attitudes, actions and non-actions to take in resisting the consolidation of globalist/leftist political power. If “producerism” is to replace “consumerism” as a model for intellectual activity, though, political writing like all writing must be done performatively, pointing to its own participation in the concepts it constructs—writing within the originary scene, rather than about it. Lenin’s What is to be Done is probably the best combination of theoretical innovation, polemical precision and practical intervention in political practice ever written, and his model of “democratic centralism” (everyone within the organization has their say based upon the experience gathered from their own location in the field, but when the decision is made, everyone implements that decision with absolute obedience) is a good starting point for thinking about sovereignty, so this seems like a good model, but only if put in reverse, in a reactionary manner: if we think about reaction literally, as restoring, e.g., the heir to the royal line and of the deposed aristocracy, along with the established Church, etc.; or, for that matter, as restoring the same demographics of an earlier time; we would end up squabbling instantly and impotently about insignificant details or complete impossibilities; but if we think about reaction as a stripping of excrescences from a model of sovereignty that has certainly existed almost everywhere and that attained a kind of perfection (absolute monarchy concerned with internal order, the civilizing process and external differentiation) before (way before) revolutionary modernity demolished it once and for all, then setting ourselves the task of identifying and undoing all the sources of disorder all the way back to the original challenges to that (now abstracted) form of sovereignty—well, then we have a perfectly reasonable project of politically interested historical and cultural inquiry, and one that conforms to the fundamental insight of the originary hypothesis that all action is a form of deferral, which is to say, all doing a kind of undoing.

Since I don’t have a ruler, potential ruler, political organization or potential political organization to address, I’ll just address anyone who wants their speech to more closely approximate truth and their actions to more closely approximate sovereignty, and is willing to invest in the possibility that the originary hypothesis provides a uniquely valuable means of accomplishing same. As Schmitt said, sovereign is he who decides on the exception. So, in the US, there is a legal doctrine dictating that rights can be infringed if there is a “compelling state interest” in doing so. Whoever decides what counts as a “compelling state interest” is sovereign. Schmitt’s definition is highly minimal and easily operationalizable, but more follows from it. Sovereignty can be exploited and discarded, or it can be preserved: the former occurs when the sovereign power serves external interests, which is to say is sold to them; in the latter case, the sovereign’s existence depends upon the maintenance of sovereignty and so care is taken that all lines of authority can be traced back to sovereign decisions. The sovereign, then, wants everyone else to be sovereign in their own sphere—the most minimal and hence ideal form of sovereignty would be to do nothing more than to set and enforce the terms of all subordinate forms of power.

So, to speak for sovereignty is to be more sovereign—to treat all powers as sovereign, to treat their formal and real powers as identical (they allow for and therefore endorse everything done in their sphere), and initiate disciplinary spaces that would inform more fully sovereign powers. Within such disciplinary spaces, everything is on the surface: everyone in their sphere is either subverting sovereignty or making it more certain, and we can tell who is doing what simply by listening to and speaking with them. Every word out of every person’s mouth (or keyboard) is either a way of exhibiting and modeling sovereignty by bringing words and actions closer together or dispersing sovereignty by disclaiming the implications and consequences of one’s words. This is just a fully political form of the concept of discipline—the more disciplined you are, the more you want to represent things coming from you or touched by you as signifying you; the less disciplined, the more you want to palm off even what everyone sees you do as coming from elsewhere. So, the first thing to start undoing is all of those concepts and mental tricks by which what is within our responsibility as speaking, social and governing beings is farmed out to others and to various impersonal agencies.

The Big Man is the beginning of history and of all our ethical and political dilemmas. The Big Man disciplines himself so as to accumulate and ultimately break the gift economy by placing himself beyond any possible reciprocity. But in the meantime, he must be managing rivals, cultivating alliances, discovering norms and founding institutions, even if in minimal ways: what is not allowed to others must be allowed to him, and so he finds ways of formulating and enforcing this new ethical realm—and, then, recognizing the new desires his own innovations have inspired in others, and which must be incorporated into his own praxis. He institutes a system of discipline, first of all among the second-tier Big Men in his orbit, and hence the first form of sovereignty. Everything done in the space he governs is done, ordered, or permitted by the Big Man. The Big Man stretches imperative culture—the culture of asymmetry, of honor, of the demand that every act be collectively affirmed or negated—to the point where his own sovereignty is limited by events it has set in motion: wars and the rise and fall of regimes are outside the sovereignty of the Big Man become tyrant, which is the beginning of “declarative” culture: sentences that apply equally to every human being, big or small. What is said about the poor farmer can equally be said about the king: they both live and die, rise and fall, find grace and sin, etc. The declarative sentence as the Name-of-God is a logical conclusion of this process, a “purified” sentence that frames all narratives in the naming of the source of imperatives that come before any specific imperator. It is the Big Man who comes to realize that demands he makes of his gods, mediated through his priests, cannot be fulfilled, but some form of speech, cynical or prophetic, is required to make this part of the Big Man’s governance: the final form of discipline acquired by the sovereign, but accessible to everyone participating in that sovereignty, is to listen to those reminding you of the limits of your sovereignty and minimizing your sovereignty accordingly. (At a certain point, demands like “destroy my enemies,” “strengthen my hand,” “give me a sign,” “tell me what to do” are seen or felt to go unanswered, which means the answer is really just a restatement of what is beyond the limits of your power: I AM. But only someone relatively powerless could say that this limit does not simply imply a more powerful god of the same kind but a God of a different kind who is with everyone—I AM is something everyone can not say, and in not saying it be reminded of the limits of sovereignty.) Sovereignty draws both emulation and resentment toward itself, and in this way brings resentment to a central point where it can be overawed and reframed as unappeasable and hence transgressive if not “donated” to the sovereign. So, we must undo our deadly ambivalence toward inequality, the deadly desire for an even greater power to undo some more direct power over us. If you want someone to have the power to do that, you also want them to have the power to not care what you want. In that case, you want to become disciplined enough to be aligned with that power. But isn’t the best way of doing that to respect and seek to further formalize the powers you feel prompted to complain about?

Sovereignty does not presuppose ethnic homogeneity—the conditions under which the sovereign takes power may leave several ethnic groups within his territory; through carelessness or deliberation, demographic shifts might diversify the territory; the sovereign may have specific uses for particular ethnic groups; the sovereign himself might come from an ethnic minority, or even be a foreigner—there are conditions under which these arrangements might make a great deal of sense. But one thing the sovereign cannot do is ignore or deceive himself regarding ethnic and racial differences. Different groups, and different factions within each group, will be loyal (or disloyal) to the sovereign for different reasons, and rivalries within and between such groups will be major sources of both potential and danger. There might be good reasons for encouraging the dilution of groups, or for promoting their homogeneity and solidarity. Sometimes it will be preferable to address specific groups, and sometimes to subsume all within the category of “loyal subjects.” Still, having said all this, in the end most sovereign orders will have a core ethnic group, and sovereignty will be more secure the more it privileges this group and ensures its flourishing, and even more so if the sovereign comes from that group; it also follows that the restoration of sovereignty will most often begin as the self-defense and self-assertion of such a core group. Other arrangements must be considered somewhat deviant, and assumed to carry special dangers. At any rate, once we acknowledge that ethnic differences must be acknowledged, we can consider what kinds of acknowledgement conform to sovereign preservation. Each group’s specific contribution to the commonwealth should be acknowledged, and any movement towards a claim to sovereignty by a specific group strongly discouraged. Jettisoning some group and relying more completely on the core group is always an option, though, if sovereignty is threatened. What needs to be undone here is the war against stereotypes and prejudices—it is better that we know what everyone thinks about everyone else, and the more people realize that social order still requires various explicit and tacit negotiations between groups the more prepared all will become for a sovereign that can serve as the authority of last resort. Every individual is a sample whose appearance naturally leads to inquiries regarding the representativeness of that sample. But what also needs to be undone is scapegoating, not so much because it is harmful or hateful to particular groups as because it traduces the essential principle that all responsibility ultimately lies with the sovereign. This keeps ethnic conflicts within limits—even if you think one group is violent, another manipulative and greedy, a third lazy and rude, etc., you have to recognize in the end that insofar as these qualities corrode the commonwealth it is a sign of the need for further formalization of sovereign power—the sovereign cannot be said to be doing the “bidding” of one or another of these groups (of course, the sovereign might need to make this clear).

A reactionary politics has to have a way of talking about the economy. We can start here from the elementary observation that, barring a pure, stateless, anarcho-capitalist order, all economic activity has at least the tacit permission of the sovereign of the territory upon which it takes place. This right away implies that arguments for free trade are in fact arguments in favor of the government helping whoever will benefit the most from however “free trade” gets defined and encoded in law and government practice. Here, I’ll have to be tentative, but perhaps the best way for an absolute sovereign to control the economy is through government contracts for work on state property and the war machine (why not do away with euphemisms like “defense”?). The sovereign could set the standards for work done for his territory—quality standards, workplace standards, use of local materials and firms, environmental standards, etc.—which companies competing for that work would strive to meet, spreading those standards more widely, and establishing them as normative even when not obligatory. Of course, state contracts are a major source of corruption in contemporary society, but that’s in large part because people circulate back and forth between business and government (and other institutions) and so can benefit from all kinds of indirect and legal corruption (government officials going to work as lobbyists for companies they did favors for in office, etc.). If the sovereign must preserve his sovereignty in order to preserve his stake in the social order, and perhaps even his life, deals that strengthen potential rivals and generate contempt from the elites and the people will seem a lot less attractive. The sovereign must at least not let anyone get too close. Ultimately, we must, in our reactionary musings, presuppose a sovereign determined to survive and capable of doing so, to leave his state stronger than he found it, and transmit it to a suitable successor—otherwise, we would be imagining a sovereign who would be deposed to, eventually, give way to the kind of sovereign worth thinking about. In this case, what must be undone is “economistic” thinking, i.e., treating the economy as a separate entity and discipline—rather, we would think about the economy in a particular territory as oriented towards and deriving its general direction from a center interested in eliciting rivalries so as to raise the general level of discipline of the people.

Sovereigns will like patriarchy, which is just clear sovereignty in the household. They will also prefer an established Church, without necessarily outlawing other religions, if for no other reason than that the sovereign can’t seem to be indifferent to such an important matter; also, insofar as it is incumbent upon the sovereign to inculcate ever higher levels of discipline in his subjects, he should have institutional vehicles for conveying the best means and measures of that discipline. For the same reason, there would be a state school system, strictly subordinate to sovereign purposes, up through the university level—although here, as well, without necessarily excluding private systems. Needless to say, non-established institutions of worship and private schools would not be allowed to become centers of opposition—everything that happens in these places is also permitted by the sovereign. Here, then, we must undo centuries of liberal thought regarding the neutrality of the state in matters of belief—no state has ever, in fact, been neutral in these matters, and nothing could be more comical than the suggestion that our contemporary state leaves citizens to form their own opinions. We can tell the general tenor of accepted opinion under a competent absolute sovereign: aspire high, but ultimately for the glory of the sovereign; take as much responsibility for your actions as you can; recognize your superiors and be an example to your inferiors; be honest and comprehensive in your communications, just making sure to turn all observations into humble recommendations for the use of sovereign power rather than implied evidence of sovereign incompetence or malevolence; accept that while the sovereign is answerable, and on extreme occasions can be, carefully, so reminded, to the same intangible moral and intellectual power as the rest of us, how those accounts are kept are ultimately the sovereign’s affair. It’s the sovereign’s responsibility to enforce such a tenor of opinion, in whatever way best suits the conditions of the regime.

A movement of political reaction is, one, then, of cultural revolution. It is easy, in looking at the attitudes and ways of thinking proposed above as creating the elements of an absolute sovereign order within the current order of maximally confused sovereignty, to see how incompatible they are with either modern or postmodern subjectivities. It also seems to me obvious how superior they are, but that is the case that needs to be made, case by case. Perhaps we can sum it up in a preliminary manner as follows: in a democracy, everyone wants a sovereign that is absolute towards their enemies but virtually non-existent regarding themselves. It seems to me that a translation of virtually all political speech into sovereign terms—i.e., based on the question, what would the state have to be able to do in order to do what you want it to?—would reveal that this is the case. To cease thinking in these terms (to undo the fantasy that this oscillation of absolutisms leads to some salutary balance), and to imagine a state indifferent to what each of us would like done to our enemies and solely concerned with transmuting those rivalries into sources of the wealth and power of a sovereign who has staked his existence on preserving his sovereignty, would be to discipline our thinking in absolutely new and empowering ways.

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