GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 9, 2016

Sovereign Selection

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:44 pm

The establishment of dynastic monarchies, while not to be completely ruled out, as it is the simplest way to guarantee the continuity of the sovereign power, cannot be relied upon as a means of selecting the person to exercise absolute sovereignty. Anyway, dynastic monarchies have always been problematic in this regard, as all it takes is one sterile couple to lay the groundwork for a civil war between those allied with the king’s nephew and those insistent that his mother-in-law’s son by her first husband is the true heir. There have been elective monarchies, but in what sense are they monarchies—sovereignty is certainly not absolute, and however carefully the electorate is chosen, it is sure to expand until we have a full-fledged democracy and therefore radically uncertain sovereignty. (We don’t hear much about elective monarchies, which suggests to me they have never been particularly successful, or established as a stable political form.) This seems to me the biggest logistical problem with absolute sovereignty, since if sovereignty must be completely in one set of hands, how does it peacefully get into another set of hands, as eventually it must? So, let’s try to solve it.

It is best to see sovereign power as either taken or given—and certainly never as simply extant in some body. Once taken, or received, it is held, until taken by or given to, another. (We can follow the chain of custody.) So, the theory of absolute sovereignty has to account for a repeatable means of giving power and for the least contentious way possible of taking it, when necessary. A ruler could give power to whomever he wants, but a responsible ruler would want to give power to someone who could hold it. We can, of course imagine that being his offspring, who has grown up as a prospective heir, has been trained and groomed for the job, imbued with the proper sense of responsibility, and so on. The purpose of primogeniture, of course, was to eliminate rivalries between the children of the monarch by creating criteria that placed the decision beyond their control (criteria that prevented there being a decision). As soon as we introduce the notion that the best must rule, and the foundation of kingly power no longer serves as a permanent legitimation of monarchical rule, we are confronted with the possibility of explosive rivalries, most obviously between the king’s children but then more broadly between his advisors, those discussed as suitable heirs or replacements, along with all the families and factions drawn into these rivalries.

The intractable nature of rivalries spread across the entire social order being the problem generated by the assertion of absolute sovereignty, it must therefore be made the solution. The more deserving the sovereign, that is, the more power is exercised by the most intellectually and emotionally disciplined individual, the more that sovereign will want the flourishing and interaction of similarly disciplined individuals just below the threshold at which a challenge to the sovereign seems like a good bet. The way to do this is always to be the arbiter in those rivalries—to set up, more or less explicitly, contests to see who is the best advisor, the best surrogate, the best administrator, the best theorist of political power, the best architect, artist, etc., and to be the final judge in these contexts. This is a very layered and indirect process—there would be contests over the best advisor for how to determine the best architect, etc.—but that is the art of sovereignty. Whoever is always the judge can never be judged himself, and if the ruler needs judgments regarding his exercise of power, he can set up a contest for that as well, one promoting both honesty and humility on the part of the contestants. These rivalries can reach deep into society, recruiting fresh talent to the regime, while encouraging a general sense of competitiveness, fair play and devotion to the regime among the people.

As part of his normal exercise of power, then, the sovereign creates and continually replenishes a pool of candidates for his replacement—there will be no outrage or even surprise if the man who has been credited with giving the king some of the best counsel over the past decades is appointed the ruler’s successor in his twilight years, or if the ruler feels his power failing. By the same token, there will be less shock if, supposing the ruler to become suddenly erratic and evidently a danger to the realm, such an advisor, with the support of others—the support of enough to make civil war impossible, or at least brief—were to take power and sideline the ruler. Such a seizure of power would be able to account for itself in terms of the recorded history of the regime, and reliable accounts of the ruler’s changed behavior. As always, these simple descriptions of what absolute sovereignty would entail make it obvious how different we would all have to be—rulers and ruled alike—for such a regime to work. I would assume that it sounds crazy to most readers. I accept that as a marker of the degree of transformation in consciousness and conscience that would be necessary to restore civilization at this late date. What we have utterly lost is the habit of deference, not as a means of squelching by precisely in pursuit of our highest aspirations—in other words we defer to others all the time, but always either grudgingly, or or in strict adherence to a set of rules formulated to make it look like one is acceding to reality rather than deferring to another, but almost never in free acknowledgement of another’s unquestioned eminence. Only the direst of circumstances will lead us to recover that.

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