Absolutist Sovereignty

Bertrand de Jouvenel, in his historical account of the rise and metastasization of state power, On Power, finds in the origin of absolutism the very defect of unsecure power that leads to the pathological dynamic of divided power seeking more power that absolutist theory decries. The assertion of absolute power by the earliest kings (in Europe, at least, but de Jouvenel sees the model as universally applicable) resulted from their monarchical projects being stymied by the aristocrats they relied upon, who retained their land and men and therefore power (even if it was land and power nominally owned and actually distributed by the king). The king, then, elevates the subordinates of those aristocrats, makes them subject to his authority alone, and thereby marginalizes the aristocrats. This is the high-low alliance against the middle, repeated over and over again in the career of state power, because then, of course, out of the newly elevated subjects emerges a new middle, which again becomes a threat and so must be undermined by a new levy of the “people.” In the end, you get Black Lives Matter as a battering ram against the police, local governments and the white middle class.

The point, though, is that in de Jouvenel’s account there never seems to have been a time when power was “just right”—the aristocrats were, undoubtedly, short-sighted and egotistical and less capable than the king, at least on some occasions, of understanding the interests of the national community as a whole. It is ridiculous that a single aristocrat can go on strike and thereby make addressing some crisis (e.g., a rebellion or invasion) impossible. The initial appropriation of absolute power, then, was not arbitrary and was probably even justified—and probably more likely to succeed than waging war on recalcitrant aristocrats. But this certainly creates a problem for absolutist theory: where, exactly, are we taking our model of good governance from?

We could pinpoint theoretically and no doubt discover historically moments when the pre-absolutist king called upon his aristocratic loyalists, who in turn called upon their dependents—and all the calls were in fact answered. The earliest absolutisms would themselves have been modeled upon, and attempts to recreate, such events. Whatever made sovereignty reducible to the king’s will is the model for absolutism. We don’t have to assume a single miraculous moment of harmony uniting all wills and strata of society—this would have happened often, perhaps regularly. Aristocratic resistance to, say, 15% of the king’s projects might have been frustrating enough and, indeed, sometimes dangerous enough, for the king to take measures to end his dependence on the aristocrats, but that would still mean he attained 85% compliance. Even if the numbers are lower, the point would stand: unity of will was obtained, repeatedly, so we can figure out how.

It seems obvious that the king would have been most successful in mobilizing his subordinates in their hierarchical order when there was universal acknowledgement regarding the urgency of some shared threat, or potential advantage. Such acknowledgement can never be universally intense, but enthusiasm must be high enough for the skeptical to yield to that pressure rather than risking going it alone in dissent. In retrospect, it might be discovered that unanimity was attained when it was less necessary, and not attained when it was more necessary—this is what would have initiated the career of power, in de Jouvenel’s sense. In other words, if the king takes unanimity when he can get it, rather than obtaining it when he really needs it, he is not preserving the unity of sovereignty. So, we need to pinpoint our model even more precisely: what we are looking for is the king wisely “calling in his debts” when the future of his realm most depends upon it.

Absolutism, then, as political theory and method, aims at having and keeping those debts in place permanently, and acting at each moment as if the future of the realm depends upon every decision. The cost-benefit consequences of obedience or resistance must be present to all at all times—the entire social order must be permeated with signs of these consequences, which will be modulated continually: where more benefits are available, costs can be downplayed, but if benefits become limited, the costs must be highlighted. But costs and benefits must always be framed in terms of the largest cost and benefit of them all: the destruction or preservation and enhancement of the realm itself. It is easy to see why kings would have judges issuing judgments in the name of the king, merchants selling goods in the name of the king, teachers promoting students in the name of the king, and so on. Nor are these formulas any more tedious, or less given to being renewed by fresh commitments, than the clichés we live by in liberal democracies. It’s really just a way of reminding us that we must be doing what we do for the good of society, which is no vague phrase because we know where that good is located.

The idea here is less to “assert” absolute power than to simply assume the absolute power already located at the social center. There is a social center because society is founded on deferral, which assumes some central object of desire; the social center, in a civilized order premised on an upward spiral of discipline, is whatever is taken to guarantee that hierarchy of discipline. The sovereign power, then, embodies that guarantee, and the way to embody that guarantee is to issue tokens of permission and promises of protection to all the disciplines, i.e., all institutions that seek to reward discipline of whatever kind and ensure the return in kind to that form of discipline (which might be money for the merchant, recognition for the soldier, a circle of fellow inquirers and supply of students for the scholar, etc.). And then, of course, review the terms of the permission regularly and honor the promises. This is the way to govern with and through the middle, rather than against it—and this might be much easier now than it was for the original absolutist monarchs because the property and power of the disciplines are now more obviously social in character than was the land and serfs of the lord. Computer operators and doctors can’t really go it alone—they need protection and therefore permission. Of course, as de Jouvenel would also insist, all these conditions of absolute rule operate as constraints on the ruler, who, to that extent, is less than “absolute.” But no one could ever have claimed that an absolute ruler was absolute in any metaphysical sense—a massive earthquake could destroy his rule, just as much as political mistakes can. His rule is absolute in the sense that nothing in the social order is outside of that rule, and if there is something outside of it he’s not really ruling—there is a descriptive, almost axiomatic component of this formulation, but also a prescriptive one: to the sovereign, let nothing assert itself outside of your grant of permission and promise, but also grant nothing you are not prepared to guarantee; to the subject, unless you wish for disorder, assert nothing outside of that rule, but also assert and cloth yourself in the rule.

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