Monthly Archives: November 2016

Principles: Imagining Sovereignty, Fantasizing Anarchy

One of the major conservative objections to Donald Trump’s campaign was that his speech and action so often violated conservative “principles.” Any conservative worth his (or hers; or zir) salt can reel off an approved list of such principles: limited government, reverence for “life,” the free market, support for democratic values throughout the world, etc. Rebellions within the conservative world, like that of the Tea Party, emerge when grassroots conservatives begin to suspect that establishment conservatives don’t really “believe” in these principles—at least not enough to risk their power and privileges over (but, of course, they have a point—if conservatives lose elections, who will be there to fight for conservative principles?). In a way, the enthusiasm for Trump among many in the “grassroots” was the latest such rebellion, but with a difference: Trump himself didn’t, unlike his primary rival Ted Cruz, claim to be the truest of true conservatives, the one who really means it and will stand by conservative principles when it counts, regardless of the cost. Cruz’s campaign was the reductio ad absurdam of principled conservatism, because he was so principled that there was no way of knowing what he would do about all kinds of very specific issues and so he had to opportunistically mimic the Trump campaign on issues like immigration and trade. (It turns out that the Constitution doesn’t really tell us what to do about anything. Nor does “free speech,” or “the free market.” They all sprout exceptions, which means what matters is not the principle but who decides what counts as an exception.) All Trump did was tell us what he wanted to do, and everything he wanted to do (aside from some half-hearted additions meant to get the needed “principled conservative” support) revolved around his axiomatic, even tautological assertion: either we have a country, or we don’t. Country trumps Constitution.

We all know by now that “principles,” left or right, need to go through the grinder of lobbyists, donors, trade-offs with specific representatives, add-ins to counter inimical characterizations of one’s intent, bureaucratic machinations, and so on, before producing a result—a result which, we further know, will look little like the “principle” it started with. For analytical purposes, it’s certainly far more effective to reverse this process and start at the end, and ask, who has lost and who has won in the process—which elites have managed to elbow out which other elites in getting more direct control over some portion of the population. The elites don’t work according to principles, even if they may believe in them—the elites, we can assume, want some freedom of action not afforded them under current conditions, and leverage whatever means of levying and motivating the lower orders they have at their disposal to gain that freedom. Since it’s freedom for them, it’s easy enough for them to sincerely represent their aims as freedom in general, with some qualifier or modification—economic freedom, freedom to love, freedom of religion, etc. There has to be some ideological trickle down, because even George Soros doesn’t have enough money to get people rampaging in the streets in the name of George Soros having more money to get people rampaging in the streets.

Principles, then, are located at several removes from where the real action is, but they are still not quite merely “superstructural” (if we work with the old Marxist model, which Reactionary Future has revived for absolutist purposes recently)—they are readings and indices of shifts in sovereignty. To believe in a principle—say, “free speech”—is to imagine a mode of sovereignty. The government that grants free speech does so because it assumes that in the unrestrained discourse in which all citizens participate without coercion or intimidation the truth emerges along with a rational consensus for the government to act upon. Along with the imagined sovereignty, then, comes an anarchist fantasy—in this case, of free, rational individuals acting outside of government who choose, collaboratively, to act upon and, indeed, constitute the government. But things get interesting when the exceptions begin to sprout, as they always do: no libel, no sedition, no exposure of government secrets, no “hate speech,” etc. The exceptions enrich the sovereign imaginary (which is not at all the same as an imaginary sovereign), position the person expressing the principle somewhere along the liberal continuum, and turn the anarchistic fantasy into one resentful of its actual dependence upon order: for free individuals to communicate freely, some mode(s) of “distorted” communication which interferes with the real kind must be suppressed. To have a principle is to imagine the sovereign who will decide on the exceptions to that principle in your favor, in such a way as to shore up your anarchist fantasy.

The imagining of sovereignty and fantasy of anarchy also comes from the top down, insofar as the added margin of freedom desired by the elites must constitute, for the elite in question, the form of a comprehensive mode of sovereignty—my trade advantage will create wealth for all and so the government’s primary purpose is to protect that advantage, the increase in my relative access to the ear of the nominal (and, indeed, still largely effective) sovereign will add to public enlightenment and moderate forces of destabilization, and so on. Whether they think about it this way, as soon as these elites start to talk about their aims they must find themselves saying things like this and, then, hiring and funding the intellectuals who will give them better ways of saying these kinds of things and eventually take over saying them to others. We could then see the imaginary sovereignties and anarchistic fantasies generated in the universities, media and corporate think tanks as auditions and job interviews for one elite faction or another, just as we can see activist groups as auditioning for the role of shock troops and street fighters for those same factions. But they can all audition effectively only under the condition that they think that the show is real, that they are making history. That’s not so hard, because in a sense they are, even if as tools rather than makers. Perhaps part of the point of determinist theories like Marxism is to reconcile its agents to being tools.

So, when we hear talk of principles, we can hear the echoes of this entire process. Is the alternative, then, to be “unprincipled”? Yes, as long as that is understood as indifference to principles, rather than as lacking the principle in question. Each social agent should be in a hierarchical, cooperative, reciprocal relation with other social agents in accord with the social power exercised by that agent. But as soon as we say this, we ourselves imagine a winnowing process by which those social agents intrinsically resistant to such relations with other agents must be destroyed or radically transformed. Absolutists thereby imagine their own mode of sovereignty: one capable of and keenly interested in such destruction and transformation.

Absolutist sovereign imagination does not constitute, as its inverse, an anarchist fantasy—quite the contrary. Rather, it demolishes anarchist fantasies—this is the central “negative,” “critical” operation of absolutism. In the name of what? The hierarchies, modes of cooperation and reciprocities singular sovereignty relies upon in order to exist. Is there something “principled” in this? No more than a craftsman’s desire for perfection, and his search for the best materials, his work on honing his skills, on cultivating relations with co-workers, assistants and customers, his subordination of baser desires to the time and attention excellence requires, is “principled.” He is not adhering to the “principle” of good workmanship—he is just clarifying and enhancing his mode of discipline. The extraction of some “principle” out of this is derivative of the real set of relations involved. His own discipline leads him to acknowledge the need for a sovereign, so that others will not steal his materials, provide him with adulterated materials with impunity, force him violently into subservience to criminal ends, and so on. The sovereignty of the craftsman over his conditions and means entails an imagination of sovereignty: a sovereign that ensures the level of social discipline is such as to support his own practice. And the sovereign’s own discipline lies in preserving the conditions under which as many of his subjects as possible can do likewise—can meet his imagination in co-constituting the realm. The point is not to have principles but to confront anarchist fantasies with embedded, entailed and extended reciprocities. It may even be that “principles” inevitably encourage anarchistic fantasies. It might be best to request of anyone espousing principles an account, as best they can provide, for all the social activities upon which their own activity depends—acting so as to sustain those interdependencies, and to make more of them available for attention, is what accounts for one’s rectitude as a social being. (Maybe asking the principled subject to spell out in ever greater detail all the exceptions to his principles will get him there, in an indirect way—a kind of negative dialectic.)

Still, there is one genuinely meaningfully use of the term “principles”—to refer to origins. Principles are, literally, what come first and therefore make what comes after possible. That “therefore” is not obvious—a mechanistic view of the world, which is much encouraged in a society in which power fragments and reconstitutes rapidly and incoherently, would insist that there is no causal, and certainly no moral, relation between what comes first and what comes after. To be principled in this sense is to be loyal to origins—obviously, “limited government,” “the free market,” and “free speech” are not origins. In a democratic society, origins are revolutionary, which clearly interferes with making absolutism a serious topic of conversation. But once we start talking about origins, there is no way to maintain the revolution as the ultimate origin. Revolutions themselves always present themselves as the recuperation of some prior condition and the restoration of rights or obligations that have been taken or disregarded. Revolutionaries may do so fraudulently, but what matters is that they must do it. In other words, revolutions are constituted by some articulation of imagined sovereignty and anarchist fantasy. To be principled, then, is to keep turning the conversation back to a sovereignty that can be imagined free of anarchist fantasies. Remembering the arche is the key to resisting such fantasies.

Sovereignty, Difference, Reciprocity, Nature, Value

The contention that absolutism means arbitrary and therefore irrational rule by the sheer will of one man can be refuted by exploring the necessary embedding of absolute sovereignty in a hierarchical, differentiated order constituted by extensive reciprocities. My previous post of sovereignty as conquest enables us to conduct such an exploration. No one carries out a conquest aimed at what Reactionary Future has proposed calling possession of the to-be-sovereign territory alone—one does so with close associates who defer to the conqueror’s authority, trusted subordinates who answer to those associates, latecomer allies who join the rolling bandwagon, the reluctant, resentful subjugated, etc. This ensemble of cohorts is certainly not arbitrary—not just anyone can become a leader of men, an organizer of invasions and defenses, the commandeering of resources, the delegation of authority and responsibility, a student and planner of military tactics and cultural organization, and so on. We need not assume a one-to-one correspondence between individual capability and self-discipline, on the one hand, and elevation within the social order, on the other, to assume that any successful order must rely on a general correspondence between the two.

As I pointed out in Sovereignty as Conquest, subsequent to conquest the sovereign settles down into the work of preservation of his rule and cultivation of the institutions that can ensure a steady source of resources and recruits. This requires and encourages the emergence of new capabilities, and individuals who might be very useful for present purposes even if they might have been useless or worse in the process of conquest. A new hierarchy of value emerges, and the problem for the sovereign is to institute that hierarchy on the new terms of preservation by means of identifying and deferring less immediately visible dangers. He will want to do so in a way as consistent and continuous with the existing hierarchy as possible, which entails abstracting from that hierarchy so as to make analogous structures possible. When, in the course of civilizing the realm, universities are constructed, they will be organized in a way analogous to military and/or ecclesiastical and/or feudal orders but distinguished by the difference required to make respect for dialogue and love of the truth stand out as values rather than military valor or exemplary piety.

These new values are made to stand out by the articulation of reciprocities proper to the new institution. The emergence of modernity actually vitiates reciprocity—no one wanting to build a society rich in reciprocities would think to do so by atomizing individuals and having them interact with each other solely through contractual relations. Rather, you would study the kinds of hierarchies required in any particular shared activity and itemize and formalize the obligations that would best bind superiors, subordinates and peers together. So, in the military, the subordinate owes the superior obedience and the superior is obliged to care for the subordinate. These obligations can be spelled out in detail, with the sovereign serving to adjudicate as necessary, but the obligations would be derived from the structure and purpose of the activity, not the distribution of rights among the members. There are a range of possible capabilities and relationships than can sustain a military organization—there must be courage, loyalty, discipline and so on. In this sense sovereignty is ultimately grounded in nature, in the sense that any being, social or otherwise, has its own nature. Capacities are selected for: a beautiful singing voice is irrelevant to generalship, and a squeamishness around blood would be disqualifying (unless gotten under control).

In this case the organization of (say) a university would be grounded in the nature of the search for the truth and reciprocities would be established accordingly. Sustained focus on abstract concepts, the ability to suspend belief in cherished concepts without falling into skepticism, patience with those in need of instruction, an investment in dialectical rather than rhetorical modes of discourse and conversation, insight into under-exploited intellectual capacities of others, and so on, would all emerge within an institution dedicated to seeking the truth. Pedagogical, collegial and administrative reciprocities would be established accordingly: members might be obliged to remind one another, for example, of recurring patterns of thought that are easy to fall into but have led to a dead end in previous inquiries. Everything that everyone does within the institution is carried out (and judged) with an eye toward fulfilling, clarifying and further embedding those reciprocities. If a new form of pedagogy or mode of inquiry is introduced, it will be justified on the grounds that it better fulfills the obligation to systematize controlled attention to concepts or solicit contributions from participants whose intellect requires a new vehicle to exploit its potential. The new pedagogy or mode of inquiry is then, partly explicitly and partly tacitly, integrated into the system of reciprocities. The sovereign simply needs to make it clear that if his intervention is required, he will intervene with the aim of binding up the system of reciprocities so as to make that mode of intervention unnecessary in the future.

The relations between demographic groups and the sexes would be organized accordingly. Some sectors of the population will be better organized and more loyal and useful to the sovereign, and so they will be privileged in the process of staffing the ranks of the administration. Other sectors will be given a chance to show what they are capable of—that is, to strengthen their own system of reciprocities so as to exhibit a capacity to participate in the institutional reciprocities supported by the sovereign. Nature is involved here as well: some groups may produce more soldiers, others more scholars, and such specialization can be encouraged. No matter how civilized the society, the ultimacy of the need to defend the realm (sovereign possession) can never be superseded, so the separate communities must be given responsibility for self-defense and the defense of the order. Some kind of patriarchal and monogamous order is implicit in such an arrangement, and so a system of male-female reciprocities must be formalized consistent with it. The activities for women outside of these reciprocities must be consistent with them—single women, widows, women with enfeebled husbands will take on all kinds of responsibilities but husbands may also include and promote their talented wives within their own enterprises. Exogamous mating is obviously healthier than consanguineous marriage, but mate selection will also have to take into account the limits of exogamy and the impact marrying out of the community might have on its stability. Everything will be judged in terms of whether it can be framed analogously to (or in a way that is recognizable within) the existing network of reciprocities.

We should, then, assess all contemporary practices, norms and institutions in terms of the reciprocities they entail, and criticize them in terms of the obstacles erected to the binding up of those reciprocities. A company’s obligations to its workers, its customers, its community; the workers’ obligation to their employer—the market should be framed as a means of ensuring these reciprocities be maintained. Media organizations’ obligation to their audience and the loyalties of audiences to media outlets should frame discussions of free speech. But what if a leftist president were to appoint FCC officials who would shut down Breitbart as a “fake news site”? Those with the power to shut down Breitbart will do so one way or another—it doesn’t depend upon whether someone gives them a convenient argument for doing so—they already have the arguments they need. The point is to keep Breitbart or any other space open in the name of its relation to truth, public usefulness, and an audience loyal to sovereign power, properly understood. The denser all these systems of reciprocity become, the less the sovereign will find it necessary to exercise power directly over individuals unmediated by those institutions and communities, and the more it will establish a dense system of reciprocities with all of these systems—serving as backup to and model for them. Sovereignty is absolute insofar as it is absolute all the way down the line—if companies and workers, teachers and students, husbands and wives, general, corporals and privates, and so on, all fulfill their duties to each other the sovereign will be absolute in having nothing to do; since that will never be completely the case, what the sovereign has to do, and is more absolute the more it does it, is enforce those duties where their abandonment is most egregious and evident.

Sovereignty as Conquest

Once we jettison the consent of the governed as a means of determining the legitimacy of government it seems to me that we really have no alternative other than the right of conquest as the basis for the legitimacy of rule. A sovereign has a right to rule based on his ability to maintain secure sovereignty—this means that he has acquired this ability and right through his own conquest, or by inheriting the results of a previous conquest, however long ago; and that he is capable of resisting any attempt at conquest now. Conquest can be more or less violent—obviously, it can result from an extremely bloody struggle, but a conqueror can also essentially be welcomed by some or all of the conquered population, can take over without resistance from a failing sovereign, etc. Thinking about sovereignty as conquest provides us with a ready means for discussing the various orders of an absolutist regime: individuals, groups and institutions are licensed and elevated in accord with their contribution to achieving the conquest and preserving its fruits—subjects are all, ultimately, conscripts, even if some are chaplains, others maintain the supply chain, others educate the troops, etc. A prolonged occupation leads to (if necessary) the merging of conqueror and conquered and the gradual achievement of a kind of rough fit between the two that we call “patriotism.”


This understanding of sovereignty has a great deal of explanatory power. Indeed, it has been in the context of thinking through the question of Trump’s “extra-republican forces,” and what would actually be involved in “draining the swamp” that brought me to the verge of these reflections—and then, this very insightful article on the current Hillary Clinton campaign as an attempted coup d’etat ( pushed me over the edge: yes, a successful Trump administration would be something very like a conquest, or a counter-coup, with the use of force of various kinds to remove traitors from sensitive positions, counter all kinds of resistance on all kinds of levels, and mobilize allies across the entire culture. (We can also see, from the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails that the lower and middle orders within the warrior caste seem to be solidly and rather brazenly in Trump’s camp.) But it is also helpful in understanding “Fourth Generation Warfare,” in which the less powerful side leverages allies with the more powerful society to achieve its ends. That end is national independence for the inventors of 4GW, but do not the SJWs in the West operate according to the same logic, leveraging White Guilt among the majority population in order to achieve, not independence, but sufficient strength within the regime to ensure they are cut in on all enterprises and exercise veto power on all initiatives?


Seeing sovereignty as conquest also adds something to our understanding of liberalism which aims, above all, at reducing as much as possible all traces of conquest from state power. The very notion of equality under the law erases the centrality of loyalty to the regime—no regime can survive if people are not rewarded in accord with their loyalty, which introduces a principle of differentiation incompatible with civil and legal equality. Liberalism does not and could not eliminate this principle of sovereignty—it just redefines “loyalty” in terms of constantly shifting norms of “good citizenship.” But it does dilute and conceal it, in part by attacking overt demands for loyalty as violations of the principle of equality. Liberals do not want to see themselves as preserving and enhancing the fruits of conquest, they want to see themselves as managing the fruits of productive activity carried out beyond their own authority. This is why liberals are themselves conquered by the subalterns who present them with evidence that they are in fact exploiting the fruits of conquest—liberals at first would like to deny this, relegating those conquests to the distant past, rendered irrelevant by the general freedom to move within the realm, but that doesn’t work because everyone cannot be equally at home within the realm. So, liberals end up surrendering and entering into prolonged negotiations of reparations, which will ultimately involve all of the social order. Reparations can simply be made part of the general calculation of liberal management. SJWs take over the left once enough liberals realize the hopelessness of performing such calculations in a scrupulous way and that it is preferable to just join in the demand themselves. By now, liberal interest in management is merely notional, a way of branding themselves vs. the government hating conservatives—but has the Obama regime ever actually “managed” anything, or done anything other than troll its domestic (i.e., real) enemies?


But we are still consuming the fruits of conquest, reaching back to the Anglo conquest of North America and much further back to the conquests of the European monarchs, which were themselves partial restorations of roman conquests. A Reconquista of North America would be staffed by those who can ground their loyalty to that Reconquista in a heritage that derives from that long chain of conquests. Those who cannot do so can be allies of the Reconquista, insofar as they prefer such a restoration to unending, increasingly vicious and extensive 4GW across the social order, or a conquest by other forces, whether they be transnational progressivism, Muslim, neo-Aztec, gangland feudalism, Latin neo-Latifundianism, or some combination of some or all of them. Of course, they would best be useful, unquestioningly loyal, allies, who provide otherwise unavailable services.


The implication of the identification of sovereignty with conquest is that divided power always involves a diminishment of the founding military and settler discipline. Divided power involves the insertion into government of powers originally dependent upon or even part of but capable of asserting themselves against the absolute military one. Liberalism is of course the most prominent of such split-offs, and is therefore explicitly and militantly anti-militarist. The question liberalism poses is whether physical possession of a territory is a precondition for activity carried out within that territory; or, to the contrary, is it spontaneous interactions and the subsequent conflicts between individuals that leads to the establishment of a sovereign over the territory they inhabit. For liberalism, the latter is the case, for absolutism the former. The whole liberal architecture of categories: human nature, human rights, the individual with his freedoms, opinions and beliefs, equality, etc., are all aimed at carving out a pre-sovereign space. But liberalism knows it depends upon sovereignty (as Trotsky once said, anarchism is liberalism without the police principle; but without the police principle, liberalism is impossible). What liberalism’s constituencies want is perpetual exemption from the rigors of sovereignty, along with, as the perennial victims of those who maintain loyalty to the sacred center, extra benefits from the security sovereignty provides. Divided power is motivated by free riding. It is a free riding, though, that almost everyone can enjoy a bit at times, and so not too many want to take the lead in shutting it down. Most would prefer to manage and try to stabilize the consequences—hence liberalism’s constantly spiraling attempts to secure power by appeasing yet another would-be free rider.


The purpose of conquest, ultimately, is peace. And peace sets free a range of activities the enjoyment of which (and of the benefits of which) make war increasingly undesirable; even more, induce a desire to forget that what one enjoys are the fruits of past wars—to remember that would be to be obliged to maintain the sovereign virtues. The sovereign allows power to become insecure as soon as he colludes in this forgetting, and ceases to prioritize with an eye toward preserving the gains made by those who have transmitted power to him. It would make sense to respond to such a slackening by recovering the reins of power in the pursuit of further conquests. And sometimes such conquests will be successful and assimilated to the existing power structure. Other times they will make power less secure. This is what led William James to posit the necessity of “moral equivalents of war,” to tighten the civic sinews and preserve loyalty to the whole without the risks of actual warfare. The rhetoric of moral equivalents is inflated from the start, but it’s the right idea. It is possible to maintain a readiness to identify threats, both foreign and domestic—these threats are direct challenges to the “occupying” power, manifested directly and urgently for each of its branches in terms of its specific responsibilities. The better you get at identifying threats, the more you are able to identify “pre-threats”—conditions that, if allowed to fester, might become threats down the road—and snuff them out in their infancy. And then “pre-pre-threats,” and so on. Peace becomes a condition of increasingly deferred threats. By the same token, all of society can be mobilized into this condition, precisely because all forms of knowledge bear upon possible “infections” of the social body—all can engage in what Peter Sloterdijk calls “immunological” inquiries and practices. The encompassing goal of all social enterprises is further deferring threats, a project of immense intellectual interest and inclusive of the most abstract speculations as well as the most minute investigations.