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.