Monthly Archives: December 2016

“Liberal Democracy” is the Concealment of Power

First of all, I put “liberal democracy” in scare quotes because I would like to defy anyone to give it a clear definition, and one that applies across the range of countries currently included under the label. (I have been trying—not that hard, admittedly—to discover when the term “liberal democracy” started to be used. The Wikipedia entry traces its “origins” to the “18th century Enlightenment” but says nothing about when the phrase itself appeared.) A constitution (or “constitutional order”) which limits the power of government and ensures basic rights plus regular elections for at least national offices would, I suppose, do as a definition (although some people would want to throw “free market” into the mix). So, the Netherlands just convicted the leader of a major political party of “incitement to discriminate.” Is the Netherlands a liberal democracy? Bridget Bardot has been convicted, I think, 5 times for speech crimes against Islam for criticizing the way they slaughter animals. Is France a liberal democracy? Anyone will find it easy to multiply the examples, undermining the whole notion of “limited government” and “guaranteed rights.” We don’t even need examples: as soon as you guarantee a series of vague, abstract rights you will immediately proceed to generate exceptions. You have whatever rights the government doesn’t find it urgent to violate at the moment. You’ll be able to call it a “liberal democracy” as long as the government has a high threshold for “urgency” (and that will be because its elites are able to rotate in power without one section seeking to supplant another) but not a second longer.

But at least we have elections! In fact, not so much anymore. Leave aside all the usual discussions about the way choices available to the voters are managed oligarchically—that’s mostly done as a matter of course, through well-established channels, behind the scenes, and so as to leave a modicum of actual choice to the voters (although “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” complaints are perennial, and always at least 75% justified).  The 2016 election has transformed the electoral process itself, i.e., the actual counting and recording of votes, into just another arena of political battle. This has been in the making for a while—the Democrats contested the 2000 election, of course, and even, more abortively, the 2004 one; while some on the right (“birthers”) questioned Obama’s legitimacy and, closer to the mainstream, have been insisting (with very good reason) on the prevalence of voter fraud for years. In turn, the Democrats attack antifraud measures as “voter suppression,” and they can really go on about that. All this has been prepping the battlespace—each side gearing up to refuse to accept the results of an election. Now, these machinations have penetrated deeper into the system. Trump, of course, spoke of the “rigged” political process in a way that didn’t exclude, but didn’t necessarily highlight, manipulation of the actual process of collecting and counting the votes. The left has now taken the next step. First, they pushed, through the Green Party candidate Jill Stein (an obvious pawn of either the Clintons or forces behind the Clintons) a nonsensical recount. Second, they have fabricated the meme “the Russians hacked the election,” a meaningless phrase meant to scapegoat and delegitimate (a side note on the crazed anti-Russian hatred the left is now peddling: Russians are the perfect white hate objects: culturally conservative, isolationist, patriarchal, apparently still filled with unapologetically feminine beautiful women, indifferent to leftist emoting and, best of all, you don’t have to figure out a way to get 35% of their votes). Third, they are actually lobbying Republican electors who need to vote in order to officially confirm Trump’s victory, with their usual combination of high-minded platitudes (appeals to the “intent of the founders,” commercials with fake president Martin Sheen, etc.) and low-down skullduggery (attempts to intimidate and no doubt bribe the electors (Madonna’s pre-election promise should be much more manageable given the small number of electors who would need to flip)). The electors should at least be able to see the intelligence (ginned up by Obama’s political appointee John Brennan) regarding the “Russian hacking,” shouldn’t they? That would be quite a rule going forward—from now on, the electors must be apprised of all the intelligence regarding attempts by all actors, domestic and foreign, to influence the election. All of the attention of the political system would then shift focus to the selection of the electors, which no one has cared about in the slightest up until now (name one of the electors in your state), and contributing to “intelligence” regarding as many “hacking” agents as one can concoct. Perhaps a new reality show will result.

But there’s quite a bit more. Those on the left who see Trump’s victory as a coup are not completely wrong, and they have some support from the right—the Conservative Treehouse: The Last Refuge blog (more Tea Party than Alt-Right, and perhaps the best informed and most loyal pro-Trump site) has argued that Trump’s election does represent a kind of salubrious “soft coup,” arguing (far more complexly than I am here) that the Defense Department has executed a kind of secession from the other elements of the security regime, preserving a patriotic “America First” understanding of national security against the Obamaite (and beyond) corruption of the other elements of the security apparatus. Moreover, “white hats” within those other elements have rallied behind Trump, perhaps influencing the election in ways we are not aware of. No one has really explained James Comey’s reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails days before the election, and a kind of “soft-coup”-like pressure from with the FBI seems as plausible an explanation as any. We can’t know that much about all this maneuvering, but it does seem that different institutions within the government are ranging themselves against one another in an unprecedented way. (Let’s take it one step further—what if Putin really was trying to help Trump, in order to advance the “nationalist international” Clinton warned us of during the election—that would just indicate the emergence of one more player in the field and one global coalition to fight another. You can’t be a globalist and then complain about “outside interference”—what can be outside the globe?) One less-often noted characteristic of “liberal democracies” is that we take for granted that this is unthinkable, beyond inconsequential bureaucratic wrangling, and maybe a few discreet donations from Chinese billionaires. And this means that once we have to start thinking it, we are thinking outside of the bounds of liberal democracy. Hence the title of this post: you can only imagine yourself ensconced within a liberal democratic order to the extent that you don’t think about power. But once you start thinking about power, all the busyness of “liberal democracy”—we need to sharpen our arguments! We need to appeal to new voting blocs! We need to formulate policies that appeal across different social groups! We need to rebrand! We need to get our message out! We need funding for a new think tank! Etc., Etc.—seem like so many shadows on a cave wall. (And this is not even to address the revolt of the bureaucrats once Trump takes a scalpel to the various agencies—already, the EPA, like some snotty college president, is refusing to cooperate with the President-Elect and Congressional Democrats are offering support to those in the State Department ready to resist the new regime. Or the barely veiled threats behind the hysteria over “fake news,” or the ongoing anathematization of Trump voters and their preferred media. The disinformation campaign the intelligence agencies are running against Trump. And I had actually forgotten the post-election riots.)

Regardless of what one thinks of Trump, the terror he evokes in the entire establishment or ruling class, national and global (even those Republicans now claiming to support Trump give the very strong impression of biding their time) is worth noting. They are ready to expose the ugly innards of the system (to force us to think about power) in order to block him, and that can’t have been an easy decision (maybe it was just impulsive). The most productive way to think now is in terms of order and disorder. The ruling class is sowing chaos, while Trump is assembling a team of “white hats” (almost all from the upper political, military and especially economic strata—no academics, no one promoted from within) is trying to establish order. Just about every pick for his cabinet and staff so far seem aimed at providing him with a strong hand within the governmental and corporate institutions that most need to be de-weaponized. An Exxon CEO friendly to Russia; a Labor Secretary very knowledgeable of the way the EEOC keeps the illegal immigration scam going; an EPA head seemingly prepared to create a hostile environment for climate change fanatics; an Attorney General with a long history of insisting the immigration law be enforced to the letter—all, except for the women in somewhat marginal roles, seemingly “Alpha” males, like Trump himself, designed to trigger panic in SJWs. We can assume he will choose a combative press secretary, perhaps from the right wing talk radio pantheon. Trump seems to be adopting a strategy of baiting the opposition so that he can disable them when they expose themselves (what we now call “trolling”). Our somewhat befuddled but no less dangerous for all that rulers seem to be ready to bring the house down in order to stop Trump, and he may have to be ready to do the same to stop them. Maybe we’ll still be having elections when this titanic battle is over, but everyone will have a much clearer sense of where the real power lies, and meta-electoral concerns will diminish interest in the actual results (the more you can convince elected officials that their power is contingent on all kinds of things that are in turn contingent upon you and yours, the less power they actually have). The central theme of this election will be the central theme of Trump’s presidency: sovereignty. Who rules? This decision, this bureaucratic act, this latest delivery of Somali “refugees”—is someone’s fingerprints actually on it, or do we have to go down the rabbit hole where lie in wait foundations, agencies, donors, corporations, foreign governments, etc., to figure out what’s going on? As Colm Gillis says in his The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt, “politics is the art of counting up to one.” For the forces of order, at least—for the furies of disorder, politics is the art of counting down to zero, that is, of representing order as the source of disorder. It’s a thankfully simple binary to work with, and not one that accommodates the favored and decrepit concepts of “liberal democracy” (“rights,” “due process,” “balance of power,” “rule of law,” etc., all weaponized beyond retrieval).

The Sovereign Remembering of Names

How do we recognize the truth? A statement refers to something in the world, and we look at (or for) the referent, and see whether it is there. Or, we look at the different parts of a statement, and see whether one part negates another part. If all the parts of a statement cohere, and we are able to find the referent in the world, then we can certify the truth of the statement. This works if we know how to identify the thing in the world that corresponds to the referent—but that, then, relies upon prior statements being taken as true, and upon my having taken on faith another pointing to a referent (lots of referents, before I had any idea what they were, or that they could be separated from the shared observation) and confirming that I have successfully pointed at it myself. There is a relation of faith, a pedagogical relation, and a disciplinary relation involved here. I’m already systematically involved with others before claims about truth become possible. Also, the (metaphysical) approach to truth we are considering works if we banish paradox from the realm of truth, since a paradox is where one part of the statement negates another part. But statements themselves rely upon a paradox: we all see the same thing in our common orientation to truth because we have already affirmed the same thing as a common orientation to truth (which required some kind of common orientation to truth). As Eric Gans points out, this means that ethics precedes cognition: we have deferred violence by representing the desired object and thereby letting it be; only then can we talk “about” the object, and say true or false things about it. The paradox is contained within the ethical dimension as well: the deferred object becomes all the more desirable the more barred from appropriation it is. The beginning of ethics and truth is looking at what the other is looking at and showing the other I am looking at it alongside him. This is an extremely complex maneuver: I must correctly identify what the other is looking at, I must realize I am looking at it because he is, and perhaps he because of I (or some third), I must be able to convey a sense of the worthiness of the object as a locus of attention, I must demonstrate to the other that I am looking along with him and that what I take myself to be looking at is the same thing he takes himself to be looking at. Pretty much all of culture, or the order of representations, operates so as to ensure a sufficiently high level of success in executing this maneuver. We certainly don’t need to be aware of all these elements of representation in executing successful representations (in fact it’s best to be aware of only what distinguishes this representation from others), but anyone at any time may be obliged to attend to more of the representational situation than usual.

To point at something, the same thing, together, is to confer a name on the thing. Before truth, before agreement and disagreement, before arguments, there are names. The first human word, on the originary scene, was “God”—the name of the object that saved and established the community by withdrawing itself from appetitive aggression. A name already preserves the memory of the object as pointed to in common—naming and memory are inextricably bound up with each other. This also means that memory is shared before it is private, personal, or internal. It further means that even when memory is private, personal or internal, it is still shared, as Maurice Halbwachs pointed out in On Collective Memory—the most private memories are composed out of language, public narratives and the imagined gazes of others. Names can be changed and disputed—this happens all the time and is a well-worn means of waging cultural and ideological warfare—but only some names, while we continue to rely on the unquestioned reliability of yet other names. You couldn’t speak while suspending or undermining the meaning of every word you are presently using to speak; but you also can’t know which might get undermined at any particular time.

We ordinarily think of names as words referring to unique individuals—as serving an ostensive function. But declarative sentences are a way of naming as well. I will refer, as I have done several times in recent posts, to Eric Gans’s analysis (most importantly in Science and Faith) of the name that God provides to Moses, I Am That I Am, as “the Name of God as the declarative sentence.” The point here is that to give your god a singular name is to make it possible to invoke God—to enter into what we could call an “imperative exchange” with your god, in which you can bind him to perform a favor for you in exchange for a favor you do Him. The imperative exchange is embedded in a sacrificial economy: the subject demands more and more of God, as each form of salvation brings another form into view, and so God correspondingly demands more in return: in the end, the most treasured possession, i.e., your first born. The God whose name is the declarative sentence breaks the imperative exchange and the sacrificial economy not by demanding less of His devotees but by demanding more: by demanding all of you, all the time. You are to dedicate your life to exposing and resisting the imperative exchange and disengaging from the sacrificial economy, with its endless vendettas and scapegoating.

The declarative sentence is in the first instance an act of faith in the invisible. As Gans shows in The Origin of Language, the declarative emerges through the deferral of a demand for an object: the imperative is countered with a “negative ostensive” that “refers” to the object in its absence. The sentence works insofar as the interlocutors accept the present unavailability of the object and, in exchange, receive some information about the object—first of all that it’s not here, but, then, that it’s there, or that so-and-so is retrieving it, or that it doesn’t really exist in the manner you believe it to, etc. The declarative sentence was always the Name of God, as we can see if we consider that to make a claim about anything is to assume that some authority would, “in the long run,” be able to authenticate that claim, even if no such authority is actually available or imaginable in any concrete way. To utter a statement is to assume you and your interlocutors will be able to continue to speak and/or act in the way licensed by that statement (to look at something, to remedy some situation, to cease some activity), i.e., to understand it; to assume that is to assume something like a guardian of the shared understanding that allows for further discourse and action, i.e., God, even if He hasn’t been named yet and in a more conventional sense never will be. (It’s also worth pointing out here that in his inquiry into the genesis of grammar in The Origins of Human Communication, Michael Tomasello argues that the earliest declarative sentences—utterances beyond the imperative—concerned commentary on the reliability of other individuals as potential participants in common activity. That is, the earliest “vocation” of sentences was to establish reputation and authority—the very thing needed to authorize the sentence itself.)

All this is to fortify, not dismantle, the notion of truth. To speak the truth is to name God in the world in a way that deserves to be remembered. People properly disciplined away from the sacrificial economy and therefore toward what is resistant to our desires in the world would answer the question you are answering the same way you do. If we don’t want to speak of God we could speak (paradoxically) of “indirect ostensive authority.” The inherited metaphysical concept of truth that ultimately reaches its dead end in positivism eliminates the indirect ostensive authority and would have us focus exclusively on the clarity and indisputability of the reference, ignoring the question of how reference is possible. An originary understanding of truth includes the indirect ostensive authority in the utterance. All attempts to proclaim the truth do this—no one ever succeeds in subtracting from one’s utterance everything but the logically isolatable meanings of the words and sentences uttered; everyone relies upon internal and external echoes of other utterances, upon distinguishing marks of some relevant context, and even upon the sound-shape of language (patterns of sound, repetition, alliteration, rhyme, etc.), indeed, all features of language, written and spoken. Why pretend otherwise, then—a more multi-dimensional notion of truth would be more, not less, truthful, as it would more effectively gather its audience into a disciplinary space attending to the truth revealed there, rather than winnowing out non-specialists in accord with some institutionally determined method of presenting truth. And if something deserves to be remembered, you should do everything in your power to make it memorable.

Our intellectual exchanges, then, are attempts to retrieve and establish a shared hierarchy of names. R.G. Collingwood uses the term “dialectic” to refer to the process of converting disagreements into agreements. To refer to Reactionary Future’s recent “Monkey Shrieking Sophistry” post (while modifying the example), if I say that “capitalism” is an economic system based on private property and free economic exchange while you say that “capitalism” is a system of exploitation of wage labor, the disagreement may seem insuperable—how could we even be referring to the same thing? But there will be something on the margins of my definition that can be brought into alignment with something on the margins of your definition—if I can agree that exchanges between private property owners generate asymmetries in exchange, while you can agree to gradations in “propertylessness” and then we can at least achieve partial reciprocal translatability. If we can achieve partial, we can strive for more. Of course, new disagreements emerge as well—I might see gradations in propertylessness as a vindication of the capitalism system while you might see it as an impediment in the struggle against it, and hence to be undermined. (At a certain point, one of us will benefit more in cutting off the conversation.) Nevertheless, to achieve partial reciprocal translatability is to presuppose (name) indirect ostensive authority, and to assume indirect ostensive authority is to presuppose (leave open a space to name) a sovereign who is undivided to that extent at least. (That’s why one of us will cut off the discussion if the proportion between agreement and disagreement remains unfavorable to further dialectic—we will realize that we recognize different sovereigns. But to recognize the irreconcilability of sovereigns as an insuperable impediment to continued discourse is to acknowledge the need for undivided sovereignty. The system of names depends upon sovereignty and the hierarchies it oversees.) If there’s one shared human world that at least potentially contains all possible shared referents (we could never place an a priori ceiling on how much shared attention we could harvest), then undivided government that would prevent power struggles from multiplying disagreements at the expense of agreements is also possible. After all, the introduction of new power sources increases the interest in struggling over indirect ostensive authority and in subverting any shared and conclusive authority—it therefore aims at increasing the indeterminacy of language (it’s obviously no coincidence that theories asserting the indeterminacy of reference and undecidability of meaning proliferate as power multiplies (still, we can agree with deconstruction and other such theories regarding the interdependency of meaning and sovereignty)). It is therefore destructive of the most fundamental purpose of language, which is to Name God in the world, or preserve indirect ostensive authority. There will always be disagreements—they result from agreements—but we can come to agree that these disagreements are attempts to elicit further signs of indirect ostensive authority. The source of memorability is the enactment and display of this eliciting of agreement from disagreement. We can transcend resentments in a shared search for information from the sovereign center, or we can resentfully decenter authority and assail others’ efforts to affirm or restore it. We can work on ensuring that names become and remain part of the reality they name or, as nominalists, weaponize names in a war against shared reality.

Speech and Sovereignty

Speech is effective, which is to say revelatory and transformative, when it points to some reparable failure of reciprocity—reciprocity that is acknowledged by he who is charged with the failure, pointed out by or on behalf of he to whom the reciprocity is owed. (When reciprocity is wholly realized, received verbal formulas are sufficient for the purposes of acknowledgement.) Such speech is marked by the asymmetry of the relation—the asymmetry in fulfillment of obligations as well as the respective roles or positions of the interlocutors. This is especially the case when an inferior speaks to a superior, but speech between peers carries its own burdens. There is an especial gravity, for example, in a private raising a grievance with a general—such an act would be disruptive of norms and forms, and dangerous for the private, which both gives greater weight to the grievance and requires that the grievance be of such weight as to merit the disruption, and be presented accordingly. Let’s take a less consequential situation—a writer who addresses a letter of complaint to an editor who has rejected his work. The complaint is not over the rejection as such, but over the editor’s failure to provide a plausible reason for it. Here, the assumption is of a reciprocity of obligations which is uncodified but embedded in the relation between two individuals presumably invested in the preservation of “letters.” The dismissiveness of the editor is a dereliction of duty, because he should be able to explain why the submission is of insufficient interest to be put before the readership served by the journal. (What is of interest to them, within the range of problems encompassed by your journal, and why? Why, for that matter, should not the submission suggest a new possible approach to the readership, and a revision of the scope of the journal? What are you doing with the attention to control?) To provide such reasons would be to render one’s responsibility to one’s interdependencies, to bring one’s power into accord with one’s accountability. There are obviously good reasons for rejecting manuscripts, just as the general might have good reasons for not satisfying the soldier’s grievance, but in both cases the question is whether the responsible individual recognizes that some kind of breach needs to be repaired and nominal and actual power brought into accord. Even a trivial complaint may expose such a breach, even if it only calls for an equally trivial, but perhaps meaningful gesture. Knowing that you will be expected to account for your decisions, and that you are not simply exercising power at your own discretion in your own private fiefdom, may lead you to make better decisions—and demand better decisions, in turn, from others.

We are always addressing our possible audiences, and through them a broader arena of our contemporaries, and, we imagine, posterity, in this way as well: we name them, assign them titles, and corresponding duties, however minimally or implicitly conceived. We insist that they accept their names and titles and act in accord with the corresponding duties; and in doing so we adopt names and titles and duties ourselves. In the process we imagine a mode of sovereignty: a mode of sovereignty wherein the sovereign’s only interest is in a saturated realm of reciprocal obligations, and who intervenes proportionally to the inability of the institution itself to restore rights and duties, and the threat posed by the breach. According to the originary hypothesis of Eric Gans, the first human word was “God”—the name given to the central object of desire the deferred appropriation of which founds the human community. Gans has further suggested that all words are names of God—as speaking beings, that’s all we do: name God. Naming God involves building institutions that commemorate the originary event by increasing the community’s distance from the violence entailed by mimetic desire (which itself intensifies with the increase in desirable objects and social roles). These institutions and their representatives are, we might say, “angelic,” in accord with the original meaning of the word, “messenger [from God]”—they continue to bring information from the originary scene regarding the relation between signs and the deferral of violence. Those institutions are staffed by those best able and most committed to preserving their function, to further guarantee the deferral of violence in whatever way that institution accomplishes it (worshipping a shared deity, laboring on shared projects of benefit to the community, engaging in some inquiry, raising children to be full members of the community, and so on), and in the order that best matches institutional traditions to individual ability. The more such institutions proliferate, and the more complex their duties, the more we need to talk about where institutional breaches occur, how we can recognize them quickly and remedy them decisively, and, then, more philosophically and theologically, about the entire order of social being, involving inquiries into what kind of world has produced such hierarchies of obligation and coordination of institutions. At this level of generality we generate models, around which disciplines and intellectual traditions are organized, and those participating in those disciplines become accountable to each other as teachers, students, colleagues and what we can call “reality checks.”

All this is to approach the question of how much “free speech” we should expect under an absolutist regime. The stock (liberal) position is that the sovereign, with absolute power, would simply forbid all expressions critical of him or even all those that bother him or that he considers unworthy or irresponsible for any reason whatsoever. In other words, our speech would hang on the whims of a man made drunk with power. In response, I would say that we can assume that a sovereign who wants a flourishing realm will welcome the kinds of speech outlined above. That would be a lot of speech, enough for very substantive discussions on all matters public and scientific. If we set aside the kind of 1st amendment jurisprudence that shapes the thinking of (at least) Americans on these matters (a way of thinking about freedom of speech that goes back to J.S. Mill) we can easily imagine all kinds of speech that wouldn’t be welcome; indeed, that might be suppressed. Much of this speech would be suppressed in ways similar to the suppression of all kinds of discourse today, albeit now mostly by nominally private rather than state institutions—the major media outlets are quite capable, and indeed, if we go back a couple of decades, were almost omnipotent in this regard, of shaping public discourse in such a way as marginalize, drown out and discredit unwanted streams of information and opinion. This will be the case in any civilized society, because any civilized society will have elites who govern social institutions. Under absolutism, institutions and communities can be left, for the most part to set limits to public opinion (as, they once did here, prior to intrusive ACLU-inspired Supreme Court decisions and the omnipresence of mass media)—this will be done differently in a small town than in the chemistry department of a major university. Those who think such control is impossible in our connected age should consider technology like V-chips and the fact that both Google and Facebook are now working on revising their algorithms so as to keep some news further away from potential audiences. There is no reason why authorities at all levels couldn’t have access to such controls. Someone, at any rate, will be sorting through and finding ways to direct attention to one sphere of discussion, one opinion, over others, and such shaping of the infospace would be more efficient than straightforward censorship at this point anyway.

Even more important is what kind of speech would be effective and what kind of speech would simply be irrelevant in an absolutist order. Even today, if the power to decide on issues like same-sex marriage were taken away from the Supreme Court, talk about the issue would be reduced dramatically, as advocates would focus just on those locations with a potentially sympathetic electorate or set of elites. The fewer of those to be found, the less talk. The same is true of all of our discussions of race and sex—if there was no national center ready to take up issues of civil rights there would be nothing to talk about. This is even more the case if we presuppose the elimination of divided and rotating power at the center—if we didn’t have all those elections, think of all the talk, filled with lies, false promises and character assassination, and, most importantly, blather about policies that bears no relation to the power afforded politicians to actually make decisions for which they can be held accountable, that would simply evaporate. “All” we would have to talk about are the things we owe to each other in our direct and indirect relations, which is to say the things we speak least about today because we simply have no vocabulary for them—the discourse of “rights” has completely crowded out any means of thinking together about reciprocities and responsibilities. Nor does this mean that discussions will become more provincial—things will happen in Montana or Bombay that are of great interest to someone living in Queens. The security of power and the unity of sovereignty in each country would be a concern of all, since destabilization is contagious.

This way of theorizing speech and sovereignty can guide our speech under current conditions of divided power. We can project onto actual and potential interlocutors the duties and obligations that would be taken for granted in a secured regime, and we can adopt those duties and obligations ourselves. To begin with, we can speak in terms of duties and obligations, rather than rights, demands, freedoms, oppression, conflict, etc. We can do so without stinting in our condemnations of the current order, and the various forms of opinion circulating within it—the new, proleptic, norms of speech provide the basis for the condemnation, and we can insist on our duty to speak truths without just finding ways to flip the other’s accusation back at them (“you’re the real racists,” “you’re the real fascists,” etc.). Most of all, we will point out ad nauseam that the power exercised by institutions does not correspond to the power claimed by them. (Sometimes they claim too much, sometimes too little—and sometimes just something different.) Will it be effective speech? That depends upon how good we get at articulating the obligations others acknowledge, maybe without realizing it—there are obligations that are built into our language, into our being as language users, and we can learn how to reveal them. There are some, maybe plenty, who will recognize no obligations, only grievances—but, of course, that need not be where we focus our energies.

But people will want to speak about the sovereign, won’t they? The sovereign will want people to speak about the sovereign. Will everyone live in constant fear, knowing they must have some opinion of the sovereign but never knowing whether it’s the correct one, or the consequences of it not being the correct one? Well, people live in fear now of being fired, ostracized, losing popularity, etc. Less so if you have some institutional backing—a well known and respected reporter, a tenured professor, a former statesman—or a network of readers and fellow writers. (Even less so, of course, if you mind your own business—but that may not always be as easy as it seems.) The same would be true under absolutism—the sovereign would serve as patron of the truth, of outspokenness, even parrhesia, as well as patron of many other things. Those media sources known to be close to and approved of by the sovereign would have a degree of freedom that allows them to set the tone for public discussion, to open up areas for further inquiry. For the liberal, this proposal prompts instant mockery—you expect truth from the king’s pets! Flattery and fluff is more like it! It is inconceivable for the liberal that those favorably disposed towards another might be the most likely to be frank with that other, that closeness might be a source of honesty and reciprocal revelation. That’s because the liberal freethinking journalist or intellectual knows that any organization to which he does not belong is inherently suspect, and guilty until proven innocent. Indeed, he’s just waiting for the smoking gun to show up. The discrediting of other institutions is social capital for him. A good ruler would want the truth told about him, though, and a presumption of the rightfulness of the ruler and mode of rule would encourage a less prosecutorial and more thorough, patient, and fair mode of inquiry into public events. Would there be those who insist on finding scandalous secrets behind the apparent motives of the sovereign and shouting those disclosures from the highest rooftops? Maybe—although it’s unlikely they’d be any more effective than such people are now, or at any time. The more cogent they are, the more of a risk they are taking (in any order), and the more likely it will be that they have a point, will be pointing to some breach, that the sovereign will want to look into, some slippage in sovereignty to be repaired—surely some system of soliciting and reviewing even wild charges can be incorporated into the information system of the sovereign (it may make the issuance of wild charges less appealing). He who centralizes feedback flows is sovereign.

Prospects: Therapeutic vs. Disciplinary Orders

What we might call the “cereal wars” has the Breitbart website pitted against the Kelloggs corporation, which has piously announced that it will no longer advertise on the honey badger website since it doesn’t “share our values.” Breitbart’s counter-attack involves both a boycott of Kelloggs (easy for me—no more Eggos, and the kids are off Frosted Flakes) and a series of exposures of Kelloggs’ donations to far left political causes like Black Lives Matters and Soros’s Tides Foundation, thereby vindicating Reactionary Future’s Moldbuggian focus on the corporate-funded foundations as the source of “social justice” style resentments. Another similarly vindicating item: John Derbyshire answers his own question, “Exactly Who in America has this Insatiable Appetite for Somali Immigration” as follows:

The appetite belongs in the first place to the refugee importers, the so-called Voluntary Agencies, who get vast grants of federal money to aid them in their efforts, and who pay their executives grand salaries; and in the second place to Midwestern meatpacking and food-processing companies wanting cheap labor.

It’s all a nice little money racket dressed up in humanitarian language.

Now, these are somewhat different rackets—Kelloggs, I would guess, like many corporations, is a victim of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome probably going back to the trustbusting of the early 20th century  (in general, not with Kelloggs in particular) whereby the pincer movements of the labor movement, the yellow press and Progressives squeezed corporations into paying ransom in the form of charitable (and political) giving most likely to appease those governments most inclined to interfere with your business. In the end, you come to believe what you have to support in order to stay in business. The (Catholic) “Voluntary Agencies,” meanwhile worms its way into reciprocal relations with government bureaucracies, wherein the growth of each is the growth of the other. Still, while a quick look at their website yielded no enlightenment on the point, it’s reasonable to assume that the voluntary agencies are hardly bereft of private donations (perhaps even from those Midwestern meatpackers), especially with the imprimatur of the government on their activities. But, anyway, the differences are irrelevant—what matters is that if you believe that anyone who would consider deporting Somali immigrants and/or allowing no more into the country is an irredeemable, deplorable racist, or even if you find it a bit indelicate to discuss such matters, it is because very powerful public-private vectors of interest want it that way. So, the arguments over “immigration policy” and “the New Jim Crow” are a bit beside the point—if we shut down Voluntary Agencies and restricted Kelloggs to the business of producing obese children, we wouldn’t have to talk about this stuff in the first place. (it’s probably needless to say, but the examples I’ve just mentioned are the tiniest of tips on the most gigantic of icebergs.) We would, though, have to start talking about shutting down a very wide range of completely “legitimate” and even highly esteemed forms of philanthropy, which would in many ways be an even more difficult “conversation.”

In other words, the liberal democratic process is irrelevant here—no one ever voted to drastically increase the importation of Somalis, and no politician would ever publicly support doing so (although Hillary Clinton came pretty close), at least not until enough Somalis have clustered somewhere to function as a voting bloc (at which point the Republicans will be exhorted to develop minority-friendly, pro-immigration and anti-Islamophobic policies so they don’t get called racist and even win 9% of the Somali vote). And yet they keep coming. Perhaps Trump will shut down this pipeline (while he opens other, more socially beneficial ones), but for that to be more than a temporary fix he would have to “drain the swamp” even more comprehensively than he imagines (and I think he is already imagining this task on a rather grand scale), so as to take on all these joint public-private predatory cons practiced upon the American people. (A useful definition of the “right” today would be those who insist that those importing the Somalis ad dumping them on unsuspecting Midwestern towns be held responsible for the consequences of doing so—in the sense of being tried as accessories to the crimes their clients commit. If you don’t support that, aren’t you just a Commie?) It’s certainly impossible to do so on constitutional and legal terms, which means any president (and especially this incoming one) would risk impeachment before even really getting started. If such a president wanted to continue, then, he would need to justify taking on extra-constitutional and extra-legal powers, and to do that he would need a kind of private-public army within the security forces of the state, loyal to him alone. You can see where this is going, but I’ll get more specific about it soon.

Can the victimocracy stabilize itself in some way, or must it continue to generate more chaos until social collapse? While that latter possibility is not to be dismissed, and might even be preferable as it would make the case for the needed state of emergency, I believe that some kind of stabilization is possible. Of course, liberalism has been destabilizing from the beginning, since Locke and even earlier, but it took a long time for liberalism to not only upset but undertake to systematically interfere in and organize all aspects of life, from the most minute and intimate to the most public. Right now a boy taking a girl on a date has no idea what might land him in jail, or make it impossible for him to acquire a college diploma, or lead him to be banned from going within 50 yards of a school for the rest of his life. This situation (which can be multiplied for the categories of race, transgenderism, in some places one’s views of global warming, and who knows what else as we go forward), I think, is genuinely new, an exponential rate of increase in destabilization, and will soon be felt to be intolerable. The form of stabilization has been building for half a century, and has been discussed at length by Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch, and others—the “therapeutic society.” The tendency to define all unacceptable attitudes as “phobias,” and as indicating a (reactionary, authoritarian) personality out of touch with “reality,” provide the vocabulary for a sustained “intervention” that all the “helping” and medical professions are geared up to provide. Why wait until racism, an inclination to distinguish between the sexes, insufficient sensitivity to the environment, and so on, actually manifest themselves, when we can surely identify behaviors and traits that predispose one to such tendencies and curtail their expression in advance. Such intervention can readily be built into the school systems from the earliest years, and the duties of the courts and social services can be revised so as to include determining the fitness of parents in terms of their attunement with these attitudes. And, no doubt, the various foundations will stand ready to infuse billions of dollars in grants to ensure the success of the whole enterprise. There can be competition over whether to extend some new form of therapeutic discipline in this direction or that, but all within the same framework. There is something paradoxical in the therapeutic order: one has to believe in a pre-social, naturalized form of “health” that has, nevertheless, been so thoroughly distorted by “society” that it has to be remade from top to bottom according to a model that, due to ever increasing scientific knowledge of human physiology, psychology and sociology, is in a sense more natural than humans ever were in the first place. Stabilization would be relative, for sure, since this can’t really be done in a coherent way (but that itself can be good for business)—but all of these initiatives could at least be brought under a single form of authority. The only problem, but it is a fatal one, is that such an order will be completely incapacitated in dealing with any non-therapeutic order, and will exacerbate any conflicts with such orders by treating them as if these other orders were, in fact, under therapeutic authority. (Much like European countries presently try to reduce the incidence of sexual assault by Muslim migrants by treating them as if they simply don’t know the rules and codes regarding sexual harassment in the West, and just need a workshop to clear things up.) This delusional mindset is an advantage for those non-therapeutic orders, and gives reactionaries an incentive to represent the current order as a therapeutic one, regardless of how far it is along that path. It shouldn’t be hard, since the SJW left already speaks about itself as if it is in a hospital, with everyone watching each other on suicide watch.

As obvious as it must seem, I’ll repeat that electoral politics, discourses on civil and human rights, arguments about promoting economic freedom and growth, etc., i.e., the stale staples of our political diet, are completely irrelevant to these developments, and therefore to opposing them (the Supreme Court may follow the election returns, but the foundations certainly don’t). Anyone who thinks that transgenderism is a fraud or that homosexuality is malleable or who honestly studies the effects of homosexuals raising children will never get through graduate school or get accredited in psychology, nursing, social work, etc. How do you vote against that? By all means, sue on behalf of your religious rights—we’ll see if you’ll even be able to find a lawyer willing to represent you. Against the therapeutic order the new order would have to pit self-discipline, privileging the signs of self-control, continence, practice, self-abnegation, loyalty to superiors, respect for peers and protection of subordinates, a willingness to be judged by the highest independent standards, deference to the genuine capabilities and authority of others, and recruiting supporters from the professions, locations and demographic groups richest in these qualities and elevating those groups as examples for the others. (The blogger sundance at Conservative Treehouse speaks of the “white hats” holding out in within the security apparatuses that have been mostly corrupted.) The new order would be one of faith and knowledge, both of which are generated by discipline—the pseudo-knowledge of the therapeutic would have to be countered by the study of civilization, in its distinction everywhere from barbarism, savagery and decadence. The unnatural nature of the therapeutic can be shown to be nothing but a comprehensive system of, to use the vernacular, “flipping out” or being “triggered”; to use a term that has pretty much fallen into disuse, the subjects of the victimary-cum-therapeutic are nothing but malingerers. General George Patton provided a model for how to treat malingerers, and perhaps learning from that model is a way (to cite Trump) to stop the poor old general from spinning in his grave.

Tradition Conserved is Sovereignty Conserved

Reactionary Future regularly targets, more or less directly, the conservative aphorism that “politics is downstream of culture,” along with the alt-right version, “identity>culture>politics.” In both cases, the problem is the assumption of a sphere of spontaneity and individual activity that precedes and ultimately exists outside of central authority and power—and, therefore, ultimately determines that authority and power, both causally and as the repository of rights that legitimates the sovereign. All of this is diametrically opposed to absolutism, which places politics, the center, first, with all activity on the margin “always already” accounted for by the center.

At the same time, a little while back, in a couple of posts on “tradition,” RF introduced the maxim, parallel to the maxim “sovereignty is conserved,” “tradition is conserved.” Just as someone always occupies the center, however ephemerally or unstably, all human activity is wholly indebted to some tradition or traditions enabling that activity. The most fundamental of traditions is, of course, language, which no individual could have invented alone, without which no one of us could perform a single human act, and of which we, to cite Michael Polanyi, know more (far more) than we can say. All tradition is like that.

But a lot of people would use tradition fairly synonymously with either or both “culture” and “identity,” which returns us to the question of the relation between these differing levels of human existence. Also, the “law of rebellious tools,” i.e., that all supposedly “bottom-up” political activity is really a product of insecure power, whereby one section of the elite instrumentalizes some “lumpen” element so as to undermine another section and enhance its own proximity to the center, would seem to render tradition completely malleable by outside forces—and, hence, not really “tradition” in any meaningful sense at all. There is certainly a lot of truth to this argument, as we find out regularly that supposedly deeply rooted and revered cultural traditions (like Christmas celebrations) are really very recent inventions, often attributable to advertising and publicity campaigns. But in that case, what would it mean to say that tradition is conserved, and why would we care?

For originary thinking, tradition can only be the memory and commemoration of the originary scene. As Eric Gans has shown, first of all in The Origin of Language, there is a tension between the ritual and signifying dimensions, respectively, on the originary scene and onward. Ritual involves performance, symbolic action, and the ostensive gesture. It also requires strict adherence to a rigorous “script.” Each tradition, in its own idiosyncratic way, re-enacts the originary event, where violence was deferred through the issuance of the aborted gesture of appropriation. The sign, discourse, interprets or, as I have put it previously, “anthropomorphizes” the figures on the ritual scene. The commemoration of the scene, then, accretes its own layers of reflection and modification to allow the practice to better embody the scene imagined in such reflections. It would follow that what enables the continuity of tradition is an ongoing dialectic of ritual and discourse, such that the discourse of the community is sufficiently rich in referents to the rituals, and the rituals sufficiently open to discursive accretions.

It’s not really possible to imagine performative and symbolic actions, organized around an ostensive gesture, without a sacred center. What would the ostensive gesture be gesturing toward? The irruption of the Big Man and its further enlargements into history disrupted the local, relatively egalitarian communities organized around a sacred center I think we can imagine on the model of ancestor worship. The organization of central power destroyed tradition and recuperated it through the divinity of the emperor. It may be that there is a “wound” here that has never healed and can never heal, and that there is something in tradition inimical to central power—the loss, or at least vitiation, of the bond to the venerated ancestor must be something like having one’s child torn away for service in some imperial institution. The ancient empires established traditions of their own, in which the origin story of the empire replaced ancestral human/animal/divine origin stories, but such traditions probably never struck roots in the millions of slaves and laborers subject to imperial domination, who likely always maintained more ancient rituals.

A new form of commemoration of the originary event emerged in response to the limitations of imperial traditions—as I have discussed previously, this form of commemoration establishes a scene analogous to the originary scene, but with an abstracted origin that, reduced to its essentials, does nothing more than serve as a locus guaranteeing the possibility of a scene of equal participants. Whether it is all-creating God who lovingly created human beings or a metaphysical “idea,” (or whatever the East Asian, Indian, etc., equivalents, of which I am unqualified to speak, might be), anyone willing to step outside of the ritual hierarchies of daily life can hear “news” of the originary event on such scenes. What one “hears,” in one idiom or another, is that reciprocity and central power are and must be made for each other. This message is audible because reciprocity and central power are so often at odds, so post-imperial tradition anthropomorphizes the dialectic of sovereign and subject as a search for appropriate reciprocity. Christianity is still the most fully realized embodiment of this revelation and tradition, and therefore still the most essential tradition of the West, but inherent in the possibility of a renewed revelation of the originary event is that it can take on new forms. The most abstract and in that sense the most perfect form of all would be a kind of “lingualotry,” or a worship of our miraculous capacity for language, which far transcends any one of us. That would itself be a conservation of tradition, with its own performative and symbolic dimension, directing attention to that in language whereby we say more than we can know. Gans refers to the “I Am” that speaks to Moses out of the burning bush as the God whose name is the declarative sentence—an assertion that commemorates the invisible center constitutive of every declarative sentence. If whatever we are talking about were fully present, we wouldn’t need to predicate it—and that’s true even if we are talking about something right in front of us. In speaking, hearing, writing, reading the declarative sentence, we express a shared faith in the center that doesn’t present itself, other than in our inability to ever quite talk about it. Whether a restoration of Christian order is to be achieved, or some equivalent found, establishing the proper relation between sovereign and subject will be constitutive of the project of re-centering. That makes it a good place to start.

Now, the sovereign center certainly does present itself. The sovereign restores or preserves order by exercising the power tacitly demanded by all those cognizant of their embeddedness in the hierarchy of social reciprocities. The sovereign is a constituent of post-imperial tradition. The sovereign is not like God, but post-imperial commemorations of the originary scene presuppose an emissary to align central power (which is taken as given) and the continual enhancement of reciprocities required for a civilized order. Post-imperial tradition is, then, always already informed by sovereign power, actual and imagined, and sovereign power is always already invested in tradition. How a particular sovereign will engage the ritual or, more broadly, performative, symbolic and ostensive, orders in a particular society cannot, of course, be known or determined in advance, but we can know that he will have an interest in “clothing” his power in those performative, symbolic and ostensive elements of social interaction—and, therefore, he must be interested in ensuring that those elements will “fit” the power he must wield.