GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 19, 2017

States Temporary and Permanent

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:10 am

It seems to be pretty widely acknowledged (even by neo-cons like Bill Kristol and Matthew Continetti if only, in the case of the former, to applaud it) that elements of the intelligence services are currently seeking to undermine, perhaps overthrow and destroy, certainly weaken and humiliate, the President of the United States. Indeed, the CIA doesn’t seem to bother concealing their intentions—maybe they consider it preferable that they be known. This is a very instructive situation for those of us who think the only serious political question is “who rules”? It has always been fairly evident that the broader institutions of American life, including the intelligence and security agencies cloaked in secrecy but also corporations, NGOs, government bureaucracies, political parties and the media, constrained in informal ways the choices available to American voters (not to mention to those they elect). It’s not quite as obvious as the mullahs in Iran, who simply strike names off a panel of candidates, but the effect is the same—does anyone think, for example, that the ruling class would have allowed Jessie Jackson become president in 1988? (2008 was a different story, of course, but even then the candidate needed to be somewhat less obviously bristling with resentment.) What the election of Donald Trump reveals is that the system is imperfect, and this revelation has generated another one, as the elements of the state that normally leak and subvert behind the scenes are now close enough to the surface to be seen by everyone. Outing the fundamental power relations of the United States is one of the many things we can be grateful to Donald Trump for.

Now, the problem is how to analyze all this. Absolutist theory gets taken out for a comprehensive test drive here. First of all, let’s decide which of the two most common names to work with, or at least start with: “deep state” or “permanent state.” The problem with “deep” is that these agencies are deep until they’re not, and right now they seem to be brushing right up against the surface, perhaps ready to breach at any moment. “Deep state” is more ominous sounding, and perhaps better for a fictional thriller, but “permanent” is both more accurate and more conceptually acute. Why is there a permanent state? The ongoing, centuries long centralization of power. Modernity is a high-low war against the middle, a demolition ball taken to all mediating institutions and traditions time and time again. This we already know from de Jouvenal and de Tocqueville. To insist on rights is to demand a state bureaucracy capable of harming those who interfere with the realization of those rights—rights inflation inevitably follows, since that allows for the continual aggrandizement of the state. The same analysis is less often applied to foreign affairs, but if power blocs within a given (powerful) country aim at increasing their own power by undermining mediations, why wouldn’t the same principle apply internationally—why not agitate for the same rights abroad, fund and support those agencies that can fight for them within that country, form new alliances with government, para-governmental and private agencies in other countries and across regions that make you a leader in rights exportation? If the agents we get behind turn out to be dangerous and antagonistic, the same dice can be rolled again, leading to further destabilization. And when the destabilization lets loose international forces of chaos and mayhem, why not impose vast security controls that further subvert mediations and allow you to play one end off against the other: if you don’t want a flood of Muslim immigrants and refugees you are a racist who needs to be controlled and ostracized; but, now that we have more and more Muslims, we also need extensive surveillance, infiltration of police forces into everyday life and the general fortressification of the society. When you put it this way, it attributes too much coherence and cohesion to the ruling powers, but this is just a shorthand way of describing what goes one through inter and intra-institutional rivalries.

Again, all of this is obvious, and I’m a little embarrassed to be providing this summary of analyses one can easily find in dozens of places these days. The really interesting question is who rules? First of all, let’s point out that the permanent state seems to be comprised of an endless and incalculable series of temporary states. When a judge tells President Trump he can’t do something as routine as prevent migration from some hell holes, and Trump complies, clearly Trump is not sovereign. Is the judge, then, sovereign? Not yet—the administration appealed to the Ninth Circuit appeals court which could have, theoretically, overturned the lower judge’s decision, and reinstalled the travel ban. Is the Ninth District, then, sovereign? In overturning the lower court, would they have restored Trump’s sovereignty? But let’s not forget about the Supreme Court, which has certainly acted sovereignly on a regular basis for decades now. What has allowed them to do so? If a president defies a Supreme Court decision, would he then be sovereign? It would depend, I suppose, upon whether he then gets impeached and removed from power—but, then, would it be the Court or those who remove him that is sovereign? (Let’s go a step further—I just read on a fairly popular blog that the CIA and the Mossad are involved in organizing pedophile rings that are used to blackmail US politicians into doing the bidding of the American and Israeli secret agencies—so, is the guy with the videos of Western politicians in compromising positions sovereign?) Should we determine sovereignty based on public, obviously consequential decisions, or do those decisions depend upon other decisions made less publicly, maybe years ago? What, then, is the temporality of sovereignty—would a decision made, say, in 2000, that still controls decisions made now, confer sovereignty on whoever made that decision? Until when? Does sovereignty run out at a certain point? And let’s keep in mind that absolutism locates sovereignty in a single individual—not just, say, the Supreme Court, or the CIA, but whoever decides within the Court or Agency.

It’s interesting that the popular sense that there’s someone out there who’s really running things seems in agreement with the absolutist position. There is an ongoing competition involving finding the level of conspiracy that’s underneath the level your interlocutor has uncovered. This is inevitable as long as informal power is so at odds with formal power—the disjunction between formal and informal power encourages everyone to find new levers of power they can pull or expose. Obviously, trying to identify who’s pulling each and every lever, and each and every lever behind the other levers, or who is responsible for this decision made here right now, is hopeless. Our outrage at divided power (at someone else really pulling the strings, at no one but ourselves realizing that everything else is just a puppet show) only makes sense on the assumption that undivided power is possible. Our entire moral framework presupposes absolutism. Even if one just says, well, let’s just divide power in a formal and controlled way, between the legislative, judicial and executive, one necessarily concedes competition regarding influence over each of the branches, constant attempts to subvert one branch on behalf of the other, ad infinitum. All the powerful and the powerless they mobilize rush into the gaps between different power centers. What can one really say about a congressman who essentially has donors write the legislation he introduces—that he should have written the entire bill himself, without input, based on his own opinions and knowledge and sense of right and wrong? Or that he should judge the bills introduced by others, each on its own terms, based only on an independent reading of the bill as a good or bad piece of legislation in itself? That’s the implicit model of representative democracy, but it’s absurd, if for no other reason that there is no independent position from which one can think through a piece of legislation on one’s own, or even through free conversation with one’s colleagues in the chamber. It only makes sense on the anarchistic liberal anthropological assumption of naturally free and rational individuals, which means it doesn’t make sense.

We must assume, if we are to put intellectual order in the morass of divided power, that someone is or could be attempting to restore unified power. It’s impossible to imagine pure chaos—somewhere there must be counter-entropic forces. Anywhere someone tries to constitute a bounded space, with a central focus and purpose, and exclude anything that would distract or dilute that focus or purpose, and bring all the available means to bear upon sustaining that focus and achieving that purpose, we have such an anti-entropic force. The “middle” which de Jouvenal sees assailed by the constant pincer movement of the high-low alliance, is comprised of such anti-entropists. Even someone who’s vocation was subverted by the latest round of high-low modernist centralization will seek to reconstitute the space on internally coherent terms—that is, to restore the center. The middle exists in business, in government, in the police and military, education, families, neighborhoods, etc., even on the level of a disciplined self. But the “size” of the middle varies—the proliferation of contrary intentions attributed to the center indicates a shrinking middle, while a burgeoning middle would reward more unified power at the top. Simply pointing out the consequences of divided power in the form of eccentric, hidden and transient sovereign acts is itself an act aimed at growing the middle. But, of course pointing out such consequences can just as easily be a way of multiplying power (it never takes long before someone who says “it’s all really about ________” is rebuked by someone claiming that “that’s what they want us to think so we don’t see that___________”), intentionally or otherwise. We could say that even the most subversive are, in their own way, trying to steer us towards some kind of secure power. Is Trump, on balance, a stabilizing or destabilizing force? Is some destabilization necessary in order to arrive at enduring stability? How much, what kinds, and how do we know?

We can find the answer in the temporality of sovereignty. To borrow from Kant, we should act as though our decisions today would be sovereign for the forseeable future, would build upon a permanent tradition of absolutism that will only increase. I can write this little blog post under the assumption that its way of thinking will enter (no doubt through myriad indirect routes) the decision making process of some sovereign decades from now, and help tilt a particular decision he is agonizing over towards the slightly better one, ensuring the permanence and singularity of his sovereignty. I would, in that case, be sovereign for that moment, would I not? But, since I of course have no way of knowing anything about that sovereign, the conditions he faces, the forms and extent of his responsibilities, the only way I can exercise this sovereignty is by feeding forms of thought that enhance the capacity for deferral, discipline and paradox, and therefore by embedding these capacities in my own thinking. Assume the middle is shrinking at an accelerating pace, to the point of near extinction (give free play in the imagination and actual inquiry to the wildest historical possibilities of constant turnover in sovereignty); assume, further, that this condition can be dramatically and immediately reversed by the right word, here and now (all the historical demons could be dispersed and their forces recouped by the right person in the right place doing the right thing)—try and find that word, and you might be exercising some form of future sovereignty.

Now, contrast this with another hypothetical form of futural sovereignty, drawn from Moldbug’s demonstration that today’s dominant social ideas were the dominant opinions of the Harvard (or maybe he says Stanford) faculty in 1960, implying that the Harvard faculty in 1960 exercised sovereignty that extends to today. Let’s say there is some Harvard professor right now developing a constitutional argument to the effect that only disabled black lesbians should be qualified to be president (do you dare declare this example an absurdity?). And let’s say that 50 years from now, a Supreme Court decision implements this opinion from a Harvard professor in 2017. How would the sovereignty exercised by this professor differ from the one I just proposed from an absolutist standpoint? My thinking, on my hypothesis, enters the thinking of the future sovereign, and my temporary sovereignty enhances his permanent sovereignty—in a sense, in his studies and inquiries, that future sovereign periodically cedes sovereignty, within a controlled space, much like a delegation, but with the capacity to surprise and displace current intellectual habits, to representatives of the intellectual traditions he knows himself to rely upon. The Harvard professor’s sovereignty generates more divided power and confuses sovereignty—who, after all, will be sovereign in that future order? Not whichever disabled black lesbian happens to be president at a given time, because she must be subject to ongoing redefinitions, across various disciplines, of the meaning of “disabled,” “black” and “lesbian”; not the member of the Supreme Court who championed this innovation, because she will herself have simply let loose a stream of arbitrary discussions over whether, for example, degrees of blackness, disability and lesbianism should enter into the qualification of a presidential candidate, making all these concepts even more political, i.e., more attractive to those dividing power, than they already were. And certainly not the Harvard professor of 2017, whose brief moment in the sovereignty sun is immediately sunk in the watershed, contributing to no new order. At any rate, we end with a claim that should prove promising for “sovereignty studies”: in answering the question of “who rules?” one must account for the temporality of sovereignty.

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