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Fathers and Sovereigns

For Robert Filmer, leading figure in the absolutist tradition (and polemical target of John Locke), all rule is monarchical, and all monarchical rule is paternal. The legitimacy of absolute rule derives from God’s gift of the earth to Adam, who had absolute sovereignty over the earth and all who lived in it, including his sons, who had the power conferred upon them by Adam in his lifetime and by inheritance. All rule ultimately descends from Adam, even if we have long since lost track of the relevant genealogies. The first implication of Filmer’s argument is that paternal rule—rule by the master and possessor of a given property/territory over completely helpless and powerless descendants—is the model for all rule. The second implication, it seems to me, is more complicated: insofar as we are obliged to seek out the true sovereign—the actual descendant of Adam who should be ruling—but know that we will only ever uncover inconclusive traces, all power is held in trust against the discovery of the true heir, while being no less absolute for that (indeed, power must be preserved intact so it can ultimately be returned to its real possessor).

Now, there are two problems with this, one more obvious than the other. The obvious problem is that hardly anyone takes the Bible, much less its genealogies, literally anymore, so, we don’t believe there actually was a first man named Adam, who had the sons Cain, Abel, and Seth, etc. Filmer could presuppose the authority of the Biblical account of human history and pre-history, and his republican antagonists did the same—we can no longer do so. The second problem is that patriarchal rule doesn’t correspond to anthropological accounts of the earliest human communities, which were egalitarian, lacking any stable property rights, without any discernable distinction between rulers and ruled, and without families headed by a single, sovereign figure. I think that we can convert both of these problems into supports for a renewed and expanded version of Filmer’s Patriarchal politics.

First of all, Eric Gans pointed out in The End of Culture that “It is of great anthropological interest that the expulsion from paradise is associated with the founding of agricultural society, which is… the origin of social hierarchy, or resentment and of its moral transcendence.” This observation comes after an analysis of the story of the fall as a study in resentment, an experience Gans associates with social differentiation, which is to say the emergence of the Big Man and subsequent hierarchies. Adam is placed in a world and given a single interdiction, which he (through his—more subordinate—wife—and the “outsider,” resentful serpent) must violate in order to acquire the knowledge of good and evil, i.e., resentment towards those who are in “your” place and the need to control it. Filmer’s use of Adam as the origin of authority is justified insofar as Adam really a kind of synthetic version of the first father/king and the first to attain knowledge of the need for father/kings in a resentful world.

Indeed, moving beyond this (unforgivably simplified) analysis of Gans’s, the Bible as a whole can be read (I don’t say can only be read) as an ongoing protest of the pre-agricultural, nomadic communities against the ancient agriculturally based imperial mega-societies, along with the recuperation of this protest as divinely commanded moral constraints on the operations of power. The Israelite patriarchs are shepherds, not farmers, representing an emergent hierarchy that is never referred to as a monarchy. They are surrounded by kings (occasionally waging wars with and against them) with Egypt, of course, always looming in the background: the comparison between the contrasting ways of life and their intersections ultimately highlights the fundamental differences. We can see two different ways of transcending ancestor worship. Ancestor worship goes all the way back to the origins of humanity, with primitive hunter-gather communities mixing their human ancestors with sacred animal ancestors, but we can associate the worship of human ancestors with the tribal communities preceding the founding of monarchies in settled communities—first of all, city-states, which seemed to be the main social form of ancient Canaan. In the Biblical narrative we see veneration of ancestors but not worship—ancestor worship is countered by worship of a “portable” God who belongs to no one but revealed Himself to a wandering tribe. In the ancient city-states, and even more so in the gigantic empires, the king is the father of his people, and his lineage can be traced back to the gods in the city’s foundation myth—the ancestor worship of each family and tribe can be subsumed within this higher identity (which also entails the re-organization of local gods into an imperial/patriarchal hierarchy). Post-ritualistic patriarchal authority is established as a tributary of monarchical authority, which in turn models itself on the former. Filmer’s account requires a little modification, but essentially stands: since the emergence of hierarchy, no one has ever stood outside of patriarchal and monarchical authority, however divided. The memory of the originary scene preserved by the “nomadic” generates a moral model that makes it possible to argue for the goodness of monarchy, rather than simply the brute fact of its existence and the futility of resisting it. (I don’t mean to suggest that the earliest primitive hunter-gather communities were free of power or authority—there is always a sacred center and someone—such as a shaman—always represents that center, receives “communications” and commands from it. But there is no social differentiation and hierarchy, and therefore no established distinction between ruler and ruled, under such conditions.)

The main force of Filmer’s argument, as Reactionary Future has pointed out, is that it demolishes the liberal assumption of free individuals who somehow sprouted full grown ready to start homesteading and adding their labor to the products of nature. This is a critique of liberalism that feminists (like Carole Pateman) have taken up, to different (and never completely clear) ends. We all enter the world helpless and dependent, heirs to traditions, members of families and ethnic groups, subjects of states, with a sex, and so on. How can political theory not account for this? A more sophisticated version of liberal theory might point out that the individualization that Locke projected back into the state of nature is the result of a historical process of civilization, but this just confirms Bertrand de Jouvenal’s analysis of the workings of power: individuals become individuals as a result of the centralization of power which abstracts individuals from their social contexts and makes them directly subject to the sovereign center. Placing the individual at the center of political theory is putting the directly subjected individual at the center, while obscuring the real power constituting that individual. Any rights attributed to this individual are really mystified itemizations of the new forms of power unsecure sovereigns intend to exercise upon them.

The other direction for political theory is to turn our focus to central power, and the recovery of all the traditions pulverized by liberalism, now to be deposited in the central power. The securing of central power and the subordination of all other power centers entails making the sovereign heir to all the traditions inherited by its subjects. The sovereign would address his subjects as bearers of all these traditions, and would confirm their legitimacy in terms of central power—the traditions are legitimate insofar as at one time they has a sovereign stamp of approval. The sovereign would again be father of his people as the inheritor of all the previous sovereigns that made those traditions possible. This would be equivalent to ascertaining paternity. Foreign traditions can in this way be “naturalized,” as the sovereign builds relations with representatives of those traditions (e.g., the Catholic Church) and ensures that they are filtered through the means of confirmation and “certification” established by the sovereign. Even liberal traditions can be included, once they are recognized as traditions (e.g., legal traditions of treating people equally under specified conditions, for specified purposes) and not universal anthropological and political claims. Differences can be maximized in this way, including differences, such as racial, presently considered dangerous and taboo—there would be nothing strange or disturbing about groups organized along ethnic or racial lines and preserving and promoting their own traditions and even touting their own superiority, or, as genetic science advances and reveals differing aptitudes across groups, in finding one group specializing in one vocation, another in another. We would get into the habit of making requests of the sovereign in terms of traditional interests and historical contributions, and therefore in renewing those traditions. We would always be surfacing new and fascinating lineages, both ethnic and intellectual—much will be demystified and much revealed. Traditions would be clarified and made suitable for present habitation by purging them of the residues of divided power and sacralizing a line of founding and preservative events. Traditions would also be held in trust, as inquiries into lineages are made cooperative by a faith in discernable, recoverable, or at least reasonably hypothesized origins. Hostilities unleashed by uncertain power, and nourished by plausible but unverifiable claims of hidden power, will be abolished once power is transparent—and transparent in the languages of all the traditions of the realm. Nor need people be locked in the traditions they were born into, although this will probably remain the case for most—anyone so equipped and inclined will be able to take up intellectual and religious traditions, i.e., discover a new line of “fathers” which might supplement or replace his original ones. Such projects of discovery would represent a kind of disciplinary nomadism. Even ethnic and racial groups have some flexibility when it comes to “adopting” newcomers and even merging with other groups. Absolute sovereignty is not only paternal, but the font and guarantee of paternity, direct and indirect. Absolutism is a perpetual tribute to our collective liberation from resentment—the other can only have usurped my place if his access to sovereign power is arbitrarily and secretly privileged over mine, and clear lines of paternity from the top down means our “family names” directly reflect our specific relation to central power.

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