GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 9, 2017

Sovereignty Heisenbergian and Godelian

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:19 am

The pride of the liberal social order is the “rule of law,” or rule by “laws, not men.” How laws can rule without men would be hard to explain. Needless to say, every law is enforced (or left unenforced) by someone. What the “rule of law” really means is that power has no final destination. For every person who can enforce the laws with regards to others, there’s someone who can enforce the law upon him. So, insofar as you need to be “above the law,” a man not a law, in order to enforce it, there is always the possibility that someone will come along and be above you. And you do need to be above the law in order to enforce it, because it can never be wholly inscribed in the law that it needs to applied this way, here and now, to his person—that decision is always someone’s prerogative. Carl Schmitt defined the sovereign as he who decides on the exception, but that may be more of a definition of how sovereignty is surfaced in a liberal order. Under absolutism, with all power concentrated in a single ruler, and all law a manifestation of the ruler’s will, there can’t really be any exceptions. An exception is when a general rule has to be suspended in a particular instance in order to preserve the rule itself. The ruler’s will can’t be suspended in order to preserve the ruler’s will. But there are exceptions all the time in even the most liberal order, as Colm Gillis shows rather systematically in his The Terrible Beauty of Dictatorship. The liberal ideal is to arrange things so that we always know which enforcer of the law in one instance will be subject to another enforcer of the law in another instance. Even more, the ideal is to make this knowledge so thoroughly inscribed in the social order that every decision is made in such a way that the transition from decision to review of the decision is so seamless that the review is already built into the decision, which means that there is really no decision. But precisely for this reason the liberal order is a haphazard array of unaccountable decisions, of little dictatorships and exceptions—each site of possible review of decisions is a target of the various interests likely to be affected by those decisions, which means that the more liberalism tries to make the review process airtight the more embroiled in struggle the recesses wherein the review procedures are worked out become.

The law is a means of settling disputes. The purpose of developing a body of law, rather than just assigning judges to preside over every conflict according to their own personal judgment, is to make the resolution of disputes an orderly, reliable, rational, predictable process. Only in this way can it supplant the vendetta as the primary way of settling disputes—and this transcendence of the vendetta is what marks the distinction between the tribal Big Man and sovereignty proper. The very thing for which the head of one family would have had to have ordered a member of his clan to wreak vengeance upon the member of another clan must now be something recognized by the law and liable to receive punishment sufficiently “equivalent” to the vengeance that would have otherwise have been exacted. Even more, the law should not intervene beyond the level of dispute that threatens social peace (the revival of the vendetta system)—all other conflicts should be left to lower level mediation, for which a well-functioning legal system, kept within its bounds, can serve as an intellectual and ethical model. Within such a system, there must be a highest judge, a court of final appeal, and that highest judge is the sovereign, who is both the origin and destination of the law. But that means the sovereign cannot be himself subject to the law—otherwise, there would be an even higher appeal. Liberalism is utopian because it wants to transform the law from a means of settling disputes to a means of abolishing them. Law has gradually become a means of pre-empting possible disputes, and ordering institutions so that disputes are impossible, even unthinkable, which also means a way of identifying a priori the potential sources of disputes and neutralizing them by rendering them non-persons. This is really the telos of victimary thinking, political correctness, international human rights law, and transnationalism: to identify in advance the very dispositions that undermine equal treatment under the law so those dispositions can be contained (in this way, as I argued in a previous post, all these forms of liberalism converge with the therapeutic).

The starting point in this entire process is the struggle to subject the king to the law. Once one asserts a court of appeal that can adjudicate between the king and his subjects, one is off on an endless quest to find, define, justify and operationalize that adjudicator. For a long time it was such phantasms as the “will of the people,” “consent,” and “natural law”; the “rule of law” is a weaker and more bizarre version of the same idea, insofar as the law can be imagined to be the opposite of arbitrary force. Now, the arbiter is something like John Rawls’s “least well off,” which unsurprisingly leads to a scramble amongst prospective victims to be acknowledged the “least.” But it must be said, in accord with Bertrand de Jouvenel’s study of political history in On Power, that it was the European monarchs themselves who started this process by using the law to make all their subjects equal in relation to the sovereign in order to undermine and assimilate the diverse layers and sites of social power. We can’t say now whether there might have been another solution to the power imbalances and struggles between king, nobility and Church. Once the memory of the suppression of the vendetta (the foundational moment of sovereignty) fades, the law starts to evolve into an internally consistent, self-referential system managed administratively rather than as participation in a hierarchal system of reciprocities. The simplest way to do that is to reduce all individuals to equal units, which can be treated in an impersonal manner consistent with the scientific method. Once you have a system that purports to run itself, it’s only a matter of time before enough people realize the king is just one more, not particularly indispensable, unit within the system.

By making the relation to the law central to sovereignty, we can return to the question of “who rules”? The problem posed by formalist neo-reactionary theory is the discrepancy between actual power and formal power: the power exercised by, say, the media, goes unrecognized in a political theory that refuses to look past the obfuscations of the public/private, state/civil society distinction. For the formalist (who might also be called the realist), all major institutions are sites of social power, regardless of how they exercise it. Once we say this, though, how do we recognize these ordinarily unrecognized or under-recognized sites of power? Absolutist theory adds a new dimension to the problem: we assume that sovereignty is always preserved, which is to say always in some one’s hands. Moldbug at various points located sovereignty in such entities as “Harvard” and even “the narrative.” Identifying Harvard as a crucial and usually neglected source of power is obviously critical and revelatory, and, if not the “narrative” itself, whoever drives it at a particular moment, must also be brought into focus as a political agent. Still, we want to speak less loosely about sovereignty. The sovereign must be an agency that acts through the law, that enforces or suspends judgments. All non-sovereign agencies act under the aegis of, with the permission or remission of, the sovereign. This includes all sites of social power, whether we are speaking of the CIA, the Ford Foundation, or Stanford, however influential they may be—that is, however many institutional transformations we can trace back to their doings. The sovereign is capable of allowing such institutions to act without his knowledge and contrary to his expressed intentions, in which case the preservation of sovereignty compels us to assume an awareness that such activities will serve the sovereign will, perhaps all the more for not being explicitly willed.

Let’s test this assumption. Let’s say an American president embarks upon an unanticipated project (a war, or some large-scale domestic transformation) that leads to a rapid and coordinated evaporation of support: his party, his donors and fundraisers, the Congress, the media, all turn against him, and carry out a campaign of vilification and de-legitimation. Several possibilities follow. The president is removed from power, either via resignation or impeachment. The president stays in power, but is paralyzed, and is incapable of carrying out his project, but may have some room to maneuver within the confines of the counter-power exercised by the sites of power he has aroused. The president discovers or creates new sources of power that enable him to disable his opposition and carry on as intended—in which case the project might turn out to be even more consequential than was originally planned. If we focus on the first two possibilities, it is very hard to say that the president is genuinely sovereign—or, in fact, that he, or any president, ever genuinely was. After all, if the constraints of presidential activity are external, then is it not those setting the constraints who are sovereign? But this leads us on an endless pin the tail on the sovereign quest, and we’ll be proceeding, as in the children’s game, blindfolded. So, if we are to identify the sovereign within the system of law and judgment, we must assume the possibility of the third alternative. Those other sources of power, or their “elements,” must always already be there, distributed in the social order. This particular president might not succeed in harvesting and concentrating them, and be replaced by a different sovereign. In that case, he lost, surrendered or transferred his sovereignty. But he was still sovereign until he was replaced, and the new sovereign meets the same conditions of sovereignty. This analysis is complicated by the fact that, in the American system I am using for an example, the president is not, in fact, sovereign, as sovereignty is distributed among the branches of government and even, at least formally, between the federal and state governments (not to mention the limitations on sovereignty imposed by the periodical replacement of the sovereign via elections). But as the Commander-in-Chief and chief law enforcement officer, the president is really the only official in the government whose sovereignty we could seriously analyze—the fact that defending his sovereignty in the situation we are imagining might require the president to act outside of the terms of the constitutional system tells us much about the system but nothing about sovereignty itself.

Now, to get to the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title of this post. Godel’s famous incompleteness theorem shows that any internally consistent formal system depends upon the truth of statements that cannot be proven within the system. That is precisely what we have here in our absolutist ontology: sovereignty is “in” the system, in those reserves of social power that are both there and the only thing that really makes the system a system but only there insofar as the principal not included in or defined by the system—the sovereign—“redeems” them. Meanwhile, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle entails that the position and velocity of a particle cannot be known simultaneously: you can know how quickly it is accelerating or where it is but not both. What we do have is knowledge of a probabilistic distribution of particles, rather than of the location and movement of any single one of them. In our case, you can see who has sovereignty or you can see all the vectors of influence that detract from the appearance of sovereign power, but you can’t observe both simultaneously. The more you look at the media, foundations, universities, and so on, the more shriveled and fraudulent the sovereign power looks; the more you look at the inherited, formally recognized and tacitly obeyed elements of sovereign power, the easier it seems to scatter all those external powers to the winds. This oscillation between the two observations leads us to a probabilistic distribution of sovereignty: liberal sovereignty, the array of dictatorships from top to bottom that restrains the centrifugal motion of liberalism, always comes with an expiration date. From moment to moment our assessment of the temporality of liberal power must be revised. “Unsecure” power is power with a short time horizon. We can work to lengthen the time horizon of liberal sovereignty, to articulate accountability with power and institute reciprocal hierarchal relations, and we can be aware that the more successful we are the more we are removing the modifier “liberal” from “sovereignty.” Our observations of sovereignty thereby transform it—what is paradoxical, though, is that the way to participate in the securing of sovereignty is to oscillate, intellectually, more fluidly and rapidly between moored sovereign and remissively unmoored social powers. To identify the disruptive, counter-sovereign dynamic of the unmoored powers is to construct, piece by piece, the project of restoring sovereignty.

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