Absolutism and History

Modern history begins with the first elites to use the high-low vs. the middle logic first deployed by the king to question the legitimacy of the monarchy itself. The absolutist monarch consolidated power by reducing all subjects to equidistance from his own central power; the next, fairly obvious, step is to ask why we need the king to establish this equidistance from the center. Wouldn’t it be better to have a center actually chosen on the terms of, and thereby confirming, the a priori (and not merely bestowed) equidistance of all subjects from the center? This step, which introduces the public-private, state-citizen distinction (and all the others that follow, such as economics-politics, culture-religion, impartial-partisan, etc.) is also the beginning of the dissimulation of power. To be a private entity is to be officially bereft of any formal power, and hence free of responsibility for the power one exercises. We must see things this way if we see individuals as the basic units of society, in which case all private power is vaguely illegitimate while only being liable to criticism in terms of improper access to and use of state power—which is easier to discover or construct, the more powerful the actor (a major exception that proves the rule here is anti-discrimination law, which criminalizes unapproved of forms of association—but which has set in motion the implosion of the private-public distinction itself, because in the end there is no area of life where we don’t “discriminate.” For example, could anyone provide, in terms of anti-discrimination law, a convincing reason why marriage certificates shouldn’t only be granted to those who marry “others,” however defined?). In this way we all join in the modernizing project of trying to raze all “cabals” to the ground so as to release the free, self-determining, powerless and power-free individuals somehow enchained within them. Prior to this modern project of concealing and dissimulating power, though, the monarchies of Europe had sabotaged themselves by diluting power by entitling individuals who benefited the throne, rather than those who had proven themselves worthy of what should have remained hard won and rarely granted privileges.

So, re-starting the absolutist project means naming powers properly. This imperative unites our historical accounts, our analyses of contemporary politics, our ongoing political projects and a summative ontology and ethics of sovereignty. An absolutist history identifies the dilution and then dissimulation of names for power, along with seeking out the actions and accounts of those who, in the midst of the corruption of names, sought to reattach them to their proper objects—those people are our precursors and models, our “fathers” you might say. Political analysis involves tracing the relations between formal, political, powers, and informal, secondary and therefore unnamed and dissimulated powers. This is complicated because informal powers preserve their power by being informal. We might say, in good formalist/realist fashion, that the New York Times was the press agency of the Obama Administration, and we would be largely right—but if the New York Times admitted that that was what it was, much less if the Obama Administration had officially delegated such duties to them, they would have been completely unable to fulfill them, and hence disempowered. Similarly, if the Ford Foundation stopped sponsoring activist groups, funding academic organizations, various legal defense organizations, think tanks writing up reports on the future of democracy, etc., and called a news conference in which its leadership openly “owned” its power and declared its intention to start exercising it openly, it would lose all of that power. So, we must name the New York Times and the Ford Foundation as delegated powers (looking to the laws and political protection that enable their functioning) that can only exercise their powers (and can only use those powers to exploit and subvert the sovereign that delegated them) as delegated powers dissimulated as informal. The ultimate purpose of the analysis is to show how these delegated powers muddy the chain of command constitutive of sovereignty and, here as well, identify the kinds of actions and inactions that could help clarify the chain of command.

But what most interests me here is the final question, that of the ethics and ontology of absolutism, which can now be seamlessly integrated into history, contemporary analysis and political projects. The starting point of this post was the inaugural post of the post-Reactionary Future blog Neoabsolutism, entitled Neoabsolutism as a Contender for the Title of the Fourth Political Theory. The post is a review of Dugin’s book, in which Dugin distinguishes between the “subjects” of the main three political theories of modernity: the liberal “individual” subject, the communist “class” subject, and the fascist/Nazi nation/race subject. It’s not clear whether Dugin is proposing a new subject for his “fourth political theory,” and if so who it would be, but what is important here is the question of whether neoabsolutism is proposing a new political subject as part of its contention for the fourth political theory, and if so what would that be. After some give and take on our reddit page, I concluded that neoabsolutism (I still prefer “absolutism,” being somewhat allergic to “neos”) is a radical break from modern political theories insofar as, among other things, it eschews the nomination of a historical subject. The political subjects of the other theories are all constituted by some desire for “liberation” from some form of “subjugation,” along a line of “progress” that can never really be accomplished and ultimately serves as a pretext for piling up the body counts. The point of reactionary, and certainly absolutist, thinking, is to be rid of all that world destroying resentment, along with the illusion that the resentment can be harnessed for beneficial social purposes.

Part of the purpose of a historical subject is to generate a historical narrative that one can then enter—the individual struggles against the chains of censorship, persecution and superstition, then against repressive norms of sexuality, against racial prejudice, against the belief in binary genders, etc.; the working class struggles against the capitalist class and its state, and then imperialist encirclement; the nation struggles against formal or informal imperial power, against internal divisions and inherited backwardness, the race struggles against inferior races and the Jews, etc.—very compelling stories can be told using these templates. So, what’s the story of absolutism? It seems to me that what happens in absolutism is that tacit powers and the traditions they bear are explicitly recognized and titled. In a sense this is the fundamental attribute of sovereignty, since a precondition of its primary function of protecting the realm is designating and nominating subordinate powers to assist in doing so. The sovereign names powers and “seals” traditions by authenticating their transfer from previous or other sovereigns and their incorporation into his own sovereignty. Rather than a historical subject, there is an asymmetrically reciprocal exchange between sovereign and subjects, in which subjects seek further recognition and incorporation and the sovereign recognizes value and power legitimately acquired within the approved institutions by designating it and providing it with formal access and audience. This interaction addresses the fundamental anthropological question of resentment, which is always resentment toward the center (if another humiliates me, it is still the central power that allowed that to happen, and therefore failed to give me my due), by providing for public and controlled competition and ambition. So, our present day auditioning and requests for clarification regarding commands and the command structure transitions into a proper order in which such clarification, through an articulation of sovereign designations, is what sovereignty is openly comprised of. There’s no “progress” or historical guarantees here—there’s nothing but continuing attempts to become worthier and make actual hierarchies explicitly acknowledged ones, along with a cultivation of readiness for exceptional action when it becomes possible. No doubt there are and will be compelling stories to tell in accord with this template, however much we may have to rewire our narrative apparatus to tell them.

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