Absolutism: Some Clarifications

It may be that for some “absolutism” might simply be an argument for one form of government over others—as if an absolute monarch with complete sovereignty over a population with no power and no rights is “better” than a democracy, or a liberal oligarchy, or socialism, or anything else. But the argument for absolutism, compressed most economically in the principle “sovereignty is conserved,” is more a tautological maxim than a preference based on some other ethical, moral, economic or aesthetic principle. The conservation of energy is what R.G. Collingwood called an “absolute assumption,” not a preference for saving energy over wasting it, and the same is true for the conservation of sovereignty. Everyone really agrees with this, because everyone knows when we speak of “the United States” speaking with “Germany” we know this means Donald Trump, or someone appointed by Donald Trump, speaking with Angela Merkel, or someone appointed by her. We can argue over the real sovereign, and some Americans, for example, out of frustration, will claim that the Supreme Court really rules—but until Chief Justice Roberts starts issuing orders to the special forces I think I’ll stick with the sovereignty of the President. Now, given that the President is sovereign, the arguments about better and worse forms of government begin when we start to ask whether the President should be chosen through an electoral process (and if so, which one), whether he should be replaced regularly, whether he should require authorization from other branches of government for certain actions, whether it should be possible to remove him (and if so, how), etc. Still, in a genuine emergency, everyone would look to the President to act, and unless all sense of national unity and purpose has been drained out of the country, the states and courts would defer to him, and Congress would facilitate his activity with enabling legislation.

Now, once we have established the ontological claim of absolutism, we can further point out that absolutism enables us to structure in very productive ways the debate over forms of government. If someone is to be sovereign, it were best that sovereignty be clear and secure. We can think about this by analogy with just about any other task we ask someone to perform. If we ask someone to coach the high school basketball team, he must be given power over everything pertaining to coaching the basketball team—if we introduce a rule that the players must vote on the starting line-up, then he isn’t really the coach, and we are setting him to fail by introducing permanent conflict between him and his players. If he, on the other hand, wants to give us players that power, it may be wise or unwise, but within the scope of his authority. The same with mechanisms for selecting leaders: the sovereign can allow for offices to be filled through election; indeed, through a supreme act of self-abnegation, he can place himself up for election and risk being removed, without thereby losing sovereignty. We can argue, and I think very convincingly, that this would be a serious mistake and a destructive way of selecting leaders, but that argument would then take place on absolutist terms: the argument against it is that it makes sovereignty less clear and secure. So, if we would all defer to the executive in a crisis, we should make that explicit and gear all institutions to readiness to be helpful in serving the executive in a crisis. We might as well take the next step and acknowledge that the executive will decide when there actually is a crisis, and that other institutions should therefore prepare themselves by providing ongoing feedback to the executive on the ways potential pre-crises are registering across the social order.

The sticking point for a lot of people seems to be the question of removing a clearly unfit leader, which a rigorous absolutism seems to preclude, because any such mechanism introduces division into sovereignty by now making someone else sovereign—the doctor who determines the mental fitness of the ruler, the board of directors that gathers to assess his performance, the judges who would hear appeals regarding disqualifying acts of the president, the legislature that impeaches and removes him, etc. All the divisions and power plays that the clarification of sovereignty aims at eliminating would all then rush in through this open door. But absolutism can answer the question of removing an unfit leader, even if it’s not a very comforting answer. If a ruler’s unfitness manifests itself in an incapacity to defend the country or maintain the conditions of law and order, he will be removed by whichever of his subordinates is in the best position to do so—the best positioned in terms of readiness to manage the emergency, rally the support of other power centers, and command the forces needed to rule. And that subordinate will then seek to return power as soon as possible either to the once again fit sovereign, or whoever is next in line according to whatever tradition has been followed in ensuring the continuity of sovereignty. Maybe that subordinate will serve as sovereign temporally or even permanently. And if he fails to remove the sovereign, and no one else can either, then that suggests either the sovereign wasn’t really unfit, or sovereignty can no longer be sustained in that form on that territory—maybe it needs to be broken down into smaller units or aggregated into a larger one.

It would be easy to say that this is a recipe for instability, since any strongman can now come along and claim sovereignty if he can take it. But strongman who violently seize power almost invariably do so in the name of some other, presumably more real sovereign, which legitimates the takeover. He takes power in the name of the people, the working class, the dominant ethnic group, a restoration of the principles of some previous constitution, etc. In other words, he disclaims responsibility for sovereignty. Widely shared absolutist assumptions would make it impossible to get away with this—if you want to take power, you might be able to claim that a sense of duty impels you to it, but make no mistake—you are taking power, in your own name, under your own newly acquired authority, and you will be responsible for how you see it through. You can’t fob it off on anyone else. Such widely shared assumptions would be highly discouraging to reckless adventurers and utopian ideologues. What’s interesting here is that this supposedly most tyrannical approach to government would in fact rely more than any other of the thoughtfulness, knowledge, and clear-headedness of the people. If everyone understands that a particular interpretation of the constitution, or of the Bible, or a history of mistreatment, real or imagined, by the social or ethnic group you belong to, gives you absolutely no claim to power; that, on the contrary, power belongs to whoever can hold it within the political tradition of rule in that country, then there’s no problem. But that means we’re talking about a fairly sophisticated and disciplined people, capable of dismissing all kinds of flattering BS. Everyone would know that attempts to obligate the sovereign are attempts to weaken the sovereign, to subject the sovereign to the sway, not of “the people” in general, but of some very specific people with a very pressing desire for power, if not necessarily a clear idea of how to use it. All clamoring for “rights,” “freedoms,” a “voice,” etc., would lead everyone to look around and discover who is most ready to use and benefit from those rights and freedoms. And to shut their ears to any remonstrance coming from that corner.

But there must be something that prevents the complete, unlimited power of the ruler from being exercised unchecked upon each and every member of society! If liberalism is part of your common sense, or even a little piece of it, it will be very difficult to get past this kind of reaction. Of course the reaction itself, along with the pitiful devices put in place to calm anxieties, like “rights,” “rule of law,” “constitution,” “checks and balances,” etc., testifies to its own impotence and childishness. Who defends rights, maintains the rule of law, protects the constitution if not whoever has the power to do so; and whoever has the power to do so transparently has the power to violate and redefine rights, law and the constitution. As for “checks and balances,” what can that mean other than different institutions or power centers fighting each other to gain more power for themselves and stymie the others, and either one will succeed, or society will become one big bumper car ride, with everybody knocking everybody else into everybody else. And then you end up developing a social theory claiming all individuals are really out of control bumper cars.

All these devices seem to make sense because they presuppose a shared understanding of “rights,” “laws,” “constitution” and social ends (so the checking and balancing can all seem to be moving things in a more or less agreed upon direction). There can be a shared understanding of these concepts, and as long as that continues the harm done by their incoherence can be minimized. If several people are building a house together, and everyone knows that the roofer needs certain materials and a certain amount of time to work on the roof, it doesn’t matter much if the roofer wants to insist he has a “right” to those things. But these concepts become important in proportion to the shrinking sense of shared purpose, and at a certain point they accelerate that decline in common goals. The builders come to work prepared to defend their rights rather than construct the building as well as they can. If the members of society are for the most part engaged in productive and rewarding activities, in which the contributions of each are valued, then we would be speaking about how to ensure this remains the case, and talk of “rights” and all the rest becomes irrelevant. What is experienced or seen as mistreatment or unfairness either is or is not interference with or impairment of the cooperation required for the task at hand. If someone could be contributing more than they are being allowed or enabled to, there is a problem, but on extremely unlikely to be solved by some outside adjudicator deploying concepts drawn from legalistic or political discourses. One must appeal to those familiar with and involved and interested in the success of the project. Absolutism in government supports a little absolutism in each sphere of authority. To modify the conservative maxim, everyone is absolutist in what they know best, and an absolutist ruler would find such local absolutists to be the best guarantee of good order.

The last clarification, for now, is regarding the appearance that absolutism is a retrograde or nostalgic project, inapplicable to contemporary settings. Absolutism is actually a highly innovative and unprecedented mode of political thinking. In looking for genuine predecessors, we find few—Robert Filmer, Betrand de Jouvenel (who, however, was a kind of conservative liberal in his own politics), Mencius Moldbug (whose rejection of “imperio in imperium,” but not his “cameralism,” is essential to absolutism), and that’s about it. Everything—economics, science, technology, art, philosophy, anthropology, history, etc.—remains to be rethought and re-examined on these new premises. Absolutism is not utopian, though, because, as I suggested above, it is always in fact assumed in any discussion of politics, which suggests it is an unspoken desire of all political thinking. When “Germany” speaks with “the United States” there is really nobody who would prefer that whatever agreements “Germany” and “the United States” arrive at would be irrelevant because those who represent either country haven’t the power to enforce them. (And if they have the power to enforce those agreements, they must have the power to enforce much else.) Or, if you would prefer it, it’s because you don’t like either or both countries very much and want to see harm come to them—you certainly wouldn’t prefer it for countries or institutions you care about. Just as it is always assumed, past governments have always approximated absolutism to some degree, especially when they especially needed to, and are therefore rich sources of insights for historical studies. We have no desire to reproduce the ad hoc and unworkable array of “estates,” institutions and rituals of medieval Europe, or the often times desperate absolutisms that tried to tame or abolish them, but we can certainly learn a lot from that history regarding difficulties of re-unifying divided authority. Ancient peoples killed their kings for not ensuring a successful harvest, a practice we won’t be reinstituting, but one displaying a very keen, if primitive, understanding of the centrality of power to any minimally complex social order. Contemporary absolutism wishes to learn from all this historical experience and deliberately establish an absolutist order for what will really be the first time.

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