GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 31, 2017

The Modernity of Absolutism

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:35 am

The notion of sovereignty reaches back, in a various forms, to distant antiquity, as does the assumption that the monarch exercises complete power, unlimited by law, but the absolute right of kings, in the Western tradition, is only explicitly stated and defended in early modern Europe, by apologists for the absolutist sovereigns then emergent. Kingship was, through the middle ages, bound up with a whole network of rights and responsibilities which served to limit its power both explicitly and implicitly. At the same time, the king was the king, to whom all owed loyalty and obedience, so we could say there was some confusion there. In that case, the establishment of absolute monarchies, along with theorists defending them, in particular Robert Filmer, served as a genuine clarification of sovereignty. You can define sovereignty in such a way as to subtract everything personal from it, and that may be how it looks from the outside, but rule, at any rate, must be personal. A decision can be disguised as a corporate affair, but ultimately someone has made it, and all human activities and institutions are the results of decisions. We could see all of the social sciences which replace decision with “process,” “structure,” “interaction,” and so on as evasions. And with good reason –to say that something happened as a result of a “process” means it’s out of our hands and we don’t have to fight about it. We could, then, see something moral in this evasion, insofar as it is a mode of deferral; but it is a marker of moral immaturity, like telling children the tooth fairy will come to make them stop crying—moral maturity would involve examining the ways we might best make our own decisions so as to preserve or reverse the decisions of the past.

But while Filmer’s argument for the absolute power of kings is really exemplary and a model of reasoning, contemporary absolutists find the modern absolutist monarchs to be highly problematic. They centralized power by using the “people” as a battering ram against the middle orders, the nobility that exercised countervailing power (they could withhold funds and soldiers needed for war) and the Church that considered itself entitled to determine the legitimacy of the king. In doing so they demolished the entire traditional moral order that situated individuals within institutions, with well-defined roles, and set us on the path where there is no public morality other than screaming for a larger and more intrusive state to grant more equality by punishing those who seem to believe that there is anything more important than more equality. Was there another way that the “clarification” of absolutism could have been accomplished, though? This is obviously a relevant question for those interested in a similar clarification today. Perhaps that’s the wrong question—after all, we can’t rewrite history. Maybe there was no other path then, but there are paths now. That would still mean we should learn from history, if for no other reason than to help us identify the preferred paths. What, exactly, do we think a more overt absolutist order would accomplish? If we could identify lots of things—ideas, institutions, practices—that are “in the way” of establishing absolutism, surely they are not all in the way in the same way, much less to be gotten out of the way in the same way. Absolutism implies some kind of centralization—what kind of centralization, then, does not require that all on the margins have exactly the same relation to the center? What kind of absolutism would preserve and even enhance differentiation and embeddedness?

Originary thinking provides us with a model for moral development. At the origin of humanity lies representation as the deferral of violence. There’s an object that everyone in the group wants; the fact that everyone wants it, and everyone knows that everyone wants it, makes everyone want it even more. They want it so much that the normal pecking order of the higher animal group breaks down—the alpha animal can fight off any single contender but is helpless against the simultaneous convergence of all upon the center. Some new means of restoring order is needed: that new means is the sign, in this case the gesture by which all members of the group come to “communicate” to one another that they will defer appropriation of the central object. We now have a configuration: we all pay attention to something at the center. We pay attention to it rather than trying to appropriate it, and language is our way of letting each other know that is what we are doing. We can imagine that the first, foundational, instance of deferral was very short—as Eric Gans suggests, maybe no more than a brief hesitation preceding a more orderly, or at least “framed,” shared consumption of the object. In that case, moral and human development would involve stretching out that moment of deferral: a group that could defer appropriation for a couple of minutes would be more “competent” than one that couldn’t defer for more than a few seconds. And then the group that could defer for an hour would be even more competent—and would find it easy to conquer the less continent groups.

This greater competence comes, in the first instance, from a greater control over reactions and the development of a greater range of responses to the actions of others: think about who would win a confrontation between someone who feels compelled to respond directly and completely to every insult, every slight, and someone capable of seeing those insults and slights as baits to which one is free to reserve a response. It also comes, though, from the greater differentiation of signs that results from sustaining, shifting and manipulating attention. Language is essentially us getting each other to pay attention to things. The group that can defer appropriation for an hour will use that time to talk about a lot of things—they will notice things about the object, about how it came into their possession, about one another’s relation, or mode of approach, to the object, about the difference between this scene and previous ones. The human vocation is to continue extending the act of deferral, ultimately until infinity. Remember the Greek proverb: call no man happy until he is dead. That itself memorializes a history of deferral, through which rather than seeing human life as bound up with the immediate mimetically generated fears of rivals and ancestors and the constantly shifting “scorecard” in one’s struggle with them, it becomes possible to see a life as an ethical whole. But we could just as easily say “call no man happy until all the possible ways of understanding happiness have been exhausted,” which is to say, never. It’s very funny to watch some online disputes, for example in the comments section of blogs, where commenters harangue, ridicule and sometimes even threaten each other, in a style of communication that has its roots in oral communication, where one side will best the other right now to the acclaim of an audience. I can’t say for sure what works best for what purposes here and now (and I like a good meme as much as the next man), but eventually people will start thinking in terms of using these very extended lines of communication to intervene in long term ways in broader communications and institutional networks. Some people are surely doing this already, and seemingly short term strategies (like memes meant to humiliate) may very well be part of longer term strategies. But that would mean you have trained yourself to not really believe in the meme you are deploying, except in the sense that you “believe” in the arsenal you are maintaining.

So, we can say, in a preliminary way, that the centralizing imperative of absolutism is better directed against the entrenchment of lesser modes of deferral and in favor of more extended forms. We can see evidence of the degree of deferral attained in the ways communities assign responsibility. A community that attributes a plague to a microbe that can be isolated in a pool of water used as a drinking source has attained a higher degree of deferral than a community that blames the plague on a priest’s failure to perform the prescribed ritual properly. This is not just a question of knowing that science provides us with truth and that rituals don’t really have any effect on the natural world. It’s a question of whether the communities involved have suspended their desire to assign responsibility so as to consider a range of possible “causes.” A community that blamed itself for the plague for its failure to maintain justice in its courts would be just as wrong as the community that blamed the priest, but it would be exhibiting a higher level of deferral because rather than directing attention in the least resistant and most “satisfying” way it would have thought in terms of distributing blame, and finding a cure not in murder but in institutional repair. (Such a community would probably be more likely to find its way to some notion of “public health.”) Now, this approach doesn’t necessarily make for easy decision making and the determination of moral distinctions (we could imagine a very—but not infinitely!—patient and very merciless predator, for example), but these are the terms on which a serious moral discussion can be had, and we could say that in all uncertainly over decisions we could sort out the imperatives for extending deferral from those for collapsing it.

Liberalism and progressivism also claim to enable improvements in human behavior and social arrangements, but they don’t purport to do so by extending human deferral capacities. Both ideologies assert the possibility of downloading human morality into institutions—so, the “checks and balances” of liberal government will themselves restrict the violent tendencies endemic to human beings, or the “market,” given sufficient prosperity, will have the same effect. But the implication in both cases is really that advanced civilization is compatible with a reversal of previous tendencies and a decline in the capacity to defer. If one’s desires can be rerouted to objects readily available on the market, then domestication probably would be fairly easy—and a lot of study can be put into this rerouting. If you want to render human being a desert and call it peace, this is fine. The logical extension, as the social and medical sciences advance and intertwine, is to develop the optimal social and pharmaceutical “cocktails” to make the potentially problematic manageable. This process is obviously well under way. But this is also a kind of centralization, and it brings to bear social and medical developments that might have better uses. What would make the uses “better”? The only real argument is that since all actions, all scenes, involve someone occupying, albeit temporarily, the center, and others aligning themselves on the margins, which themselves on close look are little centers themselves, the absolutist wants everyone to be able to man their positions. Whatever enhances the ability of the individual to adopt a further increment of deferral—not take the quickest route to pleasure, not act out the most immediate resentment—is therefore to be preferred. Only in the course of making decisions within the fullest scope of your responsibility can you acknowledge the decisions made the same way up the chain of command.

The modernity of absolutism lies in the imperative to make delegation increasingly precise. Responsibility can always be more closely aligned with power. This involves the continual refinement of attention, the mark of a further increment in deferral. So, expecting the priest to stop the plague by carrying out a pre-determined ritual invites no refinement of attention. If the priest fails, that proves he is no longer worthy of being priest, and he should be replaced. Assuming the plague has a point of origin, and appointing someone to determine that point of origin, with that person in turn selecting those he wants to search, according to known criteria best identified by those trained by those who know, various sectors of the city, having them report periodically, pursuant to which he reassigns them, etc.—here we see attention continually refined. Let’s say the guy charged with searching for the origin of the contagion is required to place ads in the media, which restrict the job to those bearing specific credentials, state the equal opportunity character of the hiring process, and especially encourage minorities and women to apply; must meet environmental and labor safety standards in carrying out his charge; must respect the property rights of those who might refuse him entry. He is clearly no longer sovereign, or a bearer of sovereignty, but that doesn’t mean that to be sovereign he must only hire his friends and relatives, that he should trample all over the accumulated culture of the city in course of his search, that he should behave obnoxiously and imperiously to those with interests in the city that will still be there once the contagion is over. He’s sovereign because he knows the best people for the job and they know him and understand how important it is; because they all care about the city and are not just a bunch of hired hands who will get their paycheck and be gone tomorrow; because the people with property know their property best and want to help eliminate the contagion as much as anyone and so cooperate with the guy who has the job in hand.

The progressives want the equal opportunity employment requirement, the environmental standard, the labor law (and the media that can interview anyone inconvenienced by the search, the special prosecutor who can look into laws violated during the emergency, the licensing board who can take away the guy’s right to lead such a search, etc.) because they don’t want him to be sovereign, and they don’t want anyone to be sovereign over him—they want to be in the fight for power themselves, spreading it and regathering it. They deaden attention themselves, because you have to pay more attention to their rules, and therefore their power games, than to the task at hand—ultimately, it’s like dealing with the priest, as you have to figure out what kind of ritual performance will enable you to get to the next move. Insofar as that’s modernity, the absolutist is reactionary—the absolutist is ready even to see what the priest can contribute. I’ve been straw-manning the priest a bit—there was always a bit more to divination than carrying out a prescribed, mechanical ritual. The priest undoubtedly “read” the community, and not just the innards: his practices were in fact a form of deferral, a way of delaying panic and providing for solidarity. He may turn out to be an intractable obstacle, he may interfere with efforts to solve the problem that would discredit him, but why determine that in advance, just because he lacks credentials? He may know a lot more than he’s letting on. If you’re centralizing power, you should always start with and try to incorporate the existing chains of command. And you should always resist anyone clamoring for the removal of anyone from a position of power and authority for reasons other than their demonstrated inability to use that power to meet their responsibility (if the problem is that they need more power or less responsibility, you can see to that). But what all this means is that absolutism, as a political project, depends upon enough people working consistently to align power and responsibility, for themselves and others. For those with more power than you, read back to them their responsibilities by further refining the attention their delegation to you requires; for those with less power than you, dole out more power with each advance in adopted responsibility; for yourself, show a concentration of your powers dedicated to everything within your sphere of responsibility along with an absolute respect for other spheres. How many is “enough”? That’s unknown, but fortunately far less than a majority, at least to start turning things around.

August 21, 2017

Trump’s Process of Inquiry

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:03 pm

I think we’re all going to be talking a lot about fascism for the forseeable future. Not Nazism, which is really a red herring here. Imperial Energy has been posting on fascism, presenting a definition of it as, essentially, a nation perpetually mobilized for war. I wouldn’t argue with that, but I think “fascism” means something a bit different in American political discourse. Perhaps we need to talk about “folk fascism.” For the left, “fascism” means a kind of extreme “law and order” stance, and that’s a helpful way to think about it (that’s what made, say, Nixon, a “fascist” to the New Left). The left thrives on division—their M.O. is to find some idea or institution that no one has given any thought to because it’s simply obvious, and turn it into a “controversy,” complete with irreconcilable divisions and ongoing moral emergencies. The left is an extortion racket, and you need to break a few windows to show the need for “protection.” The “windows” in this case is your peace and quiet and assumption that any activity is outside of politics. The left’s spectral folk fascism is the counter movement of those with sovereign authority to “cauterize” the wounds opened by the left. Fascism in this sense shadows the left, and wherever the left incites division fascism comes right in to isolate, control and expel the source of division, and restore and strengthen the normal chain of command.

If we can’t call that “fascism” then we need another word for it, because it’s an essential practice, and one especially to be recommended to President Trump. On the one hand, it’s just a question of enforcing existing laws, within the framework of the legal order. Antifa could be shut down very easily using laws against property destruction, assault, racketeering, and so on. Illegal immigration, needless to say, can be treated as a law enforcement problem. But the truth is, law enforcement, to the exclusion of all other considerations, runs counter to American political traditions and cultural norms—look at how any film or TV show represents the “tight-ass” who insists that the rules be followed, that punishment be swift and sure. Vigilantes and rogue cops (like Paul Kersey and Dirty Harry) are far more popular than the straightlaced sheriff. Of course, Kersey and Harry are also part of folk fascism. “Real” folk fascism, then, would be the actual sovereign forces “cleaning up” like Kersey and Harry tried to do from the “outside” (or the outside of the inside in Harry’s case). If the feds crack down on Antifa, they will have to ignore calls to respect the “idealism” of the protesters, to take into account that there may be misguided young people among them, to keep the focus on the even worse targets of the Antifa—there will be stories of this promising young student and that naïve protester who got out of her depths, etc. And the same with illegal immigration—what about this mother devoted to her American children, that hard working father reaching retirement age, and so on. To dismiss all these appeals and cut through the administrative delays they exploit and err on the side of “over-enforcement”—that’s folk fascism. It’s what Slavoj Zizek might (and probably has) call the “real kernel” of fascism constitutive of even the most liberal society. The real kernel displaces the liberal in military dictatorships, like those of Franco and Pinochet but, strictly, speaking, the military takeover shouldn’t be necessary. All that is necessary is that at every point where one might legitimately tilt toward the side of liberal rights or order, one tilts in favor of order. Liberals and leftists are right to fear that if acted on consistently, this approach would leave very little liberalism left in the state. I know it would be very bad “branding’ to use the term “fascism” for this authority over liberalism approach, but what do we call it, then?

I’ll call it, for now, spectral fascism, or *Fascism*. President Trump may get to the point where he realizes he has to use all the (really quite considerable) legal means at his disposal to cauterize all the wounds being salted by the left or he will, eventually, be removed from power, one way or another, or at best neutralized (and it doesn’t look like his enemies are going to be too particular about the means). Trump’s form of learning or probing seems to be to make innocuous statements and introduce unexceptional initiatives (generally in favor of law and order, public safety, our unity as Americans, etc.), see who attacks them, and then polarize discourse around that enmity. It’s a good strategy—how can you tell what your enemies are up to without engaging them, stirring them up, setting them in motion, and it’s smart to do so in a way that forces them to show as much of their hand as possible. The next step, though, which Trump always seems to be on the threshold of, is to flip the means the enemy is using back against them. For example, there is a special prosecutor looking into non-existent Russian influence on the 2016 election. Why not, in the spirit of “both sides share the blame,” appoint special prosecutors to look into the funding of Antifa and BLM, both criminal enterprises? Use civil forfeiture laws to confiscate the assets of the foundations funding both? Why not special prosecutors and/or FBI investigations into groups that are inciting violence, like the Southern Poverty Law Center or, for that matter, the Anti-Defamation League? You could use the criteria of the left to support official inquiries in these and other groups. Or, for that matter, how about a special prosecutor looking into who started the “Russia hacked the election” hoax? (A special prosecutor to look into who pressed for the first special prosecutor.) Make liberal use subpoenas, find ways to ask all kinds of people, like journalists, questions under oath. We all know the drill—the process is the punishment, make them all pay, expose the networks, bring in allies, deputize (or some equivalent) law firms and others to bring civil suits, maybe bring Julian Assange in from the cold, etc. Really, all he has to do is everything they are trying to do to him, and turn their cries of resistance into proof of their guilt.

With each move the President makes, we will see who doubles down and who backs down—make allies of those who back down by offering a piece of those who double down. Keep upping the ante—anti-trust suits against the major players in Silicon Valley (Google, Apple, Facebook, PayPal…) who are now arrogantly asserting control over political discourse in the country. (Isn’t that really an attempt to hack all the upcoming elections?) Who knows, maybe an inventive special prosecutor can put together some kind of racketeering or espionage case against CNN and other media organizations. Making the point that we all now know that the law is nothing other than what those who control the law say it is would be valuable in itself. Appoint one of his hotels to the Senate. (OK, I’m kidding about that one.) Show that he has learned just how liberally rights and procedures can be interpreted—what matters is cauterizing, suturing, protecting. Expose the networks, create a map of enemies of the people. Clearly immigration must be completely shut down until these matters can be sorted out. Lobbyists for foreign countries and companies might want to take a break for a while. While we’re at it, let’s plug all the leaks in sovereignty—otherwise, how can a new mode of legality be established? The only real question is whether Trump has the staff with which to do all this. As of now, my guess would be that he doesn’t—but the only way to generate the personnel is to initiate the process, open positions for men of ability, create hierarchies based largely on who came in first and grant amnesty to those abandoning the sinking ships of the foundations and corporations (maybe a whole bunch of people about to kicked off Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms will be free to pick up the slack). It can’t be for nothing that Trump’s cabinet is drawn so massively from the military. They may be coming for someone you don’t like today, but they’ll be coming for you tomorrow, and I won’t let them get you, even if we have to set aside some constitutional and legal niceties (all those judges I have been appointing will understand).

That’s a *Fascism* we can get behind: staunch stanching, and nothing else. The universities go back to teaching, learning, researching; the internet companies go back to providing their services; city councils go back to deciding on the upkeep of parks and monuments; corporations go back producing goods and services; the media learn how to report without relying on leaks, and so on. What has turned out to be incompatible with constitutional order is what Madison called “factions,” and which he hoped would counter and balance each other across a heterogeneous country. A “faction” is any group that is against someone else, rather than simply for social order and the normal functioning of institutions. Any good government will support some kind of think tank devoted to the study of factionalism, especially to detecting its early signs. The roots of factionalism lie in the adversarial structure of liberal society itself, which promotes the assumption that no claim can be considered true unless it has conquered a counter-claim, which nevertheless lives on, chained up down below, spawning more counter-claims. In other words, liberalism builds Satanism into its order—someone is against me, therefore I am. The alternative is a center immune to factionalism. How did you contribute to the institution, and how were your contributions disabled, thereby compelling your contraversion of the center? You could never really prove that you have exhausted all avenues of improving the institution, of discovering what is required of you. You’re representing resentments widely held, not just your own? What have you done to dampen, rather than inflame, those resentments?

Perhaps the liberal horror of *Fascism* provides a clue to how the foundations approach things. They always start with some concept, like “democracy,” “freedom,” “the individual,” “peace,” etc., that’s considered central to modern liberal society. It’s always a contentious concept, born in contention, meant to produce more contention. So the foundation heads look around and see that there’s not nearly enough contention around that concept. Most people seem more or less satisfied with the inherited meanings of “democracy,” and so on. But that violates the very essence of the concept! The dissonance is unbearable—the society is not living up to its full potential, to the true meaning of its creed. So, you look for dissenters to fund—those who challenge the “complacency” of the majority, and create “real” democracy, individualism and all the rest. There is a felt need for full spectrum dissension—it’s like those activists (in favor of what, exactly, I’m not sure) who complain about uncontested legislative seats and won’t be satisfied until every election is 51-49%, with every community effectively polarized around every issue. Those who feel this need most strongly are the “forward looking” elites, those enhancing their power by distinguishing themselves from the “entrenched,” backward looking elites. And, of course, it makes sense that if you see your growing, spreading enterprise as requiring a more receptive sphere of circulation and consumption, you will see society in general as in need of being “opened up.” And once you start on this path, how do you stop? There can never be enough democracy, freedom, individualism, peace, tolerance—the concepts, unlike, say, sovereignty, are intrinsically open-ended and even infinite. They can’t stop themselves; they must be stopped. That’s what *Fascism* is for.

August 16, 2017

Brief Remark on Recent Event

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:35 am

It’s never been more obvious that mainstream conservatives take the moral superiority of communism over fascism as a sacred principle.

This observation, from Nick Land’s “Outsideness” twitter feed, holds the key to all political rhetoric in the US. The framing of every single issue, every discussion, in the US, takes the moral superiority of communism over fascism for granted, and this is one of the few things American mainstream conservatives actually want to conserve. All American, perhaps all liberal, political discourse also takes for granted, even more latently, that all political questions can ultimately be reduced to the epic communism vs. fascism struggle—“mainstream” liberals are never more animated than when defending some brand of communist against someone vulnerable to being labeled “fascist.” What this also means is that breaking this “inequivalence” is the key, at least on the rhetorical level, for those who engage “mainstream” discourse, to making anything outside of that mainstream thinkable. President Trump’s magnificent performance at the press conference yesterday was probably the first breach of this “sacred principle” since it became a sacred principle. Yes, he felt it necessary to condemn “white nationalism” in order to establish a communism/fascism equivalence, but I think he tilted things ever so slightly towards an inequivalence favoring “fascism” by making an argument I haven’t ever heard an American politician make. I happened to be listening to talk radio in my car and the host was playing the press conference live and I was stunned to hear Trump lay out the annihilatory logic of communism—who’s next? George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Exactly right—at the end of it lies endless cultural revolution, Mao-style. Dunce caps for professors teaching Shakespeare, some kind of collective punishment for “traditional” professionals, the whole thing. Even more remarkable is what started Trump on the path of these reflections—a defense of the “innocent” (Trump’s word), law abiding protestors who want to preserve the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee/Emancipation park. The left—including all the reporters baying and snarling at the press conference—insist that anyone who wants to commemorate some part of their tradition considered “triggering” in the present year be indelibly stamped as a “Nazi.” Rhetorically, then (and that’s all I’m really talking about here), it seems that the way to not only make communism the most horrible thing ever but also to make it possible to stain everyone who puts in a good word for it with its horribleness is to frame things as follows: we want to preserve this one thing (which isn’t hurting anyone), they want to destroy everything (including things anyone listening to this loves). Trump’s question is really the way to do this: who/what are you coming for next? And after that? This resets things very effectively, because what the alt-right and white nationalists want to do is mostly stop things: stop immigration, stop quotas, stop foreign wars, stop attacking whites and whiteness. Sure, they may want some rollback, but you would satisfy a large part of the alt-rightists by simply stopping these things and enforcing the law. In other words, the question can’t be turned around very effectively. Also, if you’re engaging them, they’re coming for you right now, so the question always has some referential grounding. The left cannot help presenting itself as on the attack—they are coming after all kinds of things, ultimately everyone (even their own future selves). So: who and what are you coming for next? It would be very interesting to see what addressing anarchist ontologists every single time with this question would yield. (And, by the way, for rhetorical purposes no one should say “communist” or, even less, “anarchist ontologist”—the latter is too technical, the former completely played out. The name they have given themselves, “Antifa,” is perfect—perhaps Trump will start referring to the “antifa media.” [To concede the initiative to Trump, himself, though, the term “alt-left” should certainly be given a fair try.])

August 15, 2017

Formalism all the way down

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:41 am

Sacral kingship is weakened, ultimately fatally, by the elevation of the king beyond the reach of the community—that is, once the king is no longer available as a scapegoat. If the king is no longer available as a scapegoat, he can no longer be held directly responsible for mediating the community’s relation to the divine and the divinely controlled universe (he may still be held indirectly responsible in a general sense, for ensuring the prosperity of the country, ensuring the gods don’t turn against it, and so on—but not for this plague, this earthquake, etc.). The king has introduced layers of mediation between himself and his subjects, with these layers of mediation being the “elites” to whom the king has delegated powers. If the king is now to be overthrown, that as well must be mediated through the elites. The structure is still the same, insofar as the king at the center is scapegoated so as to avert intra-elite rivalries, but the players are now a more restricted group, who furthermore must prosecute their resentments indirectly, in the name of some obligation the king has left unpaid. The king may have in fact governed poorly, indeed must have, if intra-elite rivalries have gotten to the point where they must be deferred, but very rarely poorly enough that the elites could not have deferred their rivalry by bolstering rather than subverting his rule. When the elites levy the subjects they control to remove the king because he has not respected their rights, or has the left the country undefended against an invader, or has favored one section of elites over another, or has wasted the resources of the kingdom on debauchery, they may have a point but are simultaneously producing the very violations they complain of: they are making it impossible for him to respect their rights, to defend the country, to refrain from choosing sides among the elites, or from wasting resources on his own insular projects or desperate attempts at saving himself. But we can see that the more layers that have been interposed between the king and his subjects, more the reasons for challenging the king must fall within the scope of things the king can actually do. There is a kind of rationalization process at work, but it is telling that the rationalization process rarely, if ever, extends to the act of removing the king—that still relies upon gesturing towards the sacrality of kingship, as the king must be charged with something like usurpation or treason (or inheriting the fruits of them). It would be impossible to make a case for removing the king on purely rational grounds (assuming such a thing exists): you could never show that the superior management skills of prospective king B outweighs in importance the disruptive effects of removing actual king A on grounds of inferior management. It would always be more rational for the prospective king to help the actual, to contribute his superior management skills (especially if that was his real reason for seeking the throne in the first place). The final residue of sacral kingship, which still invests our elected heads of government, is simply that someone must be at the center, and actually being at the center is a kind of a priori proof that it is you that should be there. The resentment toward the figure at the center merely confirms his sovereignty.

This means that genuinely overthrowing the figure at the center would require an equal and opposite sacrality. This is so difficult to imagine that you could make a very good case that it has never actually happened. Kings and governments have been overthrown many, many times, of course, but always in one of two ways: either the new figure at the center is presented as “always already” having been there (in which case the overthrow was merely correcting a previous one) or, in the modern revolutions, the central figure is overthrown, not in favor of a new figure, but in favor of a procedure for selecting rulers. Obviously neither Hitler nor Stalin ever contemplated surrendering the power they had seized, but neither declared himself the start of a new dynasty either—they were just holding power, for the Aryan people and proletariat respectively, in trust, until some form of rule (or transcendence of rule, in the case of communism) could settle the question definitively. Conservatives and reactionaries tend to dismiss and even despise “postmodern” thought and culture, but it might simply be that postmodernism recognizes, more explicitly than liberalism was previously willing or able to do, the absent center that nevertheless structures our frenzied political existence. The obsession in postmodernism with ghosts, traces, absence, silence and doubling might be read as an oblique commentary on the failure of the slaughter of the king. Democracy is an increasingly broken method of restoring the central figure—investing it once again with the signs of legitimacy, i.e., sacrality—only to smash and remove it once again. It’s not a surprise that this process has become more like an uncontrollable nervous tic than a genuine investiture. It’s as if the present day celebration of men who mutilate themselves and put on wigs is a parody of the once tragic process of bringing down the king—now, “cisgender normativism” is the best we can come up with for a figure to place at the center and undergo ritual vandalization.

We can see Moldbug’s formalism as a kind of “reduction” of sacrality to the simple occupancy of the center I referred to above—we can no longer believe in kings being placed on the throne by God, or in the integrity of imperial lineages, but we can see that we can’t get past, or transcend, or deconstruct, the simple fact that someone has to be at the center, and that actually being there is irrefutable proof that you should be there. If that’s the only criterion we can have for political centrality, or sovereignty, that criterion must be extended throughout the entire social order. If there’s a center, there are margins; every move made from the center reconstitutes the margins. If we assume the formalist principle that powers that liberalism has made implicit, all the better to carry on political struggles behind and under the scene, should be made explicit, the implication here is that absolutist rule involves an ongoing commentary on the relation between center and margin. If the center declares war, social institutions are recruited for this purpose and are therefore re-“baptized” as war or war-related ministries and industries. When peace comes they are renamed again. Here, again, there is a very illuminating parallel with modern and postmodern art. Traditional art, and this is the case through the realism of the 19th century, is predicated upon the spectator or reader ignoring the means by which the artistic effects are produced. We all have a sense of how, for example, a narrative is structured—there is a hero, a goal, there are obstacles to achieving the goal, the hero overcomes them, and so on. It’s all fairly formulaic, and even great and original works of art stick to the formulas. But enjoying the artwork requires one to forget the formulas—to accept that the villain is “evil,” and to ignore the means used to produce the “evil effect” in the reader. The explanation of evil offered by the word might be very powerful and truthful, but assimilating the explanation is incompatible with directing attention to the “devices” the artist has used to produce an appearance you go on to interpret as an “explanation.” Modern and especially postmodern art just goes ahead and says this is the hero, this is what makes him look heroic—look, if I have him do this, he won’t be heroic anymore, but this also means that heroism is not exactly what it appears—and the effect of this direction of your attention toward the devices is that the “exchange” or conversation between artist and viewer/reader concerns your expectations of an art work, and the habits and traditions through which you engage them.

This transparency and self-reflexivity is central to absolutism. In constructing for myself some possible objections to absolutism I considered that someone might be horrified at all the people who would be disempowered by transference of power to an absolute ruler. The answer, of course, is that this is not the case: for the vast majority of people, nothing would change regarding their share in power within the social order. They have no power now, and they would have no power under absolutism. The difference is that now they are told that they have all kinds of power that they should understand, exercise, and seek to increase (because there are evil forces, whose evilness is constructed through such transparent narrative devices that only addiction to power seeking can blind one to them, that are always trying to rob you of them), whereas under absolutism they would be provided with a range of ways in which they can participate productively in their community. Under absolutism, we could freely admit that we’re working with formulas, which is to say traditions, all the way down, even in the very language that we use. Again, there are just centers and margins, subordinate to the constitutive center/margin relation, your role on the margin is (to invoke Derrida) to “supplement” the center and you do this by clarifying the basic command script articulating center and margin. As a thought experiment, we can examine the assumption that there just is a center, even if posited arbitrarily; but if there has to be a center it can’t simply be arbitrarily posited because organizing all social practices accordingly would surface the hierarchies constitutive of those practices and hence of centrality as such.

That residue of sacrality, which inheres in even the most everyday relationships and professions, is never eliminated by considerations of professionalism, managerialism, efficiency and so on. Calling it a “residue of sacrality,” though, suggests an unhelpful nostalgia—as if we’re trying to hold onto a few crumbs from a table that has long been overturned. It’s better to think, instead, in terms of constraints: foundational names and rules for articulating them that we can’t get “behind,” or place on a “rational basis,” because that process of “enlightenment” would just entail having to get behind and rationalize the tacit assumptions that enabled us to reform or replace the previous set of tacit assumptions. You can’t but preserve something of the center-margin relation that now allows you to reform that relation. It’s neither rational nor irrational: it’s like accepting that in one community men greet each other with a handshake, in another with a head nod, and in another with a high five. We can imagine a Swiftian comedy in which the social scientists in the handshaking community arrive at a proof for the rational superiority of the head nod, and seek to have this preferable mode of greeting enforced through society. It would be funny (if handled right, of course) because in order to institute the new practice, you’d have to draw upon the resources of solidarity contained in the old practice—you’d have to shake hands with the men you now hope will trust you enough so that you can instruct them that they are no longer to shake hands.

Once we realize that all our practices are constrained, though, we can make these constraints explicit, that is, formalize them. I think this may even provide a way for developing absolutist economics. In Jerusalem, for example, all buildings must have a specific kind of stone on the exterior. Of course, this takes away a lot of economic freedom—you can’t build a red brick building, even if that’s what you prefer. But any city would develop some generally shared sense of aesthetics, some sense of what kind of buildings belong and which don’t—the constraint simply establishes a general rule within which that “sense” can develop more coherently. Presumably, the constraint would be drawn from existing evidence of what the city is already comprised of. At any rate, once you have this constraint, you know that you will have a permanent market for a particular kind of stone. The market will expand and contract, because the city will not always grow at the same rate, but you know that you always want access to this kind of stone—and you need architects who are good at building with it, and perhaps other goods and skills as well(who knows what the implications of a specific kind of stone might have for the market for doors, windows, draperies, yards, etc.). A convenient and economical way to rule a city or any order is through constraints, with the trick being to make them distinctive, assessable and flexible: here, minimally, is what a “block” must be, what a “neighborhood” must be, what an “employer-employee relation” must be. This would encourage those on the block, in the neighborhood, and in economic institutions to develop complementary and corresponding constraints—the neighborhood is to have these subdivisions, modeled on the constraint defining the neighborhood—and so on, all the way down. The entire social order becomes an exploration in the ramifications of the center-margin relation constituting it. Economically speaking, this would introduce an irreducible ingredient of stability—much of what is needed, and therefore what is needed to supply what needed, and what is needed to…—can be known with a far greater degree of certainty than in the free market under divided power.

This means the social order is conceived as a disciplinary space comprised of disciplinary spaces. In the Kuhnian sense, a disciplinary space is held together by shared concepts and tacit practices that enable us to attend to the “same” thing. Think about the experience of being in a lab and having a scientist tell you to look through the microscope—whatever you’re supposed to see is there, but you won’t see it unless you’re primed to see it. You need to separate foreground from background. Again, this is the most common, everyday, human experience. You see a crowd looking at something. You go over—what are they looking at? Well, it might be obvious—a dead body, a wrecked car—but it may be that someone will have to single out something for you. Even in the obvious cases, everyone already there is looking in a way you don’t yet know how: some significant feature of the dead body, some sign on the car of how the crash happened, has already become an object of shared attention. You need to be shown how to “see” that dent. Again, this is neither rational nor irrational—it is a result of all attention being shared attention. You can only see what others teach you/learn from you how to see. Again, formalism just makes it explicit that this is what we are always doing. This doesn’t prevent change—it just means that change will emerge on the terms of the discipline, which undergoes a crisis once an accumulation of observations under the existing hypothesis generates a set of new hypotheses to try out. The dent then becomes one element of more systemic but more subtle damage we are now able to notice.

We can redefine “universalism” in these terms. Universalism is the fantasy that all humans are occupying the same disciplinary space. You’re a rational being so you already know how to see the dent. You just need to set aside all the other disciplinary spaces that have warped your view and made it invisible—that is, you must simply set aside everything you are. But this just means a particular disciplinary space has usurped all the rest. Which one? The disciplinary space focused on exposing the unjustified assumptions of all the other disciplinary spaces. But the assumption that all assumptions need to be “justified” cannot itself be justified. That’s why universalism is fraudulent—just like atheism can dismantle all the arguments for believing in God (what, exactly, is God made of, etc.)  but can’t explain why people believe other than their stupidity (they should have, from the beginning, “spontaneously,” seen the “dent” in religion that we now see), universalism can expose the constitutive constraint of all “particularisms” but can’t examine its own. All universalism is good for, paradoxically, is division—for power struggles against constrained order, i.e., all order. Liberalism is nothing but an endless war against all forms of humanity in the name of a humanity that not only doesn’t exist, but can only be imagined as the negation of all actual forms of humanity. This is not a new point—the stripped down human being liberal universalism defends turns into the literal stripping down of millions of human beings who must be saved from their particularities—from what we know as the “middle” which the elites target from all sides in their proxy wars.

August 8, 2017

Absolutist Economies

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:15 am

A partial summary of David Graeber on markets and money, with some additions: Markets are created and maintained by sovereigns. Money is used first of all for internal bureaucratic accounting in the ancient empires. Money is then used to pay soldiers in the imperial army, and markets are created in order to enable soldiers to spend that money. The accepted currency is whatever is accepted by the sovereign for the payment of taxes. Debt is monetized (beyond the gift economy) when standardized payments for injuries are necessary in order to prevent violence—the sovereign as judge establishes standardized penalties and settlements. In other words, the introduction of money into the sovereign order coincides with a system of hostage taking overseen by the sovereign: human beings are exchanged in one way or another. Money and markets therefore accelerate that system, abstracting individuals from their social relations, enhancing the power of the sovereign, while generating new power bases that might destabilize power. It further makes sense to assume that the origin of technology is the military: the organization of large masses of men is the model both for mass labor and the technology that eliminates that labor, originating in Lewis Mumford’s “megamachine.”

What sustains the value of any currency, in that case, is the stability and reliability of the sovereign issuing and approving it. Rather than labor or subjective desire, currency reflects the “value” of sovereign security. If the sovereign will accept a certain amount of money to settle your tax bill, and maintains an orderly circulation of money, the value of money will reflect that. Sovereign security itself, though, is determined by the oscillation between the abstraction of individuals and the hierarchically ordered pyramid of power articulated by the sovereign: the acceleration of abstraction destabilizes money, the ordering of power stabilizes it. The problem for an absolutist order is to re-embed individuals in ordered hierarchies, which is to say “de-abstract” them. The liberal argument is that the abstraction of individuals (the “free market” or “economic freedom”) has been necessary for the massive increase of wealth and technological development over the past several centuries, and I think there is some truth to that.

Let’s say I’m ruling over 1,000 people. They are all ordered hierarchically, with well-defined roles and obligations—landowners, farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, teachers, fathers and mothers, etc. They live within the kind of reciprocal, pre-money, system of credit described by Graeber. The shoemaker makes shoes for everyone because he knows the farmer is growing food for everyone, the teacher teaches everyone’s children, and so on. Marriages are arranged through families, children tend to enter their parents’ professions. The sovereign and his appointed officials intervene in any disagreements that threaten to get out of control. Now, one day I tell them all: you are all free individuals. You have only those obligations you choose to have, only those reciprocities you have contracted for, you can enter any line of work you want, sell your products and labor for whatever price you want, etc. Whatever land, homes and tools you have right now you will receive a property deed for. Whatever happens to you is because of what you did or failed to do.

After the initial shock and confusion, what’s going to happen? A large number, let’s say 250, will very quickly lose everything they have and fall into debt, destitution and criminality. Let’s say another 400 will hang on indefinitely, maintaining some property and the ability to become good enough at something to gain employment and have families, while never quite freeing themselves from the fear of falling into the “underclass.” Another 200 will become useful to the elites within the state or the new private economy, as managers, merchants and bosses of various kinds. That leaves us with 150. 100 of them become “elites,” on boards of directors, high up in the state bureaucracy, running institutions like banks, schools, and prisons. But the remaining 50—they will do great things, for good and for evil. For them, the revelation that they are free individuals, for whom everything is possible, who are limited only by the breadth of their imagination, etc., will be an inspiration to invent, explore, innovate and create. They will be the source of economic dynamism, abstracting themselves and everyone else ever more thoroughly, and generating new forms of technology out of all the newly possible configurations. Yes, they will depend upon the state, creating subsidized technology for the military and turning spin-offs of that technology to commercial uses—but not just anyone could do that. They will create everything that the elites will divide up among the others, and the pressure from all the newly abstract individuals and their recognized class interests will give the top 50 and the elites the incentive and models for including enough individuals in the economy to maintain enough stability to keep the process growing—especially if doing so gives the social order a founder’s advantage over other communities now forced to play according to the same rules. There will be some hope for societies based on divided power as long as that top 5% or so, and some means of distributing the benefits of their activities to a substantial majority, are not completely shut down. Political arguments and struggles will focus on whether the “freedom” of that top 50+100 is beneficial to the other 850, and will be fueled by struggles between the 100 (the 50 will, for the most part, be disgusted by power struggles, but may show some surprisingly sharp elbows on occasion).

There may be sovereigns willing to sacrifice that economic dynamism for restored order, and no other sovereign genuinely interested in getting their own house in order should be concerned with or interfere with that decision. I want to think about those sovereigns who would like to combine secure power with continual wealth creation. For one thing, taking that approach will give us more to say about the strategies and results of wealth creation and technological development in the societies we hope to transform. Now, that markets are created by, and maintained for the benefit of, states, only “taints” markets for anarchists and leftists, but not at all for absolutists. Nor does this dependence of markets upon states mean that markets don’t operate in certain ways that we can identify, and that rulers can try to improve. If I tell 5 subordinates to get some job done, part of getting that job done will involve studying the reality of the situations, the necessary means for accomplishing the task, the best way of acquiring those means, the various possible ways of dividing up the task, and of cooperating in various ways. Clearly at every point along the way there are choices to be made and those choices depend upon elements to be brought under control, and therefore as yet under the control of something else. These things can’t be done in an unlimited number of ways. So, we could speak about something like “laws” within the limits determined by sovereignty, and we should try and understand those laws.

But all this looks very different from within an absolutist rather than anarchist ontology. Let’s say the task is to build an outhouse, and we need bricks in order to do so. We need, then, to buy 200 bricks. From whom? From a range of brick sellers—let’s say 3. Those 3 (not 10, not 1) brick sellers exist because they have been more efficient in moving volumes of bricks than other sellers, and also because they have followed the rules set by the government for selling bricks better than others, and quite likely because they have cultivated patrons within the state which helps them to write, follow and where necessary skirt the rules. And also because there are enough people doing enough building who need a steady supply of bricks. It also means that if the building industry slackens, the state might step in and carry out some “internal improvements” to help the brick business through the rough patch. What absolutist ontology adds to this is that all this depends upon a certain “amount” of order, and therefore hierarchy, which can be qualified if not precisely quantified. It should not be taken for granted that the owner of the brick business applies for a permit, has it approved, has that approval acted upon (it’s not ignored, for example, by some lower level bureaucrat), that this owner orders a certain amount of bricks to be sent out and his employee carries out the order (and if the employee doesn’t, the employer will be able to fire that employee and count on hiring someone who will), that the employee tasked with receiving the bricks does not abscond with them and sell them on the black market, etc. The real source of value is a well ordered system, and a well ordered system is absolutist. We should be able to find a way of calculating economic value in terms of the relative dominance of anarchist vs. absolutist ontologies within a given social order. Think of all the forms of disorder that would make it impossible to obtain or rely on permits, to assume the honesty of employees and of employers, of the stability of a government that won’t on a dime start agitating for workers or subsidizing their defiance, or cede ground to various illegal and semi-legal enterprises that have their own patrons within a divided government. (Of course, many of these forms of disorder were previously forms of order, within some kind of honor system. Order being brought into these systems which at some point produce scapegoating crises—the origin of power struggles within the state—undermining the sacral mode of kingship they depend upon is what creates the possibility of economic calculation in the first place—that is, economic calculation depends upon deferring the convergence upon the central figure.)

If the state always creates and sustains markets, starting first of all with meeting the needs of the state (provisioning its soldiers, etc.), an observation confirmed by the rise of the East Asian “tigers” (S. Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong) which not only had authoritarian rule but deep involvement in the production needs of the US Cold War military economy, then we can think about those enterprises most directly associated with the state as the epicenter of innovation. Here, the state is the customer, and here is where we can see the defects of divided power most forcefully in the kind of cronyism that accompanies, for example, military contracting in a democratic society. With the state a single-minded, discerning customer, which it must be given a sovereign whose mind must always be on his own survival, we can expect a heightened focus on accomplishment and qualifications—this part of the economy would create an aristocracy of both management and labor. The graduates of the best schools and the most accomplished military men would gravitate toward these industries. More distant from the center, in successive concentric circles, would be other industries, working with spin offs from military technology (as has always been the case to a great extent), with less urgency and with less demanding tasks. Not everyone will be a top tier engineer or scientist. It should be possible to synthesize the production of consumer goods with respected and meaningful work for most of the population.

Buckminster Fuller asserted that it was worth it to provide free education to 1,000 children because one of those children will end up invented something that pays for the education of the other 999. Massive investment focused on generating singularities will in the end take care of the masses as well. Of course, investment might be focused more precisely on those segments of the population most like to be the source of singularities, but this kind of decision will itself be a marker of the wealth and risk-aversion of the center. Under conditions of extreme scarcity, investment might be focused on those communities likely to produce one singularity out of 400 students, and those where you could reasonably expect only 1 out of 1,500 would be left aside. Gradually, the sovereign could reach further afield in the search for singularities, and also widen the scope of what is to be considered a singularity, which is to say open up more fields. At first the 1/400 communities might be both bulwarks against and mentors to the 1/800 communities, which in turn would play this dual role for the 1/1,000 community, and so on. Securing rule would look towards privileging the mentor role over the bulwark function. Everyone is ultimately oriented toward the center, but in a way that makes convergence upon the center unthinkable. Resentments are contained so as to apply only to those directly above, and are framed as requests for a further shift toward mentoring. Limited competition between regions in attempts to move up the hierarchy would allow for the expression and containment of resentments.

In this way, the articulation of centering and de-convergence, which I have posited as the logic of post-sacral kingship sovereignty, can be turned into an economic concept, a measurable proportion between singularity and the recirculation of the products of singularity into the production of further singularities. We could define singularity in terms of both monopolization and models of “centered ordinality.” How singular an innovation is (and, therefore, ultimately, how singular the innovator) depends, first, upon how long the implementation can maintain a monopoly position, first of all for the sovereign himself, as prime customer; and, second, whether it models a form of social relation that is both center-oriented and productive of hierarchy. For example, in a recent interview, David Gelernter, who invented an early version of what eventually became Twitter, argues that the Internet “should be structured like a recursive net, so that you’re encouraged to return to what you were looking at. Instead, the way it is, if you click you’ll probably never go back.” This addition would make Google a more singular invention, requiring more complex algorithms that account for items that initiated inquiries, were at the center of networks, rather than just the number of clicks. Google would create more value because it would encourage the development of more structured minds, in part by providing access (indirectly) to the results of more structured minds, which means more singularities, and so on. Other technologies could similarly be judged on how they directly organize workers and consumers, and indirectly structure communities—every technology models and is modeled on a mode of human interaction, and human interaction is the ultimate source and measure of wealth.


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