Absolutist Morality

The destruction of sacral kingship, “the political common sense of humankind,” has driven us mad. That’s what happens when functioning common sense is destroyed. We need some way of restoring a political center, a clear chain of command, an articulation of political, communal and personal order, and of social with natural causality. We cannot do all this, though, in the manner of sacral kingship, that is, by holding the center responsible for everything that anyone might imagine someone should be responsible for. If the king can be held responsible for a drought, or a devastating storm, or a flood, or a plague, then anyone—a “witch,” a “demon,” the “deformed,” the “weird,” etc.—can be held responsible for anything for which we feel compelled to attribute responsibility. And, of course, the king himself might very well deflect responsibility this way, setting up an extremely dysfunctional system.

Now, we can of course hold the king responsible for not preparing for the drought, not effectively organizing rescue and rebuilding efforts in the wake of the storm, not enforcing proper hygiene to prevent plague, etc., insofar as all these methods of preventing of minimizing catastrophes are known. But the hardest thing to do in thinking about how we got to where we are is to avoid projecting the things we know (and think we know) back to those in the midst of the process by which we ultimately came to know them. The sacred center first of all not only ensures peace in the emergent human community, but maintains and even completely defines it as a community. Language is only meaningful insofar as it refers to the center, which means that the history of humanity, considered as a (language) learning process, is the history of dialogue with the center, differentiating the various things it has to tell us. There’s no position outside of this process from which we can say “this is irrational,” “this is stupid,” “ridiculous!,” “how could they not know better,” etc. You can say these things, of course, but all you’re doing is removing from scrutiny your own assumptions about rationality, intelligence, common sense, obviousness, and so on. And the fact that we are so chock-full of accusations of irrationality and all the rest is itself just part of the madness I referred to above—we are all trying to sort out clear lines of communication and command with the center, trying to ensure there is a worthy occupant of the center, trying to make ourselves worthy of a center deserving of the name, and keeping in mind both the difficulty of doing all this and the frenzy that this uncertainty can drive us to is the best way of restoring  some sanity and continuing the learning process.

The only way anyone could have come to consider that good hygiene is a way from preventing plagues is by resisting the compulsion to locate the source of all events, good or evil, in the sacral king occupying the center. This was always possible, to some extent—alongside of, and more or less approved of, appointed by, and subordinate to, the sacral king, was some kind of “shaman” or priestly figure, who established some kind of divination and curative method that to some extent relied upon “observation” and “trial” (primitive tribes, for example, have very extensive knowledge of the harmful and curative properties of plants and animals). And it might also be that often the ritual practices associated with the application of various medicines was therapeutically helpful as well—being ritually assured that you indeed remain within the community can be expected to improve your mental and physical health. But none of these ritual practices eschewed the use of scapegoating when the limits of control are exposed, and none can remain effective in mitigating events that irrevocably shattered or transformed the community, especially social events like wars and conquest. They can’t establish traditions that transcend the local community.

These conquests, along with the mass killing, displacement and enslavement they bring, restore sacral kingship on what are on one level more secure grounds: a god-emperor is not going to have his residence stormed and himself cannibalized during a really bad patch of weather—that’s what palace guards are for. It becomes possible to plan, to differentiate communal and political functions, to create cults and ideologies that help perpetuate the existing form of power. On another level, though, new forms of insecurity are built into this form of sovereignty: for one thing, empires create war machines and massive automatons constructed out of humans, and these machines require markets, and marketeers, and marketeers poach from vulnerable communities, turning them into abstracted human resources which in the long run cannot support the imperial “superstructure.” As David Graeber points out, out of these “materialistic” social conditions materialistic and anti-materialist modes of thought emerge—both those who say that all human interests can be reduced to the “pragmatic” and those who respond by saying, no, there is some human value that is beyond all price. Both attitudes actually help in creating what we know as “rationality,” i.e., both calculation of costs and benefits (looking at a plant’s properties, say, without any reference to its ritual uses) and a skepticism about sacrificial rituals that lead to a disaffection with those rituals. Once social crises can be attributed to actions that might not have been taken, that can be located in a specific time, place and agent, it becomes possible to explore a range of plausible “causes.”

None of this guarantees secure sovereignty, though—on the contrary, once a purpose is posited for sovereignty—once it’s no longer simply a given—whether that purpose be conformity with God’s will, the salvation of the soul of the members of the community, or peace and prosperity, the sovereign can be judged in terms of that purpose, and presumably deposed—which means that someone must have the power to determine whether those purposes are being served—pretty much the definition of imperium in imperio, or insecure power. The “modern” world, considered as the unfolding of insecure power on the terms of a marketized social order and “Axial Age” intellectual and moral concepts (which is to say on the very terms on which the ancient empires tentatively aimed at accomplishing the transition from sacral kingship), has proposed a kind of compromise, a breakthrough attempting to resecure power. We could call this compromise, the “self-disposing subject.” The individual on the market, who nevertheless eschews slavery, sacrifice and hostage-taking in general, enslaves, sacrifices, and takes hostage himself. Each of us is both enslaver and enslaved, priest and victim, kidnapper and hostage. We drive ourselves, work ourselves, school ourselves, indenture ourselves, to work, community, family and country. Of course, this is “ideology”—it is what Foucault called the “disciplinary” institutions that ensure that we construct ourselves this way. And it is these disciplinary institutions that seek to secure the state on new, scientific and therapeutic terms. But the disciplinary institutions do work, and we do indeed discipline ourselves, and we endure insults, violations and even violence with patience and calm that would have been unthinkable for just about any other people in the history of humanity. In accord with the approach I proposed above, I have no intention of ridiculing the self-disposing subject—there is certainly an increment of discipline included here that represents significant historical learning.

But the self-disposing subject has taken us as far as it can. This subject can orient us toward a center, vaguely—there is some sense of “the good of the whole” in self-disposition—and it also introduces “relays” between accumulated resentments and the arbitrary targeting of whoever stands out at the moment. It takes some of that targeting on itself—whatever the social crisis is, at least some of it must be my fault. But what it could never accomplish, intellectually or morally, was the task Plato set for moral thought, all the way back at the birth of metaphysics—seeing the moral individual as inextricable from a well-ordered social order. The training we undergo as self-disposing subjects compels us to set the imperium at odds with the imperio—the disciplinary institutions continually disgorge reformist projects for disciplining the state that its most exemplary disciples undertake as careers. The state needs to be more educated, more scientific, more compassionate, more therapeutic, according to the pedagogue, scientist, social worker, therapist. And “pedagogue,” “scientist,” “social worker” and “therapists” are masks of virtue we are all encouraged to wear. They all devolve into a single form of priesthood that acquires holiness by excoriating the existing order for its sins. Once the sins have all been forgiven (by those we have sinned against), maybe sovereignty will be secured. This process is compulsively decentering, endless and spiraling out of control.

The way to affirm and clarify the center while defusing convergence upon centrality is to recuperate superseded and marginalized remnants of sovereignty. I agree with RF’s patron theory, contending that unsecure power and the consequent social conflicts result from rival power centers using proxies to undermine one another. I would add that the pressure points patrons end up pushing and the proxies they employ mostly reside in already existing cultural forms. There was already an “Islamic extremism” combating more “moderate,” colonial/Westernized and “corrupt” forms of Islam, even if it took the usefulness of jihadis as proxies in the Cold War to elevate their profile to world-historical agents. I think it is very rare that proxies are created out of whole cloth. But what are these “already existing cultural forms” other than former and latent modes of sovereignty still attracting adherents within a divided system? A modern Catholic with even the slightest devotion to the Church as an institution is reproducing the memory of the Church as a sovereign power at odds with “temporal” ones. That’s why it might be possible for some enterprising political entrepreneur to use Catholics, somewhere, sometime, as a destabilizing force in a non-Catholic (or insufficiently papal-centered Catholic) country. All dual loyalties, however quiescent, involve obedience to opposing, perhaps emergent and residual, perhaps real and fantasized, sovereigns. There are always levers for a patron willing to try and err a bit to pull.

The imperative, then, is to claim those sovereign remnants in the name of center, or (when absolutely necessary) expose them for their incompatibility with the center and thereby nullify their imperatives. This seems to me a way of dealing with all group identities, which may be worthless as governing principles (there’s no coherent way to make “race” a basis for a social order—but, then again, the point of white racialism is really to preserve a form of sovereignty overridden by immigration and civic nationalism) but nevertheless useful in restoring workable hierarchies and middle level forms of responsibility (and extremely difficult or harmful to try to eradicate). The implication of stereotyping groups, and holding all members of the group responsible for the actions of each of its members is that there are no lone individuals, and that individual responsibility on moral terms abstracted from social order is a chimera. If you’re in this group, do your part to improve their behavior, because we’re holding you accountable; if you disavow this group, to which you appear to belong, then demonstratively join some other group so we can know who you are. Insisting on everyone’s responsibility for the actions of groups they belong to is a way to start reversing the abstraction of subjects effected by liberalism. But it’s also a good way of flipping discussions around: OK, you’re for “X”—what would governance, national, regional or institutional, in terms of X entail? (It won’t always be a rhetorical question.) Most of all, though, it may be a way of competing on the field of proxy formation, by focusing directly on the form and “quantum” of power applied by each utterance, act, organization, concept or institution. (Who is pushing for this to be said about Jews, gays, Muslims, or whoever right now? What else can be said about them to expose that power structure, that imperative order, and reveal the possibility of another?) In this way we can act morally, in the sense of heightened responsibility to the center.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply