Monthly Archives: September 2017

Incorporation

The notion of viewing the government as a corporation is foundational for NeoReaction and Absolutism, having first been proposed by Mencius Moldbug and presently being revisited by Imperial Energy. The government is in the security business: its customers (formerly known as “citizens”) pay a fee (formerly known as “taxes”) and the government provides internal security for property and person, and external security from, presumably, the other security corporations in the world—or, perhaps, from more primitive and therefore maybe more dangerous state organizations. The idea has its roots in libertarian thought. It might gain more support from the recent work of political scientist David Ciepley, who in one essay argues that the framers of the US Constitution very deliberately constructed the constitution as a “charter” and the government as a corporation. According to Ciepley, mainstream political thinkers through the 19th century were perfectly aware of all this, and used the words “charter” and “constitution” interchangeably. This argument regarding the USG is part of a larger argument Ciepley has been making, perhaps most prominently in an American Affairs essay, about the fundamentally anti-liberal character of the corporation. Contrary to liberal and libertarian accounts going back to Adam Smith, which see the economy in terms of contracts entered into by individuals and more recently updated by Milton Friedman, who misrepresented the corporation as owned by its shareholders (causing all kinds of mischief), corporations are fundamentally public-private mixtures, established by the state and rooted in medieval social forms—and these institutions, not contractually based partnerships, dominate the modern economy.

Ciepley’s argument regarding the US founding is a complex one. He rejects the notion that founders like Madison and Hamilton had “social contract” theories, whether those positing a covenant among a people or those positing one between the people and a ruler, in mind in theorizing the new order they were establishing. They knew how preposterous such theories were. They were trying to establish a charter for a government, a corporate “person,” that, like a corporation, would have powers limited to those enumerated in the charter. They modeled this new government on the state governments, all of which had, in fact, been corporations chartered by the British government. Like the shareholders of a corporation, the people could vote for officials filling the positions established by the charter, but would have no role in governing—and, if they were to make demands that violated the terms of the charter, those demands should be ignored. He even shows how the practice of judicial review evolved not out of some pure constitutional logic but the role of the sovereign in rejecting policies of the corporation that violate its charter. But this is where the problem for the founders lay—if the government was a chartered corporation, who chartered it? Corporations are chartered by the sovereign—but the sovereign, the British Parliament, had just been overthrown. The “people” had to be sovereign, but what did that mean? A kind of social contract theory gets snuck in through the back door here, as some constitution of the people as a people must be retrojected back into the distant past. Developments within ancient and medieval theory helped here, as the Roman emperors legitimated themselves by claiming a one time (and of course irrevocable) donation of power to them by the “people”; this theory, mostly dormant in Roman history itself, was picked up and activated by those critical of the medieval European kings.

This opens all kinds of very interesting problems, because in this conception popular sovereignty is essentially a cipher—the sovereign is the original source of legitimacy, and the basis upon which the acts of the government can be criticized, but can’t actually do anything. It’s pure negation, which is the way imperium in imperio works. In a sense, all modern political theory is an attempt to give some content to what is almost a mathematical term introduced to make an equation work—it’s an ideal site for power conflicts because anyone can introduce anything into it they want. The American founders were acutely aware of these dangers (I don’t share Ciepley’s awe at their solution, but his argument is so powerful that his admiration for them rubs off), and tried to present the American people as a kind of instantaneously dissolving sovereign: they assembled in a formal, recognized manner, on the model of, say, town hall meeting called by the local authorities (of course all this must be recognized after the fact), in order to establish the constitution, and then recede into quiescence and let the government do its work. Americans still participate in government, but as individuals voting, promoting candidates, arguing about ideas and policies, etc.—not as the sovereign. They can resume their sovereignty in a way accounted for by the Constitution itself—the amendment process—but is that really sovereignty? If the charter of a corporation contains a provision allowing the shareholders to modify some element of the charter, do the shareholders thereby become sovereign? Well, maybe, because if they can modify one element, they can modify two, and if two, three, and ultimately the entire charter. Eventually they would have to finish the “amending” process and become passive sovereigns once more. This is quite different, though, from a sovereign who has chartered the corporation from the outside, and who has chartered many other corporations besides this one. The shareholders or citizens all benefit, or perceive themselves as benefiting, in different ways and degrees from the operation of the corporation. To get to the point of a constitutional convention or some other mechanism by which the charter is to be overhauled the divisions must be running very deep among the community—indeed, since everyone knows it can get to this point, the very possibility would be a source of division that many within the corporation would have an interest in inflaming. And this is for the reason I gave above: we are dealing with what is really phantom sovereign, an empty center which those occupying different positions within the actual sovereign can struggle to fill. So, the process of everyone claiming diverse and incompatible forms of sovereignty while being unaccountable to the consequences of such claims in the actual operations of sovereignty never ends.

Any conceptualization of the government as a corporation, then, has to deal with the question of who has chartered the corporation—it’s enough for a business partnership to have customers, but a corporation, an institution that transcends the lives of those who run it and resists any effort by participants to fold it up by “exiting,” must have a charter, from a real, not notional, sovereign. This is why I think both that the corporate form is the ideal form for the absolutist state and that the state itself cannot be a corporation. (Ciepley points out that most of the European states were in fact corporations, but since that is what allowed the phantom sovereignty to be slipped in, they are not to be emulated in that regard.) Chartering corporations of all kinds—and here the medieval and even ancient roots of the corporation are important—religious, educational, scientific, exploratory and, of course, profit-making businesses is the best way for the sovereign to recognize socially relevant and beneficial activities and scrutinize them in the most economical and non-intrusive way. And, as Ciepley points out, the corporation form itself is consistent with all kinds of internal governance—to his credit, it’s very hard to get a sense of Ciepley’s own politics, and I sense they wouldn’t fall very clearly in one place along the left-right axis, but he does acknowledge the viability of worker participation in some forms of corporate governance—as a way of helping keep the corporation focused on its long-term prosperity, rather than turning a quick profit for shareholders.

The corporate form has obviously lasted so long, through so many social transformations, because it is an extremely reasonable mode of organization. It is especially remarkable that the corporation has persisted in spite of its being in absolute contradiction to liberal principles—the Enlightenment liberals, and liberals since then, have wanted to get rid of or at least reduce to liberal imperatives the corporation, that remnant of feudal governance, with its fixed hierarchies, it being a quasi-law unto itself, its governance through “status” rather than “contract.” The Left has always been well aware of and suitably outraged by these features of the corporation—they’ve never quite been able to give the abolition of the atrocity of limited liability the high profile they had hoped to, but it’s still there, lurking in the shadows, although perhaps now more for purposes of blackmail than any real transformation, as the Left has learned to work its will very well through corporations. Ciepley in fact agrees with the left (and, in fact, some—especially pro-Trump, interestingly—sections of the right as well) in condemning the Citizens United decision. He thinks that, as entities chartered by the states, corporations should not have the rights given to natural persons. But perhaps the problem is that we still think in terms of “natural persons”—Ciepley doesn’t see any problem with the public-private distinction as such, he just thinks that corporations straddle the divide. He also thinks that corporations can be liberalized and democratized—for example, the free speech rights granted to citizens could be extended to employees of corporations. But this suggests some uneasiness on Ciepley’s part with the undemocratic character of corporations. We could more easily argue for pushing the needle in the other direction, toward the corporatization of the rest of social life. While the whole notion of free speech, free assembly, religion, and so on, is becoming increasingly inapplicable in public life, it seems to particularly ridiculous to try and impose it on corporations. You want your employees to speak freely about problems they notice in the engineering design of the latest product; and you want them to shut the hell up about gendered bathrooms. What do we need “people” in general to speak freely about? As chartered corporations, shouldn’t towns be allowed to prevent their public spaces from being taken over and defaced by “protesters”? If these public corporations need public input into their decision making, they can solicit it in their own way. Now, the interesting thing about Citizens United was that it wasn’t a business, but, rather, a corporation formed for the purpose of making a movie criticizing Hillary Clinton. Ciepley answers the question of why corporations like the New York Times should have free speech by noting that the Constitution explicitly establishes freedom of the press, but what is the press? Whatever the sovereign says it is, it seems to me—if I get together with a couple of friends and form a corporation to make gifs ridiculing prominent public figures, we’re the “media” just as much as the Times, NBC, CNN, and the rest—and our charter will reflect that our purpose is to enrich public life through satire. So, rather than saying that corporations should not participate in public life, because they are not “natural persons” with rights, we should say to “natural” persons to de-nature themselves, incorporate, get a charter, and enter public life on terms agreeable to and with rights granted by the sovereign.

Corporations have been so successful (“adaptable”) because they presuppose an absolutist ontology. They presuppose a structured hierarchy prior to the individuals that will enter that hierarchy. We can ordinarily assume that those who originate the corporation and first acquire the charter will themselves fill those roles—perhaps that would often be stipulated in the “application” (much like the US Presidency was designed with its first occupant in mind)—the corporation will be designed to perpetuate that originary relationship and purpose. That’s absolutist ontology: any enterprise has a founding and a founder; the founder has “seconds” of various kinds (a “board”); and the enterprise is then ready to mobilize people and resources. But in an incorporated world, what kind of organization will the sovereign preside over? What kind of non-corporate organization will even be conceivable? The corporation institutionalizes, rationalizes and “routinizes” the founding; the sovereign retains the “charisma” of the founding, and is staffed by those who prefer the “team” to the “roles,” the anomalous to the rule-governed. The sovereign would mostly be chartering and inspecting the conformity of corporations with the terms of the charter—he would need a team of “generalists.” How to select the sovereign himself is a problem, because there’s no reason to assume a hereditary monarch will be up to the task. Maybe some kind of rotation of the leading CEOs themselves, with each choosing his own team. Every corporation has those with abilities, ambitions and visions stifled by the institution—sometimes, of course, they should be stifled, but the sovereign would want to staff his own team with such “rogues,” who are more interested in innovation and excellence than “playing ball.” They must also be the people most interested in secure sovereignty.

Power, Media, and Counter-Algorithmic Praxis

Eric Gans published an essay titled “On the One Medium” in a book on Girard’s mimetic theory and media (Mimesis, Movies and Media, 2015) that I just had a chance to read and is worth discussing here. Gans argues here that the internet is becoming the one medium that will subsume all others: text, video, cinema, music, etc. Other media may continue to exist for reasons of convenience, but everything will be convertible into the one medium, and will therefore be thought of and composed as convertible. This implies the erosion of the integrity of the other media, and their current modes of presentation: Gans gives the example of downloading and binge-watching a TV series, which makes it indistinguishable, other than in terms of time, from watching a movie. This erosion is furthered by the capacity, within the one medium, to modify and mix different products of different media—Gans alludes to the implications of this capacity indirectly by discussing an effort at UCLA to impose a licensing agreement on university journals allowing “users of those materials, once the original source is referenced, to ‘tweak, remix, and build upon’ the materials they contain.” It’s easy enough to imagine what might be done by integrating text or “performances” of scholarly articles into music videos—just remember that Hayek vs. Keynes rap contest that was current a couple of years ago. Gans also points out the fragility of the medium, based as it is upon advertising revenue and, even more importantly, like all markets, “on political systems, with peace enforced by arms.”

Nevertheless:

There remain two sets of phenomena that cannot be reduced to the One Medium because they depend upon an immediate relationship to their public: performances on the one hand, and art-objects on the other. Students of GA will recognize the two essential components of the human (cultural-representational) scene: the sacred central object and its sacrificial/alimentary substitutes, and the peripheral human group that surrounds the center, celebrates and consecrates it, and eventually, in a typical rite, takes nourishment from it.

Performances can be recorded, of course, and events can be hosted on the internet, but the point is that they can be recorded and are therefore “always already” recorded and therefore no longer dependent for their reality upon an original set of witnesses. But all of these recorded performances are still dependent upon an original live performance, or at least the existence of individuals capable of giving live performances—and if there are people capable of giving live performances, there will be a demand for such performances. So, there is something irreducible about performance, as we can see even more forcefully in the sphere of ritual. Could a baptism be performed online, with the priest in one place and the infant in another? Some actions, to become real, require something like the laying on of hands. Since we are mimetic beings, human interaction grounds our world in a way simulation can’t—Gans uses the example of chess, pointing out that we now have computers that can defeat any human in the game, and yet we still hold human tournaments while no one would have the slightest interest in a chess match between computer programs.

In his discussion of the art-object, Gans notes that the existence of the One Medium places a premium on work that takes up physical space—in economic terms, “real things,” made simply to be displayed in front of a live audience, become “scarce.” It seems to me a similar argument would hold for performance, although Gans doesn’t pursue this—that is, those performances that are likely to become the most privileged, the most esthetically pleasing, are those which are most resistant to reproduction. Going to a live concert and watching it later on the internet are not the same thing, but the performer may not do anything different in the live performance than he does in a performance directly recorded to be shown on the internet—and if the performers know that the concert is destined to end up online, they are likely to minimize the “liveness” of the performance. Unless they don’t, and decide to maximize the difference of each performance, and make the performance as dependent as possible on the live audience. Of course, the best way to do that is to erase the boundary between performer and audience, as in some forms of experimental theater. But in that case, why have a bounded, formal event in the first place—the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is for performers to create scenes and events out of the material of everyday life, in the midst of everyday life, the purest example of which is the “happening,” a form of art developed by Allan Kaprow. These would be events that no one would know to record in the first place.

Now, to push things a little further, if “happenings” become the most valued performative esthetic, physical interactions between people, unrepeatable and unreproduceable events, are going to more and more approximate happenings. In other words, we will more and more strive to give them a ritual character, by introducing constraints that operate as notes of deferral that are explicitly marked as such. The individual who disrupts a scene, however gently, implicitly makes himself a potential sacrifice or scapegoat—anything that goes wrong from here on in can easily be blamed on the disruptor. Your reason for wanting to attempt this, nevertheless, is that you detect some “imbalance” or latent and dangerous set of resentments in the scene; making yourself a potential target of those resentments is a way of defusing them. The risk may be worth it, because if you become a skilled “happener,” you can become a very valued person. You might be able to parlay such a skill and such a(n initially minor) celebrity into YouTube fame, thereby creating a dialectic between the simulacral internet and the irreducibly performative. The former tries to capture the latter, which develops new strategies of evasion and in turn informs new meming strategies.

We have a good reason to theorize such a dialectic. No one can be unaware now of the irrelevance of the supposed liberal freedoms such as speech, religion and assembly. Power is becoming more naked, and seemingly more desperate. It has always been the case that you’re not really allowed to be illiberal in a liberal order—a more secure liberalism could choose not to press the point, though. But the simulacral nature of liberalism itself has caught up with it—liberalism makes no sense outside of the liberal/illiberal binary. What is illiberal is centrality; what is liberal is resistance to centrality. There must be some law of acceleration determining the speed with which new modes of centrality and resistance to them are discovered. There must also be some way of predicting what will come next. “Lookism” as Nazism, with a ban on any reference to a person’s physical attractiveness that could even implicitly suggest the lesser attractiveness of others? Borders as apartheid? Both ideas have been floating around—maybe it’s time for one or both to catch fire. Does anyone dare laugh, or claim to foresee the limits of new victimary offensives? Liberalism has become compulsive: it must generate new offenses.

The internet and social media have accelerated the process by creating, as Gans pointed out not too long ago, a new and devastatingly effective mode of scapegoating; at the same time, the absolute binaries generated by victimary politics are fodder for the creation of new algorithms, which is the manifestation of power by the internet monopolies. Developing an algorithm for identifying “white supremacist” websites, blogs, videos, etc., is precisely the kind of task Silicon Valley is prepared for. You need input from organizations like the SPLC and ADL—they will help you develop keywords, phrases, verbal patterns and other markers to look for. But the smarter the computers get the dumber the people get. There have already been leftist websites complaining that they have gotten caught up in the censorious sweeps for heretical material by the Inquisition. The computers can’t distinguish between articles written by “white supremacists” and those written about “white supremacists” by their enemies. And, increasingly, neither can people. It is becoming less and less possible to depend upon people distinguishing between you saying something, and you saying that someone else says that. If it’s coming out of your mouth it’s all the same. I’ve noticed the same kind of intellectual collapse in related areas: if you ask people about the legality or constitutionality of things like giving legal status to illegal aliens or legalizing gay marriage or transgender rights, they increasingly talk about how they care about illegal alien children, have gay friends, and think the transgender don’t bother anyone. In other words, admittedly counter-intuitive distinctions between what you are formally allowed to do and what you should do are becoming unintelligible. Just like if the words come from you, they are your words, you can only mention an individual, practice or situation in order to approve or disapprove.

This massive devastation, a kind of wiping out of volumes of mental “programs” which must end up leaving much of our cultural inheritance unintelligible, actually provides an opening for realist/formalist politics. We have no problem with simplicities: the media talks about Russia because they want to destroy Trump; the Democrats promote immigration because they hate white people; feminists talk about “rape culture” because they want revenge against men; blacks commit more crimes because there are more criminals among them, etc. If the media gets their way, it’s because they are more powerful than those who didn’t get their way; if some part of the US government subverts some institution or country it’s because they are screwing some other part of the government, or some other agency. We can hack away at all the vaporous talk of equality, democracy, freedom, etc., identify the workings of power, and presuppose the real binary of order vs. disorder. But it would be a very good idea to learn how to do all this under the radar of the algorithms of the Inquisition. We make texts and events say what needs to be said by introducing disruptions and interruptions into them. Some familiarity with Twitter makes it clear that lots of people are already getting very good at this kind of thing. It would be very hard to police all the variations of the “guy checking out girl”/”distracted boyfriend” meme. Steve Sailer is a masterful, subtle reader of mainstream texts, even if he himself is already too well known to fly under the radar.

The simplest way to develop such an algorithm-resistant praxis is to speak and write as if you are doing nothing more than taking orders from those in power, and explicitly pointing out that you are doing so. “In such a case, as we have been repeatedly warned, we should look out for someone who might notice…” A lot will depend on how you have described the “case.”  Of course, we want to theorize openly and have more straightforward discussions, and we’re probably not all going to rounded up right away, once and for all. But we can have these back-up, “happening” discourses, predicated on an analysis of what would subtly disrupt or interrupt a power approved event, on or off line. Simply indicating, regularly and casually, that the instructions, while universally felt, are not all that clear, will have a powerful and cumulative effect. In this way we prepare the transition from mock (but actual) obedience to chaos generating sovereigns to real obedience to a patron capable of assessing value, and, finally, to a genuine sovereign. And in the process we will do our part to reintroduce humor, irony, complexity, self-reflexivity and distance back into the culture.

The Generativity of Deferral

The question it occurred to me someone might ask after reading my last post was, “can’t there be too much deferral”? After all, you eventually have to eat, or respond to a threat (or blow), right? You can’t commit to infinite deferral—the Hunger Artist of Kafka’s story dies at the end. Such questions emerge from an understandable misunderstanding of deferral, the more advanced forms of which allow for plenty of eating, drinking, lovemaking, fighting (where necessary) and anything else needed for a full human life. As I’ve mentioned, the immediate effect of deferral is not an intolerable feeling of privation, since deferral emerges in response to accumulating desire more than to need (it is not an increasingly imminent threat that makes you angrier as the argument with your spouse intensifies)—rather, the effect is of a new world opening up. Threats and rivals become collaborators and potential friends; the source of desire is transfigured. On the originary scene itself, according to Gans’s hypothesis, the object at the center is divinized: it has saved the community by “commanding” them to let it(self) be. A range of other possibilities emerge: the point of contention between friends, spouses or co-workers can become comical—how could we have gotten so angry over that! Humor, or anything else that enables us to convert a source of contention into a new way of looking at something, derives from that divinization on the originary scene. But if the telos of humanity, and therefore our highest priority, is to bring about such conversions, aren’t those who adopt that telos as their own at the mercy of those who defer only so much as is necessary to turn themselves into a cohesive production and fighting unit? Isn’t being willing to hit first an insuperable advantage?

Such a question easily emerges if we neglect, as I have in fact been doing, the function of the sign and of language more generally in “distributing” the world. How, indeed, does the new community on the originary scene get from the moment of deferral in which they stand in front of a divine benefactor, in a circle no one can break except at pain of restarting the violent convergence, to actually approaching and consuming the object? Here, I may see things somewhat differently than Gans. Gans hypothesizes a “sparagmos,” a violent tearing apart of the central object driven by resentment at the object for “refusing” itself, however momentarily, to the group’s appetite. In this, Gans stays very close to both Girard and traditional accounts of sacrificial rituals (the best known example of which is probably the Dionysian frenzy central to Euripides’s The Bacchae). Subsequent to the sparagmos is a repetition or replay of the originary scene making use of the remains of the devoured object—this is the origin of ritual. I see no basis or need for questioning any of this. I do wonder, though, what, in the course of dropping the restraint acquired in the moment of deferral in favor of a savagery that (because resentful) is more than animalistic, prevents the members of the group from turning on each other once again as they scramble for their respective pieces of the meal. It seems to me that the sign formed on the scene of deferral must play this role. Whenever the aggression toward the central object threatens to spill over into renewed intra-group aggression the members of the group would “flash” the sign, or in some manner signify a reversion to the restrained and pacific posture modeled on the originary scene. This directs attention back to shared destruction and consumption of the object, and maintains some manner of “acceptable” distribution of the “proceeds” of the scene—not an equal share, surely (the larger and faster members would no doubt exploit their advantages), but close enough to prevent a breakdown of the accord accomplished. And this use of the sign then continues in the ritualistic phase of the entire event, making the re-enactment (which can subsequently become part of the sign preceding the sharing of the object) possible.

What this means is that extending the scene of deferral is not primarily a question of waiting longer to eat, or strike back, or enjoy anything. To some extent that’s necessary—you can’t have a family dinner if the kids are standing around in the kitchen grabbing food as soon as mother takes it out of the oven. They have to sit and wait at the table. But sitting and waiting until 7 doesn’t make them more civilized or moral than if they get served at 6. What is important is that the meal is properly “framed”: everyone is at the table, distractions are eliminated, some kind of sign (like saying grace) that it is time to begin is given, everyone uses their utensils, people don’t reach across the table to grab food off others’ plates, etc. The same holds for self-defense. The one who lets himself get hit ten times is not thereby more civilized or moral than the one who strikes back after the first blow, or even pre-empts that blow. The question is whether you act in accord with the social means, resources and rules for defending yourself. Your confrontation is framed through a narrative that will be reconstructed later, even if only by the participants in recounting their actions to themselves. Terms like “necessary,” “legitimate,” “excessive” among others then come into play, along with “fictional” narratives playing out alternative outcomes (could I have avoided the entire situation in the first place?). All these terms and mental acts are products of century and millennia of deferrals, and your ability to use these terms in a way that would meet with the approval of those in command of the social resources for managing these kinds of instances is evidence of your having “extended” the scene of deferral. Insofar as more restraint than you showed was, in fact, called for, that will be made evident by these narrative reconstructions, and then an extension of the scene of deferral is displayed others’ and your own capacity for learning.

So, there can’t be too much deferral because there can’t be too much differentiation and attention control. Every time you don’t do something, especially the obvious and easy thing, you multiply the possibilities for doing other things, and imagining the consequences of doing them. I mentioned in my previous post “infinite” deferral, which is important, because that is implicitly distinguished from the extremely patient predator who nevertheless cannot be infinitely patient. There is an important moral distinction here. What can be infinitely deferred is the degradation of the center. This is in fact the foundational or constitutive deferral, and one that needs to be renewed with each institutional and civilizational transformation. There is the figure at the center and there is the center. The king is not God, but the king or sovereign is the earthly means by which deferral is maintained. To obey the king is to recall or to retrieve the founding of the kingdom, while the founding of the kingdom is retrieved in its differentiation from the founding of humanity. We defer our resentments towards the king and those who rule over us as we obey the king to defer our resentments towards those whom we might accuse of occupying our place. These deferrals are never accomplished once and for all, and are continually institutionalized as deferences we owe each other. Our relation to the figure at the center is our attempt to have that figure convey information from the center: to instruct us by example in the arts of deferral. The abstraction of the sovereign from rivalry provides a model of action free from resentment: regardless of the actual motives of actual sovereigns, to the extent that they are sovereign the absence of resentment can be imputed to them. In fact, obeying them as if they are free of resentment is the best means of encouraging them to become more sovereign.