The Temporality of Sovereignty

Here’s the strongest argument on the side of those arguing for the spontaneous organization of social relations against those defending an absolutist ontology, which assumes the sovereign center is constitutive: the sovereign, no matter how absolute and powerful, can’t do just anything, can he? He can’t order his people to sprout wings and fly, right? Ridiculous, but it makes a point: the sovereign is subjected to the laws of nature. That leads us to the somewhat less ridiculous: he can’t order all husbands and wives to divorce each other and take new partners, and redistribute the children by lottery, can he? Somewhat further down the ridiculous spectrum, he can’t order everyone to adopt a completely new and alien religion, can he? (And I don’t mean something like Henry the VIII shifting from Catholicism to a Catholicized and Anglicized version of Protestantism—he didn’t try and force everyone to go Shinto.) Any sovereign command, in other words, comes up against some resistance, some “denseness” in the social material, against inherited customs, rituals, relationships, institutions, and so on. And that must mean whatever constitutes that resistance is prior to the sovereign, in which case sovereignty is raised up upon the basis of those relationships which formed external to sovereign power, making sovereign power dependent upon, and shaped by its necessary conformity to, those “spontaneously” formed relationships. Just like the sovereign must submit to the laws of nature, he must submit to the laws of human nature, or divine law, or social evolution. And the implications of such a conclusion are clear: sovereign power must also be judged, and its legitimacy determined, in terms of how it serves and corresponds to whatever is taken to precede and constitute it.

The examples one is forced to resort to in order to make this argument seem irrefutable suggest that the argument is not really made in good faith; still, on the other hand, one might say that the counter-arguments advanced by the absolutist side will tilt toward providing examples representing more “realistic” changes that might have been or actually have been ordered by sovereigns. What, after all, would count as the “tough case” that might settle things once and for all, something that a sovereign “should,” according to absolutist theory, be able to do, but can’t? As with all social arguments, it’s possible to say, in the case of an example that disproves one’s point, that that example didn’t really fit the parameters of the type of example I constructed as a potential test case. Indeed, the whole notion of “proof” is highly problematic, to say the least, in the social or human sciences, because laboratory conditions are not available—and if they were, they would be completely unrealistic and inapplicable to anything in any actual society. But that just means that the best way of arguing in the social and human sciences is to show how your opponent’s strongest claims can be reframed in terms of your own assumptions. If you can keep reframing, while strengthening and where necessary revising the previous “acquisitions” made by your theory, and further clarifying your founding assumptions, then your theory will either prove true in the long run or will eventually shatter upon the shoals of events that disqualify too many assumptions that have been taken for granted, even in the eyes of the theory’s own adherents. (And even in the latter case a remnant will likely remain, and it might have something to say as well.)

You should, then, be able to show that what seems to be the strongest argument against you is really the strongest one in your favor; so, that’s what I’m going to do where with the “what about the X which the sovereign couldn’t command” argument. The way to do so is to contend that what limits sovereignty, what represents the penumbra of social action resistant to sovereign command, is prior acts of sovereignty—what the sovereign is dependent upon, that is, and what the sovereign must respect and “correspond” to, are not spontaneously organized social relations but the decisions of previous sovereigns. If we could go back far enough, every social practice—every ritual, every kinship relation, every moral norm, every aesthetic criterion, everything—has its origin in sovereign decision and delegation—or in some pre-sovereign obedience to the sacred center preceding sovereignty and incorporated into it. Each new sovereign, upon taking power, is faced with the vast expanse of the results of prior sovereign decisions; the new sovereign will reverse, revise, or override some of those decisions, and he will leave the vast majority in place. This will be true even for an ambitious, reforming sovereign, because, as the adherents to the theory of spontaneous organization will attest, the sovereign decisions and delegation made (and left unmade), reiterated, and allowed to shape the tacit habits and knowledge of the ruled over the previous centuries are not just innumerable but beyond retrieval.

What makes the sovereign sovereign, then, is not that he can order anyone to do anything at any time and be perfectly obeyed; nor is it that he represents the will of God, or of the people, or that he skillfully balances an immense array of institutions and/or human capacities that exist according to their own logic, outside of his actions. Rather, it is that he occupies the center that previous sovereigns have shaped, and that his own decisions “redeem” the “down payment” on futurity made by those previous sovereigns. The implication, then, is that sovereignty is always oriented toward futurity, always a bridge between past and future. A “revolutionary” sovereign who tried to tear up and remake drastically the order he has inherited would generate resistance not because he would be waging war against “nature” or “tradition,” but because he would be disrupting previously authorized relations between the center and its margins and thereby vitiating the social center. He would be setting power centers adrift, and those power centers will be defined in terms of the previous mode of sovereignty which redeemed them, opening the possibility of a challenger appealing to that prior mode of sovereignty, which the new sovereign has failed to incorporate into his own. It’s not as if we could set some limit to “how much” change a sovereign should introduce—there may be times when much change and much disruption is indispensable, and, anyway, social change cannot be quantified—but, rather, that the threads of sovereignty must be tied up. If a sovereign undoes the work of his predecessor, or of several predecessors, it must be in the name of retrieving some other sovereign work which theyhad undone (or even work those same sovereigns had done, but undermined by what they had undone).

Thinking in terms of the temporality of sovereignty, rather than the endless debates over the state/society “interaction,” not only reframes that powerful argument I began by citing, but provides us with a way of thinking about “meaningful order” in the future, where the claims that can be made to hereditary rule will undoubtedly be much weaker than when monarchy was assumed to be the natural form of rule. So, while the transition from one sovereign to the next, the transfer of power, was always a carefully regulated process, and often a cause of significant conflict and anxiety, we could say that it will take on a vastly greater importance in future non-hereditary (or maybe partially hereditary) autocratic forms; indeed, I would go so far as to say that it will completely absorb the attention of all social institutions, and it can very readily do so in a largely beneficial way—that is, in a way that reduces, rather than inflame, resentment and violence.

Let’s take the most extreme example, a completely non-hereditary autocracy in which, therefore, the pool of possible replacements for the sovereign includes the entire population. The autocrat himself must choose his successor, because only a sovereign decision can effect the transfer of power—we can’t even accept a method of choosing a successor since, however seemingly impersonal and objective the method, it will always be open to interpretation, “exception” and therefore power struggles. The sovereign, then, must choose a successor from the moment he enters office, and be explicit and public in either sticking with that choice or changing it. (With every “must,” the automatic question must arise: or else what? Let’s say the sovereign is ambiguous about his successor—then what? Then he’s not doing his job—so, what are the consequences of that? We’ll get to it.) Enormous social resources and energy would have to be directed towards ensuring the sovereign has a large pool of qualified successors, and in providing means for narrowing it down considerably: it might be good to have 10,000 qualified candidates, but the sovereign should only have to choose from amongst, say, 100. “Academies” in ruling would be established, with extremely rigorous entry requirements. Schools specializing in various aspects of rule—military academies, schools that provide students with advanced knowledge of political history and theory, perhaps practical, scout-style academies that give students experience in governing on a local level, under supervised conditions. One would have to excel in one academy to be admitted to the next—the candidates would be vetted all along the line, from their childhoods up.

This process would obviously be of great interest for everyone in the social order. Your own child might seem like he has a chance to compete, or your cousin, or your neighbor. There would be “local favorites.” There would be public competitions—exams, fitness contests, Army-Navy style sporting events—that would test the mettle of the candidates in an engaging way. One could imagine much of “popular culture” being caught up in the various “paths to the throne” such arrangements would generate. The candidates would make the rounds of the country—they would visit a “typical” school in one region, a “typical” factory in another, a typical neighborhood in yet another, and so on. This means that all these institutions would be constantly preparing themselves to host the candidates, making their indirect participation in the broader selection process something they would always be looking ahead to, and shaping themselves in anticipation of (they would want to ensure that all are on their best behavior, to ensure their typicality).

The condition for candidate visits would have to be, though, that the candidates themselves cannot give a single command. There can be absolutely no confusion etween the future, potential sovereigns, and the actually existing one. The candidates would always be accompanied by representatives of the sovereign, and they would give commands (“let us see how that new machinery works…”). This condition would be so strictly adhered to (arguments around the margins, which might turn into jokes—can the candidate ask for a drink of water?—would reinforce the seriousness of the overall interdiction) that any transgression would be immediately and scandalously apparent. So, the candidates could not use their tours to build a power base for themselves, develop their own clientele, etc.—they can’t do anything to help anyone. The sovereign, meanwhile, would be maintaining a public ranking of the candidates, but he would naturally be free to revise it whenever he likes, and would in fact probably do so fairly regularly. Just the normal life course of the ruler would lead to revisions—a 30-year old sovereign might want a 50-year old successor, someone whose experience and loyalty to the previous sovereign he admired; by the time that sovereign turns 60, he would more likely want a younger man whom he might have personally mentored. And, of course, the option would exist for a sovereign to simply resign, if he felt his personal power waning, or simply spotted a candidate who seemed completely ready, and likely to rule more effectively. (Since being a candidate can’t be a livelihood in itself, the candidates would serve the sovereign in other ways, far from the chain of command—so, those, the vast majority of course, who are not chosen, will be integrated in the sovereign order. But maintaining one’s candidacy would likely involve some sacrifice of other possible roles, perhaps higher ranking ones than that individual will eventually attain when removed from the list.)

So, the entire society is constantly engaged in, and therefore thoroughly informed regarding, the transfer of power or, more broadly, the temporality of sovereignty. Each individual is in some way playing a role in shaping the conditions under which the continuity of sovereignty, and therefore the entire social order, will be maintained. Under such conditions, we can also imagine how the (it seems to me as unlikely as it could be made) possibility of a manifestly and dangerously unfit ruler could be dealt with. There would always be publicly known, vetted and trusted potential successors—the very fact that they never tried to exercise even a tiny bit of sovereign power on their own would testify to their worthiness. There is the sovereign’s own list, and even if, in the case of a genuinely treacherous sovereign, he named as his own successor, or even the first few on the list, someone expected to maintain the same dangerous practices of rule, somewhere on the list there would be those less effectively “cultivated” (“groomed”?) by the unfit sovereign. In the event that the social elites—the generals, the corporate executives, the presidents of universities and academies, and so on—were, against their own will, led to the consensus that they could no longer maintain their chains of commands under the present sovereign, that he has simply visited too much destruction upon the accumulated and tacit inheritance of sovereign rule, that he had lost the “threads” of sovereignty; well, then, the conditions are in place for a relatively painless and minimally disruptive transfer of power to a worthy candidate, and one that could be justified by appeal to the sovereign’s own “higher” or better will. Needless to say, any such situation would be fraught with danger—no one could ever imagine oneself to be designing a flawless social order—but having the entire order thoroughly invested in the temporality of sovereignty, so that such an event would be extremely exceptional but also quickly made commonplace, would be the best way to minimize the dangers.

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