Primus and Skunkworker

Equality simply means the same, in some respect. If you see equality as a value in itself, there’s no reason not to make people equal in more and more respects. Making people equal in more and more respects means uncovering inequality (difference) in previously overlooked respects. This process need never end because people who have been made the same in some respect can, by virtue of that construction of sameness, turn out to have been made different in some new respect.

But (and this is quite elementary) sameness implies some form of measurement so that the objects in question can be reduced to that measure. All things are equal insofar as they have mass, and can measured by a scale, or length, insofar as they can be measured by a ruler. Then, of course, some things are heavier and longer than others, with the Procrustean solutions implicit in the decision to measure in the first place. In social terms, this entails reduction to a single center. Members of a club are equal insofar as they are members of a club, and subject to a set of by-laws and whoever enforces those by-laws. Members of a modern state are equal insofar as they are all directly subject to the state, and the laws it governs by.

Thus, the “moral equality” which Larry Seidentop (Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism) sees as having been introduced by the gradual reshaping of the Western social order through the middle ages by the Catholic Church cannot be sustained in a post-Christian world where the only shared center is the state. The moral equality of Christians is equal in relation to God. Everyone deserves moral consideration as a member or potential member of the Church and child of God, not as a bare “human being.” Let’s frame this in Girardian terms: the Christian revelation discredits scapegoating and human sacrifice by displaying what we can anachronistically call the “bad faith” of such means of maintaining social stability. The selection, as an object of violence, of someone stigmatized in some way, follows not from any genuine knowledge of social relations or divine-human relations, but the logic of mimetic rivalry and crisis. So, from now on, violence against individuals is proscribed, because intrinsically tainted by scapegoating tendencies, while those who engage in violence can be prevented and punished, but only according to rules designed to ensure that such prevention and punishment is free of traces of mimetically motivated hostility. So, everyone is equal in being accorded such protection from mimetically motivated violence.

But what of citizens of a liberal order which knows not Christianity, or sees Christianity as part of the order that needed to be smashed for that liberal order to emerge? What if shared protection from mimetically motivated violence is itself productive of a form of inequality insofar as some members of the social order seem to navigate the system established by that proscription better than others? On what grounds can a member of “civil society” claim that the right to disable, hunt down, indelibly mark members of the “privileged” group is any less valid than the right to be given a fair trial? If equality is now equality in relation to the state as central power, and the state itself is driven by the imperative to ensure that more citizens, and more aspects of their life, are equalized, the benefit of the doubt will always be given to whomever can claim to have uncovered a previously neglected, and therefore all the more scandalous, form of inequality—even if it’s just some feature of social life that hasn’t been subject to any regulation up until now, or even some new form of life generated by the latest equalization campaign.

So far, we have the basic right-left configuration in liberal social orders. The left finds some new inequality, remedy for which it appeals to the state in the prescribed terms; the right, meanwhile, defends the existing form of equality against this new discovery. The best strategy the right can think of within this order is to try and counter leftist encroachments by claiming that those encroachments will in fact create new forms of inequality: so, the equalization of income promised by the welfare state makes blacks more unequal by undermining black family structures, or mass Muslim immigration will lead to a renewed persecution of homosexuals. But these stopgaps can’t work very well because the right always positions itself so as to erect or resurrect some discredited form of inequality: the bourgeois family form that blacks supposedly need oppresses “sexual minorities,” the warning against Muslims is Islamophobic, etc. It is always only a matter of time before the state realizes its equalizing power is aggrandized by recognizing the new form of equality.

If the state is exhaustive of social centrality, or, more precisely, if a state dedicated to liberal equality, as the successor and eviscerator of Christian moral equality is exhaustive, this problem cannot be solved. Perhaps restoring or recreating a divine center to which the sovereign would be subject would solve it, but only by recreating the old problem of a “real” sovereign to which the actual sovereign must be subject, thereby opening a space for other powers claiming to speak for the real sovereign. But let’s say, with Andrew Willard Jones, that the problem is with the concept of “sovereignty” itself, with its assumption of an original violence, ready to break out as soon as social control is lifted, and therefore the need for an ultimate, unquestioned source of law and order. The mimetically motivated violence targeted by Girard is not a Hobbesian war of all against all, it is an all against one which only works if a kind of intellectual dishonesty is shared by all: the lie of scapegoating and human sacrifice is that the sacrality lies in the victim rather than in the terror of a center that no longer defers, whose power of deferral is overridden by the sameness, the equality of mimetic desire.

The social center is the monarch, or, perhaps, we can say the primus. Someone has to occupy the center because all attention converges on the center, so an occupant who can turn back that convergence is indispensable to social order. By the time resentful attention has all converged upon the center, it is too late, so resentful attention must be dispersed through localized centers—establishing and constraining these centers is the highest priority of the primus. This involves the differentiation of forms of attention: a craftsman’s resentment over a perceived degradation in the social status of his profession over the last generation will not readily join in a common cause with the philosopher resentful over his latest opus not receiving what he considers its due appreciation. But, of course, this means that the craftsman must be a genuine craftsman, the philosopher a genuine philosopher (the priest a real priest, the teacher a real teacher, and so on), or, more precisely, that we can measure any particular practitioner against the standard established by the tradition of that practice. In that case, there is a kind of equality among craftsman and aspiring craftsman, which is enforced within the discipline and sanctioned by the primus, who insists that the standards of craftsmanship be maintained, and a kind of equality amongst the various orders insofar as all have constraints imposed by the primus. There is a lot of what we could call “equality” here, but they are different forms of equality incommensurable to each other. Resentment can never converge toward a single target, like the rich/white/straight/cis/male who is the virtual and permanent antithesis of equality. A non-sovereign center would restore a “middle,” not of social status and estates (at least not necessarily—I don’t mean to exclude anything) but of diverse modes of deferral and discipline.

But how can the primus assess the effectiveness of his constraints? The weakness in the order I am describing is that the primus is dependent upon the primus among craftsmen, the primus among academics, the primus among scientists, and so on, and the equality provided by the standards of each practice or discipline can just as readily be used to set in motion the process of uncovering inequalities as demands for equality within a liberal order. Aside from the politicizing of the disciplines, if the disciplines are governed by nothing more than a top-down mode of authority, it is hard to see how the primus could prevent more commonplace forms of corruption, like cronyism, bribery and so on. And entrenched forms of power that only simulate adherence to the traditions grounding their authority must in turn attempt to influence the social primus as well.

The only solution for this problem I can think of is for the primus to have eyes and ears within every discipline and institution. These eyes and ears must be agents simultaneously loyal to the primus and to the practice of the discipline in question—“equally” loyal to both, in fact, or, better, refusing any distinction between the two loyalties. They are equal amongst themselves in relation to the primus, and participate in the form of equality constitutive of the discipline. They are normal participants in the discipline, and if the discipline and its practices proceed in accord with its own center, the object or aim that elicits the capacities the discipline is established so as to elicit, no one need know they are there, and they need never do more than issue occasional, perfunctory reports to the primus—if that.

If these agents, let’s call them “skunkworkers” in a bit of a misnomer, detect derogations in the disciplines, they first of all work within existing channels in order to remedy them. That is, they first of all leverage their own “rights” within the institution to correct its course. Having exhausted all such means, they report to the primus with suggestions regarding personnel changes and revisions of the founding constraint of the discipline. Sometimes the skunkworkers will be known as such by their co-workers; sometimes they will be undercover—different situations call for different approaches. Sometimes the skunkworkers’ proposals will be rejected by the primus; sometimes the primus will see the skunkworker as the source of the problem, and someone so relied upon must be severely punished in that case (sometimes the primus will be wrong, sometimes the skunkworker will genuinely fail, or even “go bad”). The skunkworker accepts this risk as part of his higher form of loyalty.

The skunkworkers would set the moral tone of the social order: they are the bearers of the moral center informing, but not conflicting with or presuming to judge, the social center occupied by the primus. Everyone would wonder whether this or that co-worker were or might be a skunkworker—like any form of social control, this might sometimes be frightening, but the fear of being accused wrongly by a skunkworker would be proportional to a broader breakdown in social and moral order. The only solution would be for the primus to recruit new skunkworkers, perhaps to spy on the existing ones or, in the most extreme cases, for the skunkworkers who remain committed to disciplinary excellence to shift their allegiance to a new primus. If order is well-maintained, the skunkworkers whill be admired and imitated, and everyone would aspire to be a kind of apprentice skunkworker. And that, indeed, is how skunkworkers would be selected in the first place.

The skunkworker is also the form taken by the continuity between our present order and a future one governed by the articulation of primus and skunkworker. What the skunkworker does is what we can all do, in whatever discipline or institution we are placed: we can all represent the originary structure of the discipline and expose distortions and corruptions, even if there’s not really anyone to expose them to. The exposure must be expected to create the audience for it. In doing so, we assume, on the one hand, maximal continuity between the present order, no matter how bad things may be, and a genuine centered ordinality—we operate under the assumption that all that’s really necessary is for everyone to clarify the terms of the disciplines, and that such clarification is a simple matter given than those terms are immanent in the discipline itself, once all extrinsic considerations (power, prestige, wealth, etc.) are “controlled for.” We also assume, on the other hand, that we are perpetually dissolving concentrations of resentment towards the center, simply by proposing new disciplinary practices and the incorporation of currently undisciplined practices within disciplinary ones. All people need is a compelling center, and all people need that, and so we counter all attempts at equalization by contributing to the construction of a center that would render such skirmishes irrelevant. Rather than erecting one center after another (whether political, intellectual or spiritual) to control the going astray of the previous center, we have the center of last resort (the primus) and the delegated powers of deferral that, all together, are “equal” in their actual composition of the power of the primus.

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