GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 9, 2018

Absolutism, the Axial Age and the Laboratory

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:30 am

The moral and intellectual innovations of the Axial Age—from Confucianism and Buddhism in the East to philosophy and monotheism in the West—create an interesting dilemma in thinking through the implications of the abolition of imperium in imperio, or divided sovereignty. Under sacral kingship, the centrality of the king involves not just rule but ritual duties and ensuring the connection between the community and the cosmos. It may be that the occupant of the position wasn’t very secure (there would be many ways one could be found to have failed) but the position itself was. Under god-imperial rule, the occupant of the position becomes far more secure, while the sacral efficacy of the position becomes thinner and molded more precisely to the functions of rule itself—in other words, rationalized. Local and ancestral forms of worship continued to operate more directly on communities. On both levels, though, the sacred is essentially sacrificial: the origin of all benefits is identified, and a commensurate return of some part of those benefits must be made to that origin or its representative. The greater the benefit, the greater the obligation, which means that the sacrificial is always tending towards human sacrifice as its telos. This means slavery, mass armies and the conscription of large populations for imperial labor projects. As David Graeber has pointed out, these developments coincided with the introduction of coinage and debt that involved the “abstraction” of individuals from the communal and ritual forms in which they were embedded—“abstraction” through enslavement and dispossession.

At the same time, this abstraction and the development of markets on which abstracted individuals can engage in exchange leads to systems of justice: the measurement of acts against promises and obligations. So, we have two interrelated processes: one, the disappearance of situated individuals into anonymous masses; two, the singling out of individual rights and wrongs against a background of precedents and oaths, with judgment carried out by a specialized class of professionals. When “injustice” was done, it would likely appear as if the former process was impinging upon the latter: as if the individual treated unjustly were being sacrificed for some mass, impersonal, mindless purpose. The emergence of exemplary victims of sacrificial injustice would lead to the clarification of this appearance, and its articulation in legal, political and sacral discourses. It would be possible to look for such victims, and see them as implicit indictments turned back against the supposed justice system itself; more articulate victims would come to frame their plight in these terms. Critics of the justice system would come to see themselves as potential victims, and develop moral discourses of anticipatory victimage; they would gather around themselves a following, including many from among disaffected elites; and their victimization (which they would more or less deliberately be courting) would be revelatory. We would have cases in which the exemplary sacrifice would, in fact, be guilty according to the prevailing and perhaps rather sophisticated and indulgent political and legal norms; and, nevertheless, legible in their execution would be the implication of even a healthy justice system in sacrificial practices—remember, the mass sacrifice and the concept of justice have a common origin. The subsequent intellectual and moral revolution would play out differently under different conditions, but in all cases a new problem has been created: it is now possible to imagine a law that is “higher” than the law presided over by the monarch, and therefore a sacrality that supersedes that of the God-Emperor.

So, this is the problem that has gone unsolved until this day. Some Christian kingdoms of medieval Europe seemed to be close for a while, but those efforts didn’t last. We can blame competing elites for exploiting the opportunities afforded by the very concept of a “higher law” to introduce a wedge between that higher law and the “earthly” one, but the problem nevertheless remains, unless one believes it possible to dispossess ourselves of the acquisitions of the Axial Age—and no conceivable power center could do that because so dispossessing itself would not only make it too evil but too stupid to rule. In moral terms, the “axial” involves a prohibition on scapegoating: on reviving and reversing the logic of sacral kingship by imposing responsibility for the evils and ills of the community on some marginal individual or group. The way realize that prohibition is by building and fortifying institutions that ensure punishment is monopolized by accountable institutions and for offenses that have been named for the harm they do the community and the higher law. The implication is to confer a kind of sacrality on the individual: to collectively lay hands on an individual is to threaten to introduce uncontrolled violence into the community. This horror is the ancestor of today’s victimary discourses, but even before that of liberalism and democracy, with their elevation of the individual and the common man, regardless of the intellectually confused ways in which this elevation has been asserted. Now, while the implication of axial morality has been to confer a kind of sacrality on the individual (at least in the West—but could that be because it is in the West that axial logics have been vigorously pursued beyond elite circles?), that does not mean it is the only, or only possible implication.

Originary thinking, or anthropomorphics, helps us out here because it provides us with the hypothesis that the axial is in fact a recovery of the originary scene, in which the newly human community all participated in “addressing” a shared center. Such a recovery was needed in the massive dislocations, brought about at a high level of civilization, leading to the axial age. One way of superimposing the model of the originary scene on imperial civilization is to imagine a single human center: Truth, or God, toward which all can orient themselves and partake of this new center. These are the interrelated paths the West, in pushing axial logics as far as possible, have taken. But within the assumption of the global or universal center there is also the realization that the center can only be discerned within what we could call a “congregation of inquiry.” Christianity started out with small groups testifying to Christ revealing himself to them; philosophy and the ancient sciences likewise started out with small groups of adepts or inquirers who separated themselves from the confining ritual practices of the community. The “universal” radiates outward from such congregations, and can only be preserved by recreating them over and over again.

At some point power at higher levels must support and incorporate these congregations—that is ultimately the only way they could actually be “universalized.” But this also seems to be the starting point of all those conflicts between higher and secular law. The solution must lie in the incorporation of the congregation of inquiry into the very form of sovereignty. In universalism, the individual is imagined as potential victim of overweening power, and the solution is for that individual to be ever further abstracted so as to be acted upon by an even overweenier power. By contrast, the individual within the corporate congregation is imagined in his service to the sovereign, in exemplifying and further perfecting the sovereign’s identification with the higher law. The corporate congregants permeate the social order, bringing their more specialized inquiry into the originary-within-the-sovereign to bear on other areas of life. The missionary or evangelical goes out among men, preaching the word, living the word, and doing so, as much as possible, within the lives and languages of those amongst whom he moves. The undercover police agent represents the law within the lawless, and must pass as the lawless, while never forgetting their loyalty to the law, lower and higher, and their other law-preserving brethren. In both cases we have the enactment of the tension between the lower and higher, but the undercover agent is the better example for us now because it is impossible for that police officer, as long as he remains honest, to do anything other than serve the sovereign. He cannot rebel, or resist the sovereign, other than by becoming a criminal himself, which is not really rebellion or resistance; moreover, he serves as a harmless but potentially powerful corrective to misuses of power within the sovereign order itself, misuses that the sovereign would want to know about. This is especially the case because we can have undercover agents not only in lawless groupings but in organizations where the lawlessness would be a deviation, but with potentially devastating consequences. The undercover agent within the normal institution, or, each of us acting as if there are undercover agents within the institutions where we congregate, or, even more, as if we might have to take on, maybe even unsolicited, that role, represents the complete assimilation of the axial acquisition to the sovereign order. Disciplinary groupings or social “skunkworkers” permeating and infiltrating all institutions by naming their relation to the sovereign center is the form taken by the retrieval of the originary scene within advanced, civilized social orders.

We can think about this in terms of the apparently very different institution of the laboratory—perhaps the highest and most consequential result of “axialism.” The laboratory constructs a space in which all possible physical interactions are excluded except for the one we want to study. Often this is done hypothetically, by randomizing the selection of subjects for the study, or introducing probability calculations to eliminate the effects of processes that can’t be physically excluded. In fact, this is the kind of thing you do anytime you are seriously thinking about what the best thing to do is, in other words moral inquiry involves setting aside one’s own resentments and desires, “controlling” for them. The mode of thought is equally applicable to religious and secular, social and physical sciences—part of the laboratory model is to think “experimentally” about these very differences. If you are thinking experimentally you are retrieving the originary scene and representing it within the actual scene, because you are thinking, what act would introduce another degree of deferral into this congregation, and make us more focused on whatever our object is? As long as you are thinking of a bounded scene, freed as much as possible from obscuring interferences, you cannot possibly think of mobilizing a mob or identifying a possible sacrifice. If such practices are being endorsed, wittingly or not, by the sovereign, you can only stand as an example against it—not as a counter-power, because your very centrality in this case depends upon you eschewing any higher order centrality, which could only introduce interference into your scene. Once the higher law is made immanent to, constitutive of, constrained by, sovereign law, all the imperium in imperio problems invented by liberalism disappear. In assessing institutions and judging actors, we always look to the corporate congregants in those institutions—if we watch and listen to them, we will learn what is going on and what needs to be done.

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.

May 22, 2017

Absolutism: Some Clarifications

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:26 am

It may be that for some “absolutism” might simply be an argument for one form of government over others—as if an absolute monarch with complete sovereignty over a population with no power and no rights is “better” than a democracy, or a liberal oligarchy, or socialism, or anything else. But the argument for absolutism, compressed most economically in the principle “sovereignty is conserved,” is more a tautological maxim than a preference based on some other ethical, moral, economic or aesthetic principle. The conservation of energy is what R.G. Collingwood called an “absolute assumption,” not a preference for saving energy over wasting it, and the same is true for the conservation of sovereignty. Everyone really agrees with this, because everyone knows when we speak of “the United States” speaking with “Germany” we know this means Donald Trump, or someone appointed by Donald Trump, speaking with Angela Merkel, or someone appointed by her. We can argue over the real sovereign, and some Americans, for example, out of frustration, will claim that the Supreme Court really rules—but until Chief Justice Roberts starts issuing orders to the special forces I think I’ll stick with the sovereignty of the President. Now, given that the President is sovereign, the arguments about better and worse forms of government begin when we start to ask whether the President should be chosen through an electoral process (and if so, which one), whether he should be replaced regularly, whether he should require authorization from other branches of government for certain actions, whether it should be possible to remove him (and if so, how), etc. Still, in a genuine emergency, everyone would look to the President to act, and unless all sense of national unity and purpose has been drained out of the country, the states and courts would defer to him, and Congress would facilitate his activity with enabling legislation.

Now, once we have established the ontological claim of absolutism, we can further point out that absolutism enables us to structure in very productive ways the debate over forms of government. If someone is to be sovereign, it were best that sovereignty be clear and secure. We can think about this by analogy with just about any other task we ask someone to perform. If we ask someone to coach the high school basketball team, he must be given power over everything pertaining to coaching the basketball team—if we introduce a rule that the players must vote on the starting line-up, then he isn’t really the coach, and we are setting him to fail by introducing permanent conflict between him and his players. If he, on the other hand, wants to give us players that power, it may be wise or unwise, but within the scope of his authority. The same with mechanisms for selecting leaders: the sovereign can allow for offices to be filled through election; indeed, through a supreme act of self-abnegation, he can place himself up for election and risk being removed, without thereby losing sovereignty. We can argue, and I think very convincingly, that this would be a serious mistake and a destructive way of selecting leaders, but that argument would then take place on absolutist terms: the argument against it is that it makes sovereignty less clear and secure. So, if we would all defer to the executive in a crisis, we should make that explicit and gear all institutions to readiness to be helpful in serving the executive in a crisis. We might as well take the next step and acknowledge that the executive will decide when there actually is a crisis, and that other institutions should therefore prepare themselves by providing ongoing feedback to the executive on the ways potential pre-crises are registering across the social order.

The sticking point for a lot of people seems to be the question of removing a clearly unfit leader, which a rigorous absolutism seems to preclude, because any such mechanism introduces division into sovereignty by now making someone else sovereign—the doctor who determines the mental fitness of the ruler, the board of directors that gathers to assess his performance, the judges who would hear appeals regarding disqualifying acts of the president, the legislature that impeaches and removes him, etc. All the divisions and power plays that the clarification of sovereignty aims at eliminating would all then rush in through this open door. But absolutism can answer the question of removing an unfit leader, even if it’s not a very comforting answer. If a ruler’s unfitness manifests itself in an incapacity to defend the country or maintain the conditions of law and order, he will be removed by whichever of his subordinates is in the best position to do so—the best positioned in terms of readiness to manage the emergency, rally the support of other power centers, and command the forces needed to rule. And that subordinate will then seek to return power as soon as possible either to the once again fit sovereign, or whoever is next in line according to whatever tradition has been followed in ensuring the continuity of sovereignty. Maybe that subordinate will serve as sovereign temporally or even permanently. And if he fails to remove the sovereign, and no one else can either, then that suggests either the sovereign wasn’t really unfit, or sovereignty can no longer be sustained in that form on that territory—maybe it needs to be broken down into smaller units or aggregated into a larger one.

It would be easy to say that this is a recipe for instability, since any strongman can now come along and claim sovereignty if he can take it. But strongman who violently seize power almost invariably do so in the name of some other, presumably more real sovereign, which legitimates the takeover. He takes power in the name of the people, the working class, the dominant ethnic group, a restoration of the principles of some previous constitution, etc. In other words, he disclaims responsibility for sovereignty. Widely shared absolutist assumptions would make it impossible to get away with this—if you want to take power, you might be able to claim that a sense of duty impels you to it, but make no mistake—you are taking power, in your own name, under your own newly acquired authority, and you will be responsible for how you see it through. You can’t fob it off on anyone else. Such widely shared assumptions would be highly discouraging to reckless adventurers and utopian ideologues. What’s interesting here is that this supposedly most tyrannical approach to government would in fact rely more than any other of the thoughtfulness, knowledge, and clear-headedness of the people. If everyone understands that a particular interpretation of the constitution, or of the Bible, or a history of mistreatment, real or imagined, by the social or ethnic group you belong to, gives you absolutely no claim to power; that, on the contrary, power belongs to whoever can hold it within the political tradition of rule in that country, then there’s no problem. But that means we’re talking about a fairly sophisticated and disciplined people, capable of dismissing all kinds of flattering BS. Everyone would know that attempts to obligate the sovereign are attempts to weaken the sovereign, to subject the sovereign to the sway, not of “the people” in general, but of some very specific people with a very pressing desire for power, if not necessarily a clear idea of how to use it. All clamoring for “rights,” “freedoms,” a “voice,” etc., would lead everyone to look around and discover who is most ready to use and benefit from those rights and freedoms. And to shut their ears to any remonstrance coming from that corner.

But there must be something that prevents the complete, unlimited power of the ruler from being exercised unchecked upon each and every member of society! If liberalism is part of your common sense, or even a little piece of it, it will be very difficult to get past this kind of reaction. Of course the reaction itself, along with the pitiful devices put in place to calm anxieties, like “rights,” “rule of law,” “constitution,” “checks and balances,” etc., testifies to its own impotence and childishness. Who defends rights, maintains the rule of law, protects the constitution if not whoever has the power to do so; and whoever has the power to do so transparently has the power to violate and redefine rights, law and the constitution. As for “checks and balances,” what can that mean other than different institutions or power centers fighting each other to gain more power for themselves and stymie the others, and either one will succeed, or society will become one big bumper car ride, with everybody knocking everybody else into everybody else. And then you end up developing a social theory claiming all individuals are really out of control bumper cars.

All these devices seem to make sense because they presuppose a shared understanding of “rights,” “laws,” “constitution” and social ends (so the checking and balancing can all seem to be moving things in a more or less agreed upon direction). There can be a shared understanding of these concepts, and as long as that continues the harm done by their incoherence can be minimized. If several people are building a house together, and everyone knows that the roofer needs certain materials and a certain amount of time to work on the roof, it doesn’t matter much if the roofer wants to insist he has a “right” to those things. But these concepts become important in proportion to the shrinking sense of shared purpose, and at a certain point they accelerate that decline in common goals. The builders come to work prepared to defend their rights rather than construct the building as well as they can. If the members of society are for the most part engaged in productive and rewarding activities, in which the contributions of each are valued, then we would be speaking about how to ensure this remains the case, and talk of “rights” and all the rest becomes irrelevant. What is experienced or seen as mistreatment or unfairness either is or is not interference with or impairment of the cooperation required for the task at hand. If someone could be contributing more than they are being allowed or enabled to, there is a problem, but on extremely unlikely to be solved by some outside adjudicator deploying concepts drawn from legalistic or political discourses. One must appeal to those familiar with and involved and interested in the success of the project. Absolutism in government supports a little absolutism in each sphere of authority. To modify the conservative maxim, everyone is absolutist in what they know best, and an absolutist ruler would find such local absolutists to be the best guarantee of good order.

The last clarification, for now, is regarding the appearance that absolutism is a retrograde or nostalgic project, inapplicable to contemporary settings. Absolutism is actually a highly innovative and unprecedented mode of political thinking. In looking for genuine predecessors, we find few—Robert Filmer, Betrand de Jouvenel (who, however, was a kind of conservative liberal in his own politics), Mencius Moldbug (whose rejection of “imperio in imperium,” but not his “cameralism,” is essential to absolutism), and that’s about it. Everything—economics, science, technology, art, philosophy, anthropology, history, etc.—remains to be rethought and re-examined on these new premises. Absolutism is not utopian, though, because, as I suggested above, it is always in fact assumed in any discussion of politics, which suggests it is an unspoken desire of all political thinking. When “Germany” speaks with “the United States” there is really nobody who would prefer that whatever agreements “Germany” and “the United States” arrive at would be irrelevant because those who represent either country haven’t the power to enforce them. (And if they have the power to enforce those agreements, they must have the power to enforce much else.) Or, if you would prefer it, it’s because you don’t like either or both countries very much and want to see harm come to them—you certainly wouldn’t prefer it for countries or institutions you care about. Just as it is always assumed, past governments have always approximated absolutism to some degree, especially when they especially needed to, and are therefore rich sources of insights for historical studies. We have no desire to reproduce the ad hoc and unworkable array of “estates,” institutions and rituals of medieval Europe, or the often times desperate absolutisms that tried to tame or abolish them, but we can certainly learn a lot from that history regarding difficulties of re-unifying divided authority. Ancient peoples killed their kings for not ensuring a successful harvest, a practice we won’t be reinstituting, but one displaying a very keen, if primitive, understanding of the centrality of power to any minimally complex social order. Contemporary absolutism wishes to learn from all this historical experience and deliberately establish an absolutist order for what will really be the first time.

May 10, 2017

Absolutism and History

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:33 pm

Modern history begins with the first elites to use the high-low vs. the middle logic first deployed by the king to question the legitimacy of the monarchy itself. The absolutist monarch consolidated power by reducing all subjects to equidistance from his own central power; the next, fairly obvious, step is to ask why we need the king to establish this equidistance from the center. Wouldn’t it be better to have a center actually chosen on the terms of, and thereby confirming, the a priori (and not merely bestowed) equidistance of all subjects from the center? This step, which introduces the public-private, state-citizen distinction (and all the others that follow, such as economics-politics, culture-religion, impartial-partisan, etc.) is also the beginning of the dissimulation of power. To be a private entity is to be officially bereft of any formal power, and hence free of responsibility for the power one exercises. We must see things this way if we see individuals as the basic units of society, in which case all private power is vaguely illegitimate while only being liable to criticism in terms of improper access to and use of state power—which is easier to discover or construct, the more powerful the actor (a major exception that proves the rule here is anti-discrimination law, which criminalizes unapproved of forms of association—but which has set in motion the implosion of the private-public distinction itself, because in the end there is no area of life where we don’t “discriminate.” For example, could anyone provide, in terms of anti-discrimination law, a convincing reason why marriage certificates shouldn’t only be granted to those who marry “others,” however defined?). In this way we all join in the modernizing project of trying to raze all “cabals” to the ground so as to release the free, self-determining, powerless and power-free individuals somehow enchained within them. Prior to this modern project of concealing and dissimulating power, though, the monarchies of Europe had sabotaged themselves by diluting power by entitling individuals who benefited the throne, rather than those who had proven themselves worthy of what should have remained hard won and rarely granted privileges.

So, re-starting the absolutist project means naming powers properly. This imperative unites our historical accounts, our analyses of contemporary politics, our ongoing political projects and a summative ontology and ethics of sovereignty. An absolutist history identifies the dilution and then dissimulation of names for power, along with seeking out the actions and accounts of those who, in the midst of the corruption of names, sought to reattach them to their proper objects—those people are our precursors and models, our “fathers” you might say. Political analysis involves tracing the relations between formal, political, powers, and informal, secondary and therefore unnamed and dissimulated powers. This is complicated because informal powers preserve their power by being informal. We might say, in good formalist/realist fashion, that the New York Times was the press agency of the Obama Administration, and we would be largely right—but if the New York Times admitted that that was what it was, much less if the Obama Administration had officially delegated such duties to them, they would have been completely unable to fulfill them, and hence disempowered. Similarly, if the Ford Foundation stopped sponsoring activist groups, funding academic organizations, various legal defense organizations, think tanks writing up reports on the future of democracy, etc., and called a news conference in which its leadership openly “owned” its power and declared its intention to start exercising it openly, it would lose all of that power. So, we must name the New York Times and the Ford Foundation as delegated powers (looking to the laws and political protection that enable their functioning) that can only exercise their powers (and can only use those powers to exploit and subvert the sovereign that delegated them) as delegated powers dissimulated as informal. The ultimate purpose of the analysis is to show how these delegated powers muddy the chain of command constitutive of sovereignty and, here as well, identify the kinds of actions and inactions that could help clarify the chain of command.

But what most interests me here is the final question, that of the ethics and ontology of absolutism, which can now be seamlessly integrated into history, contemporary analysis and political projects. The starting point of this post was the inaugural post of the post-Reactionary Future blog Neoabsolutism, entitled Neoabsolutism as a Contender for the Title of the Fourth Political Theory. The post is a review of Dugin’s book, in which Dugin distinguishes between the “subjects” of the main three political theories of modernity: the liberal “individual” subject, the communist “class” subject, and the fascist/Nazi nation/race subject. It’s not clear whether Dugin is proposing a new subject for his “fourth political theory,” and if so who it would be, but what is important here is the question of whether neoabsolutism is proposing a new political subject as part of its contention for the fourth political theory, and if so what would that be. After some give and take on our reddit page, I concluded that neoabsolutism (I still prefer “absolutism,” being somewhat allergic to “neos”) is a radical break from modern political theories insofar as, among other things, it eschews the nomination of a historical subject. The political subjects of the other theories are all constituted by some desire for “liberation” from some form of “subjugation,” along a line of “progress” that can never really be accomplished and ultimately serves as a pretext for piling up the body counts. The point of reactionary, and certainly absolutist, thinking, is to be rid of all that world destroying resentment, along with the illusion that the resentment can be harnessed for beneficial social purposes.

Part of the purpose of a historical subject is to generate a historical narrative that one can then enter—the individual struggles against the chains of censorship, persecution and superstition, then against repressive norms of sexuality, against racial prejudice, against the belief in binary genders, etc.; the working class struggles against the capitalist class and its state, and then imperialist encirclement; the nation struggles against formal or informal imperial power, against internal divisions and inherited backwardness, the race struggles against inferior races and the Jews, etc.—very compelling stories can be told using these templates. So, what’s the story of absolutism? It seems to me that what happens in absolutism is that tacit powers and the traditions they bear are explicitly recognized and titled. In a sense this is the fundamental attribute of sovereignty, since a precondition of its primary function of protecting the realm is designating and nominating subordinate powers to assist in doing so. The sovereign names powers and “seals” traditions by authenticating their transfer from previous or other sovereigns and their incorporation into his own sovereignty. Rather than a historical subject, there is an asymmetrically reciprocal exchange between sovereign and subjects, in which subjects seek further recognition and incorporation and the sovereign recognizes value and power legitimately acquired within the approved institutions by designating it and providing it with formal access and audience. This interaction addresses the fundamental anthropological question of resentment, which is always resentment toward the center (if another humiliates me, it is still the central power that allowed that to happen, and therefore failed to give me my due), by providing for public and controlled competition and ambition. So, our present day auditioning and requests for clarification regarding commands and the command structure transitions into a proper order in which such clarification, through an articulation of sovereign designations, is what sovereignty is openly comprised of. There’s no “progress” or historical guarantees here—there’s nothing but continuing attempts to become worthier and make actual hierarchies explicitly acknowledged ones, along with a cultivation of readiness for exceptional action when it becomes possible. No doubt there are and will be compelling stories to tell in accord with this template, however much we may have to rewire our narrative apparatus to tell them.

May 3, 2017

The Journal of Neoabsolutism

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:36 am

A new journal:

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