Liberalism is the hysterical making of power unconscious:
I am pointing to an enormous discrepancy between what we are saying and what we are doing in our rights talk—between the constative and the performative effects of that talk. We can formulate the discrepancy as follows: the more the distribution of goods and status is centralized, the more vehemently we deny the existence of any center. Are “rights,” then, real, and is advocacy for them effective?
Shared language is necessary for moral deliberation, but it also implicates hierarchy:
There is no correlation between an increase in rights and an increase in other goods, like human dignity or human flourishing. That is a very difficult claim to defend, of course—or to refute: we would need to have some shared language through which we can evaluate “dignity” and “flourishing.”
But, we don’t have such a shared language, precisely because the effect of the direct relation between state and individual created by the system of rights makes any such shared language impossible: any assertion of shared values or virtues would inevitably privilege one group over others and therefore be the ground for a claim that the former were violating the rights of the latter.
So, if we can agree that being bereft of a shared language for discussing human dignity and flourishing is itself detrimental to human dignity and flourishing, then to that extent at least, I have made the case.
Transgressive charisma requires a selective narrative:
If rights talk has been so beneficial, why must the obvious correlation between the growth of the centralizing state and individual rights be so overlooked? Why are the actual power relations obscured, rather than celebrated?
No group or individual has an interest in an explicit statement of the facts: I do what I can to use the state against those who obstruct or irritate me in some way.
Rights talk constitutes a virtually universally shared, one might say “constitutive,” delusion that is required for the perpetuation of the system. But, the reliance of a political order on hysterical and escalating delusions is an indictment of that order. So, it might be worth the effort to imagine a social order without “rights.”
The Originary Personhood was the Sacred center itself, after which all subsequent human personhood is modeled:
In The End of Culture, Eric Gans’ reconstruction of the center-periphery relations subsequent to the originary scene follows the succession of ostensive, imperative and declarative cultures. What he shows along the way is that the center as an agent is constructed prior to any agency on the margins, with the latter form of agency being modeled on that originally attributed to the center. In his analysis of imperative culture, Gans notes that the memory of the sacred object must conceive of that object as:
“a sacred being that exists above and beyond the concrete manifestations it may take on. The “signified” of the word/gesture of designation has thus become partly independent of its referent. This independence is not merely formal; the imperative is effective only insofar as it is addressed to this “signified,” summoning it to be present. Thus, the sacred being in imperative ritual possesses, in the eyes of the participants, an intentional ability to manifest itself or not.
The asymmetry of the imperative is a step in the direction of establishing symmetry between the sacred being and its worshipers—in a word, of humanizing the sacred. The animal images and masks that we may associate with the imperative level of culture are in fact signs of a growing anthropomorphism. This is the beginning of a development with profound ethical consequences… The ethical conception of the community depends no longer on the mere ad hoc appearance of the sacred being, but on the will of a being whose judgment whether or not to manifest itself in the rite reflects the real cohesion of the community.”
The sacred being at the center exists above and beyond any of its concrete manifestations, it is addressed, it has intentionality, it can choose to be present or not—before any of these capacities are attributed to any of the members of the community. The sacred being is “humanized” before the humans are, it is anthropomorphized before there are humans on which to model the non-human—the human community takes on the attributes by modeling itself on the sacred being it has modeled.
The center precedes the margin in every sense, and if agency on the margins was first constructed by analogy with the agency attributed to the center, it’s hard to see when that would have ceased to be the case. So, my argument above that the presumably individualizing insistence of rights is in fact a way of imagining ever more comprehensive modes of sovereignty, can, if anything, be formulated even more forcefully: any time we designate an individual, event, or activity as protected, in actuality or possibility, by the sovereign, we are in fact modeling the agency of that sovereign. And there is no individual, event or activity in a society governed by a sovereign that could be intelligible other than as protected or proscribed by the sovereign.
The agency of the center is constructed through the ongoing interaction between center and margins. On the originary scene, the center repulses the grasping of the members of the group, compelling them to stand down. The implication from the beginning is that once we have signification, the center is irresistible: there is nothing without the center, and a particular center can only be replaced by another center.
Within imperative culture, the center-margin interaction proceeds through an exchange of imperatives: the members of the community make requests of the center, requests which must ultimately be reducible to the request that the center make itself available; meanwhile, the center issues orders to the members, orders which themselves must be reducible to serving and preserving the center. Any exchanges among the members themselves generate new centers that ultimately “orbit” the sacred center of the community: at the very least, if we are talking about something, we share the same language, and we can look at some object together without falling out, and must therefore share a relation to a prior center.
Finally, declarative culture takes form in narrating and commenting on activities taking place at the center, which involve the central figure providing or failing to provide for the community, with an increasingly complex system of discourse detailing all the different ways the center and the periphery can serve, betray, and disappoint one another. These are tales of the resentment of those on the periphery toward the center. And the secular discourses that emerge from mythological ones, and that are able to place human, mortal figures at the center, are modeled on the agency of the center, while incorporating resentment at being denied centrality themselves.
All resentment is resentment of the center:
Gans has also argued that all resentment is ultimately resentment of the center (“The center as unique locus of significance is by this fact the focus of resentment,” “The Centre,” Chronicle 579). Gans identifies such resentment as being present on the originary scene itself, in the member’s resentment of the center for not presenting itself, for being unavailable while subsisting after the consumption of the object.
The Big Man’s resentful usurpation of the center and how subordinates psychologically model it:
The Big Man’s usurpation of the sacred center, in Gans’ historical account perhaps the most revolutionary act in human history, can be understood as evincing just such a resentment of the center. The sacred center within the egalitarian community could not provide due recognition of the Big Man’s actual status. At the same time, the Big Man’s usurpation resolves some crisis within the community—if the Big Man were just acting on his own desire for centrality, he would have no idea what to do once he acquired it.
It was either him or another contender, or an increasingly destructive struggle amongst various contenders. The Big Man knows, more or less consciously, that he must manage the very resentment that enabled his own elevation, resentment that will now be directed towards him. Resentment within the community is now modeled on this new mode of centrality—it is no longer directed towards the absent center for not presenting itself, but towards the occupant of the center precisely for occupying it and thereby denying my own centrality (which I model on his).
We should note the paradoxical nature of this resentment, which depends upon its object for self-definition: the more the Big Man preserves his own centrality, the more I am being denied my own. In archaic forms of sacred kingship, this takes the form of conferring ever more significance upon the king, who mediates between the community and the cosmos; while at the same time making the king far more vulnerable, as he is now responsible for any misfortune that befalls the community, and can fairly easily be removed by precisely the same kind of unanimous confrontation with the center through which humanity first emerge.
Christianity brought on the omnicentrism of modern liberal-democratic orders:
Gans focuses on the Axial Age acquisitions Judaism and Christianity, and sees their rejection of a sacrificial center and creation of a universal morality as the basis for the ultimate unfolding of liberal democratic market society. Each individual becomes a center with liberalism and the market model. Gans’ analyses of Romanticism, in which individuals present themselves as universally excluded from society in order to create a style or mode of being that enables them to circulate within society, lay the ground for his understanding of the omnicentrism of liberalism.
Gans makes perhaps his most unequivocal claim along these lines in the conclusion of Originary Thinking: “[t]he historical movement of desacralization operates neither through the endless deconstruction of the originary center nor through its definitive rejection, but through its omnicentric multiplication. Even ‘decentralization’ is a dangerous term; what is required is rather the universal proliferation of centers—every human being a center.”
But, as Gans also recognizes, someone will always present himself centrally first, so omnicentrism is as asymmetrical as the modern market Gans theorizes in his essay “On Firstness”: “market exchange maintains a permanent distinction between production and consumption, creating a permanent asymmetry between the consumer and the producer,” creating new forms of resentment. The paradox of market omnicentrism, then, is that it is the production system that produces the very forms in which new centers, denouncing that production system, are projected.
If this highly asymmetrical omnicentrism does not lead to violence it must be because a powerful central state ensures that it doesn’t: indeed, consider how strong and centralized the state must be, and what a civilized political culture it must have inculcated, for the romanticist and later modernist cultural entrepreneurs to have flouted social norms so blatantly not only with impunity but for fame and profit.
Gans’ liberal-democratic politics, meant to assuage the asymmetry of the market, has no mechanisms of properly doing so, as there is not the necessary inverted asymmetry within massed democracy:
The system, as proposed here by Gans, can only work if the “measures” proposed to “assuage” the resentments of the various individuals and groups in the social order actually do so. But, why should we assume that those measures do, on balance, “assuage”? They can only do so if they are reasonable measures, effectively implemented, and if the legitimacy of decisions made by those implementing is accepted sufficiently to prevent the emergence of violent factions.
Does the democratic system provide ground for assuming that any of this will be the case—that the measures will be reasonable, that they will be monitored beyond the minimal necessity of showing that a response has been made to some highly publicized resentment, that institutions and agencies are in place to implement the measures effectively, that they will be accepted by those by whom they must be accepted (rather than, for example, taken as a down payment for the next set of measures)?
If the measures are actually implemented in such a way as to assuage, it will be in spite of, not because of, democracy: it will be because authority has been granted to institutions that is not revocable on a regular basis. But, if reasonable measures can only be carried out by institutions placed, if only by convention, beyond direct public accountability, how is the functioning of those institutions improved by providing them with the task of “assuaging” in the first place?
In other words, to the extent that governing institutions are trusted it is insofar as much of their operation remains beyond the reach of liberal and democratic demands, but this is what liberalism and democracy are unable to accept. Everything must eventually be politicized.
The Sovereign as the prime mediator of linguistic reality:
What generates power, and gives one person power over others? Here as well, we must think in terms of proximity to the center. The first instance of human power was on the originary scene, where a group of newly formed humans collectively deferred their desire and allowed a new reality to emerge at the center. This provides us with a model of human power: creating realities by following the lead of the object at the center of shared attention, rather than rivalrous desires.
Power is always differential because some members of any group, in any situation, will exhibit greater powers of deferral: they will be able to stop and examine a situation while others are rushing in, and they will have the patience to wait and see when the unfolding reality provides an opening for action. To the extent that the group is successful, they will follow those exhibiting a greater power of deferral, which means those individuals will have the power, and, ultimately a single individual will have the power because someone must exhibit the greatest power of deferral.
Power is an interpretation of the demands of the center, and the center can only demand one thing at a time: whoever best articulates that demand governs, regardless of how close others might have been to doing so. This need not exclude all kinds of consultation, and an awareness of the needs and resentments of others in the group will make the exercise of power more steady and secure, but I am making a kind of absolute ontological claim here: whenever many act together, we can identify a single leader who makes every decision that counts.
If common action seems consensual, that just means that a strong sense of common goals and a shared ability to set aside rivalries masks the fact that, perhaps in a somewhat more subtle way, someone is taking the lead at every point where a disagreement is possible; if different people decide at different times, that means that either group is changing configuration while there is always a single head, or that the head has implicitly or explicitly delegated decision making power to others or, perhaps, that the group is in process of splitting up.
Power is therefore also a relationship: as soon as power is in someone’s hands, he is obliged to continue to exhibit and even enhance his powers of deferral. He is now responsible for his fellows, and he must treat and respond to them as the center would have him do, setting aside his own resentments in the process. He must register and represent their resentments of him as occupant of the center: each will, at times, believe that he or she could better play the central role, and sometimes some of them may be right. The holder of power has to convert these resentments into new forms of cooperation, emulation and friendly competition.
Only the de facto Sovereign is capable of choosing his successor:
Power must be distributed and transferred, and this can be done only by those who hold power.
The transfer of power is the more difficult problem. Whoever has seized the center may eventually become less fit than others to wield that power, or at the very least must eventually die. Here, we see the paradox of power in its fullest form. My analysis so far has suggested that power must ultimately be held by a single member of the community, who is in turn responsible for its distribution.
Needless to say, every new power holder does not revisit every decision ever made on which person is to occupy which position; rather, by allowing many, most, or all to continue in their positions, he now takes responsibility for the decisions that put them there in the first place and demonstrates his faith in the judgment of those who exercised power before him. Every member of the community knows, more or less explicitly, that there must be someone occupying the center, but part of the way each knows this is through his resentments directed toward the center.
That the temporary holder of power holds it on popular sufferance is seen by democracy advocates as a virtue, but in fact those without power can have no way of knowing how those with power should use it. All anyone can know authoritatively is the sphere of activity in which he participates, along with the specific mode of power allocated to him for that purpose.
Elections formalize and make explicit the dependence of the power holder on those he leads or governs, but they do so in the worst possible way, outside of the context of the responsibilities and powers of the subjects themselves. The dependence of power upon its base is far better formalized through modes of consultation through which all members of the community act as eyes and ears of the sovereign and communicate to him through established channels. Finally, elections inevitably raise the question of rights, first of all the right to vote: who should be allowed to vote? What age is the cut-off? What about foreigners?
The introduction of rights talk means that any attempt to establish a responsible, qualified, invested electorate will be undermined and replaced by universal suffrage. Universal suffrage seems to empower everyone maximally, but it just ensures that no serious decisions can be left to be decided by the electoral process, making it necessary to manage, limit, deceive and ignore in turn the expressed desires of the majority; indeed, the electorate gets turned into proxies of those who actually exercise power, as they fight their battles with their rivals, and themselves ultimately become incapable of fulfilling the functions of an elite.
That still leaves the problem of power transfer unsolved. This problem can’t be solved by some formal mechanism of selection, since any formal method will be open to interpretation and manipulation and, like any rule, must have its exceptions. The problem is that the transfer of power must involve initiation into power, which means that the occupant of central power must take on the responsibility for recruiting and initiating candidates for succession; but in doing so will he not be raising potential rivals, of each other as well as him, with no filial sympathy of obligation to the sovereign but having been told by that sovereign that he might be a worthy successor?
The solution is to gear the entire social order towards the resolution of the problem of power transfer. The meaning of social life, the telos of the social order, is to ensure the orderly transfer of power to the worthiest successor. Every institution has its purpose, which constitutes its center: to educate, to protect, to do research, to produce some good or service, to excel in some activity. In each case, a power hierarchy is established in the way I have been describing through my discussion of power—the power hierarchy serves the end of the institution, which is why it deserves the respect of the members.
The purpose of the sovereign is to ensure that all institutions maintain the form of power proper to their respective purposes. In turn, all institutions report to the sovereign and contribute to the initiation of prospective successors, chosen by a process overseen by the sovereign and no doubt institutionally based, on the model of military academies, officer schools and other highly selective elite-promotion institutions.
A disciplinary space for power transfer: how to avoid both imperium in imperio and bad rulership:
Making this distinction between commands from and obligations to the sovereign, on the one hand, and participating in the process of initiation of potential sovereigns, on the other hand, is, then, the most fundamental tribute to the center paid in a “rightless” system. This distinction will run through all institutions, practices and discourses, in various ways, explicit and implicit. But, it then follows that all assessment and even policing of social activities will involve detecting and deferring breaches of the boundary between the present sovereign and the future of sovereignty.
The distinction in question presupposes that the only thing that stands outside of sovereign power is the paradox of power itself, which is in fact instantiated in the temporalizing of sovereignty. Degeneration in governance and disloyalty will be effects of and contribute to the treating of potential sovereigns as present or imminent sovereigns. The social order will develop “specialists” in making the distinction, which is to say specialists in the paradox of power.
In identifying the paradoxical nature of power in a way that the sovereign can never completely grasp in the act of exercising power, the disciplines potentially set themselves against the sovereign. After all, they have pledged themselves to a center older and higher than the sovereign center, and must judge the sovereign center to be lacking in comparison. We can already see the implications of this construct in the relations between the prophets and kings in the Hebrew Bible, but the potential becomes full-blown reality in the European Christian Middle Ages.
From a strictly theoretical point of view, all of modern political thinking, most especially the “rights talk” I began this essay by discussing, emerges out of this ultimately unsolvable problem: the sovereign is God’s regent on earth, which makes him subordinate to God’s will; but God’s will can only be interpreted by God’s representatives on earth, creating from the very beginning the elements of dual sovereignty, or imperium in imperio. This division is what provides the opening to modern liberal and democratic politics, which simply replace “God’s will” with the “people,” or the “individual,” or the “nation,” or the “oppressed,” or the “workers,” or some other entity in positing a “real” sovereign to which the actual sovereign must defer.
All of modern politics involves trying to subordinate the actual sovereign to one or another version of supposed “real” sovereignty. The implicit, real, sovereign is who has given one one’s “rights.” Behind the scenes are rival powers using these purported legitimations to pin the actual sovereign to their own mapping of actual onto real sovereignty. The state is centralized, power is accumulated, the state becomes a bigger prize, power is more insecure, and the government does less and less governing.
The Axial Age revelations regarding the paradox of power can be integrated into a secure social order by situating the disciplines within institutions, and charging them with maintaining the distinction between present and future sovereignty. In this way they provide feedback to the sovereign without claiming to answer to some higher authority. Any command can be obeyed in different ways, and the more open-ended the command the more the servant is confronted with the distinction between its “letter” and “spirit.”
The disciplines display their loyalty to the sovereign by presenting their obedience to the particularly open-ended charges they are given as in the “highest” spirit of the sovereign—in this way, they never place themselves outside of sovereign power while “reading” the sovereign’s commands back to him (declaratively) in a way that enables him to sharpen his own understanding of the intent informing them. This is the most basic form taken by the paradox of power: that the one commanding is himself constituted by the ways his command will be taken up.
As Gans shows in his analysis of the imperative in The Origin of Language, for the one commanding the command is essentially an ostensive, a sign whose very issuance generates the reality it indicates; for the one receiving the command, meanwhile, the imperative represents a desire, which by its nature can never be fulfilled in the exact form in which it was conceived. The disciplines stand in this gap between the ostensive and desiring dimensions of the imperative. The disciplines also represent, then, the solution to the other problem endemic to autocratic rule: how to remove the manifestly unfit ruler. The disciplines go as far as they can in making the ruler fitter, while in the last extremity they might work counter to the usual process and transfer their loyalty to one of the potential sovereigns.
Of course, there are dangers implicit here, but that is the case with any social order comprised of desiring and resentful beings, and we would have to rely upon the people produced within such an order having the intelligence, responsibility—in sum, the sovereign imaginary—to go through the established layers of trust (first of all the sovereign, but then those whom the sovereign himself has trusted…) in such a way as to maintain the singularity of the center. The founding assumption that the occupant of the center must not be subject to any “higher” or “more real” form of sovereignty is preserved.
The study of the paradox of power would be the social science, taking many forms and treating all social institutions as its “laboratories.” Needless to say, the kind of experimentation possible with the disciplines of physics, chemistry and (with some limitations) biology are inapplicable to social relations. The “praxical” study of social order takes the form, rather, of making the norms, rules, hierarchies, and, again, the sovereign imaginary followed tacitly by everyone, more explicit. And then a little more explicit.
When anomalies emerge, new practices need to be acknowledged. The center is served and “verified” by naming practices, entities and agencies that have so far gone unnoticed and unacknowledged. Those in the disciplines invent names and take on names that bring more of the tacit to light, and allows it to be authorized and recuperated within the system.
There is no reason to give up economic prosperity to have a politically stable order; spheres of corporate enterprise and concentric delegations will continue:
By now, the only remaining justification for the liberal order seems to be that it has made us rich (claims that it makes us freer are, it seems to me, made much more tentatively and taken much less seriously these days—when Twitter, Facebook and Google are rejiggering their algorithms to marginalize “problematic” sites and users, the mask of power is thinning rapidly)—so far, at least, we are still wealthier than the Chinese.
It may very well be that the liberal governance of the 19th and early 20th century provided a space for the extraordinarily rapid and comprehensive industrialization of Western societies. The loosening of sovereign order allowed a few very talented, very intelligent, and sometimes very sociopathic individuals to exploit the simultaneous rapid centralization of those societies to put scientific and engineering disciplines to work in unprecedented ways. There is no need to surrender any of these acquisitions, even if we think that the social order which provided a hothouse for their development by now (at least) causes far more harm than the benefits offered by technological advances it still enables (in increasingly limited ways).
There is also every reason to support some kind of market, but one constrained (as every market has always been constrained) by the needs of sovereign power. At the very least, for example, the sovereign wants all the means needed for maintaining armed and police forces (weapons, the science and technology needed to produce weapons, the raw materials—metals, sources of energy—information technology and so on) to remain at hand. And the corporate form, with deep roots in Western culture, which involves the chartering of enterprises (mostly but by no means only economic) by the sovereign, provides a structure for managing relations between economic units and the state.
In chiasmatically creating new discourse, start with the material failures of liberalism:
Not too much thought should be given to the specifics of post-liberal social order—doing so just creates disputes that cannot be settled. Liberal theory is a very aggressive, uncompromising and universalizing theory, and is very difficult to confront head on without getting involved in its own paradoxes.
What can be done, though, is to display the wreckage liberalism leaves in its wake: as an idea, what is most basic to liberalism is the autonomy of the individual relative to social obligations and traditions; liberalism, therefore, must function as a battering ram against all obligations and traditions (and, by now, even biological reality). This destructive activity is constant and extensive, because all of our social reality is constituted through obligations and traditions.
In the present moment, in particular, the wreckage is piling up in ways that can no longer be avoided or denied without very obtrusive media and state intervention and manipulation: families broken by feminism, nations broken by immigration and free trade, individuals broken by consumerism and de-industrialization, institutions and communities broken by victimary viciousness.
Those material failures of liberalism are ultimately due to the catastrophic failures liberalism causes in language itself:
But, more important than all this material and social wreckage, in fact, inclusive of it, is the breaking of meaning effected by liberalism. I mean “meaning” in the most literal sense here: liberalism makes it less and less possible for people to say what they mean, or to mean anything at all, at least if they want to communicate and circulate within the existing order. By “meaning,” what I mean is that there is a shared ostensive that “seals” any discourse. The shared ostensive doesn’t have to be a thing in the world, a referent—it can just as readily be a concept, or a distinction between things.
If I note something about “the roof on that house over there,” it’s easy enough to see where the meaning lies: you can direct your attention to where I am drawing it and see whatever I saw as noteworthy about the roof of that house we can both see. Meaning is established rather differently in a scientific discipline organized around experimental protocols. But, what provides for meaning in social order is the conjunction of power and accountability.
The more we all know who is responsible for making things happen, and the more those people actually do make those things happen, the more meaningfully we can speak. The presumption of a shared order is just as necessary for more abstract and theoretical discussions, which depend upon a shared intellectual tradition, shared texts, a range of known interpretations of those texts, institutions that perpetuate the study of those texts, and so on.
The problem with “rights” is that they’ve taken on a meaning that’s precisely intended to evacuate all social connection:
“Rights” can make sense to the extent that they are themselves embedded in social obligations and traditions—for example, the “rights” peasants may have “acquired” over the centuries to use some part of the master’s land for grazing their animals. But, we haven’t spoken about “rights” like that in a very long time, a fact that itself testifies to the wreckage liberalism has wrought on the language: now, “rights” above all refer to claims on others with no basis in tradition or established social obligations; indeed, that is their justification, that those traditions and obligations have constituted unjust exercises of power, marginalization and exclusion upon those expected to respect them.
“Right” is coming to refer to some demand no one would have thought of before hearing it, and yet which (or for that very reason) indicts the entire social order of crimes beyond reparation. The point of rights talk now is to generate new forms of power, to be enforced by new centralizations of the state power, informed by new splinterings of power centers grasping at access to state power. The corrosive effects work through all political language but eventually all language, to the point where if you make sense in a liberal order, you make sense in spite of and against that order: by creating a space where discourse can be shared and contained.
Absolutist praxis as being those who participate in the disciplinary space of power transfer:
So, what is to be done? Infiltrate the most proximate discipline. Study its origin in the paradox of power [paradox because power exercised is not the same as its later representation, which is known as Originary Mistakenness and is the cause for the different modes of language].
Make the paradox of power explicit where it is now tacit. Become a living, breathing sign of the paradox of power. Listen very carefully for commands from the center. Wait until the center is made singular again, and initiates a new distribution. Be ready to commemorate the transfer of power.
Full text: http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap2302/2302katz/