The Bearer of Sovereignty
Anyone with a political project finds himself speaking, at some point about “mobilization,” which is to say determining who is on your side, who might, under certain conditions, be on your side, how to weigh those who might under those conditions be on your side (as opposed, of course to those who are or might be on the other side) and, of course, how to create those conditions by which they might be on your side along with increasing their weight. The question, then, is what’s the best way of talking about this. The default discourse is derived from liberalism and democratic discourse, and in particular, the language of PR, advertising, polling, and so one which identifies “issues,” which can ultimately framed in terms of some law or court decision, the demographics and underlying “beliefs” of those who care about those issues, and so on. All of this is designed for winning elections, and appealing to donors who are necessary in order to win elections, and frames media discourse and leads to the creation of think tanks and other institutions aimed at studying and modifying public opinion. The basic question is also something like “what can I say to the person with profile X to make it sufficiently likely to make the investment in persuasion worthwhile that that person will vote for candidate Y”? We can easily imagine a dollar per vote calculation underlying efforts at communication.
This is a trap for anyone outside of the liberal consensus because you end up trying to assemble pieces of opinion and sentiment produced under liberalism for the maintenance of liberalism into some new political machinery where they can’t really fit—“we can recruit this anti-abortion blue collar worker who hates racial sensitivity training and whose property values have gone down as a result of a new influx of low wage immigrants to his town if we target him as follows:….” There is always a leap out of liberalism that can’t be accounted for along these lines, and it is very hard to resist the temptation to turn familiar liberal and leftist resentments around and thereby reinforce them (“you’re really the one being discriminated against, the government doesn’t really work for you,” etc.)
If one addresses potential recruits as bearers of sovereignty rather than constituencies or demographics, one might generate new political discourses. Everyone is a subject of some sovereign, which means being loyal to a line of sovereigns with an internally determined line of succession. This is true of everyone—the person who claims to be loyal only to the “rule of law” or the “Constitution” is loyal to those he sees as defenders of the rule of law or Constitution. If you probe sufficiently, you will find a line of succession of true sovereigns and sovereigns in exile—from Bernie Sanders through Barack Obama through Howard Dean, back to Adlai Stevenson, or whoever. Even people who are explicitly loyal to some principle explicitly aimed at blocking the exercise of sovereignty, like free speech or some kind of proceduralism, is really loyal to those occupants of the center who have outfitted themselves with the trappings of those sovereignty blockers. “Principles” in general are just attempts to get ahold of some comprehensible line of succession by establishing constraints on whom the present occupant of the center might claim descent and whom he might deem, implicitly or explicitly, his successor. Most political arguments can really be narrowed down to whom the contemporary contenders have been nominated as successors by and what new line of succession they might establish. Political support is diluted enlistment in an army, or, perhaps, appeasement and servicing of those who are essentially occupying forces. Nobody ever believes their side lost an election “fair and square”—in every case the enemy used overwhelming force of some kind, drawing upon institutions like schools, the media and law enforcement, sometimes going back decades, to create conditions and conceal the truth from potential recruits on one’s own side.
So, the problem is not changing people’s minds by appealing to their principles, much less a list of policy prescriptions (people convinced by this are loyal to a line of pseudo-wonky sovereigns like many recent Democratic candidates in particular)—rather, you have to acculturate them to a new mode of sovereignty embodied in a particular occupant or potential occupant of the center and the line that might flow from him. It’s good to be able to go back a while, all the way back if possible, perhaps to a line of deposed or exiled sovereigns, as long as some viable heir to that throne is available. Other lines need to be diverted into the main line you want to present, along with the histories and traditions of debates, tragedies and triumphs, exemplary figures, and so on. Idealized claims regarding policies and principles need to be relentlessly reduced to traditional loyalties—no one really thinks Social Security is an ideal public retirement fund, and very few people could compare it intelligently to other possible ways of supporting retired workers—they are activated by accusations that the other side wants to take away Social Security because they’ve inherited their grandparents’ fanatical devotion to FDR in his struggle against the usurping plutocrats.
Even while idealized projections get reduced to personalized loyalties, those figures deemed worthy of loyalty have projected onto them the manifold possibilities of sovereignty. The “policies” you would like to see “implemented” get dissolved into the candidate as solvent of blockages to sovereignty. A “health care plan” is a clear chain of command and distributed responsibility for determining the proper articulation of preventative, emergency, regular care along with the association of narrowly health care responsibilities to broader institutional support of fitness, nutritional awareness, self-control and discipline, etc.—the likely sovereign is the one you can imagine bringing in a team capable of organizing such a distribution—or opening up space for someone to come along who can. And there can be no more narrow focus on a few changes in specific governing institutions—since those institutions run everything, the sovereign worth imagining will bring the entire social order in line with his program—otherwise, why sign up?
The building pressure on liberal democracy will come from both sides increasingly totalizing the struggle and implicating all institutions, including electoral ones, in it. This is at least the case in the US, probably in part because the rest of the world, which has obvious stakes in the outcomes of US elections, have themselves been invited into the process by domestic players, albeit highly asymmetrically. Candidates who simply wish to govern will find it necessary to openly solicit loyalists in all institutions, including the military and intelligence agencies, and this will go well beyond the traditional seeking of endorsements and fund raising. Law enforcement and military personnel will no doubt be encouraged to defy or subvert the rule of the opposing party, teachers will be compelled to propagandize for one or another party, social workers and other elements of the state will be directly responsible for engaging their clients on the party’s side; while the other party will work on creating minority factions within institutions controlled by their opponents, with arguments over policies and principles becoming directly mapped on to these very public struggles. Of course, this would really be making more explicit and accelerating what is already happening, which is to the benefit of those who have so far preferred to pretend it isn’t happening. There can’t really be any way back to civil service neutrality—would anyone even know what that looked like, at this point? In contemporary American terms, this means that the Republicans and the right would start openly politicizing the military and police in the same way the Democrats and the left have openly politicized the media, schools and universities. A Republican presidential candidate would be expected to speak less about tax breaks and regulatory reform and more about how he plans to clean out various rats’ nests in the bureaucracy. And fill those spots with supporters. And this, or course, means the return of something like the spoils system, but in a way that goes well beyond graft and towards keeping your enemy closer to jail (or worse) than you are. The need to hold onto power or else would, especially once oscillation slows down as one side gains ascendancy, lead to a far more integrated and coherent “public philosophy.”
So, great tests over sovereignty, in which sovereignty is placed directly on the table, are approaching, and those with a systematic vision of rearticulated institutions will have the advantage, and far more so if they are actively grooming, teaching and training those who will occupy the new positions. This struggle will extend across the new technologies, across what Benjamin Bratton calls “planetary computation,” the “Stack,” an “accidental megastructure.” Those in the Strelka group led by Bratton hope to participate in this struggle, which I sense Bratton sees as less of a struggle than a kind of shaking off of obsolete norms, theories and institutions that hinder the re-organization of the world around universalizing automation and AI—an ambition that is reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s program for “Spaceship Earth.” Of course, the Strelka group has not yet, as far as I’ve seen, said anything particularly concrete about modifying a single sovereign power anywhere in the world, and I suspect their own adherence to obsolete egalitarian and democratic rhetoric will make it especially difficult for them to do so. It’s worth keeping an eye on, but since such ambitions preclude foregrounding the occupant of the center and clearing the pathways of his emanations to the margins, they will likely end up in the paradoxically liberal position of hoping that experts engaged in technology, Veblen’s “industry,” will spontaneously engineer us into a post-political engineered world. Some form of the Green New Deal might be the platform that allows leftist energy to power the engineering fantasy, but is it possible to imagine that woke democratic socialism of the American left will allow the engineers to go about their work, diligently and dispassionately, calculating exactingly the latest readings of carbon part per thousand, rather than sticking it to “racist” Trump supporters? And will any of them be ready to take on capital, which has funded all the anti-labor projects of the victimary left precisely in order to remain in control of the dismantling of the “middle,” i.e., the potential loyalists of an integrated and coherent system of authority?
He who shows himself ready and able to take on capital will in the long run have the best sovereign program. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, an appropriation of the slogan, itself appropriated by Marx, “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities,” can be turned into a powerful criterion. This slogan provides for a comprehensive and dynamic form of inquiry and institution building, as the study of needs and abilities and their various articulations within institutions, orders and individuals, provides both a mode of criticism of existing social forms and a means of producing new needs and abilities. The slogan is utterly inegalitarian—it appealed to Marx precisely as a critique of the concept of “equal rights.” The anti-liberalism of the slogan remains a dead end within communism which, with all its totalitarian centralization, cannot honestly answer the question of who determines what everyone’s needs and abilities amount to.
But the question can be answered from the standpoint of sovereignty: the occupant of center decides, and must be provided with everything he needs so as to be able to distribute power and authority in accord with the needs and abilities required and produced across all levels of the social order. If capitalism is the form of power of those who control a particular set of disciplines and practices, and the space of potential exercise of those disciplines and practices, so as to be able derive income from that control, then to reduce and eventually eliminate the power of capital involves turning that control into delegation. Turning that control into delegation means working to make power and responsibility commensurate, to the extent that this can be done within the existing institutional and legal framework but with an eye toward transforming that framework. This is different from the anti-capitalism of the left, which seeks simultaneously, and maniacally, to disempower while adding on responsibilities. It is better to make all delegations of authority models of the mode of sovereignty capable of establishing such delegations. The articulation of needs and capacities, of power and responsibility, counter capitalism by singling out the specific convergence while also extending into the indefinite future, which will require continual adjustments of the “formula.” Only in the single, central, figure can this convergence be made visible in such a way as the bear the weight of the world insofar as all of us recruits help to bear the weight of sovereignty. So, the appeal to the serried ranks of potential loyalists will always come down to conveying an imperative to put their abilities in play to support this central figure or this locus which some central figure will seize. The “proof” of the centrality of the occupant of the center is that he is able to tighten the reciprocal feedback between the field of needs (to live healthily, but also to live meaningfully in the sense of being able to continually approximate meaning what one says, to excel, to uncover, refine, train and display new abilities) and the field of abilities such that one’s fundamental need is to do what one is able to. The occupant of the center worth devoting oneself to is the one seen “trending” in that direction. You may be disappointed in your devotion, of course, but it is only through the unabashed immersion in sovereign projects that even such disappointment can become a discovery procedure, for yourself and others.