Chris B writes:
From this point on the onus will be assumed to be on advocates of anarchistic ontology to resolve their logical failures and not on opponents to take it on dogmatic faith that it is correct. Further to this, I will contend that if we attempt to treat these thinkers outlining an anarchistic ontology at face value then we fall into a grave error, as such an argument is not in any way logically correct, but works in reality as a rhetorical device for the expansion of political power.
i will attempt to address these claims.
of course, we’ve been around neo-absolutism repeatedly here (1, 2, 3, 4), and i have drifted little if at all from the positions i held in those posts. but i think i hadn’t reached the core of the dispute between anarchy and absolutism before getting to Chris’s article from last May. simply put, what divides both views is a question of scale: anarchism is meant to be scale-free, absolutism has been silent about scale.
i. the pitfalls of the absolute
There is always someone who is above law and always someone who decides on exceptions which breach written constitutions, or so called rule by law.
this is possibly the central tenet of absolutism: at all times and places, someone is above the law. put otherwise, someone is exempt from the consequences of the law, because he’s the arbiter and the executor. this implies such a sovereign is all-powerful within his realm. he can act as he wishes, and is the only truly free person in the realm.
a question quickly arises as to the pragmatics of this stance. how is this unchecked power implemented in reality? bullets don’t shoot themselves out of mere brainwaves. the foremost anarchist critique of absolutism is thus: the sovereign cannot will himself into sovereignty. the avatar of sovereignty isn’t the ground of sovereignty.
there are natural laws which cannot be broken or disregarded, no matter how mighty a monarch might be. moreover, there are natural laws of power, so that an unwise ruler will quickly cease to be a ruler if he starts thinking his mind molds reality.
going further, absolutist theory’s failure to separate the empirical sovereign—the local and particular circumstance of a single person—from sovereignty itself, i.e. the inability to realize that the conditions of an experience aren’t themselves experimental, shows up in a naive understanding of agency:
We can nevertheless make the claim that [the sovereign] must be a single person. We can do this on the basis that in resting the state of exception on the act of making a decision Schmitt makes the state of exception one which requires a human agent to make such a decision.
what is one to do with this under-(or rather non)-examined “agency”? a human agent floats free of all influence, incentive, passion or reason? is there no outside to the human sovereign? the monarch in the absolutist account seems to take the place of God: the immobile motor. as is usual with such question, infinite regression shows up:
All monarchs, or rulers, issue forth from the authority of the ruler of the society in question or come from external authority.
and yet, no inquiry into this transcendental ground of sovereignty is ever conducted. worse still, it’s not even recognized.
the dogmatic assertion of the existence of a single, human, personal sovereign everywhere also begins to indulge itself into a complicated double bind: if nothing below the will of the sovereign matters in social theory, how come it’s so complex to find this will?
Now, trying to identify the specific sovereign at any point with any accuracy in a governmental structure that is massively degraded will be almost impossible. Such an endeavor would require taking a snapshot of the society in question then tracing exactly who in that given instance represented the individual who held the position of deciding if a state of exception pertained. This is unfeasible due to its complexity. The alternative is to approach such a problem in a generalised way. We may not be able to pinpoint the exact person, but we may be able to generally locate the center of power in which the sovereign at any moment may reside on a probability basis.
the very text already starts to admit that maybe an investigation of the mechanisms (impersonal rules) of sovereignty is called for. what else an “snapshot” of society would be? and thus the questions of ‘consent’ arises:
In an absolutist account, sovereignty is clearly delineated by the monarch being in possession of the territory over which they are sovereign. All subsequent property distribution must by necessity be derivative of this possession and all actions which occur within this territory are the ultimate responsibility of the monarch. In contrast, an anarchistic ontological account presents the sovereign as an entity which has been agreed upon by the property owners of a given territory, who then may violate the property of the property owners for the property owners own benefit.
‘possession’ cannot be exerted by a single person beyond much more than a square meter. if the monarch has primary property over a certain territory, this is in virtue of the particular kind of organization he heads—the proper organized power it wields—rather than his own individual, personal powers. there is no ring of Fnargl. if that’s the case, then again an examination of the mechanisms of sovereign power is in order. an examination which might very well include some kind of ‘consent’ by the various nodes that compose such mechanisms.
which leads us to the questions of division of power and constitutions, that we have previously touched upon:
The idea of division of power, and rule of law, in the western tradition is then rendered an incoherent mess when placed in the absolutist ontology because in effect all that one has done when claiming that such a government is possible is to erect an elaborate façade over a monarchical governance structure, and increased the velocity of change between monarchs.
not so much an ‘incoherent mess’ then?
as i have previously showed, division of power is the underlying reality of any real social power, given that the limitations of immediate personal power. of course, contrary to many modern, but also ancient claims, the nature of particular social configurations is a matter of empirical observation, rather than fiat. a work of fiction isn’t a social machinery.
ignoring such a social machinery is to willfully blind oneself to reality. and wise rulers know that, which is why liberalism triumphed in modernity. even Chris seems to recognize it:
Its hegemonic success is explainable by its value to power, and not to any inherent coherence or correctness.
it would very much interest me (and i think many other realists) if this distinction between “value to power” and “correctness” could be developed. it reeks of Humean “is-ought divide”, and as such it doesn’t seem tenable.
at the core, the problem seems to be that the neo-absolutist position is held in a double bind: if the sovereign properly abstracts away all of the social meanders out of which it arises, then what matters is the anarchistic relation among different sovereigns. if that level of analysis is refused, because “anarchist ontology is incoherent” (i.e., can’t be universally parsed), then one is back at examining the workings of social power that constitute the sovereign – which will necessarily rely on things like ‘assent of the subjects’, a staple of anarchist thought.
you can’t win against reality.
ii. the un-ground of power
as many critics of liberalism, Chris reaches insights about anarchist ontology that most adepts fail to notice. his characterization of liberalism as a face-effacer is a gem worth preserving:
Liberalism is an intellectual system singularly adept at self-effacing the sovereign from the passive sentence
anarchist ontology, first and foremost, avoids taken for granted what it is tasked with explaining. if the sovereign is an impersonal process, rather than any of the masks it might take, removing the faces and seeking their conditions of possibility is the first step. through no other means are the subterranean undercurrents that shape fate excavated even a little.
in focusing at removing, or subtracting, the unnecessary and accidental until a wall is hit, liberalism slowly establishes itself as tradition of critique, or escape. as Chris puts it:
Tradition in the MacIntyrean sense is a body of ideas which provide a system within which the rationality of a given concept is rendered intelligible, and which is subject to continual alteration, discussion, and development.
Such a conception of tradition would apply to liberalism as much as any other body of thought because liberalism has been singularly unable to provide an abstract, contextless, and universal ground for its premises. Liberalism, as such, is a tradition which continually denies, or rather seeks to escape, being a tradition.
at the edge, anarchist ontology seeks the un-ground of power – the realistic source, beyond all mere wishes, from which any ability to produce yields. it incrementally (or, progressively, in a strictly proudhonian sense) found the hints of such un-ground in variation-selection dynamics, or simply “war“. this scale-free framework, implexing itself throughout the universe’s evolution, gives rise and tide to all monarchs, presidents, tyrants and fatherlands.
anarchist ontology, thus, proceeds by breaking up whole into fractal fragments in competition – the only way any order can be produced. thus, it’s not only that the order of the social necessarily falls back on the competition among its individual components, but that the order within the individuals itself falls back on pre-individual components in competition. up above and down below, it’s individualities and collectivities.
at any level, realism is chasing the game, rather than the players.