Struggles for Sovereignty
“Sovereignty is conserved,” says Moldbug. “You can spread it around, though, but don’t expect to enjoy the result.” He says this in the context of the early Arab Spring, and in light of more recent history, one can see why “spreading around” sovereignty is to be avoided. However, I’m not sure that “to spread around” is the correct verb for our direct object in this context. It seems to me that the various Arab Springs, from Egypt to Syria, have unleashed a struggle for sovereignty. To what extent can we say that any one side of the struggle, in either country, possesses a stable sovereignty over the other sides? To no extent at all. Otherwise, there would be no real struggle. What we see in the Middle East is what happens when sovereignty (e.g., Mubarak’s and Assad’s governments) is shattered, leaving a power vacuum in its wrecked wake. The vacuum is filled with forces coming from all sides, and whoever fills it ultimately exchanges the force with which they filled it for a more lasting power. Sovereignty over the others.
I’ll revise this in two seconds, but for now, the “struggle for” sovereignty in a power vacuum is not the same as “spreading around” sovereignty that already exists, which, in my mind, is synonymous with an attempt to bind sovereignty by not allowing it to come formally to rest in any one unconstrained person or oligarchy. Nick Land’s description of the American constitution:
. . . the founders envisaged the grounding principle of republican constitutionalism as a division of powers, whereby the component units of a disintegrated sovereignty bound each other. The animating system of incentives was not to rest upon a naive expectation of altruism or voluntary restraint, but upon a systematically integrated network of suspicion, formally installing the anti-monarchical impulse as an enduring, distributed function. If the republic was to work, it would be because the fear of power in other hands permanently over-rode the greed for power in one’s own.
The ongoing debate, recently rekindled, is over whether or not real political sovereignty can, in fact, bind itself. What does the binding? If the answer is “constitutional rules,” then there is a chance that power can indeed be bound, albeit with difficulty. If the answer is, “Don’t you mean who does the binding,” then clearly, as Moldbug argues, sovereignty is always conserved—whoever does the binding on the sovereign is himself (or are themselves) the sovereign.
Now, to spread around sovereignty is to bind sovereignty . . . but no, that’s not right at all, or, anyway, it’s only half-right. Is not the Cathedral’s power “spread around”? In the Cathedral itself, is there not a tripartite division of power, three component units of disintegrated sovereignty, formalized as the Media, the USG, and Academia, each of which, within itself, contains further divisions of power? But these divisions are not there to constrain the Cathedral’s power over the West.
There are two ways to understand the concept of rules that bind sovereignty.
1. Rules that bind the sovereign.
2. Rules that constrain the struggle for sovereignty so that no would-be sovereigns can ever rule permanently or wholly, or take over violently.
I think the original intent of the U.S. constitution had (2) in mind, not (1). Of course, (2) assumes that different actors on opposing teams are always trying to attain power. What happens when all the actors are, as it were, on the same team?
Look again at Nick Land’s quote above. I think the crux of the paragraph comes at the end, not at the beginning. “A division of powers” or “component units” are necessary but insufficient elements of a disintegrated sovereignty in which each unit or division is bound by the other. The sufficient elements are “networks of suspicion” and “fear of [the others’] power.”
Per (2) above, constitutional rules only bind power in the USG when there is a real struggle for power, when those playing the game honestly want to see different outcomes—I win, the rest of you lose. Perhaps we can read The Federalist Papers (more generously than I have in the past) as the rules that peacefully constrain the struggle for sovereignty. More, they lay down rules that not only constrain the struggle for sovereignty but also ensure that no single victor can ever emerge wholly or permanently. Absent such rules, the struggle for sovereignty looks like Syria. With such rules, the struggles for state control are always constrained—everyone wants to win, but no one really can, at least not for good—so absolute sovereignty is constrained de facto. If a particularly bad administration comes to power, the country just needs to ride it out for a few years while the gathering forces against it do their work via the proper, procedural, and, most importantly, peaceful channels.
But as I said, this game of constraint, this division of power, only works if you actually have different teams competing in the game. Our constitutional rules are constraining the current players . . . but all the players are on the same team.
Sovereignty binds itself through constitutional rules = There are rules in place to constrain the struggles for sovereignty within a state
When the competing political actors all more or less resemble one another, all the rules do is to procedurally maintain housekeeping and settle minor tactical disputes.
Once the struggling political actors are struggling for more or less the same thing—once all the would-be sovereigns share the same vision of sovereignty—then it doesn’t matter a whit that power is formally divided. The “networks of suspicion” and “fear of others power” no longer exist in any meaningful way (if they ever did?).
It doesn’t matter that the system was set up to ensure the game never ended because now the game doesn’t need to end. The victories of one side are either indistinguishable from those of the other side, or they move the country in the same direction, albeit at different speeds. The opposing teams are not enemies struggling for power but, say, departments in a corporation competing for an annual sales prize on more or less friendly terms.
Corporate divisions of power work because (pardon the Jesse Jackson-ism here) the divisions share a same vision. Rarely will you find a corporation in which one department is full of people trying to completely change or overhaul the company. So too with the Cathedral. The divisions of power are not checks on power because no one is competing to overthrow the Cathedral; the divisions exist to “spread around” or perhaps “spread out” the Cathedral’s power in all the directions that matter, for the benefit of the Cathedral in general. Power plays within it are not power plays against it. So, in the game of American and, more generally, Western politics, the continuing play on the field is now for the benefit of the spectators, who think a game is still being played in earnest by sides who really are different from the other sides, who really are competing against one another. By and large, they aren’t.
Can sovereignty bind itself without the existence of another, greater sovereign to do the binding? I’ve ignored this question for now. Instead, I’ve tried to explore the idea of bound sovereignty by shifting what we usually mean by that term—binding sovereignty can also mean constitutional rules designed to peacefully constrain struggles for sovereignty. It seems to me that the American founding fathers were concerned with controlling these potential struggles, so that armed and violent revolutions didn’t happen every decade or two, and so whoever did attain a degree of sovereignty could be kept in check by others who had attained degrees of it elsewhere in the divided government. Networks of suspicion and fear.
The fathers failed to assume, however, that, at some point in the future, a meaningful struggle would cease to exist, that all powerful actors in the public and political spheres would not differ too widely in ideology or direction, that there would be a sovereign who exists without meaningful competition. The other, Moldbuggian question of bound sovereignty is so difficult because it’s so new, so unprecedented.
Can the Cathedral be bound at all by what remains of the West’s constitutions? If so—if it can be meaningfully challenged—then that’s a good sign for the constitutionalists among us. The upcoming decade will be interesting. For the first time since 1945 in Europe (since 1865 in America), something like real political challengers have arisen. How will they fare? The Tea Party gained a modicum of power via proper, peaceful, constitutional channels, as did Golden Dawn. If Golden Dawn goes the way of the Tea Party, however, I think we can give up all hope of sovereignty’s ability to constrain itself through constitutional rules.
ADDED: One of Nick Land’s comments at Outside In is pertinent. At certain points, perhaps I’m too hastily conflating Power and Sovereignty:
It’s tempting to equate ‘sovereignty’ and ‘power’, but it leads to confusion. Power is quantitative and hierarchical — the existence of a superior authority does not negate power. Power is not diminished by being exceeded. (It is like wealth in this respect.) Sovereignty is different — it is by its essential nature ultimate. Sovereignty belongs exclusively to the final authority in a chain of command (whilst power is distributed unevenly throughout it).
‘Power is conserved’ means that there is always final authority.