I watched Ken Burns’ Prohibition a few months ago, and ever since, I’ve been trying to write a post about it. It’s an excellent documentary.
Burns, as far as I can tell, is the kind of progressive (not a radical) whose white guilt doesn’t run too deep and whose progressivism is honestly built on idealism rather than resentment. However, he is still a progressive. I was therefore surprised at the honesty of Prohibition, which makes it perfectly clear that the 18th amendment came from the same progressive furor that brought us abolition and women’s suffrage.
Sailer points out in today’s Taki column that the coupling of women’s suffrage and prohibition seems odd to us today. If we expand the coupling to a trifecta—women’s suffrage, prohibition, abolition—the one in the middle seems even more out of place. If we expand it even further—women’s suffrage, prohibition, abolition, federal income tax, democratic election of senators, labor laws—then we have the pantheon of the early progressive religion. But only one of them failed. And today, ironically, prohibition, the progressive failure, stands in many people’s minds as the example par excellence of inappropriate (read: conservative) federal intrusion into local life. That abolition, federal income tax, labor laws, or women’s suffrage might likewise be examples of federal intrusions into local life is an insane right-wing suggestion.
Some cleric at Slate writes:
This is one of the first strange flecks of gray in this story. The proponents of Prohibition were primarily progressives—and some of the most admirable people in American history, from Susan B. Anthony to Frederick Douglass to Eugene V. Debs.
What? Huh? An amendment designed to engineer a utopian society, to tell an entire nation how to conduct itself, was a progressive amendment? The hell you say!
But Burns’ documentary makes the connection very explicit. It quotes many famous progressives—from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Frederick Douglass—for their support of prohibition. Burns also draws the same point drawn obliquely by Sailer in today’s article: prohibition was the brainchild of small-town northern WASPs (i.e., Yankees) with nothing better to do:
[Mencken] advocated aristocratic disdain of the democratic ethos of the small-town America that had produced William Jennings Bryan, supporter of women’s suffrage and Prohibition . . .
Some people might want to place the eruption of an explicit American progressivism in the 1960s. But Prohibition argues that it should be placed at the turn of the 20th century. Well, yes—that was, after all, the Progressive Era. As I’ve noted elsewhere, there are two types of progressive beliefs in the West: the belief in moral progress, and the belief in technological progress. We should not conflate the two beliefs. Speaking morally, then, the fruit of the American Progressive Era is quite rotten: I give you the 16th Amendment (collection of federal income tax), the 17th Amendment (the final nail in the coffin of state sovereignty), the 18th Amendment (prohibition!), and the 19th Amendment (women’s suffrage).
Rotten, yes, but all part of the same progressive cornucopia. If the 18th amendment does not today seem to belong, it is a testament to leftist propaganda that it seems wrongly placed. Prohibition has been completely flushed down the memory hole. Ask any man on the street in 2013 whether the national prohibition of alcohol was a conservative or a progressive goal, he will probably say “conservative.” Burns’ documentary sets the record straight, and Steve’s article reiterates the point.
Like the idea of the ‘Cathedral,’ the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution should be re-purposed as a piece of neoreactionary agitprop. Wherever possible, we need to use it as the example par excellence of . . . progressivism. No one likes Prohibition. It would thus benefit the right to put it back where it belongs: in the arms of the Left. Maybe the smell from this rotting piece of legislation will start to rub off on everything else in the Progressive fruit basket.
A Brief Word On Pedophilia
I agree with Dawkins that “pedo-hysteria” is, like many puritanical causes, out of touch with reality. In a recent interview, he apparently said:
I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,
Dawkins’ easy acceptance of changing ‘standards’ is bizarre but at least it’s semi-honest as a real description of leftward movement. The problem with Dawkins is that his materialism runs so deep, he can’t find strength within himself to prefer one normative system over another or contemplate the possibility that one system might be more in touch with reality than another.
Huxley and Darwin thought blacks were sub-human? Well, that was okay back then. If you think that today, well, goodness me, what a racist you are! My old schoolmaster diddled my cock fifty years ago? Well, that was okay back then. Cock-diddling today, though, goodness me, that’s vile!
Certain reactionary thinkers have suggested that pedophiles will be the next ‘victim group’ protected by progressive society. I have, at various blogs, voiced my skepticism. Dawkins’ quote seems to contradict my skepticism, and perhaps it does; then again, Dawkins is not your typical progressive. In fact, many progressives hate the man. He’s a eugenicist, for Christ’s sake. I don’t think that he speaks ex Cathedra, as it were.
C.S. Lewis once wrote something to this effect: when society decides to abandon deep tradition and re-construct its own morality, it never makes up its own morality so much as pardons a hundred sins while heaping all its moralistic ire on one or two sins for no reason it can give. You can’t get rid of humanity’s moral impulse. It needs an outlet. The progressive pretense of moral relativism isn’t relativism at all: it’s simply picking and choosing what to be moralistic about. Progressivism denies most sins, but that’s precisely why it damns to hell with fury the few “sins” it does recognize: racism, sexism, et cetera. And I’ve always thought that pedophilia made it onto this short list of progressivism’s damnable sins. The popularity of To Catch a Predator at the the height of the anti-racist years makes the point. And we should remember that upping the age of consent was always a proto-feminist cause, along with prohibition and universal suffrage.
My last post was about careful definition of terms and about the left’s gleeful rejection of careful definition. I think we find the same leftist stamp of sophistic word-play when it comes to pedophilia.
In Mexico, it’s legal to bang a 13 year old. In Canada, it’s legal to bang a 16 year old, and until recently, it was legal to bang a 14 year old. I believe that the average age of consent in the European Union is 14. In the Roman Empire, the age at which females could be married and thus banged was 12. In the Confessions, St. Augustine mentions that his mother, St. Monica, had procured a lovely, newly ‘of-age’ Christian woman that Monica hoped Augustine would wed: most commentators assume that St. Monica had found a sexy 12 year old for Augustine. Was she or he a pedophile? What about God? The Virgin was probably about 13 or 14 when God knocked her up.
(I’m not providing link-proof about this stuff. It’s late. Look it up yourself.)
Now, what does “pedophilia” mean. Wikipedia:
As a medical diagnosis, pedophilia or paedophilia is a psychiatric disorder in persons 16 years of age or older typically characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest toward prepubescent children
Prepubescent children. Of course, puberty can hit within a range of ages, from 10 to 13, so we shouldn’t give prepubescence an age. Rather, we should give it a phenotype. A girl who has yet to have a period, start growing tennis-ball boobs or soft curves, she’s prepubescent. So, if you’re attracted to this, you’re a pedo.
By the same definition, if you’re attracted to this or this or this, you’re not a pedo. You’re a normal human male.
Shows like To Catch a Predator, which, like American laws, criminalize and shame males attracted to post-pubescent teens, are puritanical and anti-biology. Pedo-hysteria is hysteria precisely because most of the men it ensnares aren’t even pedophiles. It’s the same process that Handle talks about here: take a natural thing, rename it, cast it in a negative light, and thus create a pre-text for its removal.
[Via Commenter SMERSH: Turns out that Dawkins was 11 when his cock got diddled. That age probably fits the definition of real pedophilia. This proves my point that Dawkins isn’t your average progressive: when he said pedophilia, he actually meant pedophilia. He wasn’t playing the progressive re-definition game, referencing an incident that occurred when he was 15 or whatever. What has the reaction been? I haven’t quite followed it. Has Dawkins come under fire for his remark from blatantly leftist sources?]
Emotive but Meaningless
Earlier this year, David Friedman found himself in a debate with two self-professed Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHLs for short, though I can’t detect any serious differences between BHLs and pro-capitalism neo-liberals). Friedman’s main charge against the BHLs is their attempt to smuggle a concept into libertarian philosophy that is neither well defined nor given objective parameters, namely social justice. The BHL definition of social justice is reliant on vague phrases like “special concern for the poor” and “minimally decent lives.” Friedman’s point is that if social justice is to be taken seriously as a politically or economically worthwhile concept, then its definition needs to be more rigorous. However, forcing the BHLs to formulate a more rigorous definition of social justice was like pulling teeth.
Part of my criticism of [BHL] Jason’s position centered on a definition of social justice offered on his facebook page, using the term “minimally decent lives.” In his response he switches to something closer to the definition I offered from Z&T, claiming that the two are close enough to both describe the same cluster concept.
That raises an obvious question: Does he agree that “minimally decent lives” in one of his definitions is, as I argued, dishonest mush, a term implying an objective standard that does not exist? If he does agree, he ought to take his use of such a term as some evidence of a problem with the concept whose definition he is offering, for reasons along the lines of those offered by George Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” If your objective is to clearly express ideas that you are thinking clearly about, there is no need to use terms that are emotive but meaningless.
. . . they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy. So I tried to get them to tell me what “social justice” meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant, and they didn’t.
For BHLs, social justice is emotive but meaningless: in other words, rhetorical.
In The New Rhetoric, legal philosopher Chaim Perelman has this to say about values like ‘Justice’ as they are used in argumentation:
Their claim to universal agreement . . . seems to be due solely to their generality. They can be regarded as valid for a universal audience only on condition that their content not be specified; as soon as we try to go into detail [e.g., about social justice], we meet only the adherence of particular audiences. According to E. Dupreel, universal values deserve to be called “values of persuasion” because they are “means of persuasion which are that and no more than that; they are, as it were, spiritual tools which can be completely separated from the material they make it possible to shape . . .”
It is thus by virtue of their being vague that these values appear as universal values and lay claim to a status similar to that of facts. To the extent that they are precisely formulated, they are simply seen to conform to the aspirations of particular groups. (76)
Terms like “social justice” and “equality” get their emotive power from being vague. This is why progressives generally don’t like agonistic, logical debate. Logical debate requires precise definition of terms from the outset; but a precise definition of terms would unmask the progressive insistence on “equality” or “justice” as what it really is: special-interest pandering or, in other cases, a bizarre form of post-millennial utopianism. (I don’t mind when someone like Eric Holder tells us point blank that justice for “his people” is what really matters; at least he is honest about his partisanship, not pretending that he actually has universal aspirations when using superficially universal terms.)
All sides in political discourse make use of vaguely defined, emotive terms. “Freedom” and “duty” are popular terms on the American right. However, the test of a political philosophy is whether or not these universal values can be defined more precisely without completely negating their emotive power or unmasking them as partisan rhetoric. My own journey away from de facto leftism began with a recognition that people on the right were much more willing to delve into the first principles behind and definitions of their emotive concepts and terms. Beneath their rhetoric was more than ‘mere rhetoric.’
Friedman’s debate with the BHLs demonstrates that the rhetoric of social justice is indeed built upon smoke and mirrors and does not even try to correspond to reality. There are no first principles or attempts at precise definition because the entire progressive political philosophy finds its reason-for-being in emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. For example, Friedman persuasively argues that when progressives talk about the human right to “minimally decent standards of living” or to the meeting of “basic needs,” they really mean humans have a right “to live in a way that I, an upper-middle class leftist, would vaguely recognize as comfortable and meaningful.” There is no attempt to give a precise calculus to the concept of a “decent standard of living,” no attempt to define or to formulate the cost of “basic needs.” Why? Because then they would start to sound like Friedman:
A reasonably objective definition of “basic needs” might be “enough food and shelter so that their lack would not greatly reduce your life expectancy.” To make it more precise, replace “greatly reduce” with “reduce at least in half relative to those who had such food and shelter.” What would that work out to?There are parts of the U.S. where housing is pretty cheap, down to about $100/room/month, probably less if I searched further. Assume that people are packed in ten beds to a room, along the lines of housing for tramps in London as described by Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. That gets annual housing cost per person down to about a hundred dollars.On further thought, that’s too high. There are parts of the U.S. where the weather is temperate enough so that living outdoors, perhaps with a roof to shelter you from the rain, is not a serious risk to health. So all you need is some empty land in such an area, enough roofs for everyone to huddle under when it rains, and local authorities willing to put up with the land being used as a refuge for the homeless. Cost per person close to zero. Add a little for porta-potties and a water supply.
The emotive power is gone, and with it goes the entire power of progressivism.
It’s human nature to be wooed by the power of emotive words and symbols. The power of religion likewise finds it fuel in the emotional needs of human beings. The value of a religion, like the value of a political philosophy, lies in its willingness to delve logically into the nature of its emotive terms and concepts, to prove that its emotive aspects do not rest upon rhetorical smoke and mirrors but rather correspond in some way to reality. (Whether those proofs are successful or not isn’t the point here.)
Humans have an uncanny ability to turn on the ‘logical’ or ‘realist’ part of their brain in one domain, but to shut it down entirely in other domains, to rely instead on emotion and subjective judgment, allowing themselves to be wooed by emotive words and symbols that in other contexts would send their logical brains into critical overdrive. It’s one thing to let the logical brain get turned off when attending to the kinds of needs fulfilled by religion—a recognition of sin, a need for forgiveness, a need for community, a need for spiritual comfort, et cetera. I think the needs fulfilled by religion are inherently emotional, inherently a-logical (I wouldn’t say illogical). And anyway, how a man works out his salvation is a private affair between him, his God, and perhaps his family. If such a process operates on emotion, what do I care? It doesn’t affect me, nor does it affect the world at large.
The trouble with progressivism is a) that it is emotive, b) that it is (unlike religion or right-wing populism) emotive and built on smoke and mirrors—emotive but meaningless, as we just saw—and c) that its meaningless emotionalism is designed to be coerced into the political workings of Western society.
Maybe coerced is the wrong word. There have been fights between left and right, yes, but the history of the West for at least 200 years has been the history of ever-leftward movement. An obvious reason for how the left took and kept power (not the only reason, of course) is that progressivism is, as Friedman points out about Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, vague enough to be emotionally satisfying.
Progressivism is feel-good words, feel-good symbols, feel-good rallying, feel-good values. What does it matter if progressivism takes reality into consideration? It feels fucking good. It satisfies the emotional needs of guilty egalitarians. It is emotive but meaningless, sure, but like I said, humans are perfectly capable of turning off the demand for meaning in order to satisfy the demand for emotional fulfillment.
Progressivism is a political platform of irrational emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. The history of progressivism’s leftward march is the history of people turning off their logical brains and booting up their emotions. Okay for religion. Bad for socio-political policy.
Scales of Sovereignty (part 3)
Sovereignty operates at different ‘scales’ and possesses different qualities at each step. But more than one type of ‘scale system’ exists.
My parents’ nucleotide assemblages, replicated in my mother’s womb in the form of Scharlach, exert their sovereignty over me at every second of every day. My behaviors are both constrained and dictated due to my genetics. This genetic sovereignty, which yokes all human individuals, operates at a ‘low scale’ but if we work our way up this particular scale, step by step, do we necessarily arrive at ‘high scale’ socio-political organizations? Not necessarily. We must be careful not to conflate different orders of ‘high’ and ‘low.’
Nick Land helpfully suggests “two tightly inter-connected but conceptually distinct ‘scaled’ orders”:
There’s a series of emergences, or their reciprocal reductions, which correspond to the structure of the complex sciences, with biology at the base, rising through levels of social organization (anthropology, micro-economics, political economy, international relations). The higher levels of this series, which rapidly lose scientific exactitude, are a kind of ascendant mirroring of the rigorous reductive series, down through biochemistry to sub-atomic physics. Then there are scales of a more strictly quantitative kind, which correspond to the size of complex systems, from specific intra-cellular chemical reactions, through physiology, population biology, and into ecologies of ever larger scope, eventually melting into terrestrial geophysics, and out into extremely under-developed forms of concrete cosmology.
The relevance of this is that it leads to some fuzziness about what is meant by the ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ scale. Is the difference one of systemic scope, or of relative institutional abstraction (and perhaps ‘dominion’ or ‘sovereignty’)?
The two ‘scale systems’ (if I understand Land’s point correctly) might be contrasted by the directness or linearity by which a higher scale emerges from the one below it, or conversely, by which a higher scale can be immediately reduced to the scale below it. Linguistics provides an obvious example of the first type of scale system proposed by Land: phonology emerges (more or less) directly from phonetics; syntax emerges (more or less) directly from morphology; stylistics emerges from syntax. All of this in the same way that biology emerges from chemistry. However, linguistics, broadly construed, also provides an example of the second type of scale system proposed by Land: language is embedded within a culture, a population, but in no direct way does culture emerge from syntax or stylistics. From language to culture, and vice versa, we are looking at just one level (perhaps the ‘rhetorical’ level) within the scope of a total human system, any level of which cannot be simply reduced to the levels below it.
Scale as (more or less) linear emergence versus scale as size/scope of a complex system. The latter is less tractable than the former. So, for the time being, we should construe the Sovereignty Scale as being of the first type. This makes things more clear (to be complicated later), but this is also the scale-type most amenable to the kinds of hierarchies that interest neoreactionary political philosophy. We are, in essence, bracketing out a discussion of sovereignty as it operates within the scale of complex systems, keeping in mind, however, that further down the road this other scale might clarify or productively disrupt the scale of linear emergence that we have adopted here.
We can still start with the individual for the sake of simplicity. But the scale we develop should ideally move ‘upward and downward’ rather than disperse downward, upward, and sideways simultaneously (which is, I think, what happens when we introduce a concept like genetic sovereignty over the individual).
Sovereignty operates at different scales. The scale system we are talking about is one of (more or less) direct upward emergence and downward reduction. Given this scale system, it makes sense to formulate a question of obvious reactionary interest: How does sovereignty flow down the scales?
[Reiteration: When talking about the size and scope of a complex system, it does not make much sense to ask “How does sovereignty flow down the scales?” because the answer will obviously be “It flows everywhere.” Everything in a complex system circulates in diffused, perhaps unpredictable ways. Not a very helpful heuristic. Yet.]
In a socio-political context, the individual is never only an individual. The individual is always already inserted into some hierarchy and thus always already inserted into the sovereignty scale. (Of course, some individuals try very hard to extricate themselves from these hierarchies and exist qua individual: in America, we call these people bums, and they usually sleep under freeway overpasses, entering sporadically into hierarchical relationships on the side of freeway on-ramps.)
The most basic hierarchy into which the individual enters upon conception is mother/fetus. This hierarchy exists at a certain position on the sovereignty scale: I would say that it exists within the Familial Scale. The basic hierarchical relationship at this scale is parent/child. Mother/fetus is simply one variation on that theme. The others are father/son, father daughter, father/mother, mother/daughter, father+mother/son, et cetera . . . If we are talking about the extra-nuclear family, we can complicate things, but we would remain firmly within the Familial Scale.
What emerges from the Familial Scale? We can quibble about this, and cultural parameters certainly come into play here (more on that in a moment), but my hunch is that the Neighborhood Scale (or perhaps the Town Scale) emerges from the Family scale. We can talk about family dynamics (nuclear or extended), but if we want to talk about something just beyond the family, we typically talk in terms of neighborhoods, ZIP codes, towns. What kind of hierarchical relationships do families enter into at this scale? For the sake of a simple and elegant theoretical framework, let’s continue our attempt to formulate them as dyads: For example, homeowner’s association/family, if we want to posit a Neighborhood Scale. If we want to skip to the Town Scale, then mayor/family, local city council/family, local police department/family . . . Perhaps these hierarchical relationships have variations on a theme, like we saw at the Familial Scale, or perhaps not.
Two related observations: 1) When we enter into a particular level on the Sovereignty Scale, power does not cease to flow; it does not reach stasis. Within each scale, hierarchical relationships–sovereignty relationships–still exist. These relationships are our first attempt to describe the qualities of sovereignty as it exists and operates at different scales. 2) Judging by the Town Scale, it appears that the higher we move on the Sovereignty Scale, the greater the proliferation of possible intra-scale hierarchy relationships, that is, the more possible ways power can flow at that scale. At the Family Scale, we have parent/child; if we bring extended family into this scale, we perhaps add one other dyad: elder/younger, with a few gendered and consanguinous variations. At the Town Scale, however, I can think of half a dozen dyads to describe how families are controlled by power-structures existing at this scale of local municipalities.
Hierarchical relationships, in the form of dyads, nested within a scale system. Sovereignty–power and control–operates between the dyads and between the scales. As proposed by Land, when working with this kind of linear scalar model, the higher we go on the scale, the more ‘abstract’ the levels become–but no less powerful because of it (more powerful, in fact).
So here’s a rough sketch, a first attempt, at modeling the Western socio-political Sovereignty Scale:
Some important observations:
1. It is important, I think, to model each scale as containing dyads: this allows us to reduce any particular scale downward, as far as makes sense, to real interactions between real individuals or groups without giving up the separation of higher-scaled orders from lower-scaled orders.
2. Power flows down the dyads and down the scales. This hopefully captures the fact that a man can in some sense be ‘sovereign’ within his own home (or that a mayor can in some sense be ‘sovereign’ within his jurisdiction) while simultaneously not being sovereign in the larger socio-political context. One thing that the model does not capture, however, is how the higher scales affect the lower nested dyads. For example, even within his own home, a man cannot be sovereign over all things at the Family Scale because State and Federal Scales do dictate certain behaviors within the Family Scale: a father cannot, without consequences, exert his sovereignty over his daughter by raping here; nor, in Germany, can a father exert his sovereignty over his daughter by educating her within the home.
3. This simple model is a first attempt to model the circulation of power (sovereignty) in a Western socio-political context, so obviously I have ordered the scales according to the orders of Western Society. The labels might change in other contexts, but I imagine that the general outline could remain the same: dyads nested with scalar levels.
4. As a first attempt, the model is clearly incomplete. Specifically, I don’t know where to put businesses and corporate entities into this model. (One way to side-step the issue is to argue that corporations are not exactly part of the socio-political Sovereignty Scale but rather exist on some other plane. This is an unsatisfying option.)
Corporations can be divided into scalar levels and dyads, but things get fuzzy when we take government regulations into consideration. Different levels of management emerge naturally upward or downward within an organization, but once you plug the organization into the socio-political Sovereignty Scale, the direct emergence breaks down. Corporate boards do not emerge in any linear sense into state regulating bodies. At this point, we would be talking about the other kind of scale, which models the size and scope of complex systems. And this would be expected: sovereignty between private corporate boards and state regulating bodies does not flow neatly in one direction: the two scales are implicated in a much more complex system of distributed power plays.
5. I am also unsure where the judicial system fits into the system, but the judicial system is clearly part of the socio-political Sovereignty Scale.
6. The model is hierarchical, but the dyads allow for interior branching. It is important to allow branching because the only way to solve the problems in (4) and (5), without abandoning the model completely, will be to start dividing the scale, in a tree-like form, into connected hierarchical scales. Branching. Inevitably, the branches will reticulate as we attempt to capture the more complex flows of power up and down the dyads, up and down the scales, and in between various scale branches. And thus, perhaps, will emerge the larger complex system of sovereignty from this initial attempt at a simpler, linear hierarchy.
Scales of Sovereignty (part 2)
State control is control by the whims of individuals and the fickle furors brought on by activists with megaphones. Market control, on the other hand, is control by an aggregate of individuals and interactions at distant and varied scales that are not human at all.
We are talking about ‘control’ here in both its diffused and concentrated senses, but mostly in its diffused sense: I am ‘controlled’ insofar as my behavior is constrained or dictated. All life, especially human life, is controlled. In and of itself, this fact is neither a negative nor a positive thing. It is what it is. Can we even imagine a universe without constrained behavior? In Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther argues that, contra the humanists, free will is an illusion; and yet Luther’s point, often overlooked, is that absent free will we still have a will. It is simply a bound, constrained will—constrained by sin, in Luther’s case; constrained by multiple scales of sovereignty, in ours.
My behavior was constrained from the moment I was conceived. Genetic constraints are perhaps the most basic form of sovereignty under which humans live. Geographic constraints are another: we don’t think about it in our globetrotting age, but for most of us, the ecosystem into which we are born exerts a serious influence on our development. Genes and geography—as close to a divine sovereignty as we’ll ever see imprinted on our lives. (And both are, naturally, linked.) We might put time into this category of divine sovereignty, as well.
What else constrains my behavior? While growing up, family constrains it. So do various actors in the social networks that I am allowed to inhabit in youth: friends, friends’ parents, teachers, pastors. As I grow older, these social networks expand, and in any one of them, I will find my behavior constrained or dictated, my will bound, in various ways at various times.
We work our way up the chain: from the genetic sovereignty which dictates that I am a white male who will never play in the NFL, to the family sovereignty which dictates that I am the product of a conflicted Catholic (mother) and Protestant (father) upbringing, to the federal sovereignty which dictates that I must relinquish some of my pay each month in taxes.
Sovereignty is scaled. Each scale has different properties and represents a different type of power, a different type of control that constrains or dictates behavior. Sometimes there are similarities from one scale to the next; sometimes there are not.
The most obvious—and most important—power elements that change from one scale to the next are:
(1) the number of people who are controlled
(2) the degree to which the sovereignty is implacable
The higher the measure given to (1), the higher in ‘scale’ the sovereignty is, while (2) measures the qualitative nature of the scale. In the case of my genes, only one person is controlled directly—me—but the sovereignty of my genetics is thoroughly unyielding. Great effort and advanced technologies are required to overcome my DNA.
In the case of families, only a few individuals are controlled. Depending on the family, the control may be yielding or unyielding, depending on the behaviors being controlled or dictated.
In the case of state or federal governments, millions of people are under control. The nature of that control—implacable or not—is probably varied, again, according to the behaviors being controlled or dictated. In principle, however, governmental prescriptions and proscriptions are necessarily implacable and always enforceable.
Sovereignty is an emergent property of life on earth. Meerkats have their matriarchies; lions have their prides; wolf packs have their alphas and their betas. We can be sure that some form and degree of sovereignty—some way to constrain and control the behaviors of individuals in groups—has been found necessary and optimal for human and non-human life to flourish.
But what are the limits to that sovereignty? Which types of control have emerged naturally, which are beneficial, which are harmful, and which are recent innovations that are in the process of proving themselves beneficial or harmful?
In Conservatism for Seculars, Razib Khan writes:
When speaking of politics, one must distinguish between organized institutional politics and politics as organized citizenry on a more human scale of interpersonal relations. Terms like Republican, Democrat, conservative, and liberal have valence as monikers that represent the tribes of organized politics, but too often when engaging in partisan discourse the principals forget that these high-level policy disputes have little meaning when stripped away from their mundane, even banal, interpersonal implications. One can have the politics of personal life without the politics of high-level policy, but one cannot have the politics of high-level policy without the politics of personal life.
Therefore, to begin any exploration of political ideology as it is lived in the world, one must start at the individual level and work up. In particular, one must keep in mind that individuals are embedded within social units: family, circles of friends, civic associations, and the like.
Towards the end of the essay, Khan argues that these ‘lower-scaled’ units have proven themselves to be more important to human flourishing than the ‘higher-scaled’ units of mass political organizing:
True flourishing begins at home with the understanding that the politics that truly matters is that of the family, of the neighborhood. This is politics that allows you to grow and develop as a human. It involves people one sees day to day, who will be there for you across the cycles of elections and even the rise and fall of nations. Instead of wondering how to reorder the lives of others, it would behoove us to look to see how we can order our lives properly and realize who we are in our proper context.
We can re-purpose Khan’s essay to argue that, if these lower-scaled units of human organization have demonstrated their importance and durability throughout history, then the hierarchies and degrees of sovereignty found within them should be trusted and affirmed. Sovereignty at these scales is the kind of sovereignty necessary—at least, seemingly necessary—for human flourishing.
The sovereignty of the nuclear family aligns thusly: Father to Child(ren), Father to Mother, Father/Mother to Children. These sovereignty relationships have worked well for much of the Western world. Similar family sovereignty alignments (with grandparents and various uncles or cousins added) have worked well for humanity in general. Therefore, this is a scale of sovereignty whose ordering we shouldn’t mess with too much. Attempts to undermine, re-order, or usurp the sovereignty operating at this scale should be viewed with extreme suspicion.
Has sovereignty operating at the scale of the nation-state proven to be as beneficial to human flourishing and advancement as the sovereignty operating at the level of the family? I think we can tentatively answer “yes,” but with qualifications, especially in light of the other question we’ve just introduced: is the ordering of state sovereignty—its alignments—optimal? Bizarre things have seemed to emerge from this scale in recent decades. Something about the way that power and control operate at this scale has led to its spiraling out of control. This Sovereignty Scale has grown tentacles that are reaching into and interrupting the lower scales. Things no longer seem to be ‘in their right place.’
Humans will always be under control, their wills always bound. How many people are controlled? How implacable is the control? Framing questions of sovereignty with the ‘scale’ metaphor makes these vital questions more approachable. However, scales of sovereignty are not always mutually exclusive or operating in non-overlapping domains. The addition of a ‘network’ metaphor is perhaps appropriate, but I don’t want to multiply metaphors, so it’s enough to recognize that the scales are nested. ‘Corporate boards’ or ‘federal government’ are still comprised of individuals, who are parts of families, parts of intimate friendships, parts of social networks, et cetera. Just because an individual finds himself in some sense sovereign at a very distant scale does not mean that he has resigned his role as a father, a son, a friend, a lover: the CEO of a major corporation, the president of a nation, or the sole heir of a billion-dollar philanthropic organization, though he has more power than most, is still embedded within more lowly scaled sovereignty relationships. He is still a father, or a son, or a husband, or a friend, or an employee, or a . . .
As Khan, Spandrell, and I have pointed out, these sovereignty roles and relationships at lower scales are more salient in peoples’ lives than the higher scaled roles and relationships in which they find themselves. Had Paris and Menelaus been merchants, their exertions of control over each other’s lives (over Helen) would not have affected very many people. However, as a king and a prince, they were able to send lots of men to their deaths—to exert control at a high scale—in order to sort out their lower-scaled penis envy. Just because you possess sovereignty at a higher scale, in other words, doesn’t mean the lower-scaled sovereignty struggles, the attempts to control or dictate other peoples’ behavior at a more personal or local level, are no longer in play. They are very much still in play. And if the latter bleeds into the former, high-scaled sovereignty becomes a liability issue for the millions of people under its implacable control.