The Question of Sovereignty: Part 1


“Someone always rules; everyone else is always ruled. Political reality in three words: sovereignty is conserved.” – Moldbug

But is it?

Identifying the fundamental nature of sovereignty is a critical task for NRx because so much of substance follows from it. However, despite several previous attempts, a definitive account of sovereignty remains illusive. In fact, when placed under extended interrogation, the general outcome has been for the meaning of ‘sovereignty’ itself to turn unstable, making further progress impossible.

Before proceeding further, I should probably make it absolutely clear that I don’t propose to resolve the question of sovereignty here (!), merely to suggest that, since it’s such a crucial question for NRx, it should once again be tabled for discussion.

Our first task must be to define the meaning of ‘sovereignty’. While I am sure there are far better definitions out there, and agreeing upon the best possible definition is a key priority, for the purposes of getting started I am going to suggest the following:

Sovereignty is supreme power and authority, underwritten and secured by nothing except itself.

To be sovereign is to be finally, ultimately, and absolutely in charge, to have the last word and the final say, to possess the power to determine the outcome of significant events, arising out of conflicts of interest.

A true ‘first order’ or primary sovereign cannot be meaningfully bound by anything other than itself. A ‘second order’ or secondary sovereign is always in reality bound by the demands and expectorations, both implicit and explicit, of whatever first order sovereign it leases its little slice of sovereignty from, which ultimately underwrites its authority over whatever territory it presides over.

As Moldbug explains, a constitution is in essence nothing more than a note written by a sovereign to itself, which can be roughly translated as “don’t do bad things”. Who has the power to enforce the contents of the note? only the sovereign power itself. If another sovereign power has the capacity to force the other sovereign to uphold the contents of the constitution and not do bad things, then that is in fact the true first order sovereign, and the other is unmasked as merely a second order pretender to the throne.

Likewise, if I have sovereign possession of any item or piece of property it means that I alone control the use of this item. However, this is in fact an instance of second order sovereignty, since if a dispute over control arises it will be resolved legally (even if private force was initially used, either party maintains recourse to legal channels) by the real sovereign, which has the power to determine secondary ownership, and is in effect the real primary owner of whatever is being contested.

Mencius Moldbug is, unquestionably, the father of modern Reaction. Furthermore, he built modern Reaction upon the bedrock of a concept of absolute sovereignty. If, as many have suggested, Moldbug is wrong about the underlying nature of sovereignty, it follows that he may also be wrong about a great deal of other aspects within his system of thought, which inevitably follow from this first principal. Therefore, it is possible that the entire Neorectionary project, which has emerged over the last couple of years, may in fact have been built upon an unsound foundation.

The late 90’s neo-noir supernatural crime thriller Fallen, which stars the great Denzil Washington, features a character that for me personifies the essence of Moldbug’s claim that sovereignty is conserved. The evil fallen angel Azazel can jump from body to body at will, possessing anyone he touches, but upon their death is immediately able to secure tenure in another host. Azazel is in this way akin to primary sovereignty. While the host may change, his primary sovereignty, which flows between them, still sums to one.

Recently I have been reading James Burnham’s ‘The Machivellians: Defenders of Freedom’, one of Moldbug’s favorite books, and they way he describes leadership seems to mirror how Moldbug regards sovereignty:

“In the first place, if a division occurs among the leaders, one section or both is forced to seek help from the masses of the membership, and is able to organize their strength. The opposition leadership is sometimes successful at eliminating the old leadership. Second, new leaders may, and do, arise as it were ‘spontaneously’ out of the masses. If the existing leadership is unable or unwilling to crush or assimilate these ‘outside leaders’, then it may be overthrown. In both these cases, however, though the process may appear to take the form of a successful struggle of the masses against their leaders, and thus prove the supremacy of the masses, in reality it consists only of the substitution of a new leadership for the old. Leadership remains in control; ‘self-government’ is as distant as ever.” [italics mine]

Burnham’s formulation ‘leadership remains in control’ seems to me to mirror Moldbug’s postition that ‘sovereignty remains conserved’. Just as a change in leadership is not itself a challenge to either the concept or empirical fact of leadership, and is something which effective leadership necessitates as much as it endures, so a change in where sovereign power resides is not, properly understood, a challenge to the nature of sovereignty, it is merely a shift in its local concentration. Sovereignty still sums to 1, it’s just dispersed and ordered differently.

Moldbug again:

“As a geek world which had not Chomsky but Mosca on its dogeared hackerspace bookshelves would know in its bones, autocracy is universal and cannot be repealed, only concealed.  Always and everywhere, strong minorities rule weak majorities.

You cannot drive out nature with a pitchfork.  You can drive out great oaks with an axe.  But you already did that.  What did you get?  Weeds – giant, pitchfork-proof weeds.  Autocratic and unaccountable power in the modern democracy has been dispersed, but not in any way dissolved.  Sovereignty remains conserved.

Indeed by any metric there is far more woody biomass than ever before.  The US Attorney’s office has also its little kings, no more accountable than Henry VII.  Who took orders only from God, just like any “apolitical” “civil servant.” But at least there was only one Henry VII.”

Within the Modern Structure sovereignty may be dispersed, but never dispensed with. Nor could it be.

Or as Moldbug says, “Sovereignty is conserved. You can spread it around, though, but don’t expect to enjoy the result.”

In fact, this is another key Moldbugian assertion, since it inverts the more conventional notion that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and makes the counter claim that it is precisely the insecurity of those in positions of power which engenders tyranny. If they were truly sovereign in the sense that they were also invulnerable they would have no cause to be mean or inhumane. Moldbug, in his myth of Fnargl, posits just such a ruler: a gold loving alien who has the twin power of invulnerability and finger snapping death to humans. He goes to great length over several posts to reason why those with absolute power being secure in their absolute power is ultimately a good thing for their subjects.

However, this line of thinking has also received cogent criticism. As Federico originally pointed out, “[Moldbug’s] absolutism is odd because one of his very favourite books, The Machiavellians by James Burnham, contains this excerpt:

“The right of public opposition to the rulers, the heart of freedom, will not be kept alive merely by wishing—and it is besides very doubtful that a majority of men are much concerned about it one way or the other. It requires the existence in society of a number of relatively autonomous “social forces,” as mosca calls them. It demands that no single social force—the army or liquid wealth or the church or industrial management or agriculture or labor or the state machine, whatever it might be—shall be strong enough to swallow up the rest and thereby be in a position to dominate all phases of social life. When this happens, there cannot be a significant opposition to the rulers, because the opposition cannot have any social weight and therefore cannot restrain the power of the rulers. It is only when there are several different major social forces, not wholly subordinated to any one social force, that there can be any assurance of liberty, since only then is there the mutual check and balance that is able to chain power. There is no one force, no group, and no class that is the preserver of liberty. Liberty is preserved by those who are against the existing chief power. Oppositions which do not express genuine social forces are as trivial, in relation to entrenched power, as the old court jesters.’”

So, when we are engineering our Neoreactionary patchwork, is the ideal state likely to be one in which power is countervailed or absolute? Do we optimise for a balance of independent institutions and rely on the sovereignty of each to imposes checks and balances on the others, or should we attempt to concentrate sovereignty in one institution, to avoid “spreading it about” and creating conditions of uncertainty and indeterminancy, and therefore for an ongoing competition for power? Indeed, in a Patchwork, how do individual patches remain sovereign and avoid hostile takeover or the formation of poweful cartels?

Questions, questions, questions…