Who Is a True Sovereign? Research Time, 21/11/2013

I mentioned yesterday how totalitarian Leadership is the closest any actual political system has ever come to instituting a true Sovereign in the textbook Hobbesian sense. As I approach the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt describes what precisely would be the government institutions that would permit the rule of a Sovereign with the powers Hobbes describes: held apart from all of society, yet imbuing that society with his will alone. 

One apparently inescapable feature of a modern state government is that a government had many levels and agencies with many different domains of authority. There are, of course, the devolved powers of the federal system between the broad abilities of the national governments in planning, foreign relations, and economic oversight; the more administrative powers of states or provinces, and the local management powers of municipal governments. Aside from this, there are a variety of government agencies, each connected to a different level and responsible for a different domain. Food and health inspection agencies, municipal police, vehicle registration, public welfare, urban planning, and so on. Each of these levels and agencies of government should, at best, have a clearly defined set of powers and range to apply those powers.

A totalitarian system, however, does not. There is similarly the proliferation of government agencies, particularly as regards policing, the primary totalitarian activity. Arendt describes how the Nazi party created an entire mirror of the state within its own agency, such that when it came to power, all the mechanisms to govern were already within the party. Not only that, the regional divisions of the party were divided in ways that didn’t match at all with any of the administrative regions of the German government. They overlapped and cut across provinces and municipalities. 

One thing that has annoyed me about American politics in
the last five years is the far right's painting of Barack Obama
as Hitlerian. It is utter ignorance of how genuinely radical
Hitler's politics really were. This man made himself literally
omnipresent in a police state mobilized for the actual
destruction of hundreds of millions of people. Obama has a
shitty healthcare insurance signup website.
In effect, this created multiple police forces all acting simultaneously, and often stepping all over each other. Enforcers from multiple agencies would often be assigned to investigate the same matter. As a result, the average German citizen knew that one would be arrested for bad behaviour, but would never be sure which agency would make the arrest. The names of the agencies themselves would become interchangeable, practically speaking. The only thing in common would be, “Leader’s orders.”

The proliferation of police authority in such a chaotic way doesn’t actually devolve authority to any of these institutions. They have power, certainly. Power to arrest, to disappear, to kill, and to condemn to the death camps. But to have authority, the domain of an institution’s action must be restricted to their exclusive responsibility. The chaotic proliferation of police power means that the only one who still has authority is the Leader himself, the only one who is exclusively responsible in any domain at all. Because there’s a proliferation of powers with no strict limits on their domains, they all have competition for authority among each other. And where there is competition for authority, authority does not exist. The only authority is that which is held in common among all these powers: the Leader, the Sovereign.
I think at this point, I at least have the starting material to assemble a course on totalitarian political institutions and philosophy. Starting from a reading of the Leviathan, we analyze the role of the Sovereign, his relation to the rest of his society, and what his powers over them could be. Hobbes’ own account is vague in places, where the powers of the Sovereign would be more specific, he prefers to discuss them in the general sense. This section of the course would probably be supplemented with some readings taken from various chapters and passages of Agamben’s long-running Homo Sacer project, the theme of almost all his major books.

The Origins of Totalitarianism would essentially be the next step in developing the theory of government by pure Sovereign. Perhaps for such a course, it would also be worth looking into other political philosophers between Hobbes and Arendt for other material that develops these ideas. I remember Carl Schmitt has been recommended to me for this tradition before, but he was a Nazi contemporary. I’d be really interested to see if any political theorists in the West (or indeed, in China, perhaps?) had developed concepts for government by pure will in the intervening period from the 1600s to the 1900s.

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