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writing for godot

Neoliberalism, Fascism and Sovereignty

Written by melshall   
Wednesday, 15 February 2017 10:54

The seemingly sudden and explicable rise of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election has been explained in a number of ways.  Mainstream media accounts of the election positioned Trump as the insider/outsider of American politics--an embodiment of the power of money (and thus an expression of the freedom that power bestows to speak and act with abandon) and therefore not a figure of state sovereignty (while still representing that which the state more and more seemed to represent--the power of money).  On this view, those who voted for Trump did so as much for what he wasn’t as what he was. In being purely and simply himself, which is to say, an individual with no relation to anyone or anything but himself, the power he commanded seemed ultimately to derive from his very being. President Donald Trump became self-identical with power through a process of self-making--as David Cay Johnson observed in The Making of Donald Trump. What is unique about this is the purity of power this conception implies.  The choice presented by Trump appeared to be the choice of the individual, free and sovereign unto himself.  This vision of power i took meaning in contrast to figures of state--i.e. Hillary Clinton in particular-- whose entire identities were entirely subsumed by the state.  The election was in this way  the choice between two kinds of power--that of the individual and that of the state.  Voters chose the individual whose unpredictable, improvisational style bespoke a freedom that could never belong to the realm of politics, constrained as it is by the superior power of special interests, but rather to the realm of the sacred, that which is inviolable and transcendent, powerful by virtue of its own self.  The paradox of this figuration, of course, is that these two conceptions of power were actually brought together.  In Trump, the absolutism of the individual  became sovereign, producing a structure of power corresponding at once to the order of neoliberalism and fascism.


In democratic formations, it is thought that the sacred elements of social life are negligible.  The imperative agency of sovereign power is diffused in the nation rather than concentrated at the top in the figure of a leader.  But the risk democratic formations continually face is internal disintegration such that the heterogeneous elements of the social order not only fail to come together within some principle of or for unity, but actively turn against one another. In this case, a totally unproductive revolution takes place..  Rather than subversion of the normative order causing suffering, rebellion or revolution that might establish a new nomos of shared life as a way of establishing a new governing logic, the dissociated elements of disintegrating democratic formations identify with the very power responsible for their subjection--capital, the state and, the strong leader.  Thus the possibility of fascism is not negated in neoliberal formations but is an ever present possibility arising within it.  Because the value of the social order as such is never in itself sufficient to maintain its own constitution, it must have recourse to an external value, which is the order of the sacred embodied by the sovereign.  The “pure having to be, the moral imperative, requires being for itself, namely the specific mode of heterogeneous existence” (132).  Sovereignty is constituted precisely by its escape of the principle of necessity and “immediately accedes to Being (in order words, it produces itself as a value being or not being) and never as a value that has to be.” The relation established between the sovereign and the social order is one in which the two are resolved in each other. The state derives its imperative character from the agency of the sovereign existing for itself because of its centrality to the constitution of the social order.  At the same time, sovereignty is as such the external/internal of this order by denying its own role in the social constitution and so rises above the principle of its utility so as to take on a wholly divine character.


When the popular base turns against itself and finds an outlet for its grievances in an affective, quasi-religious attraction to a leader who promises to solve all of their problems, subjects are drawn into the orbit of authority while leaving aside any idea of community.  And so when given the chance to choose between figures of sovereign or democratic power, they choose the sovereign because the spaces of the social carries no meaning.  Every man and woman stands for him or herself.  The sovereign will protect them from one another.  Bonapartism is perhaps the most complete example of this condition.  But the proliferation of military dictatorships in the twentieth century, culminating, of course, in the era of World Wars, genocide and the deployment of weapons of mass destruction together with the resurgence of national populism, illustrate that the bend toward the fascist is not limited either historically or politically, but is rather a potential precisely where freedom is thought to reign supreme. When social instability takes hold, otherwise possible revolutions are cut off at the knees through the subsumption in the person of the strong leader-- Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Sisi, Modi -- of the energy that could otherwise have been invested in the reconfiguration of the social.  In place of the social, we have an investment of power (and faith) in the sovereign who exists for society because society exists for the sovereign.  This relationship arises from” the inability of homogeneous society to find in itself a reason for being and acting is what makes it dependent upon imperative forces” (Bataille 132).  Hence the sovereign's power becomes sacred and, as such, unlimited.  The power of sovereign is in turn maintained through a destructive agency directed towards internal and external elements that might threaten the integrity of the social order--immigrants, refugees, criminals.  As such, the sovereign “is exempt from the specific principle of homogeneity (the unity of the social order produced by law), the compensation of rights and duties constituting the formal law of the state:  the king’s rights are unconditional” (133).   It is strict authority, beyond the reach of human intrigues while at the same time requiring the brutal repression of anything that is against it.   This is the structure of fascism.

Bataille, George. The Bataille Reader. Eds. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson.  Malden:  Wiley-Blackwell, 1997 your social media marketing partner
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