Great Politics (assorted notes)


Convergent with the Proudhon’s anarchistic analysis of the primordial linkage between the State and war is Nietzsche’s critique of social contract theory, as detailed by Hugo Drochon in his book Nietzsche’s Great Politics. To quote him at length:

In “The Greek State,” Nietzsche also takes issue with Wagner’s On State and Religion—another manuscript that Nietzsche read while in Tribschen—which the latter had recently composed at the behest of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. There Wagner accounts for the emergence of the state as from a Hobbesian “fear of violence,” which leads to a “contract whereby the units seek to save themselves from mutual violence, through a little practice of restraint.” While Nietzsche concurred that the state of nature was one of bellum omnium contra omnes (GSt, 170), he disagreed with the idea that the state arose through a contract. He instead saw the state as originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand,” who “suddenly, violently, and bloodily” takes control of a yet-unformed population and forces it into a hierarchical society (GSt, 168). [54]


In “The Greek State,” Nietzsche concurred with the Hobbesian view of the state of nature being a bellum omnium contra omnes. But he did not account for its birth in a contract. Instead, as we just saw, he located thebirth of the “cruel tool” of the state in the iron “conquerors.” Indeed, these conquerors are themselves, on Nietzsche’s account, the state. Yet the “ignominious” birth of the state is justified as a means to genius and culture. “Nature”—we see the influence of Romanticism on Nietzsche’s early thought here—had instilled in the conqueror the state-creating instinct so that she might achieve “her salvation in appearance in the mirror of genius.” The “dreadful” birth of the state, whose monuments include “devastated lands, ruined towns, savage men, consuming hatred of nations,” is justified by nature because it serves as a means to genius. “The state appears before it proudly and calmly: leading the magnificently blossoming woman, Greek society, by the hand” (GSt, 169).

While Nietzsche’s genealogy of the state claims to be more realistic than the “fanciful,” in his own words, account of the social contract tradition, this does not imply that on his account the state cannot be justified. Of course there is a difference between normative and descriptive claims here: over the course of their writings, Hobbes and indeed Rousseau gave quite detailed accounts of the history of the state they understood to be at odds with the normative ideals they were recommending, and the social contract theorists are often thought of as having tailored their state of nature to justify the type of state they were advocating. But Nietzsche is here rejecting both their descriptive—how the state came into being—and normative claims—how the birth of the state can be justified.

The state, for Nietzsche, is justified because it opens up a space within which culture, through genius, can for the first time flourish. There are a number of elements to this claim. First, that the time and energy used to defend oneself in the “war of all against all” is redirected, within a pacified society, toward more artistic and cultural pursuits. Nietzsche explains that once states have been founded everywhere, the bellicose urge gets concentrated into “less frequent” yet altogether much stronger “bolts of thunder and flashes of lightning” of “dreadful clouds of war between nations.” Thus, much as it was for Hobbes, the “state of nature” gets transferred to the interstate level. In the meantime, however, the “concentrated effect of that bellum, turned inward, gives society time to germinate and turn green everywhere, so that it can let radiant blossoms of genius sprout forth as soon as warmer days come.” In other words, the energy that was used to simply stay alive in the individual war of all against all gets redirected, once encased in and protected by the new state, either collectively toward wars against other nations or, in the intermediary, toward satisfying a “new world of necessities”—namely, culture (GSt, 170).

The two interrelated justifications for the state—genius and culture— come together in the figure of the first genius—the military genius. Since the beasts of prey were organized on a “war footing,” the first type of state, even the “archetype” of the state, is the military state, and the first genius is a military genius. The first work of art is the state itself and its constitution; Nietzsche mentions the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus—a thought borrowed from Jacob Burckhardt. As a military state, the first state therefore divides itself into hierarchical military castes, and this “warlike society” necessarily takes the form of a pyramidal structure with a large slave-class bottom stratum (GSt, 172). [56-57]

As with all things, however, the state decays. For Nietzsche this appears in the time of the Kulturstaat, the modern state that treats its subjects as mere means to furthering the cause of “existing institutions”. “However loudly the state may proclaim its services to cultures, it furthers culture in order to further itself.” The state also loses what Nietzsche regarded as a sense of excitement regarding its function: mass bureaucracy and the dreary affairs of parliament tore from the governing institutions the “ancient Isis veil”. In an aphorism from Human, All Too Human, the cause of modern decline is highlighted: “modern democracy is the historical form of the state.”

Cue the transformation into what Drochon refers to as Nietzsche’s “postmodern state”:

Nietzsche concludes by proclaiming “with certainty” that “distrust of all government” will result from the “uselessness and destructiveness of these short-winded struggles,” and will “impel men to a quite novel resolve: the resolve to do away with the concept of the state, to abolish the distinction between public and private.” Instead, an “invention more suited to their purpose than the state was will gain victory over the state.” “Private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) will “step by step absorb the business of the state,” including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government”: protecting “the private person from the private person.”

This marks another point of at least partial convergence with Proudhon, who also foresaw the unwinding of social and political relations into the hurried networks of economic exchange. He wrote in the General Idea of Revolution in the Nineteenth Century that

…if I could make a contract with all, as I can with some; if all could renew it among themselves, if each group of citizens, as a town, county, province, corporation, company, etc., formed by a like contract, and considered as a moral person, could thereafter, and always by a similar contract, agree with every and all other groups, it would be the same as if my own will were multiplied to infinity. I should be sure that the law thus made on all questions in the Republic, from millions of different initiatives, would never be anything but my law; and if this new order of things were called government, it would be my government.

Thus the principle of contract, far more than that of authority, would bring about the union of producers, centralize their forces, and assure the unity and solidarity of their interests.

The system of contracts, substituted for the system of laws, would constitute the true government of the man and of the citizen; the true sovereignty of the people, the Republic.

Speaking of state decay, demotic chaos and long-term political cycles, Peter Turchin has written a brief-but-interesting response to Tyler Cowen’s recent “No, Fascism Can’t Happen Here”. He ultimately reaches the same conclusion as Cowen via a different route, but his final note is telling: “In my opinion, the greatest danger for us today (and into the 2020s) is not the rise of a Hitler, but rather a Second American Civil War.” The 2020s thread is picked up elsewhere.

Also keeping up with the troubles is Chris Shaw on zombie politics, which moves from the fragmentation and conflict internal to the dominant political structures towards a Carsonian-informed look at potential leverages for Exit. In other words, ideas that move in the same waters as Nietzsche’s postmodern state and Proudhon’s contract government.




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Contrary to the impression given by the demands of socially-minded anarchists, anarchy is already existent and active. This principle does not emerge either from the ground posited by the ranks of the immediatists, the egoists, and general post-left milieu – that anarchy is actualized when we only act in a manner that coheres with the theoretical expectation of what such a (non)state entails. This articulation of anarchy is drab and despondently humanistic, pivoting itself on the power of a given agent to execute their will and desire. Anarchism is distributed along a pole marked by the so-called ‘social anarchists’, and the ‘post-left’ on the other. A common logic binds this pole: everything begins and ends with the human. Exteriority is shunted away, and even if something like it is posed (such as in the common appeals to flowery poetic chaos) it still remains locked into the interior realm of human experience.

Against the binding of the anarchist pole, another way: the realization of an anarchy that is fundamental and unconditional because it serves as the unground for the great struggles of power. To draw this out, consider the global hierarchy of sovereign powers, with its ebbs and flows, consolidations and breakdowns. If we were to begin diagramming these fluctuating arrangements over time, it would quickly become clear that there is no radiant institution that guarantees the stability and rights of the kingdoms beneath it. Not a sovereign of sovereigns, but an immense void: anarchy.

An articulation of anarchy as a transcendental force has been, in fact, a theoretical bedrock in the realist and neorealist schools of international relations. To quote from neorealist theorist Kenneth Waltz’s text Theory of International Politics:

Structural questions are questions about the arrangement of the parts of a system. The parts of domestic political systems stand in relations of super- and subordination. Some are entitled to command; others are required to obey. Domestic systems are centralized and hierarchic. The parts of the international-political system stand in relations of coordination. Formally, each is the equal of all the others. None is entitled to command; none is required to obey. International systems are decentralized and anarchic… The problem is this: how to conceive of an order without an orderer and of organizational effects where formal organization is lacking.

Despite being a far cry from the usual analysis offered by the contemporary anarchist, the IR definition of anarchy conforms very closely to way anarchism was defined by the first anarchist – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. For Proudhon, there was no contradiction between professing an adherence to an anarchist philosophy and spending time as a politician. A survey of his work betrays a deep fascination with state banking, constitutions, and federated sovereigns. This wasn’t an uncritical embrace of the state – Proudhon challenged the consolidation of dispersed territorial units, communities, and cities into larger European states – but it was a recognition that history unfolds through a dance of cascading variables that wage war against one another, find temporary balance, and break apart again. Adjusting his philosophical framework to Marx’s correct charge that his The System of Economical Contradictions had haply smeared together Kant and Hegel in posing that antimonies resolved into synthesis, Proudhon wrote that “THE ANTIMONY CANNOT BE RESOLVED; this is the fundamental flaw of the entire Hegelian philosophy. The two terms composing the antimony BALANCE either against each other, or against another antinomic term: which leads to the desired result. A balance is not a synthesis in the way Hegel understood it and as I had supposed like him.”

While it’s up for debate whether or Proudhon had a firm grasp of Hegelian philosophy, what’s important is how this framework framed his understanding of the political. Social power is a manifestation of “collective force”, which manifests in the form of the state. This is produced through the movement of antinomic opposition into the temporary alliance of balance which occurs not only internally to the state – convergence on concepts of justice and right – but externally as well, in the form of the balance of great powers across the international stage. The question, then, is the same that Waltz posed: how can order be produced without an orderer? For Proudhon, the engine of multi-scaled political self-organization is force and war:

The right of force, the right of war and the right of nations, defined and circumscribed as we have just done, supporting, implying and engendering each other, govern history. They are the secret providence that leads nations, makes and unmakes states, and, unifying force and law, drives civilization on to the safest and widest road. Through them, many things are explained that no ordinary law, historic system, or capricious evolutions of chance can account for.

War makes and breaks political equilibrium, Proudhon’s term for the balance of power. It engenders the political and also stands for its inevitable unmaking in the swirls of unending progress (understood here as the empty, abstract form of progress detached from normative particulars). It is, therefore, a force outside the state, the external regulator of the state’s activities: a swift and unpredictable force that takes the place of the absent sovereign of sovereigns. In other words, war and anarchy are for Proudhon – just as they are for IR realists – intimately entangled with one another. Bellum omnium conta omnes, the Hobbesian state of nature as the war of all against all, is affirmed, yet Proudhon’s thought converges with Nietzsche’s critique of social contract theory in that state is sustained by this primordial conflict. It is not the antithesis of justice (which for Proudhon is nothing more that the production of balance), but its fount.

Nick Land turns Proudhon’s mutualism pitch-black with his political theology of meta-neocameralism:

The effective cyclic reproduction of power has an external criterion — survival. It is not open to any society or regime to decide for itself what works. Its inherent understanding of its own economics of power is a complex measurement, gauging a relation to the outside, whose consequences are life and death. Built into the idea of sovereign property from the start, therefore, is an accommodation to reality. Foundational to MNC [Meta-Neocameralism], at the very highest level of analysis, is the insight that power is checked primordially. On the Outside are wolves, serving as the scourge of Gnon. Even the greatest of all imaginable God-Kings — awesome Fnargl included — has ultimately to discover consequences, rather than inventing them. There is no principle more important than this.

In Proudhon’s mutualism, as with MNC, how one enters into relations with the outside – or anarchy – is directly relevant to the question of survival. Organization can strive to hold the anarchic at bay, or it can exhibit an openness to it. The cold entropic laws governing the decreased life spans of closed systems sends the former down a path of stagnation and death – yet the latter cannot be mistaken for any semblance of immortality and even long-term stability. It might be that this path leads to Bataille’s sovereign that is marked by total absence, or a cutting-up and unfolding of the sovereign body in a manner akin to Lyotard’s visceral body horror: “Open the so-called body and spread out all its surfaces…”

Do what thou wilt is the challenge that anarchy intones, but to accept it is to enter into a demon’s pact (the Anarch here becoming an anomalous agent, a Sorcerer). Freedom might be found stepping towards that threshold, but at the absolute risk of everything. Balance is precarious, and the threat of complete submersion whips and batters: “No sooner have we reached the condition or ground of our principle than we are hurled headlong beyond to the absolutely unconditioned, the ‘ground-less’ from which the ground itself emerged.” For Proudhon, this means that crowned anarchy topples royalist absolutism. If political organization is sustained, it must be one that goes in the opposite direction from the absolutist doctrine, that rides the waves of progress through that which will decay and dissolve . Such is the supreme law of anarchy:

This double movement, one of degeneration, the other of progress, that resolves itself in a unique constellation, also results from the definition of the principles, from their relative position and their roles: here again no ambiguity is possible, there is no room for arbitrariness. The fact is objectively evident and mathematically certain; this is what we will call a LAW.

ADDENDUM: it seems that Uri already covered much of the content in this post with his superb “Anarchist Transcendental Ontology”. A small sample of this highly recommended read:

at the edge, anarchist ontology seeks the un-ground of power – the realistic source, beyond all mere wishes, from which any ability to produce yields. it incrementally (or, progressively, in a strictly proudhonian sense) found the hints of such un-ground in variation-selection dynamics, or simply “war”.this scale-free framework, implexing itself throughout the universe’s evolution, gives rise and tide to all monarchs, presidents, tyrants and fatherlands.

anarchist ontology, thus, proceeds by breaking up whole into fractal fragments in competition – the only way any order can be produced. thus, it’s not only that the order of the social necessarily falls back on the competition among its individual components, but that the order within the individuals itself falls back on pre-individual components in competition. up above and down below, it’s individualities and collectivities.

Ruin and Freedom


If Proudhon’s philosophy of progress can be summed up in just a few words, it would be this: things grow and things decay, and things grow again elsewhere. State decay, community decay, cultural decay, economic decay so on and so forth – this is the necessary movement for state growth, community growth cultural growth, economic growth, etc. etc. It will, however, never run backwards: what has inevitability decayed is barred from returning in its original form. Anticipating Deleuze and Guattari’s stunning observation (one brought into alignment the with non-linear movements of complex systems by Manuel DeLanda) that deterritorialization within an assemblage implies reterritorialization elsewhere – and vice-versa – by centuries, Proudhon delivers an understanding of progress fully stripped of the assumptions packed into it by modernity at its most hubristic.

One of the common critiques of U/ACC is that it doesn’t deal sufficiently with the question of collapse, that its assumptions align with the most Promethean of moderns in that it envisions, on the ‘other side’ of technoeconomic take-off, unending wealth, prosperity, and orgiastic delirium. Nothing could be further from the truth (except perhaps the last one, though the delirium in mind is hardly that of bourgeois decadence). Sites of techno-economic intensity will doubtlessly be characterized by self-reinforcing growth, which – until it hits the transcendental wall of hard singularity – will bleed through society in the form of higher standards of living, health, and happiness. But things decay, and grow elsewhere. The interior cost of this techno-economic feedback will be the consolidation of the human agent into the gears of the urban machine, but the exterior costs will be something completely different: ruin.

Jane Jacob’s argument concerning the relationship between urban development and rural zones, detailed in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, helps draw out the implications of this. For Jacobs, the focus of macro-economic analysis should be shifted from the scale of the nation-state to the city-unit, noting that the economic health of the city is not only a barometer of the nation’s economy, but actually takes lead in driving economic development. This takes place because the city tends to development into a self-reinforcing entity, bringing industry inwards toward itself in a manner which effectively transforms the urban zone into an immense vacuum that sucks constant and variable capital from the rural.

Combine this with the globalization of post-Fordist supply chains and the evolution of capital from its striated form to the smooth, it becomes clear which direction the progress of decay and growth is heading, at least in the current time. The rural – as well as various obsoleted urban zones killed by the thrasher of creative destruction – becomes dotted with what has been described as “sacrifice zones”. Driving across the United States and you’ll see more of these than you can count. Extrapolate how these conditions will look in ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years and the creeping ruin looms greater and greater. Collapse is actualized in these places, and does not contradict the fiery circuit of growth elsewhere. Or, to put it even more bluntly, collapse is the cost of unstoppable techno-economic acceleration. To paraphrase an old Trotskyite proverb: the system might be combined, but its development is completely and totally uneven.

Deep in the caves, Schwund pokes and prods Jacob’s theory of urban path dependency for weaknesses to exploit: “this sort of is due to centralized production modes, people move to the city because that’s where the jobs are and vice versa, but if I can sit in the desert writing code for killbots that get produced not in some factory but anywhere my company sets up a 3d printer, and I get everything I need droned to my doorstep by amazon there’s little reason to go anywhere.”

With shades of Kevin Carson, Schwund shines a light on another dimension of collapse: that ruin and a particular kind of freedom need not be antithetical. Out beyond the shimmering borders of the internally-individuating urban zone – and maybe serving a foreshadow of that zone’s own fate under the blade of capital – the sucked-dry bones of yesterday’s world may very well become a space teeming, swarming with strange things, a vast and broken laboratory incubating mutants of its own kind. Consider the following vision of the coming “drop-out economy”, one of the weirder (and more exciting, if a little overly optimistic) things to be written by an American conservative political commentator:

Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.

Rather than warehouse their children in factory schools invented to instill obedience in the future mill workers of America, bourgeois rebels will educate their kids in virtual schools tailored to different learning styles. Whereas only 1.5 million children were homeschooled in 2007, we can expect the number to explode in future years as distance education blows past the traditional variety in cost and quality. The cultural battle lines of our time, with red America pitted against blue, will be scrambled as Buddhist vegan militia members and evangelical anarchist squatters trade tips on how to build self-sufficient vertical farms from scrap-heap materials. To avoid the tax man, dozens if not hundreds of strongly encrypted digital currencies and barter schemes will crop up, leaving an underresourced IRS to play whack-a-mole with savvy libertarian “hacktivists.”

Work and life will be remixed, as old-style jobs, with long commutes and long hours spent staring at blinking computer screens, vanish thanks to ever increasing productivity levels. New jobs that we can scarcely imagine will take their place, only they’ll tend to be home-based, thus restoring life to bedroom suburbs that today are ghost towns from 9 to 5. Private homes will increasingly give way to cohousing communities, in which singles and nuclear families will build makeshift kinship networks in shared kitchens and common areas and on neighborhood-watch duty. Gated communities will grow larger and more elaborate, effectively seceding from their municipalities and pursuing their own visions of the good life. Whether this future sounds like a nightmare or a dream come true, it’s coming.

At the far horizon from this short-term vision is the time-tangling of modernity catching up with itself and plummeting to its apex: paleo-agorism and the cyborg nomad. “if it’s true as Land says, that reaction is never regressive enough and modernity is never advanced enough, what you get, at the point where circuit closes, at doom, is nomad cyborgs. a hunter-gatherer band formed by the most fiercely selected elements of technology.”