Dr W Large

Modernity The History of the West

The contradiction in modern sovereignty is between the immanent forces of desire and the subjugation of this desire. Modern sovereignty is meant to mediate between these two. It represents itself as operating for the sake of peace and order. Thus, in the absence of sovereignty, there would only chaos, anarchy and destruction. The history of modern sovereignty, however, is quite the opposite. Far from being pacific, it is rife with conflict and crisis. The history of this process can be broken down into 3 major phases:

1.      The revolutionary discovery of the plane of immanence

2.      Counter revolution against these forces by authority

3.      The creation of the nation state as the mediator of this process.

It is important to realise that for Negri and Hardt the liberation of desire, beginning in 1200 and ending 1600, is historically first. This means that all forms of authority are a reaction against human desire. They describe this new freedom in the following way:

Human beings declared themselves masters of their own lives, producers of cities and history, and inventors of heavens [E 70].

We can understand the plane of immanence, therefore theologically, as the placing of creation into the hands of people rather than God. The world is the creation of human beings:

What is revolutionary in this whole series of philosophical development stretching from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries is that the power of creation that had previously been consigned exclusively to the heavens are now brought down to earth. This is the discovery of the fullness of the plane of immanence [E 73].

But just as much as the power of human creativity is loosened from its transcendent bonds, and power is re-inscribed upon the earth, then a new kind of ordering of desire is formulated. After the revolution, there is always the counter-revolution. Although this new kind of authority has all the power of the old, and perhaps more, it has quite a different form and legitimation. This new kind of power can be found in the texts of political philosophers, such Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. Negri and Hardt describe this new kind of legitimation of authority ‘the transcendental apparatus’. They give it this new name to differentiate it from the old form of power. It is no longer a matter of a theocracy, in which God, or a sacred history, legitimates the power of command, but where control is immanent to society itself. This new kind of immanent power, against the immanence of the multitude, begins in modernity, but has its culmination in the society of control.

The basic idea of the transcendental apparatus is that there is a ‘pre-constituted order’ that determines the desire of the multitude in advance. Negri and Hardt describe it as a kind of ‘weak transcendence’.[1] The first of example of this order being legitimised in philosophy is in the work of Descartes, where the direct relation to man and the world has to be mediated by God. The idea of God in Descartes is kind of halfway between the old transcendent God, and the new God of the transcendental apparatus, since this God, despite the fact that it is still beyond the powers of the human intellect to comprehend it, is nonetheless internal to that mind.

Perhaps the most important philosopher to justify the counter-revolution is Kant, who brings the history of Enlightenment to the highest point. Kant rids philosophy of the last remnants of transcendence in the emphasis on human finitude. The human subject is at the centre of the universe rather than God, but this subject is nonetheless constrained in advance by immanent order, law and rule, even though this order is internal. The subject must dominate itself. It is just as authoritarian as the previous transcendent one. In fact, one might argue that is it more so, since desire now desires its own repression, and thinks itself free even though it isn’t. This legitimation of the transcendental apparatus has its final form in the philosophy of Hegel, where although human beings produce history, it is done so through a pre-existed rational order that lies outside of any individual, as though it were inscribed on the human soul by a divine hand.

The history of metaphysics cannot be separated from politics. The primary function of politics, which is justified by this metaphysics, is to constrain the multitude and prevent it from acting creatively. It does this in two ways:

1.      Getting rid of medieval transcendence that prevents ‘production and consumption’.

2.      Replaces this transcendence with a more power transcendental apparatus

A good example of this new justification of politics is the work of Hobbes. The first condition is that the power of the multitude must be represented as a threat. Thus a permanent civil war is posited. Second condition is that this threat can only be prevented if the people assign to a ruler the right to act on their behalf. This is represented in terms of a contract that transfers the power of the multitude to a sovereign power above it. This theory of power was used by Hobbes to defend the monarchy at the time of revolutions, but it can be used to defend any kind of power, even a supposed democracy. So for example, in Rousseau, singular wills are represented in the general will as the transcendent power of the state. This single transcendent power is the schema of modern sovereignty. Again, it is important not to confuse this transcendent power with the old transcendent power of medieval Europe. This transcendent power is immanent to the social field. It organises it from with, rather than from without.

Modern sovereignty cannot be separated from the rise of capitalism. If the new transcendent power is the form of modern sovereignty, then capital is its content. Take, for example, the thought of Adam Smith. The antinomy at the heart of modern society is between private enrichment and public interest. The invisible hand of the market mediates this contradiction. The market, however, is not strong enough to do this by itself, and requires the political economy to ensure the proper distribution of goods, which in turn requires the strengthening of the State. With the work of Adam Smith, ‘the political transcendental of the state is defined as the economic transcendental.’ [E 86]

Sovereignty plus capital leads to the total domination of the multitude. It is transformed from a creative power to an ‘ordered totality’ [E 87]. Modern bureaucracy is the essential form of this new power, which eventually leads to the inversion of the relation between the multitude and sovereignty. Rather than the former being the origin of the latter, the latter becomes the origin of the former. Whole populations are determined and organised. This begins with the disciplinary society, as first described by Foucault, and ends in the society of control. This is not a passage outside of sovereignty. It is not as though power has disappeared, but an immanent ‘ordering function’ has replaced the transcendent hierarchical forms of command.[2]

The modern state is essentially bureaucratic. Perhaps the best analysis of this new sovereignty is to be found the work of Weber. The state appropriates the creative power of individuals. It does this through a new kind of ‘administrative rationalisation’. This rationalisation is procedural. This means that it extends throughout society. There is no reason it cannot invade every aspect of human life. Nonetheless, this extension of the state does not solve the crisis of modernity. It merely places it somewhere else. The present crisis is between the ‘development of productive forces’ and the ‘relations of domination’. Negri and Hardt’s thesis is that there is a new civil war forming on the horizon. What is important that we don’t fall, as we remember from the lecture last week, into nostalgia for previous kinds of resistance, however similar they might seem to one another. We have to appeal, on the contrary, to the very creative subjectivity that the ‘relations of domination’ want to destroy, abolish, or at best confine, even when it works against its best interests.

[1] Antoni Negri and Michel Hardt, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001) p. 79.

[2] This immanent form of government is what might be called the ‘reason of the state’ which is not a pejorative description as we might experience it, but a description of the rational state which no longer refers to any natural or divine order: ‘the art of government, instead of seeking to found itself in transcendental rules, a cosmological model, or a philosophico-moral ideal, must find the principles of its rationality in that which constitutes the specific reality of the state.’ Michel Foucault, ‘Governmentality’ in Power, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 3 (London: Penguin Books, 2002) p.213.