Our New Sovereign

Syracuse University

In the light of the recent violence and sovereign personages, I have been reflecting on the conclusion of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which should be read as an introduction to our century, and not as a summary judgment on the past one. As Arendt forecast, “it may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form . . . only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.” What does Arendt mean by this conditional statement except that with the deaths of Stalin and Hitler, the fall of National Socialism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full phenomena of both fascism and totalitarianism is not behind us, since its causes still remain on our contemporary horizon. Here, Arendt is probably employing the understanding of the “origin” from the German word Wurzel, meaning “root”; as with any weed in the garden, if you cut off the head without digging out the root, it will flower again.

But will this plant assume the same form in the future as it did in the past? No, and this is where Arendt’s definition of an “authentic origin” of the causes of the historical phenomenon is so prescient for approaching our current predicament, since her own definition vacillates between a makeshift arrangement that emerges as the symptom of the crisis of a historical arrangement of the body politic (such as socialism, or democracy), or as a completely unprecedented and novel form of government. In fact, the question is whether there is, strictly speaking, something like a single nature of a totalitarian governmentality—in many respects, already prefiguring Foucault’s question regarding the nature of sovereignty—that could be defined like other forms of government recognized by Western political traditions. As she writes: “It is in the line of such reflections to raise the question whether totalitarian government, born of this crisis and at the same time its clearest and only unequivocal symptom, is merely a makeshift arrangement, which borrows its methods of intimidation, its means of organization and its instruments of violence from the well-known political arsenal of tyranny, despotism and dictatorships, and owes its existence only to the deplorable, but perhaps accidental failure of the traditional political forces-liberal or conservative, national or socialist, republican or monarchist, authoritarian or democratic” (Arendt 461).

If we examine some of the features of the historical arrangement in order to apply them to our current situation, first we can find a social and political form that emerged from a one-party system, which today might also characterize the social and political movements that have emerged from radical fundamentalism and historical racism. Secondly, we find in all cases a sovereign defiance of positive law—especially those positive laws that determine the natural rights belonging to all individuals without regard to custom, tradition, nationality, race, or sex—often in the claim of a higher form of legitimacy, if not, as Arendt says, direct access to the source of the law itself to establish its “rule of justice” across the earth. Third, as a consequence of the above claim, we find a notion of right that can only be predicated on the right of war, as if war was an absolute necessity to guarantee the perpetuation of its biopolitical existence. In other words, its own future is guaranteed less by the birth of new subjects who become natural citizens than by the magnitude of death, quantitatively speaking, of its political and ideological enemies.

In short, what Arendt constantly underlines as a novelty is a “monstrous” form of sovereign right (i.e., “justice”) without the need of either politics or legality, both of which this sovereign believes he can do without, since he certainly does not need to concern itself with the consensus of his own subjects, nor with the positive laws that determine the rights of other national subjects, especially given the justification of war. “If it is true,” Arendt wrote concerning the last century, “that the link between totalitarian countries and the civilized world was broken through the monstrous crimes of totalitarian regimes, it is also true that this criminality was not due to simple aggressiveness, ruthlessness, warfare and treachery, but to a conscious break of that consensus juris which, according to Cicero, constitutes a ‘people,’ and which, as international law, in modern times has constituted the civilized world insofar as it remains the foundation-stone of international relations even under the conditions of war.” Moreover, today it is important to see that the monstrous crimes of the current century are not only committed by new totalitarian regimes, as in the case of Syria; by so-called “non-state actors” in international territories where, as in the case of a civil war, there can be neither right or wrong committed on either side without the reciprocal recognition of a common principle of civility (consensus juris) but; finally, by the democratic states themselves in their relentless global pursuit of an “unknown and indeterminate enemy.”

What we find among all three contemporary parties, in different respects and according to different measures, is the evidence of this conscious break which has extended from the last century and has only widened in the present one to engulf the entire planet. Thus, today the sovereign can still murder his own people, or the populations who dwell within the boundaries his territory; the terrorist networks can send their human drones into the crowded streets of London, Paris, and Barcelona; the states themselves can target “individuals” in other territories without this act producing too strenuous a contraction in the principle of international law. Nevertheless, this still constitutes a contradiction within the idea of “right,” which is founded upon nothing less than a permanent threat of violence (and which in our century continues to inform the permanent threat of nuclear war). As Kant already foresaw the nature of this contradiction at the end of the 18th century when he wrote that the notion of a Right to go to war cannot be properly conceived as an element in the Right of Nations, adding that for such a Right to be conceivable at all, it would amount to this: “that in the case of men who are so disposed it is quite right for them to destroy and devour each other, and thus to find Perpetual Peace only in the wide grave.”

Returning now to our century, let’s recall again the second and third features of our new sovereign outlined above—first, the claim to have direct access to the moral source of the law, bypassing any authority of positive or empirical law (which is often scorned as “legalism”); second, the permanent necessity of war to establish its rule of justice. Both of these features can be understood to express in extremis a form of moral exceptionalism—although one might also use the term “supremacy”—one that is also clearly evident in the grotesque figure of our popular sovereign who today struts upon the world stage threatening to sling his bolts of “fire and fury”; our contemporary Ahab, who asks his “people” each day (on Twitter) to touch the burning lance and swear hatred of an enemy, both foreign and domestic. Is it simply by accident that two days after his “fire and fury” speech against the leader of a “rogue nation,” in Charlottesville, a young white nationalist plowed through a crowd of protesters? Did he not take up the burning lance out of his own hatred, shocked by the fiery emotion expressed of our insane Captain, to become the very harpoon launched into his own whale?

On the day following the violence in Charlottesville, the comedian Jimmy Kimmel suggested that one way to correct the mistake of the last election is to elect Trump as King of America! After laughing, I stopped for a moment to consider this joke exactly as a pronouncement of an unconscious truth. As Rousseau once said concerning the Right of the Strongest, “the strongest is never strongest to be master all of the time, unless he transforms force into right.” But as Kant added later, the very principle of right is contained in the possibility of a reciprocal constraint or coercion (wechselseitigen Zwanges) which is the principal of law in the concept of Right. Without this reciprocity and legal accord, the sovereign often appears as a man without a state, a captain without a crew (a people), adrift and alone on his ship like a brigand or a Rogue.

Perhaps it is just that after these events Trump appears more and more each day as a sovereign in search of “a people,” even though this is not necessarily “the American people,” but rather a mob, a gang, a ship of fools (even though, we are told, “they are very fine people!”). Recalling the allusion to Melville—which is not insignificant as a prophecy of our “Sick America”!—we can only take comfort in the hope that this crew is doomed to perish along with their insane captain. However, Melville chooses to explain this inevitable fate using the scientific theory of magnetism according to which filaments of lead can hold together only so long as an electric current is passed through them, binding them together. Remove the electric current, and the splinters fall apart; remove the magnetism of hatred, and the crew disappears into a thousand tiny fascists who are powerless, even though a single rogue is still capable of doing horrible violence.

Therefore, in response to our century of violence and war, one can only pray–Fiat justitia, pereat mundus. According to Kant’s 18th century translation: “Let justice reign even if all the rogues in the world should perish from it.”


Gregg Lambert is Dean’s Professor of Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. His numerous books include Philosophy after Friendship: Deleuze’s Conceptual Personae and In Search of a New Image of Thought: Gilles Deleuze and Philosophical Expressionism (Minnesota, 2012).

“This is a timely, relevant book. By drawing from Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, especially their concept of friendship, Gregg Lambert offers an important reconceptualization of Kant’s essay on perpetual peace, and in doing so he sets the stage for a post-war philosophy that remains true to Kant’s ideal.”
—Jeffrey Bell, Southeastern Louisiana University

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