Neoliberalism, Populism, And Modern Transforms of Sovereignty – From The Doctrine of Discovery To The Capitalist “Thaumaturgy”, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

Sovereignty and the Modern Doctrine of Dominion

The advent of a brave, new world bifurcated between neoliberalism and populism, while bringing about the erosion of politics itself, has in the same breath led to the dissipation of all structures, principles, or personae that once upon a time could have been enrolled under the sign of what was known as “sovereignty.”  For Jean Bodin, who effectively in the sixteenth century invented the term, sovereignty amounts to “the highest power of command.”(1)  But, contrary to Carl Schmitt’s all-too-familiar “decisionist” reformulation of the sixteenth century precept, sovereignty for Bodin is absolute only to the extent that it proceeds from some immutable or transcendental ordo rerum

The sovereign can only command and act laws because the rule of what can be commanded remains prior to the command itself. As Bodin argues, the sovereign’s “law is not his law but the law of God and of nature, to which he is more strictly bound than any of his subjects.” (31)  In Bodin’s view sovereignty is “undivided” and cannot even in the rarest of circumstances be diluted or bargained away by the figure of the sovereign.  There is no such thing as a “social contract” by Bodin’s account that serves to limit the sovereignty of the sovereign. 

The rationale for this arrangement, according to Bodin, is straightforward.  It is the sovereign who makes laws, and laws are founded on God’s purpose and will, which is discernible through natural reason.  Laws, therefore, are neither reciprocal nor negotiable.  “Law depends on him who has the sovereignty and he can obligate all his subjects {by a law} but cannot obligate himself.” (15)  Sovereignty ultimately reflects the ordo rerum, not the propensities or wishes of either the sovereign himself or the people over which he rules.

The original Bodinian account of sovereignty become critical when we try to transpose the general concept, as it was articulated in the late Renaissance period, into our current neoliberal situation.  By the very implication of the term itself “neoliberalism” consists in the latter phases of the Western liberal tradition.  Accordingly, the liberal tradition can be traced back to the writings of John Locke, which were used to justify the overthrow of absolute monarchy during the Glorious Revolution of 1689.  The liberal notion of sovereignty, routinely assumed to undergird the theory of representative democracy, hinges on a notable departure from Bodin’s original insight. 

If one reads closely the opening chapters of Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, it becomes evident that a curious, subtle, but fateful transformation of what is meant by the idea of sovereignty.  In Locke sovereignty slides over into the principle of dominion, or the right to own property and to control and directs its productive capacities.   For Locke, sovereignty is the right to one’s own person, which God gave to Adam when he created him and set him in the Garden of Eden.  This semi-Edenic state is what early modern political theorists dubbed “the state of nature.”  The state of nature, which Locke clearly associated with the North American land mass recently “discovered” by Europeans, serves as the mythopoetic framing apparatus for early liberal political constructs. In a famous passage Locke describes the state of nature as follows:

To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man. A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.

Although the state of nature is, for Locke, a “state of equality,” a differentiation takes place whenever “the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty” (220).  The technical insinuation of this often scanted passage in Locke is that sovereignty in the political sense is not something given, but earned.  

Throughout the Second Treatise Locke tends to associate sovereignty with natural liberty.  However, in the state of nature liberty remains fragile and subject to the aggressive whims of other.  Thus, in order to guarantee what Locke characterizes as “liberty or sovereignty” human beings must enter into a “social contract” in the form of a commonwealth.  Through creation of the social contract, which exchanges natural liberty for law, homo politicus “puts on the bonds of civil society…by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it.”

The social contract guarantees that natural liberty be maintained, “because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature.” (255). At the same time, the “sovereignty” of the individual person that is associated with the preservation of one’s natural liberty requires a kind of effective agency that makes one what we might characterize as a “real” person rather than the fictive one who exists in the state of nature.  What makes a sovereign person a real sovereign person is the act of appropriation, or culling and constituting from the bounty of nature what can legally be identified as “real estate” or real property.

Locke enlarges on the intimate connection between sovereignty in this sense and the act of appropriation as the establishment of “dominion” in the fifth chapter

God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. The fruit, or venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no inclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i. e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life. (228)

Dominion, which renders sovereignty concrete in the political context, requires “inclosure” as well as labor, that is, the parceling off of the commons which was underway in England during Locke’s lifetime and the expropriation of indigenous lands across America by planters and independent farmers.  The Lockean theory of sovereignty, in contrast with Bodin, rests on a transformation of the ordo rerum into an ordo labore.  Locke goes on:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. (229)

The Theory of Capture and the “Doctrine of Discovery”

Here we have in the Lockean thesis concerning labor, as opposed to the later Marxist version, the base elements of modern capitalism.  It is “capital,” that is, the enclosed, encoded, and controlled means of both generating and expanding a productive surplus, that reigns sovereign.  Whereas Locke famously had outlined the aims of civil government as the protection of “life, liberty, and property,” it is the Lockean view of political sovereignty that masks the dependence of both law and commonwealth on the “sovereignty” of the very surplus.  Hence the seeds for the metamorphosis under neoliberalism, as Wendy Brown puts it, of homo politicus into homo oeconomicus are slyly scattered through Locke’s well-known seventeenth century treatise.     It is capital, not the autonomous political subject, who in classic liberalism is disclosed as “sovereign”. It is capital indeed that wields the “power to command”.

As Tink Tinker (wazhazhe nation), an eminent American Indian scholar observes in his alternative reading of Locke, the latter’s “philosophical writings helped to rationalize (and ultimately to legalize) the theft of lands from aboriginal landowners by White english invaders based on his own understanding of the superiority of english culture and english ways.” (50). The Lockean political hermeneutic of labor and land “heavily shapes the legal and philosophical basis for all property ownership and property laws in the United States today, and it does so by creating a legal logic for engaging in colonial occupation and coercive control of Native peoples.” (51). 

The Lockean argument in many respects simply refines an epistemic frame that was developed around the time of Columbus’ first sailing by the European Catholic powers in alliance with the papacy known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.”  According to the Upstander Project, the Doctrine of Discovery ”established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians.” 

The Doctrine of Discovery, however, did not merely replicate a religious ideology centered on Christian supremacy which had been previously persisted for more than a millennium and was invoked to justify the military suppression of non-Christian peoples, a form of “monotheistic” hegemony that had been pursued also by Middle Eastern empire builders from the ancient Persians to the Muslim Ummayads.  Robert A. Williams, Jr. in his book Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization points out that it took secular form during the Renaissance in reviving the ancient Greek and Roman notion of the “uncivilized” outsider, the so-called “savage” who must be subjugated and reformed through harsh disciplinary methods into relinquishing their unacceptable moral and cultural attitudes and practices.  “The idea of the savage”, Williams stresses, has “become integral to Western civilization’s understanding of its legal reasons and justifications for conquering, colonizing, and converting pagan tribal peoples wherever they were encountered in the world.” (388)

A detailed genealogy of the Doctrine of Discovery and its impact on the modern Western mind is not our purpose here.  But our main consideration here should be the trajectory by which it shifted shapes while maintaining itself across the centuries, even undergoing a revival in its global neoliberal guise.  The key factor to keep in mind is that the Lockean transposition of sovereignty into dominion in virtue of a “lawful” division and appropriation of the commons by individual inputs of labor marks the historical transition from feudalism to capitalism in both its early mercantile and financial forms and today’s virtualized variant. 

Contrary to how Locke is sometimes interpreted, he was not the first to enunciate a “labor theory of value” so much as to what we might term a theory of capture.  Locke recognized that the original inhabitants of the land, who were hunter-gatherers, contributed as much “labor” as later agrarian settlers from Europe. 

But the difference, according to Locke, consists in the fact that the former merely made use of what the land afforded them, whereas the latter’s “labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right.”  (229) The question of “right”, therefore, turns on the capture of the generative processes of nature and redirecting them toward surplus production, which pari passu elevates what Marx in his analysis of capital referred to as “use value” into “exchange value.” 

The accumulation of capital through the co-optation of surplus labor value within the indomitable wheelworks of commodity exchange only became possible because of this primordial transmutation of fluid relations in the setting of “nature” between human beings and other living organisms into abstract entities and differential systems of appropriation, ownership and “entitlement.”  It is this complex historical segmentation and apportionment of what was previously common that constitutes the apparatus of capture that Locke characterizes as “right”.  It was not so much the industrial revolution as this grand and sweeping epistemic thaumaturgy, which gathered momentum in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that truly marks what Karl Polanyi named “the great transformation.”  It was also what turned the Doctrine of Discovery into a genuine juggernaut.  Dominion could easy be established by planting a flag on the shore of a distant continent and claiming it for some remote and jaded European monarch. 

But the advantage of superior weaponry, or even the impulse to evangelize and “crusade” for some sort of late Medieval, imagined, Christopolitan vision of a consecrated – and also subjugated – world orbis et urbis –  remained both a fragile and ephemeral instrument for achieving “dominion” in the modern sense.  It is the machinery of what Walter Mignolo has termed “extractivism” – and capitalism, should we need to be reminded, is nothing more or less than the ongoing and gigantist extraction not just of material resources, but of value itself.  “Extractivism, possession,and dispossession,” Mignolo insists, “have a long history in the formation and the transformation” of what he dubs the “colonial matrix of power”.  It has even been the driving force behind the world mission of “progressive” neoliberalism, insofar as “from the second half of the twentieth century to the present, extractivism has fueled the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution”, that is, the digitization of the global field of value-creation and economic production. (159) 

Throughout the age of ancient empire up until the early phases of the Columbian exchange the mark of dominion was always a sovereignty of plenipotentiary claims on both the fealty and epistemic commitments of weaker peoples incorporated into the monarch’s domain through superior soldiery or administrative ingenuity.   This impulse to assert and expand a universalistic cultural hegemony, whether we are talking about the Alexandrian koine,  the Augustan Romanitas, the pretense of the Abbasid caliphate to be a genuine world-spanning umma, the unification of the Holy Roman and Frankish empires in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries just prior to the voyages of “discovery” into the ideal of Christendom, has always borne some semblance of the nineteenth century colonial conceit of a “civilizing mission.”   

It is only “Euro-Christian” in its most recent iterations, but it can be traced all the way back to the imperial quest for expansion, unification, and domination that arises in the Near East as early as the second millennium BCE.  In other words, it is built into the logic of the civis, the city that turns into the self-aggrandizing “state” apparatus that incarnates a totalizing cosmology through relentless duress and hierarchical organization of diverse populaces.  Monarchy, monotheism, and “monopoly” (in the original sense of the ability to coerce all transactions) consist in the baseline structures of “civilized” existence. 

As the noted urbanist Lewis Mumford famously put it more than a half century ago, “the cycle of conquest, extermination, and revenge is the chronic condition of all ‘civilized’ states.” (220). And, as Mumford also emphasizes in his book The City in History, this cycle repeated itself because it was “the container of internal disruptive forces, directed toward ceaseless destruction and extermination” which in a proto-Orwellian manner of speaking denominated anew not as violence, but as “progress” and “justice.” (53)

From Monopolitics to Mercantilism

The notion of sovereignty as the transcendental sign of a monopolitics founded upon both the semiotic and supervisory functions of the hierarchical state apparatus is what finally comes to be codified in Bodin’s writings.  It harks back to the ancient imperial paradigm of nature and society as a seamlessly and ontologically woven together.  “Dominion”, if we can call it that, does not have to be adjudicated.  It is inscribed in the ordo rerum.  Anything its emissaries “discover” must naturally, therefore, be incorporated into it. 

We find this ancient indistinction between sovereignty and dominion at the core of the original Doctrine of Discovery.  Everything that falls within the sovereign’s domain of influence and surveillance must be inherently fed and assimilated into its symbolical machinery, and whatever cannot be digested is automatically annihilated.  Filmer’s view of the sovereign as both primal patriarch and plenipotentiary, to which Locke opposed his theory of republican government, merely codifies the ancient template for an imperial monopolitics.  The monopolitics of an aggressive state formation throughout the seventeenth and for the first half of the eighteenth century carried this millennium-old trend to its logical conclusion. 

The end of internal European conflict with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 fostered a new dynamic of competition for control of land, people, and resources abroad, especially throughout the “New World.”  As A. González Enciso observes, the result was that “warfare, active or passive…was taken as a given and thus became to this extent a permanent feature.” (8)  A new global economy of “mercantilism” built on the notion of what Enciso dubs the “fiscal-military state” arose, one which sought to maximize revenues from trade to the government’s advantage and to accumulate precious metals, or “treasure.”  Austerity at home was encouraged through sumptuary laws in order to concentrate as much wealth as possible in the hands of the states and its bureaucracy, which in turn resulted in the impoverishment of previously self-sufficient agricultural workers and yeoman estate holders who were exported overseas as criminals or indentured servants. 

Colonies under the mercantile system were developed primarily with the aim of gaining strategic advantage over trade routes and thus maximizing the balance of trade at a national level.  They also accomplished the dual purpose of providing external markets and basic commodities in order to augment the wealth and power of the state.  Although mercantilism was always more a discursive practice among royalist finance ministers and their political retinue than it was a coherent policy or economic doctrine, as Lars Magnusson has made clear, the effort to maximize wealth itself had the effect of generating excesses of financial capital which were initially deployed for military output but eventually became the wellspring of investment in the industrial transformations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. 

Overflowing national treasuries as part of the evolving system of state-directed and state-serving economies that Adam Smith himself, the apostle of free trade and limited state intervention, both baptized and criticized as “mercantilist”, thus became the early modern signatures of a long-gesticulating planetary thrust toward monarchial dominion and the blazoning of the monopolitical form of sovereignty.   But that would change drastically with the appearance of republican styles of political economy, which had both their origins and means of justification in an entirely different way of construing the idea of dominion as well as the Doctrine of Discovery. 

As noted above, the republican style can be traced to a change from the monopolitical idea of sovereignty, embodied in a single person and expressed as a symbolic totality (as in Louis XIV well-known remark l’état, c’est moi), to that of a diverse ensemble of self-motivated moral agents who devise de novo a “civil government” by means of a social contract with one another.  This shift in the semiotics of sovereignty overall can be understood as a reversal of the ancient idea of sovereignty as dominion to one of dominion as sovereignty.  In other words, dominion no longer can be extended simply through the discovery and superintendence of lands and peoples as well as resources.  It must be gained through the productive alteration of the natural world for the sake of both human and divine ends. 

The Liberal Thaumaturgy

What inspired this change?  According to the celebrated thesis of Max Weber, this alteration follows the spiritual discipline of “worldly asceticism” or secular “saintliness”, the transfiguration of the human from status naturae to status gratiae.  But with Protestantism – or technically Calvinism in Weber’s study – saintliness “was thoroughly rationalized in this world and dominated entirely by the aim to add to the glory of God on earth.” Furthermore, “only a life guided by constant thought could achieve conquest over the state of nature. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum was taken over by the contemporary Puritans with this ethical reinterpretation.” (59)

Locke, of course, was a Calvinist, as was Rousseau who a century later in Book III of The Social Contract redefined sovereignty not as ontological, but as de-ontological.  Sovereignty does not derive from the unity of the divine and human will in the figure of ate the monarch, but from the combined effect of free, ethical decision-makers acting in concert with other for whom positive law must be commensurate with what Kant, an admirer of Rousseau, termed the universal “moral law.” 

For Rousseau, this law is expressed politically as the general will, and it requires the separation of sovereignty from state power.  “Every free action is produced,” Rousseau wrote, “by the concurrence of two causes; one moral, i.e., the will which determines the act; the other physical, i.e., the power which executes it. When I walk towards an object, it is necessary first that I should will to go there, and, in the second place, that my feet should carry me. If a paralytic wills to run and an active man wills not to, they will both stay where they are. The body politic has the same motive powers; here too force and will are distinguished, will under the name of legislative power and force under that of executive power.”(24). Sovereignty is essentially, therefore, the transcendental moral claim of virtuous citizens upon those who govern them.

One could easily make the case, as political thinkers as different as Mill and Rawls have done to some degree, that the principle of sovereignty informing theories of “representative democracy” implies a purely rational or formalistic politics independent of the messy contingencies of political economy.  Such arguments have frequently been trundled out to make the case that capitalism and democracy themselves are of necessity joined historically at the hip, insofar as the logic of free markets and the rationality of electoral choice mirror and sustain each other over the long haul.  From the classic liberal vantage point the “spirit of capitalism” in the final summation is merely the internal human push for moral as well as political autonomy. 

These kinds of inferences have been teased out time and time again to cover up what is actually going on when we examine closely the connection between the Lockean architectural plan for republican government and the economic theory of value as capture, as appropriation.   According to the contemporary French theorists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, however, the failure to make the appropriate connections are due to the assumption that capitalism and the prioritizing of markets in economic policy are one and the same.  The latter is essentially a juridical strategy, while the former consists in an internal sort of thaumaturgy. 

Mercantilism as a scheme for early modern state formation gave currency for the first time to the nationalist policies of achieving competitive advantage and a balance of payments overage.  But what made “capitalism” possible was the realization that the generation of a surplus within the royal coffers was irrelevant to what Smith termed the genuine “wealth of nations,” which depended on the unleashing of domestic entrepreneurship and the promotion of positive ledgers among a myriad of individual economic actors.  In fact, it was the legal assault on the monarchial formulations of sovereignty and dominion that we find in Locke’s Second Treatise, which in many ways simply restated earlier iterations of “the rights of Englishmen”, which opened an economic space in the British Isles, in particular, for the kind of unfettered entrepreneurialism that Smith so prized. 

But, as Boltanski and Chiapello emphasize, it was what we are calling the “thaumaturgical” element in the popularization of sovereignty highlighted in Locke’s argument that can account for the emergence of “capital” as the self-generative and self-sustaining engine of economic empire.  It was capital in this sense that fascinated Marx.  The novelty consists in an epistemic reframing of “capitalism as cosmos” and the “automonization of economic activities” that can now be systemically calculated and formalized in terms of “economic science”, or what nowadays is known as “econometrics”.  (156). 

Stated as a value proposition, that means the extractive nature of capital must be seen not as a necessary evil, but as a biopolitical regimen in Foucault’s use of the expression that fosters the “common good.”  The surplus value wrested from market transactions needs to assume its own kind of collective socio-cultural hegemony, which is beyond the control of market actors per se

As in the fable of the sorcerer’s apprentice, it ends up powerfully replicating the basic productive task through casting the powerful spell of “autonomization” to the point that it substantially alters the basic rules of political economy to the point that its moral attributes are no longer discernible.  Here the mysterious “invisible hand” of Smith, a secular trope for the psychic burden in Calvinism of bearing the marks of the elect that Weber so brilliantly diagnosed as the motive force of bourgeois industry and the obsession with capital accumulation, is no longer meaningful.   Capitalism itself must perform the role of an immanent theodicy that grounds and warrants itself.   According to Boltanski and Chiapello, “the spirit of capitalism must meet a demand for self-justification, particularly in order to resist anti-capitalist critique; and this involves reference to conventions of general validity as to what is just or unjust.” (196)

Eric Santner, for one, has stressed that biopolitics can be seen as the transmission of the idea of sovereignty into the post-monarchial setting.  It is the redistribution of the “king’s two bodies” as the new democratic body politic in an effort to reconstitute the “sovereign” as the generalized commune bonum, as a new moral “physiology” as the “’sublime’ life-substance of the People, who, at least in principle, become the bearers of sovereignty, assume the dignity of the prince.”(xi-xii) 

If biopolitics then is the historical chrysalis for neoliberalism, as Foucault demonstrated so successfully, we must begin to ask ourselves if the resistance to the latter on the part of present day “populist” movements does not add up so much to a bizarre metapolitics of the “empty place of power”, as Claude Lefort notoriously designated it, or to the flaunting of a contentless politics of rage against elites, which theorists influenced by the work of Ernesto Laclau are apt to contend, as to a recapture of the realm of property and production which the Lockean alchemy that turned popular sovereignty into the dominion of capital has forestalled throughout the modern era.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic(Cascade Books, 2017)Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis(IVP Academic, 2016)Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  His newest book is entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).  He is also Senior Consulting Editor for The New Polis.

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