Sovereignty and the Supreme Power

The term “sovereignty” is ambiguous, and can lead to some confusion (as explained by Adrian Vermeule). Vermeule argues that one must distinguish between “sovereignty as fact and as theory, de re and de dicto.” This is an important clarification, because it is useful to speak about sovereignty, and the confusion can be avoided simply by using different terms.

Vermeule defines “sovereignty as fact” relying on John Austin, who stated that “if a determinate human superior, not in the habit of obedience to a like superior, receives habitual obedience from the bulk of a given society, that determinate human superior is the sovereign.”

One need not accept Austin’s precise formulation to understand the kind of thing he is doing. His definition can be understood to belong to what Carl Schmitt called the field of “sociology,” as distinguished from “jurisprudence.” It is not a juridical notion, since it involves no claim about what ought to be, but is merely a description of the way political order actually functions from the point of view of the actors’ behavior. A factual pattern of obedience in society to such a “superior” indicates the factual existence of a “sovereign.”

Although Austin’s positivism confuses the issue a bit, the point seems to be that he is seeking a universally applicable formula to distinguish political from non-political order as a mtter of fact (to the extent that such a purely descriptive definition is possible in practical philosophy). In fact, he goes on to say that whenever a “sovereign” in his sense exists in a society, then “that society (including the superior) is a society political and independent.”

And who can deny that Austin is right? A “determinate human superior” undoubtedly must exist in any political community. But we don’t have to call it “sovereign” if we wish to avoid confusion. The medieval jurists called it the summa potestas, a power supreme in its order (i.e., which admits no appeal in that order) – the supreme power. Admittedly, this is not exactly the same as Austin’s definition, since it is a juridical notion in Schmitt’s sense. But it is also a factual, “sociological” one that maps onto Austin’s notion precisely. The supreme power is that “determinate human superior, not in the habit of obedience to a like superior,” which “receives habitual obedience from the bulk of a given society.”

The confusion between “sovereignty de re and de dicto” Vermeule speaks of is therefore a confusion between a number of theories of political power and the apparently factual description of the supreme power, which Austin annoyingly called the “sovereign.” And Vermeule is right that those condemning “modern sovereignty” should be careful not to confuse it with the supreme power, and conclude wrongly that supreme power also is somehow bad, false, or a novelty.

Having clarified this, what about sovereignty?

I take “sovereignty” to refer to a maxim of modern public law, which states that the power of the political community is in principle absolute, in the sense that it lacks any limitation. This can be taken in two ways, procedural and substantive: that there is no power superior to it which could impose or enforce any limit (i.e., it is a summa potestas) and that there is no source or norm that could even in principle ground any such limitation. That is, there is no way, either theoretical or practical, to devise or impose any limit on what this power can do. Perhaps the only end that informs the action of a sovereign thus understood is its own self-preservation. It is coeval with law, and its preservation is the supreme law.

Many reasons – practical, philosophical, and theological – have been given to defend this idea. But the political principle at issue remains the same: “sovereign” is the supreme power that can do no evil. (Notice that this is properly a juridical concept, in Schmitt’s terms.)

This notion is both absurd and heretical.

It’s absurd because no such power can even be coherently conceived, much less exist in reality. If nothing else, the basic principles of nature and reality must limit its scope of action – it cannot make men immortal or change stones into bread. (The fact that it now tries to make men into women, and to have its subjects believe and decalre that it has done so, only shows how deep the infection of this error goes, not to mention its malignancy.) And if these limitations, or at least some of them, are admitted, then many other limitations can be admitted also. Procedrually, the enforcer of these limitations must in the end be “nature and nature’s God”, but of course others can and do exist; substantively, all such limitations ultimately will have the form of law.

It’s also heretical because it denies the essential dependence of political order on the authority of God, as manifested both in the reality of the natural law and in the authority of the Church as keeper and supreme interpreter of both the natural and the supernatural laws. The Christian dispensation requires that political power be limited not only in principle or substantively (by God through the natural and supernatural laws and also by the law of nations) but also in authority or procedurally, by subordination to the Church (and, one might add, to the Empire).

In fact, the authority of the Church herself (and of the Empire) is also limited in a similar way. That is, not even the Pope is “sovereign” in the modern sense, since he is bound to the law of Revelation, the final enforcer of which is, of course, God Himself.

The modern state undoubtedly wields the supreme power – how can it not? – but its claim to sovereignty is a lie and a fountain of many of its crimes and outrages.

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Liberalism and the Black Legend

«Liberalism», a wise pastor once admonished the world, «is a sin». It is both a sin against faith and against the moral order: «In the doctrinal order, it is heresy, and consequently a mortal sin against faith. In the practical order, it is a sin against the commandments of God and of the Church, for it virtually transgresses all commandments». This was the language of the Church in the days when her bloody and heroic wars with the liberal order were still within living memory, with more still waiting to be fought after Don Félix wrote his polemic.

As with many other heresies, Sardá wrote, «the uniform of the [liberal] enemy is so various, changeable, sometimes even of our own colors, that if we rely upon the outward semblance alone we shall be more often deceived than certain of his identity». This deceptive uniform has recrently been the subject of much discussion in English-language debates on Catholic political doctrine, where the transient sympathy between the Church and cosnervative liberals is visibly collapsing. The conservative’s garb has been shown to be just one more of the liberal’s disguises.

Coming to this realization about conservatism is a liberation of peculiar politcal importance for Catholics: the breaking of the (hopefully) last ideological chain, or at any rate one of the most entrapping, to liberalism. That is, it is becoming clear that no third way is possble between truth and the various flavors of error. Of course, the nature of politics is such that liberalism’s attempts to justify itself to various audiences, including to Catholics, will continue (tedious and non-responsive as most are). An authentic apostolate of politics  now mercifully free from any perceived need to kowtow to conservative pieties ― must therefore carry on to sort out these confusions.

An admirable exercise in this mandate is today on display in our friend Pat Smith’s post about «The Legends of Liberalism», over at Semiduplex. Smith argues that «much of the resistance to liberalism is premised upon some legends about liberalism». These are «White Legends», whereby «liberalism misrepresents itself as the sole defense against the implicit wickedness of illiberal doctrines». It is, Smith says, «the inverse of the misrepresentations and omissions of the Black Legend» it was created to oppose.

This is the way many heresies are built. In the words of Sardá,

[The] beginnings [of heresy] nearly always present the same character, either wounded self-love or a grievance to be avenged; either it is a woman that makes the heresiarch lose his head and his soul, or it is a bag of gold for which he sells his conscience.

Liberalism is, rhetorically, an avenger of past grievances, a rectifier of legendary wrongs. It must present itself clothed in heroism.

Smith tackles two particular cases of this strategy: liberalism’s absurd claims to be the only true bulwark against tyranny, on the one hand, and theocracy, on the other. With delicious ease, Smith deconstructs these pretentions simply by citing to the most authoritative exponents of Catholic illiberal thought, showing that their conception of political order is crucially concerned with preserving both liberty and the distinction of the temporal and spiritual orders. One simply does not find in them what the White Legend would have us believe is there.

By doing this, Smith clears a path that needs to be opened, and one hopes he will continue debunking other liberal myths and showing the utter falsity of its White Legend. As Smith’s post shows, this is chiefly an effort in historical resurrection. One must rescue the truth about what the pre-liberal order taught and did from the dark cave to which the liberal narrative has relegated it. In other words, crucial to exposing the White Legend is understanding its central preoccupation with the preservation of the Black Legend, its dialectical raison d’être.

The liberal’s White Legend is not historically intelligible as a purely theoretical construction. It was rhetorically and politically effective because it showed its partisans as engaged in a heroic battle with what they could portray as a true and existing evil. Like Hobbes’s Leviathan, whose existence had its sole and sufficient justification in holding back the monstrous chaos of an alleged Behemoth, the liberal order’s entire justification rests on its capacity to heal the world from the wounds and outrages of pre-liberal worlds. Indeed, Hobbes’s political theory is precisely one early attempt to put this rhetorical strategy in philosophical terms.

The hero, if he is to win followers, needs a credible villain, not an enumeration of theoretical errors.

One hundred years of careful historical study has by now shown not only who this villain was, but how the liberals created her. She had a peculiar face, she spoke a particular language, she lived on an identifiable plot of land, her deeds are known to history. In fact, she continues to roam the earth, now vanquished and, what is more, converted to the enlightening truths of liberalism, her past crimes and errors washed away by numerous and bloody acts of contrition. The name of this ancient foe is Hispania.

She was drafted for her role in the liberal drama by centuries of systematic and evangelical propaganda that taught Northern Europe of her allegedly horrific and unconscionable crimes. In retrospect, it is clear now how this strategy was so successful. The propagandists were not merely stoking outrage, but fear. They told of the crimes committed by a people livig scarcely a few hundred miles away. People everyone knew. And, crucially, people they feared. And so, the White Legend was the heresiarchs’ historical justification, and it was built quite deliberately on the occasion of the Black Legend. The Black Legend of Spain.

It was the legend of a monstrous empire, a power like none had existed since the Caesars, which had vanquished the Moor and the Turk and brutally conquered half the globe, which controlled both the lands of Europe and the oceans of the world, almost undefeated and with virtually limitless resources, an armed barrier that no amount of protestant ardor or privateer’s greed could breach. And Catholic. So Catholic. Inquisitorial and inflexible, legalist to a fault, full of superstitious feasts and made up saints, ignorant and brutish, lazy and venal, barbarous and a lover of gold, racist and arrogant, mindless and subservient to authority, chaotic and incapable of rule by law. And, most terrifying, fanatical and unyelding, as if on a permanent crusade ― a crusade of a thousand years.

There is virtually no aspect of this legend that survives the barest historical analysis. Not the Reconquista, not the conquest or civilization of America, not the Inquisition, not the juridical order of the Spanish Empire or its economic structure, not the sociological traits of the Hispanic peoples or their achievements. Perhaps I will go into some of these in later posts, but what is clear is that this Black Legend not only exists and defaces all Hispanics, but that it is the historical raw material out of which liberalism was built.

What use does this knowledge have for an apostolate of politics in the 21st century, in the context of a very different world-empire? Two uses come to mind.

First, as intellectual inoculation. Like all other human doctrines, liberalism is a historically-conditioned creation. We have grown up in it, and though we may come to disagree with its erroneous teachings and perceive its incoherences, we may still be moved by the underlying psychological impulse that (wittingly or not) animates its adherents. An impulse that tells us that even if liberalism is wrong, there must be something we can put in its place. After all, liberalism arose in response to real problems, it fought against real tyrannies, a true darkness, did it not? We cannot look at anything remotely similar to those pre-liberal times without an instinctive shudder, and even when we are no longer persuaded by liberalism, we cannot bring ourselves cleanly to contemplate that past, and in search for alternatives are moved to look elsewhere. Perhaps to a more moderate liberalism, perhaps to a socialistic variation, perhaps to some liberal-Catholic amalgam. But not to that.

This, I would argue, was the chief political success of the prophets of liberalism: the Black and White Legends as a kind of automatic reaction among «civilized peoples». The supposed real tyrannies that we unthinkingly come to associate with what liberalism historically opposed are therefore blind spots for us, and they are located precisely where liberalism’s errors are at their deepest and most poisonous. We still shrink from what they claim to cure. Inquisitions! Religious wars! Imperial expansion! For many, it takes much effort to be freed from these instinctive repugnances.

To study the history of the Black and White Legends is therefore crucial to liberate us from these mindless political reactions. The specific shape of liberalism as a historical phenomenon corresponds with them, and they in turn correspond with what liberalism perceived and told itself about the Spanish Empire specifically. It is precisely on this empire’s salient characteristics that liberalism’s polemics focused, and they determine its theoretical form. The historical form of liberalism is the anti-form not of «tyranny» and «theocracy» generically conceived, it is the anti-form of Spain.

A second use for this knowledge is as political education. The study of the Spanish Empire can show us what an alternative Catholic modernity could actually look like. Because it existed alongside and waged war against the errors of the modern world for over three centuries, as it grew doctrinally and politically into the place we know, it is much closer to us than more ancient Christian political orders. Critics of integralist thought often invoke the facile quip that we cannot go back to the France of St. Louis, thus concluding that integralist thought is at best an amusing philosophical hobby, but not useful for practical politics. Indeed we cannot go back, as integralists themselves have repeatedly pointed out in refuting this straw man. But this does not mean that we have nowhere else to look in history, nothing to illuminate our political thought between the 13th and 21st centuries.

After all, we live in a world of globalized economic interaction, worldwide commercial and political empire, international communications, massive bureacuracies, multicultural states, overlapping legal orders, religious heterodoxy and confusion, and wide-ranging media coverage and fake news. We live, that is, in the world of Philip II.

There is much to be learned from his world. Not so that we way restore the Spanish Empire (unless it be God’s generous will) or live as if in the 16th century (though state-sponsored missionary expeditions converting peoples from Mexico to China and ecclesiastics charting navegable routes in the unkown do sound glorious), but that we may restore a view of political order that not only understands what is useful and good about liberalism’s own world, but can also intelligently embrace it in a fully Catholic mindset. Many of the institutions we assocaite with liberalism had in Spain, in a way that is both more illuminating and closer to us than the examples of earlier Christian polities, an existence and a justification entirely foreign to liberal modes of thought, and which is readily available to us.

The principal political oppostion since the coming of Our Lord is not between left and right, but between empire and tribe: that is, between universalism and fragmentation. Gallicanism is a tribalist heresy. Liberalism, a universalist one. It is a gospel for an anti-empire, and in many ways it has succeeded. In Spain, if we only care to look, there is an actually existing historical alternative: a Christian empire (not a system of commercial colonies), universal in aspiration and almost in fact, founded on law, mighty in sword and pen, a luminous center of learning, artand culture, home to saints and champions of the Church, sword and light of the Faith, builder of roads, cities, and universities like no other people before it, protector and preserver of numerous coexisting cultures, careful and intelligent in its development of global juridical and political structures of semi-federal and bureacuratic administrative rule meticulously archived and organized, subject to the right order of the Gelasian dyarchy, and  perhaps most offensively for the prophets of liberalism ― unyielding and ferocious up to utter exhaustion in its bitter war against the enemies of Christ and His law.

A federative and missionary empire. Or, what the United States (or its successor) could one day be.

Destroy the White Legend, that we may overcome it. Or, said another way: ¡viva el Rey!

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The Apostolate of Politics

[Reblogged at The Josias.]

The excellent journal American Affairs, which from its very first issue has consistently delivered content of the highest quality to its readers, now publishes an essay on The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism, by Kevin Gallagher. It is an account of the rise and fall of «fusionism», the alliance of convenience between the disciples of right-wing liberalism and those who sought to defend the moral law of the Church. This settlement, through which Catholics sought to make their mark on politics, reached its highest degree of influence in the Bush II era and into the early years of Obama’s first term. Needless to say, it was a complete political failure.

The article is of great interest, so I will not deprive you of the utility and pleasure of reading it. Apart from a certain ambiguity (perhaps deliberate) in the author’s treatment of the role of arguments from natural reason in Catholic political polemics, I second its diagnosis. Go and read it.

There is one aspect of Gallagher’s argument, however, which is not essentially tied to the rest of his piece and which I would like to comment on. He concludes his essay with the following words, which I read as an expression of a hope:

As Catholics become less diffident about the politics their religious commitments imply, they can be more selective in their alliances, seeking allies that not merely pay the Church occasional lip service, but genuinely engage with her ideas. Catholics, of course, hold these ideas to be true. But even nonbelievers may have reason to welcome a more intellectually assertive Catholic politics. In this ideologically unstable era, the tradition of the Church offers an alternative to moribund liberal modes of political thought, an alternative that may avoid many of the errors and illusions that confound contemporary society. As that ideology loses its grip, as liberalism loses credibility, there is less profit than ever in a scheme of fusionist accommodation. To participate in this no-longer-neutral public square, the Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice.

(Emphasis added.)

The author seems optimistic about how even non-believers might welcome a more assertive Catholic political voice. I would like to suggest that this wish, as stated, is unrealistic. The issue is not taken up in Gallagher’s piece, so what follows is more in the manner of a gloss than of a critique.

People do not evaluate political arguments as they do mathematical proofs ― at least not since God placed a holy angel armed with a fiery sword barring the gates of paradise. As an authoritative exponent of integralist thought has noted, the coherence of traditional Catholic political doctrine rests, among other things, on its sober acceptance of this central fact.

To see this, consider the following. What does Catholic doctrine end up asking of the members of the community? It demands compliance with a number of moral laws and obligations that, as both Scripture and history show, most men will abide by only through clenched teeth. These laws force them to rein in their desires, to silence their impulses, and to surrender their judgment in the pursuit of the common good of the state, which in this context we can define as the good life, life according to reason, lived in society.

Venal and weak creatures that we are, this is a hard sell for most.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is a doctrine that tends to appeal to what is baser in man. In fine, it is about giving political and juridical cover to the unfiltered desires of the common man: the amassing of wealth, the «right» to vent one’s mind on any and all matters, the drive to sleep with anyone, virtually without any limits. What chains modern man to the liberal «order» is therefore not merely an intellectual conviction about its alleged superiority as a political philosophy, but a servitude to concupiscence, to which this doctrine grants a veneer of juridical form and legitimacy.

Frank discussion of political doctrines in the public square is therefore simply not enough to convince most people that integralism is true and good. Something more is needed, and this fact is indeed an essential aspect of the very political doctrine we defend. Part of the teaching of integralism is that true political order is not possible without a vigorous and clear application and enforcement of the moral law (as prudence requires, for sure). That is, man needs that public authority not only propose to him, but also move him (by force, if necessary) to comply with the moral law. And it is precisely by this act of enforcement and habituation to it that the rightly ordered state makes it possible for man to understand that law and to grasp (even if only inchoately) why it is preferable to license.

The insight is from Aristotle: the student of ethics must have a rightly ordered soul before he can understand the good. Similarly, right political order is a necessary condition for the the citizens’ capacity to understand right political doctrine.

The encyclopedists and other lunatics of the 18th century had it exactly backwards: it is not political theory that establishes for the people the rightly ordered state, it is the rightly ordered state that reveals to them where truly sound political teaching is to be found. Because integralism makes high demands on the common man, it is necessary for that man to begin historically with order. Because liberalism flatters his desires, it begins historically with theory. The big brains of the Enlightenment were, strictly speaking, seducers, not teachers of mankind. A useful historical parallel: how did the kings of Castile and Aragon create rightly ordered Christian polities in the lands they reconquered from the Moors? It was not by distributing Christian pamphlets and funding subversive cabals.

Public authority, ecclesiastical or civil, is necessary for integralism to have a real chance of clearing a path through which to reach the people. See, for instance, the recent case of the defeat of an abortion law in Argentina. After the bill was passed by the lower house of Congress, the Church moved to act with decision: «[p]riests and bishops spoke forcefully against abortion from the pulpit. As senators debated the bill, the church held a “Mass for life” at the Buenos Aires Cathedral». Bishops invoked their authority and preached about the moral and political pit into which the nation would fall if such a monstrous law were sanctioned. On August 9, the Argentine Senate rejected the bill, thanks be to God. One of the major Argentine dailies summed up the result with this headline: «The Church, the key player that managed to stop the law». Compare this with the also recent case of Ireland, where many bishops acted with can only be described as pusillanimity, to the point of pathetically recognizing their own failure as teachers.

Other examples can be found in the cases of Poland and Hungary, where a more recognizably Christian view of man and society is gaining traction, this time at the hands of the civil power. The remarkably effective results the exercise of ecclesiastical and civil authority has delivered in these places, and the relatively short times involved, are a lesson in political hope.

Speaking sincerely and directly, in what Gallagher calls the Catholic tradition’s «own voice», is thus only a part of it. The public square is contaminated: not only our fallen nature but the flattery that liberalism does to it place a truly Catholic discourse at a clear disadvantage. Sound doctrine must be taught primarily to power, because the use of that power to further political truth is, politically speaking, the vehicle of that truth’s manifestation to the mass of society. Only the corrective and pedagogic arm of public authority can truly and reliably order our epistemological waywardness. This is the meaning of the res publica christiana, of political order at the service of truth.

What must integralists do, then? Throw up our hands in despair as we realize that our power barely goes beyond the few hundred followers that echo our voices on Twitter? Of course not, so long as we have some clarity about what our goals should be. Our principal object today, I would suggest (and this is by no means an original thought), is archeological and pedagogical: rescue sound doctrine from its primary sources, and expound it with renewed freshness and clarity, in current language and in the light of our historical context. A great deal of this work is already well underway in various languages and with a great deal of acuity, sophistication, and brilliance. We need to get more capable people interested in, and ― crucially ― give more structure to, these efforts: this is our political apostolate (in this regard, the example of the Fundación Speiro in Madrid, with its quarterly journal, regular meetings and colloquia, related institutions, and international contacts, is especially useful).

But what about reaching power? What we are doing now is leaving, as an astute friend has quipped, «breadcrumbs for a more propitious time». But let us not scatter them at random. We must make sure to place them deliberately and strategically, so that they may be found on the road to power, or to put it perhaps less jarringly for «intellectual» ears, on the road to authentic restoration. And who knows, as another friend notes, that propitious time, today seemingly unreachable, may well be just around the corner.

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Algo al comenzar

En respuesta a una pregunta sobre si añoraba la Europa prehitleriana, y si acaso, qué le quedaba de ella, la exiliada Hannah Arendt le dijo a un periodista en 1964: «queda la lengua».

La materna, esto es.

Al dar comienzo a este pequeño proyecto personal, esta maravillosa respuesta ―de la que quizá tenga ocasión de decir algo más en otro momento― me ha venido más de una vez a la mente. Quizá una de las primeras lecturas que removió con fuerza las ascuas de mi espíritu fue, precisamente, alguna obra de Arendt. Le tengo, en consecuencia, un especial cariño, aun si hoy su venero se me antoja un tanto seco comparado con los manantiales en que ahora abrevo.

¿Y qué de la lengua materna? Lo más probable es que una buena parte de lo que aquí publique esté escrito en inglés, esa barbara lingua. Como le sucedió a Hannah Arendt, para poder hacerse oír y entender es preciso hablar en la lengua del pseudo-Imperio. Esto es inevitable. Pero que ello no sea ocasión de escándalo, porque en efecto uno no habla más que con la propia voz, y la mía habla siempre en español.

Los clichés ―esas muletas en que todo hombre normal se apoya cuando habla en un segundo idioma― serán, pues, quizá inevitables, y ruego desde ya clemencia por ello. Como apunta Arendt en esa misma entrevista, uno nunca tiene la misma frescura y precisión («productividad», le llama ella) cuando habla en otro idioma.

Sea. Así pues, manteniendo siempre la distancia respecto de este Fremdsprache, espero que algo de lo que aquí se diga pueda ser de interés, deleite o ilustración para quien viniere. ¿De qué hablaré? Quién sabe. Por ahora, puedo decir que seguramente se tratará de reflexiones un tanto desarticuladas sobre lo que estoy leyendo en cada momento, sobre derecho y política, sobre lo que sucede en el mundo o en la Iglesia o sobre lo que converso con mis amigos de allende y aquende. Al agua, pues.

 

 

 

 

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