Sovereign Disregard

In his late work on sovereignty, The Accursed Share Vol. III, Georges Bataille argues that the modern revolutions, bourgeois or communist, were anti-feudal: they sought to destroy the privilege of kings and God – both the superiority these figures manifested against the common man and the sovereign’s sumptuous wasting of resources. From feudal lords to ideal divinities, all the figures of sovereignty were accused of exploiting the common man, denying material conditions, and exerting an irrational power over things. It was a struggle on principle: “These masses have never united except in a radical hostility to the principle of sovereignty” (288). “The rebel is defined by the categorical no he opposes to the world of sovereignty as a whole” (252).

What characterizes traditional sovereignty? Squandering of resources in useless expenditures; excess consumption in the present; scorn of useful activity; benefiting from property without laboring for it; exorbitant gifts and luxuries beyond measure – whether by building palaces, churches, gardens to inspire wonder or simply by destroying surpluses in the challenge for prestige. The sovereign does not work – “labor is the exact opposite of the sovereign attitude” (283). Not only are sovereigns free from the necessities that rule the work world; they also enjoy to no purpose what has been produced (“The truth is that we have no real happiness except by spending to no purpose” (178). Their attitude is non-servile, meaning they are not subordinated to any goal, including survival – “subordination is always grounded in the alleged need to avoid death” (222). Sovereignty risks death in the moment: no caution is exercised for the sake of future benefit or pay-off. The boundaries of the individual are denied. It thus marks an existence at antipodes to the world of work, of maintaining society, and especially, of rational accumulation. The sovereign is oriented to a subjective end – the magnificence of being nothing – opposite to one oriented to objective ends – accumulating material goods, accomplishing useful works, etc. [1] The essential point guiding all these characteristics is non-servility: the sovereign lives in the present moment without concern for the future.

The modern revolt against sovereign privilege is a revolt against these freedoms and the subjectivity that underlies them. It is a revolt against the aloofness of those who benefit from labor and squander its products without working for them. (This is perhaps related to the accusations lodged at the “lazy” poor who allegedly “live off the system” without contributing to society.) From this perspective, modernity is situated in the move to industry, industriousness, business and “busy-bodiness” – above all, the prioritization of productivity and accumulation against sovereign priority and display. The modern world dominated by a definition of the human as worker. Surpluses are not squandered but reinvested into developing the means of production. The useless and nonproductive aspect of the sovereign is rejected as irrational. Capriciousness and spontaneity are progressively eradicated from humanity’s set of values – or it is manipulated by the culture industry into patterns of consumption that reinforce the dominant modes of production (cf. Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle; Adorno’s The Culture Industry). “Value” itself mutates from a subjective apprehension to a material status. In contrast to feudal society, structured around the dignity of magnificent sovereigns, accumulation and development of means of production structure modern society and consciousness. This is can be summarized as the rule of profit: the law of value which reigns under capitalism (Cf. Negri’s Time for Revolution). As the excesses of the feudal order are excised and the value of sovereignty nullified, a “utilitarian” world emerges: a world of operations subordinated to anticipated results, without moments but only sequential durations.

Once one asserts that man is a rational actor – an economic being whose essence is to secure, save, accumulate, and profit to survive – what is lost is the question of sovereign subjectivity, of useless expenditure, and of life lived immediately without concern for the future. It is a loss of the magnificence of “not-doing,” of what is marvelous and not useful, of that which cannot be anticipated or the result of a calculated effort (226). Put in more abstract terms, it is the loss of an experience of NOTHING, of being without imagining or creating anything, of a non-servile, non-productive, insubordinate existence. And yet this question, tied to what lies deepest in the human heart, cannot be erased. Humanity balks at its reduction to the worker and at its servile insertion into a world of subjugated practices, servile ends, and social utility. The world of useful works is left with a void that only sovereign moments can fill. No more than mere survival, accumulation is not enough to satisfy subjective ends. Moreover, there is an inexorable desire to negate the given conditions and exist freely – in disregard for the rationally-ordered world.

***

In the feudal era, Bataille argues (282-7), it was possible for the masses to accept their servile existence because they continued to participate in the glory of the kings and gods that fascinated them. Lords and office holders under the sovereign received not just a use of land and property but a share of grace, of sacred existence. More broadly, humans understood their labor as a service to the gods (Patocka speaks of this time as “pre-history” in Heretical Essays; Bataille writes similarly, “If history has some goal, sovereignty cannot be that goal” (281)). What people traded in with the toil of their body, they received back in communion with the splendor of the Sacred and/or through some meaningful insertion into the order of things. Proximity to the king especially meant sharing in the king’s grandeur – the meaning of “nobility” – just as in the religious world one ascends a hierarchy of holiness to come closer to God and share in God’s divinity. The challenge brought against traditional royal and priestly structures – remember that the Reformation coincided with anti-feudal revolution – changes the status of servility and labor, as well as the location of splendor (cf. my Doing Nothing).

One could argue that a similar dynamic between noble and king is reproduced in the glorification of the “rich and famous” by the masses. Likewise, one finds analogies to religious liturgy in music festivals and competitive king-making reality TV programs. However, the sovereignty one finds in these modes of glorification is indirect, indeed laughable. Celebrities serve a supreme form of servility – entertaining the public – and if they fail in this the fall from grace is fast. The business man is similarly beholden to a set of social norms and prohibitions, laws and behaviors, that render him least free and creative. The billionaire’s sovereignty is degraded: it comes not in the form of useless expenditure – the squandering that challenges and attains subjective dignity – but of endless accumulation – a false dignity tied to the world of things and material possession. It is not the negation of the given but an integration into the given that takes advantage of it. What the masses worship in the rich is therefore vastly unlike the adoration members of the court might have owed the king. A certain symbolic function has been emptied out. What is left to glorify in the rich and famous is but the arbitrariness of the social ordering of fortunes in general.

Nevertheless, wealth signifies the possibility of non-labor today; the concrete reality of freedom from the necessity to work; and, in a disreputable fashion, the continued wars of rank between humans. In a similar vein, the best-selling way to convince people of their nearness to God nowadays is to tie it to material prosperity, where material and spiritual wealth directly correspond (the prosperity gospel). Though the semblance of freedom afforded by wealth is usually only desperately attained (unless by chains of privilege, luck of birthplace, inheritance, etc.); and though affluent strata of persons continue to work and accumulate wealth beyond necessity, fortune still represents the prospect of sovereignty, of freedom to not-do. –And yet this movement is ceaselessly taken back up into the program of accumulation. It is a freedom situated in the future, just as the rank achieved is little more than conformity to class norms and stocks of fashionable furniture. Amassing wealth becomes tied to maintaining savings accounts, the stock market, low taxes, retirement funds, and so on, because ideologically speaking financial freedom equates to freedom as such – the degraded freedom of capitalist reality. Retirement is envisioned as a future time of freedom from labor, security from work, and leisurely spending. When the body’s usefulness to the world economy is gone, and there is no more chance to earn, one’s investments had better be ample for survival past one’s working age, so the logic goes. The latter is universally set in motion by pensions, social security, and 401K’s – signs of working adulthood par excellence – all of it shaped by a definition of the human as worker.

Fortune is meant to equal freedom from work or at least foreshadow; and so it retains hints of the Sacred. If wealth does not buy me freedom today, perhaps someday it will. No matter how implausible it is for the average individual to get rich, the margin of freedom that surplus money would afford shimmers in the popular imagination like the last semblance of sovereignty left. At the same time, it is clear that that with fortune it is not a matter of uselessness, the present moment, nothingness, or freedom. The luxuries displayed by the rich only give a hint of their fortune, which they protect and use for pathetic rankings. If a celebrity spends beyond their means, the public predicts their imminent downfall. Taken in its own right, accumulation gives primacy to objective ends; subjective elevation is tied to objective status. Competition for rank continues on the basis of thinghood. Material goods are gained as though having goods directly conferred sovereign dignity – when really there is nothing immense about possession, which on the contrary represents attachment to the world of accumulation. One thinks here of the proverbial entrepreneur who works all his life and gets all the luxuries he could want, yet once he retires falls into a suicidal depression. This points up how the subjective end can be missing even when objective ends are met. From the perspective of non-servility, the rich remain in service to riches – to investments that place the future above the present, forestalling subjective destitution and encounter with death. Sovereign thought thus rejects rank and social standing, opting instead for the destitution of the bottom of the social ladder (423).

I note here the hypocrisy and foolishness of the rich when they lecture the poor about saving and retirement; and why a life lived with an eye on freedom only in the future is so constraining and lifeless. Telling someone who is living paycheck to paycheck to tighten the budget, add austerity measures, don’t waste money on anything extra, and so on, amounts to saying: stop pretending you have any margin of capricious sovereignty left; remember that you are poor and exist to work; accumulation of wealth is your only chance at being free. All luxurious spending, all sovereign acts, any forgetting to budget in the future – this puts your very survival at risk. Capitalism, the world of practice, thrives off of this biological blackmail, accentuating the horror of death as if it could erase it (whereas it can only try to dissimulate it; cf. Baudrillard Symbolic Exchange and Death). However, people do refuse to submit to a servile existence. One goes into debt, one does drugs or drinks despite what it jeopardizes, one seeks erotic adventure and love, one takes on lives that almost guarantee poverty, one pursues a lost cause, a crazy idea, one chooses life on the streets… In other words, one exists sovereignly, passionately, spontaneously. One refuses servility and utility and risks living exorbitantly without concern for future – even if this means having nothing and dying soon… The wisdom of the profligate drop-out against the rich and secure lies in understanding that the sovereign, subjective end is more magnificent and more precious than anything fortune in itself could bring.

***

Sovereign subjectivity repudiates any reduction of being to thinghood and to its necessities of order and duration. The object I am, this limited being, can only be destroyed in affirming the subjectivity of being, which has nothing individual or personal about it, contrary to the archaic concept. The game of fortune is just one more servitude: a means, not an end. Sovereignty “belongs only to the totality” (386). Fortune doesn’t buy joy because having in general does not equate to being – but more importantly because the sovereign movement of thought dissolves the being we are in the abyss of that totality; it cannot easily be disentangled from misfortune. Our tie to sovereign magnificence is a tie, equally, to horror, such that the difference between joy and tears wavers. If the lessons on sovereignty are to be believed, it is by useless negativity, a rejection of useful activity, a risking of death, and a generosity beyond measure that sovereign dignity is attained – yet now in silence, without rank or superiority, without assuming any of the functions of power formally associated with real sovereigns in relation to the world of things. “No cause, no commitment issue from an empty generosity, with which no expectation is connected” (370). The sovereignty at stake is thus impotent, ridiculous, awake in a defenseless losing of oneself. Here is revealed a limit where being flows into non-being, life into death, and “self” into the continuity of an immense, indifferent emptiness.

***

And yet, it seems just as much the case that the rich represent in the minds of many the possibility of one day being free. Regardless of how false or distorted this perception, this ideology subjugated to fortune, one views accumulation (saving, investment, etc.) as the way out of a servile life. The irony is that one tries to free oneself through the very system to which one is enslaved. It is then necessary for there to exist a morality, a belief in a merit-based system: those who work hard, who persevere, who best plan for the future, are those most worthy to come out on top. Again, coming out “on top” in bourgeois capitalist society does not, however, automatically not mean radiating sovereign dignity or attaining a subjective end. It means rather attaining an objective end that shines like a pile of coins, the drab glory of material possessions. However false, fortune is held out as success, as the way to ascend the ranks of human society, and as freedom. Here the relationship is the inverse of traditional sovereignty, where it is not (saved) wealth that brings rank, but rank that brought (expendable) wealth; and it is a distortion of modern sovereign thought, which finds sovereignty not in things but in their dissolution – not in fortune but where all fortune is nullified.

Perhaps one could view resistance to socialist and worker’s movements in the USA from this angle and claim: resistance arises not because they are anti-capitalist per se but because they imply a potential robbery of the only form of sovereignty that seems to remain in the capitalist world. The reduction of social inequality – expanding the destruction of the royal classes of the feudal era – appears tantamount to reducing the possibility of fortune, of rising from poverty at all, and thereby of experiencing some modicum of freedom. That this be attainable without some personal fund – more surplus than the others – sounds implausible. Moreover, the equalization wrought would seem to prevent differences in rank altogether. The fear is perhaps that everyone would be delivered into service of the objectivity of power: State machinations, distribution lines, education and production for the sake of the masses, and so on, with all autonomy to refuse such procedures taken away. The unwillingness to pay taxes is already tied to the disgust at letting someone else choose how one’s own resources will be spent (or wasted).

If, in the extreme, all one’s income went to public service, one would personally have zero income left to squander and, moreover, no free time from work. Higher taxes would mean renouncing the little margin of financial freedom they have left. Any why, they ask? For the sake of an abstract humanity of workers? By what right are they forced to care about their fellow humans – whether or not they benefit from them? Isn’t this duty just another form of servility and moralism? One hears the conservative bent behind the defense of personal fortune. And yet: higher wages, more expendable income, funds to not work – aren’t these the aspirations of every worker in their refusal to be defined by labor – who, more basically, yearns for a reprieve from useful activity?

It is common to argue that younger generations are more interested in socialist movements because the prospect of owning a home, living without debt, and retiring comfortably are less and less believable. The bourgeois way of affording (at least a semblance of) sovereignty in a world based on accumulation seems, with the rise of precarious labor and insurmountable debt, attainable only for a select few. Arguments for free healthcare, higher wages, and relief from student loan debt follow the same trajectory. All these struggles lie on the side of increasing fortunes for all, however that is construed, and so fight for a reduction in wealth inequality, an equalization in the distribution of expendable resources – a political goal that, incidentally, Bataille emphases is the only rational solution possible for our world (188-91). For it is senseless, in practice, to renounce the advantages that fortune, however slight, affords sovereignty. Only the rarest of affluent individuals would choose, instead of living the marginally profligate life, to renounce their sovereignty and devote their efforts to society as a whole. Indeed, why would they do so? What morality underlies such a sacrifice? What is the value of a society where everyone is in service to everyone, yet no one is free to disregard?

There is a morality of unselfishness involved, then, when an affluent and privileged person decides to support a worker’s movement, for this represents a reduction in the surpluses that seem to make sovereign life in our time possible. Bataille speaks at length about how communism implies the sovereign renunciation of sovereignty and the willingness required for each communist to sacrifice for the sake of the social: a sovereign acceptance of servility. Yet he also points out that this unselfishness can only go so far:

One of the least apparent results of communism is the rift it brings about, in the consciousness of the most sensitive men, between what they love and what they affirm: on the one hand, what secretly sustains them, on the other, what they openly say that they care about. A kind of timidity, of bad conscience, of shame, takes hold of minds at the idea of the lack of value, the lack of weight of what engages them personally – when compared with the concerns of communist politics. In itself, the individual feeling of a worker does not necessarily appear to them to be preferable, but the general importance of the proletariat give it preference: the only true value is the one that concerns a worker. What captivates only men who are relatively rich and cultivated does not count.

In these circumstances a kind of dispossessed man has formed, a man who no longer grants himself the right to live, except to deny what he deeply is, effacing himself at the least alarm. Often it’s a question of persons who are well off, enjoying possessions that make life worth living in their eyes, but which, on the first occasion, they are sincerely prepared to declare of no account…

The problem always comes down to the interest presented by such and such a product of a civilization whose generally human character is overlooked: this civilization’s system deprives it of meaning; it has become the symbol of a defect, which is bourgeois life. Sometimes this object is a poem, a painting, a personage endowed with prestige; sometimes it is a strong feeling, a passion, an excessive joy: for men of bad conscience, these goods have a secondary importance, working-class humanity counts before humanity (before the forms of life that are common to men, but unevenly developed in the different classes)…

I don’t really see why a working-class world, exhausted by labor, would concern itself with the possibilities accessible to the minority that doesn’t work. Actually, the bourgeois pessimists are right to take account of a radical difference between their value judgments and those of the workers.
Here I will set out the primary terms of that question: Isn’t the generosity of the communistic intellectuals – and bourgeois – preferable to the avarice of the conservatives? Do those goods that make life worth living for both these groups deserve to be defended? When the voice of a throng condemned to the labor of the mines makes itself heard, what importance does the protest of a negligible refinement and a morbid sensitivity have? (330-331)

There is thus a gap between the unselfishness implicit in the communist program and the selfishness of pursuing “negligible refinements” in one’s margins of freedom. These refinements could include anything not directly devoted to improving the condition of workers – for example, writing poetry, painting, wasting time, philosophizing, doing nothing at all – any form of spending to no purpose – any refusal of utility, history, discourse, the “serious world,” resources, the given and thinghood in general. And so, yes, the falsity of the bogeys erected against the socialist line are evident; they can be explained on the basis of a misconception about the link between fortune and sovereignty, as discussed above. Nevertheless, one sees emerge a defense of sovereign disregard, linked to the inexorable desire to be sovereignly – free of work, free to waste, free of others, free of the servile – a defense of the “morbid sensitivity” that confirms: “I am NOTHING,” which places one outside the domain where real action has a hold.

If a person does not have to work, or if they do and still choose to squander resources, to give beyond the possibility of reciprocity, to exist passionately in the moment without concern for tomorrow, then only a moralism of the masses could induce guilt in this person for their sovereign existence, insofar as it comes at the expense of what they might have done for their fellow man. The appeal to continued servility and sacrifice of the present for the future rarely abates; it is the principle of the practical world. One is solicited to give up the immense emptiness that one is, for the “something” that others think they are. Deep down, each of us repels this verdict, though guilt emerges. The sovereign thinker is never spared self-contempt. At the same time, sovereign existence, the truth of the self, exists only in communication. There is a loyalty to others at play here – these are the stakes of an imagination of a sovereignty irreducible to any real entity – but it is not one beholden to objective ends or social conditions. It is rather a loyalty to that which, in sovereign moments, escapes death and reveals the sacred dignity and continuity of being. The sovereign thinking that awakens from reason’s slumber is encountered in the equality of all the sovereign moments of humans, who never take each other for things…

No matter how many sovereigns and their privileges are destroyed – as they ought to be – the desire for sovereignty remains within us. The subject longs to recover for itself what the sovereignty of kings and gods once obscured, what fortune and rank in a time of accumulation degrade. The obscure desire leading to passion, capriciousness, squandering, drunkenness, groping lost in the dark – anything not in planning for the future, not in accord with rational anticipations – including disregard for others, devil-may-care attitude to all – anything thrust into erotic life – the joyous and tragic laughter that lets things dissolve into nothingness, including “oneself” — except at the cost of no longer being free, sacred and sovereign, this desire cannot be given up; nor can the world we live in without it be complete…

Notes:
[1] The sovereign’s symbolic role – as free of all servility, all necessity – is separate from whatever practical ‘governing’ they may do, however much these aspects get mixed up – for example in the classic theological problem: why did God, who is not constrained by any necessity, create and order the universe? For Bataille, the perfect God who orders the universe is for this reason not sovereign but constrained and servile.

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