April 12, 2018

Sovereignty, Social Order, and Coherence

Early in the book “On Power”, Bertrand de Jouvenel defines “Theories of Sovereignty” as a key component of a political order.

A theory of sovereignty is part of the narrative order of the society overall. It’s the part that says that there is some sovereign will to which other rights have to be subordinated or defined with respect to.

Examples given in the book are Popular Sovereignty, and Divine Sovereignty. That is, “the will of the people” holds sovereignty, or God holds sovereignty.

In this model, powers that be can secure the willing obedience of the people by convincing them of:

  1. A particular theory of sovereignty.

  2. That the current powers can be identified with this sovereign will.

This is not all that difficult, provided the target narrative is mostly coherent. It’s not hard to leverage force or other power securing partial obedience into education, which secures conceptual alignment, which secures further obedience.

That is, the law can require you to send your kids to school, and prevent non-controlled information sources from being popular. School and media can then consistently push a certain view of society. The law can require by various means that only people who believe the new mainstream narrative are able to sit in positions of high status and influence. Failure to believe can be made a social faux pas of the highest degree. As most people never examine their recieved beliefs too closely, willing psychological obedience is thus acheived.

This all follows as well for general theories of social order. Not just that there’s some sovereignty, but that there is some narrative of the proper way or order to society, which provides the correct answer on many things of social importance, not just obedience of the powers that be.

The dominant power puts forth some view of the proper way which includes some space for itself. For example, the view of the way includes propositions such as “of course society should be arranged by a powerful government in accordance with the will of God”, and presents itself as holding that particular role which is compatible with what it wants to do (ie rule society). In the example, the powers that be would present themselves as the most holy church and state which are carrying out the will of God. The role is roughly the role of sovereignty.

Different views of the proper way can be more or less coherent and true. A theory of the proper way is a social technology, and also a set of claims. It is a technology that takes the form of a set of claims. Those claims can be contradictory or unclear or incoherent.

Official views of the way are often lies, or grand ideals which are essentially lies believed sincerely, or pragmatic assumptions which later turn out to be false. It is common, even ubiquitous, for the official view of the proper order of society to contain falsehoods and contradictions. However this is not a necessary feature.

Society seems to require a “grand narrative” which justifies the structure of that society, and most possible narratives are false and incoherent. But the possibility of truth remains.

More pragmatically, any large system of claims will contain falsehoods and contradictions, but those falsehoods and contradictions will be more or less numerous, and of more or less importance. So we’re talk about degree of coherence instead of absolute truth.

If the view is more incoherent, it probably won’t work as well, against attack by enterprising philosophers and enemy propagandists, and against the realities which it contradicts.

This gets us to the social narrative vs science and philosophy problem: If the narrative is incoherent or contradicts reason on some point, science and philosophy will not be possible in that area, except outside of and against the narrative.

The dominant power thus wants a truer and more coherent narrative. But it can’t just use the most coherent version of the current dominant narrative, because that might actually cut against its own power. For example if the dominant power isn’t supposed to actually have the sovereignty that it’s claiming, it will have to make do with an obfuscated and broken narrative.

So there’s strength of the narrative, in the sense of how strong of a society it prodeuces, and how much allowed authority the dominant power can get under that narrative. Multiply these things together, and you have the target of optimization. Coherence and thus strength of the narrative can be profitably sacrificed a bit for authority.

The natural solution is a narrative that provides maximum authority for power, and maximum coherence. Given the dynamics of power, something in this vein might actually also just be the most coherent and true narrative, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Let’s expand on why we want a stronger narrative, and why the dominant power needs a narrative that gives it a place. Why can’t it just use force?

There’s the question of whether there is ever enough force available to rule by only force. A coherent legitimizing narrative secures more obedience than direct force alone could.

It does this also by transferring the principles of decision making within the desired social order into the subject’s head. The subject will defend and extend the social order of his own will. Thus it secures more cooperation as well.

Given the fundamental limits of force and monitoring, narratives of social order aren’t going anywhere; they will always achieve better results than raw force.


Edited and curated by Wolf Tivy

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