The King’s Ghost

Image:  William Blake, Hamlet and His Father’s Ghost.

One of the things we often like to talk about on this blog is the political theology of kingship and neo-monarchist movements like NRx. In the trite terms of American Critical Theory we like to make the whole shebang “problematic”. From a Platonic perspective practical political wisdom in our decaying democracy should be the ability to tell the difference between the Tyrant and the Statesman who come to upend it; in Christian terms it is being able to tell the difference between the Second Coming and the Anti-Christ. But it is also simply the matter that political theology is about the genealogical history of the king as imitation of God and Christ and of the immanentisation of divine power in modernity’s belief in Mankind as the sole agent of history. Today one isn’t sure what is more hokey – soteric divine monarchy or future-directed Utopian Humanism. Nonetheless, the remnants of these are still floating about and it is a great deal of fun at very least to explore some of them.

The “return of the king” is a difficult business because of the naive salvific millenarian promise it holds. As Eric Voegelin observed, the genealogy of the political religions of modernity is very much wrapped up in fantasies of this return, the figure of the Dux e Babylone, who arrives to destroy the old order and institute the final order, which, like Norman Cohn, he saw as having profoundly influenced the cults of personality of the rulers in twentieth century Fascism and Communism. That these ended very badly is trivial; that the liberal katechon feeds its negative legitimation on these failures in order to enforce the idea that “there is no alternative” is also trivial. Thus, the possibility that some people today still long for a soteric master to appear to punish their enemies and institute Utopia might well seem eccentric. The Zizekian fantasy promise of the Master with no superego aside (Stalin was too moral and sho on), today we live in the remnants of the political religions of modernity. But, if we look hard, the idea of the soteric king has not quite gone away completely.

In this blog post we will be looking at this issue using a recent article from the JHI (Journal of the History of Ideas) titled “Spectral Sovereigns and Divine Subalterns” by guest-contributor Milinda Banerjee, author of the recent book The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India. In a previous post back here a couple of weeks ago  we looked at another article from JHI about political theology. They have some pretty interesting contributors. Give them a read. In “Spectral Sovereigns” Banerjee argues that the “spectres of dead kings are haunting the world today”. He writes:

“The monarchic turn has intensified of late, as Donald Trump’s Christian supporters compare him to the Biblical monarchs David, Nebuchadnezzar, and CyrusRomans 13, the New Testament passage used for centuries to justify submission to rulers as supposedly ordained by God, now finds increasing traction in American discourse about Trump, especially surrounding immigration and foreign policy.”

 Yes indeed, the Trump as Cyrus meme has been getting quite a work-out of late (see here for an interesting critique of it from an Evangelical). So too has Romans 13, largely just to fold it back into OT statesmanship. For instance, have a read of this very recent little article from Pulpit and Pen titled “The Biblical Answer to the Migrant Caravan in Bombs and Bullets”.  Yup, that’s not satire. The Cyrus meme is especially more than a little amusing seeing the Warhammer “God-Emperor” post-ironic memetics the “alt right” were playing about with a few years back. It seems like the Evangelicals are the only ones now who have put all their wish-fulfilment fantasy eggs in the Trump-basket. Ah, Cyrus – the pagan “messiah” ruler who protected God’s people during their captivity.

Mind you the Abrahamic religions grew up as edgy outsiders, so their symbols and faith in divine providence are in many ways more suited to the situation of being strangers in a strange land rather than controlling the katechon. Thus, little wonder that no such special treatment was reserved in the past, as far as I recall, for the dull old neocon Republican rulers who at very least pretended to be Christian (though it was hip for a bit for some of them to bathetically claim that Obama was the Anti-Christ). That was normal time – now we have entered kairos time apparently in which the pagan ruler will complete the system. Trump will not raise Thule and make anime real and complete what Schelling could not. No, he’s going to make America a Christian country again, or, more correctly the Christian country. Ah the good ol’ New Israel! Install the Dominion of the Lord.

It is fun indeed to call our conservative Evangelicals “dominionists” (largely because they hate it), as if you gave the sods half a chance they’d reinstall Calvinist Geneva and make everyone live there in misery having their heads chopped off for being rude to their fathers. Cue American liberal shaking and Handmaid’s Tale reference. There is indeed a great deal of mutual fantasising about the authoritarian desires of the Other in American politics. One might do well to recall Zizek’s amusing take on Gilead, that technocratic coastal city-state in the Handmaid’s Tale:

“The more we read the novel, the more it becomes clear that the fantasy we are reading is not that of the Moral Majority, but that of feminist liberalism itself: an exact mirror-image of the fantasies about the sexual degeneration in our megalopolises which haunts members of the Moral Majority. So, what the novel displays is desire – not of the Moral Majority, but the hidden desire of feminist liberalism itself.”

Ouch. You could still just write that in 2001 and get a bit of a laugh at least. What monstrosities would the Other commit if they were given the power to install their parochial dream “dominionist” commune! Yet, Dear old Zizek, seemingly by accident, has pointed out the strange double Calvinism of America, its two millenarian “tectonic plates” of the New Israel of exception as Jonathan Kirsch calls them. One plate is primeval – the sort of things that takes the Rapture deadly seriously, and America of course is the exceptional land in which the End shall play out. The other plate is that which began to emerge from this in the 17th century, the strange belief in America as the exceptional land of moral and techno-capital “progress”.

But the truth is that the primeval Calvinist plate really isn’t what it used to be. It might even look like God is on the side of its enemies. That the magic of “current year” has cosmic backing. The Old Calvinists are down to hoping the great pagan ruler will look after their increasingly fringe interests. I’m not sure if this is even sadder than the white nationalist types who assumed Trump would do the same. They themselves are spectres, for the moment at least. Right wing populism is largely still trying hard to please the post-war liberal katechontic superego by looking like a “civic nationalism” rather than a conscious white supremacist one most of the time. Who knows if the American liberal habit of calling everything white supremacy will shame the monster into submission. It already seems to be doing a good job of slamming shut the Overton Window which opened for a brief minute in 2016-7. To return to Gilead, what would American liberals do if their fantasies about the Other were properly realised? What do you do with actual reactionaries in charge and not just pissing about with Tiki torches? Well, you have to kill them, don’t you? One wonders if they could.

While indeed right wing populism in search for a Master is on the rise everywhere as a reaction to accelerating globalisation, demographic change and the desire to punish sneering cosmopolitan moral guardians, the writer of this blog, as is his wont, would also point out the dangerous neo-pharaonic fantasies emerging from the “progressive” techno-commercial plate of American liberal political theology – the weird pretensions of Silicon Valley towards privatised “dominionism”. As I have argued in detail back here, the possibility is very much that “alt right” granddad Mencius Moldbug was really a left liberal coming out of the future into the present. Willie Osterweil has a good term for the stuff – “left fascism”. He writes:

“Rather than invoke Herrenvolk principles and citizenship based on blood and soil, these left fascists will build nations of “choice” built around brand loyalty and service use. Rather than citizens, there will be customers and consumers, CEOs and boards instead of presidents and congresses, terms of service instead of social contracts. Workers will be policed by privatized paramilitaries and live in company towns. This is, in fact, how much of early colonialism worked, with its chartered joint-stock companies running plantation microstates on opposite sides of the world. Instead of the crown, however, there will be the global market: no empire, just capital.”

Carl Schmitt in his  fabulous Hamlet or Hecuba saw in Shakespeare’s play the figure of James I, the ruler of “indecision” rendered powerless so that the forces of middle class mercantilism and piracy might be loosed across the seas of the Earth. One might do well to consider the political theology of liberalism as an attempt to do away with the king in order to loose just so many little kings with their own private homesteader kingdoms. This, of course, is how the weird end of anarcho-capitalism under Hans Hermann Hoppe turned back towards monarchy – simply as private ownership of the state – before Moldbug converted for the benefit of SV pretensions.

Yet, if anything, Moldbuggian neo-cameralism and less well-read SV fantasies of private states are anti-monarchic. The claim may be that of “absolute power” for the CEO ruler to do as he pleases, but he is simply an employee of the shareholders.  The king, the One, is castrated, controlled by the Several for their benefit. The only One is the body of corporate personhood. In the end the patriarchal nature of homesteader settler colonialism and “libertarianism” ceases to be patriarchal, it becomes fraternal (in an oligarchic 30 Tyrants sense at least).

In Freudian terms that Norman O. Brown would have surely liked, one might say that it is the efforts of the sons to hide the murder of the father by keeping the immortal body of God/the king on ice as the corporation that outlives any individual employee or shareholder. Frankly I’m more worried about this stuff than right wing populism, though we may well indeed be walking into a century of two “fascisms” in which the battle will be between the sovereign body of the reactionary populace trying to immunise itself against outsiders through a salvific king and that of the private zones of the global corporation plastered over with some cute left liberal “progressive” morals to sell “choice” to those who can afford it. These are respectively the fashie Moldbug of the Plinth and the Moldbug of Stevifornia run by the neo-cameral “controllers”. Grim times.

But anyway, back to Banerjee. I’m pretty keen to read his Mortal God book on political theology in colonial India – it sounds fascinating. We get a little taste of it in the article:

 “The title of my book gestures towards this sacralisation of the state, and, more specifically, towards the widespread citations of Hobbes in modern India, especially by Indian intellectuals and politicians, to debate these constructions of sovereignty (Mortal God, Introduction, Chapters 1-3). In challenge, middle-class Indian intellectuals like Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Nabinchandra Sen, and Mir Mosharraf Hossain created blueprints of non-colonial sovereignty, in the form of Hindu-Indian-nationalist or Islamic righteous kingdoms (in Sanskrit/Bengali, dharmarajya), which were ideologically anchored on the unity of a monotheistic divinity and/or sacred kingship. Many Indians were inspired by the monarchically-mediated nationalist unification of Italy and Germany. By the 1900s, Japanese monarchy and Shintoism offered templates of state-building to Hindu and Muslim actors.”

So too does this book Banerjee recently edited with Charlotte Backerra and Cathleen Sarti sound pretty dashed good.  In the article we’re told that it:

“Draws on case studies from across Asia, Russia, Europe, North Africa, and Latin America, to conceptualize ‘royal nationhood’ as a transnationally-constructed category. My chapter uses lenses of global intellectual history, and offers various examples, including Walter Bagehot and Kakuzo Okakura, to show how actors from around the world learnt from other societies to place the figure of the (present, historical, and/or imagined) monarch as a (practical and/or symbolic) centre around which national unity and sovereignty could be built up, surpassing class and factional differences. Today, monarchic spectres are being resurrected again by sectarian nationalisms, which derive material strength from the inequality-breeding regimes of global capitalism and the grievances they invariably spawn among those left out.  Ruling classes and angry populations are deploying these spectres to delineate majoritarian-national unity – a mythic unitary sovereign above classes and factions, with Caesarist and salvific promise – against vulnerable minorities, refugees, and aliens.”

This is indeed what the populist “return of the king” myth is all about – the salvific promise of the One who will come to divide the sheep from the goats, to immunise the inside and cast those unwelcome into outer darkness. The machine of political theology is that of the insoluble Two, the side of God (the friends) and those of his enemies. Banerjee continues:

“Taking a cue from the comparison of Trump with the Biblical Nehemiah in terms of building walls – and Émile Benveniste’s discussion on the Indo-European rex/raja as a maker of boundaries between “the interior and the exterior, the realm of the sacred and the realm of the profane, the national territory and foreign territory” (Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society, 312) – I would argue that sectarian nationalists today invoke regal manes to forge borders, segregation, and inequality. If sovereignty is seen as a motor of global conceptual travel, we can explain why the globalization of models of centralized and exclusionary state sovereignty over the last centuries has also propelled periodic and global waves of monarchic conceptualization, often even after the demise of real-life kingships: clear evidence how republics too are haunted by (to borrow Jacques Derrida’s words) the “patrimonial logic of the generations of ghosts” (Specters of Marx, 133). It is thus ironic, but fitting, that supporters of the defunct Italian monarchy should draw strength today from Trump’s aggressive nationalism, while reposing faith in a sovereign who would embody the nation by being super partes.”

This is all very observant stuff and I like it very much, but I can’t help but paradoxically wonder if Banerjee is doing a better job of theorising and mythologising the “return of the king” than any NRx-er I’ve ever come across (though Moldbug certainly had some good rhetorical chops). Hell – I’ve probably done a better job of bolstering their own position than them and Voegelin probably did it as well with fashies.  Nazi pharaoh anyone? I’m reminded of Horkheimer and Adorno’s little line in the Dialectic of Enlightenment when they accuse reactionary Nietzschean Luddite Ludwig Klages (from whom they basically borrowed the Satanic Hegelianism of the pessimistic dialectic of “instrumental reason”) of paying industrial society a “noble gesture” and “embellishment” by making it out to be so evil. It is possible to make something more powerful by exaggerating its titanic and evil quality (H and A should probably also be included in this of course. Whoops!).

 But then again perhaps “political theology” as a family of discursive practises is very susceptible to this “embellishment” as a kind of therapy. Especially in relation to Löwith and Voegelin it was a way of dealing with the shock of the political religions – a need to go back to find out where the monsters of Nazism and Bolshevism had come from. Both went back a long way indeed. Schmitt, on the other hand, was simply looking for the katechon – that which seemed to be the maintainer of order against apocalyptic destruction in his age, and chose Nazism. Well, to be fair, the Third Reich was claiming to be the inheritor of the legitimacy of the Holy Roman Empire, so if one was looking for the katechon it probably sounded good in the early 1930s at least.

But there is a curious point to what Banerjee is saying about the populist sovereign and the nation state. The history of the idea of the nation state is certainly wrapped up in that of the sovereign monarch. They both stem from Roman Law’s lex regia (royal law) which had been invented late in the Roman Empire as a way of substantiating the single Roman Emperor’s absolute power. To adjust this to a Medieval Europe of lots of little kings, this had to be interpreted to mean that every sovereign had absolute power in his own domain. Having not read either of these books from Banerjee in detail yet, I’m not sure if he’s talked about that old chestnut. A quick search of his two books in question on Googlebooks turns up close to nothing on the influence on Roman Law, and certainly no reference to that particular law. It’s well worth talking about because it’s a very silly law – it was invented to force the idea that at some point the people of Rome had all agreed to hand their sovereign power over to the emperor, when of course there never was such a moment.

But the legacy of this meant that medieval legal theory (with a little influence from Cicero and Aristotle of course) came up with some bizarrely radical ideas on the basis that the king’s power derived from bottom up assent more than the grace of God. It even led Marsiglio of Padua and some other strange thinkers to claim that if the church had any worldly authority then the next time there was a vote on who the pope should be, then everyone in Christendom should get a vote. I’ve written about this (with proper, like, references and all, back here). The downside of this for our “trad” friends is that instead of the king stealing the potentia absoluta Dei, the “people” do and the king just stands in for them as their collective projection super partes.

 One might do well to go back to Dante and emphasise that his world-emperor was influenced not only by an attempt to return the rex legia to a single super-monarch, but also the collective consciousness of Averroes’ Long Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima – that work which was found so noxious and shocking to Aquinas and the Renaissance Platonists because it seemed to do away with the idea of the sovereign person in favour of a kind of sci-fi hive mind (compared variously to an evil octopus with a tentacle in every brain, a captainless ship and so on). I’ve written about the old Averroist hive mind chestnut and its influence on modernity a couple of times before – here ages back in relation to Hegel and transhumanists and here more recently in relation to the impersonalism of Roberto Esposito’s Two: The Machine of Political Theology.

And it does indeed seem that there’s more than a little bit of a hint of this immanentist populist mana reminiscent of a historicised Averroesist “end of history” inherent in Banerjee:

“Peasant and working-class agitation in colonial India also drew on varied messianic models, from ideas about the Mahdi’s advent and Allah’s sovereignty in relation to peasant autonomy, to the notion of ‘Gandhi Maharaj’. The Russian Revolution and Communism were sources of inspiration too. These popular utopianisms, instigated by discontent against colonial fiscal oppression and political-military brutality, fuelled grand insurrections, dismantling the British Empire in the subcontinent. Inspired by such struggles, the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam as well as Rajavamshi peasants devised sophisticated forms of materially-grounded dialectical theory, involving transition from servitude (dasatva) and heteronomy (parashasana) – when one alienated one’s self (sva-hin) – to the recovery of self and ethical-material autonomy (svarajatmashasana), leading finally to the anarchic cessation of all rule when one realised the fullness of divinity within oneself and others (Mortal God, Chapters 4 and 5).”

I am reminded very strongly by this of Renaud Fabbri’s book Eric Voegelin et L’Orient, which I reviewed here a year or so ago. Fabbri had much to say of the influence of Islamic millenialism and Western secularised millennarianisms on Indian mystics like Aurobindo and his “end of history” with a New Age of global Enlightenment stemming from India. To Fabbri, as a Voegelinian and Guenonian, this had in effect severely damaged Hindu thought and basically produced all the New Age bullshittery we know and love.

A quick look at Banerjee’s Mortal God turns up a couple of references to Sri Aurobindo, though his mysticism is reduced to a mere footnote explanation that he was an “extremist” who later became a guru (p. 40). But what is most interesting is that on pp. 181-2 we find a short discourse on Aurobindo’s disdain for the “Anglomaniac” Indian congress, who like the Roman senate he viewed as destined for failure because only a populist Caesarism, the “healing hand of a firm despotism” could produce equality. For sure Banerjee is right to see 18-19th c. European understandings of only a Caesar being able to create a strong national leadership being at play here, but it is far more interesting (and important) to take this back further to the Middle Ages and the lex regia and Joachism. And indeed, it is the spectre of protestant millenarianism, the Whig Millennium, that makes an appearance at the end of Banerjee’s article:

 “These Indian cases invite wider comparisons, such as with the seventeenth-century Leveller Richard Overton’s statement about “every man by nature being a king, priest and prophet” or with Ludwig Feuerbach’s nineteenth-century conception of divinity as present in every human being. Rather than a theory of democracy predicated on an empty/disembodied centre, as in Claude Lefort, we are tempted to outline a radically novel conception of the democratic political embedded in the proliferation and multiplication of divine being. There is a barely-developed hint in Agamben’s recent opus, Karman (78-79, 83), of such a turn, drawing on ancient India, to inspire a new model of action. In our world of strongman sovereigns and unrelenting degradation of human and nonhuman actors, we need to recuperate such globally-oriented political theory and practice, while remaining critical towards, and abjuring, the chauvinistic and hierarchical elements historically present in them. If engaged with dialectical intimacy, visions which once inspired rebels to overthrow ruling classes can help us conjure today solidarities with peasants and refugees, neighbours and strangers. To see everyone as regal and divine, and act upon this, can become a lightning bolt to wield for unshackling democracies to come.”

There are a couple of things to look at here. Feuerbach is an interesting choice because though Hegel spoke of the “unhappy consciousness”, his student Feuerbach was pretty much the instigator of the Death of God and the father of the psychological argument for projectionism – internalise God to bring about your power fantasies, which in the last century was perhaps most clearly articulated as a political theology by Erich Fromm. The millennial Third Age for the Fuerbachs, Fichtes and Stirners is supposed to bring Man as God. What a joke that has been. It’s very old-school now. I’m reminded of fellow left political theologist Adam Kotsko’s recent Neoliberalism’s Demons which ends with an invocation of Bonhoeffer’s death of God theology, the touted adulthood of man in which society as liberated self-making entity of will replaces God. There’s a lovely sort of bathos in this. It took the academic left long enough to come to turns with their millenarian theological ancestry (Bloch and Benjamin are perhaps the exception), and now that quite a few of them have, the best they appear to have got is dead memes from last century – and certainly nothing in the league of Benjamin with his glorious puppet and dwarf and messianic violence that redeems all of homogeneous history.

Our current lot do not even come up to the old millenarians really. Just as Esposito wants “Parousia without Apocalypse” because he can’t believe in messianic violence, and  Kotsko seems to just be a rather dull social democrat relying on the assumption that the forces of reaction are small and dumb as shit, here we have with Banerjee, in the last couple of lines the great anticlimax that what once could overthrow ruling classes is now fuel for mere “democracies to come”. This is why I can respect someone like Zizek – the guy is honest that if you want to change something you need a big dose of violence and if that fails and you get just one more round of failed mythic violence instead of the messianic, then you just try again. That’s how millenarianism works – it’s the neurotic plague of the “old age of the world”. The end is always a fake, forever deferred, a Great Disappointment, a NOT YET, until it isn’t anymore.

But in the same way that I remain thoroughly unsurprised that the great cosmic apocalyptic threat of climate change hasn’t led to a single political head being guillotined by leftists, it’s as though the Political Event and the thymotic are total jokes today, as absurd as dear old God was to the immanentist “political religions” wishing to eat up his power. As occasional reader of this blog should know by now, there’s a big banner at the top of it with the words “speculations on a post-millenarian world” for good reason. And it’s not just because we think that the political religions of modernity are now dead and oh gosh what a good thing that is. No, if anything, it’s because nothing has turned up to replace them so, well, we all kind of miss them a little. The only “new” emergence is a post-humanist oikonomia that after the failure of Man now grants the agency of history to simply the inhuman forces of capital or to Gaia theory stuff like “The Earth”. This is the punchline to the Faustian nominalist-voluntatist theft of the potentia absoluta of God for Man. After Man it has to go somewhere else – down into the immanent “systems” of the world.

Then there is the matter of Banerjee “seeing everyone as regal and divine” or as a “king, priest or prophet”. A reader of our Esposito review might recall that his book was all about the attempt to deconstruct the “person” because it has its own political theology of sovereignty that creates an inside and an outside, the machine of the Two. I.e. Under liberalism not everyone gets to be a person (a little king/God/prophet), and thus they can be destroyed with impunity. For those who do, however, personhood basically makes them subjects of the secularised Judgement of God that is the law, because being a person gives them their own blame and guilt. Ergo, down with personhood! What then will the Parousia be? The ending of the outside by everyone becoming a “person” or the ending of the “person” so that everyone can become divine and liberated from blame? This is likely to be the wedge that will become increasingly visible as the current left political theological revival develops. 

Doing away with personal guilt and blame to escape the Judgement of God seems to be a recurrent theme of the new left political theology, and a rather Gnostic one at that. God is a rotten bastard and so are his imitations on Earth. For instance, Adam Kotsko’s Prince of This World, which we also reviewed recently, is all about the legacy of “Christian freedom” as a rigged freedom – it’s the freedom to mess up in a crooked system and be damned for it. Kotsko does not try to deconstruct the person, however, nor to render it divine. He barely touches the concept. Instead, if everyone simply stops “victim blaming” using the mantra of “poor personal choices”, we’ll be able to build a better society.

Nonetheless, Kotsko’s Neoliberalism’s Demons seems to have gone completely the other way – “neoliberalism” is laid squarely at the feet of the dread white patriarchy. Yet, we never get an explanation why everyone on all sides of politics bought into the “neoliberal consensus”. I’m kind of feeling a bit better now about doing a bit of New Left blaming when I wrote the review for Prince of This World because of this. Either we blame everyone or we blame no one. There’s no exit by blaming the Other unless you’re properly ready to eradicate them or redeem them. Kotsko may be right that political theology problematises the Two by blurring the religious and the secular, but if you want to beat the Two of friends vs enemies, the real political theological machine, then a little more effort from leftists to win over angry conservative uncles rather than simply imagining that reaction will magically evaporate, is probably a good idea. That or you’re just going to have to become the Judgement of God and hit them with some messianic violence if you want to be free.

On a final note I read Agamben’s new Karman that Banerjee mentions the other day (Kotkso is the translator of course). It was the most boring take on the problem of whether individual guilt can be ascribed to anyone I have ever come across. I don’t think I got anything out of it at all. In comparison, Kotsko’s “poppier” American take on “Christian freedom” and blame in Prince of This World, though hackneyed, was far better, as too was Esposito’s realisation that personhood is intrinsically bound up in the juridical question of individual guilt and blame. Nonetheless, one can only hope that this new political theology stuff keeps on evolving. We ain’t seen nothing yet. Accelerate the genealogical process. We’re still living out a certain Middle Ages. There may well be many others as of yet unlived, or, at least that’s what this conspiratorial old Platonist is hoping.



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