Eduardo Colombo: The State as Paradigm of Power

The State as Paradigm of Power

In the following extracts, translated by M. Le Disez, Eduardo Colombo draws on the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (aka Paul Cardan) in analyzing the State as a paradigm of power. Originally published in Volontá, Vol. XXXVIII (1984), No. 3. I will be including a piece by Colombo on voting in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Eduardo Colombo

Political Power

When political power becomes autonomous and develops into a State, a wall soon to become insurmountable is formed between freedom and equality. The State principle perpetuates social heteronomy, acknowledges the established hierarchy and reproduces domination ad infinitum

From the liberal, individualistic point of view, characteristic of the ideological furtherance of the nation State from the seventeenth century onwards, society is viewed as resulting from the relinquishment of the natural state and subsequent foundation of an autonomous body politic which is at once a hierarchical principle of institutional organization with the inevitable consequence that society dissolves into the State.

Anarchism

Anarchism conceives of the political as part and parcel of society at large and posits the possibility, in organizational terms, of a complex, conflictual and incomplete structure, by no means pellucid or definitive, yet based on overall reciprocity together with the autonomy of the acting subject as opposed to the distribution and splitting-up of power.

Anarchy is a trope, an organizational principle, a representational mode of the political. The State is a different if not antithetical principle. Basically, the state is a paradigm in the hierarchical structuralization of society; within the sphere of politica1 power —domination in other words — it is both necessary and irreducible. For this sphere is delineated out of the dispossession by a section of society of part of the overall ability any human group has to create relational modes, norms, customs, codes, institutions, in short, of its symbol-instituting ability which defines, constitutes and is the essence of the human approach to societal integration. Nor is such dispossession necessarily achieved by the use of force; it goes hand in hand with the notion of political obligation, that is the duty to obey.

The State

Closely intertwined within the contemporary notion of the Leviathan are in fact two different aspects of the State which are too often fused or confused into one. One comes under the heading of “the State principle” already mentioned with domination — at the core of which is command and obedience — as the inevitable form of the political; whereby the hierarchical organization of power is assumed, within the same discourse establishing the State as a principle or paradigm, to be necessary to the integration of complex societies. From one end of the spectrum of contemporary political philosophy to the other, with the only if remarkable exception being anarchism, the political instance at large is viewed as falling within the compass of that principle.

The other aspect for consideration is that of the composition and development of empirical structures constituting a State in any given situation; that is to say the institutions which make up national States, stretching as these do over a circumscribed territory, ruling over large or small populations and possessed of a unique political organization and an ideological system of legitimation within the larger generic pattern of the modern State.

Making the right use at the right moment of these two semantic components, the ongoing social discourse conveniently constructs the State as a coherent, unified concept within the dominant political theory…

[T]he modern State can be said to exist effectively when it has acquired the ability to make sure it is recognized, without resorting to force or threat. Once established, the concept of the State is associated with the notion of an imperious power over and above individual will and implies compulsory submission to the decisions of the political power. This duty to obey or political obligation which inspired La Boetie [Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 2] and astonished Hume, is closely related to a theory of the legitimation of power whereby the State is viewed not as an impassioned, whimsical tyrant but as an entity both abstract and rational — of an instrumental kind of rationality dependent on the achievement of its ends — within the framework of the law. Yet the law is made by men in order to produce social effects and as such is a product of political power. Mistaking legality for the State is a tautology inherent in power which legitimizes everything it lays its hands on…

[T]he existing State, real or institutional, cannot be reduced to the various “State apparatuses” it is made up of, namely government, civil service, the army, the police, the educational system, etc., any more than it can be reduced to institutional continuity over time. The State demands that the socio-political sphere be organized according to its own model or paradigm, that is the State paradigm. Which in turn presupposes a predetermined ideology of power…

The State is a construct which explains and justifies the social entity of political power. This “social entity” is neither neutral nor inert: it is in turn built upon by an accretion of significance, is dependent on the context which defines it and is subject to the over- whelming symbolical structure which includes it.

Society

Society constitutes itself as such by instituting a wide range of meanings in a circular process whereby action and discourse, action and symbol generate each other. In this respect, the organization of social power into its State form defines the social sphere according to a central imaginary meaning “which reorganizes, redetermines and reshapes a host of existing social meanings, thereby altering them and conditioning the emergence of new meanings, which triggers certain effects” upon the whole system [C. Castoriadis, 1975].

Whatever the case may be, we must bear in mind that such key meanings — which organize symbols into a force field dependent on these very meanings, which in many cases remain virtual or latent (unconscious) — cannot be conceived from their “relation” to “objects as their referents”. For it is in and through them that the objects and therefore the referential relation are made possible. The object — in the present case, the State — as referent is always “co-constituted by the corresponding social meaning” [C. Castoriadis, 1975].

In the long formative process of the State, the representations, images, ideas and values which make up collective imagery as a representation of a supreme central power, distinct from civil society and endowed with “the monopoly of legitimate physical coercion” (Max Weber) over a given population within the limits (boundaries) of a given territory, acquire or take on an intense emotional load which in the course of history binds each subject of the body politic to the concept constituting this body as commonwealth, civitas, republic, State.

The transition to the State form, a decisive step, is complete when the symbolic system of the legitimization of state political power succeeds in capturing and draining most of the primitive loyalties which previously went to the primary group, i.e., tribe, clan, “family” or village. This is a fundamental process: for primitive loyalties contain potentially what we have called the structure of domination (or second articulation of the symbolical) in the form of a largely unconscious system of integration into the socio-cultural world.

Domination

The structure of domination is dependent on the institutionalization of political power as it is at once constitutive of and constituted by said power. By political power is meant here the concept of domination as defined by [Amedeo] Bertolo, that is, the appropriation and control by a minority of the regulatory capacity of society, in other words, of the “sociality-producing process.”

Human societies, unlike other animal societies, are not regulated homeostatically but rather in a more specific, more complex, unstable fashion, namely through the creation of meaning, norms, codes and institutions, in short, of a symbolic system. Any symbolic (or semiotic) system requires a set of positive rules. Yet if rules are necessary to the semiotic system, their relation to the representation which embodies them, or symbolic shifter, is contingent. Selecting as symbolic shifter the paternal metaphor — or more precisely, the incest taboo central to it — our own socio-cultural order presents rules as laws so that the contingent relation becomes universal and essential to the whole system.

Sexuality and power are all the more closely linked as they relate lineage and exchange on the one hand, generations and sexes on the other, on the basis of a single taboo, that of incest. Thus, the symbolic order is conditioned by the Primaeval Law, which reproduces itself in the form of institutions and establishes the individual as a social subject. The law of the unconscious and the law of the State are interdependent. Domination is therefore normative insofar as it creates a hierarchy which sanctions and institutionalizes the dispossession, carried out at one extreme of the asymmetric relation thus established, of the symbol-making capacity of society.

The modern State, or rather the notion or “metaphysical principle” behind it, completes the autonomization process of the political instance and permeates the whole of the social fabric with the semantic determination entailed by the structure of domination. Any social relation in a society of the State type is, in the final analysis, a command/obedience or dominator/dominated relation…

This all-embracing dimension of domination, which applies equally to the “inner world” of the subject and to the mythical, institutional structure of the “outer world” and is the basis of the reproduction of political power, has two major consequences. To put it briefly, the first is what a contemporary author has called “the principle of generalized equivalence” whereby the entire institutionalization of social action reproduces the State form [R. Lourau, 1979]. The second, closely related to the first, is “voluntary servitude”, i.e. the acceptance of the duty to obey or political obligation which, surprisingly enough, is everywhere a fact.

Although it may be agreed that power is “the name we give to a complex strategic situation in any given society” and that it is “wielded from countless sources in the interplay of mobile, unequal relations” [M. Foucault, 1976], it should be remembered that these various networks of asymmetry do not proceed from the base upwards to produce the State, but rather are set up by the State so that it can reproduce itself. Hierarchy institutionalizes inequality. Where there is no hierarchy, there is no State.

Conclusion

To conclude, let us recall some of the concepts we have been using.

The domain of the political can be defined as including all that has to do with the regulatory process of collective action in a global society. This regulatory process is the symbol-making characteristic of any social entity. This, which has been defined by A. Bertolo as the dimension of power, we would rather describe as capacity or “dimension of the political devoid of constituted or autonomous power.”

In the same spirit as Bertolo, Proudhon said: “In the natural order, power is born of society; it is the resultant of all the particular forces unified for purposes of work, defence and justice.” Furthermore, “according to the empirical concept prompted by the alienation of power, it is, on the contrary, society which is born of it….” The alienation of power brings about political power or domination which, in fact, is the result of the appropriation by a minority or a specialized group of the symbol-making capacity. The political instance becomes autonomous.

The State is a particular historical type of political power as were “the chieftaincy without power”, the Greek city or the Roman Empire in other times.

A society free from the State, free from political power or domination, is a new form to be conquered. It lies in the future.

References

Bertolo, A.,. “Potere, Autorita, Dominio,” in Volontá, Vol. XXXVII (1983), No. 2.

Castoriadis, C., L’institution imaginaire de la societe, Seuil, Paris, 1975.

Foucault, M., La volonte de savoir, Gallimard, Paris, 1976.

Lourau, R., L’Etat inconscient, Minuit, Paris, 1979.

Proudhon, P.-J., De la justice dans la Revolution et dans l’Eglise, Garnier Frères, Paris, 1958.

Published on April 22, 2012 at 8:38 am  Leave a Comment  

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