Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Taking a broader view of our predicament (1)

This week I start a series of several linked posts that explore the broader context of our current economic and environmental predicament. I start in perhaps an unexpected place, for this blog!

A couple of weeks ago, I went to hear a lecture, given at Keble College, Oxford , by Peter Selby , a long-standing friend of mine. The lecture was primarily addressed to members of the Church of England, and was titled, ‘Mis-Establishment: Locating, and re-locating, the Church of England’.

Those parts of the lecture that addressed specifically the questions surrounding the establishment (or not) of the Anglican Church in Britain are unlikely to be of prime interest to readers of this blog (but if you are interested, you can read or listen to the whole lecture online).

However, in the second half of the lecture Peter addressed himself to the nature of ‘The Establishment’ more broadly. This raises issues of power in society – the power of the monarch, of those with money, of those who pull the levers of political power. It also raises questions about those on the receiving end of the exercise of power, and where the churches – any of the churches – will align themselves.

I think these questions are of great importance to the nexus of concerns that this blog addresses, and in which its readers are interested. Below is an extract from Peter’s lecture, and I’ll publish a second extract next week.

This is a substantial essay – not a quick, easy read – but it’s worth the time and effort to read it. I am grateful to Peter for his permission to use his text.
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Establishment and Sovereign Power

Establishment historically has to do with the relationship between the Church and sovereign power. Sovereign power may be exercised by a monarch, and the place of the Church of England in relation to the monarchy hardly needs mention in a lecture given (initially) in Westminster Abbey. The monarchy may have been an absolute one and may now be a constitutional one. It may be exercised through the mechanisms of parliamentary democracy, and the various ways in which the Church interacts with, and is regulated by, Parliament witness to that reality as it has manifested itself through history: as Parliament has developed so has its interaction with the Church of England developed also.

However much the way in which sovereign power is exercised and the legal and constitutional arrangements by which it is exercised may vary and develop, no examination of establishment can avoid considering the nature of sovereign power itself. What is this to which the established Church claims a special relationship?

[. . . ] A central feature of sovereign power is that it is ‘vitae necisque potestas’, the power of life and death. What is discernible in the development of the modern state, of sovereignty in modern times, is the development of sovereign power as power over bare life. That basic subsistence, which has been a responsibility of the family, part of theoikos’ [household] rather than the 'polis[state], has become that over which the sovereign power now exercises control. This is not an abstract point: consider the capacity of large numbers of people to house themselves and their families, to feed themselves, to be treated in the event of bodily illness, to find basic education for their children, to obtain productive employment; the mechanisms may vary as may the scope and reach of the state, but for all citizens of the state to some degree and to the poorest citizens to an ever increasing degree the state’s ‘power over bare life’ has grown and shows no sign of ceasing to grow. Thus politics becomes biopolitics in that control is exercised by the sovereign’s overwhelming power of coercion against bare, bodily, existence.

The point needs to be stressed: the issue here is not the processes by which sovereign power has been exercised, under the various constitutional arrangements that have developed through history and in particular during the modern period. It would be a mistake to suppose that the character of sovereign power has changed simply because the mechanisms of constitutional government or democratic elections are in place; as we shall see, the opposite can be the case.

For sovereignty lives out a logic, albeit a paradoxical one. The sovereign is without question part of the juridical order of the society, with rights and duties prescribed by the juridical order itself. But sovereignty also has the capacity to define the extent of the juridical order itself; that is, the sovereign uniquely has the right to declare ‘status exceptionis’, a ‘state of exception’. It is of the essence of sovereignty that it is defined by its capacity to decide the exception, and it is the exception and the capacity to declare the exception that explains the juridical order. [. . . ]

The characterisation of sovereignty in terms of the right to declare the status of an exception shows itself also in the sovereign’s right to declare the subject excluded from the society. Sovereign power thus shows itself in the right to imprison, to section under the mental health acts, or to deprive of citizenship or residence.

The sovereign’s power to determine the ‘state of exception’ has the deepest roots in the primitive life of humankind. Primitive societies deny to the bandit and the outlaw all protection and put them beyond the scope of any taboo against killing. The ‘ban’ of medieval times is a continuation of this tradition, asserting that the person condemned to death by his city was to be regarded as dead. The banned person is the one who reveals the character of sovereign power in its most fundamental sense. The ultimate capacity of the sovereign, that which defines the sovereign as sovereign, is the single power, the vitae necisque potestas, from which all other powers finally derive. The power generally associated with the sovereign, the capacity to regulate all those aspects of life which are conventionally associated with sovereignty, derive from the latent – and frequently unacknowledged – power of the sovereign to define a person ‘pro mortuo’, as being as good as dead.

It is unfortunately a fact of history that examples of the exercise of this latent power of the sovereign are not hard to find. They are indeed examples that demonstrate all too clearly that particular constitutional arrangements for the exercise of sovereign power are far from being a guarantee against the placing of individuals and groups under ‘bans’ of various kinds, and therefore treated pro mortuis. What is important, however, is that the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century are considered not simply as the singular extremisms of particular countries and times, but are seen in the light of the development of precisely those institutions that were thought to liberate people from the possibility of the sovereign’s uncontrolled power. In particular, it would be important not to see the ‘sovereignty of the people’ according to the aspirations of democratic theory as some kind of guarantee against exceptional and extreme forms of sovereignty.

In fact democratic institutions, based as they are on the belief that popular power will be the best defence of popular interests against the power of those who direct armies or have the control of most of the wealth, have proved easy prey to those able to engage the sympathies of the populace against vulnerable groups of many kinds. To engage the people it is only necessary to persuade or seduce them into a change of their sympathy, a conviction that those with power, force and wealth are not the threat to their interests which they thought they were, but rather constitute their best protection against groups who are presented as the greatest danger to their prosperity or even their very safety. When politics embraces bare life, the basic constituents of bodily existence, sovereign power becomes to that extent more secure and the less subject to control. Able to present itself as representing the will of the people, the sovereign is to that extent the more able to designate particular individuals and groups as presenting an enormous risk to the security of the state, or to the prosperity and well-being of ‘the people’, and therefore as not deserving of the title of person at all or the protections citizens are meant to enjoy. [. . .]

So it was that the ‘river of biopolitics’, the progressive concern of sovereign power with bare life, came together with the plan of the twentieth-century totalitarian states for total domination, working itself out in the concentration camps. [. . . ]

It is of course profoundly disturbing to reflect on the roots of Nazi practice within the development of the political structures of modernity, and particularly to note the development of ‘concentration camps’ by the Spanish in their colonisation of Cuba at the end of the nineteenth century and by the British in their dealings with the Afrikaaners at the same time. In both cases, the needs of the colonists resulted in the declaration of a ‘state of exception’, effectively of martial law. By the time such a state of exception was declared within the Nazi state to provide the basis for the camps, it was not even necessary to make an open declaration of a ‘state of exception’ as such, so much had that extreme situation become part of the normal operation of the state. This explains why the racial laws of the Third Reich do not need to reside in either ‘science’ or ‘law’: they derive directly from the power of the sovereign – in this case the F├╝hrer – to declare the state of exception and have it enforced. [. . .]

Sadly, the ‘river of biopolitics’ flows on, as those dependent on the state for ‘bare life’ experience the effect of changed policies for welfare and public provision. As this paper was being written a London landlord was reported as declaring that the evictions he needed to seek because of caps on housing benefit would amount in their effects to ‘ethnic cleansing’. The disproportionate incarceration of members of poor and disadvantaged groups and minority ethnic communities witness to the same point. Both the welfare regime and the increased use of imprisonment show what sovereignty actually means, and provide the threatening context within which all of us pass our lives.

To be ‘established’ is to be related closely to that exercise of sovereignty as coercive power over bare life. Much more to the point than most current debates about the ending the mechanics of establishment in this country is Donald MacKinnon’s hope that the ending of establishment might see an end to episcopal blessings on Polaris submarines. Unfortunately there is no particular evidence that when churches are disestablished they become less eager to have a share in sovereign power, as a moment’s reflection on the disestablished religious right in the USA and its addiction to military force, capital punishment and imprisonment on a massive scale makes all too clear. So, more serious than any questions about any limits on the Church’s ordering of its own life in exchange for certain privileges in the life of the nation, is whether the Church is established in relation to sovereign power or in relation to those who are the victims of the exercise of that power. In those situations where a choice has to be made between the claims of the powerful and the claims of the excluded, where is the Church located?

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Published with permission (© Peter Selby 2012).

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