Nomen est omen

ANALYSIS  Petar Atanacković Published: 22. 02. 2024.

Complicity in power

One of the main characteristics of dictatorial, tyrannical and absolutist powers is self-will and arbitrariness – in other words, the absence of a clearly defined and publicized system of rules and procedures by which state mechanisms operate and which they themselves (mechanisms) adhere to in all circumstances. Instead, in such systems there is arbitrary determination, shifting and changing of rules and procedures, as well as an elusiveness, ie. incomprehensibility of principles (ie, lack of clarity about the principles) by which the rules are set and changed, why they are changed at all, and why it is done at one particular point in time and not sooner or later.

When self-will and arbitrariness become the guiding state principles, the consequences for social dynamics are usually quite devastating, as they contribute to the serious fragmentation of society. This fragmentation occurs on several grounds at the same time and generally not only does it go beyond the usual class divisions in society, but most often obscures them and thus (seemingly) negates their relevance for any kind of social analysis. Incidentally, perhaps this is one of the reasons why on-call Marxist analysts often do not do well in analyzing such societies, which is then reflected in their recommendations for political action, which are at best completely detached from reality, and at worst reactionary?

Generally, the aforementioned fragmentation takes place in an (again) arbitrary manner and precisely because of this (so, due to the lack of clarity on which principles it is based) it gains sharpness, aggressiveness, emphasizing the differences and divisions among the elements of the social group, so that the society will more resemble a seriously divided group on the brink of not a simple civil war, which would have to confirm the dominance of one group over another, but a real war to eradication, and less look like an abstract group that should be in one kind of equilibrium (imposed through the overdetermination of one concrete principle, followed by more or less regulated class relations and a system of clear rules and laws). A society in which self-will and arbitrariness are the only principles is in many ways seriously dysfunctional, and in some ways resembles a broken mirror, each part of which reflects only one part of the face staring back at it, in which each fragment has its own distinct perspective, while the bigger picture and unique perspectives are missing, and to that extent it is not far-fetched to conclude that it is a kind of psychotic society – a society that is not made up of psychotic persons, but is guided by psychotic rules, which are that the rules can never be known exactly and that they change every now and then according to a unknown principle.

One of the interesting effects of this type of power is that the vast majority of citizens are involved in its workings in one way or another, because they must constantly monitor the dynamics of the power and changes in the rules by which it operates, which is a incessant job, since the rules are not known and are in a state of constant transformation. In other words, most citizens are forced to be constantly vigilant and in one or another type of active participation in power, which in the long run has very negative consequences in terms of their anti-emancipation, considering that the horizon of state politics then becomes the only political horizon of most citizens.

This absence of clear rules also opens up unsuspected opportunities for state interventions, primarily in those fields where the state’s presence is usually unexpected, or for which the majority of social actors believe is not necessary, or at least that requires some kind of negotiation with the state and a consensus about its presence being necessary or required in this field as well. First of all, I mean the field of everyday life, that is, the micro field of interpersonal relations, (dis)agreements, passions, dramas and conflicts.

The self-will of the ruler requires the complicity of the citizens in order to function.

In the case of a state that follows set rules and procedures, these types of interventions could be problematized precisely by referring to rules and procedures, so they would end with some kind of negotiation and agreement (thus consensus) on rules and procedures, which either prevents or allows such types of interventions. In a state which main characteristics are self-will and arbitrariness, this type of intervention appears to be particularly dramatic, because it is not at all clear on the basis of which these interventions take place, what their goal is, whether with it a new (virtual) rule is established, or rather, it is an isolated case (exception), as well as the basis on which it can be judged whether it is one or the other. Because it cannot, since, as it was said, the rules and procedures are not transparent.

The myth of the ruler’s self-will

However, the functioning of the state that acts on the principles of self-will and arbitrariness is not really possible in the long run, unless self-will and arbitrariness are widely accepted by a large number of social actors and citizens themselves. When there is a broad enough social consensus that rules are necessary and must be followed by the state, there is no type of repression that can keep all social factors in submission for the long haul. Occasional outbursts are possible, dictatorships and tyrannies, as we know, are possible and do happen, but they can never survive based on repression alone. Therefore, for the survival of such a system, the guiding principle of which is the self-will of the ruler, citizens and institutions who have self-will in their own interest are needed, i.e. which themselves function on the principles of self-will and arbitrariness. In other words, the self-will of the ruler requires the complicity of the citizens in order to function.

This, I would say, is precisely the conclusion of Michel Foucault in one of his perhaps most interesting and at the same time to the general public lesser-known texts, The Lives of Infamous Men (La Vie des hommes infames). Dealing with the fate of people in France in the 18th century, who were directly affected by the repressive mechanism known as the sealed letter (or royal letter), Michel Foucault came up with very interesting results, which in many ways contradict what one might expect, so they could be called shocking.

A sealed letter is a royal decision regarding the fate of a certain individual, who was to be imprisoned for their crimes and had no right to know either what crimes they were charged with, or how the royal intervention (on whose complaint) came about in the first place, nor did they have any kind of legal remedy at their disposal, i.e. they could not defend themself or challenge the decision in any way. Unless the sovereign themself has changed their decision. So, it was a matter of the most direct type of sovereign intervention in the lives of ordinary people with very dramatic consequences.

Certainly the most famous victim of the sealed letter was Marquis de Sade, although this does not surprise, when one knows what kind of reputation he had. What Foucault discovered was that there were hundreds and thousands of completely unknown and mostly insignificant people who had this kind of almost divine wrath brought upon them for far lesser ‘crimes’. Prodigal sons who squandered the family inheritance on binge drinking and prostitutes, husbands and wives who preferred to spend time in merry company with a glass of wine rather than with their spouses, former monks prone to pederasty, or some kind of drifter and vagabond whose crime was only reflected in defacing with their presence the (imaginary) reality in some insignificant provincial settlement.

A very logical question arises, how come they were the ones to catch the eye of the highest authority? Could it be possible that the royal power was so omnipresent that it could not miss anything and that it was primarily concerned with the removal of various insignificant, morally depraved individuals, since its primary interest was to care about the moral state of society? It is at this point that Foucault’s most interesting finding arises, and that would be a very simple answer: no, of course not. The royal power was not omnipresent, so it could even know less who were some of the those people like Mathurin Milan, who ‘led an obscure life’, or Jean Antoine Touzard, ‘an apostate from the Franciscan order, a rebel, capable of the worst crimes, sodomist and atheist’.1 The police in today’s sense of the word was just in its infancy, just as the system of collecting, classifying and processing various data on citizens was at its very beginning (if you could even talk about such a thing at that time). So there was no question of, from today’s perspective, the logical ‘translation’ of acquired knowledge about citizens and their relationships into some special types of decisions and policies, including police interventions. But where did the interventions come from, we might ask? How could the king know about the former Franciscan abbot or the sinful son of the Milan family? This is where Foucault really opened our eyes, establishing that none of those kinds of interventions would have happened if there had not been appropriate cues from their immediate environment. So, it was only when your neighbor complained to the king about you that the king intervened. In other words, the royal self-will would be impossible without the citizens’ complicity in it.

The narrative about the arbitrary action of the royal power can indeed be perceived as a convenient myth, with which, I would say, accomplices in royal self-will, those who actually seriously and massively abused his self-will for their own self-will, concealed their complicity.

This kind of complicity in the power really required an extraordinary effort from an interested citizen. Because communication with the royal authority took place in a very ritualized manner, relying on a specific code, which had to fulfill certain conditions and contain certain keywords, in order to be recognized by the king as worthy of an answer. Knowledge of this code and this type of ritual communication represented a specific type of secret knowledge limited to a narrow circle of devotees (lawyers, notaries and such), who, of course, charged well for this type of service. So, in order for someone to get rid of a drunken husband or a dissolute wife, or simply remove some annoying drunkard from the neighborhood, it was necessary not only to decide that it was time to get rid of them, but also to devote their precious time, work and by no means insignificant amount of money to it. And people gladly resorted to it, as it emerges from Foucault’s findings. The reason for this is the simple fact that people, it seems, happily decide to participate in power. Namely, for this kind of engagement, an almost indescribable imaginary reward follows! By participating in power, people acquire enormous authority and a terrifying degree of influence, and thus become the power themselves! The king did not need a paid network of policemen and informants, when there was already a network of volunteer cops and spies, so the royal power was truly omnipresent and in the described way of collaboration! In other words, Louis XV or Louis XVI did not sit only in Versailles, but in the form of these power thirsty citizens, they were present in every village in France! And vice versa, each of these citizens was not only a conscientious citizen, but was directly in the service of the state, and was even the king himself! And at the same time a complete madman, because we know from Lacan that a madman who thinks he is king is no different from a king who thinks he is king. So, in essence, the citizen-informant, the cop and the king are one and the same, i.e. the same place in the structure and then it doesn’t matter who exactly occupies this place at what moment, whether Louis XVI is the disgruntled father of a village ruffian, or the disgruntled neighbor of a former Franciscan is the king of France.

The consequences of this situation in France were extremely dramatic and were felt in the long run. Namely, summarizing the analysis of the situation, Foucault informs us that ‘the intervention of an unlimited political power in everyday relations has not only become acceptable and widespread, but even quite desirable, and at the same time it was seriously feared. This tendency gradually opened up traditional, family-based dependency relations to administrative and political control. And therefore it should not be surprising that the unlimited power of the king, which functioned in the midst of all those passions, rages, misery and malice, despite or perhaps because of its enormous benefit to the citizens, became an object of hatred and disgust. Those who petitioned the king for the issuance of sealed letters and the king who issued them eventually became victims of their collaboration: the former gradually lost their traditional authority in favor of an administrative power; and the king, who was daily involved in so many intrigues and hatred, finally became the object of hatred himself’2. And we all know how this story ended.

To that extent, the narrative about the arbitrary action of the royal power can indeed be perceived as a convenient myth, with which, I would say, accomplices in royal self-will, those who actually seriously and massively abused his self-will for their own self-will, concealed their complicity. The king was to be the sole culprit and villain, the one who descended from the throne of Versailles all the way down to the barbeque posts among the skyscrapers of Detelinara in Novi Sad solely because of his perverse desire to be omnipresent and to control everything, while the citizens had absolutely nothing to do with it all.

It is not excluded that the kings and presidents of the republics really have completely personal, perverse motives to get involved in relations of hatred, passions and other microscopic dramas and foolishness of their subjects and citizens, especially if they themselves are among those who truly think they are the kings and presidents of the republics. We have one madman of such caliber in Serbia today, so it does not come with difficulty for us to imagine such a scenario. Despite everything, their self-will is not possible without the collaboration of citizens eager for power. That’s why we ought to remember this story once Aleksandar Vučić falls from power and when all the evils committed during his reign are attributed exclusively to him personally.

1 Michel Foucault, Das Leben der infamen Menschen, Berlin: Merve, 2001, 8-9.

2 Ibid., 33-34.

Translation to English: Ivana Purtić

The text in Serbian is published in the Bulletin TENANT 20&21

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