Monday, October 24, 2011

Head of State or Figurehead? The "Relational Networks of Power" Model of Politics

I had occasion recently to listen while some people had a conversation about constitutional monarchy and the role of a Head of State in the government of a nation. After all, I am now living under Her Majesty, and happily so (though not yet a subject...)

As much as I've critiqued crazy trads for being purist about it or seemingly wanting to return to absolute monarchy, I do have [constitutional] monarchist sympathies, especially in places where there is a tradition of that. Because, heck, I love tradition and symbolism, of course, and a monarch symbolically embodies the nation as a living "tradition" from the past, as it were, embodying the legitimacy and continuity of the State (especially if above this or that faction or party.)

And while an elected leader can do this (just as the elected line of Popes or elected/appointed bishops in a diocese can in the ecclesiastic sphere) by taking up the mantle of the Idea of The State being conferred on them by whatever more abstract process...there is something about organic natural genealogical descent, physical and material, that seems to most fittingly symbolize the continuity, the "tradition" (in the literal sense of "handing down") of temporal nationhood.

As nationhood is ultimately a reality of biological descent (or, at least, the original concept is rooted in that, all exceptions for immigration, etc, aside), which is ultimately something inherited by us first and foremost physically, as a body related to other bodies familially (the nation and/or State, the civic sphere, is the material and temporal power, after all, not the spiritual). I suppose being a "sacramentally" minded person, this is why I'm inclined to prefer a "genetic" Head of State to a purely "memetic" one, when it comes to symbolizing the temporal nation or State. Because nationhood is "supposed to be" (in the root concept, at least) a reality of birth; "nation" and "nativity" share the same etymology in "birth" after all. (Whereas it is membership in the Church which is a reality of adoption, which is supposed to be the spiritual as opposed to fleshly community. All talk of "cradle Catholics" aside, no one is "born Christian"...we are all born pagans and become Christian only with baptism).

However, then people always bring up the question of "actual power." They scoff and call constitutional monarchs "figureheads" or "merely" symbols. In some systems there is a monarch specified by the very constitution as purely symbolic (take the Emperor of Japan since after WWII). This symbolism, this ceremonial role, is not, however, (as any good traditionalist should know) a "mere" thing, I wouldn't think.

That's like saying that a bishop's role as chief priest (liturgically speaking) in his diocese is "mere," when's the foundation and cornerstone of everything else! It is in being the central ceremonial/liturgical figure, in symbolizing (being!) "Christ" for His diocese in that act, from which the bishop derives his other "administrative" powers (and those are the secondary thing), not the other way around.

The same for a Head of State (whether hereditary or elected). There must be a signifier capping the institutions of the State, a "hook" for the abstract notion of legitimacy to hang on (in the system of signifiers in the mind of the populace), a "final node" in which the sum result of the contribution of all the other nodes in the network is ultimately totaled. Because otherwise a State has no "real" existence, it is just a group of people. Corporate personhood (whether in the form of Church or State) requires ultimate "heading" in a real individual or the symbolic system which coordinates that notion tends to collapse, I think. The Head of State has a very important role in "tying together" legitimacy among the populace, to keeping the State-body cohesive, in this sense. Is in this way a "cornerstone" or "keystone" for the whole edifice of power.

And it's not just their body, their external physical persona which symbolizes the State (the Queen is Canada, for example, her body "is the locus of two distinct legal personae, one public, one private" as they say). This gets back to that question of the "figurehead" accusation, to the question of "real power." I would, in fact, assert that it is also, very literally, the Head of State's very Will in which must be located, in a very real sense, the Will of the whole nation or State. One can try to abstractly distinguish between their "private Will" and their "public Will" represented by the institutional organs of decision making, but I think this distinction is ultimately only abstraction. Just as a monarch does not have two bodies, they cannot have two Wills.

So what of "real powers"? Elected Heads of States (like presidents) are officially recognized as explicitly having them, certainly. But constitutional monarchs are usually seen as totally neutered. Whatever "reserve powers" they may officially maintain are seen as practically impossible to use. And yet I have basically just attempted to assert in the last paragraph that the Queen's Will is the legitimate one for the whole State, that her Will is the only one that can be called the Will of the corporate person which is the State, and not merely that of a private individual. How can these two things be reconciled?

I just gave a hint, the whole point of this post, I think: "practically" impossible is of a very different order than constitutionally impossible even if they are practically the same. As the wonderful thing about human wills is exactly that the do naturally exist in a world of circumstance, and specifically in a social network with other human Wills, that imposes consequences on their choices and which thus influence them. Yes, even to the point of a sort of duress. And this, I think, is the reality represented by the requirement, say, that the Queen only act "on the advice of her prime minister" etc. It's not that the Prime Minister has the "real" power in the sense of political legitimacy being rooted in his Will. But he may have the practical power based on how the web of relationships (all the State can really ever be) have been institutionally structured around the "central" Will of the monarch.

And they have been structured in such a way, yes, to "neuter" the monarch. To arrange the consequences in such a way that acting unilaterally would not "work." If the Queen tried to pull something unilaterally, other persons and blocks of persons, other Wills, would simply act to delegitimize her or the decision (except in the rare circumstance that she had broad popular support in the face of corrupt politicians; and even then it would still be the result of the relationships in society being structured in such a way that her Will would be the popular Will). But this doesn't mean that her Will is any less the "real" seat of legitimacy, it's just that she is under a certain type of duress or "under the sway" of those around her in the institutions of State. In fact, collectively, ultimately under the practically irresistible influence of every other Will in the nation "feeding into" her decisions through the channels of power.

This is how governments have always worked. Different people or groups of people may have, by their privileged positions in the structure of the network, yielded more relative influence in the past, their Will may have had a disproportionately high influence on the final collective outcome relative to other people. This is still true now, of course, but we tend to recognize that there has been a certain structural diffusion of power to lessen this through democratization. And we may agree or disagree that this is ideal. Certainly, I do not think absolutely "leveled" democracy (where everyone has roughly equal influence) is necessarily ideal a priori for any reason, and so I certainly think we may debate whether/how to structure the relations of power so that certain people or groups (perhaps even the Head of State or monarch personally, as in certain periods of the past) have a more or less proportionate influence on the final outcome. But ultimately these differences in structuring are differences in degree only, not nature, they exist along a historical continuum.

And this structuring of power through relationships is true of all of us, to some degree, in real life. I may be the "official" holder of my bank account, my Will is required to withdraw from it...but there are friends who know how to finagle (or bully, or beg) me into giving them some money. A father may be the official (in the legal sense) head of a family for various purposes, but he still may be "under the thumb" of a domineering wife. A Pope is the one who really is invested with supreme jurisdiction and infallibility, and we have to believe that Providence and the Holy Spirit are still working even if this Pope is beholden to some iron-willed housekeeper nun (lol) for whom he will do whatever she says.

Similarly a constitutional monarch. They do have the "real power" inasmuch as all the power and legitimacy of the State is indeed seated in their Will. There is no way for a State to act as a corporate person, as an organism, if this is not true. A 535-man congress cannot actually make a decision "collectively," the vote must ultimately be assented to by some unitary Will (that of the Head of State) to truly be the Will of the nation in terms of legitimacy. However, that doesn't mean we must accept "absolute" monarchy either. It is perfectly legitimate for Wills to be influenced by other Wills around them, for people to be "controlled" or limited in their decision making by the influence or "peer pressure" of those around them.

The question is how those various Wills (which may be in conflict) are able to exert or balance their respective influences over the supreme "central" Will of a State, how this network of relationships (and power therein) are structured. And I, for one, am certainly inclined to say that some degree of diffusion of power (on "democratic" lines) is best, as well as the structures of power being orderly and reasonable; power should be "channeled" in a "contained" fashion through the Rule of Law, the collective decision should not be made by a chaotic "storm" every time, but in a manner procedurally calm and non-volatile.

No king has ever truly ruled unilaterally. Even tyrants without widespread popular support obviously still had a certain type of tacit legitimacy, inasmuch as they were able, as a matter of practical fact, control the State. The "political" relational network (the one dealing with the exertion of power) were still such that the forces with the power (the army, say, and the wealthy) were arranged and structured relative to each other such that the king retained legitimacy in the sense of being able to carry out his Will by operationalizing the relationships he had, his privileged position in the relational network of power. But if his generals all ever got together and decided to kill or desert him or pressure him into making the decision they wanted...they would have easily been able to, objectively speaking (the genius of many "good kings" was in their ability to play powers against each other in balance.)

However, as I said above, what "democratization" has been is, essentially, the gradual diffusion of this power to more and more (in theory). Structuring the relational network in such a way as to (attempt to) equalize the respective power (in terms of the network as a whole) among all citizens, so that the "popular Will," the Will which the Head of State is ultimately under compulsion to make officially his own, is more majoritarian (while still structuring things so that minorities have their own sort of protections and influence).

But just because it is under compulsion at the center of the network of power, doesn't mean the Head of State's Will is any less real, any less the seat of legitimacy, and it still very much has a "structural" role as the central node wherein the "final calculation" of this network and all its many variables is resolved. Mind you: this doesn't mean the Head of State can never be removed or replaced (in fact, especially if he tries to resist this overwhelming "influence"...a restructuring like that may well be the result of the final calculation that does indeed play out in certain circumstances, in which case a new head will be found.)

Politics can only ever be understood in this "sociological" sense. Naive essentializations of government, legitimacy, political will, or power...lead to many problems. Politics or government is nothing other than the structuring of relationships (and the power therein) on a mass scale whereby what is concretely just millions of individuals are organized, effectively, into a single organism, a corporate person, based on the how those channels and organs of power are structured. But in such a system, there still must be a central Will (however "influenced" by all the others in the system), a Head, a final node in which (according to the structure of the network) the final calculation of the respective contributions of all the various other Wills can be preformed and the "combined" effect of all these various pushes and pulls can be played out.

Like a compass that must ultimately settle on one direction; in spite of there being strong magnets all over the room, it's simple physics: the sum of the various vectors of these magnetic forces will ultimately balance-out in one final concrete direction when all the opposing forces cancel out. And serving as this final node in which the respective influence of all the other nodes on the network of power finally resolves is, I think, the structural role of the Head of State in government.

And so if it's structured "properly" (by which I mean in such a way that the Head of State's "personal" influence is equally as tiny as that of each of the other millions of individual in the nation; though there can certainly be debate about whether that is "proper," about how much personal influence the Head of State should proportionately have) then I see no real threat in the office also being hereditary instead of elected, if only for symbolic purposes (and indeed, as I started this article by explaining: the two are not separate at all. The Head of State's Will "symbolizes" legitimacy for the nation collectively because that's exactly what it, in fact, is. The signifier of their personal assent is not an empty one, a sort of ceremonial rubber-stamp after-the-fact, but truly is the functional "barometer" that ultimately indicates/reveals the selfsame complexly-calculated collective decision signified by that personal decision.)


Who Am I said...

As nationhood is ultimately a reality of biological descent (or, at least, the original concept is rooted in that, all exceptions for immigration, etc, aside), which is ultimately something inherited by us first and foremost physically, as a body related to other bodies familially"

I'd debate that point.

While indeed there is this quasi understanding of nationality being based in being part of a given ethnicity, that itself develops much later and is rooted in tribalism which itself had roots in the Culture (large C) of a given group of people. If memory serves, it isn't until the 1800s where you begin to see movements that attempt to limit the social status of a group of people participating in a given nation on the basis of their ethnicity (You had that in The Colonial Era as well, but in terms of the greater whole of The West, nationalism springs forth for the most part after The 1800s. Yeah, I still try and reconcile that with being Catholic...). This was after all what occurred following The French Revolution.

Nationhood hasn't always been so cut and dry. Tribalism perhaps, but not nationhood.

Joshua G. said...

God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen!

Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen!

Joshua G. said...