This essay has been peer-reviewed by “Frictionless Sovereignty” special issue editor (Ryan Bishop), and the b2o: An Online Journal editorial board.
by Dimitris Vardoulakis
When Donald Trump addressed the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2018, something seemingly unprecedented happened: in response to his boasting about the achievements of his presidency, the General Assembly erupted into spontaneous laughter. Never before had the President of the US, the leader of the most powerful state on earth, been openly laughed at like that.
This episode concerning the most powerful sovereign today is useful to present the frictionlessness of sovereignty as an antinomy. On the one hand, there are those for whom sovereignty is never frictionless. Rather, sovereignty is always the response to the exception (Schmitt), an excess (Bataille), a series of ruptures that indicate attempts to discipline or normalize that which is “abnormal” (Foucault), the product of how living is configured in the zone of indistinction (Agamben), or the response to the “rogue” (Derrida).
To this list we could easily add thinkers before the twentieth century, such as Machiavelli (for whom the prince is not subject to any morality and hence he can use any means—which is to say, frictions—to perpetuate his power), or Hobbes (who views the Leviathan as the “king of the proud” who need to be restrained), or even Rousseau (always lamenting the faults of modern civilization that make the sovereign right to capital punishment necessary).
There are significant differences between the various positions in this tradition. But the idea that unites all the thinkers noted above is that the frictionlessness of sovereignty is nothing but a chimera, a delusion whose only utility consists in the effects it produces—effects that manifest the operation of sovereignty’s power.
On the other hand, there is another long tradition that posits the possibility of a frictionless sovereignty. We can find this idea in Plato’s ideal state, in Augustine’s city of God, or in More’s utopia. There are two immediately recognizable characteristics of this ancient and early modern conception of a frictionless sovereignty. First, it is anti-democratic in the sense that the demos (the vulgus or varia multitudo) is seen as the source of friction and all these authors imagine ways to bypass it. Second, frictionless sovereignty is an ideal that cannot be actualized in reality. Thus, for instance, Augustine posits in fact two cities of God, one on earth that functions as the unreachable destination of the “pilgrims,” and one that is the real city of God, which is eschatological.
In the twentieth century this frictionless sovereignty—surprisingly, given its history—leads to different conceptions of democracy, albeit a democracy as not reliant on the people. Thus, we find theories such as Schumpeter’s that associate democracy with the calculation of individual interest which is in turn guaranteed through economic activity. This leads ultimately to the neoliberal conception of the “sweetness of commerce” as the pacifying agent of modernity (Albert Hirschman). Alternatively, there is an increasing proliferation of theories of deliberative democracy. The main representatives here are Rawls and Habermas. Deliberative democracy pursues an ideal according to which rationality can guarantee consensus and hence a harmonious sovereignty.
These more recent versions of a frictionless sovereignty also share two key characteristics. First, they repress the passions so as to arrive at different conceptions of rationality that supposedly purge the political of conflict. Second, the frictional is again unrealizable but in a different way. In the theories that rely on economics, the frictional is the financial horizon of the “death of sovereignty” in the era of neoliberal globalization. In deliberative democratic theories that tend to lean heavily on Kant’s moral theory, the frictional is the transcendental horizon of the coincidence of morality and politics.
Where, in this vast picture, can we situate the laughter that greeted Trump at the UN Assembly? The laughter indicates some friction but nothing of the sort envisaged by any of the former thinkers listed above. But this laughter does register enough friction nonetheless to be incommensurate with the passionless pursuit either of individual interest or rational deliberation.
Does this mean that we can simply ignore this burst of laughter as irrelevant to sovereignty after all? This may appear as a forced conclusion, one that strives to evade the need for an explanation of a reaction to a sovereign’s words. Does it mean, then, that the laughter of the delegates in the US undermines the distinction entailed by frictionless sovereignty, that is, sovereignty as either reliant on friction or as dependent on a horizon that is completely devoid of friction?
Instead of seeing laughter as miraculously overcoming a distinction that, as the above outline suggests, is sedimented in the history of political thought from antiquity to the present, maybe laughter shows that this was not a stable distinction to begin with. This is to treat the distinction at the heart of frictionless sovereignty as an antinomy. An antinomy not in the strictly Kantian sense, whereby a middle term comes to mediate and resolve the distinction by showing that the premises of each side were deficient. Rather, an antinomy in the more original sense of the word, that is, as something that is adjacent to the law in such a way as to challenge and resist it.
Let me be clear: I do not hold that any kind of laughter of necessity is a form of resistance. The laughter of the court jester, for example, can be an attempt to expend the drive to laugh in an innocuous way so as to eschew any challenge to instituted power. Laughter is not ipso facto subversive. Rather, laughter can enact resistance when it is directed against sedimented and hence hegemonic forms. For instance, I have argued elsewhere that Kafka’s laughter is directed primarily against the idea of an individual that has an autonomous free will, whereby Kafka’s laughter also suggests an alternative conception of freedom (Vardoulakis 2016).
The case of the laughter at the UN General Assembly shows how laughter can challenge and resist the framework within which sovereignty is thought. The reason is that laughter points to something that remains obscured in how we think sovereignty today—namely, authority. Further, this is important in how we think of sovereignty today, in an age where authoritarianism and populism threaten to deform the face of politics. Let me explain by starting with authority.
If we reflect on the incident at the UN that I opened with, it is not as unusual as it may at first appear. It repeats an experience that we all have encountered, namely, how laughter marks the reduced authority of someone who occupies a position of power. For instance, the child’s laughter at an instruction of the parent or a teacher indicates the diminution of the authority of the one laughed at. As Hannah Arendt puts it, laughter is the “surest way” to undermine authority (Arendt 1970, 45). The reason that the event in the UN General Assembly seemed so strange is that we have forgotten nowadays the important role authority plays in how we understand power.
Further, this example shows the inverse relation of populist authoritarianism and authority. The increase of authoritarianism through populist politics and by appeal to “post-truth” strategies exhibits a parallel decrease in authority. How are we to understand this phenomenon? First, we need to understand exactly what authority means.
For around two millennia, authority was a pivotal political concept, so much so that people often did not even provide a definition when talking about it, since everyone knew that one has authority when one cannot be argued with (Arendt 1961). Or, as Spinoza puts it, authority is “impervious to argumentation” (Spinoza 2001, 139). The fact that authority was supposed to remain unchallenged was also signified by external markers, a tradition that remains alive today: e.g. the gown of the judge indicates that his verdict cannot be confuted in the courtroom, or the uniform of the army general signifies that lower ranked officers cannot challenge his commands (Kojève 2014).
Authority is not the same as political power. As the example of Trump shows, one can enjoy sovereign power but lack authority. This is already clearly defined by Cicero in antiquity, when he insists that in the Roman Republic power rests with the people’s tribunes whereas authority only with the Senate (Cicero 1928, 492). In fact, the discrepancy between authority and sovereign power is a significant distinction to help us evaluate the health of the polity. For instance, Spinoza argues that Moses was the exemplary figure to combine authority with sovereign power, but this meant that he remained unchallenged, which was a precipitating factor in the destruction of the Jewish state (Spinoza 2001, chapter 17; see also Vardoulakis 2020).
Nor does the assertion of authority necessarily coincide with a diminished capacity of the polity to function democratically. In certain instances, people need to defer to the authority of one who has the expertise to make decisions about complex issues on their behalf, just as in our everyday life we readily defer to the authority of a doctor to treat a medical ailment. Spinoza was one of the few thinkers who was both a democrat and highly invested in examining the phenomenon of authority, which led him to explore the tension between the democratic imperative to disputation and the requirement for authority to be obeyed. Spinoza shows that this tension can be productive for a well-functioning democracy (Vardoulakis 2020).
Trump is a good example of the inverse relation of authoritarianism and authority. One of the oft-repeated promises of his 2016 presidential campaign was that he was going to “drain the swamp” of Washington DC. During his administration, this translated in the shrinking of the civil service and in the appointment of officials without experience to significant posts. In other words, Trump systematically undermined the importance of authority understood as the political and administrative expertise in the running of government. This has been a significant factor in the diminution of his own personal authority and an important reason why world leaders regarded as laughable his boasting about his presidency at the UN.
The inverse relation of authority and authoritarianism is not new. Marx also describes it in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Marx 1976a; see Vardoulakis 2013). Not unlike Trump, Louis Bonaparte is an authoritarian ruler and a populist—Marx says that he won over the poorer people by giving them champagne and sausages. Further, just like Trump, no one took him particularly seriously and no one thought that he was competent enough to lead France. And yet he prevailed to found the Second French Empire.
We can also glean this inverse relation in the late work of Hannah Arendt (Arendt 1970), where it is presented as the inverse relation of violence—explicitly associated with authoritarianism and totalitarianism—and power—linked with authority.
So, if understanding the function of authority is important in discerning the operation of power and in achieving our democratic ideals, then why is authority hardly discussed in political philosophy and theory today? According to a historical explanation, the power of authority starts waning since the Reformation, which precipitates a progressive change of its meaning, a process that the French revolution further accelerates (Marcuse 1973). This has led scholars to argue that authority is absent from our world today (Arendt 1961). But examples such as the ones offered above indicate that far from being absent from our world, authority still plays a determinative role through its inverse relation to authoritarianism.
A more plausible explanation for the absence of attention to authority today is a series of powerful shifts in academic discourse in the first half of the twentieth century that have also influenced the general discourse about politics. The most important are the following:
- The shift of the meaning of authority to designate political power. Here, Weber’s work is critical. In German, the term “Herrschaft” comes to signify almost exclusively political authority, while the term “Authorität” denotes almost invariably ecclesiastical authority. Using the term Herrschaft, Weber develops his influential analysis of the charismatic leader who is authoritarian or fascist (Weber 2004), thereby obscuring the importance of a figure of authority in the sense of someone who cannot be argued with.
- The gradual confinement of the meaning of authority to the psychological sphere. This is particularly due to the influence of behavioral psychology, and a particular landmark are the Milgram experiments (Milgram 1974). Even though psychoanalytic studies on authority are not be confused with behaviorism, they also tend to evade its political import (see Sennett 1980).
- The substitution of authority with authoritarianism as an object of study in political philosophy and theory. Here the Frankfurt School is particularly important (see Adorno 1950), especially because of the influential insight that authoritarianism not only is opposed to democracy, but in fact it uses the population to prop itself.
- The intense focus on totalitarianism as a system of governance that transcends the individual, which, as Hannah Arendt demonstrates (1962), was critical for understanding the rise of fascism, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust.
The effect of Weber’s work has been to narrow the use of the word “authority” to refer only to political authority within an established state so as to function as a near synonym of sovereignty. All work in the past quarter century uses the term authority in this way (e.g. the most significant monograph Huemer 2013; work on political theory such as Flathman 1980 or Wendt 2016 or legal studies such as Raz 1979 or Edmundson 2010). The rich, two-millennial tradition that determines authority as a figure that cannot be argued with and which is incommensurate with power has all but disappeared from view.
Further, the circumscription of authority into psychology has shifted our view from authority’s political significance. The only political implication suggested by Milgram’s experiments is that regimes such as the USSR that rely on obedience deprive individuals from their freedom. But such political inferences that go beyond the immediate object of study of behavioral psychology seem more of an expedient expression of a shared opinion in the Zeitgeist of the Cold War.
To compound the above, the Frankfurt School and Arendt have helped focus on political phenomena such as authoritarianism at the expense of authority, while paying scant attention on their inverse relation. This does not mean that the inverse relation of authority and authoritarianism was never noted. But the most perspicacious examples of the presentation of the inverse relation of authority and authoritarianism from around that time remain free from the influence of a political theory and political philosophy that systematically seeks to repress the importance of the traditional concept of authority. I am thinking here of works of art such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) that presents an authoritarian figure whose affectations are so laughable as to be devoid of all authority.
The critical purchase of Weber, critical theory and Arendt is undisputed in shaping the political discussion as well as our understanding of politics today. For instance, since Trump’s election, there is a renewed interest in Arendt’s work on totalitarianism and its contemporary relevance (Berkowitz 2017). Or the rise of populism as a threat to democracy that simultaneously leads to the rise of authoritarianism is customarily interpreted along the framework provided by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, according to which authoritarianism is possible through the populist manipulation of the people (see Brown et al., 2018).
The few attempts in political theory to rescue the concept of authority are conducted with the provision of overcoming the traditional concept of authority—according to which one has authority when one cannot be argued with (Arendt 1961; Kojève 2014; Ricoeur 2007). Thus Richard Flathman interrogates the relation of authority and “the authoritative” in The Practice of Political Authority but the framing does not allow him to note the inverse relation of authority and authoritarianism. Bonnie Honig (Honig 1993) attempts to rescue a concept of authority through a re-interpretation of Arendt, but her strategy is again to leave behind the “outdated” concept of authority and present authority instead as a form of a performative that, like the Declaration of Independence, can provide a foundation that allows for the new. It allows for what Honig refers to as “(re)founding.”
No matter how perceptive such analyses are, they find it hard to account for phenomena such as the laughter at Trump in the UN Assembly. They also fall short in recognizing the discrepancy between sovereign power and authority, and they forget about the positive role that authority can play in a democratic polity. As a result of forgetting authority, contemporary discourse often lapses into a despair about the fate of democracy when authoritarianism is on the march (Brown et al., 2018). This despair is due to the perception that sovereignty in neoliberalism no longer encounters enough political resistance or friction.
There is a grave danger to democracy when authority is obscured from view while authoritarianism flourishes. The reason is that authority does not disappear. Rather, it is displaced in ways that authorize those in power to promote their interests. For instance, it is beneficial to Trump to lack authority because this allows the religious right in the US to authorize him to act on their behalf. This authorization is supported by having a Vice President who is aligned with the religious right. And it essentially moves Trump to subvert institutions such as the High Court by installing judges likely to regress on a host of issues such as civil and reproductive rights.
This process of authorization often operates on the logic of the least evil (Weizman 2012). The majority of the religious right in the US do not like Trump and they do not really want to vote for him. Rather, they voted for him in 2016 and they continue to support him because he is seen as more likely to serve their interests. The fact that he lacks authority makes it more likely that he will support the base who elected him, and vice versa. Democracy is in grave danger of being overwhelmed with short term interests and populist leadership if the function of authority is not taken into account.
My resolution of the antinomy of sovereignty suggests that the analytic power of the political discourse is stunted when the discourse is too squarely focused on authoritarianism as the expense of authority. Well-analyzed and systematically research phenomena such as authoritarianism and populism may be enriched when the traditional concept of authority is also introduced, since it is the concept of authority as impervious to argumentation that has had such a determinative influence on how key political ideas developed over two millennia—concepts that still determine how political practice and its understanding unfold today.
For this, we need to keep the inverse relation of authority and authoritarianism in sight. It is actually Arendt who in her late work describes the inverse relation of authority. As I note above, her earlier work contributed to the idea that authority is absent from our world today (Arendt 1961, Arendt 1962), replaced by categories such as totalitarianism. However, in On Violence (Arendt 1970) she draws a distinction between power, which is explicitly linked to authority, and violence, associated with authoritarianism and totalitarianism. A key feature of this distinction is their inverse relation. This is presented from both sides. First, “tyranny … [is] the most violent and least powerful of forms of government” (Arendt 1970, 41), and, second, “every decrease in power is an open invitation to violence” (Arendt 1970, 87). The decrease of authoritarianism contributes to the increase of authority and the decrease of authority to the increase of authoritarianism.
Even though Arendt notes the inverse relation and provides a quasi-phenomenological description, especially in the third chapter of On Violence, still nowhere does she note why this inverse relation matter for a democratic politics. This is another way of saying that Arendt does not note the paradox of a sovereignty that is both frictionless and imbued in friction when she considers the relation of power and violence, or of authority and authoritarianism. I hold that an answer to explore this paradox of frictionless sovereignty requires that we note the way in which authority contributes to the well-functioning of a democratic polity.
The traditional definition of authority as being “impervious to argumentation” (Spinoza 2001, 139) may appear at first to be a threat to democracy in the sense that authority appears to stifle the pluralism of ideas that democracy thrives on. This is certainly true, and that’s why a democrat like Spinoza is fiercely critical of figures of authority. Because a leader with too much authority stifles the public disputes that are necessary for democracy, the ancient Athenians had an extraordinary law, according to which when a leader became popular, he was expelled from the city (Nietzsche 2016). We certainly need to remain vigilant when we encounter authority.
But there is also another side to it. It consists in that, by its definition as being beyond dispute, authority raises the possibility of truth. When the judge delivers a verdict in the courtroom, the judge is assumed to be extracting the truth from the given evidence. When a general issues a command, the troops assume that it conforms with a battle strategy and the information the general has at his disposal. A teacher has authority in the classroom when it is assumed that the teacher is communicating true knowledge to the students.
The judge and the general may of course be wrong. They may have made a mistake. And the knowledge the teacher is communicating may have been superseded. It is possible to make judgments about the judge, the general and the teacher because they aspire to a certain truth. By contrast, when a populist authoritarian like Trump proclaims “send them home,” the visible racism of such a statement unburdens Trump of any appeal to veracity. This diminishes his authority but also makes it impossible to critique a populist leader by appeal to truth. Authoritarianism does not need truth. Conversely, to speak with authority, one aspires to be beyond dispute, not because one is simply attracting support, but because one espouses a position that others also can see as tenable—as true.
A figure of authority puts an end to a dispute or conversation by virtue of the fact of being perceived to occupy the truth. But no one has absolute authority. The possibility always remains that one will be able to offer a more compelling account of the true (Lucchese 2009). A figure of authority can never be certain that someone else will not raise their voice in reaction (Vardoulakis 2020). Allowing for the operation of authority is the opposite of a “society of the spectacle” where everyone is encouraged to raise their voice, in unified conformity, so that their voice in fact no longer matters.
Authority is important for democracy because it enables the voice raised to make a point matter. Paying attention to authority in the political discourse is to encourage everyone to take responsibility as an indispensable condition for the optimal operation of democracy. Even though there will never be any guarantee that the right decisions will be taken, and even though mistakes will be made, democracy can only operate when the voice is not lost in a crowd that mindlessly follows an authoritarian figure. Thus authority shows that friction is indispensable for a determination of political power.
But there is another side too. Authority requires the possibility of friction but it also requires the idea of the frictionlessness of sovereignty. The most readily available illustration is in cases of crisis or emergency. During a medical emergency, we defer to the authority of the doctors. During a financial crisis we listen to the economists. In the case of a pandemic, the politicians and the public seek the expert advice of public health authorities.
In political philosophy, the need to submit to authority in certain circumstances is often discussed. In the seventeenth century, this was customarily done with reference to the figure of Moses (Vardoulakis 2019). Leading the Jews through the desert in search for a state, Moses demanded authority. The attainment of the end required that his authority is strong, which was the case since it was both theological and political as he was both a prophet and the political leader of his people (Ricoeur 2007).
This tradition that valorizes the function of obedience to authority does not suggest that the value of political judgment is secondary or diminished. It does not mean that the political decisions we are called upon to make and which create the political friction described earlier disappear. To the contrary, it points to the paradox according to which under certain conditions the prudent or rational thing to do is to suspend one’s judgment and to submit to someone else’s authority. This paradoxical function of authority, suspended between the possibilities of challenging it or submitting to it, can lead to a radical democratic position, as for instance in the political philosophy of Spinoza (Vardoulakis 2020).
So what does the antinomy of the frictionless sovereignty teach us? It shows that interminable resistance and frictionless obedience are the obverse sides of the same coin, namely, authority. Not only is authority not eliminated in our “post-modern” world. Moreover, it shows the precariousness of our political judgment to obey or disobey. And because our political judgments are unstable, never purely rational and hence impossible to lead to an absolute truth, it puts the onus on the political agents—individuals, associations, organizations, parties, states and state alliances—to remain vigilant about the way in which they may fail or succeed.
Let me put this in a different way: If the idea that sovereignty relies on friction often leads to a despair about our contemporary political predicament that lacks resistance, and if an illusion of frictionless sovereignty defers our political fulfilment to some unattainable future—then a politics attuned to authority may have, unexpectedly, the capacity to galvanize our energies and to bring us face to face with the exigency to assess our circumstances so as to decide whether we ought to obey or disobey. In this sense, authority has the capacity to generate a space where contestation, dissensus and disagreement can be allowed to be productive forces that make possible “the space in between” (as Arendt puts it) where the political thrives.
Dimitris Vardoulakis was the inaugural chair of Philosophy at Western Sydney University. He is the author of The Doppelgänger: Literature’s Philosophy (2010), Sovereignty and its Other: Toward the Dejustification of Violence (2013), Freedom from the Free Will: On Kafka’s Laughter (2016), Stasis Before the State: Nine Theses on Agonistic Democracy (2018), and Spinoza, the Epicurean: Authority and Utility in Materialism (2020). He is the director of “Thinking Out Loud: The Sydney Lectures in Philosophy and Society,” and the co-editor of the book series “Incitements” (Edinburgh University Press).
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The incident at the UN was not as you imply. Trump was interrupted mid-sentence. It was not uproarious laughter; not the laughter of derision. And Trump took it surprisingly (uncharacteristically?) well. He was slightly embarrassed and actually saw the funny of it, and interjected with a kind of knowing wink, “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK,” which generated friendly laughter and applause. Trump himself laughed. The audience, in other words, were in on the joke. And so was Trump. He shrugs his shoulders at the text, which he’s reading from auto-cue, as if to say, “Sorry, but this is what they told me to say”. I invite you to take another look at the clip, if it’s the same one. We’ve heard that Trump himself doesn’t like being president. We can make what we will of that. But I don’t think his UN performance has much to do with authority or its usurpation. If anything the performance seems to have more to do with the nihilism of “power”. We are all thoroughly exhausted with Trump. No one more so than Trump himself. And he knows, and in this instance actually reveals, that no one can do anything about it. He can’t stop “being Donald Trump”. That kind of narcissism (Nietzsche calls it tyranny) is not evil. For me it’s completely banal. At this moment he actually appears like a human being. I’ve not seen him act with that kind of honesty before. I’m not sure this entirely contradicts your argument, but the video is worth re-watching.