American visions of power saturate the Walmart model of American religiosity, as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd astutely details it. These visions of religiosity meld free will with a free religious and economic marketplace, so that religiosity comes to entail values of choice, individual liberty, and service, each interpreted as “universal” values shared by all people. Religiosity in this context, Hurd suggests, is experienced through uncoerced participation in a free marketplace of ideas, consumer goods, and religious practices. This model of the religious practitioner is an “unencumbered individual”, freed from government coercions or other external forces in individual choice making, whether that choice is a religious doctrine or a commodity. The religious individual of Christian free enterprise makes self-willed decisions about how to practice religion in the contemporary economy.
Similar visions of power shape the techno-modernist response to environmental threats, as Lisa Sideris richly describes it. In this vision, individuals have the capacity to both destroy the earth as creators of the “Anthropocene”, but also to save it through the brilliance of their exceptional technological innovation. Humans determine the fate of nature, and can alter it when they choose to do so. They are, as Sideris notes, “de facto planetary managers.” Climate change is interpreted a challenge that can be mastered by inventive minds, a planetary contest in which the most innovative and resourceful Americans will save the human species via technology -- a saving that is foreordained. In this vision of the subject, Sideris suggests, “human direction of the future unfolding of the planet takes the place of God”.
Both the protestant individual of free enterprise and the eco-modernist individual of technological progress share a vision of individual agency. They presume a human capacity to control contingency, tame nature, and successfully manipulate the market and/or climate to transcend the limitations placed on individuals’ ability to navigate the world on their own terms. The market and nature are fields where individuals demonstrate their capacity and desire to control their fate. Both types of individuals are shaped by a vision of subjectivity in which people can, if they choose responsibly, disentangle themselves from onerous political and collective burdens, overcome interrelational vulnerability (or in the case of the religious individual, make “service” a way to both practice and delimit relationality), and reject dependence on people, things, and environments they have not chosen. Both individuals, in other words, are shaped by a vision of individual sovereignty. Individual sovereignty proffers that individuals can steer the course of their lives, that their decisions are not dictated by coercive forces external to their will, that they can choose freely, regardless of the content of that choice – be it technological innovations, religious faith, or commodities, and that the act of choosing signals control over the trajectory of one’s existence.
This model of individual sovereignty is theological in certain ways. It attributes to individuals traits arguably formerly associated with a monotheistic god: self-determinism, final authority, control over nature, and the ability to shape the trajectory of history. Indeed, it is a presumption of a “God-like capacity”, as both Sideris and Hurd articulate. This version of individual sovereignty thus might seem to align with Carl Schmitt’s famous dictum on sovereign power, in which modern political concepts are actually secularized theological concepts.1 For Schmitt, sovereign authority in particular shifts throughout the course of modern history from the theological to the political, from God to the king, while keeping the content of final power intact. Yet as Hurd might suggest, in its American formation this version of individual sovereignty moves fluidly between the religious and the secular, and the political and the private. It thus reflects less Schmitt’s historical chronology of transferred power, then the way that political and religious iterations of sovereignty are intertwined and transformed throughout different historical periods.2 Individual sovereignty today might seem to display, like the Walmart religious individual, “values that also happen to be American and presumably or potentially universal without necessarily being religious.”
This form of individual sovereignty, and its model of universalizable power moving fluidly between the theological and the political but not strictly the purview of either, is a subject position that incorporates both an ontology and a norm. Sovereign individualism is described as a universal ontology for a fundamental capacity of all human subjects. It is, at the same time, also a moral norm that individuals should work toward and strive to live up to. Individuals should do their utmost to fulfill their “god like capacity” – a capacity that both is and is not religiously derived. This sense of individual sovereignty as both an ontology and a norm is not new, but part of a longer history. It can be found in early iterations of individual sovereignty, including the works of nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued for both. For Mill, individual sovereignty is ontological, as “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”, but he also argued that many cultures of nonwestern peoples do not value individual sovereignty as a norm, so they should be taught, by dictatorial forms if necessary, to do so.3
The norm and the ontology of individual sovereignty, as gestured to in Sideris’s and Hurd’s essays, can be shaped in the United States by a particularly American expectation of sovereignty as a national and an individual entitlement. As a national entitlement, Judith Butler notes, sovereignty is an expectation that the United States has overarching power to determine the course of global politics.4 As an individual entitlement, sovereignty is the expectation both that all individuals are born with the capacity for sovereign willing, and that United States citizens are presumed to have special capabilities for realizing individual sovereignty, in part because of their unique national conditions and values. These conditions include constitutional protections for individual freedom, a frontier ethos of self-sufficiency and fortitude that has outlasted the frontier, and a culture of anti-dependence individualism as a moral and political norm. There is a commonplace belief in the U.S. both that American individuals may be more sovereign than others in their success in overcoming determinism, and also that national norms of individualism make their sovereign capacities stronger. It is as if individual sovereignty in the US is exceptional in its expression, as if American citizens are exceptionally sovereign – or at least that they most deserve to be exceptionally sovereign. Americans’ sovereign individualism is presumed to be an exemplar to others across the globe. Thus, the American of Christian free enterprise and the American techno-modernist are different examples of exceptional individuals of freedom whose sovereign power reaches its fullest expression in the United States.
This American ideal of individual sovereign exceptionality is somewhat different from the (in)famous “sovereign exception” -- the power that is sovereign precisely because it decides when it is exempt from the law. The emergency powers of the sovereign exception, detailed by Schmitt, offer the sovereign the power to both make the law and to grant exceptions to it, in particular to decide when the law can be superseded and the juridical order suspended.5 It is, as Giorgio Agamben analyzes, the power to “produce a situation when the emergency becomes the rule.”6 Sovereignty, in this definition, is exceptional because it exercises the absolute power to make decisions beyond the law’s interdictions. Its power is underived from another source of legitimacy and thus supersedes all other powers, including juridical power. Yet in the models of American individual sovereignty explored above, exceptionality plays a different role. America’s sovereign exceptionality marks American individuals as unique because of an enhanced capacity to be “godlike”, to determine their own trajectory, to make uncoerced choices, to succeed in the risky marketplace, to innovate technological solutions to global warming, and to overcome the limits of nature’s determinism. This version of sovereignty presumes that Americans have the capability to most fully realize the ontology of sovereign individuality, in part because of their deep practice of individualism, and in part because they are the most free in their decisionmaking. Individual sovereignty marks a theological-political-economic American subject who is, simply, exceptional.
This sovereign individuality is a status presumably available to any American (and even any aspiring American) who wishes to enact it, as it is universal in its claims and applicability. It is, as Hurd might note, “inherently free, enjoying a fluid and unmarked status.” It is thus a status, I would suggest, as fluid and unmarked as whiteness in America. Sovereign exceptionality, while claiming national universality, is often a subject position most available to white people, especially white men. It thus mirrors and recapitulates the model of individual sovereignty throughout the history of western political thought, as Charles Mills, Carole Pateman, and the broad traditions of feminist and black political thought argue, which is typically generated for and by the white men who are presumed most capable of enacting it.7 The exceptional status of whiteness is clear in Mill’s articulations of sovereign individualism above, as for him sovereignty is a norm that must be imposed on non-European peoples to bring them into civilization. In the specifics of American politics, this vision of sovereign individuality, while again presumably abstract and universally-available (it is, after all, an ontology of the human), is at the same time most readily accessible to the strong man, generally white, who can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, live self-reliantly, remain unbound by others’ burdens, master the free market, conquer nature and Silicon Valley, cast off oppressive state power, and innovate a new world. Desires for sovereign individualism are thus particularly strong in the men for whom self-mastery is an individual and national entitlement, and whose vision of god-like control can implicitly expect to dominate over others, especially women and minorities who are traditionally figured more as dependents than as catalysts of power. Indeed, while certainly not the only social arenas organized by these expectations, both evangelical institutions and Silicon Valley companies have some of the highest concentrations of white men in positions of power, and both are saturated with an anti-statist individualism that finds freedom by mastering the free market. The figure of the theological-political white male entrepreneur is the exceptional American individual sovereign.
As prevalent as the trope of sovereignty exceptionality is in America, it is currently under great pressure from changes wrought by neoliberalism and globalization, among other factors. As I have argued elsewhere, there are many current threats to American versions of both individual and national sovereignty.8 These pressures stem from corporate deregulation and transnational finance networks, outsourced jobs and a concurrent shift to a postindustrial economy, dismantled state support for the vulnerable, increased economic inequality and inequitable tax cuts, as well as the rending of community fabrics and drug epidemics that result from these pressures.9 Many jobs are insecure in the new flexible “gig” economy across economic classes, and employment retraining through education is expensive and unavailable for most people. 10 Ordinary individuals’ ability to shape and participate in politics has diminished across the political spectrum, as access points to political decisionmaking have narrowed throughout federal units of government.11
Yet precisely at the moment when sovereign exceptionality seems imperiled, various subjects, institutions, and norms of American politics and culture are re-investing in it. There are many attempts to strengthen state sovereignty in the U.S., including the push for a border wall, the rise of anti-immigration and entho-nationalist politics, the deregulation of police power, and protectionist trade strategies. There are also attempts to increase exceptional individual sovereignty, which can sometimes work against efforts to strengthen state sovereignty. One effort entails the rise and potency of gun ownership in the US, and the legal capacity to carry a gun in public. Gun carrying offers individuals a version of personal sovereign power.12 As political theorists from Thomas Hobbes to Michel Foucault have argued, to have the power to determine who can be killed is to be sovereign over what can be killed and what is allowed to live.13 Gun use confers a capacity to determine life and death – the power of the sovereign to master fate and control contingency by controlling the fate of others -- and thus gun ownership may seem to restore one type of sovereign control. Concealed Carry laws combined with Stand Your Ground laws devolve the power to punish, in certain instances, from the state back to the individual. They boost aspects of individual sovereignty for Americans, especially white men who make up the vast majority of owners and carriers, by seeming to restore a personal capacity for self-determination, final authority, and protection from coercion. This might be one reason why there is a high correlation between gun owners and the subjects of Christian free enterprise.14 Walmart, for one, sells millions of guns to its customers, and guns are one of the more profitable commodities it sells in its free marketplace. In fact, Walmart is the biggest gun retailer in the world.15 Walmart doubly bolsters individual sovereignty through its support of both free market religiosity and gun ownership. The Walmart religious individual and the techno-eco-modernist are thus examples of larger practices across the landscape in the United States whereby many citizens, especially but certainly not limited to white men, aim to rehabilitate individual sovereignty. These efforts counter the felt weakening of individual sovereignty by doubling down on promises of final authority and self-willed control over contingency.
A different effort to rehabilitate the exceptionality of American sovereignty is displayed in the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump’s political power lies partly in his promise not only to rehabilitate the exceptional status of American sovereignty – as “Make America Great again” is a national version of sovereign exceptionality -- but also in his personal efforts to embody individual sovereignty. Part of Trump’s appeal is his self-professed financial self-reliance and independence from wealthy donors, and his general refusal to depend on others, not even for complex political decisions, because it signals a form of dependence that conveys weakness. Trump’s performances often entail domination over others, displaying an exceptionality in which one’s uncoerced agency, one’s ability to dominate and control fate, entails control over others. Both before and during his presidency, Trump often exempts himself from the law, and is seemingly exceptional in his capacity to do so. Sovereign exceptionality, in the figure of Trump, thus leads to Schmitt’s sovereign exception, as Trump performs sovereignty by refuting governing jurisdictions, rejecting global interdependence, and superseding (or actively flouting) the rule of law. In investing in the sovereign exceptionality of a Trump presidency, supporters may see in Trump a capacity to practice a form of agency they want for themselves. His promise to recapture for Americans the sovereignty he performs is most compelling for those people who have historically invested in sovereign individualism, typically the white men upon whom it has been modeled for centuries. Trump’s performances, seen in this light, are thus not sui generis, but merely one heightened iteration of a larger promise across the political spectrum to revivify American individual sovereignty against the interdependencies of globalization.
Sovereign exceptionality entails a promise that both the U.S. and individual Americans can be “godlike” in their capacity to reject determinism, make uncoerced choices, and singlehandedly determine their own historical trajectory. Undergirding each of these promises is a fear of interdependence, a fear that often hinders large-scale efforts to make a more equitable world. This fear entails a belief that reliance on others is always an experience of domination, rather than a source of sustenance and strength. It finds that the only way to be free is to wrest control of one’s fate from others, because others only and always aim to dominate the self. Within sovereign exceptionality, collective endeavors and shared projects seem to breed only conformity and passivity, rather than creativity and joint worldmaking. Sovereign exceptionality thus rejects cooperative ventures, multilateral visions, and equal relations of power as conditions of weakness and unfreedom. Yet as global changes toward interdependence continually seem to weaken state and individual sovereignty, U.S. efforts to reinstantiate exceptional sovereignty, both at the level of individual citizens and of the state, may grow even stronger.
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. and ed. Charles Schwab, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).↩
On the transformational practices between religion and secularism see Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Sanford, 2003), and Matthew Scherer, Beyond Church and State: Secularism, Democracy, Conversion (Cambridge, 2013).↩
J.S. Mill, On Liberty and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in The History of Political Thought.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 13. See also Uday Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).↩
Judith Butler, Precarious Life (Verso, 2003).↩
Schmitt, Political Theology.↩
Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 28.↩
Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Cornell UP, 1999), Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, 1988), Wendy Brown, States of Injury (Princeton UP, 1995).↩
Elisabeth Anker, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Duke, 2014), Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, (Zone 2012.)↩
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard UP, 2013); Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times (Polity 2007), Matthew Desmond, Evicted (Crown, 2016); Judith Butler, Precarious Life (Verso, 2004).↩
Jim Tankerlsey, “American Dream Collapsing for Young Adults, Study Says” Washington Post 12/8/2016; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/12/08/american-dream-collapsing-for-young-americans-study-says-finding-plunging-odds-that-children-earn-more-than-their-parents. “A Divided And Pessimistic Electorate” Pew Research Center, Washington DC, November 10, 2016. http://www.people-press.org/2016/11/10/a-divided-and-pessimistic-electorate/. “How Americans Assess The Job Situation Today and Prospects for The Future” Pew Research Center, Washington DC October 6, 2016. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/10/06/2-how-americans-assess-the-job-situation-today-and-prospects-for-the-future/. Last Accessed October 2, 2018.↩
Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, (Princeton 2007); William Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Duke, 2007).↩
http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/06/22/the-demographics-of-gun-ownership/. Also see Elisabeth Anker, “Mobile Sovereigns: Agency Panic and the Feeling of Gun Ownership” in The Lives of Guns ed. Justin Oberst and Austin Sarat, (Oxford University Press, 2018).↩
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Penguin Classics, 1982); Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol 1., trans. Robert Hurley (NY: Vintage, 1990).↩
David Yamane “Awash in a Sea of Faith and Firearms” Journal of the Scientific Study of Faith and Religion↩
Derek Hawkins, “Walmart Has Wobbled on Gun Sales for Years – But It’s Becoming More Restrictive” Washington Post March 1, 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/01/walmart-has-wobbled-on-gun-sales-for-years-but-its-becoming-more-restrictive↩