Theories of power, from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Locke and Jefferson, have drawn their lessons from the towering figure of the Sovereign, the principle actor in dramas of old European statecraft. One philosopher advises cunning, another fear and awe. When we come to ideas of civil society based in property rights, we see theorists arguing with proponents of monarchical divine right, or struggling, constitutionally, militarily, with a mad king.
Maybe this survey seems banal, passé, boring, blah.
It can be difficult for post-post-moderns to fully appreciate the Sovereign’s once-crushing weight. (See John Milton’s many defenses of regicide and revolution, for example.) Maybe, schooled in the work of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, etc., we have learned to think of power—whether from below or above—as diffuse, interrelated, networked, spread across classes, impersonal bureaucracies, institutional practices.
The word “despot,” for example, sounds so exotic, an ossified term from antiquity. Studying the video above could bring it to life again, if discourses around current events haven’t. Sprinting through two-thousand, four-hundred, and seventeen years of history, this dramatic presentation names the names of every ruler in Europe, from 400 B.C.E. to 2017.
Despite its Eurocentric association with the East (as in the stereotype of the “Oriental Despot”), Western history offers hundreds of examples of despotism. Put simply, “despotism,” says Foucault in his lecture series The Birth of Biopolitics, “refers any injunction made by the public authorities back to the sovereign’s will, and to it alone.”
Despotism, he argues, stands in contrast to the police state, or absolute rule by administrators and enforcers, and to the Rule of Law, in which rulers and ruled are both ostensibly bound by external charters and legal codes.
Watch the procession of emperors, kings, usurpers, tyrants…. Do we know the names of any of their functionaries? Do we need to? If Claudius or Constantine decreed, what does it matter who carried out the order? When and where do those terms change—when do the names become a kind of synecdoche, standing in for administrations, parties, juntas, etc. rather than the singular will of individuals, benevolent, enlightened, or otherwise?
How many of these rulers’ names are unfamiliar to us? Why haven’t we heard them? At what period in history does Europe become predominantly ruled by other forms of government? Does despotism ever disappear? Does it reappear in the 20th century (were Lenin, Franco, or Marshall Tito despots?), or must we use another rubric to describe dictators and autocrats? (Does it make any sense to call contemporary figureheads like Elizabeth II “rulers of Europe”?)
Pick your own mode of analysis, explore the outer edges and obscure interiors of empires, and you might find yourself getting very interested in European history (learn more here), or curious about how “despotism” divided, metamorphosed, and metastasized into whatever various forms of rule the names “Merkel,” “Macron,” “Putin,” “Poroshenko,” or “Erdogan,” for example, represent today.