Ballots, Bullets, Balls and Brains

As the presidential election approaches, and many are already casting their votes, a consideration of the multiple meanings of the concept of the ballot may offer some measure of insight into the current political, ideological, and historical situation.

Currently constructed out of paper and – as electronic voting becomes more and more widespread – from digital signals, it is noteworthy that the term ballot derives from the word for ball, and the historical practice of casting variously colored balls into a box in order to determine the victor of electoral contests. This origin is significant in several respects. Among other things, balls are not only etymologically, but also physically, related to bullets. And in an electoral contest in which the majority is supposed to prevail and instantiate law – that is, in a process in which Might Makes Right – one is confronted by a particularly intimate conceptual link between bullets and ballots, with the latter substituting for the violence of the former.

It ought to be noted, however, that this form of politics – democracy – does not achieve its legitimacy from majority rule as force, as ‘might makes right,’ per se. Indeed, in many respects force is antithetical to democracy’s professed purpose. For the democratic form, and its attendant institutions and laws, find justification and legitimacy insofar as they are perceived to realize the democratic form’s implicit content – that is, justice.

As it turns out, however, justice is more often than not diametrically opposed to law. Among other things, the rigidity of law is in many respects inimical to the flexibility that justice requires – a characteristic reflected in the verb ‘adjust,’ which means, literally, “toward the just.” In addition to being distinct from justice on account of its rigidity, it is notable that law has only force at all insofar as it threatens violence (a threat which is generally sufficient to guarantee the obedience of the people over whom it rules). To be sure, where this threat is insufficient, obedience does not result, and law, as such, may be said to not exist.

The recognition of this disjuncture between the order of justice and the order of law leads us to another meaning of the concept of the ballot, one that functions generally but is especially significant in the context of a presidential contest. For it is worth considering the fact that in casting a ballot for a president, the voter gives that candidate her or his balls. While psychoanalysts may contend otherwise, balls in this context do not necessarily represent merely testicles or ovaries – as it concerns the political power of women, however, it is highly relevant that the surrender of their balls (control of their ovaries) leads to the loss of autonomy vis-a-vis the encroachment of dominating, coercive power into reproductive rights. Aside from this fact, however, because people are supposed to possess only one vote – one ball – it should not be too contentious to posit that the balls we give away to not only a candidate, but to the system in general, are our heads.

This phenomenon of giving away one’s balls (or heads) very closely corresponds to Thomas Hobbes’ insight regarding political power in his Leviathan. In his classic political treatise, Hobbes points out that political power accrues not merely through its seizure. Rather, coercive political power requires the participation of those who will become its subjects – a participation that occurs primarily by the surrender, or abdication, of the “natural” power, or autonomy, that people possess in, among other forms, the so-called right of resistance. In other words, it is only once the dispersed non-coercive, generative power which all possess (which, in growing, unfolding, and radiating, resists that which would obstruct it) is abandoned by the many that dominating power can be concentrated in the hands of a few. The quasi-political practice of giving away our balls (ballots) reflects this political and social fact – that through this pseudo-participation we are surrendering our heads, our minds, and our autonomy, to rulers and leaders – a fact which is altogether incongruous with the notion of democracy as self-governance.

Concerning the work of Thomas Hobbes, it is relevant to note that the name Hobbes imparted to his absolutist government is the Leviathan. And it is arguably less of a coincidence than a submerged symbolic plexus that, in addition to its identification with demonic powers, and with sea creatures in general, the leviathan bears a particularly strong association with the whale. Not unrelatedly, the Greek term for whale is phalle. And the term phalle, in turn, is etymologically related to the term ‘phallus.’ Moreover, just as Hobbes’ Leviathan is but one form of dominating, coercive political power, it just so happens to be the case that the phalle, or phallus, has from time immemorial been symbolic of this law, of the spirit of the law – the nomos – as opposed to justice.

To be sure, insofar as he replaced one phallus with another, Zeus’ castration of his father (the tyrannical titan Cronus, who had himself castrated his own father in order to assume power) provides but one of a plethora of examples of the recurring symbolism connecting the phallus (and castration, or beheading) with law-giving and dominating power.

In order to continue with this examination of the veiled meanings of the concept of the ballot and its relation to justice and law, it is crucial to remark at this point that the word nomos, the spirit of the law, is itself derived from the Greek word nomeus, which means shepherd. The shepherd, of course, performs the function of the law insofar as he not only leads, but orders, and rules, the social order of his flock. In acquiring their obedience – cutting off their symbolic heads, and thereby vitiating their autonomy – the nomeus creates subjects in two respects: not only does the nomeus, as the one who imposes the law, produce the subjects of the law; in defining and determining their acceptable limits – not to mention the limits of the social order itself – the nomeus/nomos, produces the subject as the individual as well. Beyond the general intersection of these symbols, the confluence of the phallus, law, and shepherd can be seen with particular clarity in the appearance of the biblical figure of Moses.

Returning to Egypt after working as a shepherd in Midian, Moses steps upon the historico-symbolic stage as the liberator of his people. Exemplifying the movement from liberating, law-nullifying power and justice, to coercive, dominating, law-creating power, it is vital to note that, beyond his other attributes, the miraculous powers that Moses displays are invariably mediated by his staff, the phallus. In wielding his rod before the pharaoh, and the Red Sea, among other things, Moses destroyed a law, or order – liberating his people from bondage. Importantly, however, with this same staff he would soon subordinate the Israelites to another law. And, in so doing, Moses represents the unification of the phallus, the shepherd, and the nomos.

In addition to the shepherd Moses, there is another influential shepherd in the annals of law and power worth considering: the figure of Jesus. To be sure, the relationship between the law (nomos) and its identification with the shepherd (nomeus) persists with considerable strength in the Christian Church, particularly in its institution of the pastorate. For instance, in The Rule of Saint Benedict, two chapters are devoted to the pastoral duties of the abbots. Not unrelatedly, in defining the attributes of a good monk, Benedict writes in his Rule that good monks “no longer live by their free will.” Indeed, “they always desire that someone should command them.” This symbolic self-decapitation of the good monk (evidenced strikingly by the peculiar hairstyle of the tonsure) is entirely consistent with the obedience that the law continues to demand of its subjects – along with the renunciation of their balls.

Concerning Canon Law, it is crucial to remark that the doctrine of the trinity – upon which Canon Law rests – was not developed until well into the second century of the Common Era. Among other things, it must also be noted that the trinity was initially adumbrated, and then later elaborated, by Ignatius of Antioch, and Theophilus of Antioch, respectively. That the city of Antioch was founded and ruled by Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus, and was for centuries a center of Hellenistic culture rivaled in importance only by Alexandria and Rome, is extremely relevant here. For not only does the doctrine of the trinity arise from the Hellenistic city of Antioch, the tripartite structure of the trinity (the nomos) is itself derived from a Hellenistic progenitor – the Greek Fates.

Undergirding the structure of the trinity, as well as the separation of powers scheme of Montesquieu’s influential treatise The Spirit of the Laws (which manifests in the US Constitution as the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government) the three Fates are one power with distinct functions. The spinner, who spins the thread of life, corresponds to the father, or legislature; the measurer, who measures this thread, is in turn analogous to the judiciary, the judge, or Jesus; and the cutter, who cuts the thread, mirrors the executive, “the one who proceeds,” or the holy spirit. That the Fates are the daughters of Necessity, who herself is closely associated with the goddess of violence, Bia, further substantiates the intertwinement of the nomos with dominating power. And while the Fates provide the prototype of the structure of the US Constitution’s separation of powers, as well as the structure of the trinity, it is significant that the examination of the Fates leads us to the exception to the nomos.

For though the Fates’ rule was insuperable, and none could defy it, it is vital to note that the healer Asclepius, through his generative, healing powers, had the exceptional ability to, among other things, raise the dead, and thereby nullify the Fates’ rule. For this transgression, Asclepius (who was the son of the god Apollo) was killed, subsequently resurrected, and transfigured into a god himself. That this son of a god, a healer who raised the dead, resembles Jesus of Nazareth is unmistakable. Indeed, in many respects Asclepius is a forerunner of Jesus. However, while Asclepius may resemble Jesus in the latter’s capacity as a healer (the Jesus who is constantly harassed by the teachers of law), Asclepius has little in common with Jesus the shepherd – that is, while Jesus contradictorily manifests both the dominating power of the shepherd, as well as the liberating power of the healer, Asclepius only represents the healer. And it is the healer, or health, that allows for an articulable liberation from the dominating power of the nomos; for in many respects the concrete conditions of health (nutritious food, salutary housing, clean air, adequate sleep, and freedom from coercion generally, not to mention the freedom to develop one’s potentiality, among other things) are indistinct from the concrete conditions required for the realization of a just social order.

The relationship between dominating power and law, and liberating power and justice, however, does not end here. The identification of justice and health is passed down to Asclepius’ daughter, who in turn imparts it to contemporary legal systems. For just as Asclepius was capable of defying the dominating power of the nomos, his daughter – known to the Romans as the goddess of health, Salus – is incorporated into the nomos-defying legal maxim Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto. Translated as ‘the health of the people is the supreme law,’ this particular legal maxim subtends contemporary constitutions as a law-nullifying metanorm – one that, importantly, allows for considerations of justice and health to void laws that are seen to deviate from the just or otherwise infringe upon the health of the people.

In light of all this, and insofar as he represents health and liberating power, it may seem suspicious that, among his other attributes, Asclepius is generally depicted as carrying a staff. Though to some degree this rod resembles the staff of Moses – the phallus of coercive power – Asclepius’ rod is distinguishable from Moses’ staff insofar as it is encoiled by a serpent. Symbolic of wisdom, and of the regenerative, liberating power of health, the serpent, however phall-ic, should not be confused with the phallus. For, unlike the rod, which – like law itself – is defined by its rigidity, the serpent is flexible, responsive, and able to adjust to its environment. Indeed, rather than symbolizing the phallus, and the dominating power of the nomos, one may see the serpent – flexible and wise – as symbolic of justice and of liberating power.

As such, a more persuasive interpretation of the symbolic import of the serpent-encoiled rod of Asclepius’ may be that it is a phallus (dominating power) that is constrained by wisdom, health, and liberating power. In other words, the rod of Asclepius may be seen to represent justice prevailing over law. Incidentally, it is interesting to point out that the staff of Moses was itself at certain points transformed into a serpent. This transformation, however, strictly occurred while Moses was acting in the capacity of a liberator, nullifying law and initiating the just – not in his role as lawgiver. Insofar as he was a lawgiver, Moses’ rod was a rigid phallus. And in his capacity as shepherd, this phallus functioned to symbolically decapitate his flock, deforming their heads into mindless balls (or ballots).

As we approach the presidential election, it is important to consider this dimension of the ballot, and its involvement in the abdication of our collective, generative, liberating powers to rulers whose allegiance is, beyond any fidelity to actual justice, to the aggrandizement of political, social, and economic forms of dominating power. As such, rather than surrendering our balls in this quasi-political practice, and empowering the nomos and the shepherd (which Michel Foucault has demonstrated continue to function as dominating power within contemporary biopolitics) the interests of justice and an actual politics – one that lives up to the radical notion of democracy as self-government, justice, and autonomy – demands the pursuit of the concrete conditions of justice, arguably articulable through a consideration of the concrete demands of health. In a world growing ever sicker, such a project ought to be our top political, economic and social priority.

And while we must cease our symbolic, collective self-decapitation (and, indeed, must not behead anyone, for such practices merely perpetuate the violence of dominating power) in order to realize the conditions of justice, there is at least one head that – insofar as it reproduces far-reaching, systematic harms – must be decapitated. Its name, derived from the Latin, is capital.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at


Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber