Why we need to be talking about sovereigns and sovereignty

Two interviews this week with very different but potentially transformative individuals show different ways in which sovereigns and sovereignty are dominating our contemporary discourse.

The first is the encounter between journalists from Der Spiegel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron, SPIEGEL editors Britta Sandberg, Julia Amalia Heyer and Klaus Brinkbäumer, and Nemo
Macron, SPIEGEL editors Britta Sandberg, Julia Amalia Heyer and Klaus Brinkbäumer, and Nemo the dog

Macron’s cultural references range from Hegel to Georges de la Tour, Algerian writer Kamel Daoud to Mozart.  Two themes stood out for me – the sovereign and sovereignty.  The interview starts with a discussion of Hegel’s description of Napoleon as the Weltgeist on horseback.  Macron notes that Hegel knew well that history could still trump spirit.  One of Macron’s heroes, Victor Hugo, wrote in Les Miserables that ‘Napoleon had been denounced in Infinity and his fall has been decided.’  The individual is always in context.

There follows a recurrent concern with the relationship between individual power and collective responsibility:

‘that is exactly the goal I have set for myself: to try to encourage France and the French people to change and develop further. But that can only be done as a collective, with one another. You have to bundle the strength of those who want to take that step. The same is true for Europe.’

This interplay depends structurally on the formal relationship between the two sides of the equation, individual and collective, and the French model, shaped by de Gaulle, has always been unusual.  De Gaulle is still casting his long shadow over France. [1]  But Macron is clearly aware of the paradox of de Gaulle’s presidency – the closer it became to his ideal, the less popular he became.

‘France is a country of regicidal monarchists. It is a paradox: The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to overthrow him whenever they want.’

This remarkable summary by Macron offers a sharp insight both into his own predicament, and into the complexity of sole rulership.  Hereditary monarchy offers no choice, and is therefore often limited in power.  Elective monarchy, as the Romans thought they had, required an act of violence to effect change – a violence which resulted in their own story of themselves in a radical limitation of power through a shared annual magistracy, rarely repeated by any individual in consecutive years.  In emergencies they could revert to a plenipotentiary dictator, but the office was strictly limited in time – until Julius Caesar.  And it was Caesar’s transformation of the dictatorship in an office without time limit which provided the rationale for his destruction.

The tensions between the need and desire for both leadership and constraint illustrated in the Roman narrative are writ large in modern democracies.  In this context, Macron’s plea for political heroism is an interesting step:

‘We need to develop a kind of political heroism. I don’t mean that I want to play the hero. But we need to be amenable once again to creating grand narratives.’

If any country’s intellectuals could be given the honour of destroying our faith in the grand narrative, it would probably be France; yet Macron himself calls post-modernism ‘the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy.’  The story of how France both created some of the most influential grand narratives and fundamentally disrupted them is for another time, but at least one element of that disruption was the challenge to the unthinking acceptance of power. [2]  Macron has posed a huge challenge – how can one project a grand narrative without falling into precisely the traps post-modern theory sought to illuminate and expose?  And can we be sure that the right grand narrative will succeed?

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine has the other interview which struck me.  James Angelos visited Götz Kubitschek in his rural village of Schnellroda in Eastern Germany.

Götz Kubitschek

Kubitschek is one of the most significant activists in the German far right, and this long and thoughtful essay is required reading for understanding the wider context after the success of AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany and the rightward turn in the Austrian elections.

At one point, Kubitschek cites Carl Schmitt – ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception.’  And here we touch on one of the most challenging and perplexing issues.  The way immigration has been problematised at a local and national level relates sometimes directly and sometimes incoherently to the ownership of power.  There is a pressure upwards towards strong leaders, and downwards towards the protection of the local, and both left and right are fighting over the grand narrative.  So Macron and Michael Ignatieff [3] can respectively praise political heroism and encourage finding ‘the ordinary virtues’ at a local level; whilst part of the right can claim the need for strong leaders, as well as the necessity of recuperating the deep roots of national identity in local tradition.  Angelos ends his essay with Kubitschek and his followers singing the Landsknecht song Georg von Frundsberg, Fuhrt Uns An, in honour of the man who helped Charles V to victory at Pavia in 1525 – recovering the memory of a local song which praised the Habsburg master of the Holy Roman Empire.

Sovereigns and sovereignty are two of the keys to this complex discourse.  And in two sharply contrasting statements we see this brought out very clearly.  In Florence, last month, Theresa May spoke as follows:

‘The profound pooling of sovereignty that is a crucial feature of the European Union permits unprecedentedly deep co-operation, which brings benefits.

But it also means that when countries are in the minority they must sometimes accept decisions they do not want…

So the British electorate made a choice. They chose the power of domestic democratic control over pooling that control, strengthening the role of the UK Parliament and the devolved Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies in deciding our laws.’

It may have been that Macron had that in mind when he said ‘For me, Europe consists of three things: sovereignty, unity and democracy’ and by sovereignty, as far as I can see, he meant the strong defence of European values:

‘The European community of values is unique: It combines democracy with the market economy, individual freedoms with social justice. How can we expect the U.S. or China to defend these values, this one-of-a-kind European balancing act that has developed over the course of decades?’

So on the one hand we have a Prime Minister who defends the UK’s choice to confine the concept of sovereignty within its own borders, with the obvious compromises of the oddly unbalanced sovereignties of the devolved assemblies, and a President who attributes sovereignty to Europe in order to protect his country’s values.  Moreover, for Macron this is part of a politically heroic grand narrative.

Both the ideas of the sovereign and of sovereignty are intertwined and fluid.  Both ideas can be part of a grand narrative which reinforces local exclusive communities and concentrates power dangerously; but they can also be part of narratives which weaken the transparent connection between power and individuals in their communities, wherein lies the notion of accountability.  The question should not be about which will win, but on how to avoid the danger that a simplistic debate will lead to the wrong mix of answers.

At Ann Arbor, I was part of a super conference organised by Celia Schulz and Mark Silk on King Numa.  Numa was an elected, and reluctant, king.

Angelica Kauffmann, Egeria Handing Numa Pompilius His Shield, 1794

The main focus of his efforts was to use religion to control the wayward passions of the Romans – a kind of heroic narrative, but he also symbolised the unifty of the Romans and their neighbours the Sabines, for he was a Sabine himself.

Numa was used by many authors from those reflecting on the first emperor Augustus to late antique neo-Platonists to Machiavelli to Florian’s 18th century novel and its transformation into an Icelandic rímur cycle by Sigurður Breiðfjörð.

However the most remarkable reflection on Numa for me remains Plutarch’s comparison of Numa with the Spartan king Lycurgus.  For whilst Numa’s system was admirable, and for a while persuaded the Romans to curb their militarism, Plutarch argues that he failed to inculcate it in the Roman people through an educational programme such as that offered by Lycurgus.  As a result,

‘the continuance of peace and friendship between Rome and other nations, which was the purpose of Numa’s government, vanished from the earth with him. After his death the double doors of the temple which he had kept continuously closed, as if he really had war caged and confined there, were thrown wide open, and Italy was filled with the blood of the slain. Thus the beautiful edifice of justice which he had reared did not remain standing even for a little time, because it lacked the cement of education.’

In this brief passage, by a Greek who experienced the might of the Roman empire, the sovereign’s attempt to secure co-operation fails for the lack of a persuasive and lasting narrative; and the result is that Rome exercised an unjust sovereignty over others.  In its complex layered signification, the passage illuminates some of the dangerous paradoxes of these tricky ideas.  We need the time and space to discuss these problems thoughtfully.

[1] Jean de Gliniasty has written in this month’s Le monde diplomatique on the return of Gaullo-Mitterandisme in French foreign policy.

[2] Q. Skinner (ed.) The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, Cambridge 1990; the obvious (anti-)hero is Foucault.

[3] M. Ignatieff, The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, Harvard 2017.


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