Sovereignty: A Global Perspective

Sovereignty is suddenly everywhere in our public discourse – in the newspapers, on the TV, co-opted by politicians and pundits both promoting and dismissing it.[1]   The British PM, Theresa May, contrasted British and other European attitudes to ‘pooling’ sovereignty in her 2017 Florence speech;[2] the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, recommended pooling whilst the Greeks claimed that their sovereignty had been usurped by the European Commission; US President Trump mentioned the concept no fewer than twenty-one  times in his first speech to the UN.  Trump-UNGettyImages-851397868One of the moments which has been hailed (rightly or wrongly) as a sign of the UK’s functioning democracy was a debate referencing the seventeenth century English Civil War to settle the relationship between executive authority and parliamentary sovereignty.  It is a concept under which to cluster an unusually large number of the key debates of our time.

I am currently researching Rome’s kings, those misty early figures such as Romulus, Numa and Tarquin the Proud, whose stories give the underpinnings of the earliest history of the city, and who were repeatedly reflected upon over time.  Whether any of these kings actually existed is a moot point, but later Romans believed they did, and their narratives of kingly behaviour both good and bad, alongside the kings of the Old Testament, were absorbed into the bloodstream of western political philosophy from John of Salisbury to Machiavelli and beyond.

The Roman king as father to the people, who could exercise the life and death prerogative of a paterfamilias, and in particular the ability to exclude someone from the protection of the community, to make them sacer, offered two stories about the sovereign’s power, which became transmuted in various ways.  This quasi-domestication and internalization of the rule of law is part of the long-running trope of the state as a simulacrum of the patriarchal family, which was comforting to some, far less so to others.

The story of the paterfamilias was brilliantly revealed by Mary Nyquist as constitutive of a range of arguments over antityranny, slavery and revolution in early modern thought.[3] Picture2 The avoidance of slavery, and the justifiable limits to which an individual or a state could go in defending liberty, were debated through stories such as the impiety of Tarquin towards his father-in-law (and worse his wife, who runs over her father in her chariot) or Brutus who discovers his sons are plotting against the state and orders their execution.  Sovereignty derives from a family affair.

In more modern times, the power of the sovereign became cast more negatively as the global capacity to reduce a human to nothing more than bare life, to render them sacer, to put them beyond the pale of human existence.  Picture3Agamben’s Homo Sacer actually bears a rather slight relationship to antiquity but the idea has been immensely significant; it seems so utterly to define the plight of those who have fallen or are placed beyond borders, outside states.[4]  But the capacity to declare something sacer is as close to something real about the ancient powers of the Roman kings as we have.  The connection arises from the coexistence on an inscription from the 6th century BC in the Roman forum of the words rex, and sacer, and a plausible reference to assembly.  The king and the people and the excluded world circle tantalisingly on a piece of stone which stood for centuries in Rome’s assembly place, possibly incomprehensible for most of that time, and found in 1899 by Giacomo Boni (twice, once for real and then again in front of the press).  Picture4

It was around this time that he was visited by James George Frazer (of The Golden Bough) and just before Freud finally faced the city that terrified him.  The Lapis Niger / Black Stone becomes the Black Box of Michel Serres’ extraordinary reinvention of human history, another story, which reaches through to Bruno Latour’s worries about modernity and then back to Bergsonian problems about time, and then off again to Assman and the notion of memory, and on we go.[5]

Early Rome is actually there or thereabouts at the birth of psychoanalysis, social anthropology, theories of religion (Fustel de Coulanges’ immensely significant volume The Ancient City which influenced Durkheim) and scientific history (Niebuhr and Mommsen).  Even Engels’ The Family Private Property and the State is ripped off Morgan’s Ancient Society, which is itself a thinly veiled version of archaic Roman and Greek history.

Now much of this writing and rewriting of our beginnings is highly fictional, and the old story was that it was also irrelevant, because the critical move from a sovereign to sovereignty rendered the old story irrelevant.  But that depends on another myth, the myth of the sovereign state, whose specific characteristics come into being, or are disclosed, as the product of early modernity but at the same time as something of ineluctable logic.

The less convinced we are about our kings, however, perhaps the less convinced we should be about the abstraction of their power.  And from that, in large part, grew this conference.

At the same time, the conference comes at a specific moment, a conjuncture as we used to say, when another story about sovereignty has come into sight but almost immediately begun to look incredible.  That is the post-sovereignty claim.[6]  For a brief moment, just as Fukuyama announced history was over, so scholars, recognising that first our accounts of sovereignty were perhaps a lot more contingent than we had allowed for, second that the worst face of sovereignty arguments, what came to be called sovereigntism in the Quebec independence debates, shaded into an ugly nationalism, and third that our challenges and perhaps some of our solutions were larger than the nation state, started to wonder if the concept made any sense any more.  So post-sovereignty joined postmodernism, post-truth and a host of other ‘so over that’ arguments.

Well, look at us now.

Wittgenstein said ‘a picture held us captive.  And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.’  As one modern scholar as put it, ‘A picture holds the study of politics captive.  It is a picture of politics organized into sovereign states.’[7] Fundamentally this conference is an attempt to free us from this picture.

But sovereignty is not one thing, nor is it timeless, and it is not perfect; it is multifarious, highly contingent and always at best an argument.  It can be an argument about a person, a place, a corporation, a state, a combination of states.  It is now no longer a subject only for historically minded political scientists.[8]  For good or ill it belongs to the discourse of international law and the plight of the dispossessed, to the global banker and the working-class white voter, to the ecological campaigner and the cartographer.

Clearly “sovereignty” matters hugely to a huge number of people, but hardly any of them agree on how or why or even what.  Yet the notion of ultimacy, of the need to decide for instance in Schmitt’s brilliant invention of the declaration of the exception, is seductive even when terribly misleading.[9]

The conference was not aimed at resolving the muddle into a brilliant single solution, but to be more precise about the reason why sovereignty is as imprecise and as mythical and somehow ubiquitous as my early Roman kings.  We looked for alternative genealogies and placing the concept in a broader framework than the traditional post-Westphalian narrative, relating that to contemporary global challenges such as the role of supranational military forces; financial regulation; and human rights, with a specific focus on migration and environmentalism; and contextualizing it within the framework of critical theory.

In the end, perhaps a little bit like power, sovereignty is a capacity, and as such it is not something we can lightly deny to people who have never had it just because we have got past it.  But post-sovereignty advocates cannot be ignored either.  Nation-states are simply not the only entities with real ultimacy, as we have seen time and again in moments of natural disaster, financial collapse or wanton despotism.  And the latter is much aided by the notion of sovereigntism, the retreat behind borders which in so many places had turned out to be rather porous if not hopelessly ineffectual against overweening force.  It is not at all surprising that the first story of the invincible border is Remus’ petulant demonstration that the Roman border didn’t work.  He was killed by his brother Romulus and at least some Romans knew that that solved nothing.

This does however neatly take us to the performative aspect of sovereignty.  Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos and Nicole Jerr’s recent edited volume The Scaffolding of Sovereignty insists that we take fuller account of the way sovereignty is performed and staged.[10]  Picture5They start from very similar places as I have done here, the contingency and imprecision of sovereignty, its potential harmfulness, its potentially poisoned promise, and move to argue that the place we should look is the process of shoring up the rickety and fake staging, the smoke and mirror effects which aim at excluding too close an awareness of how artificial it is.  Sovereignty in the realm of aesthetics is their goal and it was present in a number of the papers in our conference.

An aesthetic of sovereignty helpfully reminds us that the concept is essentially about persuasion.  The aesthetics of architecture can extend to the architecture of a wall which imposes an idea of sovereignty whilst radically dehumanizing those beyond it, as for instance in John Lanchester’s recent ecological apocalyptic novel,[11] but the realities of law and the minutiae of process, the stuff of the archive, also need to be understood, I think, as part of a pathology of modernity.  Wendy Brown has worried precisely in the context of borders about sovereignty as what Freud calls an illusion powered by a myth.[12]  This both implies that, like religion, sovereignty isn’t going anywhere, but perhaps also that pointing out the fact that it is all greasepaint and fustian isn’t quite enough.  It seems to me that the reason sovereignty is so ubiquitous is that it stands for a set of desires which require to be analysed if they are not to become fetishized ends in themselves.

Hence the hope that by putting sovereignty at the heart of our discussions we will be able to see what it is that it is standing for, and why our desire to have ultimacy needs to be reassessed in the light of a new kind of politics more suited to our times.

The scope of the conference was deliberately wide.  We began in antiquity, where some have denied that the concept existed.  However at least one way around this is to see what work other concepts and performances are doing and to wonder if there is really much difference.  The role of the [male, free] citizen directly in, say, Athenian democracy and as we increasingly recognise also at Rome is important; but the notion of the abstraction of some notion close to sovereignty in practice and in the world of ideas was our first debate.

Here too we wanted to step a little beyond the traditional confines of the classical Mediterranean world and to pull in China in the early part of the first millennium BC as an important counterweight to the dominant western European models.  The conference sidestepped Hobbes too to look at contemporary but divergent voices, and developed alternatives to the notion of indivisible sovereignty.  One discipline increasingly important for modern takes on sovereignty is geography, here represented with reference to the British Empire in India. Another is economics, where international law and capital flows contest national sovereignties.  A third, of course, is international relations, and we looked at Central Asia, contemporary China and the recent disputes between the US and Europe.  In each case it was interesting to see how models of sovereignty were deployed, and to some extent deformed as part of political rhetoric.  One could not help but feel that sovereignty, far from defending principles, was an instrument in power games.

However, any notion that sovereignty can be ignored or belittled is dampened when one looks at places where sovereignty is denied, such as refugee camps or a city such as Bethlehem.  dscf1982One of our aims was to explore the places where the notion of sovereignty is seen at its most brutal or in its most stark absence, and from which its paradoxes are most obvious.

Whatever role sovereignty will play over coming years, we will have to hold in balance two competing realities.  First, the absence of sovereignty can lead to the pain of statelessness and abandonment in the interstices of international order.  Second, as Arendt argues, sovereignty is internally contradictory; ‘If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.’[13]  If sovereignty is a symptom of a desire for mastery, it might be well to reflect that mastery tends to destroy both the one who desires and the object of desire.  So we have a desire for genuine autonomy, and we dare not deny it to others who are without sovereignty, but it is also, too often, an insular and self-defeating desire, a weapon, not an emancipation.   This paradox calls for an attempt to step beyond Hobbes’ dogmas, Arendt’s despair or a simple expectation that the project of sovereignty is finished.  This therefore was just a beginning…

[1] These reflections arise from a conference held as the annual conference of the St Andrews Institute for Legal and Constitutional Research on 29-30 April 2019, and which was sponsored by the British Academy and the Academia Europaea, as well as by the University of St Andrews, to all of whom I am extremely grateful.  The conference was opened by Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop, MSP, who generously supported the idea from its inception.  See

[2] ‘The strength of feeling that the British people have about this need for control and the direct accountability of their politicians is one reason why, throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union.  And perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe.

It is a matter of choices. The profound pooling of sovereignty that is a crucial feature of the European Union permits unprecedentedly deep cooperation, which brings benefits.  But it also means that when countries are in the minority they must sometimes accept decisions they do not want, even affecting domestic matters with no market implications beyond their borders. And when such decisions are taken, they can be very hard to change.’ Sep 22, 2017

[3] Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[4] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen, University of Stanford Press, 1998).

[5] Michel Serres, Rome: The Book of Foundations, (tr. Randolph Burks, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).  See Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (tr. Roxanne Lapidus, University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[6] See for example N. MacCormick, Questioning Sovereignty: Law, State, and Nation in the European Commonwealth (Oxford, 1999).

[7] Jonathan Havercroft, Captives of Sovereignty (Cambridge 2011), p1, quoting Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations (tr Elizabeth Anscombe, New York, 1953) §115.

[8] Though they have taught us much: see Hent Kalmo, Quentin Skinner (eds.) Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Concept (Cambridge University Press, 2011); Richard Bourke, Quentin Skinner (eds.). Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[9] A term used by Ferdinand Mount in a recent article

[10] Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Nicole Jerr (eds) The Scaffolding of Sovereignty (Columbia University Press, 2017).

[11] John Lanchester, The Wall (Faber, 2018).

[12] Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2010), 132.

[13] Hannah Arendt, ‘What is Freedom?’ in Between Past and Future (London, 1979) p.165.


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