April 5, 2010

The Discourse of the Sovereign State

While the concept of state sovereignty dates back centuries, even before the nation-state assembly had first been formally recognized at Westphalia in 1648, it continues to remain one of the central coordinating political principles of the modern world. As theorized in the early seventeenth century by Hugo Grotius, (sometimes referred to as “the godfather of international law,”) the idea was to bring together a greater degree of regularity and order to inter-state relations. So whenever a particular state exercised its sovereign right to sign a treaty, adjust its borders, or go to war, as the supreme governing authority of a particular body politic it also still recognized certain limits and conditions to that right by the very act of becoming an obligated member of the international arena. Ultimately the hope was that by rejecting the extremes of complete pacifism and total license when resorting to war, states could gradually come to realize that their sovereign interests, broadly construed, were actually better served within an international system of binding rules. Such recognized interdependence would ostensibly encourage peace as well as a new rationalism amongst states. “That there shall be a Christian and Universal Peace, and a perpetual, true, and sincere Amity,” reads Article One of the Treaty of Westphalia, so that “on all sides they may see this Peace and Friendship in the Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of France flourish, by entertaining a good and faithful Neighbourhood.”

What is the status of the sovereign state these days? It is surely tempting to think that the transnationality of neo-liberalism, and, more specifically, the unprecedented reach of global capital – and all its attendant mechanisms, technologies, and cultures – has rendered the very notion of governance by sovereign entities an anachronism. Indeed bodies such as WTO, NAFTA, IMF, and TEC, as well as the wide variety of NGOs such as the UN, routinely subvert the state by enlisting and “incentivizing” a wide consortium of governing bodies and intermediary regimes which are not only global in scope but deeply entrenched in global power-schematics. Thus it can be said that while the activities and transformations within the territorial borders of nation-states typically get coded as “national” or “domestic” they are however in fact largely effects of, and oriented towards, transnational processes, logics, and developments.

Nonetheless the eclipse of the sovereign state cannot simply be explained by the gangs of finance, global industries, and NGOs operating in the global context. As Saskia Sassen, Lisa Duggan, and Mark Neocleous have urged, states themselves have been key agents in the hastening of “globalization” itself, and have, as a result, also mutated their form in this process. So yes, on one level, it can be said that a good amount of the political mucilage of the state   has been dissolved, geographical boundaries most obviously but also its internal constitutional and political integrity. Yet other core defining traits of the state, perhaps most obvious, its technologies of surveillance, militarism, executive power, and its overall concern with law and order,” has only been intensified and extended. Actually, the kind of state we are confronted with nowadays, especially in the American context, is not at all a reduced or limited state but rather the  inversion or "privatization" of an already existing mega-state. This inverted mega-state is not just dominated by economic structures and disciplines which traverse globally in a variety of ways but which also...(and this is the interesting part,) have had to resort to certain political applications, rationales, and responsibilities which are routinely illegal and repressive often by its own standards and rhetoric. Indeed despite pronouncements of the end of the state, and even the political as well, both have re-emerged albeit in disfigured or disguised form.  

The resiliency and reinvention of state power can perhaps best be understood through the thinking of Thomas Hobbes, born this day in 1588, and also a contemporary of Westphalia. Hobbes knew how tempting it would be for sovereign logics to readjust and reconstitute themselves in face of – or even because of – the dissolution of social and political life. Hobbes saw how the will to sovereignty only became more alluring and urgent as political formations tended to historically wither away or fail. Revisiting Hobbes today, we can approach the status of the sovereign state not as a narrow empirical determination but rather as a normative question about our all-too-human expectations, and about what the concept of “the state” can or should entail. 

For Hobbes, what gave his Leviathan such “timeless” staying power was that it, at least in his view, promised the best hope for security and peace on this earth as difficult as those ends may at times undoubtedly be. To be clear, Hobbes was not only far less detailed than Grotius in systematizing an international order but also far less willing to bind sovereign logic to positive law. Simply put, the project laid out in his political writings made state sovereignty unequivocally supreme. The Hobbesian state thus achieved far more autonomy than had previously been conceived; it was truly sovereign precisely because it was “absolute” in its capacity to legitimately govern and coerce subjects “in all things,” (from legislation and the interpretation of laws, to education and religious teachings,) in the interests of political stability, peace, and order.

Appeals to sovereignty these days remain quite urgent still. Understandably, state power and its arms-length alliances with global finance today remain extremely formidable. Yet as the global condition reminds us time and time again, even if state power is more powerful and more uncompromising than ever before it still falls way short of being the autonomous and sovereign agent it assumes. For with all that unprecedented arsenal and dogged determination to become master of its territorial domain comes also an unprecedented fragility. The problem today is that sovereign politics and science culminate in demands we seem no longer capable of meeting. Sovereign-state discourse is not just tyrannical in its “timeless” monopoly on politics; it is also outliving its ability to deliver what it claims to promise to subjects/citizens. Its need for alien others, heretics, and enemies as it presses onward with Realist rhetoric has simply become too lethal and too self-destructive to sustain. Think of wars with no end in sight. Think of Copenhagen. Think of all the profound institutional failure we experience everyday. Given the historical realities of our global context, the restriction of “the political” within territorial, i.e., sovereign, domains ultimately perpetuates the trappings of an imagined community, as well as a long list of political outcomes most of us oppose.

In sum, it is not at all the end of the sovereign state we are experiencing. But we must try to open the political to a new democratic internationalism…     


seesilly said...

A neo-Hobbesian progressive bio-political state may be the only state formation consistent with environmental sustainability. It won't be welcomed by those who prize individual liberty. But as world-wide awareness of ecological catastrophe catches on, it may just be the best enlightened hope for survival.

pietro said...

Born-Again Hobbesians? perhaps. But remember that globalization has been an uneven development. That said, we ALREADY have worldwide "awareness" of climate change despite what many in the US "skeptics" are holding out for. And its precisely this kind of discrepancy that will make a benevolent Hobbesian technological paternalism quite unlikely.

What you seem to be hoping for is more like a Grotian/Kantian federation of states, one that is purged of Hobbes' assumptions about politics and nature.

binman said...

The sovereign state may persist, despite erosion over time, simply because the corporations that control local political agendas ensure its existence. An overarching international democracy would threaten the essentially unfettered reign of corporate interests and the ideal of capitalism,as championed by free-market cheerleaders in the West. The only hope for a truly democratic triumph is for individuals to withdraw their support from corporatized decision-making and wield their small but decisive consumer spending power.