The awkwardness illuminates the crisis of legitimacy that has been pressing since the vision of absolute freedom and the “transplanting of heaven to earth below”: what are the normative grounds of human sociability in the absence of the transcendent authority of the divine? […] The guilty persistence of this loss has stained modernity from the outset with the “blemish of an unsatisfied yearning.” Enlightenment has been shadowed by a crime it is condemned to reenact through compulsive rituals of wiping and erasure.
Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness
The figure of the sovereign is the inaugural theme of bourgeois political philosophy. Prior to the long emergence of the bourgeois social order, sovereign power was generally accepted (with some notable exceptions) as a fact of nature. The sovereign simply was; social hierarchy was mystified according to estates or castes, and to question the meaning of his existence was akin to questioning God’s providence. Eternal and Divine Law, according to Thomas Aquinas and others, destined the sovereign to be sovereign and the subjugated to be subjugated. In the transition to capitalism, where the bourgeoisie was becoming conscious of itself as a class, the meaning and origin of sovereignty formed an obsessive theme for modern philosophers militantly pursuing Enlightenment aims. The notion of sovereignty was thus intertwined with the proposed destiny of this rising social class. After all, if the bourgeoisie was to justify its right to recreate society in its image it needed to profane the sacred order of princes. The Great Chain of Being needed to be smashed; princely power needed to be explained without recourse to the ideology that kept it from being explained in the first place.
Such a demystification of sovereignty, however, necessarily involved the remystification of social relations according to the bourgeois order. Although the origins of sovereign power were profaned, demonstrated to be not eternal laws of nature, sovereignty was retained and reconceptualized according to the logic of emergent capitalism. Social submission was no longer contingent on irrevocable laws of heaven but rather became “the submission to the law of profit.” Whereas capitalism “stopped building cathedrals,” and its ideologues even argued that there was no extra-historical law that required the preservation of a fated order of kings and priests, its “degradation of [humans] to mere labor power” locked humanity into an openly economic system of submission. (Amin, 1976: 376) Moreover, the centrality of the figure of the sovereign and the concept of “sovereignty” that were retained in modern political philosophy functioned as part of this remystification. That is, the destiny of the sovereign might have been displaced (there was no royal blood, people were not born with princely destinies) but the figure of the sovereign and the conception of sovereignty were still retained, transposed into the language of Enlightenment political philosophy. There was still such a thing, these philosophers argued, called “sovereignty”––there were still sovereigns and sovereign power––and if we understood it correctly we would also understand the reasonableness of the bourgeois order. Hence, to even talk about “sovereignty” as a legitimate category of politics, assuming we are not reifying it in pre-Enlightenment terms, is to think politics according to the mindset of bourgeois Enlightenment philosophers.
In Metapolitics Alain Badiou asserts that political philosophy “is the programme which, holding politics… as an objective datum, or even invariant, of universal experience, accords philosophy the task of thinking it.” (Badiou, 2006: 10) Badiou’s point, here, is that everything named “political philosophy” is merely the philosophical preservation of normative class politics. That which is called political philosophy begins by refusing to think ruling class hegemony and thus functions to interpret programmatic statements according to this hegemony. Such a claim is particularly meaningful when it comes to “sovereignty”. Political philosophy emerges as political philosophy in relation to this concept: without a ruler justified by God or nature, how can we speak of the right of those with economic/political power to declare themselves sovereign? The answer, in short, is by retaining the conceptual category of sovereignty while jettisoning predestined sovereigns and obscuring the more meaningful categories of social class and state––or at least obscuring them in conceptualizations of sovereign power.
From Hobbes to Mill the category of sovereignty is preserved as meaningful: there is such a thing as sovereignty, even if its origins are not those claimed by pre-Enlightenment thinkers, and it receives its full articulation according to bourgeois political philosophy. In Elements of the Philosophy of Right , though, we are provided with a significant dissension from this pattern: Hegel’s historicization of politics is such that the conception of sovereignty lacks the same foundational meaning it enjoys in bourgeois thought as a whole. The tradition of political theory founded by Marx and Engels, however, goes further by displacing the foundational aspect of sovereignty altogether. There is in fact, according to the revolutionary materialist tradition, only an ideological significance to the category of sovereignty; it is just a name that sometimes indicates class power and thus it is more meaningful to talk of modes of production and their preservation in the instrumentalization of class power, i.e. the State form.
And yet, post-Marx, radical political philosophy has re-centred the category of sovereign power. We thus find––thanks to Giorgio Agamben’s synthesis of Foucault, Heidegger, and Schmitt––a plethora of contemporary radical thinkers who utilize the category of sovereignty to think politics. Although these theorizations of sovereignty (and connected concepts such as “governmentality” and “biopolitics”) imagine themselves to be radical, what we are in fact witnessing is a return to the ideological constellation of bourgeois Enlightenment thought where pre-materialist categories were preserved so as to legitimate bourgeois power. Ironically this post-Marxist tendency promotes itself as being anti-Enlightenment, and some of its thinkers attack Marxism for its Enlightenment reason, when in fact its political philosophy is founded on a key category of bourgeois Enlightenment thought.
What I am attempting to do in this conclusion to a trilogy of essays that began with Radiating Disaster Triumphant is to further think Marxism in the context of modernity and the meaning of scientific thought. So far we have traced the meaning of Marxism according to its emergence within modernity, we have examined what this meaning implies according to the concept of “science” in This Ruthless Criticism of All That Exists , but now we are examining its legacy according to what Gramsci termed “politics as an autonomous science.” (Gramsci, 2003: 136) Although it is the case that this final essay of the trilogy begins on a much more confusing ground than its previous entries, this is due to the fact that the sphere of political thought has been rendered confusing by those theoretical trajectories––criticized in both of the previous essays––that have attempted to displace Marxism. These trajectories tend to have an understanding of political power that is mediated by the problematic of sovereignty: inherited from Enlightenment discourse but simultaneously intended to be a rejection of this discourse just as much as they are a rejection of Marxism. The question that needs to be asked at the completion of this essay trilogy, as we stand upon the ruins of Enlightenment but still proclaim the necessity of scientific thought, is what is the meaning of political power, governance, and control? These are the questions that every post-Marxist radical theory claims to answer and yet, despite these vaunted claims and their hatred of Enlightenment, are still trapped within the framework drawn by Enlightenment thought.
Contemporary theory based on the concepts of sovereign power and biopolitics is marked by a vagueness and philosophical imprecision. These conceptual categories are asserted as if they are fact without a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. Sovereignty as a category is asserted as if it just is (and has always been), with appeals being made to pre-capitalist social formations. All talk of political power is conflated with concepts derived from this category. A deeper conflation of sovereignty with the State prevents explanations regarding what a State is or what it does aside from being synonymous with sovereignty and an obscure deployment of biopolitics––or, for that matter, necropolitics. Such vagueness prevents the kind of clarity that would allow us to rigorously demystify social/historical phenomena. Moreover, by focusing on the phenomenological symptoms rather than the concrete basis that generates these symptoms, there is also a vagueness on questions concerning political action and social transformation. At best we are provided with pronouncements about the need to “exit from sovereignty” or “refuse power” which feel more like academic exercises than principles of radical resistance.
At the beginning of this essay trilogy I referenced Adorno and Horkheimer’s claim that Enlightenment “has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2001: 3) It is thus fitting to conclude this trilogy with an examination of a key notion of Enlightenment political thought: sovereignty. This notion was discarded as a meaningful category by Enlightenment’s most radical tendency, Marxism, but has been appropriated and repurposed by contemporary radical theories. Here we discover a point of convolution where the inheritance of the bourgeois aspects of the Enlightenment have been retained by a theoretical constellation that claims to oppose the Enlightenment and modernity but in fact has mainly opposed the most radical expression of Enlightenment thought: that modernity critical of modernity, i.e. Marxism.
The retention of sovereignty as an ontological category marks the way in which the most predatory aspects of the European Enlightenment have become entangled with a political philosophy that imagines itself to be critical of these ravages and yet has historically focused on setting itself apart from the very concept of revolutionary science. The aim, then, is to work through this convolution and confusion, to disentangle the notion of sovereignty, so as to not only demonstrate what this confusion about the category of sovereignty means but to prove, following my previous essays’ claims about modernity and science, that only the scientific approach of Marxism can solve this key ideological confusion. That is, without Marxism we will still be locked in thinking of these political categories according to a political philosophy that preserves the commitments of the bourgeois order.
Let us make the stakes of this intervention as clear as possible. Radical theories of sovereignty that seek to overturn the Enlightenment tradition reproduce some of that tradition’s key presuppositions. Moreover, theories of sovereignty that make sovereign power the originary political problematic elide class and reify the bourgeois individual as a transhistorical subject. These theories are not simply philosophically wrong; they lead to ineffective theories of resistance and revolution.
The Contemporary Conception of Sovereignty
An entire book tracing the conception of sovereign power in contemporary theory could be written so as to establish a concise and thorough history of the idea. Indeed we can easily imagine the structure such a book would take: after an introduction establishing its origin in emergent bourgeois thought and development in liberal theory, the first chapter would be a rigorous examination of its successive theorization by Schmitt, the second chapter would excavate all aspects of its development in the work of Foucault, the third would synthesize Agamben’s work on the subject, and the following chapters would trace its apprehension and use through the work of a variety of legal and social thinkers perhaps concluding with the work of Mbembe and Puar. This modest essay, however, is not such a project. Although I will discuss some of the material of this imaginary work, I am more interested in examining the general contours of the concept so as to demonstrate its inadequacy as a theoretical metric of political power. My concern, as aforementioned, is the ways in which this approach to thinking power fails to comprehend––and in fact (re)mystifies––its purported object of thought (social/political power) due to its failure to break from the most predatory aspects of Enlightenment thought and modernity. That is, I want to explore the ways in which contemporary theories devoted to the notion of “sovereignty” or “sovereign power” reify social relations due to a failure to provide concrete analyses of concrete situations.
I want to begin by providing a cursory definition of the contemporary conception of sovereignty through some key texts that are paradigmatic but not exhaustive of the entire region of thought. If I was writing a genealogy of this theoretical notion it would make more sense to begin with the bourgeois/liberal roots of the concept. But this is not such a genealogy and, since it is concerned first and foremost with challenging contemporary theoretical expression of sovereign power, I will start with a description of the general contours of this theoretical expression before moving to the historical roots of the problem. Sometimes, as Hegel was wont to argue, what exists first in time must be displaced by what a philosophical investigation deems to be conceptually prior.
So let’s examine the broad brushstrokes of the contemporary notion of sovereignty. In Discipline and Punish Foucault, interrogating the disciplinary aspects of authoritative examination and surveillance, writes:
Discipline, however, had its own type of ceremony. It was not the triumph, but the review, the ‘parade’, an ostentatious form of the examination. In it the ‘subjects’ were presented as ‘objects’ to the observation of a power the was manifested only by its gaze. They did not receive directly the image of the sovereign power; they only felt its effects––in replica, as it were––on their bodies, which had become precisely legible and docile. (Foucault, 1995: 188)
After discussing the ways in which the gaze of sovereignty examines and classifies the bodies within its domain, Foucault concludes that “the most brilliant figure of sovereign power is joined to the emergence of rituals proper to disciplinary power.” (Ibid., 189) Whereas sovereign power once functioned according to visibility (i.e. the sovereign figure was seen and recognized as the cipher of social power, the visible exercise of force as the mechanism by which his power was deployed), an inversion happens where disciplinary power “is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them.” (Ibid., 187) Sovereign power, then, becomes immanent as we enter the age of examinations, biopolitics, and the “epistemological ‘thaw’” produced by the medical examining apparatus. (Ibid.) With Foucault we not only witness the emergence of today’s theory of sovereign power––a theory that seeks to understand the meaning and deployment of social power according to the concept of sovereignty––but also a critique of the sovereign subject.1
But it is with Giorgio Agamben, who connects Foucault to the work of the reactionary legal theorist Carl Schmitt, that the contemporary notion of sovereignty is cemented. All latter critiques of social power that utilize the conception of sovereign power, including Mbembe’s notion of necropolitics and Puar’s work on homonationalism, do so according to Agamben’s intervention. Agamben indeed establishes himself according to Foucault’s thoughts on sovereign power:
One of the most persistent features of Foucault’s work is its decisive abandonment of the traditional approach to the problem of power, which is based on juridical-institutional models (the definition of sovereignty, the theory of the State), in favour of an unprejudiced analysis of concrete ways in which power penetrates subjects’ very bodies and forms of life. (Agamben, 1998: 5)
What is interesting, here, is that Agamben claims that Foucault’s work is interesting due to both its abandonment of the definition of sovereignty and the theory of the State. On the one hand Foucault’s discussion of sovereign power does indeed avoid a definition of sovereignty––it accepts the fact of sovereign power as is ––which is precisely where Agamben will insert himself. By way of Schmitt and through a critical reading of Hobbes, Agamben will provide a definition of sovereignty. On the other hand, though, Agamben will avoid any theory of the State that is exterior to his definition of sovereign power. It is as if he wants to preserve only that aspect of the “juridical-institutional model” that accords with an ideological reading (a definition of sovereignty) while ignoring the concrete facts of political power (a theory of the State). Whereas the theory of the latter is generally forbidden by Agamben’s appropriation of Foucault, it is rethought according to the valorization of the former. That is, in order to talk about the Foucauldian notion of “biopolitics” (or, post-Agamben, Mbembe’s notion of “necropolitics”), Agamben holds that sovereign power needs to be defined but that a theory of the State is less important. Or, more accurately, according to Agamben the notion of sovereignty implies and imbricates a theory of the State since the latter is governed by the former: State power is determined by the category of sovereign power.
For Agamben, the political-juridical order (what Schmitt calls the nomos), the order that some might call the State, is determined by “the paradox of sovereignty.” In Homo Sacer he writes:
The paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order. If the sovereign is truly the one to whom the juridical order grants the power of proclaiming a state of exception and, therefore, of suspending the order’s own validity, then “the sovereign stands outside the juridical order and, nevertheless, belongs to it, since it is up to him to decide if the the constitution is to be suspended in toto” (Schmitt, Politische Theologie, p. 13). The specification that the sovereign is “at the same time outside and inside the juridical order” (emphasis added) is not insignificant: the sovereign, having the legal power to suspend the validity of the law, legally places himself outside the law. This means that the paradox can also be formulated this way: “the law is outside itself,” or: “I, the sovereign, who am outside the law, declare that there is nothing outside of the law.” (Ibid., 15)
Sovereignty, due to this paradox, thus “marks the limit (in the double sense of end and principle).” (Ibid.) It must in some sense be more meaningful than general conceptions of State power that locate the meaning of the State by defining it according to its institutional/structural mechanisms (i.e. by defining the State as such), because it is clear that the sovereign/sovereigns of a given political-juridical order are as much outside of this order as they are inside it. Sovereignty is in excess of an instrumental definition of the State-qua-State, and thus in order to fully comprehend the latter the meaning of the former needs to be excavated. Attaching this definition of sovereignty to the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics, Agamben wants to examine the way in which sovereign power can become immanent in modern societies. Sovereign power, as Foucault argues above, is no longer simply attached to the figure of the sovereign (though it may be so in some social formations, or it may appear so in elected figures of democratic societies) but to a vast array of technologies and processes that determine forms of life. Here is where Agamben mobilizes the connected notion of bare life (sometimes translated as naked life), “the life of homo sacer (sacred man), who may be killed and not yet sacrificed .” (Ibid., 8) That is, the conception of human life that is defined by “its capacity to be killed” (Ibid.)––increasingly a definition of human life itself when “exception everywhere becomes the rule” (Ibid., 9) under the biopolitical regime––becomes “the key by which not only the sacred texts of sovereignty but also the very codes of political power will unveil their mysteries.” (Ibid., 8)
In Means Without End Agamben asserts that “[p]olitical power as we know it, on the other hand, always founds itself––in the last instance––on the separation of a sphere of naked life from the context of the forms of life.” (Agamben, 2000: 3) Hence, “[t]he state of exception, which is what the sovereign each and every time decides, takes place precisely when naked life––which normally appears rejoined to the multifarious forms of social life––is explicitly put into question and revoked as the ultimate foundation of political power.” (Ibid., 4-5) Here it should be clear that Agamben’s use of the Schmittian notion of “state of exception” functions on multiple registers: the exception sovereign power grants to itself in regards to the law, the exception of bare/naked life from life in general, the exceptional spaces in international law where zones are treated as being outside of the law (while simultaneously being defined so by nomoi). Sovereignty thus implies a broad “state of exception” and we might be able to say that it theorizes the State as the state of exception, which is to say according to the very concept of sovereignty. Hence, we can only understand what political power means by recourse to a conception of sovereignty. What is called the State, according to this analysis, is merely a concatenation of sovereign power that has to do with the governance and/or control of forms of life according to the principle of bare life: what forms of life may be killed without sacrificing the forms of life valorized by a given sovereign order. “Sacrifice implies prior individuation,” Fred Moten explains: “You not only have to have but also to be something in particular in order to sacrifice or to be sacrificed.” (Moten, 2018A: 98) The “noncitizen”, which is the “nonsubject”, can be killed but not sacrificed because they are excluded from political life. (Ibid) For Agamben, the Nazi death camps are paradigmatic of the inborn and predatory aspects of sovereign power because the reduction of entire populations to the level of bare life to be annihilated in the Holocaust functioned to inversely preserve a form of life (the “Aryan”) essential to the Nazi nomos that could not be sacrificed.2
Therefore, according to Achille Mbembe, “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” (Mbembe, 2003: 11) Such an expression implies the biopolitical regime, the ways in which sovereignty uses this decision to dictate how forms of life and forms of living are regimented. But Mbembe pushes the theory of sovereign power further by asking: “under what practical conditions is the right to kill, to allow to live, or to expose to death exercised? Who is the subject of this right? What does the implementation of such a right tell us about the person who is thus put to death and about the relation of enmity that sets that person against his or her murderer?” (Ibid., 12) Sovereignty is thus also necropolitics. Whether we define it according to biopolitics or necropolitics, though, sovereignty is taken to be the generative concept political power; it is conceived as an originary nomos. Following Mbembe successive theorizations of sovereignty have been wagered (Jasbir Puar, Fred Moten, etc.), all locating their conception of political power in the space articulated by Agamben and Foucault.3
To be clear, I am not arguing that these sovereignty approaches to the problematic of political power are entirely wrong. Rather, my position is that these approaches are not as foundational as they presume and that, in point of fact, the notion of sovereign power is epiphenomenal or symptomatic of deeper and more concrete processes. The meter of whether something functions on a concrete level of social explanation––that is, whether it can provide the required explanatory depth to demystify the object of its thought––can be located in its solution to the problem it expounds. For if we correctly and concisely grasp the problem facing us then we should be able to provide an equally concise and testable theory for overcoming this problem. But Agamben’s solution, as with the solutions (if and when they are articulated) by those who accept his analysis of sovereignty, is inchoate: “the irrevocable exodus from any sovereignty.” (Agamben, 2000: 7) Does this mean also the exodus from State power, nation power, and thus any attempts to build counter states of affairs or anti-colonial nations? Is this simply a politics of personal refusal? These are not meaningless questions because it has become increasingly clear that those who follow this conception of sovereignty tend to fall back into a bland politics of refusal where, conflating State and nation with the conception of sovereignty (since sovereignty is treated as the generative category of all notions of political power), a vague exodus from State and nation is usually proposed. But how is this accomplished and what productive politics, outside of an intellectual exercise of vague exodus, does this imply? Could it be that the decision of what forms of life must live and what forms must die is not always antagonistic to life in general––that in non-reactionary moments of social transformation those ways of living that are predatory must be killed so as to avoid sacrificing non-predatory ways of being? And if we are to ask this question then should we not ask the successive question: is this conceptualization of “form of life” not itself a secondary problem generated by the cosmetic problematic of sovereign power?
We can only begin to answer these questions when we recognize how the problematic of sovereignty is inherited from the emergence of bourgeois hegemony and thus an artifact of the worst aspects of Enlightenment modernity.
The Bourgeois/Liberal Basis of Sovereignty
Before the emergence of a political philosophy generated by the bourgeois ascent to class domination, sovereignty was not a problem worthy of being critically thought. That is, until the period of capitalist transition, sovereignty was rarely a problematic. I write “rarely” because there are numerous exceptions, going back to the ancients, where the justification of what would eventually be called sovereign power was challenged but there was also a lack of consistency and clarity. For example, Plato’s Republic appears to treat something resembling the concept of sovereign power as a philosophical problematic but is still thought according to older terms that prefigure the Latin and Old French origin of the name “sovereignty” by centuries. While it is indeed the case that a concept exists outside of whatever names used to inscribe it, that which we rename “sovereignty” in Plato’s work is subjected to a different order of analysis: the problem is not sovereign power but what makes such power just. In his Laws, though, what could be called sovereignty is no longer problematized; it is codified and renaturalized. Xunzi also provides us with a possible problematization of sovereignty since, in his response to the optimism of Mengzi, he tells a story about the basis of political power that prefigures the story told by Hobbes: hierarchies emerge only because people are essentially evil and violent; sovereign power comes into being because it is the panacea for the violence of a natural state where humans would otherwise murder each other into oblivion.
In none of these above cases or other possible exceptions, though, do we encounter the problematic of sovereignty as it is understood in the previous section. The notion of the sovereign and sovereign power, though it can be retrospectively found in every social formation that possessed a ruling class, was conceptualized as a particular problem and in a particular way by the rising European bourgeoisie in the process of displacing traditional sovereign power and replacing it with their own class dominance. It does not emerge as a problematic until after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 when a world of “sovereign states” is called into being. The conceptualization of sovereignty is thus bound up with the European Enlightenment’s entanglement with emergent capitalism and modern settler-colonialism. On the one hand this relationship is what makes the concept compelling for those who seek to critique the Enlightenment; the concept demonstrates the ideology of the predatory impulses of modernity. On the other hand, since it is an ideology the concept of sovereignty tends to obscure material conditions and social relations; it can be mistaken for an underlying cause rather than a symptom. Thus, the first contemporary uses of “sovereignty” as a theoretical framework were incapable of thinking this framework outside of Fortress Europe. Agamben, for example, cannot think the concept of sovereign power except according to events and processes that happened within Europe and the US; the concept is thoroughly confused with colonial-capitalist social relations. Moreover, we should recall what Althusser once noted: when we think according to ideology it will appear as if a specific ideology lacks a history since an ideological perspective is one that imagines itself outside of history. Hence, although the problematic of sovereignty emerged with the rising bourgeois class in Western Europe, those who persist in using it as a theoretical framework are happy to apply it transhistorically, mining Ancient Rome and Greece for examples––which is exactly what the early bourgeoisie did when they first conceptualized sovereignty as a problematic.
Therefore, despite earlier post-Westphalian articulations in the work of Machiavelli and Bodin, it is really with Hobbes, writing at the time and place where capitalism is beginning to emerge, that we discover the clearest moment where sovereignty becomes a problematic. Although Leviathan is a reactionary text designed to justify the traditional power of the sovereign in the face of Republican discontent, it does so according to the emergent logic of the bourgeoisie. Against the belief that the sovereign was destined to be sovereign by God and Nature, Hobbes renders sovereign power contingent: it is not because of supernatural design that there is a sovereign––there is no God ordaining kings to be kings––but because of the violence of a state of nature where individuals are set against every other individual due to the natural right of liberty. Sovereignty is thus not something that just is but is philosophically problematized: it is given an origin and theoretical meaning.
Sovereign power emerges in the context of a violent primordial situation where every individual is naturally set against other individuals. Monarchs are not determined by God to rule; they are those who are the best at seizing power and forcing a social contract so as to prevent the violence of an underlying war of all against all. Being an Enlightenment thinker, though, Hobbes encodes the seizing of power within a discourse of natural reason where individuals “lay downe” their natural right since the stability of legal covenants are rationally preferable to the state of nature. (Hobbes, 1965: 100) Hence “Soveraigne Power [is] constituted over them by their own consent.” (Ibid., 113) In any case, with Hobbes the power of the sovereign is not given by the heavens or pre-ordained by the metaphysical structure of nature. Rather, it results from
the foresight of [individuals’] own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of Warre, which is necessarily consequent (as hath been shewn) to the naturall Passions of men, when there is no visible Power to keep them in awe, and tye them by feare of punishment to the performance of their Covenants. (Ibid., 128)
Hobbes’ Leviathan is thus an exercise in problematizing the concept of sovereign power while reconceptualizing and retaining it as intrinsic to State power. Although he indicates that the sovereign is not ordained by the heavens he does so according to the another mythology: a violent state of nature where unbounded liberty (which itself is an ideological projection of an early conception of the bourgeois individual subject) was rampant and, because of this violent rampancy, a social contract was forced by the strongest and most cunning individuals. Nowhere is the material basis of sovereignty exposed because a historical myth is used to render sovereignty a matter of an ur-historical moment––a mythological necessity––consented to because of laws of Reason––which is to say a false necessity. Sovereign power, though no longer sutured to the Great Chain of Being, is still a fact because it is the natural result of an original situation of existence.
The sovereign of the Leviathan is indeed the figure who can decide what form of life can live and what form of life can die. Agamben even references Hobbes in one of his many formulations of sovereignty: “Thus in the Hobbesian foundation of sovereignty, life in the state of nature is defined only by its being unconditionally exposed to a death threat (the limitless right of everybody over everything) and political life––that is, the life that unfolds under the protection of the Leviathan––is nothing but this very same life always exposed to a threat that now rests exclusively in the hands of the sovereign.” (Agamben, 2000: 4) In the Hobbesian state of nature every individual is naturally sovereign over themselves but, because such a situation is untenable, gives up this sovereignty in a social contract that initiates sovereign power in a political community. Hence, the sovereign of the polis, far from being legislated by a law of heaven, is inaugurated as a reversal of the state of nature: that which governs life because it has superseded the exposure of death in the pre-political mythic dimension.
Although Hobbes’ political philosophy was intended to justify feudal sovereignty to do so he also undercut the ideological basis of that conception of sovereign power: the only thing that destined some men to be kings was the exercise of power itself, and the recognition of this power according to a mythic social contract, but not the diktat of heaven. It is thus not surprising that Hobbes’ mythology regarding the basis of sovereign power is preserved in liberalism, the central philosophical ideology of the bourgeois order which was emerging during his time. Early liberal philosophers were obsessed with justifying the bourgeois right to replace the decaying feudal order just as monarchists were devoted to justifying the right of the traditional sovereign. Since the latter based their right to power on appeals to a specific understanding of natural sovereignty (i.e. God destined some to be kings and others to be peasants), the former used the mythology of Hobbes to justify the destiny of the class driving the ascent of capitalism. Ruling classes always seek to justify their right to rule according to what is “natural” because to think the basis of their rule according to the contradiction of class struggle would be to admit that there is something irreconcilable lurking beneath the social formations they seek to justify. Liberal philosophers would mystify the emergent bourgeois class consciousness by appealing to naturalized conceptions of the sovereign individual established by Hobbes, though in a manner that Hobbes would find terrifying. After all, if every individual is naturally a sovereign subject, as Hobbes claims, then why would it be eternally necessary to accept a political order founded on the general suppression of this natural right? Hence, although bourgeois ideology profaned the sacred doctrine of sovereignty––thus indicating that social class was made rather than found (as a caste or estate)––it did so according to a reinscription of sovereignty: every individual is a natural master, feudal sovereignty was a misunderstanding of the natural sovereignty of competing individuals, sovereign power in the political community is located in a system of rational laws generated by the sovereign individual subject, i.e. the bourgeois subject.
We are glossing over a lot, here, moving quickly through the ideological contortions that were generated by the rise of capitalism that justified and furthered this generation. From Locke’s instantiation of the sovereign subject according to property to Mill’s harm principle where sovereign power is found in the balance between sovereign individuals there is a lot to cover.4
Nevertheless we can locate a clear conception of liberal sovereign power, found in a situation where competing sovereign individuals are bound together according to a sovereign legal apparatus, in the work of Bentham and Austin. Indeed, in Austin’s The Province of Jurisprudence Determined (which was influenced by Bentham) we can witness the ways in which the notion of sovereign power has been imported into bourgeois right: i) laws are the commands of the sovereign; ii) sovereign power is based and enforced by sanctions (the control over life and death); iii) sovereignty is recognized by the will of the majority. (Austin, 1832: 138-139) If society is comprised of sovereign individuals, and these individuals do not give their power over to traditional sovereign power, then sovereignty is instead located in another agreement: the republican legal system. The “uncommanded commander” is the power recognized (possibly through suffrage) by otherwise sovereign individuals.
Hence the concept of sovereignty is in fact the bedrock of the bourgeois notion of the State as a social contract between otherwise free individuals. That is, the State arises either as the agreement between sovereign individuals to give over this sovereignty to a traditional sovereign power, or as an agreement found in some form of republican or democratic legal system. (The clearest classical expression of the latter, which defines much of contemporary liberal discourse, is Mill’s “harm principle” where the State’s political sovereignty is located in the direct conciliation of the competing rights of sovereign individuals.) In both cases a theory of the State is based on the notion of sovereign power as an originary political-juridical apparatus. By treating the emergence of the State as an agreement of sovereignty (a social contract) the actual historical and material conditions by which a State emerges and persists are obscured.
In order to concretely understand State power, then, we need to think beyond the ideology of sovereignty. Although it could be argued that the contemporary radical theorization of sovereignty is merely an excavation of the ideology described above, such an argument is mainly rhetorical. Clearly this contemporary conceptualization of sovereign power does not agree with Hobbes or the classical liberals, nor does it aim to justify and promulgate forms of modern social contract theory; it is hostile to all forms of sovereignty. The problem, however, is that by failing to engage with the historical and material basis of the modern problematic of sovereignty it can never say what sovereignty is , how it came about, upon which social relations it is reliant, and what the social/political power of a State means beyond an appeal to sovereignty and bio/necropolitics. Indeed, contemporary theorists of sovereignty accept the classical conflation of sovereignty and the state, often switching back and forth between both terms as if they are synonyms. For example, in Stolen Life Moten writes:
What remains necessary are the ongoing imperatives of exodus from the genocidal construct of human sovereignty that ceaselessly consumes what it is meant to protect. Those imperatives are the antinational, international, ante political refuge of the refugee. They constitute the resistance to every state, the disavowal of every homeland, the destruction of every wall, the obliteration of every checkpoint. (Moten, 2018B: 226)
And yet a number of very different phenomena are conflated by Moten in the formula of “human sovereignty”. Can sovereignty truly account, as a unifying principle, for every state and nation? The liberal conception of sovereignty claims to be such unifying principle––as attested by Hobbes, Bentham, Austin, Mill, and so many others––and indeed justified such unity according to the genocidal impulses of colonialism and capitalism. Simply conceiving of this notion as pejorative, however, is not entirely useful. Capitalist and colonial states “ceaselessly consume what [they are] meant to protect,” but what about revolutionary states built through anti-capitalist and anti-colonial revolution? What about Indigenous sovereignty? White supremacist nations and homelands must be rejected but should we also reject the nationalisms and homelands theorized by the colonized as part of their struggles, articulated according to internationalist principles, as has been the case of many of the great moments of decolonization? Must these be disavowed? Interestingly enough, in The Universal Machine Moten expresses some doubt over the theory of sovereignty. After noting Agamben’s connection with Schmitt he asks: “[b]ut how do we analyze the originary power of a figure [of sovereignty] that depends on the originary violation of the normativity that guarantees that power? If sovereign power is not subject to analysis, perhaps its vicissitudes open a pathway onto something that remains… both incalculable and impossible.” (Moten, 2018A: 40-41) Moten’s question, however, is premised on the fact that, as he himself notes, “what initiates everything, for Schmitt and Agamben… is the originary power of the sovereign.” (Ibid., 40)5
Once we recognize that the problematic of sovereignty does not “initiate everything”, and that it is an ideology that emerges through the rising power of the bourgeoisie, it becomes calculable and possible to chart.
The problem is that the contemporary problematic of sovereignty treats sovereignty as originary, as something that “initiates everything”, when in fact it emerged as a philosophical problematic at a particular historical juncture that, as an ideology, obscures social relations. Such obfuscation is maintained by contemporary iterations of sovereignty theory, none of which can explain the ways in which state power is deployed aside from referring to this ideological form that, being originary, “is not subject to analysis.” Hence, can we even exit from sovereignty, as Agamben demands, if we cannot understand its social and historical basis?
In a well-known passage in Anti-Duhring, quoted by Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, Engels writes:
But let us look a little more closely at this omnipotent “force” of Herr Dühring’s. Crusoe enslaved Friday “sword in hand”. Where did he get the sword? Even on the imaginary islands of the Robinson Crusoe epic, swords have not, up to now, been known to grow on trees, and Herr Dühring provides no answer to this question. If Crusoe could procure a sword for himself, we are equally entitled to assume that one fine morning Friday might appear with a loaded revolver in his hand, and then the whole “force” relationship is inverted. Friday commands, and it is Crusoe who has to drudge. […] So, then, the revolver triumphs over the sword; and this will probably make even the most childish axiomatician comprehend that force is no mere act of the will, but requires the existence of very real preliminary conditions before it can come into operation, namely, instruments, the more perfect of which gets the better of the less perfect; moreover, that these instruments have to be produced, which implies that the producer of more perfect instruments of force… gets the better of the producer of the less perfect instruments, and that, in a word, the triumph of force is based on the production of arms, and this in turn on production in general… on the material means which force has at its disposal. (Engels, 1987: 153-154)
Some background here: Eugen Dühring claimed that force or power (gewalt in the German) was the basis of class oppression and used the story of Robinson Crusoe––which, Engels noted, “properly belongs to the nursery and not to the field of science” (Ibid., 154)––to illustrate this claim. Crusoe makes Friday work for him, according to this fairy tale that is used as a substitute for scientific analysis, because he possesses the power of his sword. Engels’ rejoinder is quite clear: if we are to participate in this imaginary of power as a basis for political economy then we might as well imagine Friday shows up with a gun. In reality, however, neither swords nor guns grow from trees but both are instruments that imply material conditions of production. That is, power is never unmediated––it does not just drop down from the sky like the sword owned by Robinson Crusoe––but is in fact economic and political. There is a production process that manufactures instruments of violent political control; there are political conditions that allow the monopoly of this power. There is no such thing, therefore, as force or power that does not imply economic and political mediation.
So what does this have to do with the contemporary deployment of the concept of sovereignty? Simply this: sovereignty functions precisely as Dühring’s explanation of gewalt functioned for his pitiable attempt to create an alternative to revolutionary theory in the 19th Century. Sovereignty is conceived as an immanent force that, in its deployment of biopolitics (or even necropolitics), concerns the notion of power that is not thought according to “the material means which [it] has at its disposal.” The contemporary discourse of sovereignty imagines itself, like Crusoe’s sword, as originary rather than the result of economic and political processes. Moreover, the Foucauldian notion of power that these contemporary sovereignty discourses mobilize––bio/necropolitics as an immanent condition of sovereign power––echo Dühring’s notion of power. That is, Dühring’s conception of power is the liberal imaginary of sovereignty transposed into a pseudo-socialist register. As such, it prefigures contemporary theories of sovereign power. Hence, Engels’ response to Dühring applies also to these contemporary theories.
If the contemporary iteration of sovereign power conceals the economic and political conditions of social power it does so by presenting an obscure definition of the latter that, because of its obscurity, occults the former. In other words, the concept of sovereignty is a confused theory of political power that is also detached from a theory of economic power. As we have discussed, liberal theories of sovereignty are not based on an understanding of how one social class possesses more power than another due to the structure of a given mode of production. Instead these theories treat the sovereign power of a State as the agreement between the competing interests of sovereign individuals. Sovereignty is thus interpreted as that which pre-exists the state and, like in a camera obscura, what is a consequence is treated as a cause. Such is Dühring’s conception of power which, as should be obvious, was lifted from liberal conceptions of social power. In its occulting of the economic structure of a mode of production that determines what social classes hold power––as well as what members of these classes might become, in different social formations, the figure of the sovereign––it thus cannot explain the meaning of political power. Again: the notion of sovereignty is conflated with the concept of the State, which in turn homogenizes both economic and political power as part of an identical problematic. Such a homogenization was already present in Hobbes where the state of political power emerges naturally from the state of nature: the problematic of sovereignty is a mystified equivocation of the term state. Hence, in order to demystify what contemporary theories of sovereignty occult and equivocate we need to again engage with a materialist conception of political power, a theory of the State that finds its clearest expression in the work of Lenin.
The Instrumentalist Theory of the State
Lenin’s theory of the State has fallen into some disrepute in Political Science, classified as too “instrumentalist” to account for everything that makes up a State and its day-to-day functioning. (Similar charges have been made about Marx’s theorization of capitalism and its economic processes, however, and it has withstood and superseded these charges whenever they have been made.) My point here is not to engage with the criticisms of Lenin’s concept of the State so as to demonstrate how it is logically superior. As with Marx’s work on the meaning of capitalism, Lenin’s theory can withstand and supersede these charges because it has proven itself capable of accounting for the phenomena it is meant to account for, and has done so by providing more explanatory depth than competing theories. Although it is indeed the case that aspects of this theory require further elaboration and updating, such theoretical development already exists in the work of theorists and philosophers who have worked within the Leninist tradition of State theory––Gramsci’s conception of hegemony is one such example––and I will be taking these developments into account in this section.
Moreover, the claim that Lenin’s reduction of the State to an instrument of class repression is too simplistic and thus inadequate to account for its object of analysis is a claim that is philosophically weak. Such a claim misses the point. Just as Marx’s theory of capitalism was intended to logically reduce a complex mode of production to its essential functions in the interest of thinking an abstract model, Lenin’s theory of the State is also not intended to account for all super-added complexities discovered in each particular instantiation of the State machine.6
Lenin’s analysis is quite simple: what is the State’s core logic, why does it exist in the first place, why is its emergence historically necessitated. It is true that Lenin does not provide full descriptions of the juridical aspects of various States, the meaning of civil society, and the constellation of institutions through which class ideology is deployed demonstrates a failure to grasp the meaning of Lenin’s theorization. But a rigorous anthropological account of the State form as it has existed throughout history was not what Lenin was doing; he was attempting to think the abstract scientific model of the State. All abstractions, though gleaned from the complexity of a vast array of data, are necessarily reductions so that something universally applicable can be related to the multiplicity of particularity. Despite the fact that defending Lenin’s theory of the State against its discontents is beyond the gamut of this essay, I will demonstrate that, like all scientific concepts, it can better account for its object of analysis than contemporary theories of sovereignty.
As noted in the previous section all discussion of social power––that is, articulations of what allows some people and institutions to exploit/oppress and designates others as the object of this exploitation/oppression––are in fact discussions of two general categories: economic power and political power. The first category concerns the broad division of economic classes under a given mode of production: the way things are produced in a particular social/historical formation, and the way such a social formation reproduces itself as this social formation, implies a social division where the majority of people labour so that a minority can benefit from this labour. Under pre-capitalist modes of production, such as feudalism, this social division is justified according to estate or caste; under capitalist modes of production this social division is revealed as social class where the relationship of wage labour to capital breaks from the social division between peasants/workers and a divinely ordained aristocracy without, for all that, breaking from the antagonistic contradiction between the dominated and the dominators. Furthermore, the development of instruments or technics designed to promulgate social power (i.e. swords, guns, tanks, etc.) concern this economic category: the oppressed and exploited masses make the instruments that are used by their oppressors and exploiters to keep them in line. The technologies of warfare, along with the technologies that aid this warfare, do not grow from trees or fall from the heavens.
The problem with a purely economic account of social power, however, is that it is not enough to ensure the reproduction of a mode of production. Why would the majority of people in a mode of production accept oppression, work to ensure their domination by a minority, and not use the instruments they produce against their oppressors? A constellation of institutions designed to ensure the domination of the majority are thus called into being and mobilized by the minority in power the moment there is a social division where the majority toil at the expense of the latter. Indeed, the very fact that one class can possess social power and another can be dominated requires a consolidated machine of political power, i.e. the state. “The state is the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms,” writes Lenin: “The state arises when, where and to the extent that class antagonisms cannot be objectively reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” (Lenin, 1987: 273) Economic and political power are thus intertwined and the latter is always necessitated by the former when there is class antagonism.
We need to be careful, though, so as to avoid falling into the mythic imaginary of a Hobbesian state of nature that treats sovereign power as originary. The social division that marks the economic meaning of social power, and thus necessitates political power, does not imply a primordial sovereignty. People are not destined to divide into economic classes where one of these classes must be sovereign, thus requiring the sanctification of political power in the sovereign state. Rather class division emerges according to a real history of successive complexity and thus social classifications of differentiation also emerge in relation to actual historical phenomena. The agrarian revolution, for example, necessitated a division of labour required to sustain this social transformation over a long period of time. Although history could have developed in other directions the only thing that matters is how it actually developed: aside from some very important and notable exceptions, these moments of agrarian revolution tended to produce significant class differentiation. In these cases we do not encounter an example of the Hobbesian state of nature, nor its distorted reflection in contemporary sovereignty discourse of originary power, but merely a social division based on social circumstance that will lead to class differentiation. And once this differentiation becomes clear political power is necessitated: early forms of the state begin to appear as well.
The conception of sovereignty that appears in the work of Hobbes and is concretized in liberal theory, however, functions to obscure the fact of irreconcilable class interests. According to this conception society is a collection of individuals who give up their natural sovereignty in order to reach the compromise of social peace. Sovereign power in the form of a State (with the figure of the sovereign or sovereigns or sovereign theories of law) reconciles the chaos of individual wills. Hence, the state is an organ where “order means the [rational] conciliation of classes,” though social class is often obscured by appeals to individual will and natural liberty, when in fact “the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another” which creates “order” when it “legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the collision between classes.” (Ibid., 274) The concept of sovereign power thus functions, in its explicitly bourgeois expression, as an ideology to conceal the material function and meaning of the State. Just as there is no Great Chain of Being that grants the sovereign the divine destiny to rule, there is no state of nature comprised of sovereign individuals that rationally necessitates a social contract so as to found sovereignty as the originary ground of political power.
Moreover, those radical contemporary expressions of the theory of sovereign power are ultimately articulations of what was always an ideology that, in the last instance, can be traced to the origin of the State at that moment when class interests become acutely irreconcilable. While it may be the case that class rule generates particular ideologies regarding how different forms of life should be constructed and treated––or ideologies about the right of those in power to decide who gets to live and who gets to die––these are generated by concrete material processes. Sovereignty as an ideology, and whatever can be attached to this ideology, is a symptom of the enclosure of class struggle by the State machine. There is in fact nothing remarkable about Agamben’s paradox of sovereign power (that the sovereign is both “outside and inside the juridical order”) since it is merely an echo of Austin’s unremarkable claim that law is the province of the “uncommanded commander.” Indeed the latter conceptualization was a way to locate the origin of the State’s juridical structure outside of class struggle, a denial that laws emerge organically in the course of the class struggle that continues within the State formation.
If the State emerges when class struggle becomes acute, and a class divided mode of production requires a machine to protect and ensure its reproduction, then juridical categories organically emerge as well––not as commands of an uncommanded sovereign power, not because of the paradox of some ur-sovereignty, but in the messy and haphazard way ruling classes that possess an internal heterogeneity must interact and relate to those classes forced into reconciliation. These laws or “commands” have less to do with the state of exception and more to do with the vicissitudes of a given mode of production’s maintenance. While it is indeed the case that the State’s legal apparatus arises because of class repression, and is perpetuated by “special bodies of armed men which have prisons, etc. at their disposal,” (Ibid., 275) it is not the case that this juridical aspect of the State is purely the result of a conspiracy of sovereign power as Agamben and those inspired by Agamben seem to imagine. That is, if class struggle persists under the State––which can only enforce the order of class rule but must consistently function to keep it in check––then the legal order also develops as an expression of this perpetual civil war.7
Take, for example, the body of contemporary labour laws in the imperialist metropoles that only came into being because of the struggles of the exploited and oppressed masses that forced the historical compromise between labour and capital. While it is indeed the case that these laws were only enacted so as to neutralize the threat of communist revolution––and in a broader economic sense were only possible because of the mechanism of imperialist super-exploitation––they are not the result of some foundational concept of sovereign power but, in point of fact, generated by class struggle within various bourgeois states of affairs. Let us go back to previous modes of production with their own States where similar legal developments were generated, not by the requirements of sovereignty’s state of exception, but by the undercurrent of class struggle. Since Agamben likes to transpose the notion of sovereign power into the world of Roman imperial power let us do the same. In Ancient Rome we discover an entire succession of plebeian withdrawals from patrician political power that forced various transformations upon the imperial juridical order from 494 to 287 BCE: a series of secessio plebes that resulted, among other things, in the creation of the Tribunate and laws concerning land reform.8
We can of course find similar withdrawals across the non-European ancient world that, as a whole, demonstrate that the State’s encapsulation of a given mode of production develops its laws and practices according to the very class struggle it functions to contain.
Furthermore, while it is indeed the case that the juridical aspect of the State primarily concerns the containment of class struggle, even when it functions according to the diktat of ruling class power it does not do so according to the conspiracy of sovereignty. The ruling class is itself divided according to various ideological perspectives. Hence, as its State develops, laws emerge so as to keep these differentials within the class in line according to this class’s own internal struggles. Laws of proper engagement, laws designed to mediate bourgeois competition, laws to castigate those elements of the bourgeoisie that violate the rules of capitalist competition within the class. Although it is correct to recognize that these laws can be challenged and rewritten at certain historical conjunctures (i.e. when fascist elements are displacing liberal elements), or that they are not as repressive as the laws mediating the existence of the dominated classes, this merely signifies the ways in which the legal order is transformed according to the contradiction between capitalist factions. Nor should we forget that the juridical aspect of the State is not primary to the State’s function.
The State, as Evgeny Pashukanis has rigorously demonstrated in his Leninist theory of law, “as an organization of class domination, and as an organization for waging external wars, neither needs nor admits of any legal interpretation.” (Pashukanis, 2008: 137) Rather, the juridical aspect that the State codifies to grant the veneer of lawfulness to ruling class power evolves first and foremost through the necessity of stabilizing exchange relations which are the first legal relations: “power as a guarantor of market exchange not only employs the language of law, but also functions as law and law alone, that is, it becomes one with the abstract objective norm.” (Ibid.) Pashukanis goes on to critique “juridical theories of the state” that provide only “a purely ideological… distorted reflection of reality.” (Ibid) For Pashukanis “juridical theories” are those represented by Hobbes as well as the liberal tradition of legal positivism; his criticism of them implies a criticism of the contemporary theories of sovereignty which proceed from positing “the state as an independent force distinct from society” (Ibid., 145) (i.e. a state of exception) and are rooted “in the very concept of public authority… of authority an authority which belongs to no one in particular, stands above everyone, and addresses itself to everyone. In using this concept to orient itself, juridical theory inevitably loses touch with actual reality” (Ibid., 146)
For theories of sovereignty, the State is an epiphenomenon of a fundamental juridical-political order wherein sovereignty emanates. According to Carl Schmitt the earth is “the mother of law”: the juridical-political order is called forth by a sovereign power in command of the earth based on earth’s “inner measure”, its territorial divisions, and the delineations and enclosures the sovereign commands to be built upon the earth. (Schmitt, 2006: 42) According to Pashukanis, though, a juridical order only arises after the State emerges to force a detente between opposed class interests and, in its simplest form, to mediate market exchange. The social relations of those who live and work upon the earth eventually become legal relations through the State’s political structuring of class-divided modes of production.
Once we recognize that the juridical aspect of the State is only an aspect, a characteristic, and not foundational to what a State actually is, theories of sovereignty lose their claim to conceptual primacy. Already it should be clear that the ways in which these theories conceptualize legal relations are not sufficient to explain their complexity since, as discussed above, the juridical order as a whole cannot be fully explained according to theories of sovereign power. At best such theories explain particular ideological aspects of the legal system; at worst they capitulate to fascist notions of the mythic earth. The historical materialist theory of the State, though, can account not only for the legal system(s) it contains, but for the entire array of institutional and structural apparatuses that are developed and patched together as different articulations of the State are generated by different modes of production. More primary than its juridical aspect, then, are the various intersecting institutions (both ideological and repressive, to borrow Althusserian terminology) that evolve in the course of the development of ruling class hegemony, and the complex legal institution is one of these apparatuses. Hence, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is much more salient than the notion of sovereignty. Whereas the coercive aspect of the State is necessary to ensure the domination of one class by another, as a particular ruling class becomes normalized as the dominant class institutions develop that make this class’s values and perspectives “common sense” so that everyone within a given State machine will consent to ruling class ideology, including the members of the ruling class themselves. That is, even members of the ruling class––so many of whom do not think according to the ideology of sovereignty––will believe that their values are facts of nature. Although some members and factions of the ruling class might be more cynical and “realist”, and thus think of their political power according to a conception of sovereignty, on the whole the various factions of the ruling class are themselves knit together by the hegemony of common sense if and when a mode of production’s State machine succeeds in making its ruling class hegemonic.
Therefore, when we think through the complexities revealed and accounted for by an instrumentalist theory of the State we do not find an actual case of homogenous sovereign power: what is presented to us by the capitalist State is a series of contradictions within which the notion of sovereignty is merely one ideological expression of the complexities of class rule. The paradox of sovereignty is not foundational; it is symptomatic.
Once we recognize that the State is the grounds of political power, and in fact determines ideologies such as sovereign power, we are also presented with a solution to this problem. The old State is smashed in a revolution and a new State, designed to repress the class responsible for the dictatorship of the bourgeosie is instituted. Through this mechanism new laws, themselves defined by proletarian power, are enacted in the hope that the State will eventually wither away. (Lenin, 1987: 280-285) Whereas contemporary theories of sovereign power are premised on a vague “exodus” from sovereign power the Leninist conception of political power grasps that such an exodus requires that we understand the material meaning of State power. Rather than a simplistic politics of refusal we are confronted with a politics of understanding the material meaning of political power and, in this understanding, what is required to pursue a politics beyond the current state of affairs: to smash the current arrangement of political power, to arrange a counter political power, to use this counter political power to push the very exit about which contemporary theorists of sovereignty fantasize.
Now it is indeed the case that anarchists reject Lenin’s analysis of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the withering away of the State. Since I am not interested in engaging with this problematic here, though, I will not waste time defending Lenin’s arguments about the revolutionary use of the State machine. Rather, I will ask whether anarchist interpretations of the problem of political power are answered by contemporary theories of sovereignty. Although it is indeed the case that some libertarian communist conceptions of political power (i.e. Tiqqun, the Invisible Committee, and some others) have utilized Agamben (and Schmitt and Hobbes) to talk about political power, the truth is that by-and-large this conception of political power also fails to meet general non-Leninist but anti-capitalist standards. This analysis of sovereignty and a purported exit remain vague because they cannot fully account for contemporary State power except to flee down the rabbit hole of excessive theoretical idealism. The State is still defined according to liberal conceptions, even if it inverts the morality of these conceptions, and remains undefined beyond the horizon of a vague sovereignty. Moreover, traditional anarchist solutions to the problem of State power (syndicalism, platformism, etc.) can still be sites, according to these theories, where sovereign power operates. And what about anti-colonial struggles for national self-determination, that a number of anarchists also care about? These also are avenues through which sovereignty can operate since the concept functions to collapse the distinctions between State, Nation, Organization, and Economy.
If we must exit from sovereignty then we must first and foremost exit from the theory of sovereignty.
When it comes to the legacy of the Enlightenment, popular contemporary radical theories are decisive in their judgment: the Enlightenment was entirely murderous due to its relationship with colonialism and capitalism; Marxism was part of the Enlightenment sequence, thus Marxism is a murderous Enlightenment discourse. What should be clear by this point, however, is that the theory that seeks to condemn Marxism to the worst excesses of the Enlightenment is in point of fact guilty of absorbing what were the actual worst excesses. That is, the contemporary radical theory that premises itself on a critique of sovereignty in point of fact is guilty of continuing the predatory aspect of the Enlightenment while, simultaneously, condemning Marxism for the same crime. Whereas Marxism rejected the bourgeois aspects of the Enlightenment––thus becoming a “modernity critical of modernity”––by pushing the notion of the scientific break from mystification to its extreme, these post-Marxist theories claimed that Marxism’s promulgation of Enlightenment “science” was criminal while simultaneously pursuing the bourgeois aspect of Enlightenment thought: the ideology of sovereign power. The supposed radical critics of Enlightenment have been absorbed in the Enlightenment’s colonial and capitalist conception of social power. Although they do not valorize sovereignty and seek an exit from its field, by merely inverting the value-relation they preserve the mystification resulting from treating this category as foundational.
Let us be clear: the scientific break demanded by the European Enlightenment contributed to world historical thought; it was revolutionary insofar as it demanded the total demystification of the world and its germinal conceptualization of science motivated this radical impulse. At the same time, and as I discussed in Radiating Disaster Triumphant, this radical impulse was delimited by colonialism and capitalism which locked the impulse to demystify within the colonial-capitalist ideology of mastery and predation. We can only work our way out of this predatory narrative of Enlightenment, though, by embracing its most radically scientific aspect––a “modernity critical of modernity”––initiated by Marx and Engels’ scientific “ruthless criticism of all that exists.”
Theories of sovereign power by themselves do not permit a path out of the impasse of Enlightenment and modernity because, critical of the wrong aspects of that period, they are absorbed by Enlightenment’s ideological constellation. Based on their vague definition of political power––and the conflation of different registers of social power with each other as well as with categories such as State, nation, and the juridical––these theories often generate problems in the ability to think the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and colonial/imperial oppression. In The Transit of Empire, after discussing Agamben’s conception of sovereignty and the state of exception, Jody A. Byrd discusses the lacuna in Agamben’s thought when he attempts to use this theory in relation to the problem of U.S. sovereignty: “Why doesn’t Agamben theorize the state of exception in relation to American Indians in the first place? It is striking, if not unanticipated, that all three of his presidential examples played a significant role in ordering the historical landscape.” (Byrd, 2011: 191) Moreover, the vague solution of an exit from sovereign power effaces the fact that national sovereignty––in a concrete-material sense and not the metaphysical-ideological sense conveyed by these theories of sovereign power––is in fact a radical anti-colonial demand:
One of the key components of national self-determination and sovereignty involves the nation’s ability to define for itself the self and other, the inside and out. These boundaries are absolutely necessary, first and foremost for indigenous peoples because of the genocidal ethnic fraud […] not to mention the exploitation and mining of indigenous intellectual and cultural subjectivities. (Ibid., 144)
There is not enough space in this essay to explore the ways in which the concept of sovereignty can be understood materially in relation to the category of nationor evennation-state. Although we have demonstrated how an instrumentalist theory of the State calls into question the mythology of these contemporary theories of sovereign power, a theory of nation and national self-determination (of the kind that both the history of Marxist and anti-colonial/decolonial theory have explored) would further demonstrate how the notion of sovereignty is not generative but is a secondary concept based on different registers of social power and social structures. Suffice to say, proposing that the solution is an exit from sovereign power would mean also proposing to colonized peoples that they should exit their struggles for national self-determination. After all such struggles, if accomplished and according to this constellation of theories, would only reinscribe the problem of sovereignty––they would generate new states of exception, new forms of life where some are reduced to the categories of bare life, and new mechanics of bio/necropolitics. Settlerist ideology, interestingly enough, makes similar claims due to its proximity to the ideology of colonial-capitalist hegemony: if the nationally oppressed succeed in decolonizing, we are told, then those forms of life associated with settler society will be slated for execution or mass exodus.
The overall point, then, is that the contemporary conception of sovereignty can be used to condemn all types of social power that are built to challenge the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in its various manifestations. It is a politics of disempowerment. Aside from being an idealist rather than materialist analysis of concrete social/historical phenomena, such an approach by itself also obscures all possible solutions for oppressive and exploitative manifestations of social power by occulting them according to the theme of a sovereign power that, at root, is nothing more than the bourgeoisie reifying its own path to class empowerment.
As we claw our way out of the inheritance presented by the European Enlightenment and the shibboleth of modernity that was at the same time a history of mastery and domination, we need to retain the best elements of this history––a modernity critical of modernity, the root conception of science––so as to understand the meaning of social power and its deployment. We must resist all attempts to remystify what has been gleaned from this experience. Rather we should think our resistance according to the most radical movements opposing the predations of this history. We must think the meaning of political power according to a concrete analysis of the concrete situation. Such thought will necessarily begin with an exit from these theories of sovereign power.
Special thanks to Jude Welburn, my friend and colleague, who helped generate this essay through innumerable discussions regarding the intersection of our respective areas of research. The edits and insights he provided to the first draft were invaluable.
1 Philosophically this centering of the subject can be located in the work of Descartes. Most are aware of the centrality of the Cartesian subject in the Meditations where the conventions of skepticism are used to reveal an irreducible subject that, through the cogito, is sovereign over its self-knowledge, and thus knowledge in general. What is forgotten, however, is the more radical Descartes of the Discourse where “the ‘natural’ use of reason” implied by the cogito meant that every individual, regardless of their social position, could self-actualize their sovereignty. (Shaw, 2017: 34.)
2 It is worth noting that even within this theoretical tradition of “sovereign power” Agamben’s singular focus on Nazi genocide has been questioned. Mbembe, Weheliye, and others have criticized him for treating this example as exceptional when colonial genocides and US slave plantations are excluded and rendered unspeakable.
3 I am well aware that, amongst the post-Marxist milieu of thinkers, Gilles Deleuze appears to offer an alternative approach to the theory of sovereign power with his notion of “control societies”. Such a notion seems to provide a different conception of political power by distancing itself from the conception of sovereignty while seeming to account for it. In “Postscript on the Societies of Control” Deleuze provides a periodization of three epochs of political power: sovereignty, disciplinary, and control. This periodization, however, is merely cosmetic since it provides little to no investigation on the material aspects of the economy and the state thus mimicking the same logic that contemporary theories of sovereign power utilize. Hence, there is no reason to treat his notion of control as substantially different from the notion of sovereignty, or discipline for that matter. The fact that numerous theorists who rely on the theory of sovereign power inherited from Foucault and Agamben have been able to easily suture Deleuze’s conception of control to a framework of sovereignty (one such example is Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim) with little difficulty demonstrates that all Deleuze did was provide an extension of the theory of sovereign power that was more about novel technological and institutional developments rather than the kind of historical shift that we would witness, for example, between feudal and capitalist modes of production. “The concept of control society is so elastic and easy to manipulate,” writes Gabriel Rockhill, “that it can purport to connect so many heteroclite phenomena in a more or less coherent ensemble. In doing so, however, it loses its power of discrimination, since the link between all of these disparate elements sometimes seem to depend more on free association than on a rigorous determination.” (Rockhill, 2017: 35-36) If there is a link between the “disparate elements” that are arbitrarily categorized between three equally arbitrary “epochs” it is an underlying conception of power that, lacking concrete analyses of concrete situations, can be whimsically categorized as sovereign, disciplinary, or controlling. This idealist conception of power will be examined in a later section.
4 It is also worth noting, how emergent bourgeois rationality, even when it seeks to break from feudal and mystified conceptions of social power often could not help but think sovereignty according to these categories. Francis Bacon and others thus “invoke the grant of dominion over nature in Genesis” when discussing human sovereignty. (Welburn, 2018: 2)
5 To be clear, despite my problems with Moten’s promulgation of contemporary theories of sovereignty, his theoretical canniness in exposing its limits is one of the many reasons I also have great respect for his theoretical project.
6 Here we must recall how Samir Amin often reminded his readers that no capitalist mode of production perfectly resembles what is described in Capital just as complex phenomena in every science do not identically resemble theoretical models intended to account for a given set of phenomena.
7 There is an interesting connection, here, to Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” The chaos he observed in the English Civil War was merely the ravages of the perpetual civil war between classes that had broken the cantonment of the State. Hobbes thus understood that the State exists to contain civil war; he just misunderstood the meaning of this civil war, the historical processes that had brought it into being, and presumed it was a natural condition. Tiqqun explores this relationship in Introduction to Civil War and makes some interesting points before becoming absorbed by Agamben’s theorization of sovereign power.
8 As an aside it is notable that Agamben and those who follow his conception of sovereign power make much ado about the conception of life in the Roman Republic, and the supposed functioning of sovereignty in this period, but fail to read the history of juridical development from these significant moments of plebeian revolt and withdrawal.
Agamben, Giorgio. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Agamben, Giorgio. (2000) Means Without End: Notes on Politics.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Amin, Samir. (1976) Unequal Development. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Austin, John. (1832) The Province of Jurisprudence Determined. London: John Murray.