Wendy Brown Sovereignty

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Sovereignty and The Return of the Repressed Wendy Brown

...sovereignty means thatits sovereign. Youre ayouve been given sovereignty and youre viewed as a sovereign entity. George W. Bush, upon being asked by a journalist about the meaning of tribal sovereignty today August 4, 2004

You have rejected the European constitution by a majority. It is your sovereign decision and I take note of it. Jacques Chirac, speaking of the French referendum on the European Constitution, May 29, 2005

My sovereign, my thrice-loving liege, my wedded husband.... Countess, Shakespeares Edward III, Act II, Scene 2

The project is to generalize partiality for democracy and to infuse agonistic respect between diverse constituencies into the ethos of sovereignty. William Connolly, Pluralism

1. Why Sovereignty Now? Sovereignty is a political theoretical topic that has mostly lain dormant from the late eighteenth century until recently when an extraordinary range of thinkers have taken it up. One way of reading this sudden interest would focus on the owl of Minervas flight hour: The decline of both nation-state sovereignty and individual sovereignty amid economic and moral globalization on the one hand, and unprecedentedly dense social powers together mark the

2 waning of sovereignty identified respectively with Westphalia (the articulation of an international order based on sovereign nation states), the French Revolution (the articulation of popular sovereignty) and Kant (the articulation of the sovereign moral subject). By this account, sovereignty becomes a theoretical preoccupation as it is literally dying. Rogue powers from Empire to Al Qaeda, managed or bought democratic elections from the American presidential election in 2000 to the first post-Hussein Iraqi elections in 2005, not to mention hyperbolic assertions of the freedom of Western subjects, all represent traces of sovereigntys decline rather than embodiments of its robustness. But there are less Hegelian ways of understanding the theoretical concern with sovereignty against the ebbing of its modern form. What political-theoretical anxiety might the current preoccupation with sovereignty indicate? To what extent is much left and liberal theoretical sovereignty talk today a search for a kind of Viagra for the political? That is, how might the theoretical preoccupation with sovereignty, along with the political assertion of it by a motley range of bellicose states, constitute an indirect and potentially even unconscious effort to revive and reassert a theologically contoured fiction about the autonomy of the political as it is overwhelmed by the economic, by the materiality of global capital and by the political rationality of neoliberalism? And, to what extent does this effort to revive the autonomy of the political implied by the fiction of sovereignty paradoxically involve accession to the permanence of capital and the generation of a comforting illusion in the face of that permanence? I will argue that traces of sovereignty are appearing today in two domains of power that are, not coincidentally, the very powers that the political sovereignty of nation states emerged to contain: capital and religiously legitimated violence. In contrast with Hardt and Negris claim that nation-state sovereignty has transformed into global Empire, and Agambens thesis that

3 sovereignty has metamorphosed into a world-wide production and sacrifice of bare life (global civil war), my argument is that sovereignty is migrating from the nation state to the unrelieved domination of capital on the one hand and god-sanctioned political violence on the other. Both are indifferent to and/or tacticalize domestic and international law; both spurn juridical norms; both recuperate the promise of sovereignty: e pluribus unum. I will further suggest that this migration of sovereign political power is shadowed by a set of intellectual practices on the left that, while aimed at resisting these new developments, at times draws on and perpetuates the specifically theological dimension of political sovereignty, in which the political is formulated as capable of subordinating capital to its will, a subordination presumed achieved by the sovereign and autonomous status of the political itself. This theological remainder prevents political thought that is in its grip from reckoning with the nature of sovereigntys practical breakdown and re-located trace effects, and above all from reckoning with capitals historically unprecedented powers of domination.

2. Sovereignty, what? Like democracy, we speak of sovereignty today as if we know what we mean by it when we discuss its achievement, its violation, its assertion, its jurisdiction or even its waning. Yet sovereignty is an unusually amorphous, illusive, and polysemic term of political life. The leader of the free world is not alone in defining it tautologically (sovereignty means...youve been given sovereignty...and youre viewed as a sovereign entity) and its primordial status as the unmoved mover is noted often in contemporary discussions.1 Even among political theorists,

its usage varies significantly: for some it is equated with the rule and jurisdiction of law and for others with legitimate extra-legal action, just as some insist on its inherently absolute and unified

4 nature while others insist that it can be both partial and divisible.2

To a degree, political sovereigntys roving and ambiguous meaning has to do with its peculiar double place in liberal democracy, and the shell game with power that this double place facilitates in liberalism. In liberal democratic practice, that which constitutes sovereignty in the Schmittian sense is precisely that which is not named as sovereign in the Lockean or Rousseauian sense. The premise of democracy is that sovereignty lies with the people, yet liberalism necessarily features what Locke names Prerogative powerthe power of the executive to abrogate or suspend law, or to act without regard for the lawand it is the latter that theorists and commentators have in mind in their objections to oppressive or excessive sovereign power today.3 To the extent that contemporary discussions of sovereignty are centered upon the

states power to act or defend itself rather than the power of the demos to make laws for itself, this is a slip that either outs liberalism as tacitly conferring sovereignty to non-representative state power while denying that it does so, or it suggests the extent to which the Schmittian intellectual revival has overwhelmed contemporary discussions of sovereignty.4 But even apart from the distinctive problematic of popular sovereignty, there is ambiguity in the term and paradox in the phenomenon. Sovereignty is a peculiar border concept5 not only demarking the boundaries of an entity (as in jurisdictional sovereignty) but, through this demarcation, setting terms and organizing the space both inside and outside the entity. As a boundary marker that is also a form of power, sovereignty bears two different faces; these appear in two different dictionary meanings of sovereigntysupremacy and autonomy and two equally discrepant political usages rule and freedom from occupation by another.6 Within the space that is its jurisdiction, sovereignty signifies supremacy of power or authority (a meaning that is also captured by the middle English use of the term for a husband or master, as

5 in my sovereign, my lord.) Yet turned outward, or in the space beyond its jurisdiction, sovereignty conveys autonomy or self-rule, and the capacity for independence in action. Inside, sovereignty expresses power beyond accountability; outside, sovereignty expresses the capacity for autonomous agency, including aggression or defense against other sovereign entities. The two are related, of course, insofar as it is the supremacy within that enables the autonomy without; the autonomy derives from convening and mobilizing by a master power an otherwise diffuse bodywhether a diverse population or the diverse inclinations of an individual subject. The importance of sovereigntys attributes of unity and indivisibility, then (attributes Derrida deconstructs from one direction and Connolly from another), is that they literally enable the autonomy that is its external sign. Sovereignty does not simply unify or repress but is both generated and generative. It promises to convene and mobilize the energies of a body to render it capable of autonomous action.7 There are a number of ambiguities and paradoxes of sovereignty that are subsets of its Janus-faced character: 1)Sovereignty is both a name for absolute power and a name for political freedom. 2)Sovereignty generates order through subordination and freedom through autonomy. 3)Sovereignty has no internal essence but is rather, fully dependent and relational even as it stands for autonomy, self-presence and self-sufficiency.8 4)Sovereignty produces internal hierarchy (sovereignty is always over something) and external anarchy (by definition there can be nothing governing a sovereign entity, so if there is more than one sovereign entity in the universe, there is necessarily anarchy among them). Both hierarchy and anarchy are at odds with democracy if the latter is understood as a modestly egalitarian sharing of power. Yet with rare exceptions, political theorists take sovereignty to be

6 a necessary feature of political life: the very possibility of political action, political order and political protection seem to depend upon it. Perhaps the existence of this paradox is one reason why liberals tend not to examine sovereignty closely even as they assume that it rests with the people, why radicals such as Agamben, Hardt and Negri develop a politics opposed to sovereignty, and why leftish liberals like Connolly seek to pluralize sovereigntys undemocratic core....thus undoing sovereignty itsel