The End of Sovereignty, in North Africa, in the World

by | 19 Apr 2011

Spare a thought for Alain Badiou. He must be busy tending to the sensitive instruments of his evento-graph. As with the seismographs of late – all ‘revolutionary event’ detectors have had a busy time. The anticipation must also be difficult to bear. Syria is unraveling. The Road to Damascus might soon yield another Paul, or indeed a Muhammad, and preferably a Leila, as long as she is holding aloft a banner to which the European philosopher can show fidelity.

In this blog and elsewhere the philosophers of Europe are having a fraternal spat. What is to be done, they wonder, in this multipolar world in disarray about how to respond to ‘events’ that might become ‘ours’? They speculate earnestly about whether Arab states are truly sovereign or not (Badiou)? Shall ‘we’ intervene or leave it to those sovereign peoples to sort out (providing there are enough women at their protests, and if our translators approve of their banners) (Badiou and Vattimo)? Or does the beast and the sovereign always roam at once, together – a withering sovereignty amidst a globalised economic, technological, and capitalist empire (as Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Derrida taught many times over).

The more legal and political concern is the ‘sense’ (of law, value, decision, judgment) of an ‘intervention’ seemingly sanctioned by a UN Security Council Resolution (1973). Is this an instance of that other beast – rare, contradictory, hypocritical, the plaything of major powers – called a ‘responsibility to protect’ (‘R2P’ for those in the know)? Anne Orford has written a scholarly and timely book, International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge, 2011) that gives the historical background to the emergence of a global apparatus for exercising an international executive police power. As she has recently explained with reference to contemporary events – the ‘responsibility to protect’ and other international police actions serve the interests of the major powers:

It seems almost banal to point out that since 1945 international intervention has never been carried out against a Western European or North American state. Similarly, the ‘responsibility to protect’ is unlikely ever to be invoked to authorise measures against an ally of the West. Many governments have attacked civilian protesters over recent months, but there has been no international response to the declaration of martial law, the killing of civilians by government forces and the detention of protesters in Bahrain, the home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet; the killing of more than 60 protesters in Syria; the arrest, detention and alleged torture of scores of protesters in Egypt, whose new military cabinet passed a law on 24 March banning strikes and demonstrations”. (LRB Blog, 29th March, 2011)

The gist of what Orford is arguing is that international law has lost its claim to being universal – as if it ever was! But we must not loose sight of the power of the ‘as if’ whilst it is able to circulate (Kant and Derrida would insist on this).

Badiou, Nancy, and Vattimo would probably agree about one thing – the North African insurgencies and uprisings make contact with the question of the efficacy of sovereignty in a globalised world. At the heart of their disagreement is whether it makes any sense now, as if it ever did, to speak of sovereign independent peoples (and their singularity) in a ‘world’ that is already saturated with globalised imperial power. This is a question many postcolonial peoples (if they are permitted that appellation) have faced. Is sovereignty a response to empire – or have they not both been the authors of the worst? One need only recall the relatively recent carnage in Sri Lanka – the killing of thousands of civilians and internment in camps of tens of thousands in the name of defeating terrorism. The French and British were thoroughly wrong-footed there as China bankrolled and equipped a belligerent state to defeat its enemy whatever the cost in human life. National sovereignty and a new imperial hegemon combined to demonstrate once again that militarism and racist nationalism are entirely consistent with democracy.

Is sovereignty a bulwark against empire? The answer to this question might explain – to European philosophers and others – why it makes no sense to speak of a discrete entity called the ‘west’ distinct from the rest; or in laudable terms about a ‘people’ with a proper flag, slogan, and banner as Badiou and Vattimo have naively suggested. This is not to say that empire today is One juridical formation (as Hardt and Negri envisaged in Empire). Empire today is the projection of the desire of a particular techno-capitalist apparatus that is everywhere, and to which sovereignty is not an answer. The philosopher who has explained this most clearly over several decades is Jean-Luc Nancy. Sovereignty is not a problem for a particular people, but of a ‘world’ that cannot be partitioned or immunised from empire. To understand this we must begin with the problem of democracy.

In modern accounts of democracy the individual autonomous being becomes one with a ‘people’/nation, authorises subjection to a sovereign, or holds sovereignty as one-of-the-many. As Jacques Derrida explained, democracy is a force in the form of a sovereign authority (as reason and decisiveness), and representation of the power and ipseity of a people. It is in this sense that Derrida’s trope of the ‘wheel’, at once violence, torture, and return, applies to democracy (Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, 2004). In democracy power is not held by any one person, it is held by ‘everyone and no one’ (as Claude Lefort also elaborated). But this ‘everyone’ cannot be ‘anyone’. Recall the calculations, the ‘who counts?’ in all forms of friendship and democracy. This demand for openness to ‘everyone’ will come to undo democracy (as with democracy’s many auto-immunities which I will not pursue here). The authorisation of the exercise of power in modern democracy must constantly return to its source, its authorisation. While the axiomatic of democracy as circle, sphere, ipseity, autos of autonomy, symmetry, homogeneity, semblance and similarity, and God which is the analogy in the American Declaration, are all ways of expressing the autonomy of the political, Derrida identifies the double bind within this tradition of democracy. Each of these elements are incompatible with, and clash with, the ‘truth of the democratic’, namely the other, heterogeneity, dissymmetry, multiplicity, the anonymous ‘anyone’, the ‘each one’ (Rogues, 14). Sovereignty as the ipseity at the heart of democracy represents a stilling of an infinite order of time (even as patricide, regicide (Rogues, 17)). But this ipso-centric order, this autonomy of the political as democracy or other formation of community, undoes itself. The double bind of ipseity is the clash of the ‘I can’ with the autonomy of ‘everyone’. In other words this is a problem of a singular-plural sovereign being – a problem taken up by J-L Nancy.

Nancy has developed a thought of the ‘empty place’ of sovereignty in relation to the problem of sovereignty as a form of ‘worldwide’ authority (Nancy, The Sense of the World, 1997). There are a plethora of claims that sovereign authority is becoming ‘worldwide’ (Hardt and Negri’s Empire, 2000; and Multitude, 2004, being the key ones). According to these pronouncements sovereignty is now ‘without limit’. Is this the arrival of the ‘empty place’ of sovereignty, where an amorphous sovereignty is now without ‘limit’? Has a new form of sovereignty encompassed the ‘world’?

Nancy confronts the problem of ‘worldwide’ authority by examining the notions of ‘sense’ (value) and ‘world’ (Nancy, 1997, 54-7). The problem of the ‘sense of the world’ matches the problem of the possibility of ‘worldwide’ authority in the following way. The question of authority in its modern ‘theologicopolitical’ manifestation has always been a question of the ‘source’ of value. Modern accounts of authority placed the ‘West’ as the source of ‘civilisation’. The ‘history’ of the ‘West’, its ‘reason’ and ‘humanity’, were the source of the ‘sense’ of the ‘world’. However, this centrality, this finitude of the West, is no longer sustainable. Globalisation is the becoming ‘infinite’ of a ‘finitude’ – that is, the dispersal of sovereignty, identity, community and so on. The source of the ‘sense of the world’ is no longer a transcendent Christian God or western civilisation (Nancy, 1997, 54-5). The ‘spacing of the ‘world’ is thus not measured or arranged by reference to a ‘transcendent’ source of authority. This is what drives the now pressing question of ‘worldwide’ authority. Worldwide authority is a manifestation of “sovereignty without sovereignty” (Nancy, “War, Right, Sovereignty – Techne”, in Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural. 2000, pp. 101-143 at 134, and generally 136-140).

This ‘nonsovereign sovereignty’ is, of course, not a thing or place to be named or identified but a condition that is to be approached through a critique of finitude. That is, ‘nonsovereign sovereignty’ is to be understood through the im-possibility of a monistic conception of sovereignty, the exposure to ‘being in common’, and the absence of an ‘essence’ or discrete unity that purports to occupy a ‘sovereign place’ (Nancy, 2000, 138-9). The approach offered by Nancy for seeking the extreme limit of the ‘end of sovereignty’ is proposed through a question – “the question of a nonsovereign meaning as the very sense of the humanity of humans and the globalness of the world” (ibid, 138, original emphasis). The “relation of nonsovereign meaning” is to be ‘invented’, it is to come (ibid). Drawing on Bataille’s vision that ‘sovereignty is NOTHING’, Nancy offers the following attributes that an end to the archaism of sovereignty must involve: there should be nothing to “attain”, no “accomplishment”, “achievement”, or “finishing” (ibid, 139). In contrast, sovereignty as an ‘event’ involves these characteristics of ‘attainment’, ‘accomplishment’, or ‘achievement’ of a ‘new order’, ‘society’ and so on. This is what the pundits and commentators of the North African rebellions are looking for. While finitude, the ‘presence’ of sovereignty, is a spacing that is always already a ‘sharing’ – one that Nancy treats as a condition of the “global world” – what is central to an account of ‘nonsovereign sovereignty’ is that the meaning of sovereignty should no longer occur “in a totalization and presentation (of a finite and accomplished infinite)” (ibid). What kind of world might present or be presented by such a sovereignty?

The term ‘world’ indicates a “gathering or being-together that arises from an art – a techne” (Nancy, 1997, 41). ‘Techne’ indicates that the ‘world’ is always a ‘creation’ (ibid). The world has no principle, end, or material other than itself (ibid). Nancy is explicit that as ‘techne’, ecotechnics is yet to be liberated from technology, economy and sovereignty (Nancy, 2000, 140). What would this liberation entail? It would, in brief, entail “sovereignty as nothing” (ibid, 141). ‘Sovereignty as nothing’ involves jettisoning modern symbolizations of sovereignty in “people” – the demand, for instance, of a “sovereign distinction” for everyone (ibid). The ‘nothing of sovereignty’ would involve law without foundation – thinking and acting without a model. Nancy acknowledges that all of this is not easily conceived:

It is not for us, nor for our thinking, modeled as it is on the sovereign model; it is not for our warlike thinking. But this is certain: there is nothing on the horizon except for an unheard-of, inconceivable task – or war. All thinking that still wants to conceive of an “order”, a “world”, a “communication”, a “peace” is absolutely naïve – when it is not simply hypocritical. … But everyone can clearly see that it is time: the disaster of sovereignty is sufficiently spread out, and sufficiently common, to steal everyone’s innocence. (ibid, 141-2)

To open a thinking of what it would mean for sovereignty to be ‘nothing’ manifests the outer limits of thinking on sovereignty, world, and globalisation. In Nancy’s thought on the ‘sense of the world’ there is clearly a call to think beyond the model of sovereignty – and indeed beyond the authority of law that is modeled on the finitude of such sovereignties.

It is for all of these rather elaborate reasons that Nancy recently pointed out that there is no immunity from the interventions and non-interventions in North Africa. There is no such pure place to inhabit. The world is truly and disastrously a world. Sovereignty cannot replenish it.

Dr Stewart Motha is Senior Lecturer at Kent Law School


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