A standard justification for the cuts to public services, the policy of prioritising the repayment of private speculator debts over funding for hospitals and schools, the policy of converting private speculator debt into sovereign debt, is that ‘we’ have lost our sovereignty, or, in a more refined version, ‘we’ have lost our ‘economic sovereignty’, as though the sovereignty of a state also operated in ways independent of the economic sphere.
Let me examine what this means in a little detail. I don’t plan to go into an abstract discussion of different conceptions of sovereignty here. Instead, I want to focus on the effects achieved by this claim, which is made repeatedly by politicians of the ruling parties and the media outlets that seek to form public opinion.
The constitution of Ireland makes the following declaration: ‘The Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions.’
So, among other things, the Irish nation has an inalienable, indefeasible and sovereign right to develop its economic life. Therefore a declaration, from a member of the government, that economic sovereignty has been lost, amounts –if we take it seriously- to saying that the constitution has been suspended.
Now, declaring something to be the case does not always make it true in fact. And if someone happened to press a member of the political class or one of its court stenographers on the matter of precisely which constitutional provision enables people to act as the government of the people of Ireland in light of their own claim that the constitution has been suspended, we can imagine a likely answer. It would be something like, well, we don’t really mean economic sovereignty sensu stricti, it’s just a shorthand to describe the effect of the weight of governmental responsibilities in terms of formal agreements, debt obligations, and so on, in terms of how this constrains us with regard to our economic policy decisions and how these respond to the needs of the citizens.
So, ‘we have lost our economic sovereignty’ in this light isn’t intended as an assertion of constitutional fact but simply a rhetorical device. Then we should ask: why use this particular rhetorical device? Here are some suggestions.
For one, the stentorian character it invokes, its pseudo-constitutionality, its juridical heft, is intended to displace responsibility for the violent effects of the measures contained in the economic adjustment programme onto the European authorities, by citing powerlessness but by still asserting the final legitimacy of the government in collaborating with these authorities in introducing the measures. In other words, we (i.e., you) have no choice but to obey because my statesmanlike aura and a world of complex legalisms say so.
Second, its very pseudo-constitutionality really does involve acting and behaving as if the constitution were suspended. By which I mean the claim of lost sovereignty is a way of invoking, clearing the way for and justifying real emergency measures, not through the introduction of new legislation, but by promoting a passive disregard for democratic rights set forth in the constitution, however limited in scope and application these rights may be. In other words, pay no heed to your documented rights, don’t bother embarking on any sort of pointless exercises in democratic litigation, we’ve got to get ‘our sovereignty’ back!
Third, it is part of a performance intended to shore up consent for the essential legitimacy of national representative democracy at the very moment when such systems are less and less responsive to the needs and wishes of their electorates and more and more responsive to the demands for plunder from the financial sector. In other words, we know this parliamentary democracy shit is important to you: that’s why we’re working hard to give you some. And hence we’re taking water, a basic human need, and transubstantiating it into a tradable commodity: so that democracy in the future might flow free.
Fourth, it is a way of positioning a transnational crisis, afflicting vast swathes of the population in Europe who are victims of economic policies concocted by political and economic elites in the interests of the financial sector, in terms of a purely national crisis, thereby placing the responsibility –read guilt- on the populations of each member state. In the case of Ireland, this ‘loss of sovereignty’ appears as a form of rough market justice, administered because ‘we’ were ‘living beyond our means’ (the same words fill the mouths of political and economic elites of other so-called PIGS states too). Thus the ‘recovery of sovereignty’ means giving the markets what they want, as interpreted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the IMF, the ratings agencies, and so on. The ‘recovery of sovereignty’, then, means embarking on something that approximates a religious undertaking: ‘we’ must lose our lives for the sake of the markets so that ‘we’ might save them. By so doing, the scene is set for the next phase of the European project: an intensification of competition between the populations of member states, bolstered by increasingly nationalistic rhetoric so as to drive out demands for political and social rights and deepen the fragmentation of increasingly pauperised working classes.
Fifth, the struggle for national independence and decolonisation in Ireland historically entailed the conquest of social and political rights, not merely a kind of carve-out from empire that would preserve the interests and dominant position of the ruling class. Second time as farce: the struggle to regain ‘our sovereignty’ means the struggle to regain the carve-out. Nothing more.
The question, then, is whether in this context of the eradication of social and political rights, a different conception of sovereignty can be advanced, a popular sovereignty that grasps the divide-and-conquer strategy of European political and economic elites within member states (in terms of divisions based on citizen status, nationality, race, gender) and across them, whilst avoiding falling into the trap set by the language of the master.