Contrary to popular opinion, sovereignty does not mean power but absolute power – “supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrollable authority,” as the eighteenth-century legal scholar William Blackstone put it. Since Bodin and Hobbes, a certain school of political theorists have argued that truces or agreements were insufficient to keep civil war from erupting within society and that what was needed was a power over society sufficient overwhelming to constrain any and all elements within. Whether the sovereign was the king, the aristocracy, or the general population was secondary; the only thing that mattered was that he be in a position to brook no argument. Since his authority was “irresistible,” his word would be law and no rebel or faction would even think of challenging it.
But Blackstone’s definition raises as many issues as it resolves. The most obvious is that of liberty. “Uncontrollable” means that it is the sovereign’s function to control others rather than being controlled in return. But how is uncontrollable power even remotely compatible with freedom? Doesn’t liberty mean limits on governmental authority, i.e. a point where state power leaves off and individual autonomy begins? Regardless of whose hands it is in, how can total power be anything other than crushing?
Another issue concerns that of extent. Supreme, irresistible, and absolute, yes – but over what? Rather than a society of feudal orders, sovereignty presupposes a territorial state in which the supreme diktat is uniformly applied. But a system of territorial states means that a French sovereign’s territory will abut that of a German or Swiss sovereign, and since each regards his power as irresistible, neither will be in a position to defer to the other. Indeed, the theory of sovereignty requires that they not defer since doing so would mean admitting that one’s own power is less than absolute. If sovereignty eliminates the problem of civil strife within society, it does so at the cost of stepped-up warfare between and among the territorial states. It kicks the problem upstairs, which arguably leads to something even worse.
Finally, there is the issue of supremacy. Blackstone conceived of the problem in legal terms. The sovereign was the supreme legislator, executive, and judge. His will trumped whatever laws a lesser body, such as a municipal council or a provincial parliament, might approve. But why just the law? If the sovereign is truly supreme over society, shouldn’t he be supreme with regard to the social and economic spheres as well? How about nature – shouldn’t he be supreme over that? Does the process have an end-point or what?
The answer is that it does not and should not have an end-point and that all progress depends on it continuing indefinitely. The more complete the monopoly, the better society will be.
If this sounds strange or nonsensical, it is important to keep in mind that the transition from royal to popular sovereignty did not involve just a transition from one locus to another, but a transform that, in a sense, turned the phenomenon inside out. A king claiming absolute authority necessarily deprives his subjects of power. But a people claiming absolute power do not. To the contrary, they mobilize their resources collectively and hence individually as well. They become the sole legislator, executive, and judge, not over others but over themselves.
The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution captures the self-reflexive nature of the process quite nicely:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.
The key words are the first seven and final twelve: “We the people of the United States … do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.” The people act on themselves, taking their own society in hand and restructuring it for their own benefit. While the verbiage in between may seem rather vague and open-ended, phrases like “promote the general welfare” simply establish the goal of making society better, which is to say more peaceful, orderly, productive, secure, and just. Put together, the whole thing adds up to a vow on the part of the people to use their “supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrollable authority” to remake society in their own image. Sovereignty is thus self-serving. It’s sole raison d’être is to strengthen its own. But since this means strengthening democratic society, it is a case of the people using their own power to benefit themselves.
But what about liberty? Requiring the people to promote the general welfare means requiring them to do what the Preamble wants them to do, not what they might wish to do instead. True enough. But since the people are the authors of the preamble, requiring them to abide by the Preamble means committing themselves to a goal that they themselves have set. Someone who goes in a diet is not less free by virtue of having to bypass the refrigerator. To the contrary, he is more free because, by asserting unlimited power over himself, he is taking full control of his own activities. While royal sovereignty might require everyone else to march in lockstep, popular sovereignty requires something quite different. Since the people have resolved to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity, it requires them to collectively determine what those blessings are and how to attain them. In a sense, this means marching in lockstep toward democracy. But since democracy rests on collective mentation, it also requires as much of the population as possible engaging in full-throated debate.
The people command themselves to be democratic. But since the one thing a sovereign cannot do is terminate his own sovereignty, a sovereign people has no need to open the door to racism, fascism, or other anti-democratic points of view. Rather than free speech, popular sovereignty means democratic speech, which is to say speech structured in such a way as to strengthen democracy. Where to draw the line between democratic and anti-democratic speech is up to the people themselves. Where they might draw the sharpest possible distinction in an emergency, under normal circumstances they might decide to relax and loosen up. But in keeping with the principle of self-reflexivity, their sole concern either way is to advance their own interests and thus reinforce their own rule.
As for the issue of extent, popular sovereignty does not eliminate the problem of the sovereign territorial state, but, to the contrary, raises the issue to a whole new level. Territoriality has led not only the growth of international war but of international law as well. But international law is a paradox. Not only does it do nothing to rein in international conflict, but, by regulating it, it arguably serves to legalize it and thus validate and encourage it. By erecting a welter of treaties and international agreements, moreover, it serves to bottle up popular sovereignty within each state. The process has reached a reductio ad absurdum with the European Union, a super-state ostensibly based on neo-medieval theories of “subsidiarity” in which sovereignty gives way to a whole gradation of lesser and greater authorities, everything from national governments in places like Paris and Rome to the notorious bureaucrats of Brussels, the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and so on. It is as if Bodin and Hobbes had never existed. Although the ostensible goal is to promote freedom and prevent war, the result has been to fragment and break up democracy and so clear the way for an untrammeled “liberal” (in the classic 19th-century sense) economic order. While limiting the illimitable has led to political stability for a time, the consequence is now likely to be the opposite as Europeans struggle to cope with a deepening economic collapse.
The solution, therefore, is not more agreements between sovereign states (which henceforth cease to be sovereign), but the internationalization of popular sovereignty and hence its fulfillment. If the creation of a democratic authority that is unconstrained by international boundaries or international law has been the dream of revolutionaries from Anarcharsis Cloots to Karl Marx and beyond, it is not because intellectuals are always letting their imagination get the better of them, but because it remains the only conceivable solution to the problem of international conflict.
This is radical stuff, which is why everything about the EU is designed to prevent it. Meanwhile, it is with the supremacy issue that popular sovereignty is most transformative. Self-reflexivity, the principle that sovereignty exists solely to augment its own power, means that it is programmed for permanent growth and self-development. The early theorists had little idea of what this would mean. Bodin, who wrote his Six Books of the Commonwealth in 1576, assumed that private property was sacrosanct and that the sovereign should nurture religious piety for the sake of morality and the common good. Seventy-odd years later, Hobbes understood that there could be no absolute right to private property, but still held to a rather blinkered of the sovereign state as existing merely “to preserve the people in peace at home and defend them against foreign invasion” (chapter 25). The Jacobins were far more radical: in the name of popular sovereignty, they imposed rationing, set wages and prices, punished profiteers, confiscated émigré property, and abolished feudal tithes and fees. But it was not until the industrial revelation that people really got a glimpse of the forces society was capable of unleashing. In what must have been shock to the German émigrés who commissioned it, the Communist Manifesto thus opened with a paean to the virtues of capitalist creativity, which “has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades.” The purpose of socialism was not to put the industrial genie back in the bottle, but to give it more scope.
The upshot was popular sovereignty raised to the nth degree and, interestingly enough, self-reflexivity raised to the nth degree as well. In his famous blast against religion as the opium of the people, the young Marx also observed: “The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve around himself and therefore around his true sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve round himself.” Rather than subordinating man to nature, Engels wrote in 1876 that the goal was to dominate nature so completely so that the distinction between man and nature would be all but eliminated. The more science advances, he wrote, “the more will men once more not only feel, but also know, themselves to be one with nature.” Man, in a sense, would become the Spinozan deity who has so thoroughly mastered nature’s laws that he virtually runs it the same way an engineer runs a locomotive.
To translate this into the language of sovereignty, it means that human sovereignty will have become so total that the distinction between subject and object will have been lost. Man will act on himself so completely and continuously that he will no longer be conscious even of the process. This is widely dismissed as utopian when in fact it is the alternative belief that humankind will remain paralyzed in the face of a growing list of problems, everything from the economic crisis to global warming, that is utopian.