In Western states, sovereignty is obviously distributed and thus diluted in any individual instance. We are not a monarchy. Commands are not issued from a single person or even a single seat of power. This is elementary, as James Goulding writes:

Once we fracture sovereignty, the people with a “shard of sovereignty” take decisions that depend very heavily on other minds, many of which also have a bit of sovereignty. This means that each micro-ruler takes decisions quite differently to a sovereign; not only is the scope of his influence or probability of making an impact much smaller, but when he does have an impact his decision algorithm is best explained by a complex chain of causality that weaves through millions of other minds. Unlike Hitler.

So far, so good. In fact, Goulding’s point about micro-sovereign decisions depending on other, micro-sovereign minds is a significant one. It even prompts an analysis of power from the perspective of network theory: how does fractured “sovereignty” circulate? what makes one node more central than the others? how far removed are the nodes involved in any single decision, and can they be clustered in any meaningful way? So on and so forth.

However, Goulding’s next move is, in my opinion, too overstated:

It is unnecessary to specify exactly how this chain of causality works in each case, although that is a central problematic of political science and law. Clearly, “shards of sovereignty” are not at all similar to “sovereignty” and require a completely different kind of analysis.

A completely different kind of analysis? A more nuanced analysis, yes. Shards of sovereignty: each dependent on the motives and actions of other shards: each existing within an as-yet-undefined network of power. Yes, different from the singular seat of power, different from the divinely mandated king whose mind and motives are the fons et origo of all social and political decisions. But different in degree and operation, not in kind.

Looking at political sovereignty from the other end, does it make much of a difference whether we’re talking about shards of it or a monarch? Does it matter to the small business owner, who must pay a minimum wage and provide healthcare to his employees, whether the force of these laws emanated from a single source or from the concerted effort of a hundred nodes distributed throughout a network?

Command and control is diluted across “shards of sovereignty” so no one shard can do all that much without taking the others into consideration, but in the end, decisions are made, and they are binding, and they do control the populace either directly or indirectly.


In attempting to match our words, concepts and analyses to the reality we are trying to comprehend—in all its complexness multiplicity—we should also strive to avoid the postmodern mistake of missing (or, rather, refusing to recognize) the obvious forest for the sake of charting the intricacies of each and every rhytidome.


20 responses

  1. But different in degree and operation, not in kind.

    I’d say that if the “degree and operation” makes the difference between the only real examples of sovereignty, which are ghastly, and polities such as our own, this is a huge difference of kind. Besides, “conservation” ought to mean identity of fractured and whole sovereignty, not vague similarity.

    Of course other people necessarily constrain individual action, as does nature, however the checks and balances work. “Sovereignty” is a claim about the process by which humanity takes decisions, and arguments about sovereignty etc. concern how the process ought to be changed. If the process were different, perhaps the business owner wouldn’t end up having to obey minimum wage laws.

    Also, not all monarchies have been close to absolute, even before they were called “constitutional monarchies”.

    Political analysis in terms of network theory sounds interesting. I think that would be most applicable to the social relationships of high-ranking bureaucrats and other Polygon members; how do they meet, communicate, assign status and so on? This overlaps with the problem that “separation of powers” ought to imply distant network relationships, lest formally distinct institutions become functionally similar. An obvious example is the American revolutionaries’ inaccurate prediction that individuals within the legislative, executive and judicial branches would compete with one another as fierce rivals.

    June 30, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    • “Sovereignty” is a claim about the process by which humanity takes decisions

      Actually, that’s a convincing definition, and it definitely makes the “difference in degree” appear like a “difference in kind.” And you’re right that the difference in process will indeed make a difference in how the populace experiences legislation. Come to think of it, not all employers obey minimum wage laws, and I’m sure that wouldn’t be the case under a different system in which the enforcing of the law were more direct or, err, “sovereign.” But then, the fact of employers not paying a minimum wage may have to do with the sheer impossibility of enforcing laws across the board in a large populace.

      July 2, 2013 at 8:32 pm

  2. jamesd127

    Let us consider my favorite supposedly Divine Right Monarch, Charles the second. Charles the second actually was sovereign, no doubt about it. The bureaucracy reported to him, and if he did not like them, was fired by him. Armies moved when he told them to move. Plus, he was the head of the official religion.

    Yet, strangely, there was far more freedom, including freedom of religion, in England at the time than there is now – try having a religion today that does not accept gay marriage.

    Thus I am not happy with calling what a fireproof bureacracy does, “sovereignty”.

    June 30, 2013 at 11:59 pm

  3. Sovereignty is an attribute of states. A state is sovereign or it is not. The very concept of ‘national sovereignty’ or ‘popular sovereignty’, as in trying to assign the sovereignty of a state to some agent inside it is just bad logic.

    July 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    • What’s your preferred definition of sovereignty? To me, sovereignty is an attribute belonging to the person or entity whose will is exercised, or, more colloquially, the person or entity who gets his way.

      And a “state” is nothing more than a collection of agents and agencies within it. I don’t think it’s “bad logic” to assign sovereignty to these “inside” agents and agencies. “The state” is just a titular term, as is “the Cathedral.” However, I agree with your point lower down that perhaps we should stop arguing semantics and just agree to use the word “power” in all cases.

      July 2, 2013 at 6:20 pm

  4. jamesd127

    Sovereignty is an attribute of states. A state is sovereign or it is not.

    Well, are the various states in the US sphere of influence sovereign? The Cathedral is primarily located in the US. The US decides to have gay pride day and gay parades, an lo, they all have gay pride day and gay parades, with the names of these events being direct transliteration’s from English.

    Obviously, therefore, these states are not sovereign, whereupon we do have to assign the sovereignty of a state, not to the state, but to some agent – or perhaps abandon the concept of sovereignty as a term of the art of the treaty of Westphalia, a treaty which no longer applies.

    July 1, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    • jamesd127

      aagh – apostrophe disease strikes.

      July 1, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    • these states are not sovereign, whereupon we do have to assign the sovereignty of a state, not to the state, but to some agent

      I don’t see how this follows. Obviously USG satellites are subject to the suzerainty of USG, and they aren’t sovereign in any meaningful sense. The US though is sovereign.

      Abandoning the term is not a bad idea, but still. Is one thing to say the a state is sovereign, i.e. there is agreement among their neighbors not to meddle in each others affairs; it is one another thing altogether to apply that model to the internal power agents inside one state. The Cathedral and all other power agents have not made an agreement not to meddle in each others affairs. Nor can such agreement be possible. Sovereignty is an attribute of states. The world you’re looking to define power agents is simply power

      July 2, 2013 at 2:47 am

  5. jamesd127

    The US though is sovereign.

    The Cathedral decided that the whole world would have gay pride days, and most of the world does, with the words “gay pride day” being transliterated into the local language by someone who speaks English as his first language and is none too facile in the target language. Obviously none of the states holding a gay pride day are sovereign.

    July 2, 2013 at 5:15 am

    • spandrell

      That’s not what the word means. A state is not sovereign if a foreign agent has power over him. A state being controlled by internal forces is still sovereign. The Cathedral *is* USG. By your definition, the USSR wasn’t sovereign because it was controlled by the Communist Party.

      July 2, 2013 at 6:59 am

      • jamesd127

        The Cathedral *is* USG

        Is it? Officially the USG is congress and the president. The Cathedral is more Harvard. Although the day to day power is in the hands of permanent unelected bureaucrats, these bureaucrats rely on largely on Harvard to provide the consensus that makes them one. And then there are the NGOs. Obviously the state department owns the NGOs, but to some extent the NGOs own the state department.

        July 2, 2013 at 10:36 am

  6. @JamesD and Spandrell

    I always understood “the Cathedral” to be a titular term for the USG, media, and academia, all three of which can be united under a single term because the powerful actors within each one all abide by the same general leftist ideology. If there were many reactionary actors within each wing, counter-acting the forces of progressivism and welfare democracy, there would be no Cathedral and none of us would be blogging.

    Anyway, this entire discussion is really about figuring out how the Cathedral works. We’re obviously still tripping over semantics in trying to define what kind of power (“sovereignty”?) the Cathedral actually has .

    July 2, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    • jamesd127

      Sovereignty implies both power, and not being subject to power. A king is sovereign not only in that he commands, but in that he is not commanded by emperor or pope.

      Everyone in the Cathedralis subject to power. No one is sovereign. Everyone is under all of the others. In anarcho capitalism everyone is sovereign, or at least all armed respectable affluent people of the correct class are sovereign. In anarcho tyranny, no one is sovereign. We have anarcho tyranny.

      July 2, 2013 at 8:29 pm

  7. jqhart

    James Goulding couldn’t have been more on target than when he recently declared that use of the word “sovereignty” in political theory ought to be tabooed. The above comments are almost entirely incoherent gibberish, primarily due to the cargo-cult use of the term “sovereignty” as, as best as an intelligent person can guess, some vague synonym for political influence.

    How about the folks promiscuously larding their posts with this word get out the thesaurus and find a word that actually describes what you have observed?

    July 2, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    • The thread—like threads on this topic elsewhere—is full of folks trying to get a handle on what they observe and what word(s) might best describe it. The debate is nascent, inchoate, a bit of a wrangle. If you have something valuable to contribute, then contribute. You’ve contributed nothing of value in here or elsewhere, or, at least, nothing that Spandrell or JG hasn’t already contributed, so I wouldn’t go around implicitly questioning other peoples’ intelligence if all you can do is echo previously made comments.

      BTW, it’s precisely because terms like “political influence” seem vague and unhelpful that new terms with more power and suggestiveness are being tested.

      July 2, 2013 at 8:24 pm

  8. Sovereignty doesn’t mean ‘political influence’ and it doesn’t solely apply to states.
    It means ‘final authority.’
    Perhaps it doesn’t exist, but that’s what it means.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:02 am

    • jamesd127

      Yes, Sovereignty is final authority. The sovereign commands and is not commanded. If he has an emperor or pope over him, he is not sovereign.

      But, under anarcho tyranny, everyone is commanded, and those at the top are more terrified of putting a foot wrong and committing some subtle act of political incorrectness than those at the bottom, those at the top more commanded than anyone.

      July 4, 2013 at 9:35 am

      • Where you end up substantially on this question is extremely persuasive to me. The main reason to keep worrying at the problem is to bring everyone worthy of respect to rough consensus on these conclusions. I don’t think we’re there yet.

        July 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm

      • jqhart

        And yet, in actual history, the pope sometimes commanded the emperor, and the emperor sometimes commanded the pope. And those are the two offices in European history that ever came the closest to meeting this definition of “sovereignty”.

        July 13, 2013 at 5:45 pm

      • jamesd127

        Charles the hammer and Charles the Great were the very exemplars of sovereignty, and they gave orders to the pope. The pope did not giver orders to them.

        The word “sovereignty”, however, and its current meaning, is largely a product of the peace of Westphalia, and under the peace of Westphalia, sovereigns paid no mind to the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor.

        July 15, 2013 at 1:43 am

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