Politics, the Good Society and ‘Westphalian Sovereignty’

Yong June, the creator and editor-in-chief of Indigo, one of the most ambitious, iconoclastic and lively periodicals dedicated to the critical scrutiny of the present-day realities and in particular to the issue of regaining the lost control over human condition, pressed me to sum up my view of the reasons for which such control has been lost in the first place.

His first question, expectedly, was concerned with the model of a “good society” to which such control, were it to be regained or built from scratch, would lead. To which I answered, that whereas there seems to be widespread, world-wide even if not universal consensus that an alternative and hopefully better society is conceivable, and that the present-day society stops well short of the ideal – we are nowhere near the consensus when it comes to describe that ideal: what one would be inclined to call the “good society”. We know what we would wish, and feel imperative, to run from; where to to run is however another matter altogether.

I believe that the debate about the shape of a “good society” lost much of its past zeal and momentum due mostly to the crisis of agency: the big doubt that underlies the dropping of the “good society” model from the public agenda is that there is no agency in sight that can be trusted with the capacity and willingness to make it real. This doubt in turn derives from the ever more visible divorce between power (that is, ability to have things done), and politics (that is, the ability to decide which things need/ought to be done). The two abilities, conjoined for a few centuries in the institutions of the nation-state, inhabit now, in the result of globalization processes, two different spaces (to use Manuel Castells’ terminology, the “space of flows” and the “space of places” respectively).

Much of the power evaporated from the nation-state into the supra-national, global space – while politics remains, as before, local: confined to the boundaries of the state’s territorial sovereignty. What we confront therefore is, on one hand, a free-floating power cut off from political supervision and guidance and on the other fixed and territorially-limited politics that in addition is bound to suffer from a perpetual deficit of power. The first, the powers-that-be, we suspect with good reasons are neither interested nor willing to reform the status quo, whereas the second would not be capable of undertaking, let alone see trough a reform whether it would or wouldn’t be fond of that idea.

None of the inherited/extant political agencies, designed originally to serve a society integrated at the nation-state level, is fit for the role; none is resourceful enough to match the volume and gravity of the task. In so many countries, even the most resourceful among them, citizens are exposed day in, day out to the un-edifying spectacle of governments looking to the “markets” for permission or prohibition of doing what they intend to do – and in particular of what their citizens would dearly wish and demand them to do. It is “the markets” now who have usurped (not without connivance or even explicit or tacit endorsement and sponsorship of the helpless and hapless state governments) the first and the last word in negotiating the line separating the realistic from the unrealistic. And “markets” are a shorthand name for anonymous, faceless forces with no address: forces which no one elected and no one has empowered to call to order and keep away from mischief; no one is able to constrain, control and guide.

The gathering and well founded popular impression, but increasingly the expert opinion as well, is that elected parliaments and the governments which the parliaments are constitutionally obliged to direct, monitor and supervise, are incapable of doing their jobs. No more capable of performing their jobs are the established political parties, notorious as they are to retreat on their poetic electoral promises the moment their leaders enter ministerial offices and find themselves confronted with the prose of overwhelming while untouchable market forces and stock exchanges, well beyond the reach of the entitlements ascribed to and/or tolerated in the organs and agencies of the ostensibly “sovereign” nation-states. Hence the deep and deepening crisis of trust. The era of trust in the acting capacity of the nation-state institutions is giving way to the era of institutional un-self-confidence and popular mistrust in the governments’ ability to act.

The idea of the territorial state’s sovereignty goes back to 1555, when at a meeting called to Augsburg by the warring dynastic rulers desperately seeking an exit or at least a respite from protracted gory and devastating religious wars tearing the Christian Europe apart the formula cuius regio, eius religio (he who rules, determines religion of the ruled) was coined. The ruler’s sovereignty that formula suggested, as elaborated by Machiavelli, Luther, Jean Bodin (in his exceptionally influential De la Republique published 21 years after the Augsburg treaty) or Hobbes, meant a full, unconstrained right of Kings to proclaim and execute the laws binding whoever happen to inhabit the territory under their rule (variously described as ascendancy, supremacy, or dominance). Sovereignty meant supreme – unconstrained by external interference and indivisible – authority within a territory: since its inclusion into the political vocabulary the concept of sovereignty referred to a territorially confined state of affairs and territorially fixed entitlements. As Machiavelli argued, and all the politicians worthy of that name were to reiterate since, the sole obligation of the Prince is to raison d’état – “état” – state, Staat – being admittedly, invariably  territorial entities defined by their borders. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy puts it,

Sovereign authority is exercised within borders, but also, by definition, with respect to others, who may not interfere with the sovereign’s governance

those “others” being, obviously, the authorities also territorially fixed – though located on the other side of the borders. Any attempt to meddle with the order of things established by the sovereign on the territory of his rule is therefore illegal, condemnable, a casus belli; the Augsburg formula may be read as much as the founding act of modern phenomenon of state sovereignty as well as it is read, simultaneously and necessarily, as the textual source of the modern concept of state borders.

It took however almost one hundred years of more bloodletting and devastation, until  1648 and the “Westphalian Sovereignty” agreement negotiated and signed that year in Osnabrück and Münster, for the principle recommended by the Augsburg formula to take hold of European social and political reality: a full sovereignty of every ruler on the territory he ruled and over its residents – that is, the ruler’s entitlement to impose “positive” laws of his choice that may override the choices made individually by his subject, including the choice of God they ought to believe in and must worship. It was this formula that was inadvertently destined to provide, by a simple expedient of substituting “natio” for “religio”, the mental frame or stencil used shortly later to create and operate the (secular) political order of the emergent modern Europe: the pattern of nation-state – that is, of a nation using the state’s sovereignty to set apart “us” from “them” and reserving for itself the monopolistic, inalienable and indivisible right to design the order binding for the country as a whole, and of a state claiming its right to the subjects’ discipline through invoking the commonality of national history, destiny and well-being – those two constitutive elements of the pattern having been presumed and/or postulated to be territorially overlapping.

That historically composed pattern, chosen from many other conceivable, feasible and plausible ordering principles, has been in the course of subsequent centuries “naturalized” – endowed with the status of self-evidence and un-questionability – in most of Europe; as well as gradually yet steadily imposed by Europe-centred world empires on the planet as a whole in and through long series of wars waged against the local, all-too-often stubbornly resistant realities (think for instance of the crudely and bluntly artificial “national borders” of the post-colonial states barely containing tribal feuds, or the gory fate of the post-Yugoslav republics). When after the horrors of the twentieth century thirty-years world war the first attempt in history to establish a plausibly sustainable consensual order of the planet-wide peaceful cohabitation was undertaken, it was on the Westphalian model of sovereignty that the Charter of United Nations, of the assembly of the rulers of sovereign states called to collectively monitor, supervise and tooth-and-nail defend that state of peaceful coexistence, was founded. 2(4) article of that Charter prohibits attacks on “political independence and territorial integrity”, whereas the article 2(7) sharply restricts the eventuality of an intervention from outside into affairs of a sovereign state, however outrageous such affairs could be.

We live still in the “post-Westphalian era”, licking the as yet unhealed (perhaps incurable) wounds, which the cuius regio, eius natio rule has delivered and continues to deliver to social bodies seeking or struggling to protect and retain their integration. The process of emancipation from the shadows cast by “Westphalian sovereignty” is protracted and has been thus far painful and anything but uniform. While many powers (finances, commercial interests, information, drug and weapon trade, criminality and terrorism) have already obtained in practice if not theory the freedom to defy and neglect that phantom, politics (the ability to decide how and what for powers are to be deployed) is still smarting under its constraints. The conspicuous absence of global political agencies capable of catching up with the already global reach and capacity of powers and regain its lost control over them is arguably the main obstacle on the rough and bumpy road towards the “cosmopolitan consciousness” matching the new global interdependence of humanity.

As indicated before, the United Nations, an institution brought into being as a reaction to the war initiated by acts of aggression perpetrated by some sovereign nation-states against other nation-states’ sovereignty and coming closest to the idea of a “global political body”, has the entrenchment and tooth-and-nail defence of the Westphalian principle written into its Charter. The kind of “international” (read: inter-state, inter-governmental, inter-ministerial) politics which the UN is bound to promote and practice and the only one it is permitted and capable of promoting and practising, far from being a step on a road leading towards genuinely global politics would prove to be a major barrier set across such road, were such a road ever to be entered. On a somewhat lower but structurally homomorphic level, look at the fate of euro: the absurdity of a common currency served/sustained by seventeen finance ministers, each bound to represent and defend his/her country’s sovereign rights. The plight of euro, exposed to the vagaries of local (nation-state) politics smarting under pressures coming from two distinct, starkly heterogeneous, uncoordinated and thereby not easily reconcilable authoritative centres (nationally confined electorate and supra-national European institutions, all too often instructed to act, and acting, at cross-purposes), is just one of many manifestations of a double bind: the condition of being clenched as in a vice, immobilized and incapacitated between the ghost of the Westphalian state sovereignty on one side and the realities of the global, or less than global but nonetheless supra-national, dependency on the other. When I write these words, the debate conducted by the 27 member states of the European Union on the ways to save the euro, Greece and perhaps European Union itself has been suspended (with the possibility of grave consequences of reaching a point of no return, and a certainty of yet more collateral damages brought on Europe as a whole by another month of free-for-all presented to the stock-exchange gamblers and currency speculators) until Greek and French parliamentary elections.

To put this in a nutshell: we are still deprived of a global equivalent/homologue of the institutions invented, designed and put into operation by our grandfathers and great-grand fathers at the level of the territorial nation-state in order to secure the marriage of power and politics: such institutions as serve or at least meant and pressed to serve the coalescence and coordination of diffuse interests and opinions, their proper representation and reflection in the practice of executive organs and universally binding code of laws as well as juridical procedures. What is left to us is to wonder whether this challenge can be met and this task performed by the extant political institutions, created after all and groomed to serve a quite different (nation-state) level of human integration and to protect that level from all and any intrusions “from above”. It all started, let’s recall, from the monarchs of Christian Europe fighting to stave off the Popes’ pretences to oversee their dominions.

For a few centuries, that inherited settlement was relatively well attuned to the realities of their time, time of power and politics locked in each other company at the level of budding nation state, time of Nationalökonomie and of Reason identified with raison d’état – but this is no longer the case. Our interdependence is already global, whereas our instruments of collective action and will-expression are as before local and stoutly resisting extension, infringement and/or limitation. The gap between the scope of interdependence and the reach of institutions called to service it is already abysmal, yet day by day widening and deepening. Filling or bridging that gap is in my view the “meta-challenge” of our time – one that ought to be given the top rank among preoccupations of the residents of 21st Century: the challenge that needs to be adequately met so that other, lesser yet derivative and inalienable challenges, can start being earnestly, properly and effectively confronted.