The origins of state sovereignty

Image: Adir Sodré


Commentary on the just-released book by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval

There is something fascinating about the research work conducted by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval. With diligence and method, they build a work that, book after book, acquires a coherence that attracts attention for its contribution to clarifying the origins of the disorders in our contemporary world, as well as the possible ways to overcome them. Against the grain of dominant editorial productions, which often surf on superficial or ephemeral polemics.

In the course of his previous works and especially in Ordinary (Boitempo), the two researchers also invite us to reflect “on the new democratic forms that aspire to take the place of political representation and the monopoly of the parties”, to oppose the “new forms of private and state appropriation”. And in that essay they often underline that the opposition between the state and the market was fictitious. “Denouncing the commodification of the world often leads to contentment with the defense of national public services and the call for the expansion of state intervention. Even if well-founded, this claim remains on the adversary ground by refusing to call into question an antagonism constituted precisely to make the market the rule and the State the exception”, they write.

And they continue: “Neoliberalism ended the idea that the State could be a resource of society against the disastrous effects of capitalism (…). Public property appears, then, not as a protection of the common, but as a “collective” form of private property reserved for the ruling class, which could dispose of it at will and plunder the population according to its desires and desires. their interests”.

In your new book Dominator — Survey on souveraineté de l'État en Occident (La Découverte, 730 pages), the philosopher and the sociologist follow the same path, focusing their research, this time, no longer mainly on the damage caused by neoliberalism, but on those generated by the principle of state sovereignty. In other words, they contribute one more element to their demonstration, establishing the manifold dangerousness of state sovereignty – a principle that is imposed throughout the West.

This is how the authors point out at the beginning of their book to the current challenges in the world and indicate at what point this principle of State sovereignty works as a “lock” preventing its confrontation. The same applies to the climate issue: “How can we 'save the planet'”, they write, “if each State behaves like the owner of a part of the planet, in which they can do what they want, depending on their profitability imperatives? The truth is simple: the climate urgency demands, today, that the principle of State sovereignty and the interstate logic that is its strict corollary be questioned directly and openly”.

And the two authors expand on the finding: “The same demand, that of overcoming this regime, is also imposed in other domains, whether in defense of public freedoms and individual rights, or in solidarity with populations oppressed by totalitarian states. The realists of international politics are well aware of this principle of sovereignty and know how effective it is in the Security Council of the United Nations, when it comes to not imposing obstacles to the war makers.”

For Dardot and Laval, we will not be able to overcome the disorders in the world without questioning this principle of sovereignty, which enshrines a form of domination. “Sovereignty” they continue “also means the domination properly exercised within a given territory by a state power over society and each of its members. In other words, it is the concept of a specific form of domination, that of the modern state”.

Consequently, the enormous interest of the work of the two researchers is understandable: they go against an idea that has wreaked havoc in France, both on the right and on the left, for almost three decades, according to which the return to the State and its sovereignty would be the best shield to protect the country from the damage caused by neoliberal globalization. For them, the truth is radically different: “sovereignism” is an impasse. Reading them, one understands that this is something even more serious than that: the ideology of “sovereignism” plays a rather harmful role. Explanation: “The defenders of this “sovereignism”, regardless of the political field, like to denounce all the “naive” who remain trapped in post-national perspectives and who would thus play the game of neoliberalism. We think exactly the opposite. It is this sovereignist ideology that prevents the overcoming of the neoliberal moment in world politics. And it is against this sovereignist ideology, whether on the right or on the left, that the present work is devoted entirely”.

The two researchers even point, quite pertinently, to the fact that sovereignism almost always constitutes “nothing more than a false exit from neoliberalism, insofar as it is already hybridized with different forms of identityism and protectionism” , as the examples of Trump and Erdogan attest.

Attack, then, the sovereignty of the State! Thus begins the main investigation of the book, which seeks to establish how this form of domination was historically imposed in the West. Scholarly historical and intellectual research! The two authors insist on the fact that the Church was the juridical-political model around which this principle of State sovereignty was imposed, and to establish this demonstration, they go back to the end of the XNUMXth century, and to the role assumed, at the time, by by Pope Gregory VII.

The defeat of socialist “anti-sovereignism”

Detailing thepapae dictatus” (“what dictates the pope”) revolutionary enunciated by the Pope in 1075, which allowed him to exercise “his government in matters of faith and morals, as well as in civil matters such as marriage and inheritance”, and to establish a “ general jurisdiction over all matters submitted to it”, the two researchers show that, in this, it is an even greater rupture: “In the history of the modern West, it is neither the sacralization of kings in Hellenistic monarchies, nor the deification of the Roman emperors, not even the sovereignty inscribed in the being of the Christian God, but the pontifical sovereignty that served as a direct model for the construction of state sovereignty”, they state.

Having established this long genealogy of State sovereignty, Dardot and Laval seek to logically describe the efforts undertaken by many, during the French Revolution and throughout the XNUMXth century, to break, more or less easily, with this principle of sovereignty, and find a path that favors forms of self-government by citizens, that is, the emergence of a true democracy. Then begins a second investigation, as erudite as the first, with innumerable stops.

A first stop at Saint-Simon and its prospect of an autonomous association of producers. “The socialism derived from Saint-Simonism makes association the principle directly antagonistic to the sovereignty of the State and the capitalist organization of production. 'Association' and 'socialism' even became synonyms in the 1830s. Without us being able to attribute to them the diffusion of the theme of working association (…), the Saint-Simonists disseminated the idea that the future society will be formed by the generalization of the associative and cooperative form in the field of economic production”, they write.

In the search for other forms of development of true democracy, turning their backs on State sovereignty, the two authors make other stops. In the works of Fourier, Proudhon, Louis Blanc or even Bakunin and, of course, Marx...

At the end of this long journey, however, the general conclusion turns out to be pessimistic. “The 'heresy' of the first socialisms believed to challenge statism head-on at the very moment of the consolidation of nation-states in Europe (…). She was defeated. Self-government and internationalism receded in the face of the power of centralized states and the large-scale diffusion of institutional nationalism”, he writes, before adding: “The defeat of socialist 'anti-sovereignism' certainly did not lead to its complete disappearance: it survived on the margins of the labor movement, as an erased and always threatened tradition that reappears on the historical scene in the revolutions of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXst century. But the fact is there: the nationalist state won even in 'communist' Russia, at the cost of what promised to be a radical break with the logic of state sovereignty.”

And, following the two authors, it is understandable that this defeat particularly shook the left, and this has been happening for quite some time. “The socialist movement, as indeed Marx feared in the 1870s,” they explain, “changed the meaning of political and social struggles within nation-states: socialism was progressively conceived as an extension of state sovereignty over the economy. Stuck in the institutional game of parliamentarism, the question that was imposed on the actors of the social conflict ended up being about knowing how to conquer power and how to exercise the sovereignty of the State. Socialism, therefore, did not develop following the line of 'anti-sovereignist' rupture that one saw drawn from Saint-Simon to Marx”.

To the 'sovereignists' of all camps, who often predominate in France intending to abusively combat the excesses of the all-liberal, Dardot and Laval administer a stern correction. “Today's true political demand”, they conclude, “consists, not in restoring the verticality of the State, nor even in maintaining it, but in starting to free ourselves from the fetish of State potificialism to imagine another system of duties of individuals to each other. in relation to others, rejecting the very logic of political representation”.

Dardot and Laval finally arrive at the conclusion of this book, which was also the conclusion of their previous work and which is the plumb line of all their research work: the imperative need to move towards the commons to face the great challenges with which the planet is confronted. But advance how? At the end of the book, this is the only regret that can be expressed, as the authors do not answer the question. They only warn that this book is the first part of a larger project, which will include a second volume, no longer about the genealogy of this history, but about the strategic issues arising from it in terms of “the global left and the cosmopolitics of the common”.

Certainly, we have not finished accompanying Dardot and Laval in the construction of their work, so original…

* Laurent Mauduit, journalist and writer, is the author, among other books, of Prédations. Histoire des privatizations des biens publics (Discovery).

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published on the portal Mediapart


Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Dominator. Survey on souveraineté de l'État en Occident. Paris, La Découverte, 730 pages.


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