Corps de l’article

To Michael Th. Greven and the beginning of his sixties

1 From sovereignty to (global) governance?

Over the past few years, a view has gained hegemony in the political and social sciences as well as in the political public according to which the idea and reality of the sovereign state have entered a crisis, or even the “End of Sovereignty”[1] might be announced. Even though the advocates of this position differ considerably in evaluating and judging the reasons and consequences of this process, and also partly contradict each other, they largely agree on the diagnosis: the constantly growing complexity and importance of political, economic, ecological and socio-cultural problems, institutions and actors on the intra-societal as well as the transnational level have significantly changed the role played by the state as an institution and actor in society and the international system. Thus, a qualitative change in the theory and praxis of the state has taken place, caused by two mutually reinforcing processes. On the one hand, the reach and enforcing power of state actions in intra-societal as well as inter- and transnational affairs has markedly decreased. On the other, a multitude of political, social and economic actors has evolved below and beyond the state level, which not only are beyond the control of the state but whose influence the state is subject to, or at least has to include as independent powers in its calculations. These developments undermine or even destroy the very entitlement by which the modern state is essentially defined and distinguished from all other social organizations: its sovereignty. If, however, the state is characterized by its sovereignty, yet this sovereignty is dissolved by social developments and thus becomes an ‘anachronism’[2], a façade without substantial form, we cannot but acknowledge that the state, as it has been constructed theoretically and historically in the 16th and 17th century, has come to an end.

This structural change is subject to efforts to define it by differentiating within the conventional concept of sovereignty, undertaken by authors trying to draw the theoretical conclusions from the aforementioned diagnoses of the times. According to those authors, sovereignty on the one hand implies the formal and legal dimension, i.e. that the state exclusively holds the right and competence of regulating and settling conflicts within the state. This is mirrored on the outside by the idea of impermeability in the sense of ‘negative’ sovereignty, which guarantees the state (being subject of international law) freedom of action by means of the ban on intervention. On the other hand, so they argue, the concept of sovereignty refers to the materialdimension, or positive sovereignty, meaning the actual capability of effectively realizing the formally legal freedom of action, i.e. possessing “the means which enable states to take advantage of their independence.”[3]

Both dimensions of sovereignty interpreted this way are put into question by the developments of the past decades. If the ability of the state to effectively influence political and socioeconomic processes is reduced to a point where a lack of actual options for action forbids speaking meaningfully of ‘material’ or ‘positive’ sovereignty any longer, then, as a legal term, sovereignty becomes an empty phrase. If in addition the authority to establish norms and make binding decisions is increasingly transferred from state institutions to supranational institutions – such as the European Union – or to other transnational, but also sub-national organizations and arenas for decision making, this implies the immediate “loss of the formally legal sovereignty of the nation state”[4]. In this way, not only the coupling of these two dimensions of sovereignty, but also the dimensions themselves and thus sovereignty as such are being dissolved. Hence, the king is not only naked[5], but does not exist any more at all, as the concept no longer corresponds to any actual or imagined reality. Therefore, the lesson to be learned from these diagnoses of the political, social and economic dynamics of the past and future of the nation state – which cannot be discussed here with regard to their correctness or alleged originality[6] – seems to be the following: the conventional concept of sovereignty needs to be completely redefined, or – what seems even more consistent – to be put aside entirely as it has proven itself functionally inappropriate in view of the novelty of the existing structures of political and socioeconomic regulation.

Thus, the narratives about the greatness and misery of state sovereignty dominant today follow an altogether dualistic scheme which is crucially based on a notion of sovereignty defined first and foremost by the form, degree and effectiveness of its organizational and regulating power. Accordingly, we are at the intersection of two historic ages. Firstly, it is assumed that the end of a model of political rule is foreseeable or has already taken place, which is characterized by the sovereignty of a state’s effectiveness as an autonomous actor. According to this account, the sovereign state, holding the monopoly of establishing and enforcing positive law as well as legitimate use of force, is highly differentiated toward and opposed to society. As such, it takes care of internal and external security and provides the services necessary for the functioning of society. The logic of this model of sovereign statehood is thus one of the “regulatory centrism of state politics”, in so far as it assumes “that through politics proper problem solving and shaping of society, coming from the center, would be possible”[7]. The state proceeds by means of ‘hierarchy’ as the main regulative mechanism, i.e. by collectively deciding on political objectives and purposes, and enforcing those decisions through law and order, and (legitimate) coercion, if necessary. Even though the varying tasks attributed to the state have been stretched ever further over the centuries, the modern ‘interventionist state’, as it became established in the democratic constitutional and welfare state of the 20th century and the according optimism for regulating and planning, is on principle already included in the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty is here understood as the ability “to regulate the development of society as a whole, and to rationalize the history of the world in co-operation with those of its own kind.”[8]

As today it is becoming historically and empirically unmistakable that the possibility of such central regulation of societal processes is a myth and an illusion[9], this conception is secondly opposed to a new model independent of the structure of sovereign statehood. According to this model, the state definitely looses its outstanding position, which it was formerly entitled to by means of its claim to sovereignty. This means that the structural difference between state and society is being eliminated, and of the sovereign state, at best the ‘co-operative’ or ‘negotiating’ state remains. As such, it is no longer able to impose its will ‘from above’ upon societal actors but conceives of itself as but one societal actor among others who no longer holds an exceptional position.[10] This change in the conception of the state in the political and social sciences is expressed in the recent upturn of the shifting concept of “governance”. The important thing is that this is not so much a theoretical concept as it is rather an umbrella term under which the empirical changes in political and legal decision making are summarized. Governing is no longer a function that state institutions are exclusively entitled to, but takes place in varying, more or less institutionalized ways, with the participation of state and non-state actors on sub- and supranational levels: at times still as ‘governance by government’, yet more often just as ‘governance with’ or even ‘without government’.[11]

In many analyses, this transition from the ‘sovereign’ to the ‘co-operative state’ is more than a purely descriptive model: often, it implicitly or explicitly adopts the character of a prescriptive agenda for actual political and social actors and practice.[12] Against the background of an ever more complex society divided into a variety of actors, problems and interests, the melting down of sovereignty into structures of sub-national, regional, functional or global governance is not only necessary but desirable. This is true, on the one hand, in terms of effectiveness as they compensate for the practical impossibility of directly and hierarchically controlling and regulating complex functional systems within society. At the same time the transition to a co-operative or negotiating state has a beneficial effect for the de-potentized sovereign as well. By redefining itself as a provider of specific organizational services within the bounds of the functional logic of societal subsystems, the state preserves its status as an actor and gains new effective power.[13] Even the renouncement of the monopoly of legislation in favor of transnational institutions may be seen as an attempt to regain decision and enforcement power lost on the national level.[14] On the other hand, the leave-taking of sovereignty also appears welcome from a normative point of view. For indeed, if one reads that in the historical dimension sovereignty has cemented “the governmental conception of state and politics” against the workers’ and other emancipatory movements just as much as the “Foreign-‘Power’-Politics in line with the nation state, as has found expression, for instance, in colonialism, the intra-European rivalry conflicts and fascist models of hegemony”,[15] then one cannot but welcome its end. Who would not prefer a political order that respects the internal logic of societal actors and subsystems and brings about the “retreat of the state to the tasks of moderating, organizing, communicating and mediating”, to a sovereign state based on hierarchy, legal command and compulsion?[16] And only malicious persons would not happily welcome the end of the nation state and sovereignty if this would entail that social actions would not longer be based on law fortified by coercion, but would rather rely on voluntary will, individual conviction and consensus.[17]

However the danger of appearing in such unfavorable light should not keep one from critically assessing these current diagnoses of an actual as well as normative decline of the concept of sovereignty. Is this an appropriate conceptualization of the current developments on the societal and on the international level? To what extent are the dimensions historically and systematically linked to the concept of state sovereignty adequately grasped this way? For this reason I refer in what is to come to the foundations of the concept of sovereignty as they have been developped by Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in their systematic and normative peculiarities in the early modern age. This is not meant to be a philologically and systematically comprehensive discussion of the respective theories, their relations to each other, or of the political and societal circumstances and developments. Rather, by discussing the fundamental concepts and definitions an attempt is made to resolve the substantial problems and dimensions associated with the modern notion of sovereignty (2). For this is actually the precondition for then being able to indicate if and how the historic, analytical and normative demands associated with this term can adequately be reflected upon and showed to advantage in the current debates. Since these discourses are vital for the perception and further developing of existing political as well as social institutions and relations, this is in no way an issue of purely academic interest. As a conclusion, I will therefore point to aspects and criteria which to a large extent remain obscured – or are intentionally obscured – in current debates, which, however, one should not carelessly fall back behind (3).

2 Dimensions of sovereignty in Bodin, Hobbes and Rousseau

Sovereignty, understood as the main characteristic of the modern state, has been developed in its most concise and most influential form in the political theories of Bodin, Hobbes and Rousseau. They represent important historical stages in the development of the modern state between the 16th and 18th century and the theoretical as well as normative ways of pondering about and legitimizing it. All differences in details aside, their theories establish definitions of structures and problems as well as responsibilities of the state, politics and the law which at present are far from being outdated. In the following I shall examine to what extent this is true for the problem of sovereignty as well. After a brief reconstruction of the conception of sovereign power developed by the theorists in discussion (which seems to confirm the critical aspects mentioned above) and its relation to society (2.1), I discuss the issue of the analytically and normatively significant ways in which this is a reaction to the structures and capacities of modern society (2. 2). On this basis, it becomes clear that linked to this concept of sovereignty are conditions of individual and collective liberty (2.3) which are in danger of being jettisoned in the current cheerful waving goodbye to the concept of sovereignty.

2. 1 The absolutism of modern sovereignty

By means of the concept of sovereignty, as coined by Bodin and adopted and further developed by Hobbes and Rousseau, a change of paradigm takes place in justifying political authority and the relationship between state and society, which as such only come into existence by virtue of this change. Bodin’s famous definition – “La souveraineté est la puissance absolue & perpetuelle d’une Republique”[18] – is more than simply a technical redefinition of state authority. It stands for its specific modern justification. The modern state differs from medieval forms of governing not only by a quantitative surplus of centralized authoritarian rights, powers and means of effective government. The crucial fact is rather that a whole new structure comes into existence with regard to justificatory grounds and point of reference for any legitimate government. In the medieval order, authoritarian rights and the legal exercise of power are considered as being of specific benefit for a multitude of actors as well as being legitimized by the order of things as derived from God, nature or tradition. It is from this view that the various bearers of rights derived their conviction to independently have them at their disposal and be able to defend them, as particular rights, against each other. Here, rights and liberties are privileges one owns by way of birth, being a member of a particular class or corporation, or on other bases, yet always as opposed to others. Right and liberty do not exist as universal, but only in the plural as particular rights and liberties of particular societal actors and institutions.

The principle of sovereignty breaks up this utterly intertwined jumble of particular rights interlinked with one’s position in social, corporative or ecclesiastical hierarchies. It does not simply gather up these rights, add them up and lay claim on them – even though this might historically and empirically have been the way in which princes obtained support for their claimed right to power –, but puts them on a new basis: the single, universal will of the sovereign. Sovereignty is not a cumulative but a constitutive concept. Any legitimate government, any right and any legal exercise of power in societal relations have as their origin and their validating foundation the will of the sovereign being, the sole bearer of sovereignty.[19] The rules of the community are hereby given a whole new foundation and form; just like iron filings in a magnetic field, the particular is given a new orientation and meaning in a different totality, a structure which is indeed – as established at the beginning – characterized by a clear hierarchy. The “puissance souveraine” of the state is represented by the unified, centralized, universal power which stands opposed to all other actors in the social system and is on principle superordinate to them. In spite of all the differences in the argumentative structure, the peculiarities and the consequences found in the qualification of sovereignty in Bodin, Hobbes and Rousseau, they fully agree in justifying the necessity of this ‘absolute’ position and the central requirements linked to it. There may be not a single equal power, either beside or even above the sovereign power. By having written “Non est potestas super terram quae comparetur ei”[20] above the head of the Leviathan on the cover copperplate of his most famous work, Hobbes only confirmed Bodin’s statement that “celuy est absolument souuerain, qui ne recongnoist rien plus grande que soy apres Dieu”.[21] Sovereign power means absolute and unlimited power – “tout absolu, tout sacré, tout inviolable”, as Rousseau emphasizes[22] –, power of a kind which is defined and identifiable precisely by being able to enforce its will without limitation or legal appeals of a third party.

The distinguishing marks of sovereignty are analytically tied to the existence and conditions of the realization of state government.[23] Here, the fact that “le poinct principal de la maiesté souueraine, & puissance absolue, gist principalement à donner loy aux subiects en general sans leur consentement”[24] plays a central part. The ability and authority to legislate and enforce the law contains, as had already been made precise by Bodin, “tous les autres droits & marques de souueraineté: de sorte qu’à parler proprement on peut dire qu’il n’y a que ceste seule marque de souueraineté, attendu que tous les autres droits sont compris en cestuy là”.[25] For, in the end, sovereignty is nothing else than the ability to enforce the one (sovereign) will, i.e. to indicate and establish what the rules in a society are to be, what is to be in order and what forbidden, what is to be right and wrong. It is this legislating will which makes for the difference between the being and non-being of the state. The difference found in Hobbes between libertas and imperium, between the mutually exclusive conditions of natural freedom and state power, is precisely the fact that by means of the status civilis there is an institution which supersedes the central contradiction of the state of nature – that it is only “by the judgment of him that doth it, the thing done is either right or wrong”[26], so that conflicts on rights are not only empirically likely but logically necessary – by replacing the many, conflicting wishes by the one will. The final decision is up to the ruling of the sovereign.[27] Therefore, Rousseau has called the laws “registres” of the sovereign will.[28] They indicate and list which rules the members of society are subject to and what they have to gear their actions to. From this, one can see the structure of sovereign statehood and its minimum conditions as a political corporation which gets its unity and structure out of being subject to the forming will of the sovereign power. This will provides it with its law, against which there is no other law, since the author of all positive law cannot in turn be bound by the law itself. Above all, however, the sovereign represents the will of the individuals subordinate to him. Hobbes’s theory of authorization, according to which the subordinates – as a result of the social contract – are “reputed author of all, that he that already is their sovereign, shall do, and judge fit to be done”[29], is mirrored in Rousseau by the “aliénation totale de chaque associé avec tous ses droits” in favor of the sovereign will.[30] This means nothing else but that the individuals are faced with the legislating will as their own abstract will, against which resistance is not only factually, but also – in legal terms – logically impossible and thus absurd. According to Bodin, Hobbes and Rousseau, this legal justification and position of the sovereign power is the basis for having at its disposition all means, institutions and proceedings it deems necessary for the organization and regulation of all societal relations, i.e. monopolizing the right to legitimate use of force, defining the executive, juridical and administrative institutions and authorities, deciding about the social, economic and normative fundamental order of society and so forth. For the existence of sovereignty as “puissance absolue” requires having at its disposal the means necessary for implementing and enforcing its will in the way considered necessary and desirable.[31]

These brief remarks seem to confirm what in the current debates is described as the historic strength and today’s weakness of the concept of sovereign statehood: that sovereignty has to be regarded as a power principally opposed and superordinate to society, whose existence depends on its ability to effectively organize and control society as a whole by means of its political-administrative and military system. If, however, the state loses the correspondingly understood “puissance souveraine” as a result of social powers and actors gaining influence on the societal and international level, its right to exist itself is lost. Yet, as I want to show in what is to come, it would be a historically, systematically and normatively at least foreshortened and problematic account of things to accept this grounding and definition of sovereignty in early modern times.

2. 2 The social and normative meaning of the modern concept of sovereignty

Much as has been indicated about central elements and functions in the identifications sketched so far, less has been said in order to achieve an adequate understanding of this structure of political power. For the latter, one needs to reflect upon the historic societal as well as the systematic function of this concept of sovereignty; only by this it becomes clear to which societal constellations, systematic and normative problems and demands these conceptions respond, which are at the same time ‘inscribed’ in them. It is, of course, crucial to adequately register the systematic meaning of this historic societal classification of the mentioned concepts. The early modern theorists make no secret of the fact that their respective determinations of the necessity of a sovereign power have arisen out of the historically concrete problems. Bodin develops his conception in the midst of the religious civil wars, and explicitly recommends it as a remedy for bringing back under control the state ship which is about to shatter.[32] Just as much, for Hobbes, the construction of the ‘Leviathan’ in terms of public law is the only way of putting an end to the civil war going on between the Crown and parliament since 1640.[33] And even though Rousseau, differently than both his predecessors, did not hope that his “principes du droit politique” would ever be realized[34], this does not lessen the poignancy of how he contrasted the ‘corrupt’ political and social conditions of his time with his principles of the single legitimate form of government. Yet situating these constructional forms of sovereign rule within their historic and social context is far more than establishing these temporal references, as their meaning is neither limited to historically factual experience and purposes nor to their relations in the context of contemporary discourse.[35] Rather, their both historical and systematic relevance results from two facts. Firstly, they reflect the systematic social problems, structures and developments, which have been quarreled and fought about in the conflicts of their time in theory and praxis, sometimes literally by words and weapons. Secondly, by doing the former, they gave them a theoretical form which could be used for the analysis, understanding and practical-normative orientation within this newly evolving social order. Hence, it is not only about finding a pragmatic solution for political and socio-cultural conflict in its respective context, but trying, as it were, to inform about its underlying structure, in order to achieve “a true and certain rule of our actions” and to derive great benefit by its scientific knowledge for the construction of the political and social institutions in the future.[36] And only as far as this has been successful, these concepts are of analytical and/or normative importance, by which they are entitled to more than an archivist’s interest for the history of ideas.

The classifications of the evolving modern state as a sovereign power, made in political theory since the end of the 16th century, are based on the new experience of fundamentally conflictive social relations and in need for its regulation. The religious civil wars, the political and social conflicts between princes, feudal, local or corporative actors give expression to the order of the medieval world having lost its cohesive power. The pre-political normative and institutional systems of a world legitimated by feudal rights, tradition and Christian values are no longer able to provide a common system of reference for thought and action, or to meet newly evolving social demands and interests. The institutions as well as ideas of the modern state are the result of a redefinition of the political in a new form of society which may be characterized by pluralization and secularization.[37] It is no accident that the phenomenon of pluralization as a fundamental fact of modern society becomes visible for the first time in form of the denominational religious parties. As the medieval social order was essentially based on Christianity, communicated by the institutions of the one Church claiming universal validity, it is broken open in the course of the Reformation by the growing pluralism of religiously founded parties which each advocate their own absolute, transcendent claims of truth and faith. For associated with them are different ideas about the organization of individual and common life, ideas in which – seen from a sociological perspective – new social interests and powers make themselves heard and claim acceptance.

These developments result in a secularization of the political, which, however, is not necessarily accompanied by a turning away from religion as such – as is shown by the fact that, at least for a long time, religious content and justification of political and social institutions remain of prime importance. To the extent, however, in which the inconsistency of religious claims to truth and the general impossibility of agreeing on truth and liability become sufficiently tangible, the political arises as an independent sphere and activity.[38] Religious values, organizations and practices are gradually driven out of their former central position within the social order and become a part of it. As far as they become a part of the social parties and conflicts of interest, their respective social validity, position and significance have themselves to be decided politically. Yet, these decisions about the foundations and orientation of society thus become transparent in a novel way: they are visible in their contingency for the first time, so to speak. Under these circumstances, the institutions, norms and purposes constituting society necessarily lose the character of being predetermined by tradition and transcendent eternity. They now are something that needs to be decided about – one way or another, and ever anew –, something that needs to be decided about by specific individuals or groups and hence becomes clearly attributable.[39] As a result, these decisions are in an extreme and radically new need of justification.

Historically, the modern state and its sovereign power are established by their advocates, and justified in political discourse by precisely this function of founding social order. From a systemic perspective, political decisions in a society becoming ever more complex are gradually externalized and centralized since early modern times, which are themselves characterized by a growing number of social, religious, cultural, economic and other actors, interests, practices and functional systems. The state acts, as it were, as a service provider for a variety of heterogeneous interests – even though, in effect, for a long time mostly according to its own pretence rather than actual fact it guarantees social peace by means of its power monopoly, generates and secures the conditions for as well as the limits of the individual and collective pursuit of interests by means of a common legal system, and establishes the prerequisites for social progress and prosperity by means of taking the respective measures. Yet, the relation between state and society is not to be mistaken for a purely superficial and one-dimensional one. However little the state is opposed here to society from the outside and above, and however little it exists independently of society and may arbitrarily govern it, no more may the relation between state and society be seen as purely instrumental and functionalistic. Rather, modern state and modern society originate and function by way of a mutually constitutive relationship: the state is the prerequisite and functional condition for the existence of society, yet at the same time also the product of this society which is characterized by plurality and heterogeneity. It is both, a condition and something conditioned. Indeed, this may be observed ever since the developing central powers have been described, conceptualized, and finally organized in terms of the state. The raison d’être of this state also is – in terms of theoretical justification, and thus also practically – always its Other, namely securing and preserving the functioning of society against the disintegrating tendencies and forces it has within.[40] As a system of relations based on market-induced competition, private production and acquisition as well as on growing religious and cultural pluralism and individualism, modern society displays – to speak in the words of Hegel – the principle of “difference” or of “particularity”[41], which may exist “purely and simply by means of the form of universality, the second principle here”, namely by means of the state.[42]

Accordingly, this sovereign power of the state, seeming – and actually being – threatening and absolutist, is necessarily and in an ambiguous manner related to society, and determined by it. On the one hand, it is centralized governing. Society with its plurality of actors and acting structures is imposed by the state with particular rules and demands, which are equally valid and binding for everybody, and are enforced if necessary. To the extent that each of these decisions is a decision for and against particular norms, values, interests and purposes, state government as such is always particular. For in a society characterized by the irreconcilable opposition of interests as well as norms, which is just not vested by default with convictions and institutions establishing and securing unity, any universality is at the same time also inevitably a particularity forced upon it. Yet, the crucial aspect here is the way these structures and contents of state government – being both universal and particular – are being generated. As the political exercise of power is outsourced and centralized in the institutions of state government, it is madevisible. On the one hand, government is made visible – and thus attributable – to the extent that it is no longer valid without challenge, dispersed and existing by linkage to social and personal ties, but is built on and by particular institutions and actors; on the other hand, government is visibly made, for particular decisions are made – either in the arcane sphere of absolutist Cabinet politics[43] or in an open democratic process – and imposed on society as general will. This dual ‘making visible’ of political government in the institutions and proceedings of the modern state are of course accompanied by the necessity of justifying and generalizing them, government and the enforcement of particular decisions necessarily associated with it, derive their legitimacy not from sources transcendent to society, but from the constitutive reference to the fact of social pluralism and the claims and requirements of particular interests resulting from it.

On the other hand, the sovereign power of the state is thus also the sphere of universality, both despite and as being the sphere of exercising the societal government. The gaining of independence as well as the being made absolute of the state are a result and a function of the fact that dominion is no longer set into social relations. The mutual recognition of the plural social actors and structures, their intrinsic values and particular inner logic, require that they must not be negated by the outward effects of domination of the respective other social actors. The constitution of a sphere of legitimate public and legal domination, separate from society and centered in the state, represents a novel form of organizing, generating and legitimating governance – namely by government –, and sovereignty is the precondition of this structure. Only an authority legally independent of all particular social interests is capable of being recognized as providing the general conditions of the constitution, maintenance and realization of social actors, their advancing of interests and the according struggle for social, economic and other means. As a sphere of mediation, the institutions of the modern state serve a twofold purpose for social actors. On the one hand, they serve as the arena and channels by which social actors generate their own conditions of existence and action – by means of a legal and structured social and constitutional order. On the other, they provide a way of influencing the latter in terms of particular interests, as decisions and measures are taken by the legislative and executive powers which respond to the respective needs and wants. It is precisely by its being a sovereign, independent sphere of mediation that it prevents particular social interests and actor groups – religious parties, interests of capital, powerful warlords, etc. – from immediately using their position of power in society for political and legal authority. On the contrary, even if they are in effect the greatest social powers imaginable they remain legally dependent on political decisions representing the general will.[44]

So in the claim to sovereignty, the effectiveness and legitimacy of structures of political government join forces in a particular way. The effectiveness of state sovereignty is not measured on the basis of being capable of actually enforcing any material purposes of internally and externally controlling society, or even of acting completely without limits.[45] Rather, it indicates the existence and functioning of a socially differentiated sphere of institutions and procedures in which the processes of political formation of will and attributable political decision making take place. The latter, in turn, make it possible to indicate and define the structural and enabling conditions for the various social actors and their advancing of interest, according to the respective circumstances and given problems. Therefore, it is not so much a matter of abstract freedom of action but of being able to make decision, i.e., of the capability of political will formation under however variable restricting conditions. Thus, the effectiveness of sovereign power internally refers to its legitimacy in society. Those subordinate to sovereign government have to find themselves in, and feel represented by it: they have to be able to consider the state – also and especially as a sovereign state – as the ‘state of society’. This entails first and foremost a consensus about the ‘universality’ of the institutionally outsourced sovereign formation of will being indeed an expression and function of the respective particular will, i.e. nothing extrinsic, strange or heteronomously opposed to it. The sovereignty of the modern state stands or falls not so much with this or that form of efficiency, or with a particular level of doing justice to specific needs and wants. Rather, it depends on the will and ability to generate and guarantee – as the sphere of mediating the plural, heterogeneous and partly antagonistic social forces – the general conditions for their existence and relations.

2. 3 Sovereignty and the constitution of political freedom

It is this structure of unity and difference of state and society in the modern age, that the political theories of Bodin, Hobbes and Rousseau and their conception of ‘absolute sovereignty’ are trying to express and enforce theoretically and practically. They draw the obvious conclusion from the historically detectable process of the development of a society characterized by the fact of pluralism, i.e. being marked by contradictory religious, economic, social and other interests and thus generating conflict for structural reasons. This growing pluralism of the normative orientation and ordering of preferences of actors is an expression as well as a cause of the fact that social relations are no longer integrated by traditional or transcendent, pre-politically set common values and the institutions and procedures representing them.[46] The normative as well as institutional foundations of social integration and cooperation have to be justified on the basis of these structural conditions and problems themselves. Hence, it is, to use a paradox formulation, a justification of the necessity of sovereign power as the quintessence of ‘unifying etatism’, which is principally secular, centered on society and oriented towards pluralism. The crucial point here is that sovereign state power conceptualized this way does not exhibit a structure which negates the fact of social pluralism and particularism – and thus the modern principle of freedom – but on the contrary makes possible and establishes the latter. Only as such it is able to claim acceptance in so far as – put succinctly by Rousseau – “l’opposition des intérêts particuliers a rendu nécessaire l’établissement des sociétés [politiques]”, yet this connection is made possible by “l’accord de ces mêmes intérêts”.[47] Therefore, the task and legitimacy of the sovereign power do not consist in abolishing, but in establishing and securing the general conditions of subjective freedom and the pursuit of interests. Taking a look at the central definitions of sovereign power made by the 16th to 18th century theorists of sovereignty quickly demonstrates that – all other differences aside – objectively this is nothing other than an attempt to secure these definitions for the constitution and functioning of civil society itself, and as such to organize and guarantee it as an autonomous sphere – in particular by means of state sovereignty.

Even though Bodin may be regarded, as already indicated, as the father of the modern conception of sovereignty, his justification of the necessity of sovereign state government remains part of universalistic theological metaphysics, according to which it is that particular organizational form of the political by which individuals and society adapt themselves to the divine order of creation and their living together is organized according to its rules and the respective requirements; the sovereignty of the ruler here corresponds to his role as “image de Dieu” on earth, and to his function of making justice real.[48] Even so, in Bodin the structure and function of state sovereignty result entirely from their reference to society being based on the fundamental distinction between the public and the private. This distinction is analytically connected to the definition of the state as “gouuernement de plusieurs mesnages & de ce qui leur est commun”.[49] Even though Bodin, taking as his starting point the traditional concept of the family as a socio-economic fundamental unit with the pater familias at its head, is not yet using the individualistic concept of civil society, his definition still indicates most clearly that privately owned property represents the cause, purpose and internal limit of sovereign state power. The state is thus entitled to the government of the plurality of households, while within them the pater familias holds the supreme power, so that the sovereign power has to stay out of this sphere of the private. And it is this difference which, according to Bodin, the state needs to pay attention to for the sake of its own existence, in so far as it can be imagined as a sphere of the public only with reference to the private.[50] Accordingly, the state meets its ultimate limit in freely disposing of that belonging to the private, i.e. in private property. For Bodin, securing this sphere and this property is the highest and sole criterion of legitimate statehood, “la seule marque de Republique”: “en ostant ces deux mots Tien & Mien, on ruïne les fondements de toutes Republiques, qui sont principalement establies pour rendre à chacun ce qui luy appartient.”[51] According to Bodin, the sovereignty of the state constitutively relates to its function of ensuring its Other, the protection and maintenance of the private, the property of families, which has to be guarded against the self-destructive forces occurring between these particular actors.[52] Being the sphere of the public, the state acts as precisely this authority of mediating the particular: “la seule union, & liaison des familles, corps, & colleges, & de tous les particuliers”.[53] Hence, the legitimacy of sovereign power is based on the regulation and securing of this generality of the public and common, in so far as they are the conditions for a peaceful and productive development of society in general and its parts; this constitutive relation of the general to the particular is the reason for its entitlement to acceptance and obedience.

In Hobbes and, in his succession, Rousseau, the sovereignty of the modern state is founded completely on a structure of society which is characterized by secularism and plurality. In a wholly provocative way Hobbes detaches the sovereign state from any transcendent justification, comparing the creation of the Leviathan with one of “an artificial man”, in which any “fiat, or the let us make man, pronounced by God in the creation”, is attributed exclusively to man: “the matter thereof, and the artificer; both which is man”.[54] Modern contract theory founded by Hobbes, which is based on purely individualistic foundations, may be seen as the attempt to justify state government under the conditions of the Modern Age in a completely new way, namely by showing that freedom and government, subjective rights and sovereign power, the safeguarding of the rights of the particular and the absoluteness of state power are not mutually exclusive, but really presuppose each other.

Herein, the theory of the state of nature as non-historic, legal fiction serves to prove that a social system based on the naturally unlimited freedom and equality of actors is on principle unstable and self-destructive. It is a state which, particularly by virtue of unlimited subjective legal rights, is one of structural lawlessness, and thus identical to the rule of force and the law of the strongest. Hence, this structure of the state of nature, termed by Hobbes “a war of all men against all men”[55], is not based on the frequently invoked myth of his supposedly ‘negative anthropology’[56], but precisely describes the legal contradictory structure of modern society. The latter is characterized as based on the natural freedom of subjective rights that cannot be restricted by any natural domination, and – being a plural one – is therefore a sphere of difference, antagonism and conflict. Thus in the social contract theory, the creation of the ‘Leviathan’ and its absolute power happens as a result of the free will of the actors themselves. The social contract generates the sphere of the public and the general, i.e. of those institutions and procedures for establishing and implementing the common rules, structures and conditions, which are required for the existence and realization of individuals as free legal subjects and proprietors. These are, as it were, emanations of those rules being called natural law, as they have already existed in the state of nature, to the extent that they arise from the actors’ own reason, yet which may only be provided with legally consistent and empirical force in a form made positive by state power.[57] In order for these rules to be general and binding, state power has to be sovereign, i.e. it has to be able to decide about them in the last instance; if social actors were still able to judge their being legitimate and binding, there would be no objective law obliging them all. However, this sovereign position is far from representing the dissociation of state power from the interests and the consensus of society, which have given it this absolute power. It is a widespread yet no less grotesque misunderstanding to interpret Hobbes’s Leviathan in this way and to assume that in the end it would reduce sovereignty to the task of preserving nothing but life, the establishment of security for the purpose of self-preservation. In contrast, Hobbes has clearly expressed that ‘security’ is supposed to mean the guarantee of all those general conditions which combine with the will of social actors themselves, realizing their particular purposes and interests[58], i.e. internal and external security, the enforcement of a general legal order guaranteeing individual freedom as well as its implementation by an independent and impartial judiciary[59], politics promoting and enabling individual and social productivity, and finally a multitude of measurements which in political science today would be subsumed under categories such as responsiveness or ‘good governance’.

Hence, the entire justification of the ‘Leviathan’ in terms of contract theory proves that the normative legitimacy and empirical stability of structures of political rule in the context of a society based on plural, competing actors may only be established and secured by this: that the subjects of this rule are subject to the sovereign power not as an alien but as their own will being internally linked to their particular interests – and that they actually experience and accept it.[60] It is evident that Rousseau, despite his many polemic comments against Hobbes’ concept of the state of nature and the state as such, systematically bases his ‘Contrat social’ on its foundations and, by means of the specific form he gives to the social contract and sovereignty, continues with the freedom-guaranteeing intentions of this justification of government in the Modern Age. For the attempt made by Rousseau is one of procedurally and institutionally substantiating the linking of freedom and government, of particular and general will, intended by Hobbes already. Just as for Hobbes, for Rousseau leaving the state of natural freedom and submitting oneself to the absolute power of the law-giving state do not constitute a negation of, but the context for realizing the freedom, rights and security of individuals.[61] Yet Rousseau tries to prevent the subjects who are subjected to the state from experiencing their own general will as an alien one, in so far as it might be represented, as in Hobbes, by a third party, i.e., by the empirical “man or council” having “the supreme power, or chief command, or dominion”, being promoted and authorized by the social contract.[62] Therefore, for Rousseau, the only construction of political rule compatible with the indispensable rights and liberties of individuals[63] is one in which they are subject exclusively to self-given laws, so that the lawgiving general will of sovereignty and the plurality of particular will being subordinate to it have to be identical. Only in this way “ils n’obéissent à personne mais seulement à leur propre volonté”.[64] Consequently, in spite of all empirical and systematic problems which might result from it, Rousseau’s republican construction of sovereignty, in which the individuals themselves form the sovereign whose will is expressed in the general laws[65], represents the most logical formulation of the modern principle of subjective freedom as the basis for law and the state. It is no substantial content or purpose by which the absolute power of the state might justify itself, but solely its being a construction that can be described as the political and legal transformation and way of existence of the free will of those subject to its rule. Only this structure of construction and justification is able to solve “le grand problème en politique”[66] of modern society which has developed in the early modern age. This is the very problem that, on the one hand, realizing the integration and coordination of an indisputable plurality of free and equal actors necessarily requires structures of political government for regulating individual action and conflict, but that, at the same time, actors are still subject to neither an alien nor a particular, but exclusively to their own and general will, which does not destroy the freedom and equality of all subjects, but founds and realizes it.[67]

3 A difficult heritage: sovereignty and political autonomy

The reconstruction of some of the fundamental claims associated with the modern concept of sovereignty in and since Bodin, Hobbes and Rousseau draws attention to the blind spot which may be recognized in the debate on the state and future of sovereignty mentioned at the beginning – a blind spot on which to shed light is not only of theoretical, but of eminently practical importance. Strikingly put: reasoning fixed on the effectiveness of systemically induced problem solving on the society or global level threatens – in accord with a seemingly overpowering practice – to now remove theoretically and also normatively from the agenda essential foundations and claims of the modern conception of rights and freedom, as has been developed since the transition to the Modern Age. The structure of the construction of sovereignty, as it has been developed in political theory of the Modern Age and taken up by the advocates and champions of the evolving state powers as a blueprint for self-description and justification, responds – it turned out – to the ambivalences of the newly evolving social conditions in the transition to civil society. The other side of these tendencies of a growing secularization, pluralization and individualization is the necessity of the existence of conflicts as well as antagonisms of values and interests. Yet these abstract terms may not hide the fact that this structure of a necessary mutual lesion of the respective rights means in practice the permanent threat and relevance of the exercise of force and power to the point of the legal and factual negation of respective others. In so far as it is possible and desired to make permanent and secure social pluralism[68], a sphere of mediation is needed which is able to frame the action of the different individuals so that their respective tendencies to make absolute their being particular are restricted, directed into the right channels and reduced to an extent not threatening their existence and potentials. The sovereignty of the evolving state powers receives its justification from precisely this capability to generate general rules, solve conflicts and provide those services necessary for the maintenance and development of the antagonistic social system. The separation of the public and the private by means of the constitutive differentiation of the state out of society may thus not be mistaken for any kind of complete empirical detachment of the institutions and actors of the state, its formation of will and decision-making from social forces.[69] The institutional differentiation of state power is a function of the existence of heterogeneous social groups as well as the establishment of non-destructive forms of their disputes about recognition and enforcement of their contradictory interests and values. As such, state power is on principle open and permeable to society, even though its manifestations differ considerably in the different historic forms of state government.[70] The marking and differentiation of the state as a sphere of the general and the mediation of the particular therefore mean anything but the existence of an absolute sphere of freedom and informal communication, independent of social influence and institutions. Rather, it is a sphere of the struggle for recognition, hegemony and the pushing through of interests by means of the institutions, instruments and mechanisms of state government, which always entails the actual possibility and reality of a more or less complete repression of specific social actors, values and interests.

Yet it is of prime importance here that the legitimacy of this sphere and the sovereign power acting within it is proven not solely – and in certain respects not even primarily – by providing society with specific material services. For the acceptance of the legitimacy of state power stands or falls with the conviction of its subjects that this state will – which they are not only factually subject to because of its means of compulsion, but which they should be obliged to – makes possible their own claims to self-preservation and self-determination, and does not negate them by making them subject to the will of others.[71] Hence, the legitimacy of state sovereignty relies on the fact that the subordination of social actors and interest groups takes place under conditions of strict reciprocity and the protection of the respective autonomy. The attempts of political theory in the early Modern Age to justify the sovereignty of the state, starting with Bodin, take precisely this as their starting point and develop, in their respective conciseness and setting of focus, that legitimate rule under the conditions of the novel social relations firstly has to be that of one will, that secondly this will has to be a general will, and finally that it has to be the own general will of the subjects of this rule. In this sense Bodin defines sovereignty as that unified and general will which makes possible the existence of the sphere of the private and the unrestricted use of the private property of social actors, and protects them against the claims of all other social groups and interests and their tendencies of making absolute their particular will. Hobbes and Rousseau base this sovereign power on the natural freedom and equality of individuals. In a social order in which natural, pre-political inequality and rights to power do not exist or meet with general acceptance, the legitimacy of government and the commitment to obedience may only derive from the free will and the approval of the subjects themselves. Hobbes restricts this constitutive relation of dominion to the will of its subjects mainly to the legitimizing-theoretical fiction of the constitution of sovereign government by its authorization by the idea of reason of an original social contract.[72] In contrast, by irreconcilably linking legitimate sovereignty with the necessity of structures of republican self-government, Rousseau generalizes it as the procedural principle of legitimate government as such.

Under the conditions of modern plural society, in the opinion of its early modern theorists, particularly in and since Hobbes and Rousseau, the task, characteristic and justifying grounds of sovereignty consist not in serving specific material purposes and performances but in the successful political organization of individual and collective self-determination, from which the form and contents of the respective institutions result.[73] This claim to self-determination is not simply one state responsibility among others but is qualitatively placed before and above all particular contents and purposes. For only by this the principle of political autonomy wins recognition, according to which decisions about the political, social and economic structural conditions of existence may solely be justified by their constitutive relations to the will of those affected by them, because they bring about the imposition of inequality, power and compulsion running counter to natural freedom and equality. If, as in the current debates, in political theory and practice the main stress is laid on the fact of effective problem solving in different institutions and arenas below and beyond the nation state, this fundamental impetus of indisputable political freedom and self-determination gets lost. Consequentially, the future prospects of effective political decision making and governing are then seen – in accordance with the tendencies prevailing in practice – in sub- and transnational networks for negotiation, supranational institutions, societal and international regimes, expert committees, round-table talks and all the other “various informal command and coordination centers of the political process”[74]. In so far as the “authoritative decisions about the validity of immaterial or the allocation of material values”[75] are made this way – i.e. being scattered and outsourced to manifold arenas and circles having become independent – they take on a form that diametrically runs counter to the demands on legitimate government developed in the early Modern Age. Universally binding decisions are increasingly made by particular actors and circles whose composition is not representative but dependent on the greatly varying factors of social position and power resources, and in which the processes of decision-making are unclear, intransparent and no longer attributable in terms of responsibility. The internal connection between freedom and dominion, between the will being subject to government and the general will exercising government, is dissolved here. Individuals are thus subject to regulations of will, which are not derived from their will, but which justify themselves by means of the – at least being successfully communicated as such – effectiveness of their problem solving competence.[76] Yet this effectiveness is paid with being subject to decisions and effects of governance which are in principle of heteronomous and particular origin, and thus break away from the principle of subjective freedom and equality as the foundationof all legitimate political governance.

The problematic nature of the fundamental change in the legitimating foundation of political government coalescing with the as harmless as rational seeming transition from input to output legitimacy, should not too easily be dismissed as expressions of old familiar academic traditionalism of the history of ideas or of traditional affection for the ideals of republican freedom allegedly outdated by the hard facts of reality. Rather, these developments threaten to undermine the aspired effectiveness of political governance itself. Signs for this may be seen in various phenomena which are often labeled “irrational” from a purely “effectiveness” or system-orientated perspective and remain misunderstood, like the rejection of the draft EU constitution, the repulsion of neo-liberal models of politics, or the skepticism about the globalization of political, economic and socio-cultural structures up to occurrences such as disenchantment with politics, irrational and nationalist resistance and countermovements, religious, cultural or ethnic-racist sectionalisms and fundamentalisms. To no minor degree, such phenomena give expression to the fact that in today’s condition (post)moderne, in which the principles of freedom and self-determination of a plurality of social actors and entities have become real with all their ambivalences on a global level, political governance may not be justified heteronomously in the long run. So even though today the complexity of the present and future circumstances and problems as well as the effects of globalization persistently undermine the effectiveness of national sovereignty: From a normative as well as from a practical political – “effectiveness orientated” – perspective it obviously seems indispensable to help make real the claims associated with the “fiction of sovereignty” under the changed social circumstances: being subject neither to a particular nor to an alien, but only to one’s very own will.