Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 

Photo by Tyler Merbler | CC BY 2.0

It goes without saying that Donald Trump is an abomination, and that if he is not stopped in his tracks, he could be not just America’s worst president ever, but also its last.

Nevertheless, on matters of war and peace, his policy pronouncements, if not his actual policies, are sometimes less pernicious than those of Democrats, “moderate” Republicans (insofar as they still exist), and the corporate media flacks who “manufacture consent” in their behalf.

It is they, not he, who are doing their best to revive long dormant Cold War hostilities with Russia; and it is they who are most eager to “pivot” towards Asia — in other words, to go after China as well.

They are also the ones who are most intent on fomenting a potentially catastrophic war with Iran.

To their credit, they used to be less confrontational than Trump on North Korea, but ever since the Donald met with Little Rocket Man in Singapore, the level of bellicosity has, for the most part, evened out.

Meanwhile, the level of hypocrisy now everywhere on display is staggering.

The most egregious examples cluster around accusations of Russian “meddling.”  Russia, they hypocrites say, is a chronic meddler in the affairs of the United States and its (traditional) allies.  They are especially fond of accusing it of acts of aggression in cyberspace.   No doubt, Russians do meddle.  They are hardly the only ones; everybody who can does.

Indeed, the United States is, and long has been, the foremost meddler on the planet.  It is also the country most likely to commit acts of aggression (not limited to cyberspace) when it suits its purpose.  Russia and other former Soviet republics have always been major targets.

When asked in Helsinki whether, on the meddling question, he believed Vladimir Putin, the bogeyman of the hour, or the American “intelligence community,” Trump took on the persona of Buridan’s ass, insisting that, on the merits, he just couldn’t say.

The outrage that followed was a wonder to behold.  Within minutes, the liberal and not-so-liberal commentariat went into full-fledged attack mode, attesting to the righteous inerrancy of the FBI, the CIA, and every other nefarious component of the national security state.

This was a kindness to persons in need of an emetic, but an insult to the intelligence of everyone else.  It was also an assault on the good sense of anyone intent on maintaining a sense of proportion.

All that love and respect for America’s political police is almost enough to induce a flicker of sympathy for Trump.  Neither he nor his minions come close to deserving anything but contempt, but, lately, the “adults in the room” have been giving Trump Baby and his team a run for the money.

Surely, even at MSNBC, someone must understand that “intelligence communities” – ours, Russia’s, all of them — lie for a living, that their nature is to lie and deceive.  This is why, whatever was behind it, the evasive answer Trump gave, his refusal to say whom he believes more, was wiser than “patriotic” politicians and the talking heads that serve them would like us to think.

Future historians, if there are any in a post-Trumpian world, may well put discussions of Russian villainy in the 2016 election in the same chapter as discussions of Bush and Cheney’s weapons of mass destruction.  However, at this point, as the court system becomes increasingly involved, it is looking more likely than not that the Russian government may actually be guilty as charged – of breaking into some Democratic National Committee servers and perhaps also some state voting rolls.

What, if anything, came of this meddling, beyond perhaps a few ads on social media, is far from clear. But this doesn’t stop MSNBC and the others from describing the purported assault on American sovereignty and the “sanctity” of our electoral system as a crime of world historical dimensions.

In fact, what the United States does to Russia and to other former Soviet Republics and, indeed, to almost every country on earth that might in any way pose a challenge to American world domination is more egregious by many orders of magnitude.

It is also shamelessly biased.  No matter how much harm or good they actually do, “friends” like Israel can do no wrong; “adversaries” like Russia can do no right.

It might as well be a law of nature: whoever can hack into government secrets, does.  Thus Israel certainly could do what the Russians are alleged to have done in 2016, and it is well known that Israeli spying on the United States didn’t stop with Jonathan Pollard.

In 2016, did Israel do anything like what Russia is alleged to have done?  I do not know. What I do know is that if they did, they did it because they could, not because they had no better way to get what they wanted out of the United States.

They get their way without having to do much of anything — not because their wants coincide with plausible conceptions of American “national interests,” but because, for all practical purposes, they own Congress and the White House.  The Israel lobby is that good.

Among its triumphs is its success in seeing to it that its main organs – for instance, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — do not have to register as agents of a foreign government.

The Israel lobby’s influence is so good that Israeli diplomats and Mossad operatives have no need to play games with their friends in the CIA to get the United States to turn against Iran.  Should they decide that the time has come to launch a war that would make the Bush-Cheney Iraq War seem trifling in comparison, all they need do is fabricate pretexts and let liberal Democrats, along with everyone else in the political class, do their thing.

But let a Russian hacker get into John Podesta’s emails, and all hell breaks loose.  How dare those Ruskies tell voters what everyone who cared already knew – that in 2016 the Democratic Party establishment was hell bent on quashing the Sanders insurgency and turning the Democratic nomination over to Hillary Clinton.

Were Trump and his minions not utterly off the charts awful, and were Republicans not unspeakably bad, the level of hypocrisy and selectivity that Democrats evince would be all but impossible to bear.

I suspect that at least a few of them realize this, and try to put themselves on a loftier plane.

When, for example, they set out to build a case for reviving the Cold War with Russia, some of them invoke a venerable principle of political morality.  They condemn Russia for violating Ukrainian sovereignty by invading parts of eastern Ukraine and annexing the Crimea.  They insist that the Russians be held to account.

No matter that Ukraine had been a part of the Russian empire since the eighteenth century or that Russia has vital security interests there or that American meddling was a major cause of the civil war that prompted the Russian invasion or that a consequence of that meddling was the empowerment of Ukrainian fascists or that the population of the Crimea and other Russian speaking regions overwhelmingly favor union with Russia.  The sovereignty of the Ukrainian state was violated; and that is reason enough, they say, to move the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight.

Events in Ukraine are among the several reasons why, from out of the recesses of philosophical memory, the concept of sovereignty is nowadays on peoples’ minds — especially, but not only, in Europe.

Xenophobic nationalists of the Trump variety or worse invoke the concept for their own purposes.  In a different register, some social democrats intent on maintaining and enhancing popular control over public policies and undertaking various democratic initiatives have also lately invoked the concept.

It is worth discussing.

Barack Obama – the corporate Democrat, President Drone, the Deporter-in-Chief, the scourge of whistleblowers everywhere — is looking good in comparison with what came before him and what would come after.  Even so, there is no reason to invoke him as any kind of political lodestar.  Former First Lady Michelle is a (somewhat) different story. When she says such things as “when they go low, go high,” it is worth paying heed.

In that spirit, and for insight into the underlying causes of today’s political turmoil, it can be useful, even in the midst of the Trump-induced tumult of the day, to consider sovereignty from a more detached, philosophical perspective than the one assumed in on-going polemics.

It can be especially useful to appreciate how intimately the concept is linked, historically and conceptually, to the rise of capitalism; and how the crises now clustering around the idea are related to capitalism’s decline.


Political authority has existed in one form or other for as long as human societies have existed.  Everywhere and at all times, authorities used or threatened to use force to compel individual and group compliance in ways that are, or are at least deemed to be, legitimate.

Precisely where or in what or whom authority lies has also been contested for as long as human societies have existed.   But outside tiny and arcane philosophical, religious or political circles, the idea that in principle compliance can be rightfully compelled never is.

From time immemorial, political authority relations were based on kinship.  In more developed pre-capitalist societies, religious, economic, or military considerations of one sort or another became the main factor.

Sovereignty — supreme authority over a particular territory populated by persons who are otherwise unconnected to one another — is a particular kind of authority relation. As such, it is barely more than a few centuries old.

Though anticipated in various ways in the distant past and in all the four corners of the earth, it is a distinctly modern notion, coincident with and connected to the rise of capitalism in Western Europe.

The practice is (comparatively) new, but the theory behind it, rooted in (small-r) republican notions of freedom goes back to Greco-Roman antiquity.  The idea is that just as persons are free –not slaves or otherwise in bondage — when they are free from the domination of others, political communities are free insofar as they are independent.

Sovereign states are therefore free states; authority relations exist within them, but not between them and other states.  In theory, if not always in practice, their freedom from the domination of other political entities is absolute.

Notions of sovereignty are connected, historically and conceptually, with the rise of the state form of political organization, another distinctively modern and distinctively Western development.

The word “state” is often used loosely to denote any of a variety of political forms that have existed in various times and places.  For the most part, that usage is harmless, but it is also imprecise, uninformative, and potentially misleading.

Strictly speaking, states concentrate political authority relations into a single institutional nexus that holds, as Max Weber (1864-1920) famously put it, “a monopoly of the means of (legitimate, or believed to be legitimate) violence.”

As such, they are sovereign entities; a political community sustained by a unified coercive apparatus requires a unified system of control.

A general idea, underlying the idea of sovereignty as it took shape in the sixteenth century is that the right to compel compliance is derived from the “natural” authority individuals have over themselves, over their own bodies and powers.

As a rising bourgeoisie came to supersede the ruling classes of feudal society, a reorganization of the European economic and social order along capitalist lines, based on principles of contract law, followed.

It was therefore natural that political philosophers would draw on contract theory to defend their views of the nature and extent of sovereign authority.  Thus it became almost commonplace in advanced philosophical circles to ground political authority on hypothetical social contracts – and not, as in earlier times, on status or divine right.

Questions about the limits, if any, of the sovereign’s rightful powers therefore devolved into questions about the nature of the social contract that was the basis of the state itself.

For “absolutists,” upon entering into the social contract, individuals cede everything to the sovereign; the sovereign’s powers are therefore absolute.  For liberals, individuals held back some of their rights they have over themselves in “the state of nature.”  On some accounts, those rights, being “inalienable,” could never be given up.

In time, defenders of limited sovereignty prevailed.  Before long, the idea that there are limits to what political authorities may rightfully do became even more secure than the notion of sovereignty itself.

From a political point of view, the most vexing problems involving sovereignty concern boundaries.  States hold monopolies over the means of (legitimate) violence, but the size and nature of the territories and populations they rule over is, and always has been, susceptible to contestation.

It would be different if the boundaries of states and the boundaries of nations, Benedict Anderson called them “imagined communities,” coincided.  But that has never been the case, at least not in the comparatively sizeable political communities of the modern era.

One reason why this is so is that nations and national identities are more often creations of states than the other way round.

State formation and nation building go hand-in-hand.  This was the case for Western and Northern Europe at least since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ended the Wars of Religion brought on by the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Because the state and nation building that ensued was generally successful, it became possible to concoct good approximations of full-fledged nation states, states with boundaries encompassing nations, throughout much of northern and western Europe.

This required deliberate effort.  State and nation building is a complex and protracted process that seldom, if ever, reaches completion.

These processes took slightly different forms in the settler states of the Americas and Australasia, and throughout the Eurasian landmass from the eastern and southern fringes of Europe all the way east to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, in the Indian sub-continent, in the historically Muslim regions of central and western Asia and North Africa, and, in sub-Saharan Africa.

European colonialism then added in countless ways to the prevailing complexities.  The result of all this is that the nation state is more of an ideal type than an historic reality.  The implications for the practice, if not the theory, of sovereignty are many.

And now, especially in Europe, but not only there, beyond the problems of state and nation building, there is also the problem – necessitated by the trajectory of capitalism in our time – to deal with super-national institutions that effectively diminish sovereignty “as we know it.”

The old idea is evidently still alive, but it is becoming increasingly antiquated in practice, and is therefore losing much of its normative bite.


The hypocrisy that surrounds charges of Russian meddling in the 2016 election is extreme, and the idea that penalties should be exacted against Russia and Vladimir Putin, while support for Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu overflows, is absurd.  The U.S. accords Netanyahu carte blanche, while covering the much-demonized Putin with all the obloquy servile media hacks can muster.

Meanwhile, the ostensibly less retrograde duopoly party recklessly does all it can to stir up a level of hysteria that could lead to nuclear war.

The situation is so unsettling that it is easy to overlook the sheer anachronism inherent in the efforts of Democrats and others to hold the old idea of sovereign inviolability sacrosanct.

As national economies recede in importance in the face of neoliberal globalization, sovereignty is everywhere diminished.  Already, it seems almost quaint to insist that attacks on democracy that originate outside a country’s borders are somehow worse, and more in need of rectification, than those that arise within – regardless of the harm done (or not done) and the extent of the damage.

Compare anything that Russian agents may have done to undermine our democracy – “what democracy?,” one might ask — to the harm done by homegrown  plutocrats, gerrymanderers and vote suppressers, and by media dedicated to dumbing the public down

This is why it is far from clear what other countries, including Russia, have to gain from attacking America’s electoral institutions that Democrats and Republicans have not already done many times worse.

Do they want to throw money around the way America does in their elections?  Compared to the money the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson and a host of other   miscreants like them throw around, anything they do would hardly make a dent.

Obama was a corporate ass-kissing Democrat.  He did a lot of harm during his eight years in office, and he did more than his fair share to create the conditions for the possibility of the loathsomeness in Washington now.  But at least, he had a sense of proportion, and a healthy disdain for recklessly provoking nuclear powers.

This is why I, for one, sorely miss him.

Hillary Clinton was destined to be the one who would make him look good by comparison.  But she failed to win what was hers for the taking, just as she failed at almost everything else she undertook to do. Therefore now someone even more odious than she is making Obama look good.

But, by bringing the Cold War back to life after a quarter century of on-again off-again dormancy, she did prevail in a sense – not in the electoral arena, but in the wider political culture and within the bowels of the Democratic Party.

Indeed, she and others who share her political orientation have been so effective that it has become hard to watch MSNBC and the others without raging at the screen and wondering whether the Democrats still really are the lesser evil party.

The remedy for that, always at hand, is to turn to Trump’s daily, even hourly, tweets; and to focus on the outrageous vileness of what he and his people are doing.

Still, if only Democrats would make more of a fuss about the Trumpian gulags along the Mexican border and about what ICE is doing to the babies, toddlers, and small children of asylum seekers, and less about credible (or not so credible) evidence that Russian spies did what spies normally do.   If only their purchase on meddling was less palpably dishonest and insane!

Or, to put the point somewhat differently: if only the emphasis on electing Democrats in 2018 would give way to efforts to transforming the Democratic Party radically and for the better.  Neoliberals, liberal imperialists, military and national security state “hawks” have been doing harm for far too long.

There are militants now of all ages, genders, and hues working hard to do precisely that, even as the institutional party fights back with all its might.

Stopping Trump and the Trumpians is, of course, Job One.  But the Party of the Clintons, of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and of others like them, is a problem too.

In the upcoming midterm election, it may often make sense, for strategic reasons, to vote against Republicans by voting for mainstream Democrats, awful as they are.  But when this is the case, it is important not to succumb to lesser evil thinking, especially in cases when it is far from clear that the Democrat really is the lesser evil or when that Democrat’s evil is not lesser enough.

Think along the lines of the anti-fascist pre-World War II Popular Front instead.

It should not require great effort on the part of thinking people to resist being swept up into a party that has positioned itself to the right of Donald Trump on an issue of such potential importance as Russian meddling.   Nevertheless, the Cold War hysteria Democrats are intent on stirring up by exaggerating the harm (possibly) done by Russian provocateurs, by depicting their doings, such as they may have been, as the crime of the century, shows no signs of abating.

It can be hard, watching MSNBC, to remember that Republicans are even worse.  And it is dispiriting to realize that, as if in punishment for one or another mortal sin, Democrats must always be with us.  Now is therefore a time for progressives – real ones, not the Rachel Maddow kind — to buck up.  To borrow a phrase out of context from the villainous Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative.”

A serious Left on the road to revival in the once great and famous Land of the Free cannot live either with or without the Democratic Party.  But with courage, keenness, and cunning, it probably can change that wretched party fundamentally for the better.

Restoring a sense of proportion on Russian and other electoral meddling, at least to Obama-era levels, can be a step in that direction; and gaining a purchase on what sovereignty is good for in our time and place, and on its connections to the overripe capitalist system currently afflicting our country and planet, can be helpful, and maybe even indispensable, to that end.


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).