Beyond the modern circle: Quo vadis sovereignty?

#WR2050 3 / July 2020

Author: Sara Raimondi, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at New College of the Humanities

For centuries we have grown familiar with the well-worn narratives that are preoccupied with the question of political power and its working in the government of populations. And while we can debate whether the world of tomorrow will continue to propagate a state of international anarchy or morph into increasing forms of regionalism and cooperation under the pressure of climatic transformation, dislocation of entire populations as effect of environmental catastrophes, the risk of extinction of entire life forms and the ever-present (and never so underestimated) occurrence of impending epidemics, the question of the site of power in relation to its people is one that it is here to stay.

For critical minds have kept themselves busy articulating their fabulations into our posthuman futures and coning the terms to capture modes of intra-species entanglements. Yet, the current emergency situation of a global pandemic (perhaps caused precisely by a negligence and short-sightedness towards these very forms of entanglements) seems to demonstrates once again that one’s geographical coordinates or the place one happens to occupy in the chessboard of the international puzzle still matter a great deal as to the way they are likely to experience such phenomena – and, in fact, for the chances of their very survival. In other words, far are the days when we can declare the role of state power to be over, and throw it in the chest of our ‘old political categories’ memorabilia.

Asking the question around the state and sovereignty opens up to perspectives that are far from new. We can sit comfortably in the certainties granted by a Leviathan state that gives us security (even though with the occasional snap of those rights whose provision is at the very basis of the state’s legitimacy). Or we can follow more critical voices in the choir that have repeatedly and tirelessly demonstrated that states and governments worldwide are engaged in a ‘global civil war’ against their very people, and that moments of freedom have indeed become the exception within a permanent state of conflict against enemies that are closer and closer to home. As a result, repressive power and coercion (even in their disguised forms) are unescapable and the ruling biopolitical circuits and mentalities seem to leave us with no places to hide.

Yet, it is at the peak of a state of uncertainty that a renewed wave of calls for bottom-up projects of democratic empowerment has found resurgence, and in the moment of crisis we find increasing demand for collective effort, care and solidarity. The sovereign has been there all along, but it just needed to recognise itself by returning from its per se moment of alienation where life and population have been seen as the object rather than the subject of governing. The head of the king has been cut off, but this time, it might not regrow as the multiple faces of a hydra that reveal the disperse and pervasive working of power. In a growing distrust of governments and sense of impending danger and crisis, power is up for grabs and we are brought back to square one: what contract will we sign this time?