Crisis of Sovereignty

Jean Camaroff: the sources of sovereignty have become radically destabilized—whether we are talking about the power that underwrites currencies of value, or the conditions that stabilize the meaning of language; whether we’re talking about the authority that enables law enforcement (effective police forces, for instance) and the keeping of order in a specific territory—whatever we have assumed underlies such authority in its modern form has become radically ambiguous. The tangible source of supreme authority vested in the democratic state and all that it implied—whether this was Fort Knox and the Bretton Woods System, or the monopoly over the means of violence and the means of death—all have been undermined in their orthodox modern form. Hence the reaching for more clear, seemingly certain sovereigns, theologies, divinities.

And a key component of all this, I think, is the radical impact of the market in shifting the nature of state authority. In outsourcing certain aspects of state functioning, the state weakens itself, whether it intends it or not, because there are people acting in the name of the state—whether it’s through private security, contract military operators, commercial providers of intelligence, or the corporate operation of prisons— these forms of “governmentality” are ever more evidently beyond direct state control. And the new kinds of partnerships—whether in taking censuses or computing crime statistics, fighting wars or keeping order on the streets—people know that this is a new kind of authority that relativizes the sovereignty of the state. The power of modern state government was never absolutely sovereign, of course, but the appearance of such sovereignty was enacted plausibly enough to sustain the appearance of such sovereignty until the late twentieth century.

Another key dimension of this shift is the fact that states no longer control a lot of the economic activity taking place within their “sovereign” space because of the transnational nature of capital. So, for instance, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when the British government moved to bailout a threatened flagship industry—Jaguar Land Rover—they were actually propping up a company owned by the Tata group, a corporation based in India. So who exactly is calling the shots, who exactly is saving whom? What is a national economy and who controls it? Who controls the means of violence? In many parts of the world, when an enforcement agent in uniform stops you on the streets, you do not know whether they act in the name of the state, private enterprise, or even organized crime. Under those conditions, what constitutes an authority? Where does sovereignty reside?

The same kind of undermining occurs when state governments seem radically incapable and/or unwilling to control economic collapse and the plummeting value of money. This always makes me think about what happened in Weimar Germany after World War I, when suddenly the German currency lost all value. When the signifiers (whether official uniforms or currency) lose face value, that prompts collective distrust in the very nature of reality and what underpins it. I think this sets in motion efforts to recover a sense of lost tradition, certain sorts of sovereign force (whether by way of fascism or theology), certain fundamental truths that all assert that “the buck stops here—this is the original text, this is the unambiguous source of power.” And revelation serves well here: an authority that comes from somewhere else that is undeniable. I think that is the issue that lies behind the re-enchantment of our times, the hunger for the sublime. One can see this clearly in the reading of recent apocalyptic events, even the way that 9/11 provided a “Ground Zero,” time-stopping event that served in the construction of the new kind of international security order.

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