Essays on Sovereignty

Book contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What is sovereignty
  3. On self-determination
  4. Scopes of sovereignty
  5. Factors of effective sovereignty
  6. The market as a political agent
  7. On the political relevance of cyber
  8. Conclusion and special thanks

This book represents an attempt to analyse and in some ways interpret sovereignty. What it is. Its factors and scopes. The shortcomings of its mainstream conception. The distinction between its headline presence and the effective control over the means of governance.

Sovereignty is one of the fundamental concepts of modern political thinking. It also is the one most likely to be revised in light of developments in international relations, the integration of global and regional trade, advances in information technology, and the emergence of cyber as the irreducible factor of many an activity and social experience.

Essays on Sovereignty (hereinafter also referred to as “Essays” or “this/the book”) is for the most part a piece of political theory. The very subject matter demands as much. Theoretical discourse is informed or complemented by insights from political conduct and economics, while it draws on my more content-focused understanding of European Union politics, as well as my second field of venture as a front end web developer.

Some chapters of this book feature sections with an outright philosophical outlook. Others incorporate day-to-day political issues into the analysis. The result is a piece of work that stands somewhere in between intermediate and advanced studies into the topics under examination.

The reader is expected to have a solid understanding of such items as international relations, the notion of self-determination, globalisation, and the like. They are also assumed to be aware of everyday political events and their significance. Such information is necessary for drawing linkages between the immediate effects of the political process and their underpinnings as these are studied herein.

Reading the Essays may be seen as having a multiplying effect. Theoretical work can broaden one’s horizons. To see the theretofore unseen. revaluate the given. Connect pieces of information that appeared to be unrelated. Be inspired into pursuing a new research programme. In short, theory guides one to think differently. That in itself can have benign implications on a whole series of thoughts and dispositions.

The minimum you should expect to gain from this book is the following:

  • Actuality. A distinction between headline and effective sovereignty.
  • Application. A decoupling of the magnitudes of sovereignty and nationality.
  • Extent. A broader view of sovereign authority as pertains to its contributing factors and overall context.

The writing of this book is an investment of sorts. It sets aside resources (time and effort) to tackle a series of recurring themes in a consistent and systematic fashion. The end product will then stand as a point of reference or basis for other projects, including analyses of political phenomena as they emerge. My hope is that it will perform a similar function for those who read it.

To that end, the book’s availability should also be mentioned. It is distributed free of charge. It will be available on this website for you to read online or get your print copy.

Last but not least, the Essays is in fact just that: a collection of articles linked together by a common theme. Each chapter is written as a more or less standalone item. It can be read and shared as if it were a regular blog post. Even its format and overall presentation is that of a typical article on this website (

Happy reading!

PS. Do contact me for any thoughts, questions, etc.

Sovereignty is one of those concepts that enters the public mind never to leave it again. It is as foundational as the very distinction between the private and the public good, the institution of property rights, the division of the state’s functions, the binding nature of statutes. In the modern era, sovereignty underpins every instance of international relations. It also underlies any discussion about legitimacy and the rule of law. Contemporary polities are defined by this very concept. They are based on sovereignty. Their state’s powers are permeated by it. Their political processes are meant to harness and to exercise it.

In short, sovereignty matters. It has a profound effect on quotidian life. It lies at the heart of normative discussions about the appropriate distribution of authority within and between states. Its significance is paramount. There is, however, a point of contention: its ambiguity.

As with every major item of political thought, the concept of “sovereignty” occupies a space between clarity and obscurity. It is an age old idea that has guided many a generation of statesperson into forming the specifics of their polity. Its presence in legal-political tradition is central. Primary law, such as national constitutions or the treaties establishing the European Union, draws its legitimacy—its authority qua primary law—by being a codified expression of sovereignty.

Only a political whole exercising effective sovereign control may proceed to establish the particularities of its legal order. Law is, in this specific regard, a predicate of sovereignty. Yet it takes a certain legal order to render a polity sovereign. That very circularity is the source of contention: the presumption of sovereignty as a quasi-transcendent presence that ‘exists’, can always be talked about, named and described, but never fully revealed as to what kind of being it may be.

Sovereignty is not a natural given

Is sovereignty a physical force like, say, gravity? It should then be referred to in precise terms. Measured. Quantified. Be given a clear definition that would not offer plausibility to multiple interpretations. At least that should be the direction. The concept could not afford to remain decisively ambiguous yet still be the cornerstone of political thinking.

Sovereignty cannot be considered in that light though. It is sometimes treated as if it were a natural force: antecedent to political organisation. As if no human intervention or interpretation anyhow contributed to its qualities. Yet this is a mere impression of an outright political phenomenon: the belief that products of convention are, in fact, external to it. Their substance or value is perceived as exogenous. A natural given.

On the face of it, this view could hold merit. Sovereignty is a constant of the world and so all political thinking can be a function of it. Where such reification begins to reveal its shortcomings is in the particulars. How these affect the very presumed constancy of said ‘constant’. What transpires for a people once considered part of a greater sovereign whole to qualify as sovereign in its own right? And what may the ‘atom’ of sovereignty be, the point that cannot be divided any further? Is sovereignty fastened upon any one construct or abstraction thereof? Can new forms of polity become sovereign while old ones fade into oblivion?

Sovereignty as a nominal presence

The more we liken sovereignty to a natural quantity, the greater our confusion will be. It can be a helpful metaphor to simplify things and get the point across. With “metaphor” being the operative term. Instead it is preferable to establish a simple yet crucial distinction between (i) phenomena whose value/substance is dependent on human experience and (ii) those that can occur regardless of it. Gravity would exist even if outlawed. Private property would not. What is contingent on human has a metaphysically nominal value or substance. The rest are natural.

Nominal does not mean arbitrary. It is not a product of whimsy that can be revised without much effort, say, by an eager government. Nominal is that which is arrived at through a series of exchanges between persons within their historical-cultural milieu. Generation after generation of political thinking and practice informs this intersubjective exchange. Nominality is evolutionary and organic, though decisively human in origin. Its main difference to the natural world is found in its potentiality. In principle, it could be revaluated in an instance if everyone involved were to somehow agree to the new norm and passively enforce it through their daily social conduct.

Consider this overly simplified case. The role model of ancient Sparta was the frugal warrior. The guiding figure of Silicon Valley is the entrepreneurial inventor. In functional terms, they are the same. Both act as a point of reference for the highest expected achievement within their social context. In substantive terms they stand apart. That is to be attributed to the differences between the contributing factors to the processes of attaching value to objects of thought. Different cultures, experiences, roles and norms, expectations, basic needs, available technology, and so on.

Sovereignty is nominal, a nominal force if you will. It is the supreme authority within a polity. The entity considered to be sovereign partakes of sovereignty. It has a quality of being sovereign. This quality amounts to the ultimate right to exercise force—the legitimate use of force—, whereby “force” is interpreted broadly to include, among others, legal acts that specify the rights, obligations, and expected behaviour of persons to whom it applies.

The sovereign is not predefined. It can be an individual, as in old monarchies. It may be an impersonal agency, such as a nation. Some of the effects of globalisation indicate that the sovereign may even be a level of political organisation that emerges between nation states. Whatever the specifics, we are dealing with nominal magnitudes whose substantive particularities can be envisaged in line with—or in juxtaposition to—tradition (effectively to the previous value attached to them).

The study of sovereignty

To recapitulate on this overview, sovereignty is:

  • Intelligible. An object of thought—an abstraction—that exists in the realm of political thinking as both a magnitude as well as the quintessential quality of a legitimate governing entity.
  • Nominal. A product of human convention whose specifics are formulated intersubjectively in a manner that is gradual and dependent on the historical-cultural particulars.

We study sovereignty to gain insight into the underlying themes of political organisation. Modern politics is inconceivable in the absence of this fundamental concept. The inquiry also has implications on normative propositions. Discourses of agency and legitimacy are guided by their conception of sovereignty. Who or what is the appropriate actor of political initiative? Where is the locus of authority? Which are the factors that render it acceptable as supreme? Is sovereignty absolute or context-dependent? And what are the ramifications on the polity as such and in its association with other states? Are nations necessarily sovereign or is the exercise of supreme authority a prerequisite to a nation qua nation state? Are sovereignty and nationality connatural? Can there be a sovereign without a nation? And what could that be?

These and related questions probe into a number of areas of interest that are all connected by their status as foundational or primary in the context of political organisation. The study is largely theoretical due to the subject of inquiry. These are abstract themes. They may be political but have no direct comparison to day-to-day phenomena such as party politics, electoral campaigns, public opinion polls, and the like.

It may seem counter-intuitive to talk about political issues in a manner that is detached from daily experience. Politics is, after all, thoroughly practical. About managing everyday issues and planning ahead for the future. Yet politics is not a value-free exercise in management, be it of people, resources, or whatnot. The political process, intersubjectively emergent as it is, is formulated in accordance with a set of accepted truths about a range of issues. Sovereignty is but one of them. Others would include individuality, the family unit, social status, gender roles, institutional function, etc. with whatever values attached to them. These may not be the direct or main subject of politics, though they most certainly inform, permeate, and penetrate all sorts of discourses about political organisation.

Sovereignty is special in one important way. It is not necessarily about the nominal qualities bestowed on the person or group thereof, as are the notions of individuality, family, class. It is more about the overarching design of the polity. Standing alongside it are such perhaps consubstantial magnitudes as power, legitimacy, legality. That renders it less immediate to the subjective experience. Its abstract nature does not, nonetheless, make it remotely relevant or secondary to more pressing issues of the practical sort. All it does is call for the appropriate method of analysis. To understand it for what it actually is. To identify its place in the totality of political thought and its function in political practice in general.

Remaining dubitative and inquisitive

The title of this article—What is sovereignty—implies certainty. That we know exactly what sovereignty is and that a definition will suffice. The truth is that we are in the dark and are trying to understand the topic based on what is available to our faculties of thought and experience. We tackle one issue at a time in an attempt to arrive at meaningful conclusions. The objective is to form an understanding of the greater whole based on observations of the specifics. What we may get might still not be definitive. The study is likely to be open ended; the terminus we set standing as nothing but arbitrary.

Even so, there is truth to be had in what effectively is interpretation. Absolute certainty is not a prerequisite to action. Just like perfect knowledge is not presupposed in any instance of scientific inquiry. Politics both in its theoretical and practical dimensions occurs in a realm of relative uncertainty and ignorance. And there is a degree of inventiveness in all of it. We figure things out as we go. The study of sovereignty can be no different.

Self-determination is the capacity of a polity to define the parameters and qualitative aspects of its quotidian life. Rules of custom, statutes, the specifics of institutional arrangements, social stratification, the procedures that contribute to aspects of political organisation, and the like. These are designed to be consistent with the polity’s prevailing ideas and perspectives on political life. What may hold true in one state, may not apply to another. What may be the case in a state at a point in time, might not have been so during a different epoch.

This plurality, this plasticity, is the outcome of an ever present process of self-determination. The operative term is “process”. This is not a single phenomenon. A discrete moment in the time continuum that can be singled out. Some events may be more important than others in terms of their impact on political life, but the general trend is for incremental changes to an ever-evolving corpus of values, practices, standards, beliefs.

Politics is in a state of flux. New issues come up that require addressing. Legislation needs to be introduced to tackle previously unforeseen circumstances. Social roles, the organisation of labour, methods for distributing the goods of the polity, are all subject to [gradual] revaluation. They can be envisaged and upheld as different.

Holistic view of the political whole

Politics as such is an emergent reality. It is organic. A system of interpersonal relations engendering phenomena that can only exist at the higher scope of interaction rather than the ‘foundational’ level of the individual human. Just as there can be no absolutely private ethics or language (decontextualised from any external reference, stimulus, point of interaction, etc.), there exist states of affairs that may only be understood as outright political; germane to the system—the organic whole—itself.

The ‘self’ that gets to be determined is, therefore, neither an individual nor, most importantly, a collection of individuals conceived as a group. The political self is the collection of individuals in addition to their prevailing culture. What is subject to determination through the political process is not the material constitution of the persons involved, but rather the more abstract yet very much immanent cobweb of given truths that holds them together as a group.

The function of simplification

It is indeed the case that aggregates such as “the society” or “the state” do not have human faculties of intellect, experience, emotion. They do not act or think in the way you and I do. Aggregates are abstractions, mental constructs used to help us gain a better grasp on reality and to facilitate our communication.

Reduction is necessary to get the point across. We use it for virtually everything. Imagine substituting “the government decided” with “the collection of individuals elected on a fixed term basis through a formal process as representatives of a larger group of people legally defined as citizens, for the sake of pursuing certain ends, and operating within a given framework of laws whose basis is another legal document known as the “constitution”, decided…“. Communication would quickly become unwieldy, impractical.

The same kind of necessary simplification applies to the elements of social aggregates, most notably “the individual” or “the corporation”. The notion of the decontextualised natural/legal person, the agent who behaves in accordance with their own will as if no physical or cultural factor ever determines them, is only useful in reducing an otherwise complex reality to its basics. It has no ontological basis: the absolute individual is, strictly speaking, a chimera.

The sources of causation on the person

From a biological perspective, human is matter. An animal that exhibits many commonalities with other beings, especially mammals and primates. Our genes determine what we as a species can do. The determinism or, rather, the probabilism that holds true for all nature applies to us as well. Human is part of nature, not a distinct category.

This is the natural aspect of causality. Some event in the physical order triggers a process which ultimately manifests through, inter alia, chemical reactions in the brain and/or body as thought, emotion, action.

But human is not just matter. It is a formation of natural systems of interrelations, each at its own level of abstraction and complexity, from the atoms to the organs to the specimen “human”, which itself partakes in—and is affected by—an even broader context: their social environment.

The relations between humans and the products thereof have a basis in the natural order, yet they are not matter per se. Consider language, the very text written here. There are faculties that enable humans to speak, write, think, and to communicate meanings to their fellows. That is the natural foundation. The nominality of it is found in the content of language. The meanings, the syntax, the grammar germane to a given code of communication effectively are products of convention rather than natural necessity. They could have been conceived, understood, structured in a different manner.1

This ‘convention’ was not agreed upon at any given moment in any one place. It has developed through a continuous process of interaction between humans. The phenomenon of language is intersubjective throughout. Not only due to language being a historical-cultural invention, but also in the very manifestation of language as an instrument necessary for advanced communication between humans. There can be no language in a decontextualised, an absolute individual. The very notion of communicating ideas to others would be absurd.

The nominal environment

The same line of thinking holds for other social phenomena such as morality, the institution of property rights, political hierarchies, and the like. Even if they have a source in nature, their content or value is nominal. To this end, by virtue of a holistic approach on human presence, we may consider the nominal environment as a domain that contributes to the determination of the individual, just as the natural order exerts its force on human’s material composition.

The nominal environment, the set of intersubjective factors and parameters, is external to the individual. The person is immersed in a social milieu that already is in the process of determining itself. They are born into a certain culture, endowed with whatever their social surroundings provide for. The moral code, the concepts embedded in language, gender roles, the opportunities for economic, recreational, or intellectual initiative and expression; the “what is” of the person is to a large extent moulded by their nominal environment. The person—the contextualised individual—gets to operate within a realm of possibility delineated by emergent realities of an intersubjective sort that necessarily remain outside their immediate reach.

This is not to suggest that individuality is irrelevant or a mere illusion. Given the probabilism of the world, what we traditionally understand as the essence of the individual—free will—must have certain probabilities attached to it for its expression. There is no predetermined linearity to the chain of causation. Individuality has scope for being made manifest, with the proviso that it is not absolute, i.e. immune to influences from the natural and nominal surroundings.

By labelling this type of determinism “nominal” we are merely drawing a distinction from the natural sort. What we are not trying to do is discount its immediacy and actual impact. Social realities may be the product of self-determination and, therefore, potentially subject to change. But for as long as they are what they are, their effects on human experience are as real as they get.

Methodology matters

We have dedicated an entire chapter of this book to clarify a rather simple, seemingly obvious, point: the political whole is not a person. When we suggest that “the polity” determines itself we are not claiming that some exalted being consciously takes a certain course of action independent of the will of the individuals. What we are arguing for instead is that the process of self-determination manifests incrementally as the cumulative effect of all social experiences. The emergent phenomena thereof cannot be discerned at the level of the individual. A broader perspective, a holistic analysis, is required.

So if the point is simple, why not get done with it in a paragraph or two? Because simplicity is often appreciated only after its actual complexity is put in a certain order. Obvious is that which has been analysed. Many dubious claims in politics derive from misunderstandings that could have been avoided if some more thought was put on the perspective, the scope of application of the proposed truth.

Consider, for instance, the extremes of individualism and collectivism. Both share a common fallacy: the decontextualisation of their subject of inquiry. For the individualist of the extreme sort there is no such thing as a ‘nominal’ source of determination, maybe not even a natural one. Human is a priori free to do as they please, reap the rewards of their decisions and suffer the consequences (think how that value system impacts social welfare, the prison system, and the like). For the collectivist all that matters is the collective as such, the society, the nation, the state, whatever it is they see as the higher-order being. No such things as individual freedoms and civil liberties can be allowed to exist, especially if they do not serve the ‘interests’ of the collective itself.

The holistic approach we have adopted here aims to put the concept of “self-determination” in its proper context. Polities are in a process of evolution. What applies to the polity has powerful effects on the individuals immersed in it. But the polity is not a distinct entity with no link whatsoever to the underlying relations of the persons involved. What people in their daily life choose to do also has an impact on the qualities of their political whole. Hence the claim that politics is organic. “Organic” does not mean biological. It denotes a system of interdependent variables, ordered at different levels of abstraction, governed by general rules as well as particular ones that only hold true for each level, where cause and effect are not necessarily linear and may therefore contribute to a range of mutually-exclusive probable outcomes.

This enriched view can help us cast the notion of “sovereignty” in a different light. As something that is adaptable. That can change with the times. A concept whose use in political organisation is dependent on the specifics. Self-determination may attain a new character. It once was treated as national self-determination. Though it might also be international self-determination. This self is not a biological given. It is a product of convention and practical necessity. Much like its consubstantial magnitude: sovereignty.

  1. That the content of language could be considered differently does not mean that language is a collection of arbitrary sounds and/or signs. As we can see from programming languages where it usually is one person or a small group that develops them, the language still needs to have internal coherence in its syntax and grammar. It still needs to distinguish between an object and its qualities, a variable and a constant, a process and a product, etc. ^

Nations choose to distribute authority within their jurisdiction in accordance with their historical-cultural experiences. In its simplest form, this is a unilateral practice. It only involves the given people. In the modern era states seldom are isolated. The margins for unilateral action are narrower than what they were once perceived to be. In this age, where information technology, global finance and trade, the ever growing significance of cyber, contribute to heightened global awareness and inter-connectedness, the default venue of self-determination is through multilateral relations.

The sovereignty of a nation is as much a function of its own collective will as well as the product of the conditions or parameters of its association with other states. To speak of sovereignty as a purely national experience is to disregard the actuality of the present. States cannot choose to remain in a capsule, immune to the direct or indirect influences of their peers. Even the most isolationist of policies cannot mitigate the spill-over effects of the actions of other states, such as in the case of global warming, the condition of the financial markets, the integrity of the global cyber architecture, and so on.

Sovereignty is neither monolithic nor absolute. It may trace its source to the nation state, but is not limited to it. Nor is its expression linear, starting from the bottom (of the nation) and ending in the top (the international order). Sovereignty is moulded continuously both from the top and the bottom. The effective supreme authority of a state at a given point in time—its actual capacity to be self-determined—is a reflection of the prevailing conditions at home and internationally. It is a ‘negotiated result’, as it were, between general norms of politics and law, as well as endogenous and exogenous factors that are context-dependent and, thus, subject to differentiation.

Couched in those terms, it is best to consider the distribution of authority in conjunction with the domain where self-determination between states is made manifest.

The rise of the supranational level

As relations between states attain a legally binding character, so must supreme authority for the items considered be transferred to the supranational level. The idea that a nation can participate in the world, conduct international trade, forge alliances, attend global fora and the like, while also retaining its capacity for unilateral action, is but an illusion. A misunderstanding of what “participation” in the global order entails. Being in the world means giving up a portion of the power to act unilaterally. This is either a conscious decision, such as actively pursuing membership in an international organisation, or an unwanted side effect, the outcome of the externalities engendered by other actors in the globe.

International relations as such present us with a paradox. They posit sovereignty as national. Self-determination as a domestic affair. Yet in substantive terms, the policies derived therefrom are, at least in part, diminishing the nations’ margin for unilateral action. They effectively create the framework within which certain forms and modes of self-determination are permissible. Simultaneously they ensure that the parameters, the ‘rules of the game’ so to speak, cannot be rigged by any one party. The framework would otherwise become obsolete.

Politics between states reveal how the narrow understanding of sovereignty as ‘national’ is a largely incomplete notion in an analytical sense. It (i) decontextualises the nation state, (ii) conflates its headline right to exercise supreme authority with its effective control over the full array of the means of governance, and (iii) fails to account for the ‘parameter-setting’ of multilateral or global affairs and, more specifically, how these have a profound effect on domestic ‘agenda-setting’.

International relations are not the outward expression of national sovereignty. They represent another level of political organisation at which the exercise of supreme authority is made possible. This venue is supranational. Above the nation state, though practically emergent from the association of such states. Sovereignty thus represents a stack. Layer upon layer of political processes which contribute to the greater whole. Causation is circular. Local affairs are influenced or framed by phenomena at higher levels—nation-wide issues, global events—, while the higher levels can trace their origin to workings at the lower end of the ‘stack’.

In this regard, there is nothing untoward with the view of sovereignty as national. What is at stake here is the organon. The analytical instrument that informs certain conclusions. National sovereignty is but part of a whole. It is best viewed—and properly appreciated—in context of its internal dynamics as well as the supranational realities.

The three-fold expression of multilateralism

Political phenomena can be understood as setting the items on the agenda or framing the discussion thereof. The former is a more intrusive or immediate type of influence. It goes into the specifics. How governance is to be conducted. What it may encompass. The latter is rather generic. It leaves a broader scope of interpretation or adaptation. It sets the outer limits to political initiative. That which sets the agenda has a more direct or evident effect on the political process. Whereas that which operates parametrically tends to be treated as a constant.

We may qualify international relations in accordance with their intended impact on political processes at the national level. At its broadest, the classification is three-fold:

  1. Global principles. International covenants whose role is to set standards on various items with universal presence. Human rights are the prime example, though there are all sorts of more technical issues such as aviation standards and the Law of the Sea.
  2. Purpose-specific agreements. Inter-state treaties with a specialised focus where, apart from their normal high-level diplomacy, the arbiter of legality for the items concerned is likely to be a special tribunal or court system envisaged in the agreement as independent from any of the national jurisdictions, or where the domestic judiciary must adjudicate in accordance with the provisions of said agreement.
  3. Transnational state building. Pacts between states that regulate an expanded range of policies, establish a fully fledged layer of political processes above the nation state, and redistribute the power to make and enforce decisions accordingly. The European Union, the integration process in particular, is a case in point.

The above can be initially understood as a spectrum with the first being closer to the ‘parameter-setting’ end while the third would stand at the other extreme of ‘agenda-setting’. That metaphor, however, is but a guide to a much more nuanced study. The parameter-agenda binary is purely theoretical. In practice the two are intertwined. A set of global principles, such as those emanating from the Law of the Sea, does define the outer limits of national action, while simultaneously influencing the relevant items on the agenda. Drawing the Exclusive Economic Zone, fostering the necessary diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries, and the like, are all part of the political process, with the actors involved having their own views on the matter.

The binary is helpful in conjunction with the understanding of sovereignty as a multi-layered whole, a ‘stack’. We can identify the factors that operate at the various levels of abstraction, both with respect to their content and the source of their origin. By judging a phenomenon based on its impact, we can determine whether it relates to either end of the spectrum. We may, thus, appreciate the extent to which a certain relationship between states diffuses or enhances national sovereignties.

Global principles

It can be argued that global principles have no impact on national sovereignty whatsoever. In contrast, they set general guidelines that help establish a level playing field for all states in the world. They ground a generally-accepted corpus of legality essential to the mutual recognition of all states as sovereign. They set the parameters of international politics, what is permissible and accepted in the broadest sense, without restricting the capacity for self-determination in any major way.

Though indeed parametrical in that regard, it is in the nature of any codified command—a piece of law—to enable certain states of affairs while forbidding others. Human rights, for instance, essentially define a series of mutually exclusive worlds within the realm of possibility. By providing for, say, the freedom of expression, they restrict the prerogative of a government to restrict said freedom. These two possible outcomes cannot exist simultaneously, while the latter has no normative foundation at all under the scope of human rights.

Upon closer inspection we realise that global principles have major implications on the agenda. A government cannot justify violations of a global principle on the basis of its sovereign authority. There is no normatively acceptable capacity for self-determination when that contradicts a universal value. Sanctions from other states or the international community as such may ensue. The agenda must therefore be formulated in compliance with the principles. From the perspective of the national government, especially the one that interprets its national sovereignty as absolute, a global principle can be a hindrance to the implementation of its various programmes.

Purpose-specific agreements

Treaties that only address an exhaustive list of issues necessarily have limited implications on the overall capacity of the nation states involved to exercise their supreme authority. This comes down to a couple of reasons:

  • Application. The nation states give up some of their power only on the policies envisaged in the agreement or the elements thereof. Other than that their legal standing to exercise legitimate force remains in tact.
  • Enforcement. The institution that may resolve tensions between the contracting parties likely is a court of law. There is no higher level government, no parliament, army, police, etc. In practice this means that the enforcement of the treaty’s letter or spirit is typically cumbersome and subject to all sorts of technical disputes.

When states enter into a purpose-specific agreement, say, a trade deal they choose to forgo their respective right of imposing trade restrictions on each other and confer the power to arbitrate on that matter to a supranational tribunal or source of legality. Whether the parties to the agreement formally recognise it or not, they are effectively giving up a portion of their supreme authority by transferring a degree of sovereignty to the emergent supranational stratum.

There is, nonetheless, an important distinction between agreements for the mutual diminution of conflicting sovereignties, such as in a trade deal, and agreements for the mutual enhancement of the capacity to exercise supreme authority. Some deals place restrictions on governments. Others offer them more power to implement their agenda. An example of the latter could be a pact to share tax-related information. Corporations that operate across the boundaries of the parties to that agreement would thus find it more difficult to engineer some tax avoidance scheme. Other examples would be agreements for police cooperation, anti-terrorism, and the like. The governments involved stand to increase their effective sovereignty from international relations of that sort.

We may therefore posit that the impact of international relations on the actual distribution of power is contingent on the particulars. More specifically how these affect the exercise of effective supreme authority, even in cases where the nation states involved opt to confer a portion of their headline sovereignty to the supranational level. On paper states delegate power to the higher level, in practice they gain a better grasp on the means of governance.

Supranational state building

With that insight in mind, we can proceed to further enrich the concept of sovereignty. Purpose-specific agreements can either be merged into a comprehensive legal corpus or form a de facto nexus of compatible nodes of supranational self-determination.

Consider this. A group of states opts to forge an agreement on trade. It then formulates a similar deal for handling energy resources. Another agreement on mutual defence is introduced. Police cooperation follows. As do cyber-related functions. The free movement of persons, the need for some common standards on how to approach issues of a shared interest, etc. also get to be included.

The result or cumulative effect is the substantiation of an outright supranational layer of political processes, at least in functional terms. The venue for the exercise of supreme authority is broader than the nation. It is not an aggregate though: a sum of national sovereignties. It rather is an emergent phenomenon, an addition, extension—and oftentimes facilitator—of nation state politics. An altogether different scope of sovereignty.

This integration of areas of policy is a general description of international relations between closely-related states. Of what actually happens when nation states engage in international cooperation over an expanded array of policies. The scenario also is a broad generalisation of the European integration process and of how the European Union has become a complex federal system comprising a number of nation states.1

What we are describing here is the actuality of things. They may not be considered such in formal terms. And that would be so due to an incorrect method of analysis. Indeed if we study a nation’s relations with its peers we will identify a set of purpose-specific deals together with some agreements of the global principles sort. Seeing these in isolation is erroneous. They have to be examined holistically as a nexus, provided they are not mutually exclusive.

For example: let us assume that the negotiated trade agreement between the United States and the European Union (the “TTIP”) gets to pass. In its own accord it is a purpose-specific deal, its comprehensiveness notwithstanding. But the fact would still be that the US-EU relations extend to other ares of policy, such as the exchange of Passenger Name Records, NATO, etc.

The analytical problem that arises with this line of reasoning is with relation to a secondary qualification. Though we may still be confronted with an effective state-building process, gradual as it undoubtedly is, we are missing one important element: democracy, the normative underpinnings of the political processes involved. The main reason we can distinguish ever closer cooperation between states such as the US-EU type from those germane to the European Union is that the former is purely technocratic whereas the latter are also made manifest in a milieu of substantive constitutional norms and democratic modes of decision making.

The perception of control

Normativity has an intrinsic value. It can just as well be interpreted in practical terms. Where democratic processes exist, citizens have a stronger sense of control over the overall direction of the polity. Whereas technocratic methods tend to alienate people, making them think that they are indeed giving up their sovereignty.

It perhaps is this very fact that reinforces the feeling that the proper scope of sovereignty is the one of the nation state. Democracy has traditionally been limited to the national lifeworld. International affairs are nonetheless evolving with the times. A hundred years ago it was much more difficult to conduct trade in the same way as today. The global financial world was not interconnected. International institutions were either non-existent or, where present, practically irrelevant. Information technology was far inferior to the one now available. In short, globalisation forces us to shift our perspective.

All sorts of contemporary challenges simply did not exist a century ago. New tools are needed to tackle them. At the core of this emerging ‘new politics’ is an enriched understanding of sovereignty. One that is not necessarily fastened upon the national construct. A sovereignty that is allowed to flourish at the level of inter-state cooperation most pertinent to the issue at hand. And, most importantly, one that can be recognised as independent or transcendent of the national context. That is a revaluated normative foundation. It allows for democracy at every scope of self-determination from the sub-national all the way to the supranational, with whatever permutations or combinations in between.

  1. For more on the European integration process and the specifics of the EU, read one of my other books: Little Guide to the European Union. Published on May 9, 2016. ^

There is a distinction to be made between headline and effective sovereignty. The former concerns the formal aspect. The surface level. It is limited to the historically legal-political conception of sovereignty as the normative foundation of an internationally recognised and self-determined nation state. Whereas the latter is substantive. It treats sovereignty as supreme authority within a political whole. This amounts to the control over the means of governance, broadly understood. The two can be decoupled. There can be instances where on paper a state is considered sovereign, when in actuality it has little to no margin for its self-determination. And vice-versa.

Headline sovereignty is the kind one finds at the formal level of international relations, such as the United Nations. The three main facets of such sovereign authority are enshrined in Article 2 of the UN Charter. More specifically in provisions 1 and 4 (emphasis added):

Article 2.1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.

Article 2.4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

From the UN’s references to sovereignty we may infer the following set of principles:

  • Equality. All nation states that are members of the UN are considered equal in terms of their sovereignty. In other words, the sovereignty of one does not take precedence or is superior to that of another (Article 2.1).
  • Independence. All sovereign nation states are independent from interventions from other states, including the use of threats or outright force. Independence is the other side of the principle of equality, while it also means that all sovereign states are considered political wholes, as being discrete, distinguishable from one another (Article 2.4).
  • Territoriality. Sovereign authority is confined to a physical space, the area within which a nation state’s independence may be exercised. Territoriality is, in this regard, the physical embodiment of the constitutional order and, consequently, partakes of the same principle of indivisibility and integrity. Territoriality cannot be divided, with a portion of it no longer qualifying as part of the independent and equally sovereign nation state.

To the above principles, we may also include the following implicit ones:

  • Continuity. Every state continues to exist as a state even if its people may change or its legal order undergoes a period of crisis.
  • Uniformity. The state is understood as the primary actor of diplomatic affairs in the international order and is treated as a single personality.
  • Nationhood. The identification of the state with a given culturally-defined people.

These two lists form a solid understanding of sovereignty, especially in its emanation as national sovereignty. Many instances of international politics can be analysed and indeed comprehended in those terms. Where the lists fall short is with regard to their application on atypical (rather ‘atypical’) cases. Instances of civil war, armed conflicts, outright invasion of one state or group thereof into another’s space. These cannot conform with notions of equality between states, independence from external influences, territorial integrity, whatever the justification and its reasonableness.

But it is not just the implosion of a certain normality or equilibrium that defies the aforementioned. Transnational state-building such as in the case of the European integration process, even though seldom referred to as such, has similar implications. Independence becomes interdependence. Territoriality no longer is uniform in terms of jurisdiction, for the policies implemented therein may have been delegated to non-national entities or political processes at the supranational level. Equality is contextualised in light of demographics, economic policy, and the like, so that it may imply equality of citizens though not necessarily of states in terms of their actual impact or involvement.

Effective sovereignty is a matter of analytics

There is value to be had in an analysis of such phenomena through the prism of headline sovereignty. Though its conclusions would be incomplete if taken in isolation. The traditional view of sovereignty can thus lead to erroneous conclusions.

Here we draw a distinction between what holds true in formal terms and what does in effect. All states are perceived as sovereign. That is the law. Yet their capacity to realise such principle is contingent on the prevailing conditions of the international order as well as qualitative aspects of quotidian life.

As concerns the latter, we need to examine in a different light a set of factors that underpin the exercise of governance. Effective sovereignty is about the things that enable the presence of a supreme authority. In broad terms these include the following, which we will proceed to discuss in the subsequent sections:

  • territoriality
  • rule of law
  • economic welfare
  • social cohesion
  • self-conscious demos


States are sovereign within a given territory. Though the term “territory” may etymologically refer to a land mass, we are here using it to denote areas over which the polity can exert rightful control. Sea and air are included in this definition, as well as the more abstract notion of cyber.

Territoriality is the space within which the law of the polity reigns supreme. No person, be it legal or natural, nor group thereof, can exercise greater authority than the state institution competent over that defined area. The ‘polity’ is not necessarily the nation state. It is neither fixed nor monolithic. In addition to the national institutional order, it can be the supranational level competent over the policy at hand. For example, supreme authority over monetary affairs in the euro area is exercised by the European Central Bank. No single nation state that is part of the eurozone (the defined area) can override that authority even within its own borders (where it is thought to have headline sovereignty).

This is the vertical dimension of territoriality. It concerns the distribution of competences within its boundaries. Powers that apply to a given territory may be held by multiple agents of political initiative. Sub-national government, national administration, supranational institutions that are possibly linked to more than one international organisation or platform. Verticality may thus be heterogeneous, of multiple kinds.

The horizontal dimension is intimately linked to citizenship or rather to the fact that persons within the territory are equally subject to the law of the polity. This is distinct from the normative claims on the rights of human and citizen. It is not substantive, as it merely describes the relationship between persons as well as their position vis-à-vis the state.

In a more quotidian sense, territoriality is the space within which all formal political processes take place. Relations between persons are regulated, framed, or otherwise determined by the prevailing conditions within the polity. These range from rules of custom to statutes, from social stratification to moral outlook, from underlying values to current behavioural or intellectual trends.

Territoriality must therefore not be limited to the drawing of borders on a map. That is but a formal starting point. Territoriality is, in effect, the manifestation of statehood and constitutional identity. In this respect, it is the single most important indicator of sovereignty, insufficient as it may be when taken in its own capacity.

Rule of law

A polity can practically be understood as a network of laws. Laws are codified commands that perform a number of functions to the effect that they:

  • draw the limits of legality within the boundaries of territoriality (territory itself being defined by laws, including of the international community at large);
  • institute authorities, their scope and ends;
  • establish the qualities of institutions and interrelations thereof;
  • provide for the regulation of daily activities;
  • demarcate private and public spheres, by outlining what may be considered a common good and what may remain under proprietary control.

This non-exhaustive list can be summarised as law being the underlying enabling factor in every aspect of political life. By likening law to a codified system we are not attempting to describe it as precise, devoid of ambiguity, and thoroughly syntactical. Law typically is subject to interpretation and remains somewhat generic in its description of triggers for its activation. Hence the presence of institutions specialising in its application and its context-dependent interpretation.

Law is here treated as a system of code in an attempt to suggest that its every item is contingent on the quality of the code base and structure. If the system malfunctions, there must be some tension between its various parts, something not behaving as expected. This is what we actually mean by the “rule of law”: a legal system that operates in accordance with its predefined functions. There is no substantive aspect to it. That would require a further qualification, such as the democratic rule of law.

The integrity of the legal order is a factor of sovereignty in that it provides for at least two consubstantial political qualities that facilitate the effective exercise of supreme authority. These are (i) the indiscriminate nature of the law and (ii) its coherence and consistency over specific cases and the passing of time.

  • Indiscriminate. The capacity to treat similar cases as similar and dissimilar ones as dissimilar. This guarantees the predictability of interpersonal or social affairs, while it also ensures that authorities operate within their remit.
  • Absolute. The preservation of the equality of opportunity or outcomes, typically understood as the temporal coherence of the law’s effect or else its consistent, non-arbitrary application. It underpins the sense of trust in the state and its effectiveness, or more specifically the belief in the near-sacrosanct status of the law, practically understood as rules not being rigged.

What the rule of law does is guarantee a modicum of social peace and cohesion. It provides for consistency among political processes. It predefines the margin of the authorities’ discretion and preempts abuses of power. If the subjects of the law recognise that the horizontal dimension of territoriality is respected, i.e. that all citizens are equal qua citizens, then they will also accept that the vertical dimension, that of the polity being able to rule, is worth keeping in tact.

Where the legal system begins to lose its integrity there emerge all sorts of problems and tensions. Social unrest, economic uncertainty, worsening of the relations with other countries. This is not about the substance of the law becoming less democratic per se. Deterioration of this kind is not normative but functional. It refers to an unexpected, unforeseen, or otherwise contentious drift towards a new equilibrium. Such changes have far-reaching ramifications, not just in legal terms, but in the very social-political order of the state: the compact that once held everything in place, defining that normality.

The rule of law is a polity’s organic defence against endogenous tendencies for the violent settlement of social affairs, i.e. rebellion, revolution, terrorism, or civil war. Adding democracy to it only makes it more robust due to (i) the intrinsic justice of human rights and fundamental freedoms, (ii) the inherent value of pluralism and participation in decision-making, and (iii) the compatibility with the law of the international community which makes relations with other countries more straightforward.

Economic welfare and social cohesion

Similar to the previous section, economic welfare and social cohesion are critical for ensuring social peace, and hence for providing the conditions for the unencumbered exercise of effective sovereignty.

Widespread economic well-being and social peace jointly are a factor of sovereignty because they bestow on the subject a sense of duty towards the commons. Civic obedience. This moral quality underpins one’s disposition to e.g. recognise the institutions of the state as indeed legitimised in what they do, to identify in statutes and courts a source of legality, and so on.

In other words, it provides the subject with a justification to preserve and iterate on the institutional order of their polity, rather than be inimical to it to the point of seeking its total annihilation. And therein lies the factor of sovereignty: in the recognition that a perpetually formed-and-confirmed bond exists between the authorities and the individuals that make up the political whole.

Economic exclusion, vast inequalities in the access to resources and the actual opportunities available to the person, can undermine the polity’s ethical role. The law will not be seen as delivering justice, but as sustaining an undesirable state of affairs. Social exclusion and marginalisation, based on economic, cultural, religious, racial or other factors forces the excluded group to rely on its own mores. It is a practical necessity since the polity does not provide for them. Parallel societies may thus emerge, whose connection to the body politic is tenuous at best, existing only in a formal sense.

A subject of persistent social-economic inequality, be it individual or group, may harbour no sense of civic obedience, no respect toward the state they live in. Phenomena such as that of homegrown terrorism might as well be partially influenced by a feeling of revolt to what they perceive as endemic injustice: unequal opportunities in the marketplace, inadequate representation in political affairs, etc.

From the perspective of the sovereign, where such parallel societies exist, all sorts of obstacles are placed in the efforts to optimally organise social life. The capacity to tax those groups is hindered, as are other functions of statehood, such as public education, provisions for public health and safety, law and order, and so on.

Self-conscious demos

By default, the demos of the state is the legally recognised totality of citizens. Citizenship is a legal condition. It is created as law and is given selectively. It can be taken provided certain irregular circumstances. Its substantive qualities, the rights conferred to the individual and the obligations derived therefrom, are contingent on the polity’s practical morality. What sort of fundamental rights it protects, whether the rule of law is respected, and the like.

Yet the demos cannot be instituted as such by virtue of a mere edict. The citizens also need to harbour a basic feeling of belonging to their citizenry. Law as such cannot foster that. It is the participation of the individual in the commons that brings them into the fold. The more inclusive the public space, the higher the consciousness of the demos in its presence as an organic whole.

The reason this is considered a factor of sovereignty can be understood in terms of social cohesion, as mentioned above, but also as a mutually invigorating feedback between the state and the subjects of its laws. Take the European Union as a case in point. There exists a legal instrument which bestows on any EU national the status of European citizen. The legal aspect is more or less covered. What is missing is the sense of participation in the “Europeanness” of said citizenship.

When the people in Greece react to the austerity measures of the ‘troika’, they do not object to ‘their’ policy-makers, but to their country’s international creditors. The sense of being Greek takes precedence over that of being European. And that feeling extends to the other electorates across Europe, for the troika was indeed designed as an international grouping of creditors to reinforce the idea that the Greek economic woes are indeed ‘Greek’, not European.

The point is not the politics of Europe’s single currency. It is that in the absence of a self-conscious demos the executive—in our example the EU—can find it extremely difficult to legitimise the segment of its actions that aim to promote the general good. If the European Commission were to somehow restructure the debts of the ‘European periphery’ in search of pursuing the good of the EU as a whole, chances are that the ‘European core’ would have reacted in the most vociferous of fashions, risking a fracture in the system.

Without sufficient space for legitimising state initiatives, effective sovereignty is reduced. The scope of what can be done is in many ways define by whether the demos thinks of its own as a whole, and whether it is prepared to make sacrifices over the short term in order to further reinforce its own cohesion qua demos.

National sovereignty does not equal power

The traditional view of sovereignty is that supreme authority rests in—and emanates from—the nation. Only nation states can be sovereign. Through this chapter we have tried to contest that view. To argue that this is a formal convention, not a description of actual phenomena.

The argument rests on the premise that there is a distinction to be made between the surface aspects of sovereignty and the substantive qualities thereof. We have labelled the former headline sovereignty. The latter is effective sovereignty. The headline is indeed that: the impression of a certain state of affairs. A judgement made prima facie. Whereas the effective is decoupled from formalities. It is about the means of governance, the factors of supreme authority within a political whole.

A polity that does not exercise control over the factors of effective sovereignty is unable to be self-determined. Its determination proceeds in accordance with the direction set by the forces that influence those factors.

Global affairs are replete with cases where national sovereignty is but an empty shell. It exists in name only. From failed states to protectorates to de facto colonies of hegemonic powers and/or multinational corporations, there is ample evidence to suggest that the theoretical framework is too rigid. Perhaps out of sync with the times.

By distinguishing between form and substance we can develop a better understanding of phenomena. A few examples:

  • Is a nation state truly sovereign when it cannot tax sufficiently a multinational corporation? On paper it is. In practice any attempt to raise taxes may lead to capital outflows.
  • Is the European Union sovereign? In formal terms it is not. Only its nations are. Its competences are transferred to it by the nations to pursue certain functional ends. And yet, the EU does exercise effective sovereignty over those policies where it is competent (as in the case of the euro).
  • Is Syria or Libya sovereign? They have national sovereignty. In practice there is no national compact to speak of.

The more subtle point is that statespersonship is not sufficed with securing headline sovereignty. It is concerned with the factors of effective sovereignty. How to control them and maximise their potential. As for the overarching theme, it lies in the fine distinction between the static entity that is the state and the adaptable one that is the polity. The former is the body recognised as holding public authority. The latter is the emergent province of effective sovereignty, which may encompass multiple levels of ‘state’, including supranational political processes or prevailing conditions. The two sometimes overlap, depending on the area of policy and whether the nation state has control over the full array of the means of governance. That is case-dependent. The general truth is that they are distinguishable, much like to magnitudes of headline and effective sovereignty.

This chapter starts with a seemingly problematic proposition: its very title. The market, an inanimate system of economic relations, is claimed to be a political actor, a subject of the political process. We tend to think of [democratic] politics as the theatre of voters, their representatives, media outlets, vested interests; the forum where the plurality of society’s perspectives on life is expressed (more or less). And in so doing, we may be assuming that the subject of politics is necessarily a person or group thereof. What about systems as such? Can the parameters that otherwise define a certain group themselves partake in political life?

The train of thought leads us to a question about method. It is a matter of defining the agent of politics. Agency or structure. This is the binary we are dealing with. There are individuals that act. Their actions are determined or otherwise framed by the nominal environment. Action is a function of upbringing, collective experiences, social status, education, what the law or custom promotes and suppresses, what tradition sees as just and unjust, the sphere of possibility revealed by effective technology, and the like. Whatever may be considered external to the person, yet inherent in their intersubjective lifeworld, has to qualify as structure. It is ‘there’ regardless of the individual’s will.

To this end, one would expect that the factors that frame or otherwise condition a group of economics actors—what we sum up as “the market”—is itself a facet of structure. It cannot be an agent by logical necessity. But since the consideration revolves around method, we might as well scrutinise the very dichotomy that seems to lead to this contradiction. Agency and structure are meaningful categories when we study human action. They collapse into themselves and create methodological uncertainty when applied to a holistic analysis of the polity, i.e. when we move away from human action per se.

To put it simply, if we focus on human relations, social class falls under the classification of ‘structure’. It conditions the behaviour of situational agents and patients. An individual is endowed with whatever their place (or starting point) in society allows for. The exact same state of affairs requires a different approach altogether when considered under the scope of the polity as such, for social class has implications on the distribution of power and influence. A class may colonise the state to the point of exerting its control over the rest of society. This does not happen at the level of the individual or group thereof, but at the class as such. Political systems such as feudalism provide an historical case in point. It is not the individual[s]—those living—that enforce their dominion over the rest of society, but anyone who may be part of the class, including the generations to be by virtue of the institution of hereditary rule.

The distinction may seem pedantic. It certainly is. Reflections on method are necessarily as much. Yet ‘pedantic’ does not mean ‘irrelevant’ or ‘unimportant’. It is just a technical qualification that helps in further refining the tools of the analysis. By doing so we overcome the seemingly erroneous titular claim that what would otherwise pass as structure is in fact agency. We do not use outright paradoxes like “structure is agency” without explaining their underlying rationale. That would be frivolous. Easy to dismiss. What we are doing instead is draw a subtle yet crucial distinction between orders of abstraction.

We do not consider the polity as seen from the perspective of the person, important as that undoubtedly is. We study it in total. Changing the scope implies revising the categories germane to the methodological framework. In this holistic approach, macro entities, systems such as ‘class’ or ‘market’, are very much agents of the overall political organisation of human experience. By that we mean that they do not “condition the behaviour of situational agents and patients”. Rather, their own behaviour, which manifests as a concatenation of emergent phenomena from the underlying relations of the individuals participating in the system, impacts the political process while being conditioned by the broader magnitudes—the methodological structure—of the polity: its historical-cultural-institutional order and concomitant path dependencies.

Even an outline of the specifics of a fine argument requires some explanation. We assume the above to be adequate in resolving the epistemological tension at hand. Proceeding to the salient point is in order.

Financialisation and global capital

Financialisation is the process by which the economy becomes ever dependent on the inner workings of the financial sector. Most economic activities are either directly or indirectly contingent on finance. The bank as an intermediary between savers and borrowers is not a new institution. Financialisation is.

Finance’s role as the cornerstone of the economy is not down to the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market, whereby “free” implies an organic state of affairs with no intervention from the state or any other connection to political realities. Finance is at the epicentre in large part because the prevailing conditions grant it that privileged status. These may involve (i) outright privileges from the government such as lower tax rates or lax regulation, (ii) beneficial treatment such as in cases of financial duress (where the bank is bailed out but not, say, the households that borrowed from it), (iii) unequal distribution of the efficiency gains from globalisation.

While the former two are greatly important, their specifics vary substantially depending on the jurisdiction concerned. The issue we may therefore consider for the purposes of this book is the third one: globalisation. What does this elusive concept actually stand for? What is its economic actuality?

Globalisation is the process by which the political processes of the world become ever interdependent and mutually aware, where trade attains a global character especially as concerns its integration and evolution into a systemic whole, and where there is an increasing sense of doing politics for the general interests of the international community at-large (currently on climate and to a lesser extent finance and taxation, soon in other areas such as cyber). Globalisation is the overarching theme of international relations. It essentially informs the politics of the present. To be a part of the world or to attempt to stand against the trends.

Globalisation is concurrent with—or contingent on—advances in information technology. There is a sense of immediacy to it, which is integral to the interconnectedness of the world. European citizens would, for instance, have little direct insight into the inner workings of the US presidential elections without the communication media available at our disposal. Similarly, markets would be less responsive to underlying economic changes as there would be a greater delay between an event and its internalisation in the cost/risk assessment exercise.

As immediacy becomes prevalent the need for physical proximity diminishes. Information technology effectively shrinks the space-time of human experience. Data travels in an instant. Events on the other side of the planet have a greater impact on domestic affairs than they otherwise would. Everything feels closer. For big business this means that they are not necessarily bound to any one place. Their holding company can be situated far away from where most economic activity takes place.

This opens up markets to global investment. It also contributes to the greater exposure of the domestic economy to events abroad. The Great Recession is a case in point. The burst of America’s property bubble had a cascading effect on European markets in particular and the international economy more generally. It exposed the fragility of European banks, revealed the infamous ‘Greek statistics’, contributed to the euro area’s sovereign debt and bank crisis, and so on.

From a political perspective, there are two points worth highlighting before proceeding to analyse the overarching theme:

  1. Too big to fail. Financial institutions are at the core of economic activity. That alone makes them vital. They also expand their investing/trading activities into markets that are not related to the ‘real economy’: financial derivatives and the like. Eventually they outgrow the very domestic economy in which they operate. The authorities meant to regulate them are faced with a near impossible task of tackling a global[ised] issue with purely national means.
  2. State-bank symbiosis. Corruption and corporatism notwithstanding, the interests of the state and the banks can be interwoven by economic conditions. A financial institution that is deemed ‘too big to fail’ is, in effect, treated as part of the state apparatus rather than a typical private actor. An outright bailout from the sovereign is the likely course of action. Private debt thus becomes public debt. A sovereign debt crisis may ensue, as was the case in several occasions amid the euro crisis. It then is the sovereign that needs banks to ‘support’ it, in the form of credit (buy its sovereign debt instruments).

Asymmetry and market accountability

Market dynamics themselves forge a strong bond between the state and financial institutions. But the relationship is not necessarily symmetrical. The sovereign is a nation state. It does not have the chance to reap the benefits of globalisation in the same way a multinational corporation might. The nation state is largely static. It can only impose taxes and regulations within its own jurisdiction. Whereas the bank is more flexible and adaptable. It can allocate capital across the globe, siphon profit through ‘favourable’ tax jurisdictions, partake in investment activities far from the base of its holding company.

In short, the state is local, the bank global. Yet when the domestic bank fails it is only up to the corresponding public authorities to act, as if the problem is purely their own. In a narrow sense of which legal order applies it certainly is. Though in the broader sense of the underpinnings of the market failure at hand, there likely are cross-border factors involved.

The gains of globalisation are not distributed evenly across society. International trade does not benefit everyone in equal proportion. Some lose other profit enormously. The latter group is typically populated by businesses with a cross-border reach combined with the means to exploit loopholes across multiple jurisdictions. The more nuanced point is that the magnitudes of economic activity and locality are decoupled. It is easier for private actors of this sort to exert pressure on the government by effectively shifting their core businesses to countries with more favourable regulations.

The most obvious challenge to public authority is on taxation. A nation state cannot impose high tax rates or considerably broaden the tax base without running the risk of losing the affected companies to more ‘competitive’ jurisdictions. Businesses with a global reach have the option to relocate. The effective sovereignty of the state thus diminishes. It formally remains the supreme authority. In practice there is little it can do in its own right, at least less than what would be wanted/needed.

Globalisation’s asymmetric distribution of resources has a profound effect on the political process, more specifically with regard to the accountability of public authorities. The body of citizens no longer is the sole actor that checks on the government. Markets perform the same function, albeit with different means.

Consider this example. The people of a relatively small economy elect a government on a more progressive platform. To raise taxes on the rich, expand social welfare, invest in public schools and healthcare, etc. Voters will hold the government accountable on the basis of whether it implements its agenda. Markets on the other hand will set their own policy priorities. They may attach a greater risk to investments in that country, demand higher risk premia for buying its sovereign debt, or altogether threaten to channel investments into another country with a less ‘socialist’ outlook. The state will either seek a compromise or lose out to the market forces, because the latter have the upper hand courtesy of globalisation.

States are not helpless though, provided they do not think of themselves in isolationist terms. They can engage in international relations that enhance their sovereignty by diminishing the flexibility of private ‘global’ actors. For instance, if large corporations move their profits away from, say, Greece to Luxembourg, the solution is an EU-wide initiative to harmonise corporate taxation throughout the single market. The effective elimination of major aspects of fiscal competition would force businesses with a cross-border reach into accepting the rules imposed by the authorities.

The asymmetry of globalisation is, therefore, a transitory phenomenon. It lies in the simple fact that the private sphere became global while the public remained partially trapped in the traditional conception of sovereignty as purely national. There is global trade. There is no global government. Which creates a regulatory disconnect. The magnitudes differ.

Democratic sovereignty excludes market agency

Democracy rests on the virtuous cycle of legitimation and accountability between the state and the people. The latter provide the former with their consent, which is necessary for rendering the legal order acceptable and for granting the authorities the right to govern. At the same time, it takes state fiat to qualify a group of people as citizens. There is no citizenry in the absence of the relevant legal provisions. No random person can participate in the affairs of a state.

Democracy thus represents a feedback loop between two facets of sovereignty: (i) state and (ii) popular. The first consists in the supremacy of the polity within its territorial confines. Its independence and inherent capacity to exercise legitimate force for the promotion of the general good (for the people). The second is the normative foundation of democratic rule as bottom-up and participative (from and with the people). It also contains the magma of norms and unwritten rules—culture—that gets to inform, indeed mould, a certain constitutional identity.

The market qua agent of politics does not fit into this cycle as it operates at a different scale. That is so because democratic rule is hitherto confined to a locale of sorts, typically the nation or the instituted polity ‘stack’ of the nation plus the relevant supranational stratum of politics. It is not globalised. The market is. That is exactly why it can have a profound effect on the political process even though it formally does not take part in it.

The market holds the authorities accountable by virtue of its capacity to adapt to evolving circumstances throughout the planet. It essentially has the power to escape the law and, in so doing, to pose its own conditions on legislators. Without that ability it would, at most, function as another source of information—a guide—on what the underlying dynamics in the economy are. It would be complementary to quotidian political affairs. Not a substitute of them.

The asymmetry requires global coordination

All phenomena are properly regulated at the level in which they occur. Neighbourhood squabbles can be dealt with among neighbours. Nation-wide issues call for central government initiative. Continental and global challenges require international cooperation. This is true for globalised capital just as it holds for climate change and the emerging need to regulate cyberspace.

In the absence of concerted action on that front, multinational corporations will continue to enjoy a disproportionate advantage of the political sort. Their influence on the political process will remain significant as well as loosely checked. Ultimately though, their favourable status engenders in them a tendency to seek out alliances with domestic politicians the world over. To foster or benefit from corruption that is. In both normative and economic terms this is suboptimal, indeed undesirable.

An ambitious roadmap for tackling the asymmetries of globalisation would encompass at least the following:

  • Influential states, such as the USA or the EU, would lead by example. They could proceed to stamp out any dubious tax regimes that enable multinationals to effectively escape taxation. Macroprudential policy and financial regulation in general would also be given priority.
  • International alliances would be forged on the basis of exchanging information about registered companies, fiscal practices, and financial oversight. The promotion of sound tax and bank policies should also be prioritised.
  • A global memorandum of understanding could be signed to the effect of forcing all parties to insert a “symmetry clause” in any future international treaty they sign. The clause would be a generic commitment to regulate cross-border capital in a manner that is consistent and beneficial for all states involved.

Modalities and content may well vary. The idea is to make steps towards the globalisation of the relevant politics. This is the only course of action available for restoring markets to their original function as hubs of economic activity with no immediate impact on the political process. In the meantime, they will continue to operate as a political actor towards which elected officials are held accountable without sufficient reciprocity.

The term “cyber” with its various derivatives is gradually becoming part of political parlance. Usually it is in relation to some malicious attempt to deny or sabotage an online service, leak sensitive information from a remote database, and the like. Attackers of that sort are often referred to as “hackers”, while their acts qualify as “cyber attacks”. The discussion surrounding the topic is heavily influenced by military notions of offence and defence, and by an emphasis on the kind of issues peculiar to the maintenance of public order.

While there is truth to be had in those security-focused themes, cyber cannot be conceived as merely another domain for the conduct of what effectively amounts to war. A simple way of putting it is that cyber is the extension of collective human experience in digital space, complemented by the interaction between machines and programmed/preconfigured logical processes. Apart from security, cyber encompasses such issues as ethics, the distribution of power and control among situational agents and patients, the presence of social-economic hierarchies, and so on.

What is cyber

Cyberspace: The notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs.
Oxford Dictionary

These concepts are relatively novel. Their implications have not been envisaged in their fullest. Policy-makers may lack the expert advice necessary for legislating on the matter, or they still do not appreciate its significance as a core item on the agenda. The law is lagging behind technology, at least as far as the pace of change is concerned. New inventions and innovative ways of organising labour and distributing the product thereof often expose a certain disconnect between the physical and the digital realms. The former remains wedded in political custom and in traditional views about statehood, belonging, subjectivity, ownership, and the like. The latter can be found exploring the outer boundaries of such issues as individuality, property, agency, often challenging their conventional value and overall usefulness as paradigms for the new era.

We live in an age of transition. Cyber is pushing itself to the centre of human society. Technological progress is such that there is a strong sense of inevitability to it all. The Internet is ubiquitous and rapidly evolving into a domain populated not just by humans accessing it through personal computers, but by ‘connected devices’ (appliances such as the fridge and the thermostat) that are programmed to retrieve remote data in order to execute certain tasks. Many utilities and everyday activities become digitised or have a software component attached to them. The software is, generally speaking, designed to harness the potential provided by a network of communications. It accesses the network to interoperate with other pieces of software, its output becoming the input of the other, with the ultimate objective of automating repetitive activities, and of simulating human intelligence in the anticipation of likely outcomes to evolving states of affairs.

The networks that emerge from the interplay between humans, machines and their programs, form a space unlike anything we have experienced before. This is not a tract of land that we can draw lines on, some territory where we can maintain a standing army ready to fend off incursions. Cyber is, first and foremost, a system of variables, with their interactions unfolding at various levels of abstraction. It is largely notional in that regard. Though ‘notional’ should not be thought of as akin to ‘ethereal’, ‘magical’, or anything of the sort. The system is comprehensible throughout, even though it is highly complex and consists of numerous components that demand certain expertise to be properly comprehended. Yet there are those qualities of cyber that relate to social experience which require the same kind of political thinking that applies to more familiar instances of quotidian public life.

Cyber for the people

It is conceivable to think and speak about cyber without being a ‘nerd’, ‘hacker’, ‘technologist’. The lay person can perfectly understand topics pertinent to cyber such as the diffusion or concentration of economic power, the effective control of corporations—also known as “Internet giants”—over large segments of online activity, mass surveillance by the government, and things of that nature.

The first step to approaching cyber is to demystify it. Yes, technical insight into anything that has to do with computers and software requires a certain set of advanced skills that take years to acquire and master. Indeed the number of people who can provide expertise on the finer points are but a small minority. However, the same kind of argument can be forwarded for virtually every area of policy. Agriculture has its experts. Law. Economics. The military. Whatever their peculiarities, these are not excluded from the political process. Citizens and their representatives maintain their views on those issues; views that often translate into legislative action and/or policy initiatives from the government. Cyber can be no different.

The second step to approach the subject is to consider cyber’s emergence and presence in light of everyday experience, of its impact on ordinary life. For instance, every labourer knows what widespread automation can do to their work prospects. By using that which is immediate, we can fathom the ramifications of digitisation in the workplace, family life, the political process and governance, social stratification, the distribution of power within and across states. It is, in other words, to identify the social-cultural-historical change brought by cyber and to recognise—or attempt to anticipate—the structures derived therefrom.

The political talk on cyber is not about the technicalities that the developer or the engineer has to deal with. It concerns the effects of this new domain of human invention on social organisation. Cyber is, as we posited in the introduction to this chapter, the digital extension of collective human experience and, therefore, yet another dimension of the exercise of political authority. As such, it needs to be understood, regulated and managed just as every other aspect of human venture, rather than be left open to the major [corporate] interests now active in the field.

Cyber extends to physical space

To this end, we need to broaden the definition furnished above. Though technically correct, it is too narrow for our politically-focused analysis. Cyberspace is not merely notional or, rather, it is not realisable in purely notional terms. In essence, cyber and its space consists of two magnitudes: (i) hardware, (ii) software. There are data centres, power supply chains, local and remote computers, and whatever other ‘connected’ device may form part of the network (or network of networks).

Hardware-wise, cyber is a decentralised system that is ultimately present in physical space. Hardware is the platform where software can function. It also is the object on which software may iterate, potentially to affect its modality, its state of being.

To elaborate on the latter, let us consider the following example. Your computer runs an Operating System (Linux, Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, etc.). It is the software infrastructure on which applications such as your web browser, text editor, music player, etc., get to run on. Very simply put, your computer is an abstract structure consisting of three layers: the hardware, the OS at the software’s base, the apps at the top. An integral part of the OS is a program known as the “kernel”. It manages memory usage, input and output devices, and the like. Your mouse and keyboard, the monitor, the stereo speakers. These all work thanks to the kernel. And obviously because programs are programmable, the kernel can also be instructed to do certain things, such as not to allocate sufficient memory for a certain task, or not to send the necessary signal to the monitor. You get the idea. Software gets to affect the state of the hardware, while hardware defines the potential of the software, presenting us with an organic whole.

If we extend this to computer networks and software stacks (layers of abstraction each with an ever more specialised function), we get a multidimensional system whose inner workings happen in conceptual space, yet whose ultimate impact is made manifest physically.

A working definition of cyberspace can, therefore, be formulated thus: a multifaceted architecture for creating, storing, communicating, and managing data and for influencing the state of any physical entity or resource ultimately linked to it.

Here is a scenario to emphasise the physical aspect of cyber. Imagine an electricity authority that wants to optimise the way it handles power production. Its engineers have developed a program that uses several indicators to determine the scale of operations. When consumers turn on their air conditioners at peak hours the program responds by producing the additional electricity. It automatically scales back when usage falls to a lower point. There is no need to have humans manually control switches. The program does that 24/7 with no delays whatsoever. The efficiency gains for the electricity authority and ultimately the cost savings for the consumer are considerable. Now imagine some attacker wanting to disrupt the power supply. Assuming they bypass the security checks, they could write/inject the necessary code (set of formalised logical commands) that would confuse the program or make it do something that was not originally intended, such as over- or under- supply electricity, to the point of causing physical harm to the electricity network.1

Data channels are notional. Their underlying infrastructure is physical. Extend this to traffic lights, the water supply, telecommunications, whatever connected device you [will] have at home such as your thermostat, fridge, toaster, and you can fathom the extent to which software impacts ‘reality’.

Cyber solidity through the rule of law

Cyber is another domain for the exercise of supreme authority, sovereignty. Unlike the magnitudes of land, sea, and air, the space resulting from the networks of humans, machines and their programs is largely notional. Traditional concepts of drawing borders are of no use, at least not in the context of an open Internet. So how may a polity proceed to delineate its “territory”, the province of its jurisdiction, in such an environment? The answer is to be found in cyber’s ultimate connection to physical reality. Data centres are located somewhere. They are governed by a certain legal order, as do the natural/legal persons that eventually get to use them.

In a previous chapter we posited the rule of law as a factor of sovereignty. The effective exercise of control rests on the integrity of the legal order. Its universality, reasonableness, and predictability. A stable legal framework strengthens the people’s trust in their polity. It fosters a strong connection between the government and the citizens that ultimately stand to gain from an intrinsically reliable system. Citizens must trust the law in order for the public institutions to exercise effective sovereignty. By extension, they need to have confidence in the capacity of law makers to provide for a secure and impartial field when it comes to a domain such as cyber that greatly influences their livelihood.

The entire architecture that provides for the emergence of social experiences in digital space needs to be brought in line with the highest possible legal standard. Citizens and businesses alike can expect nothing less than a robust system on which to base a great[er] portion of their individual and social activity. The state regulates other key areas of daily life, such as the financial system which is central to virtually every business transaction. Telecommunications, education, social welfare also fall in that category. The authorities cannot afford to abstain from setting the criteria for the security and protection of data, data centres, networks, and so on. These are critical infrastructure.

A robust legal framework in the realm of cyber must consist of two tiers: (i) global principles, (ii) domestic legislation. As concerns the former, international agreements need to be formulated to the effect of providing guidelines for local authorities to put into law. This would be similar to the approach followed on bank supervision and prudential policy. The ambition is to lay the groundwork for the mutual enhancement of soveregnties through improvements in the overall intergrity of a truly global system. Domestic legislation will then provide for the specifics of self-determination. To ensure that the rules satisfy the needs of the polity and are aligned with its constitutional tradition.

The right legal framework can create the economic conditions/incentives that will make it profitable to consider security an integral part of everything related to cyber, from the hardware to the software. The solidity of cyber will not happen serendipitously. It requires concerted efforts. To disincentivise bad coding, manufacturing, marketing practices that render the system fragile. To set the criteria and the direction. For cyber is an extension of the polity’s province of legality. It has to exhibit predictability and reasonableness in the same way the rest of the legal order does.

FOSS can secure public authorities

It is typical for public authorities to run some old version of a commercial Operating System (OS), typically Microsoft Windows. The way software is rendered secure is through ‘patches’. New code that addresses a specific vulnerability. Support for old software is not readily available. It requires specialised teams or a bespoke setup for handling its vulnerabilities. That is inefficient, expensive, and usually implies that the authorities are dependent on an external service provider, including the creator of the OS.

Free and open source software (FOSS) can provide a secure and in many ways superior alternative. We will use Linux as a case in point.2 This is a type of OS that is developed in an open, decentralised, and peer-reviewed fashion. There are many distributions or distros of Linux. Each caters to the specific needs of its target audience. For example, Debian is the benchmark for many use cases. Arch Linux is for the super-tech-savvy. Linux Mint is the standard of stability and ease of use. Tails is for those who require the highest degree of privacy.

It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that an open code base is more secure than a closed one. The weaknesses of the former can be seen by everyone. Those of the latter can only be known by those with access to it. Or so it is thought. In fact these can be traced just as well. What this line of reasoning misses is the following:

  • Collaboration. The paradigm of FOSS is that of an altogether different way of doing business. It is based on collaboration and the dissemination of knowledge. Sharing makes everyone better off. Whereas the proprietary model is predicated on the artificial scarcity created by copyright law. It gains from secrecy, obscurity, and the obfuscation of certain truths.
  • Perverse incentives. Because the proprietary model draws its competitiveness from a spirit of secrecy, a corporation might have the perverse incentive not to disclose/acknowledge any vulnerability to its product. In contradistinction, FOSS will get to be updated almost immediately. As soon as the weakness is identified.

Openness is not a security liability. It is an asset. There are more people looking at the code and auditing it. Their interests, at least for the majority of them, are those of the community. To have a stable and reliable system.

From the perspective of the polity that is a potential bonus. A public entity can be instituted to the effect that it works full time on the government’s various FOSS projects. Let us call it the ‘Digital Transition Unit’ headed by the ‘Information Ministry’. The Unit can work on existing code to optimise it for the specific needs of the state. Its efforts will be complementary to those of the open source community. It will even give back to the community whenever it adds a new feature or tackles some security vulnerability.

Public funds will thus be directed to distributed projects that (i) have no ‘backdoors’, (ii) are not controlled by a single corporation, (iii) may be audited by security researchers across the globe, (iv) come with a license that does not bind the state to the agenda of some private actor. Public money for the promotion of the public interest.

Imagine the world’s most affluent states making such a commitment. The efficiency gains for everyone involved would be tremendous. Obviously FOSS is not appropriate for everything the state does. The military and security agencies will require some bespoke system. However, many of the state’s needs are well covered by software of this sort. Anything that has a positive effect on the state’s security and on the solidity of its connection to cyberspace has to be prioritised as a matter of reinforcing a factor of effective sovereignty.

Cyber is central

The fact that an entire chapter of a series about sovereignty is dedicated to what cyber is and why it may be relevant in a political context, goes to show that the topic has still not fully entered the public mind. To the lay person all this may come across as “tech stuff for geeks”. Even so, cyber’s technical nature does not necessarily render its actual organisation morally neutral or values-free. Nor does it mean that it has no implications whatsoever on the commons.

Cyber is relevant to politics by virtue of the fact that software with the capacity to connect to a remote network has become the irreducible factor of an ever growing number of activities and social experiences. Whatever gets to somehow condition or otherwise influence relations between people must be subject to public debate and scrutiny. The general points aside, there are some more specific reasons as to why the topic is relevant:

  • Economics. Depending on the licensing framework and the incentives’ structure derived therefrom, certain markets emerge (markets do not exist in an institutional vacuum or in a rules-free, decontextualised domain). The gains are distributed accordingly, which means that hierarchies and social structures may be established that provide advantages to certain groups over others. Issues such as fairness and equality of opportunity naturally arise.
  • Security. This can be considered in the form of homeland security but also of the privacy of households/individuals. The integrity of cyber is of utmost importance to ensure that every activity contingent on it is carried out as intended (e.g. the power supply mentioned above, or your ‘smart’ thermostat not leaking your home’s sensitive data). Without appropriate measures such as a robust legal framework for fostering bottom-up practices for protecting the space, the damages can be far-reaching, the effects particularly deleterious.
  • Governance. Given the nature of cyber as a form of shared infrastructure, it can potentially impact two types of businesses and social relations: (i) those whose starting point is cyber and (ii) the ones that have an indirect connection to the ‘tech industry’ by virtue of using some digital tool or service. As such, the specifics of cyber have to be regulated in light of the general interest, with the space as such being considered a public good.

The fact that a degree of technical knowledge is required to grasp the finer points of cyber should not be a reason to keep the discussion confined to an inner circle of specialists. Every area of expertise has aspects that are not immediately accessible to the uninitiated. That does not render them immune to criticism or conceal them from the public purview. Besides, that is where journalists, bloggers, and independent analysts/commentators come in to communicate the information demanded by the general population in a form that is accessible. The danger of considering something to be too technical and thus obscure is that the dominant forces operating within the system may find ways to exploit the public’s indifference, much to the detriment of the public interest.

A polity that seeks to exercise control over the means of governance, the factors of its effective sovereignty, must recognise in cyber a domain that needs to be aligned with its general political direction.

  1. For a recent real world example on low level cyber attacks, read this^

  2. You might also be interested in a recent post of mine about Linux and the command line^

Essays on Sovereignty is referred to as a ‘book’ for the sake of convenience. A more appropriate description would be a collection of articles that share a common theme. The distinction is subtle, just like many of the points covered herein. It is meant to suggest that the parts of this piece of labour can stand on their own right, save some references to their context (e.g. “in the previous chapter…”).

Articles such as the Factors of effective sovereignty, The market as a political agent, On self-determination could easily be posted as standalone blog posts. Reading them on their own will not detract from the analysis into their individual issues. But just like society, where each individual person can be treated in their own right, one may not appreciate the full extent of certain features without reference to the environing whole.

Reading these essays as a collection will deliver different results than seeing each item in isolation. It is like when you start connecting dots. The dots and the lines you draw can be seen in themselves as dots and lines. Take a step back, ‘zoom out’ as it were, and you may be looking at an altogether different figure.

Most, if not all, conclusions about a subject of inquiry come down to perspective, to the method used. Examine the underlying methodology, shift things around and you might gain a new insight into the topic at hand. That is kind of what this book is all about. In a sense there is nothing new presented here. Sovereignty, cyber, globalisation, and every other concept are well-documented, and by authors with a better grasp of the issues than yours truly. And yet the attentive reader may find snippets of original thinking, from the very approach to each topic to the content discussed therein. Again, perspective comes into play.

The emphasis on how one sees things should not be considered a form of metaphysical relativism. The suggestion is not that objective truths are an illusion since “everything is a matter of perspective”. The point is far more subtle. Epistemological. It is about the most appropriate means to revealing the actuality of a certain case in its given constitution, at the level of abstraction in which it is rendered intelligible. An emergent phenomenon cannot be properly understood by studying only its foundational level. The domain where emergence reveals itself is where the core of the study ought to be.

This sort of ‘methodological awareness’ as it were characterises much of the Essays. The reason is rather simple: to avoid creating confusion. Topics such as globalisation, the role of financial markets, sovereignty, are more or less common in political palaver. They carry certain connotations that could engender unintended conclusions if not properly removed from the scope of the analysis. For instance, the argument that the market is a political agent, can be prima facie dismissed as a naive contradiction. “Prima facie” typically is the instance when one exposes their previously held notions. The explanation into the approach helps them escape from those confines or otherwise appreciate things under a different light.

The vast corpus of Essays on Sovereignty is dedicated to the inquiry into theoretical topics. It may, therefore, not be the most fun thing to read. This is not a manual on some of the technical challenges to the enforcement of sovereign authority in the 21st century. It may not be the book you would recommend to your practically-minded friend. It is a collection of open-ended ideas about some of the fundamentals of political organisation. The book does not purport to be anything more than a proposal on considering its themes in the way suggested in each chapter. It is an invitation to think along those lines.

Theoretical work does not yield immediate results. It is not like with a manifesto that compels one into action based mostly on their predispositions. We think before we venture forward in an attempt to ultimately set the right goals, pursue the most appropriate course of action, employ the best means available, and so on. Though always with the understanding that our theory may be muddled, far from complete, and, hence, subject to revision.

By keeping the analysis at the highly theoretical level, I have tried to examine the most basic issues, those that are likely to be found in an extended multitude of actual cases. This lays the foundations for more work to be done into the specifics. If, say, I write a blog post about globalisation or cyberspace, I can expand on what was presented in this book. If you are a concerned citizen, then perhaps seeing the market as a political agent may provide you with a starting point on seeking some alternative, some kind of reform. And so on. Essays on Sovereignty is a point of reference in an endless cycle of research. It is neither a beginning nor an end in a linear process.

Finally, I want to comment on my hope with publishing this book. No, it is not about persuading the reader to become a theorist. I do not give theory more importance than practicality. None of that. The hope is that we sometimes take a step back from what is seemingly obvious, self-evident, and crystal clear, to check whether we are doing our cause any real service. We may extol the virtues of a given plan or criticise some state of affairs. Fair enough. It seldom hurts to think things through.

Published on 14 November 2016
Protesilaos Stavrou

Thanks to essential tools

This books exists as a collection of web pages on my personal website. Apart from the actual content that I wrote, a number of other factors have contributed to its realisation.

At first, I could not have published it in the way I did had it not been for my website (which I code and develop myself). To that end, I must express my gratitude to the Jekyll community for contributing to this very reliable piece of software and to GitHub Pages for providing the hosting environment. My thanks also extends to Gandi for the domain name services and email server.

Secondly, creating a book is a demanding task. The writing experience can only be tolerated if the tools are pleasant to work with (I won’t tell you how I feel about bloated apps). In this case, it is the software. I must therefore thank a number of different elements of my ‘writing environment’.

  • Terminator for providing such a powerful terminal emulator.
  • Cmus for allowing me to listen to my music collection from the comfort of the command line.
  • Mutt, my favourite email client that makes it easy to reach ‘zero inbox’.
  • Newsbeuter, the feed reader that keeps the reading experience clutter-free.
  • Taskwarrior for offering such a minimalist yet powerful task management tool.
  • Vim for providing one of the most robust text editors I have ever used.
  • Atom, the hackable text editor I employ when editing sets of documents.


In the memory of my dog Argos who passed away on October 17. His sincere and most genuine of companionships will forever be a part of me.