On self-determination

Essays on Sovereignty - Book index

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. [^]