Sovereignty, in ancient times, was envisaged as a natural validation of the exercise of power, so a ruler had to ‘marry’ the land over which he ruled, manifesting as a goddess giving divine sanction to the ruler’s status and authority. One ritual formulation of this was the offering of a cup of ale or mead by the Sovereignty Goddess and the validation of this in a prophecy of successful leadership. Claiming such power was, of course, a political act, and may have been maintained by acts of brutal aggression. But it contained the sense that, however absolute power was in the human sphere, it had to be accountable to divine authority. In urban centres of the ancient world, such as Athens and Rome, the idea of accountability to at least some of the citizens began to evolve, so that power was regulated by consent in theory, even where in practice it was absolute. Divine favour was also invoked in various ways and protective deities favoured the proper exercise of statecraft. Through much of the Middle Ages in Europe kings ruled as representatives of God on Earth, though the separation of temporal and spiritual sovereignty was embodied in the institutions of the Church and papal authority over temporal sovereigns.
With the rise of Protestantism and the notion of individual accountability to divine power also came a growing sense of sovereignty by consent of the people and the questioning of absolute power. This took various forms illustrated by the different ways the idea of a ‘social contract’ was taken forward. On what would today be called the ‘right wing’ were the ideas of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who held that the validation of sovereignty was the consent of the people, but that power emanating from that sovereignty needed to be executed absolutely to avoid chaos. Hobbes, therefore, though a supporter of Charles I and Charles II, could also agree that during the period of the Protectorate, Oliver Cromwell should exercise absolute power rather than submit to the will of Parliament which should only seek to advise rather than instruct him. On the ‘left wing’ of the Social Contract idea, the French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau held that democratic accountability was essential if power was to be exercised responsibly. Here sovereignty resides in the will of the majority and power is exercised by governments carrying out that will. But individual will, or the will of a minorities, is subjugated to that of the majority.
The idea of representative government, taking account of the wishes of the people but also attempting to achieve a balance between the interests of the various bodies which comprise ‘the people’ could be seen as growing out of a compromise between these different views of the source of sovereignty and the exercise of power. Indeed it could be said that the ideal of a modern democracy is that it takes as much care of minorities as it does of the majority. But it is also clear that modern states are comprised of elites as well as other groups who benefit differentially from the ‘common wealth’. It is also the case that sovereignty is further bifurcated in most modern states between the legislature and the judiciary. In a modern constitutional monarchy like Britain sovereignty resides in theory with the Monarch but in practice with Parliament, while the exercise of power resides with the Government, its devolved institutions and the civil service who administer it. The courts are conceived of as independent of Government and are supposed to interpret the laws passed by Parliament independently of political bias or interest. That’s the theory. But in the complex world we inhabit it is arguable that sovereignty cannot be separated from the exercise of power by economic institutions ranging from central banks to international financial institutions as well as that power over our lives which global corporations exercise through the supply of goods and services and the effect of their operations on the environment and on our personal lives.
To further complicate the issue, the need to regulate organisations that operate across many nation states, and the need also to restrict the power of particular nation states over their citizens and over other states, has led to concepts of shared sovereignty mediated by international agreements, supra-national courts and economic unions such as the European Community. Many of the arguments for and against ‘Brexit’ were put at the level of pragmatic politics in terms of economic benefits of leaving or remaining. Others operating at the more populist level appealed to ingrained prejudices, fears about the effects of unlimited immigration and a nostalgic sense of lost empire. But the hard-line theorists of Brexit were motivated by a concept of sovereignty that was opposed to any sense that it could be shared, or that Britain could be subject to the sovereign authority of the European Court or that European civil servants should exercise sovereign power over British citizens.
But there is a confusion here between the concept of sovereignty and the exercise of power. The first is something validated by an understanding of the source of authority for the wielding of power. The second may or may not not have any basis in moral or civil authority. That is, it is possible to wield power without sovereign authority. So the argument returns to one about the source of sovereign power as a regulator of how that power is wielded. If sources of sovereignty are human constructs as understood by most democratic states, then sovereignty can be constructed and shared in any way that is convenient. If, however, there is is natural source of sovereignty, it is less clear how this would validate the power exercised by governments in complex modern societies, and what would be the basis for the exercise of sovereign power by institutions that operate outside the political sphere. So it seems there can be no basis for authorising the wielding of power beyond the brute fact of power itself. Should we wish to challenge that, it only seems possible to do so by appealing to a source of sovereignty that is beyond human contingency. If the earlier developments away from concepts of sovereignty grounded in religious authority can be seen as bringing sovereignty into the democratic sphere of human control, it may be that the inverse of this is now the case as absolute power has shifted away from ‘sovereign’ nation states who can regulate, but not completely control the activities of internationalised capitalism. Indeed it is arguable that absolute control of the mechanisms of global financial markets lies beyond even the elites who are, nevertheless, able to manipulate them for the benefit of themselves and their corporations. Power structures can then be seen as operating as self-sufficient mechanisms eluding the total control of individuals or democratic institutions.
Historically it may be too late to attempt to return Sovereignty to its divine origins, or even to a sphere of defined moral authority. We live in a multi-cultural world, and even where particular religious or ethical cultures predominate, internationalised structures of power transcend these. To hold on to an idea of sovereign authority grounded in Nature, recognising that the exercise of power may now take place without the intentional agency of individual human beings, and be delivered by automated systems which are increasingly self-justifying(✳︎), Sovereignty itself needs to be brought into play as part of this operational biosphere. Not as an abstract concept justifying the power wielded by nation states, but as a natural system of ethical regulation underlying and interacting with the complexities of the webs of power woven through modern human societies. After all, the cup of Sovereignty that was offered to those early tribal leaders, and the prophecies of success that were uttered by their inspired bards, were themselves expressions of a compact between human society and the natural order that sustains it.
✳︎Interestingly, in this respect, James Lovelock, who long ago developed the theory of Gaia as a self-regulating system, has recently published a book — Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence — arguing that we are not, as some think, now living in the ‘Athropocene’, but rather we should think of ourselves a living in the ‘Novacene’, an era of cyborg consciousness which will, he optimistically predicts, itself regulate the worse excesses of the activities of the humans who created it.