a journal of modern society & culture

The Sovereign

The Arab Spring, it seems, has turned into a winter of discontent. In virtually all nations that witnessed a democratic awakening – Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Syria, Tunisia – either state violence or conflict among competing religious/secular, ethnic, or tribal constituencies dominates the political landscape. Many in the West consider such turbulence an Oriental or Islamic predilection.


In 1848, however, Europe also witnessed spontaneous transnational revolts that, though they legitimated the principle of parliamentary democracy, were wracked by internal conflicts and ultimately produced authoritarian governments like those led by Napoleon III and Bismarck. Even worse were the civil wars that emerged as the modern state arose. Ongoing conflicts between France and England during what was known as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) led to slaughter on a massive scale while the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) cost Germany and Central Europe nearly one third of its population. Of course, these wars are mostly forgotten and, when memory is jogged, it is only through hearing the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Henry V celebrating the astounding victory of the English at Agincourt in 1415 or watching Schiller’s Wallenstein. Catholics and Protestants butchered one another over the proper road to salvation until finally the resulting Treaty of Osnabruck and the Peace of Westphalia (1648) ushered in the modern nation-state and the controversial concept of sovereignty. The English Civil War (1642-1649) reflected this larger European conflict and, in that context, Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan (1651).

Sovereignty in the modern sense involves the ability of the state to legitimately represent the (always elusive) national interest, supplant the primacy once given to other institutions, and act independently of external influence. To speak of the sovereign then is to speak less of an individual leader than a regime that is accepted by its citizens and other regimes. Of course, the state can manifest itself in many regime types. But, whatever the form, sovereign embodies the public will and the general interest. All other institutions and associations (whether religious or commercial or ethnic) are private by definition since they express only particular interests. According to the standard definition by Max Weber, therefore, the state alone must have a legitimate monopoly over all sources of coercion. Or, put another way, the sovereign must have the power to sanction public acts and, in democratic terms, with the support of a popular consensus. The Western assumptions that underpin sovereignty are matters of crucial ideological importance both for understanding the prospects of a democratic polity and the obstacles facing it in the Middle East.

Hobbes’ classic work of political theory privileges the nation-state and popular sovereignty as its source of legitimacy. Witnessing the English civil war and the “long parliament” (1640-1648), which he described in his other great work: Behemoth 1681), he was appalled by the barbaric clash of uncontrolled private interests. This he described as a “state of nature” marked by the “war of each against all” and lives that are “poor, nasty, solitary, brutish and short.” Alleviating that condition according to Hobbes requires a sovereign power. Driven by unrelenting insecurity and fears of death in the state of nature, following the logic of material self-interest, those living in the state of nature ultimately find themselves compelled to negotiate a “social contract.” This involves handing over their rights and powers – and, above all, their arms – to the person that they choose to enforce public needs. The costs seem minimal. Anticipating the tendency of European liberals in the 19th century to support authoritarian regimes, so long as they did not interfere with free trade, Hobbes believed that the average person was basically unconcerned with politics. Thus, he considered monarchy unobjectionable especially since, as a regime type, it tends to foster stability and provide the state with ideological legitimacy.

Authoritarian rule is embedded in Hobbes’ outlook. This would later make him a favorite of staunchly anti-democratic thinkers like Carl Schmitt. His book The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes (1938) is a penetrating study of what serves modern authoritarian purposes even as it criticizes the liberal elements of his subject’s thinking. For, ironically, Hobbes paves the way for the increasingly democratic view of the social contract by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Contradicting claims about “the divine right of kings,” thereby earning Hobbes the hatred of those same aristocrats and monarchs whose rule he supported, he insisted that the source of sovereignty is the people. Hobbes also believed that the sovereign has no particular features or qualities that entitle him to his position or make him different from other citizens. The need for authoritarian is thereby justified in terms of exigency rather than divine ordination. Given the indeterminate definition of citizenship, moreover, those excluded from the original contract (women, people of color, those without property etc.) can in principle demand inclusion. With his emphasis on popular sovereignty, almost in spite of himself, Hobbes thus legitimized some of the basic principles underpinning the liberal rule of law and a democratic society.

Just as Hobbes stripped away the ideological veil of the monarch, however, he expressed what is weakest about liberal political theory. For the question remains: how is it that the asocial criminal types living in the warlike “state of nature” can forge a social contract in the first place? Francis Ford Coppola depicted such a scene in Godfather III where rival gangsters supposedly give up their guns before entering a suite to negotiate a pact — with murderous results. These gangsters may share a mutual enemy in the police but they show no loyalty to one another, let alone the sovereign, or the pact that they concluded. Hobbes views the preconditions of the state, the preoccupation with property and the existence of civil society, as the outcome of a political entity formed ex nihilo. His work thereby reinforces liberal assumptions about human nature and self-interest (always “rightly understood”) that denigrates ideology and the habits learned in traditional societies. Hobbes assumes the behavioral and attitudinal consensus on which the sovereign relies. Emphasizing stability and holding revolution in contempt, enmeshed in abstract assumptions and ignoring prejudice, incapable of providing anything concrete that might help the exploited overthrow the exploiters, there is a reason why his liberal legacy has had little resonance outside the West.

Unfortunate consequences, however, that accompanied this rejection. Imperialism may have been fought by national liberation “fronts,” or coalitions comprised of often competing organizations with sharply different ideologies, but anti-imperialist solidarity rarely translated into loyalty for the new sovereign once the colonizers were defeated. Bloody conflicts that cost hundreds of thousands of lives between former partners shaped much of the post-imperialist world beginning with India/Pakistan and Algeria. Hamas and Fatah, whatever their common contempt for Israel, are today participating in a formal coalition whiled substantively engaged in a civil war. There is a warning that derives from Hobbes’ work: the extent to which a popular consensus on the sovereign is lacking is the extent to which the need arises for what he wryly termed a leviathan (or a monster).

As suggested earlier, historically speaking, the social contract never actually took place. Hobbes knew well enough that it was a merely hypothetical event that provided the sovereign with legitimacy. The old fox was well aware that the sovereign usually came to power through military conquest. But he also understood that legitimacy was not to be underestimated in constructing a state capable of transcending particular interests and traditional loyalties. Another fictional element thereby enters into the contract. Again, contrary to historical experience, those engaged in the electoral decision are stripped of their empirical traits. All individuals are seen as sharing a similar fear of death and a similar desire for security: all other issues are secondary. Each supposedly places the security provided by the state above any emotional associations that he has with his tribe, ethnic group, class, religion or even family. That self-understanding is the precondition for citizenship. A rigorous distinction thereby appears in Hobbes and other social contract thinkers between public and private. The sovereign represents the national or public interest while his subjects should be content to go about their private business and concerns guided by what C.B. Macpherson termed “possessive individualism.

Hobbes was working in a war-weary context where a new bourgeois class prefiguring a capitalist form of production was contemptuous of the feudal prejudices and religious dogmas. This new class understood that the state will incarnate the national will in a way that private associations and institutions, such as religion or tribe, cannot. These preconditions served as the basis for an organic process whereby the sovereign state became linked to modernity and its disenchantment of the world through bureaucracy and expertise, democracy and diversity, science and secularism.

This organic process rarely emerged outside the West because, quite simply, the state was imposed by imperialism. It was justified and run by what Andre Gunder Frank termed a “comprador” bourgeoisie that was educated in the West and (without undue concern about ethical matters or enlightenment values) did its business at home. An internally generated bourgeoisie supportive of the state never took shape and, under the best of circumstances, this comprador class later became buttressed by multi-national firms and an oil industry controlled by familial monarchies. The sovereign thus walked the tightrope between past and present. The state never did provide a source of identity, or loyalty for the new sovereign, capable of contesting that of the tribe, ethnicity, or religion. With their impenetrable rivalries and feuds, their parochialism and dogmatic beliefs, they opposed the centralized nation-state as well as modern concerns with individualism, diversity, secularism, and the egalitarian implications of the social contract.

Institutional battles rage over the sovereign. It could be the mosque, the military, the tribe, or ethnic institutions. Whatever the sovereign, however, the sovereign is representative less of a general or public than a particular or private interest. And, if only for this reason, the sovereign always lacks legitimacy. Instability and fear of the new are built into even the most authoritarian states of the Middle East. Modernizing military rulers may find themselves in coalition with traditionalists in opposing democracy or democrats in opposing traditionalism. It’s also possible that secular democrats and religious traditionalists will join together in opposing the military. Especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, however, it would be naïve to assume that either the newly emerging political parties or the disorganized masses would continue identifying with authoritarian rule. The dictators sensed that it was impossible to rely on the loyalty of forces either looking forward to a democratic future or backwards toward an enchanted past.

Violence may keep the authoritarian sovereign in power, but it contributes little to solving the problem of sovereignty. Gamal Nasser may have had a pan-Arab vision, but that is not the case with most other Middle Eastern “leaders.” They justify themselves as sovereign with little more than their own will to power. Consider Karzai in Afghanistan, Honi Mubarek in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Bashir al-Assad in Syria. Such rulers are principally concerned only with maintaining power. Their state bureaucracies become little more than means for sanctioned forms of bribery, patrimony or log-rolling. Economic progress, when it occurs, is the by-product of the process by which the leader attempts to hold together rival private religious, tribal, or ethnic interests. Prison (or worse) is the lot of dissenters. The state becomes a source of anger and humiliation. The attraction of old caliphate or the transnational umma, or religious community, is thus understandable along with their demands for the introduction of Sharia law. Not simply the liberal or authoritarian state, but the state as such turns into the leviathan not just for the arch-reactionary Salaffis but, more generally, for members of pre-capitalist classes and pre-modern religious institutions who consider themselves losers (or collateral damage) in the march of progress.

The principal struggle now taking place in the Middle East revolves around the question of which institution is sovereign: the (Shiite or Sunni) Mosque, the tribe, the (Baath or Hezbollah) party, the paramilitary organization (al Nusra Front), or the authoritarian leader who considers himself (or his office) sovereign. And, because these institutions and organizations are often mutually exclusive in their aims, sovereignty cannot result from some mechanical combination of their interests. Tensions between urban and secular as against countryside and religious forces have become manifest in Tunisia as well as in Iran where the Islamic Republic rests on the power of the revolutionary guards. In Iraq, paramilitary organizations of Sunnis and Shia battling for power engage in running battles and bombings occur daily. Turf wars between rival tribes (each with its own chieftain) are taking place in Afghanistan and Libya, while organized gangs enter the mix in Somalia. Tightly knit vanguards like al Qaeda or Islamic Jihad refuse to recognize any more encompassing sovereign power.

Everywhere the state is fragile and its direction hangs in the balance. All contenders for power view their competitors as illegitimate and justify their politics and ideology in the name of popular sovereignty. Ironically, however, the stronger that identification of particular interests with public goods the greater the prospect of an authoritarian sovereign. Or, to put it another way, the degree to which the rights of citizenship are associated with the empirical traits of different individuals is the degree to which the liberal of law is dysfunctional and the sovereign lacks broad legitimacy. Even more ominous: the less the state is considered sovereign, the more absolute the claims of rival religions and tribes to champion the public good, the more intense the violence, and the more authoritarian the new sovereign will become.

Memories of times past immediately render suspect the altruistic claims by former imperialist nations that their intervention will produce stability in the Middle East and solve the question of sovereignty. Inhabitants of these states will surely think of Bechtel, XE, or oil companies making a killing. Formerly colonized peoples will also resent the arrogance of those who (once again) refuse them the right organically to generate their own traditions. That is especially the case since it took a bloodbath to bring about the triumph of the sovereign state in the West. Cultural knowledge about the intricacies of traditional social networks in the Middle East is also usually lacking; political resistance is usually underestimated; and national conflicts are usually expressions of transnational or regional rivalries that unexpectedly complicate matters considerably. The intervening power may strengthen its domestic ally in the short-run battle for sovereignty but that generally produces a legitimacy deficit for the long haul. Intervention tends to weaken sovereignty almost by definition and those organizations that readily accept support from the outsider are, more often than not, condemned as puppets or traitors by their domestic enemies. Hospitals, housing, food and other forms of humanitarian aid by Western nations will go a long way to creating good will – and perhaps even increasing their influence. Nevertheless, gratitude for such actions does not translate into the ability of an external power to impose a legitimate sovereign.

Self-styled realists often refer admiringly to the tough-minded Hobbes. Especially neo-conservatives tend to agree with his belief that the war-like state of nature exists where there is no sovereign (such as the international arena) and that ethical constraints on political action are superfluous. With an eye on the Middle East, Robert Kagan argued in Of Paradise and Power (2004) that the United States must embrace this Hobbesian outlook while Europe, now reduced to secondary status, has no choice other than to follow Kant’s moral imperatives and regulative ideals while remaining content to champion diplomacy and respect for international law. Be that as it may. For all the tough talk, such realists ignore Hobbes most basic lesson, namely, that nothing is more disastrous than dislodging a sovereign without having a legitimate substitute waiting in the wings. That has certainly been the story of American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and, somewhat less dramatically in Libya where the attack at Benghazi, along with half a dozen others that received less media coverage, served as a response to an American invasion in which thousands were killed.

Without even referring to Afghanistan where the Taliban was replaced by the US supported regime of Karzai, whose family is tied to the opium trade, in Iraq the American government and media blithely accepted the claims of Ahmed Chalabi (an Iraqi businessman in exile), that he had the support of the populace and that the Iraqi people would welcome American troops with open arms. When elections were held, however, Chalabi received about 2% of the vote while the invading army was not exactly greeted with joy. When a semi-democratic regime dominated by Shia was finally installed by the United States under Maliki, his lack of legitimacy led him to distance himself from his nominal ally even as American troops were coming under attack by Sunni paramilitary organizations opposed to his government. In Libya, meanwhile, the dislodging of Momar Qaddaffi led to a disintegration of sovereignty, low level fighting between tribes, and lingering resentment against the United States that exploded in the assault on its embassy by al-Qaeda. There is a marked tendency to take seriously the quip by Erich Hobsbawn, the great historian, that “there is nothing more dangerous than a superpower that claims it is doing the world a favor.”

American attempts to arrange a new social contract that would put in place a legitimate sovereign proved fruitless in all these cases. There is no reason to think that the outcome would be different in Syria where internecine squabbling is taking place among a completely disorganized opposition without a nationally recognized leadership and unclear about the regime it wishes to substitute for the dictatorship of Assad. The Middle East is not Europe. Making reference to the new regimes introduced after World War II is a false analogy. Governments in exile existed also existed and, after the war, the Marshall Plan secured the new sovereigns. Germany and Italy may have had a relatively recent tradition of statehood but its nationalistic foundations had emerged organically. Neither country was ever colonized. In fact, both were often included among the “great powers.”

American foreign policy takes for granted the nation-state as the basic unit of analysis. In the Middle East, however, sovereignty is conditioned by a host of transnational and regional factors including religious, tribal, and even familial loyalties. With Syria, for example, the civil war has already destabilized Lebanon and it has divided the Islamic world. Hezbollah and Iran support the government of President Assad, which retains a Shia and Alawite base, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar have already spent $3 billion to advance Sunni interests. They have armed a dysfunctional and disorganized Syrian opposition in which centralized and transnational vanguard groups like al Qaeda have flourished. So far, luckily, the United States has basically kept its distance. With thousands killed by drone attacks, the United States can only make the situation more explosive by further intruding upon the sovereign of nations in the region.

Intervention has become for the United States what David Bromwich has called a “rationalized addiction.” Justifications for intruding upon the sovereignty of other states are usually based on preventing chaos, protecting human rights, or serving the national interest. But they are hollow.  American intervention in Afghanistan and then Iraq produced tens of thousands of deaths, millions of exiles, a wrecked economy, and environmental devastation that is difficult to imagine. Three million refugees have spilled over into other states as Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon are wracked by civil war. That all of this somehow furthers human rights (even in the long run) is an easy claim to make when others pay the price. But then it is difficult to argue that American national interest has been served when more than fifty thousand soldiers have lost their lives and trillions have been spent on regional military actions and wars for seemingly no purpose. Use of torture, mercenaries, and rendition have also undermined the moral standing of the United States and, by subverting the sovereignty of other nations, generated feelings of national humiliation that will take a long time to forget. There is no social contract in the Middle East and the leviathan looms large. If nothing else the Arab Spring suggests that the peoples of the Middle East wish to shape their future in democratic fashion. Enough obstacles (many of their own making) render this a difficult process. Long after colonialism has faded, however, the Arab world is still denied the chance to develop on its own, make its own mistakes, and generate its own institutions appropriate to the modern age. Or, putting it another way, sovereigns in the Middle East are always imperiled precisely because sovereignty has become little more than an artificial construct in the eyes of the West.