Connected concepts: Multitude, The People, Bio-politics
Key Figures/ theorists: Carl Schmitt, Bataille, Agamben, Foucault, Negri, Bodin, De Sade, Hobbes,, Locke,

"The power of the sovereign itself contains the three moments of the totality within itself, namely the universality of the constitution and the laws, consultation as the reference of the particular to the universal, and the moment of the ultimate decision as the self-determination to which everything else reverts and from which it actually originates."

Hegel, Philosophy of Right $275

As Bartleson (1995) has pointed out, although sovereignty is a foundational concept in politcal theory and international relations, for this reason it is often passed over and left unanalysed. Indeed the assumption of the ontological primacy of the state in both of these domains of inquiry does not speak of the fact that the two disciplines refer, at first glance anyway, to two different uses of the term. One is a domestic or internal sovereignty that allows one to speak of a community or nation as a cohesive body. The second implies quite the opposite; a system (the international arena) where a number of sovereign entities are in play.

One is sovereign when one has right or force of command over oneself or one's dominions. It is used predominantly to define a form of political power, whether manifested in an individual, a king, a nation state or for another example, international bodies of law. In democracies the people are supposedly sovereign. Yet no democracies exist where this right is not enshrined in the law of the state, enacted through the mechanisms of political representation and enforced.

The writings of Jean Bodin (1530-1596) provide us with an early theorisation of the idea of sovereignty even though the examples he uses are quite electic. Essential to Bodin's notion of sovereignty is that the power the sovereign holds must be absolute and permanent. If a ruler holds absolute power for the duration of his life he can be said to be sovereign. In contrast, an elected official or some other person that holds limited powers can not be described as being sovereign. Although at times Bodin suggests that the people are sovereign, his definition of sovereignty as absolute, unlimited and enduring power points purposively towards a positive association of sovereignty and a singular monarchical, or even tyrannical, power. See Bodin, On Sovereignty (Cambridge Texts in social and Political Thought; 1992)

Another qualification that Bodin introduces into the definition of sovereignty as absolute and perpetual is one that will become increasingly important in subsequent theorisations, culminating in the work of Carl Schmitt. For Bodin, a sovereign prince is one who is exempt from obedience to the laws of his predecessors and more importantly, those issued by himself. Sovereignty rests in being above, beyond or excepted from the law (ibid. p. 2, 12). Although it occupies a subordinate place in Bodin's theorisation, it could be said that this exception from being subject to the law is the quintessential condition of sovereignty in so far as it is understood politically.

The idea of sovereignty was first systematically undermined by the work of Michel Foucault. Many postmodernists including Negri, argue that sovereignty, as a political project and as a political philosophy, has collapsed. Negri critiques the recuperation of political ontology in revolutionary thought to a form of sovereignty which gives itself orientation through the measurable and the parcelisation of representation. In what Negri calls 'the teleology of the common' we are freed from sovereignty because the common is a horizontal generative plane of the multitude - the common is what produces what is - sovereignty is inadequate to the politics/ practice of the multitude. This throws into crisis the notion of government and the reign of the totality as a transcendental illusion that forces the parts into a whole. (cf: Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo (in Time for revolution) p. 225- 229

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Bataille on Sovereignty

Negri on Sovereignty

Critique of formal democracy and representation - A. Pandolfi

Jean Bodin's Six Books of The CommonWealth (Tooley translation)

Derrida versus Foucault on Sovereignty F. Balke


Agamben, Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Standford University Press, 1998)
Bartelson, Jens A Genealogy of Sovereignty (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Bodin, On Sovereignty (Cambridge Texts in social and Political Thought; 1992)
Foucault, Society Must be Defended (Penguin, 2004)