Michael Hardt

Sovereignty, theory and event

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5.4 .2002I have always been partial to arguments that give precise dates to mark
broad historical shifts: modernity began, for example, on some specific day
in 1865 when Manet painted his “Olympia” or on the day in 1791 when black
slaves rose up against French authority in Haiti.

Foucault made it a habit to choose such dates. Sometimes the events of a
specific day do in fact capture something of the historical movement in
course, but I am fond of such claims mostly (and I think Foucault was too)
because of their absurdity. Historical shifts are not locatable in this way;
any time you try to put your finger on the moment of change it slips away
into the broad sweeps of history. The gesture toward dates is a useful tool
for approaching the larger movements in process.

I do not think, in any case, that the nature of world order shifted on
11 September 2001. There was already in formation a new form of global
sovereignty and it is perhaps more urgent today, in light of the tragic
events, that we identify it. We should recognize, most importantly, that
nation-states are no longer sovereign, not even the most powerful
nation-states, not even the United States. With the decline of national
sovereignty there is ever less distinction between inside and outside — and
therefore there is the tendency toward the formation of a global space of
sovereignty that has no outside. The rhetoric of US leaders since the
events, however, has been based on a nostalgia for the era of national
sovereignty. On one hand, vulnerability to such attacks demonstrates the
extent to which the United States is unable to close itself off from
external influences and authorities. On the other hand, there is no
sovereign nation-state that can be held accountable for the tragedy and
attacked in turn through a war effort.

What is at stake in accepting my claim that national sovereignty has
declined and in its stead a new, global form has arisen? With the decline of
national sovereignty and the consequent decline of the distinction between
inside and outside, there is increasingly little difference between military
action (outside the space of sovereign authority) and police action (inside). In order for the 11 September attack or the responses to it to be acts of war, there would have to be two sovereign powers confronting one another. Since there are not, then these
can only be considered acts of a civil war, that is, conflict within the
space of one single sovereignty. It is hard to know what can be meant by
civil war in this context, however, since that concept has traditionally
been so closely tied to the nation-state. It is more logical simply to
conceive of the attack as criminal activity (like the bombing in Oklahoma
City) and construct a response based on traditional police activity. Plan
Columbia and the various forms of the war against drugs is one example of
the kind of military/police action that moves across national boundaries,
with little regard for national sovereignty. This is not to say that
nation-states are no longer important or that state building will not play a
significant role in the strategies for maintaining global order. One can
easily imagine, for example, that after undermining or destroying the
current regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a new project of state building
will emerge high on the agenda. This means rather that such state powers
exist within and are functional to a larger form of sovereignty. That
functionality to the new global sovereignty is the determining factor.

We seem to have entered into a state of emergency post-September 11th
with expanded police powers within and outside the United States.
Perhaps this is not really new, however. Perhaps it is only the
intensification of a form of rule that was already in formation that
functions through a permanent state of emergency. One of the most
threatening discourses that we have heard from politicians and mainstream
media in the wake of the tragedy is that we must be willing to sacrifice
liberty for security, that we must, in other words, turn control of our
lives over to the police. The alternative between liberty and security,
however, is a false one and the history of political theory is filled with
arguments against it. The only path to long-term security is instead
democracy, now democracy conceived not only on the national but the global
plane. Inventing the forms and mechanisms of such democracy is an enormous
challenge, but the recent events have underlined its urgency.