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Sovereignty nowadays is, so to speak, underdefined and contentious, porous and poorly defensible, unanchored and free-floating.

Part of the Series

Editor’s Introduction:

Zygmunt Bauman’s upcoming book, “44 Letters From the Liquid Modern World” (forthcoming: Polity), furthers his project of describing a new form of modernity that is challenging individuals and society. He describes a “liquid” modernity: a state of constantly changing circumstances and shifting priorities that make it difficult for individuals to have the time or frames of reference to organize their lives under conditions of extreme ambiguity. Today, Truthout will begin sharing excerpts from Bauman’s forthcoming “44 Letters From the Liquid Modern World” with Letter #30 from the volume, “Interregnum.”

-Victoria Harper

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s Antonio Gramsci recorded in one of the many notebooks he filled during his long incarceration in the prison in Turi di Bari: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’[1]

The term ‘interregnum’ was originally used to denote a time gap separating the death of one royal sovereign from the enthronement of a successor, those intervals being the main occasions on which past generations experienced (and customarily expected) a rupture in the otherwise dull, monotonous continuity of government, law and social order. Ancient Roman law put an official stamp on this understanding of the term (and its referent) by accompanying interregnum with the proclamation of justitium, that is (as Giorgio Agamben reminded us in his 2003 study Lo stato di eccezione) a transition period during which the laws that were binding under the deceased emperor are suspended (admittedly temporarily), presumably in anticipation that new and different laws would be proclaimed by the new sovereign. Gramsci infused the concept of ‘interregnum’ with a new meaning, however, embracing a wider section of the socio-political-legal order while simultaneously reaching deeper into the socio-cultural realities underlying it. Or rather (taking a leaf from Lenin’s memorable definition of a ‘revolutionary situation’ as a condition in which the rulers no longer can rule in their old ways, while the ruled no longer wish to be so ruled), Gramsci detached the idea of ‘interregnum’ from its time-hallowed association with an interlude in a routine transmission of hereditary or elected power. He attached it instead to extraordinary situations: to times when the extant legal frame of social order loses its grip and can no longer keep burgeoning social life on track, and a new frame, made to the measure of the newly emerged conditions responsible for making the old frame useless, is still at the design stage, has not yet been fully assembled, or has not been made strong enough to be enforced and settled in place.

It can be said, following a recent suggestion by Keith Tester,[2] that the present-day condition of the planet bears many a mark of another interregnum. Indeed, just as Gramsci postulated, ‘the old is dying’. The old order, founded on the close association, intertwining or blending (indeed a virtual unity) of territory, state and nation, and on power wedded seemingly forever to the politics of the territorial nation-state as its sole operating agency, — the order recently seen and deployed as the principle of the planetary distribution of sovereignty and its imperturbable foundation, — is now dying. Sovereignty is no longer glued to any of the elements of the territory/state/nation triad, let alone to a coordination and union between them; at the most, it is tied to them loosely and in part, with those parts much reduced in size, content and importance. Sovereignty is nowhere complete; it is also, openly or surreptitiously, contested and eroded everywhere, facing ever new pretenders and competitors. The allegedly unbreakable marriage of power and politics (once firmly settled together in the government buildings of nation-states) is, on the other hand, coming to an end in separation, with the likely prospect of divorce.

Sovereignty nowadays is, so to speak, underdefined and contentious, porous and poorly defensible, unanchored and free-floating. The criteria for its allocation tend to be hotly contested, while the customary sequence of the principle of the allocation of sovereignty and its application is very often reversed (that is, that principle tends to be retrospectively articulated in the aftermath of an allocating decision, or deduced from an already accomplished state of affairs). Nation-states find themselves sharing the conflict-ridden, quarrelsome and aggressive company of actual, aspiring or pretending, but always pugnaciously competitive, quasi-sovereign subjects, — entities successfully evading the application of the hitherto binding principle of cuius regio, eius potestas, lex et religio (he who rules holds the power, makes the law and chooses the religion), and all too often explicitly ignoring or stealthily sapping and impairing its intended objects. The ever-rising number of competitors for sovereignty have already outgrown, if not singly then surely in combinations of several, the holding and constraining power of an average nation-state (according to John Gray, multinational financial, industrial and trade companies now account ‘for about a third of world output and two-thirds of world trade’).[3] Sovereignty, — that right to proclaim the laws as well as to suspend them and to make exceptions to their application at will, and the power to render these decisions binding and effective, — is, for any given territory and any given aspect of life, fragmented, dissipated and scattered between a multiplicity of centres. For that reason, it is eminently questionable and open to contest. Multinationals can easily play one agency against another, thereby avoiding their involvement or interference, and escaping the supervision of any of them. No decision-making agency is able to plead full (that is unconstrained, indivisible, unshared) sovereignty, let alone claim it credibly and effectively.

The planet as a whole seems indeed to be in a state of interregnum these days. Extant political agencies bequeathed by the times before globalization are blatantly inadequate to cope with the new realities of planetary interdependency, while political tools potent enough to match the steadily rising capacities of powerful, though manifestly and self-admittedly non-political, forces are prominent mostly by their absence. Forces systematically escaping the control of established political institutions and recognizable as fully and truly global (such as capital and finances, commodity markets, information, criminal mafias, drug traffic, terrorism and the arms trade) are all of a kind: however much they may vary in other respects, they all stoutly, cunningly and astutely, — encountering no effective (let alone intractable, impermeable or unpassable) obstacles, — ignore or openly violate territorially enforced constraints, closely watched interstate borders and local (state-endorsed) statute books.

Where can new, universally (and that, for the first time in history, has to mean globally) respected and obeyed principles of human cohabitation come from, thereby marking the end of the ‘interregnum’? Where can one look for likely agents to design them and put them into operation? In all probability, these quandaries constitute between them the greatest of the many challenges the current century will need to confront point-blank, dedicating most of its creative energy and pragmatic abilities to the search for an adequate response. Indeed, this is, one might say, a ‘metachallenge’, because, without confronting it, no other challenges, large or small, can conceivably be tackled. Whichever one of the countless dangers, risks and crises we consider, whether they are impending or already causing us trouble, the search for a solution invariably veers towards a truth we can ignore only at our, — joint, shared, indivisible, — peril: the truth that to global problems there can only be‚ — if they exist at all, — global solutions.


[1]. In Quaderni del carcere; here quoted after Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 276.

[2]. See Keith Tester, ‘Pleasure, reality, the novel and pathology’, Journal of Anthropological Psychology, no. 21 (2009), pp. 23‚Äì6.

[3]. Gray, Gray’s Anatomy, p. 231.