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  • Sovereignty
  • Michael Hardt (bio)

I 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...

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