Mike Maxwell has posed some questions to me on sovereignty and international order on the Imperium Press Substack.
Ethnonationalists envision a world of sovereign homelands for all distinct peoples who aspire to autonomy. Thus we are opposed to multinational empires as well as global government schemes, all of which involve the denial of sovereignty to particular peoples or, in the case of global governance, to all peoples.
It is therefore fair to ask how an ethnonationalist world order would work. Would it be a world order or a world chaos?
Thomas Hobbes contrasted the state of nature, where there is no government, with civil society, in which there is government. In the state of nature, every man is sovereign, answering only to himself. But, Hobbes argued, life in the state of nature is a state of war of all against all, in which life is inevitably “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Individuals in a state of nature would thus be driven by rational self-interest to set up a common ruler to create peace.
Hobbes’ state of nature is not a description of how states actually form. Instead, it is a thought experiment showing that, in the absence of a state, rational self-interest would drive men to create one as soon as possible.
Hobbes did, however, point out that the different states of the world are in a state of nature in relation to each other, since there is no common power above them to enforce rules and secure peace.
Since ethnonationalists envision a world of 200-odd sovereign homelands, we need to explain why we do not follow Hobbes’ reasoning to its logical conclusion: global government.
Is the life of nations in the state of nature as Hobbes described it, namely a perpetual war of all against all? Are the lives of nations in the state of nature solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short? Shouldn’t nations prefer to surrender their sovereignty to a global government to ensure peace and prosperity? Isn’t global government preferable to global anarchy?
War is one of mankind’s greatest scourges. But in the state of nature, nations are not in a constant state of war of all against all. There are always wars somewhere, but even so, we observe peace almost everywhere else — peace without global government.
We also note that the lives of nations are seldom solitary. Every nation has some allies and trading partners.
Many nations in the state of nature are quite prosperous.
And the lives of most nations are hardly “nasty, brutish, and short.” Indeed, some nations are breath-takingly civilized, refined, and ancient — and all in the state of nature that Hobbes claims we should flee as soon as there is an alternative.
How can peace and amity emerge among sovereign states in a state of nature, without a common power to enforce common rules? Sovereign states live at peace when they agree to respect one another’s sovereignty. That means, in practice, that they secure alliances and resources though voluntary trade rather than violence. If all sovereign states foreswear violence and embrace mutual respect and voluntary interactions, there can be a global ethnonationalist order without a global state.
From an ethnonationalist point of view, therefore, an ideal world order is a form of liberalism without the state, known in some circles as “anarcho-capitalism.” The only alternative to a global state is global anarchy. But, contra Hobbes, anarchy need not be chaos, for there can be order without the state.
In the absence of a common state, how can sovereign nations adjudicate disputes and deal with global problems like environmental degradation, international criminal and terrorist networks, or even planetary defense against comet or asteroid strikes like the one that ended the dinosaurs? By creating international treaty organizations to which they delegate powers to deal with particular problems while maintaining their sovereignty — organizations like the United Nations, for instance, which currently has 193 sovereign members.
Such organizations are not political, because there is no overarching power. Instead, they are collegial, meaning that they consist of independent agents united by common goals and shared rules, but not by a common power to which they surrender their sovereignty.
What happens in such a world if a nation goes rogue? Under international law, all sovereign states are equal. But some states are stronger than others. What if one wishes to gain by force what one cannot gain by negotiation? No state is so powerful that it cannot be opposed by alliances of smaller states. Such alliances could use moral suasion and economic pressures to bring rogue states back into the fold. But if peaceful measures fail, war still remains the last resort.
In short, such a system is not fool-proof or failure-proof. But it is better than any global government schemes, which promise to make such wars impossible — but only after, in effect, declaring war on and vanquishing every state that wishes to maintain its sovereignty, whether by stealth or open conflict. Again, the only alternative to global government is global anarchy. Anarchy need not be chaos, but some chaos may still be preferable to global government.
Maxwell, however, apparently does not think there is an alternative to global or imperial government:
. . . as for the rules-based order envisioned here, what gives the rules force? Who decides what rules? Who interprets? The subtext here is that we have something like the rule of law, on an international scale. . . . So, if we can envision a global patchwork of nation-states adhering to a set of rules, we must also envision an agent enforcing those rules. But why can’t this agent be everyone? Can’t all states check each other? Our first clue that they can’t is that this is the same argument given by anarcho-capitalists, but on a smaller scale, for a stateless society. Robbing and cheating people will get you ostracized, and in a tiny village this may be enough for custom to prevail for a time. But before long, you’ll need a council of elders, convened by one primus inter pares, and later formalized into a king. At anything much beyond the family (and maybe not even that far), you will end up with a state in embryo.
First of all, a college of 200 or so sovereign nations is about the size of a small village, which Maxwell admits might be able to exist without a common government. Second, a college of nations can deal with particular problems by creating councils or commissions without ceding their sovereignty to a government. They do this all the time.
Maxwell, however, seems to think that anyone in the role of a decision-maker is therefore a sovereign, which means that the people for whom he makes decisions have ceded their sovereignty.
This argument, however, is based on an equivocal use of the word “sovereign.” There are three senses of sovereignty in his article:
- the sovereign as a person who decides or who executes;
- one who answers only to himself, i.e., the sovereign individual or the sovereign state; and
- the people as sovereign, i.e., the idea that the common good of a people is the highest law of the land.
Maxwell’s primary sense of sovereign is the first, a person who decides: “Who decides what rules? Who interprets?” Maxwell does not think that laws themselves can rule, because people have to interpret and enforce them:
Can we not all just agree to the rules? The affirmative answer to this question is known as rule of law, expressed pithily by Thomas Paine where he says that for absolutists the king is law, whereas for republicans the law is king. But the law can’t issue executive orders, nor can it wield an M16 or deploy the national guard—you need a man to do that, a man with agency to defend the law and judgement to interpret it. The law is a tool for governance, but a tool can no more govern than a blueprint can build a bridge. The law can’t rule, and because it can’t rule, questions as to whether it should rule are unintelligible.
Maxwell’s argument strikes me as problematic for two main reasons.
First, he might be setting up a strawman. Obviously, laws can’t rule without human agents who interpret and apply them. But is this really what the rule of law means, i.e., a set of rules that anticipates all possible eventualities and that can be simply and deductively applied without need of human judgment, much less anyone to enforce them? There is definitely a strand of liberal thinking that would purge decision and prudence from government, thinking that these stand in the way of impartial justice and fairness. But this is a simple impossibility. Every regime today that embraces the rule of law also commissions hordes of functionaries to interpret and apply the law.
Every law-governed society doesn’t require just one decider, but countless deciders. Decisions are needed in every branch of government: executives from cops on the beat to every rank of the military to the President or Prime Minister, judges from traffic courts to the supreme court, and legislators in every jurisdiction.
Second, the act of decision — even final decision — does not exhaust the concept of sovereignty. Deciders are merely executives, merely functionaries, of the laws and the broader political system. Contra Maxwell, laws are not the tools of deciders; rather, the deciders are tools of the system to interpret and enforce laws. Deciders are not sovereigns. They answer to the system that commissions them.
This is true even of “absolute” monarchs. Their offices are defined for them by the political system. The way they enter and leave office is defined by the political system, and their performance is graded by the ultimate standards of that political system, which is sovereignty in the third sense above, namely popular sovereignty: The people’s common good is the highest law of the land.
This sense of sovereignty is primary because it serves as a norm that governs the other senses of sovereignty. The reason that nation-states should be sovereign (the second sense) is that a sovereign homeland is the best way to secure the flourishing of a people. Sovereigns in the first sense (deciders) are empowered to make decisions for the common good of the people.
Popular sovereignty is primarily a normative concept. It is best articulated by Aristotle in his Politics. Aristotle recognizes that in every regime, some govern and others are governed. This is true in regimes ruled by one man, few men, or many men. He also notes that in every regime, a minority always governs the majority. This is even the case in popular regimes, since the voters are only a subset of the populace as a whole, which means that the majority of voters are almost inevitably a minority of the population as a whole. For Aristotle, a lawful government exists when the ruling minority pursues the people’s common good, whereas an unlawful government pursues the ruling minority’s private interests.
When one man rules lawfully, we have monarchy. When one man rules lawlessly, we have tyranny. When the few rule lawfully, we have aristocracy. When they rule unlawfully, we have oligarchy. When the many rule lawfully, we have what Aristotle calls “polity.” When they rule unjustly, we have democracy.
Maxwell thinks it is an objection to popular sovereignty to observe that “[a]n organized minority will always rule over a disorganized majority.” For Aristotle, however, it is no objection to the idea of popular sovereignty to note that power is inevitably concentrated in the hands of a minority. The question of whether sovereignty is popular or not is not determined by observing who rules, but rather for whom they rule: the common good of society or the private good of the ruling faction.
Maxwell is also dismissive of the idea that the concept of sovereignty is primarily normative:
Sovereignty is not a question of in whose interests the ruler should act. The father should act in the interests of his children; the children are not ipso facto sovereign over the family.
This is not precise. An Aristotelian would say that a good father rules the family in the interests of the whole family. Sovereignty is not located in persons at all, not the father or the children. The father is merely the executive of the family’s common good. The children, by virtue of their helplessness, are merely recipients of parental care. Persons are mere functionaries within a justly ordered family, and their performance of their duties is graded by the common good of the family, and of the larger society of which they are parts.
Sovereignty is also often thought to be exhausted by the question of legitimacy — who ought to rule? But there is no ought without can. If it’s not even possible in principle for the proletariat to rule, then the question of whether it should rule is moot. Who can rule? This question needs to be addressed first.
This, too, is imprecise. Sovereignty is not so much “exhausted” by the question of legitimacy, but legitimacy is definitely the most important question. Laws can’t interpret or execute themselves. Laws therefore need functionaries to interpret and execute them. Whether these functionaries do a good job or a bad job, whether they are just or corrupt, depends on the inescapably normative question of for whom are they working: the common good of society or their own private interests? Power and the functionaries who exercise it are legitimate if they work for the common good, illegitimate if they do not.
Maxwell also fails to grasp that the idea of national sovereignty is primarily and essentially a normative concept, hence his claim that:
If your ability to decide is governed by someone else’s veto, you are not sovereign.
Really? Your ability to decide anything? Even to do wrong things? Even to do injury to your neighbors? If I decide not to rob my neighbors, because that would inevitably provoke retaliation, and I have to live with these people, is that decision not sovereign because it takes other people’s interests and reactions into account? If I decide not to rob my neighbors because I would not want them to rob me, is that a violation of my sovereignty? If I decide that it is preferable to deal with my neighbors by means of persuasion rather than violence, is that a violation of my sovereignty? Is there such a thing as a moral “veto” of my will, a veto that I would impose upon myself because it is the right thing to do, a veto that my neighbors would impose upon me by retaliation because I richly deserve it?
If Canada wanted to invite the Chinese to place chemical weapons facilities on its southern border, America would swiftly shut that down. Much as it pains me to admit, Canada is not a sovereign nation. There are perhaps three or four sovereign nations today, and neither Canada nor Ukraine are among them.
This simply confuses sovereignty with military power, which means that weak nations are not sovereign because they can’t do just anything they want to their neighbors. But on this account, no nations are really sovereign, because no nation is so powerful that it could not be destroyed by an alliance of other nations.
If we had a world in which strong nations could attack any weaker nations, and weak nations could band together to oppose strong nations, eventually, after a great deal of striving and bloodshed, peace would be achieved. At that point, it might occur to people that it would be simpler to just respect other nations’ sovereignty from the start. This was why the concept of national sovereignty was invented in the first place: to bring an end to the orgy of bloodshed that convulsed Europe after the Reformation.
National sovereignty is a normative concept of international law. Under international law, all sovereign states are equal, and when one sovereign state attacks another, the attacker is wrong and the victim is wronged, even if the attacker is strong enough to get away with it. In such a situation, the proper response is not to do away with the concept of national sovereignty, but rather for other sovereign states to band together to force the offending state back into compliance with international law.
Although the bulk of Maxwell’s article deals with sovereignty in the first two senses — the executive and national sovereignty — he frames his comments in terms of the issue of popular sovereignty, which he dismisses on the ground that the people cannot and do not rule. Order, he says, is imposed from the top down by small minorities. It does not bubble up spontaneously from the masses.
I have two objections to this line of reasoning.
First, framing the issue as “populism or vanguardism” misunderstands popular sovereignty’s normative nature. Power is always exercised by minorities. Popular sovereignty is honored when minorities exercise power for the common good of society. Thus, every populist movement is also vanguardist.
Second, breezily dismissing popular sovereignty and populist politics based on Traditionalist and Neoreactionary dogmas is self-defeating. As I put it in the final paragraph of my essay, “In Defense of Populism”:
[Undemocratic ] Liberalism triumphed not by rejecting popular sovereignty but by subverting it. This is one reason the elites are so hysterical about the rise of populism. It puts them on the spot. If they affirm popular sovereignty, then populism is the only logical outcome. If they deny popular sovereignty, good luck getting people to vote for that. Thus they’d rather avoid the argument entirely. But we can’t let them. We need to press this advantage by demanding that they live up to the principle of popular sovereignty, which empowers the people they loathe. In a fair contest, illiberal democracy will beat undemocratic liberalism every time.
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