While earlier I have explored sovereignty in theoretical and judicial lines, I will consider here another way of thinking sovereignty, particularly in relation to capitalism.
Descriptions of sovereignty originate in 17th century Westphalia as legal agreements that granted national governments supreme authority over their internal affairs and implied that other states should not intervene under exception of threat or obligation of alliance. But Krasner (1999) shows that those rules have always been violated. A catch 22 is found, as in reality sovereignty does not play by the rules it prescribes. Krasner explains this is due to the nature of sovereignty: it does not necessarily reside in the state, nor does it have to be formal. In contrast to its national appearance it more often derives transnationally.
Sovereignty is not absolute in any case, so much is evident. Núñez (2014) even argued beyond this idea and suggests that sovereignty may be in fact, fictional.
What then is real about sovereignty? To Abrams (1988) it is the system that maintains as the expression of the state’s idea. An idea of state power that conflicts with its actual expression may be found in the work of Pansters (2015) where he describes how drug trade informed sovereignty-making in Mexico among organized crime, the state, and armed citizens.
Considering the sovereignty making of drug kingpins as El Chapo or Pablo Escobar it is not far fetched to imagine illicit drug trade as an allegory for capitalism in the way that Jason Read (2009) describes it in his reading of The Wire: he explains it as being the unstable nature of the border that separates the drug trade from the world of legitimate business. When these lines of business and border are blurred, who acts as sovereign? For this we may turn to Guadeloupe’s ethnography of Sint Maarten (2008) where he shows how capitalism at some levels replaces the role of the state in the tourism focused economy of the island.[ii]
More recently, I attended a lecture of Anton Allahar in Amsterdam, which led me to further explore the thought of capitalism as an expression of sovereignty. During the lecture he urged us to not believe the hype of sovereignty, particularly in the Caribbean as sovereignty is not Caribbean at heart. He argued that although democracy and capitalism are not compatible, we often find ourselves in a reality where they are both at force and multinationals may have a higher level of both freedom and power that any state government. Again, the work of Guadeloupe and Pansters comes to mind. If we take this in, we may find that sovereignty is not merely a matter of location, but a matter of relation. One that depends on supply and demand and therefore is of mercurial nature.
Abrams, P. (1988). Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State (1977). Journal of historical sociology, 1(1), 58-89.
Guadeloupe, F. (2008). Chanting down the new Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity, and capitalism in the Caribbean (Vol. 4). Univ of California Press.
Krasner, S. D. (1999). Sovereignty: organized hypocrisy. Princeton University Press.
Núñez, J. E. (2014). About the Impossibility of Absolute State Sovereignty. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law-Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique, 27(4), 645-664.
Pansters, W. G. (2015). “We Had to Pay to Live!”: Competing Sovereignties in Violent Mexico. Conflict and Society, 1(1), 144-164.
Read, J. (2009). Stringer Bell’s lament: violence and legitimacy in contemporary capitalism. The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, 122-134.
[i] Omar Little. The Wire (2006). HBO, season 4, episode 4.
[ii] The photo is a still from a scene in the television show, The Wire. It depicts a drug trader and two police detectives from Balitimore Police Department visiting ‘the Pit’, the trade area for drugs.
A version of this post was previously featured in the october 2019 issue of the newsletter of the Caribbean Studies Association.