pondering the notion of sovereignty

Whilst my brain had some free time recently, I was pondering the concept of sovereignty. My thoughts rotated around why it exists as a notion—more-so that it is not a concept that I consider needed nor one that has a place in a fair and just society. This brings me to two clarifications: 1). These are ideas still a work in progress; 2). Given the lack of a fair and just society in (never quite) post-colonial countries (and many others), the concept has some usefulness. I will come back to the latter.

Unrelated to my ponderings, it recently came to pass that an eminent scholar in Australia recommended I should look at Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s (2006) “Towards a new research agenda?: Foucault, Whiteness and Indigenous Sovereignty” in Journal of Sociology, 42: 383-95. The second paragraph of this paper starts:

This article is also influenced by the work of Indigenous scholars such as Irene Watson (2002) and Taiaiake Alfred (2001), who advocate abandoning the concept of Indigenous sovereignty, as it is configured in debates about Indigenous rights.

Irene Watson’s “Aboriginal and the Sovereignty of Terra Nullius”, in Borderlands Vol. 1, No. 2 (published in 2002 and available online — the paper referred to by Aileen Moreton-Robinson — reflects on the current paradigm of discussions relating to the concept of sovereignty directly:

Many will suggest that’s the political, economic globalised reality. And yes. But it is one, which kills indigenous peoples. So yes we need to put in place different realities. Different ways of knowing from the ways of the west.

Though it is addressed a little differently to how I conceive a need to move away from/reject the notion of sovereignty for purposes here, there is common ground:

Aboriginal Law holds the position of the European idea of sovereignty. But is different in that it is not imposed by force of arms and is not exclusive in its embrace…. The experience lived before the time of Cook was more than the idea of sovereignty.

Links can be seen to what is perhaps a need for the notion of sovereignty in the current colonial paradigm—which, as mentioned, I will return to. The western notion (i.e. capitlist/imperialist) of sovereignty is largely predicated on land as a commodity, something that can be owned. Without romanticising indigenous peoples ideas, many cultures that exist separate to the west do not have the ownership or indivdualist/competitive foundation—rather are based on aspects of collective or communitarian ideals. These can be seen to fit within a more ecological as opposed to a subjugation of nature hierarchical positioning of our species. This recognition of an ecological existence, of being a part of as opposed to construction and positioning out species as superior/separate to nature, is a core basis for my recent ponderings.

Irene Watson has also illustrated how attempting to fit within western notions of sovereignty have further exploited different peoples. For example, ‘In declaring the ‘death’ of terra nullius in relation to the property law of Australia, the High Court created an illusion of doing justice’. The gaps in exploitation created were filled with pragmatism, a pragmatism that has imposed further by force the notion of extinguishment (in the context of rights and sovereignty)—a renewal of colonialism whilst framed as a (partial) rebuttal. Put another way:

The recognition of native title has provided the state with an administrative means for managing extinguishment and genocide, while looking benevolent in the process.

For those not from Australia, the doctrine of terra nullius — a concept upon which Australia was colonised (to what degree is still debated) — was overturned. The outcome has not yet proven beneficial in any real sense to Aboriginal peoples in Australia. It has paved the way for extinguishment of ‘land rights’, or some appeasement—both on white terms. This is the renewal of colonialism that has filled the gaps in exploitation that Irene Watson refers to. Colonisation is legitimised with the coloniser as arbitrator. All that is surrendered by the colonisers are the crumbs from the table. Sadly, this is often the case, and can be seen in many other concessions and even areas perceived as progressive/seeking to provide assistance to first peoples. This can be the result of genuine attempts, with the implications unmarked to those seeking such change, or can more explicit, as another example given by Irene Watson illustrates:

There is a pattern in the history of dispossession of Nunga peoples. For it appears to be in the interest of the state to protect some ‘indigenous places’, for it is appealing to the tourist, the seeker of the naturale and the exotic, the beauty and wisdom of the Aborigine.

To return to the notion of sovereignty, at the roots of why it can be considered as an imperial concept (beyond the obvious) is that it is predicated on many assumptions and constructions central to contemporary western society—and then imposed on others. Discussion and debate about ‘Indigenous sovereignty’ is then constrained to, and framed with, such notions—on white terms. To draw from Canadian scholar James Tully, the language and terms of debate are a crucial feature of a fair and just inquiry. Irene Watson, without explicitly stating this, provides ample illustration in “Aboriginal and the Sovereignty of Terra Nullius”. In the sense that Aileen Moreton-Robinson refers to Irene Watson and Taiaiake Aldred, the configuration of the concept of sovereignty central to current debates is not fair and just.

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, in “Towards a new research agenda?: Foucault, Whiteness and Indigenous Sovereignty”, focusses on the sociological imagination and how the work of Michel Foucault can be used to unpack and expose such configurations:

White possession, as a mode of rationality, functions within disciplinary knowledges and regulatory mechanisms, defining and circumscribing Indigenous sovereignty in particular ways.

The hegemony of white ways of knowing and seeing has received attention form many scholars, as has the privileging of what are positioned as ‘rational’, masculine and, more generally, western knowledges. These are themes that have come up in my writings before, and will again.

With much discussion and debate limited to and/or championing the social constructions of rights (as problematic as for other species and why I do not use the term ‘animal rights’ per se), and the notion of sovereignty, roots issues are often left unpacked or not exposed. Such a limitation ‘does not reorient our conceptualization of power outside of a law, right and sovereignty paradigm to think about Indigenous sovereignty and power in different ways’. This is what both Irene Watson and Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s reflections (to some degree) are making a case for. Again, this parallels James Tully’s comments about fair and just terms. Without going to far into Foucault’s ideas here, Aileen Moreton-Robinson has provided a good basis for further engagement:

What would be useful is to consider the representation of power within the law, rights, sovereignty paradigm by approaching the relationship between Indigenous sovereignty and state sovereignty as relations of force located within a matrix of biopower.

This emanates from a reconfiguration of understanding of ‘war’ with politics being seen as a form of war (‘politics is war by other means’): ‘war continues in modernity in different forms while sovereignty shifts from a concern with society defending itself from external attacks to focus on its internal enemies.

Rather it is to propose that we need to investigate how White possession functions through a discourse of rights within the disciplines of law, political science, history and anthropology on which Australian studies and Indigenous studies have relied since their formation, and examine how White possession manifests in regulatory mechanisms including legal decisions, government policy and legislation. Critical analysis of the role of these disciplines and regulatory mechanisms in reinforcing the prerogatives of White possession should provide a significant new perspective on the politics of sovereignty in Australia’.

This is a pretty heavy quote to leave somewhat unpacked, yet really sums up many of the issues quite well. I have delved into the violence and injustice of western disciplines that seek to evaluating other cultures—the implications not requiring intent—for some years now. Much like the structural violence of capital, white ways of knowing and seeing embody many levels of violence (structural, epistemic, hegemonic) perpetrated on other cultures via western disciplines, discourse and mechanisms that are currently central to our existence. Often making changes around the edges, with an intent of pragmatic reform or real change, has little more effect than token changes that too often reinforce the epistemic and cognitive authority of the roots caused of the problems. Debates about the sovereignty as the notion is currently understood and mobilised provides a clear example. It is one I would like to see people openly discussing the implications of. In engaging in discussion and debate about the notion of sovereignty, what is required for a fair and just society can be explored—exposing the limitations imposed by such notions. The roots of structural, epistemic and hegemonic violence cane be uncovered:

Understanding the complexity of power as both productive and repressive involves not only exploring disciplinary knowledges but also their regulative mechanisms and techniques of subjugation.

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