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Marc Lombardo, Critique of Sovereignty..



Marc Lombardo, Critique of Sovereignty, Book I: Contemporary Theories of Sovereignty, Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2015, 112 pp., $17.00
John de Geus (University of Sofia)


This book is the first in a series of four dedicated to the philoso-
phical examination of the concept of sovereignty. As the title states, a
number of contemporary theories of sovereignty are presented and
commented upon by Marc Lombardo. He contends that various political
events occurring in the United States in the early twenty-first century
have demonstrated an absolutist logic of sovereignty which has changed
little since this interpretation of the concept was first introduced by Jean
Bodin in 1576. Lombardo goes on to assert that our orientation towards
political events is generally driven by an implicit understanding of a par-
ticular metaphysical horizon. An explicit interpretation of the meta-
physical presuppositions underpinning political events would therefore
have various practical political implications. With his Critique
Lombardo aims to contribute to this project by providing an account of
the concept of sovereignty. To this end, Lombardo seeks to present a
genealogy of the evolving relationship between sovereignty and thought.
In Book I, Lombardo begins by establishing a preliminary demarcation
of the concept of sovereignty which is more metaphysical than real, and
then goes on to present five separate theoretical accounts of the concept
of sovereignty offered by influential Continental political philosophers
of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Maritain, Foucault and Der-
rida, Schmitt, Agamben and, finally, Hardt and Negri.

Preliminary Demarcation of the Concept of Sovereignty

Lombardo presents the simplest present-day definition of sover-
eignty as “the supreme authority within a territory.” (16) This is quite simi-
lar to the definition of sovereignty provided in 1576 by Jean Bodin,
which states that sovereignty is “the absolute and perpetual power of a
commonwealth.” (17) Bodin immediately sets a limit to this absolute
power, asserting that even the sovereign Prince must obey God.
According to Lombardo, both the defining terms “supreme author-
ity” and “absolute power” must be considered to be primarily meta-
physical instead of real, since there is no actual entity that is accurately
described by either of these terms. Lombardo uses the term “referential
nullity” to refer to this idea that the concept of sovereignty, as defined
above, does not refer to any actually existing entity. It is here that
Lombardo makes the important assertion that “the concept of sover-
eignty can only be used to describe entities observable in the real, physi-
cal world by including descriptions of specific limitations concerning
the functional abilities of such entities.” (18) He goes on to posit that “the
greater detail with which a ‘sovereign’ entity is described, the less sov-
ereign it becomes” (19) and “the degree to which a given entity appears
sovereign is the degree to which it is vague.” (20) In this interpretation sov-
ereignty is thus considered to be a function of the concrete limitations of
observation. Although sovereignty is thus unattainable in the real world,
it is nevertheless pursued in political practice.

Jacques Maritain

The Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain rejects the concept of
sovereignty altogether because it is unable to do justice to the inherent
dignity granted to all the children of God. Maritain contends that the
concept is intrinsically incorrect and misleading, and therefore has no
place in political philosophy.

(16) Philpott, Daniel. Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern
International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
(17) Bodin, Jean. On Sovereignty: Four Chapters from the Six Books of the
Commonwealth, ed. Julian H. Franklin, trans. Julian H. Franklin (Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
(18) Marc Lombardo. Critique of Sovereignty, Book I: Contemporary Theories of
Sovereignty (Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2015), 5.
(19) Ibid., 5.
(20) Ibid., 5. )

An important “false connotation” of the concept of sovereignty is
the notion that authority can be transferred (for example, from a person
to a ruler). Maritain argues that authority is inalienable. Individuals do
not have the authority to transfer authority to someone else; furthermore,
authority that can be given to another cannot really be yours to begin
with. A second false connotation of the concept of sovereignty is the no-
tion that authority and action can be legitimately distinguished from one
another. According to Maritain, the people cannot decide not to act, and
the ruler cannot act without deciding. This is a fundamental contradic-
tion within the concept of sovereignty. Maritain goes on to assert that
the aforementioned false connotations of the concept of sovereignty, by
conceiving of the fundamental nature of the human being as something
that can be exchanged or divided, directly violate the inherent dignity of
humanity. For every individual, the ability to act for oneself is given to
him or her by God, and only God can take this ability away. Because it
violates human dignity, Maritain believes the concept of sovereignty
should be completely removed from the human world. Ironically, the
only way to do this would be to reassert the sovereignty of God.
Lombardo agrees with Maritain that authority cannot be trans-
ferred, and that authority and action cannot be legitimately distinguished
from one another. This standpoint calls into question all the existing
theories of the sovereign state, which all presuppose either a transfer of
power or a separation of powers. Based on Maritain’s arguments,
Lombardo formulates a new definition of sovereignty as “a volition
wholly transferable without either compromise or remainder.” (21) In this
definition sovereignty entails the power to act without being acted upon,
and Lombardo contends that such a situation does not occur in the real
world, only in fantasy. Moreover, this fantasy of sovereignty persists
precisely because the desire for sovereignty is impossible to realize.

Foucault and Derrida

Michel Foucault opposes the concept of sovereignty because, in his
view, it does not adequately describe the actual functioning of power in the
modern era. To him, the concept exhibits a kind of circularity in that it con-
tains a series of interrelated claims which all rely on a form of their conclu-

(21) Ibid., 15.

sion as a premise. The logical structure of sovereignty is therefore that of
the fallacy of “begging the question,” also known as petitio principii. Ac-
cording to Foucault, sovereignty assumes the existence of three elements:
“a subject who has to be subjectified, the unity of the power that has to be
founded, and the legitimacy that has to be respected.” (22) All three elements
specify redundant actions which correspond to the fallacy of petitio
principii. If there is already a subject, why must this entity be subjectified?
If power is already unitary, why must it still be founded? If power is le-
gitimate, why must it need to demand respect? Therefore, neither a subject,
a unitary power nor a legitimate power exists; there are only processes of
subjectification, founding and legitimation.
Foucault hypothesizes that in modernity, power is structured in
such a way that no actual existing situation may be accurately described
as meeting the conditions of sovereignty. However, at various times in
the past, the concept of sovereignty performed four different roles. Ini-
tially it referred to the actual power mechanism of the feudal monarchy.
Later the concept was used to establish and justify monarchical admini-
strations. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was used as a
weapon to both restrict and strengthen royal power. Finally, in the eight-
eenth century it was used to construct the model of parliamentary de-
mocracies. To Foucault, the concept of sovereignty thus stands for all
the things that are no longer essential for the operation of power.
Jacques Derrida likewise asserts that sovereignty has a circular na-
ture. The model of democracy, in which the ability to rule is shared
among various parties by taking turns, acts as a model for the circularity
of sovereignty. Derrida furthermore claims that democracy and sover-
eignty, in this circular structure of alternating rule, are inextricably
linked through their mutual implication. According to Derrida, a conse-
quence of the circularity of sovereignty is that any attempt to rule, which
entails the attempt to secure its legitimacy, automatically raises the pos-
sibility that its legitimacy may be contested. Therefore, while sover-
eignty is generally defined by the unconditional nature of the ability to
rule, this unconditionality and the ability to rule are actually irreconcil-
able. However, renouncing this unconditionality does not put an end to

(22) Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 44).

the notion of sovereignty; instead, this merely supports the notion of
sovereignty’s circularity. Derrida refers to this effect as “autoimmunity.”
To Lombardo, the notion of sovereignty’s circularity is key to un-
derstanding why the concept of sovereignty endures in the modern era.
Foucault’s three elements of sovereignty (subject, foundation and le-
gitimacy) all lack a concrete point of origin and can therefore be end-
lessly pursued in a circular manner. There can be no subject without a
non-subject, no founding without destroying and no legitimacy without
illegitimacy. Lombardo asserts that there is therefore no legitimate basis
for the existence of sovereignty. It is exactly this lack of a legitimate ba-
sis, however, that allows the concept to endure; the absence of true sov-
ereignty continues to inspire people to seek it.

Carl Schmitt

Rather than follow the traditional course of political philosophy,
which seeks to ground the concept of sovereignty in the exercise of poli-
tics, Carl Schmitt grounds the concept of the political in the exercise of
sovereignty. He thus considers the exercise of sovereignty to be more
fundamental than the exercise of politics. In Schmitt’s view, the concept
of the political depends on the juridically defined notion of the excep-
tion. There are facts in any given legal case that stand out as exceptions
to the particular law in question, and to the body of law as a whole. Cru-
cially, a decision must be made regarding the exceptional aspects of a
case before the law can be enforced. This a priori decision is itself thus
not “legal,” as it comes before the application of the law. As every case
is in some way an exception, the exercise of law presupposes an act of
decision that is outside the law, i.e. “extra-legal.” Schmitt applies this
juridical concept of the exception requiring an extra-legal decision to the
rule of states: the executive has unique power in a constitutional state to
suspend the constitution in times of exceptional emergency. Schmitt
thus defines the sovereign as “he who decides upon the exception.” (23)
For Schmitt, all classical political problems, such as representation,
separation of powers and the authoritative element in a regime, are all
grounded in the fundamental political antagonism between friend and

(23) Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of
Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985).

enemy. A distinction between friend and enemy must be made before
the political can be constituted. In other words, it is necessary to make a
decision whether another party is to be considered as either a friend or
an enemy before any reasons for considering this party either a friend or
an enemy can be formulated. Phenomenologically, the sovereign deci-
sion comes before any deliberation. Schmitt then defines the concept of
the political as the concept of sovereignty; in this view the political does
not include any form of deliberation, only decision. From this Lombardo
concludes that in Schmitt’s view, “there is no outside sovereignty.” (24)

Giorgio Agamben

Giorgio Agamben introduces the concept of homo sacer, which
can be viewed as being the corollary of Schmitt’s idea of a sovereign
ruler with the power to make extra-legal decisions. Homo sacer is de-
fined as he who “anyone can kill but no one can sacrifice.” (25) Having no
legal standing, homo sacer can be considered an absolute victim who
does not even have the possibility to be recognized as a victim. Accord-
ing to Agamben, “the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men
are potentially homines sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to
whom all men act as sovereigns.” (26)
Following the introduction of Agamben’s work, a strongly critical
description of contemporary (American?) society in the era of biopoli-
tics is presented, apparently in a bid to illustrate the supposed victimiza-
tion of ordinary citizens. In this description assertions are made, among
others, that the public space is a zone for “unimpeded corporate-
governmental surveillance,” (27) that the stripping of constitutional rights
is a basic feature of society (28) and that banks depend on illegal drug
money as a source of cash. (29) Somewhat further on in the chapter, in a
similarly critical vein, the United States is indirectly referred to as a “slave state.” (30)

(24) Marc Lombardo, op. cit., 43.
(25) Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans.
Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
(26) Ibid., 53.
(27) Marc Lombardo, op. cit., 48.
(28) Ibid., 49.
(29) Ibid., 49.
(30) Ibid., 55. )

Lombardo goes on to discuss at length whether the concept of homo
sacer is a description or a limit case. As a description, homo sacer does
not, in Lombardo’s view, describe any past or existing case in the real
world and therefore, like its corollary sovereignty, exhibits referential nul-
lity. The concept of homo sacer must then be a limit case, which is poten-
tially real but in practice never attained. One can initially identify a person
as being a homo sacer, but if one examines the situation it will be evident
that that person has not yet reached the point of being homo sacer. The
potentiality of becoming homo sacer always remains, however.

Hardt and Negri

According to Hardt and Negri, the concept of sovereignty has never
been an accurate description of political reality, since the actors involved
in actual events have always been constrained to some extent. Moreover,
the increasingly global nature of political phenomena implies that the
concept of sovereignty is less and less applicable. Hardt and Negri con-
tend that a new mechanism of global imperial power has replaced sover-
eignty in the contemporary era. This new imperial power, which they
christen “Empire,” has no identifiable center and does not derive its power
in the way that sovereignty does. Instead, its power lies in the “goes-
with,” which never directly opposes cultural traditions, systems of gov-
ernance or business practices but instead simply assimilates them into
Empire. Nevertheless, Empire utilizes sovereignty as well in situations
where it exploits the vulnerable position of large groups of people whose
lesser status has been determined by sovereign boundaries. Such groups of
people together form what Hardt and Negri call the “multitude.”
In different ways, the concepts of Empire and multitude both con-
test the connection between authority and territory, a crucial defining
factor of the concept of sovereignty. Lombardo asserts that the identifi-
cation of the multitude with sovereignty immediately brings with it the
possibility of sovereignty’s undoing. This is because the multitude can
only participate in sovereignty when it is given a determinate boundary;
however, the multitude is by its very nature something without bounda-
ries. Therefore, when associated with a boundary, the multitude will be
that boundary’s undoing. In this manner the multitude breaks the con-
nection between authority and territory.
Lombardo asserts that the contemporary legal definition of sover-
eignty is an erroneous anachronism because determinate physical terri-
tory continues to be a necessary condition of this definition. As an alter-
native, Lombardo posits a “metaphysically correct definition of sover-
eignty as consisting in authority bounded by a defined sphere of influ-
ence. Only through this redefinition of sovereignty can a true, sovereign
international community come into being.
Hardt and Negri take the position that nation states should not ex-
ist. Lombardo disagrees, pointing out that nation states have, on occa-
sion, been effective at providing benefits to their citizens, even if the
sovereignty of these nation states has been based on an erroneous defini-
tion which includes the criterion of physical territory. Citing the separa-
tist Lakota nation as a positive example, Lombardo suggests that al-
though the sovereignty this nation claims can be a means to the positive
transformation of social institutions, it nevertheless also comprises a
clearly defined physical territory.
Lombardo concludes his work by suggesting an alternative global
framework consisting of all manner of sovereign bodies not necessary
bounded by physical territory. If such a body were to be shown neglecting
the interests of the people that it was supposedly committed to serving,
these interests would then be transferred to a different sovereign body.
The interests of each people would thus be served by the entity able to
serve their interests most effectively. Referential nullity notwithstanding,
the concept of sovereignty would thus become a framework for assigning
responsibility to a particular body for a given set of interests.


Book I of Critique of Sovereignty assumes considerable prior
knowledge of political philosophy. In each chapter Lombardo combines
the work of a particular philosopher or philosophers with his own phi-
losophical examination. Unless one is already familiar with the work of
the philosopher in question, one encounters passages where it is unclear
exactly whose viewpoint is being presented. One might wonder whether
particular statements are expressing the views of the philosopher in
question or of Lombardo himself. Generally this is not an issue with re-
gard to the development of one’s understanding of the concept of sover-
eignty; indeed, the synthesis of philosophical views provides valuable,
novel insights. However, for some of the more controversial assertions,
the uninitiated reader may be left wondering who is making the asser-
tion and on which premises that assertion is based.
In conclusion, Book I provides a noteworthy and informative over-
view of contemporary philosophical thought regarding the concept of sov-
ereignty. One can look forward to the further elaboration of Lombardo’s
genealogy of the evolving relationship between sovereignty and thought in
the forthcoming Books II, III and IV of Critique of Sovereignty.