‘Sovereignty: The Illusion of Autonomy’  by Patrick Riordan SJ

April 14th, 2018

‘Sovereignty: The Illusion of Autonomy’ by Patrick Riordan SJ

‘Take back control!’ was the slogan of Brexiteers.  Did they or their opponents know what they were talking about?  Read below Pat Riordan’s presentation at the Hurtado Centre for your on-going education on such an important issue.


Brexit: how a liberal democracy with a seemingly robust representational and judicial system, which is used to balancing innumerable interest groups and projects and regulations, suddenly found itself subjugated overnight, for a generation at least, to the one-word answer to a 16-word question. A small majority of the British Folk found its providential enemy in the European Union, and Brexit stands mutely sovereign over all, enclosing Parliament rather than being enclosed by it.

(From James Meek’s review of Lilla, LRB 30 Nov 17).


  1. What is Sovereignty?
  2. Independence of what in 21st century? Markets, Economic Necessity
    • Habermas;
    • MacIntyre;
    • Ulrich
  3. Reasons why Sovereignty is no longer absolute:
    • Human Rights
    • Non-Intervention; R2P; Military HI
    • Alliances of States by treaty

It is a term already used by Aristotle in his Politics. He explains it as the authority that is above all the others (Bk III c.6). There are different kinds of constitutions, from tyranny and monarchy, aristocracy and oligarchy, democracy and polity. In each case there is a sovereign – supreme – authority. It might be a single individual, a small body with few members, or a large group or assembly. To be a member of the sovereign authority is to be a citizen, in Aristotle’s’ sense. We use the term ‘citizen’ loosely nowadays, but it can be used precisely when necessary. It was membership of the EU that made Britons ‘citizens of Europe’, while remaining ‘subjects’ in the United Kingdom. It is noticeable how the language e.g. in our EU passports distinguishes between being a citizen of the EU and a ‘national’ of a member state. Perhaps there is something merely symbolic in this distinction and use of language, but the political is an arena in which the symbolic is extremely important. To be a citizen is to be a member of the sovereign authority; this is consistent with the republican rhetoric of asserting that the People is sovereign, that the People gives itself the law.

I return to the notion of the sovereign as the highest authority. We use the label, sovereign state, or the sovereign national state. This label has become current since 1648, the treaty of Westphalia. (Historians dispute whether the dating of the birth of the modern sovereign state to this event is accurate.) The assertion of sovereignty for individual states made then was basically a denial that a state was subject to a higher authority as represented by the Catholic Church, or by the Pope in Rome, or by the Holy Roman Empire. It is important to bear this denial in mind when considering the topic of sovereignty. It is not so much the power or authority claimed for one’s own community, but the denial of claims of higher authorities. Similarly with the related claims of autonomy. Autonomy, whether individual or communal, is the assertion of the freedom to act without being subject to the will or the power of another. For Locke, who was very conscious of the difference between liberty and licence, the freedom of autonomy was the ‘perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions, and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will on any other man’ (2nd Treatise, 4). Essential to this understanding of autonomy is the denial of subordination or dependence. You don’t need permission. You cannot be faulted for acting.

Another element in the notion of sovereignty is territoriality. Supreme authority within a territory. Some have argued (Noel Malcolm following James) that it is not the supreme authority itself which is said to be sovereign, but the state as a whole. With its territory and its form of government the state is said to be sovereign, in owing obedience to none other, and in being inviolable, allowing no other the right to intervene. This principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of another state remains a conditional principle for member states of the United Nations, even if the UN has undermined the principle by other developments, which I’ll discuss later.

The question I pose in my talk is whether such autonomy, such sovereignty, without dependence, is possible today. Is absolute sovereignty illusory? In our world of ever intensifying interdependence, is autonomy without dependence possible at all? If it is not completely possible, the issue becomes one of degree. Perhaps someone would wish to assert that freedom, sovereignty, is like pregnancy: you cannot be a little bit pregnant. Similarly, you cannot be a little bit sovereign or autonomous.

I am certainly not the only Irish person to regret the decision of the UK parliament to take the country out of the European Union, following the referendum of June 2016. I expect the consequences of the decision to be disastrous for the UK in all respects and also negative on balance for the EU. But one aspect of the ‘Brexit’ event that should be noted and perhaps celebrated is the pre-eminence it gives to politics over economics, to policy in preference to market forces. Perhaps the ambitions for politics and policy are illusory, and the promise will not be fulfilled, but nonetheless the desires to have control, to be self-determining, to be in charge of one’s own destiny are recognisable and commendable. Those desires point to the values of autonomy, freedom and responsibility.

While some have claimed that membership of the EU has meant a loss of sovereignty for the UK, as if the options were to have or not to have sovereignty, the alternative perspective is to see the pooling of sovereignty among the countries of the EU as an increase on balance instead of a diminishment of sovereignty. But allowing the viewpoint to stand that Brexit means the recovery of sovereignty in the sense of control and autonomy with regard to law making and adjudication, and of course the control of borders, the question arises as to the driving vision of the purposes for which the sovereignty is to be exercised. What use will the UK make of its regained sovereignty? At this point Rousseau’s remark about the English comes to mind, how the people of England considers itself free, but it is only free on that day on which it elects its parliament. Afterwards it is subject to parliament’s sovereignty, and Rousseau goes on to remark how its use of its freedom on that one day every few years calls into question its capacity for freedom. Does it deserve its freedom if that is the use it makes of it? (Social Contract)

It should be remembered that for Rousseau the form of government was not essential in determining its republican credentials. Any form of government, whether monarchical, aristocratic or democratic, could be republican in his sense, if it was guided by the Common Good. For Rousseau this meant the content of the General Will, the interest and hence the will of the People as a whole in principle, and not the particular interest of any section of the population, even a majority. The rhetoric of ‘the will of the people’ as applied to the outcome of any referendum or election would be for Rousseau a misuse of the term. The res publica, the public business, the common interest, is not determinable by taking a vote, even if, in the extreme case, the vote is unanimous. The will of all is not the will of the people necessarily, since all can be misled or misguided by leaders favouring special interests. Rousseau’s ideas are stimulating but also impracticable, since it seems there is no way to implement them. And yet they continue to have their attraction, in inspiring the dream for a society to live in freedom, being subject only to the laws it gives itself.

If we allow for the moment that Brexit comes from such a desire to live in freedom, subject only to the laws the people gives itself, we can ask what vision of common goods drives the momentum for this radical change.


When such desires to live under laws the people gives itself are expressed in the later decades of the twentieth century and in the early years of the twenty-first they do not usually reflect a need to be freed from colonial domination but to be freed from domination by market forces. The sense that a society’s freedom of action is seriously constrained by what the market will allow has been reinforced in the experience of response to the post 2007 crises. A country’s viability came to be measured in terms of its capacity to obtain credit in the financial markets and the actual or anticipated response of markets to bond issues curtailed policy in a number of countries. This led many to wonder if indeed the economic domain was at the service of the common good, or if instead the realm of the political was merely a facilitative regime for the operation of market forces. The core idea in this popular view had long been a theme in philosophical and cultural reflection.

The traditional socialist criticism of the European Union or its predecessor institutions (EEC, EC) was that it consolidated capitalism. Institutionalising the freedoms of movement of goods and services, labour, and capital, it gave free rein to the operations of market forces, and subordinated the political governance of a country to the dominant economic interests. This was the principal objection by parties on the left to the EU. Isn’t it interesting that the Conservatives’ line of argument in favour of Brexit is not at all the predominance of capitalism, but instead the bureaucratic red tape hindrances to trade and commerce. The dream of Brexiteers is that on leaving the EU the UK will engage in trade with many other partners. Whatever one might think of the realistic prospect of more trade, the desire to leave is rooted in a very different attitude to trade than that on the left. Recalling Marx’s distinction between the freedom to trade and the freedom from trade, the freedom to own property and the freedom from property, the traditional left-wing argument has faulted the EU for denying freedoms from, while the Brexiteers seek even greater freedom to trade, with little concern that the freedom from domination by the economy might be at risk.

As noted above, the aspirations to sovereignty, to autonomy, expressed in recent decades do not usually reflect a need to be freed from imperial or colonial or even theocratic domination but to be freed from domination by market forces. I summarize in what follows the thought of three thinkers who have focused on this particular lack of sovereignty, Jürgen Habermas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Peter Ulrich.


For instance, Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher, distinguishes various forms of practical rationality and notes that the distinctive forms corresponding to the two spheres of the political and the economic are in tension with one another. The management of a business or of an economy relies on what he calls strategic reason whereby the overall goals of the activity are predetermined, and deliberation focuses on the appropriate means to attain the goals. In politics, by contrast, the goals are not pre-given, but must be worked out in a process of discussion and conciliation. The fact that different individuals or groups have different goals that may be in tension with one another requires a distinctively political process that would be violated were one party to implement its goals to the neglect of the other interests present. The political way of managing the conflict between the divergent interests of opposed groups requires communicative action, relying on the norms and standards implicit in the activity of demanding and providing justification. Each asks of the other what reason they might be given either to renounce or amend their own goals or to accept the other’s proposals. Consistent with such norms is the understanding that only those proposals might be accepted as justified that have been successful in garnering the support of all affected. But the processes of communicative action are time consuming and costly, and there is always the tendency to short-circuit the process by resorting to strategic reason. The strategist asks whether the other can be bribed or coerced into accepting a proposal. That promises to be a faster way of getting things done and perhaps more stable than reliance on persuasion and agreement. The reality of such a tendency means that the political realm in which values and interests are discussed and tested for their validity and justifiability can become colonised by another realm in which power and money are the main instruments. The overspill from the realm of the market to that of politics happens in two ways. In one form of the colonisation those making political decisions are confronted with representations of what is economically necessary, or inevitable, so that they have no or little scope for action, but must accept the inevitable as dictated by the market. In the other form, political decision makers internalize the models of strategic reason and explain to themselves and to others what must be the case if goals are to be achieved, whether the reduction of national debt, or the elimination of inflation, or the provision of housing to satisfy demand. In both versions, there is a domination of the political by economic strategic reason.


What Alasdair MacIntyre says about the modern nation-state is summarized by William Cavanaugh as follows:

‘According to MacIntyre, the nation-state is an arena of bargaining among different group interests. In the absence of any generally agreed rational standard to adjudicate among such interests, decisions on the distribution of goods are made on the basis of power, which is most often directly related to access to capital. The sheer size of the nation-state precludes genuine rational deliberation; deliberation is carried out by a political elite of lawyers, lobbyists, and other professionals.’[1]

MacIntyre operates with a vision of a community united in its engagement in practices in which certain key values and goods are realised, including the goods of the development and fulfilment of the individuals involved. Such a community would need to reflect on those values and goods and undertake measures to ensure their protection, especially in the face of pressures coming from the market and from the state. Only in such a community with its processes of reflection and debate about appropriate measures can there be said to be common goods in any real sense. The modern nation state on his view cannot realise common goods, since it is inevitably duplicitous, making promises it cannot deliver, pretending to be neutral about the good while implicitly endorsing one view of goods, and resisting any serious reflection on its fundamental claims.[2]

There are similarities to Habermas in the review of the state’s claims to rationality. While pretending to rely on rational argument, the modern state operates predominantly with the dynamics of power, not least economic power. If… ‘claims to political allegiance can be justified only where there is the common good of communal political learning, then modern states cannot advance any justifiable claim to the allegiance of their members, and this because they are the political expression of societies of deformed and fragmented practical rationality, in which politics, far from being an area of activity in and through which other activities are rationally ordered, is itself one more compartmentalized sphere from which there has been excluded the possibility of asking those questions that most need to be asked.’[3] The compartmentalization of modern life is a frequent theme in his writing, and is a relevant point of critique on this topic of sovereignty. In one article he instances the case of a man who is an executive in a power company, and at the same time a local resident sharing the concerns of his neighbours, and is a husband and a parent with responsibility for his family’s wellbeing. These different elements of his life are kept distinct from one another, and there is no forum in which the contradictions between the different values and commitments can be mediated. The missing forum is the forum of sovereignty, understood as supreme authority, the dimension in which all the claims of the diverse spheres can be assessed and evaluated. The realm of contemporary politics claims to provide this dimension, but it does not deliver, being mortgaged to the economic, the interests of business (the power company in this case).

The typical modern liberal state pretends to be a democracy but is really an oligarchy: a very telling point is made about the illusions of democracy. ‘Politically the societies of advanced Western modernity are oligarchies disguised as liberal democracies. The large majority of those who inhabit them are excluded from membership in the elites that determine the range of alternatives between which voters are permitted to choose. And the most fundamental issues are excluded from that range of alternatives.’[4]

Ulrich: reclaiming the priority of the political over the economic

Peter Ulrich is an economist teaching in St Gallen in Switzerland. He rejects the claims made on behalf of the free market that it can deliver social well-being. He challenges the assumption that the free market simply through its operation secures the common good. The objection is made that an economic analysis predicated on individual instrumental rationality obscures more important questions about the quality of life being pursued, the justice of social relations and the purposes for which wealth is generated and distributed (Ulrich, 2002). The free market overrides the freedom of citizens to determine in a deliberative way the good life for themselves, for which the market and economic activity ought to be instrumental and subservient. Ulrich maintains that the implicit ideal of economic rationality, both theoretic and practical, leads to the market’s domination of society, rather than the incorporation of the economic market in an ethical, political society. From the broader social perspective, what is supposedly economically rational is not necessarily reasonable. This broader perspective, which embraces views on the meaning and purpose of life (Sinnfrage) would relativize the narrow focus of economics. At the same time, it would allow for the critical evaluation of the economic in terms of this perspective (Legitimationsfrage). The proper functioning of the political requires that its participants can see through appeals to ‘economic necessity’ and the assumption that the economically rational assures the best outcome. This approach, juxtaposing the market society with its standards of economic rationality, and a deliberative society pursuing questions of the meaning of the good life for which the economy is merely instrumental, echoes Pope John Paul II’s remark in Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) contrasting a world order motivated by concern for the well-being of all with a world order motivated by the quest for individual profit:

‘In a different world, ruled by concern for the common good of all humanity, or by concern for the “spiritual and human development of all” instead of by the quest for individual profit, peace would be possible as a result of a “more perfect justice among people”’ (SRS #10).

Two questions arise at this point: First, is the demand for more control as expressed in the option to leave the EU reflecting a desire to take control in this sense of strategic rationality, or concern for the common good, or for the realisation of a wider horizon of the human good? And Second, is the aspiration for sovereignty in these terms illusory? Is it practicable? Is the move such that instead of finding release from all dependence, the country will find itself even more dependent?


The self-understanding of the modern state as the highest authority, subject to no higher authority – concretely from Westphalia, not to be subject to religious authority – has changed through history. The development of three features of modern statehood have considerably modified that sense of the state’s sovereignty as absolute. These are linked, but nonetheless distinguishable.

Human rights

Perhaps the most important one for my purposes has been the emergence and development of human rights as setting the standards below which no state should fall in the treatment of its own citizens. Articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they have become institutionalised in international law through the series of Conventions which are in effect treaties between sovereign states, which willingly cede something of their sovereignty. Also there are the thematic International Conventions, on Children’s Rights, on Refugees, on Genocide.

Non-intervention principle weakened

A second related development has been the dissolution of the absoluteness of the principle of non-intervention. When a state evidently and systematically and seriously violates the human rights of its own people, then other states with UN backing are warranted in intervening militarily to stop the abuse. This has been invoked already in the 20th century, but is still very much disputed, given the difficulties of drawing lines. For instance, the apparent endorsement of a human right to democracy, which if acknowledged would allow states to intervene for the purposes of regime change in a state which denied its people their rights to democracy, has stimulated a lively debate. John Rawls’s Law of Peoples (1999) can be read as developing a theory of international relations which, while taking human rights seriously, does not require or excuse military intervention to bring about democracy or the adoption of liberal values.

Alliances formed by treaty

The third development is the emergence of different forms of alliance between sovereign states. Our local case is the European Union, in which states of Europe have pooled their sovereignty (Brexit campaigners interpret the sovereign decisions of the UK Parliament as an abandonment of sovereignty instead of as a pooling of sovereignty with neighbours). There are other examples of such sovereignty pooling, and none provides as yet a clear example of resounding success. They include the UN itself, WTO, the World Bank and the IMF. Around the world different models of organisation are accommodations to local circumstances, whether we look at the ASEAN community, the Organization of African Unity, or The Arab League.

It is noticeable that the focus of concern in many if not most of these alliances is economic. The vulnerability of every economy to international economic developments, reveals the need for collaboration and the maintenance of systems in which negative impacts can be ameliorated. The UK can be pleased that it has managed to avoid the risks associated with membership of the Euro zone. But Sterling’s value is determined on world markets, and the credit rating of a country issuing bonds is equally subject to the behaviour of the market. No country has absolute control.

What we can observe from these developments is the recognition by sovereign states in different environments that their sovereignty is in fact constrained, and if they wish to pursue goals of security, development, and welfare, they cannot do it alone but depend on the cooperation and contributions of neighbours. And so they voluntarily cede some of their sovereignty to be bound by obligations which they freely take on. The motivating reason for accepting such obligations is the acknowledgement of a common good beyond a narrow self-interest consistent with independent action.

With these three developments there is a very significant shift in the meaning of sovereignty for the nation state. It can no longer understand itself simply as the highest authority in its sphere, subject to none higher. Commitments and obligations arise from the full range of treaties and associations, so that states willingly take on the associated moral and legal constraints (while participating in the revision and amendment of the same). In the case of human rights legislation the higher authority to which states subject themselves is a moral one. It is not simply being bound by the threat of punishment (fear as the motivator), sanctions of one kind or another, even up to the point of military humanitarian intervention, as specified in the legal instruments. It is the endorsement of the statements of the UDHR and the Conventions about human dignity, and the inviolability of human persons, and the treatment that is owed to them by virtue of simply being human. It is the acceptance that discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or political allegiance, is inappropriate for the dealings of a state first of all with its own people, but then with others in their sphere of influence. We should not underestimate the enormity of the achievement in sovereign nation states agreeing to subject themselves to such higher standards. It should be read as progress from a negative stance of denial of any higher authority to a positive stance of recognition of the value and appropriateness of acknowledging some higher authority.

I must avoid over optimism on this point. In our world there is one significant state which, while it has pioneered the way for many other states to achieve freedom and the autonomy of self-government, remains a reluctant partner in international cooperation. The United States of America is not a state like any other, being more like an empire, and yet it continues to rely on the rhetoric of the sovereign nation state (Boyle 2010). Asserting its own sovereignty, it refuses to be subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and is frequently an unwilling partner in the United Nations (Ralph 2007). It is willing to cooperate where it can be in the leadership role, understandably so, wherever it is expected to be the paymaster of projects undertaken. The ambivalence of the USA in relation to human rights and military activity such as humanitarian intervention or preventive war has become public in debates in recent decades in which the standards the USA has set for itself are different from those it expects to be binding for the rest of the world (Luban 2004). But even allowing for such reservations, we have in these emerging institutions a development of the understanding of sovereignty, which is based less on denial of higher authority, and now much more on a positive acknowledgement of shared interests along with shared moral standards which provide a horizon of common goods (Riordan 2015).

[1] William T. Cavanaugh, ‘Killing for the Telephone Company. Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good’, in Patrick D. Miller and Dennis P. McCann (eds), In Search of the Common Good (New York, London: T&T Clark, 2005), 301-32, at 325f.

[2] ‘Politics, Philosophy and the Common Good’, Studi perugini 3 (1997), reprinted in The MacIntyre Reader. Edited by Kelvin Knight, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998, pp. 236/7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.