It is worshipped like a god, and as little understood.
It is the cause of untold strife and bloodshed. Genocide is perpetuated in its sacred name.
It is at once a source of power and power’s abuse, of order and of anarchy. It can be noble and it can be shameful.
It is sovereignty.Alan Cranston
Is sovereignty a foreclosed concept or an open one? The multitude of sovereignties (divine, popular, absolute, Indigenous, etc.) points to the latter.
The first sovereignty human beings seem to have recognized is that of the divine, in both polytheistic as well as monotheistic societies. From this flowed the sovereignty of the law, especially in Judaism. This sovereignty of the law was carried over to Christianity (see Pink  2016; and Paul’s epistles in particular), where, starting with Constantine the Great, it gave the emperor/king-as-law-giver-on-earth divine rights (Dei gratia), as if the monarch were God’s proxy on earth. But the concept of absolute sovereignty (absolutism) would not emerge until the seventeenth century with Jean Bodin, whose sovereign prince is only accountable to God. Since Carl Schmitt, sovereignty is the theopolitical concept par excellence (see, for example, Derrida  2005; Cranston 2004).
Popular sovereignty was born in the polytheistic societies of the Mediterranean (Aristotle [4th cent. BCE] 2020; Bartelson 1995). Under this regime, laws did not emanate from a divine source but from the will of a male majority. It is no surprise then that this was the model chosen by the Framers of the US Constitution, with the addition of race as another exclusionary factor (on top of gender and class, though as Benjamin Isaac notes, it can be said the Greeks excluded on the basis of race too).
These are, in nuce, the main ideas about macro-national sovereignty. There are, however, other micro-national sovereignties that exist within macro-national sovereignty. Indigenous sovereignty is a prime example. When the Spanish found macro-national sovereign states in Mexico and Peru, they realized that in order to govern the inhabitants of those states, Indigenous elites had to retain some form of sovereignty, even if symbolic. Thus, for the first years of Spanish colonization in Mexico and Peru, there was a Spanish governor and an Indigenous “ruler,” hand-picked by the Spaniards. But the Spanish quickly abandoned this system. Instead, they recognized communal Indigenous sovereignty, where caciques inherited their leadership roles through patrilineal succession.
But what did this sovereignty mean to Indigenous groups and individuals? A great deal. Indigenous sovereignty expanded the idea of sovereignty in Spanish America. Indigenous caciques and commoners made claims to certain rights and privileges, such as humane treatment, on the basis of sovereignty. Because the Spanish did not always oblige, Spain’s presumed right to govern Indigenous lands and peoples was contested throughout the colonial period (Adorno 2008), culminating in independence, but an independence whose principal beneficiaries would be the America-born white creole elite.
There is another sovereignty that is usually not recognized in these debates: Black sovereignty. Black sovereignty in colonial Latin America was of two kinds. On the one hand, there was the sovereignty of maroon communities, which was occasionally recognized as a micro-national sovereignty within the macro-national sovereignty of the Iberian empires (Price 1979). This was a clearly defined sovereignty that, although occasionally recognized by Iberian imperial powers—when maroon communities proved too strong against colonial attempts to annihilate them— was in direct opposition, and therefore seen as an existential threat to imperial power.
Another subtler, less obvious Black sovereignty was also present. As Pablo Miguel Rivera Silva argues in Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico, most Blacks enmeshed in urban communities were not usually inclined to join maroon communities. Instead, they often chose to form or join Catholic confraternities. These confraternities functioned as micro-nations, providing medical care, other sorts of aid, burials, and a space of sociability, thus permitting the members (who could come from distinct ethnic and geographical backgrounds) to form pan- or trans-ethnic bonds and identities. Black confraternities thus embodied a form of sovereignty comparable to Indigenous sovereignty, insofar as it was accepted within the same body politic, while maroon communities were at the margins of society.
Sovereignty, in the final analysis, is performance. A sovereignty must be expressed. Black Catholic brotherhoods expressed their sovereignty by participating in public festivals “with their king and queen,” whom they elected and crowned annually (Valerio 2022). Thus, they developed a discursive sovereignty. I define this discursive sovereignty as that which we allow ourselves to tell ourselves and others about ourselves – in other words, articulations about a group’s corporate self, fashioned by the group and intended to enhance the group’s and outsiders’ understanding of the group. These articulations are often bold statements that defy outsiders’ opinions. The group can also surprise itself by articulating a sovereignty it has not been granted. Through their performance “with their king and queen,” Afro-Latin American confraternities expressed their communal sovereignty in a poignantly mimetic manner.
Joy is part of micro sovereignty. As understood by Spinoza, “joy is not an emotion at all but an increase in one’s power to affect and be affected. It is the capacity to do and feel more. As such, it is connected to creativity and the embrace of uncertainty” (Montgomery and bergman 2017). As the critical thinkers Nick Montgomery and carla bergman have observed: “Bubbling up in the cracks of Empire, joy remakes people through combat with forces of subjection. Joy is a desubjectifying process, an unfixing, an intensification of life itself” (59-60; emphasis in the original). Subjected people have always used the “cracks of Empire” to build sovereignty, and through that, sovereign joy as a creative force that sustains them through the subjection.
I have focused on one example of Black sovereignty given my familiarity with it. But as Kyle T. Mays discusses in An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States, there are other instances of Black and Indigenous sovereignty to be explored. The aim of this entry has been to disrupt the macro-national focus on sovereignty. This runs counter to what Schmitt and those after him have proposed. My approach invites us to think about the joy of sovereignty and the sovereignty of joy to move subjected groups to creative, empowering action. Where state sovereignty as theology would have subjected groups accept their condition with its attending violence and suffering, the micro sovereignty I propose here – not merely as a futuristic idea, but more as a reflection on how subjected groups have dealt with subjection – invites us not to accept that violence and suffering, but to find creative ways out of it through the cracks of Empire. This is not an acceptance of the status quo, but a challenge to it on our own terms.
Aristotle. Politics, trans. Richard Kraut. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [4th cent. BCE] 2020. 4 vols.
All associations are formed with the aim of achieving some good. The Greek city-state, or polis, is the most general association in the Greek world, containing all other associations, such as families and trade associations. As such, the city-state must aim at achieving the highest good. Aristotle concludes that “man is a political animal”: we can only achieve the good life by living as citizens in a state. In discussing the economic relations that hold within a city-state, Aristotle defends the institution of private property, condemns excessive capitalism, and notoriously defends the institution of slavery.
Bodin, Jean. Six Books of the Commonwealth, trans. Michael Tooley. Lexington: Seven Treasures Publications,  2009.
Bodin was primarily responsible for introducing the seductive but erroneous notion that sovereignty is indivisible, that the entire power of the state had to be vested in a single individual or group. This thesis, combined with the prevailing crisis of authority during the French religious wars, led Bodin to a systematically absolutist interpretation of the French and other European monarchies.
Derrida, Jacques. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford University Press,  2005.
Derrida examines the history of the concept of sovereignty, engaging with the work of Bodin, Hobbes, Rousseau, Schmitt, and others. Against this background, he delineates his understanding of “democracy to come,” which he distinguishes clearly from any kind of regulating ideal or teleological horizon. The idea that democracy will always remain in the future is not a temporal notion. Rather, the phrase would name the coming of the unforeseeable other, the structure of an event beyond calculation and program.
Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  2005.
Focusing on the relationships among political leadership, the norms of the legal order, and the state of political emergency, Schmitt argues in Political Theology that legal order ultimately rests upon the decisions of the sovereign. According to Schmitt, only the sovereign can meet the needs of an “exceptional” time and transcend legal order so that order can then be reestablished. Convinced that the state is governed by the ever-present possibility of conflict, Schmitt theorizes that the state exists only to maintain its integrity in order to ensure order and stability.