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Bloody mess: why sovereigns fail, and how they get away with it

When confronted with the question of how much killing is enough the answer is always more (c.f. Blair’s calls for the west to enter the Syrian civil war). If a strategic sufficiency of death were realisable, killing would not stop. It would not even stop if one side exterminated the other.

Liberal democracy is based upon two principles: those of representative and accountable government. Sometimes this is established under the popular sovereignty of the people as in the case of liberal republics. In the case of the United Kingdom, however, sovereignty is vested in the typically arcane British formula of the Queen in Parliament.  But it is the executive branch of British government as currently constituted, and very specifically the office of the prime minister, that exercises the sovereign’s royal prerogatives, not least that of making war.

There is not much political point to be made any longer in detailing how liberal democracy fails the test of representation as much as it does that of accountability. The evidence is overwhelming. The failures no doubt also contribute to the widespread disillusion with liberal politics experienced throughout almost all contemporary liberal democracies.

The reasons for the political exhaustion of representative and accountable government and its evacuation as a model of democracy are by now so well rehearsed and acknowledged that they hardly cause much of a political scandal. Scandal is only excited when the mendacity of the political classes, such as those concerning expenses for British MPs, becomes so manifest that it embarrasses the political classes themselves.  UKIP’s recent electoral success is symptomatic also of this political self-corruption and the inability of the political classes to meet the challenge it poses.

Political critique nonetheless continues to revolve around proposals for making-up this so-called democratic deficit. In short, they aim to make popular sovereignty more effective by making it more representative and accountable. Readers may be forgiven for concluding that this game of political reform is as moribund as the system it seeks to improve.

The problem I want to present is additional to but differently conceived from that of the will to representative and accountable sovereign government. In as much as it explains why sovereignty as such is bound to fail, it also goes some way towards indicating a deeper source of this disillusion. It therefore has more profound implications for democratic theorising than those limited to the theory, institutions and practices of liberal democracy and popular sovereignty. It concerns modern sovereignty as such.

My working assumptions are twofold. First, that serial and lethal failure is built into the very conceptualisation and historical practice of modern sovereignty. Second, that this failure is most manifest in respect of the very power over death that is supposed to define the modern sovereign. I will illustrate what I mean by reference to war making and the execution of the death penalty. Turns out that the distinctive competence of sovereigns never rises above the practices of a badly run butcher's shop.

A depiction of people getting hanged, drawn and quartered. A depiction of people getting hanged, drawn and quartered (date unknown). Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.One objection might immediately be raised, however, against these assumptions. Modern power relations are diverse and heterogeneous, they are comprised of many different forms of power according to how the objects and subjects of power are conceived.  Sovereignty’s power over death has been superseded by these additional modalities of power, especially those like biopower that take species existence as their referent object.  Species are quite differently conceived from sovereigns. So-called biopower thereby seeks to exercise power over life through manipulation of the biological and behavioural properties of species existence. 

There isn’t the space to deal with this important objection in detail here. Diverse forms of modern power do not however compete in a zero-sum game. They are complexly allied in the complex matrices of modern power relations. Sovereign power is very much alive and part of the power game.

Suffice to say, then, that from their very inception in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries modern sovereigns have always availed themselves of power over life, not least when exercising power over death. Turns out also that the distinction between life and death was never as distinct as we have been taught to think, no more so now than in the age of molecular biology.

Be that as it may, to the degree that the game of political reform aims to make sovereignty both more representative and accountable -  and thereby more effective as an instrument for the expression and realisation of the people’s will, whatever the people may be said to be – it is perfectly evident also that wherever modern sovereignty is said to lie, sovereigns are condemned to fail.

Deadly force

They fail most spectacularly where their ability to exercise the deadly force that is said to define them is at issue. Whenever modern sovereigns, popular as well as despotic, seek to exercise their monopoly of the legitimate use of deadly force – specifically, when they make war and when they execute murders whose acts challenge that very monopoly – they fail. Why would we therefore want to improve the exercise of sovereignty via more effective means of representation and accountability, if sovereign power is itself condemned to failure?

We might instead be prompted to ask other questions. Like: how does this serial failure account for the violence, ressentiment and sanctifying spectacles of public violence so characteristic of the exercise of sovereign power? Does it account for the generic anxiety that stalks the sovereign corridors of power since it is the governors rather than the governed who seem most acutely aware of their inability to match the decisional demands set for them by sovereignty?

How much is the very hubris of power fed by a fear of failure that is real because it is quite mundane? How might resentment at their serial and ever present danger of failing fuel the remorseless surveillance to which some sovereigns like the United States now subject global populations? Are those like Manning, Snowden and Assange pursued so relentlessly by their sovereigns precisely because they did not only expose the illegality to which sovereign power, constitutively, resorts in exercising power over death, they also exposed how the surveillance without end that offended their liberal sensibilities is incapable of acquiring the mastery to which it is condemned to aspire?

Can sovereigns only ape the power they are said to possess by simulating it in spectacles? Is this why sovereign power sanctifies itself through rituals and spectacles that seek to remove exercise of power from the plane of the profane to that of the immemorial and the divine?

Explaining modern sovereignty

Why then is sovereign power condemned to fail? The answer lies in the very conception of modern sovereignty. Forget appeals to natural law formulated in the late Christian as well as the early modern period. They adorn but they do not explain modern sovereignty. In modern terms there is no law that makes the law, the law is a function of human law making and the power that institutes an order of law is sovereign power.

Sovereign power is underived power. So goes the modern theorisation of sovereignty. But this does not get to the heart of the matter. This underived power and the miracle of decision for which it calls, specifically in extremis when the sovereign order of law is said to be at stake and killing is required, derives from theological absolutism’s model of the Christian God. A secularised version of theological absolutism’s account of God, modern sovereignty thus imposes a burden of power and decision upon human beings that they are incapable of discharging – without, that is, appeals to a divinity whose powers they are supposed to have appropriated.

Charged not only with exercising a strategic calculus of necessary killing – of deciding who must die, where when and how - but also with answering the question how much killing is enough, every sovereign fails the very test of sovereignty itself. Forget the rational pursuit of strategic ends. Forget the strategist’s condemnation of Bush and Blair for their irresponsible decision making. Strategists do not have the answer either, for no such strategic calculus of necessary killing is available and none is thereby capable of specifying how much killing is enough to realise the sovereign ends that such a calculus presupposes.

When confronted with the question of how much killing is enough the answer is always more (c.f. Blair’s calls for the west to enter the Syrian civil war). Killing would not stop even should a strategic sufficiency of death be realisable. It would not even stop should one side have exterminated another. The grave is a memorial. Memory survives the grave because of the grave. It regularly calls for the renewal of killing. When confronted with the test that every modern theorist of sovereignty from Thomas Hobbes through Max Weber to Carl Schmitt sets as definitive of sovereign power itself, they all fail. This failure is not a mere matter of incompetence. It is a function of the sovereign conception of power itself. It simply cannot do what it is said that it must do.

Classic cases

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, German as well as English dramatists knew this well enough, and mercilessly explored the existential crises of the newly emerging sovereignties of modern European politics in their plays. German tragic drama of the Baroque period, in particular, noted how in their inability to shoulder the decision-making power sovereignty imposed upon sovereigns, sovereigns became subject to scheming courtiers peddling ersatz ways out of their sovereign dilemma.

No matter how rationally secular they may also have aspired to be, such modern sovereigns always ended by appealing to God to sanction whatever they did, since they themselves could give no rationally definitive account of it themselves. In this respect Bush and Blair have been no different. They too invoked God to sanction their fuck ups – SNAFU - cloaking themselves in the piety of religio-political rhetoric to elevate their killing.

Precisely one day after the conservative British think tank The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) condemned the Bush/Blair conspiracy to wage war on Iraq and Afghanistan as a comprehensive strategic failure - radicalising British Muslim youth and increasing the terrorist thereat to the UK, all for the cost of £29 billion to the British Exchequer and 100s of thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan - it was announced that the British enquiry into Britain's participation in the Iraq war would not publish the details of the correspondence between Bush and Blair that was instrumental to the deceit and misinformation on the basis of which Britain was taken into that war. A classic case of the failure of representative and accountable government. Sure. A classic case of gross political incompetence at the very highest levels of sovereign power as well. Of course. Outwith the fantasies of regime change and emancipation, these sovereigns made no serious attempt to consider the impact of their war on Iraq’s social and political order. But a classic instance also of the failure to which sovereign power is condemned.

Iraq and Afghanistan prove the point that wars make sovereign states more than sovereign states make war. No sovereign emerges from any war looking remotely like it did when it went to war.  War is transformative not instrumental. In this instance, too, it turned Blair’s populist popularity into the politically toxic ‘yo Blair’. Whatever the wilful motives, expectation and sovereign designs that went into those two wars, by no stretch of the imagination of the most ardent spin doctor could they be said to be have been anything but counterproductive, bloody and costly disasters. 

Danish Counts Johann Struensee and Enevold Brandt quartered for the crime of lèse majeste, 1772 Danish Counts Johann Struensee and Enevold Brandt quartered for the crime of lèse majeste, 1772. Wikimedia/Public domain.

Instant execution

A different example from the other end of the spectrum of the death dealing powers of sovereigns reinforces the point and raises additional questions concerning the modern sovereign’s desire to contrive an instant of death that is as swift and unambiguous when dealing with the individual as it aspires to be in war. There is a curious mix of temporalities that underlie the sovereign conception of power. Perhaps the most crucial one is the time of the instant, that time which allows the miracle of decision to create something out of nothing, or which, as in this instance, renders something back into nothing. Execution. Life is not so easily put to death, however, and the execution of the instant is more myth – more sovereign myth - than reality.

Precisely a month before the shameful Chilcot announcement concerning the Bush/Blair correspondence over Iraq (29 April 2014) Clayton Lockett, condemned to death for rape and murder in the United States, was subject to death by lethal injection in Oklahoma. The injections didn't work - they rarely seem to do so - and while what precisely happened remains unclear the outcome here was also a bloody mess.

Lockett was administered an untested mixture of drugs that had not previously been used for executions in the United States. According to reports, when the State proceeded to execute Lockett he did not fall unconscious for ten minutes. Three minutes after he was declared unconscious, he lurched forward against his restraints, writhing and attempting to speak. He strained and struggled violently, his body twisting and his head reaching up from the gurney as if trying to escape from the execution table. Sixteen minutes after the execution began, Lockett said ‘Man’ and warden Anita Trammell ordered that the blinds be lowered to shield the witnesses from the execution. The artery used for the injection had apparently burst, the cocktail of drugs injected into his groin failing to kill him the Corrections Director declared that he died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution had begun. 

It was not an instant of decision that matched the requirements of sovereign power. Perhaps a firing squad would be more effective, mused a Republican Senator? No doubt? But then there would be the issue of the gunmen, the issue of the gun, the calibre of the bullets. These would be overcome. But look more closely at Lockett’s execution. It presages no easy resolution of the business of execution, for the time of execution exceeds the instant so-called of death, introducing an altogether more troublesome and extended time line:

0506 hours: The Correctional Emergency Response Team arrives at Lockett’s cell to escort him to medical for X-rays as part of the execution protocol. Lockett refuses orders to be restrained.

0509: CERT team exits unit in preparation for cell entry.

0550: CERT team and medical personnel on unit to conduct planned use of force. After giving a verbal order to be restrained, offender Lockett refused, and an electronic shock (taser) was administered.

0553: Offender Lockett was taken to H Unit Medical room where it was found he had a self-inflicted laceration to his right arm. Treatment was administered. Offender Lockett was then transported by vehicle to the medical facility, Intermediate Health Care Center at Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

0635: Offender Lockett arrives at IHCC for treatment of self-inflicted injuries which were observed during the cell extradition at 0550 hours.

0645: Offender Lockett was moved to an observation cell in IHCC. Medical personnel examined Offender Lockett’s self-inflicted wounds. Three officers were assigned for continuous observation until 1719 hours.

0700 – 0815: Offender Lockett was checked by the cell watch team, accompanied by medical personnel, every 15 minutes.

0815: Physician Assistant examined offender Lockett and determined that sutures were not needed.

0840: Offender Lockett was returned to an observation cell in IHCC.

0850 – 0935: Offender Lockett was checked by the cell watch team every 15 minutes.

0915 (approx.): Offender Lockett refused visits from his attorneys.

0942: Offender Lockett was offered a food tray and refused the food tray.

0955 – 1045: Cell watch team checked Offender Lockett every 15 minutes.

1025 (approx.): Offender Lockett confirmed his refusal to visit with attorneys.

1111: Offender Lockett was offered a food tray and refused the food tray.

1135 – 1450: Cell watch team checked Offender Lockett every 15 minutes.

1510 – 1555: Cell watch team checked Offender Lockett every 15 minutes.

1610 – 1640: Restraint team escorts offender Lockett from IHCC to H-Unit SW shower (final holding cell prior to execution.)

1655 – 1710: Offender Lockett visits with mental health personnel.

1719: Offender Lockett was escorted from SW shower to the execution chamber by Warden Trammell and the restraint team.

1722: Offender Lockett was placed and restrained on the execution table.

1727 – 1818: Phlebotomist enters execution chamber to determine appropriate placement for IV. The phlebotomist examined offender Lockett’s left and right arms, left and right legs, and both feet to locate a viable insertion point. No viable point of entry was located. The doctor then examined the offender’s neck and then went to the groin area.

1818: The IV insertion process is complete. Insertion point was covered with a sheet to prevent witness viewing of the groin area.

1820: Phlebotomist exits execution chamber.

Conclusion. Democratic theory and practice alike must begin in the wasteland of popular sovereignty, and the profanity of public power that apes the miracle of sovereign decision which cannot conceive of friendship without first making enemies.

About the author

Michael Dillon is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Lancaster University


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