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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 4/3/14

Otherness and Sovereignty

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The issue of sovereignty has been thrust to center-stage with the coup in Ukraine and the Crimean referendum. Europe approved Kosovo's declaration of independence, though mindful it could be invoked by other minority moves for independence across the continent. No one imagined the first threat to state sovereignty would come on the marches of the Union. But just five years later, peaceful demonstrators at Maidan, wanting to be part of the post Occupy era in which citizens increasingly realize they must take matters into their own hands, were overrun by club-wielding Fascists who believe in unquestioning obedience to a leader. In this excerpt from my book A Taoist Politics: the Case for Sacredness a wide-ranging reflection on Otherness and sustainability that is available at, I explore the relationship between what I call internal authority and sovereignty: [

A Taoist Politics: the Case for Sacredness
A Taoist Politics: the Case for Sacredness
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"Twenty-first century fundamentalism underscores the diminished role of state sovereignty, while democracy leads to the right of minority groups to create their own state. Although the behavior of nations is intimately linked to the exercise of authority, economic power is increasingly borderless. The concept of allegiance, the survival of the Nation-state and the future of world governance come under this triple con-straint.

Nature and God have always been the outstanding Others. In prehistoric times, the immediate Other was a member of the same clan who competed for avail-able food, shelter and women. The Supreme Other was the strongest, bravest male. Neighboring groups were more distant Others, and each fought to preserve its territory. When  the  distances  between groups increased, they began to evolve different languages and became relative strangers. As battles involved ever larger groups, fortified cities were built and governed by the princes who owned the surrounding land and led the men in battle.

For a long time, the relationship between the many who served and the one who led continued to be a direct one. The clan chief was first among equals; when clans evolved into tribes, then states, the wealth gleaned from tribute set chiefs, then princes, above their subjects. The renunciation of internal au-thority had already begun when God became the Su-preme Other, hence when a prince became king, he incarnated the Supreme Otherness of God, becoming thrice removed from the many, and placing ever more intermediaries between internal and external authority. Men fought the king's battles, which were also God's. The territory they lived on belonged to him, the princes being there by his good graces. The princes could challenge the king, but as long as he remained the strongest, his power was absolute. 

From the Middle Ages to the triumph of absolutism, the authority of kings was challenged by that of the princes, who ruled the portions of land allotted them, owing the king allegiance only when it came to fighting other kings. When kings became caught between princely defiance and the interna-tionalism of the church, theoreticians of absolute royal power pushed through the separation of Church and State, making kings "sovereign' and limiting the power of the Pope. 

By questioning the sovereignty of the church, that is, God, kings consolidated their sovereignty over their subjects. The power they derived from God served to introduce the concept of Nation, increasing yet further the distance between rulers and subjects: the nation commanded the same allegiance as a king, however it was not a person, but a concept. Although personally unaffected by the Otherness of the nation's enemies, subjects were obligated to fight them. The difference between clan violence and state violence is that the former was the violence of an egalitarian society. The other clan was the entire society's enemy, while the enemies of the state, like those of the king, were 'virtual', to those who died fighting them .

Space determines the definition of both "Otherness' and 'sovereign'. Thus, in addition to supreme autho-rity, or the power to rule, sovereignty implies the sepa-rateness of states. Whether it be an autocracy or a democracy, a country's sovereignty only exists to the extent that there are other sovereignties with which it can interact. A sovereign entity deals only with its equals: only a state can enter into negotiations with another state, and that is how it exercises the sovereignty that protects its Otherness.

As men realized the strength of numbers, society moved from the challenges of individual competitors for power, to those of the many against the few - a struggle for economic sovereignty, or freedom. The French Revolution revived the Greek concept of democracy, under which 'the citizens' were sovereign, and could remove the king. However it took another two hun-dred years for sovereignty to pass to that group of people which was larger than any other. By then, internal authority had been reduced to an 'I' which, no longer involved in self-making, had ceased to be in control of its relations with others, these now being handled by the external authority of the state.

Sovereignty is the most powerful embodiment of external authority, and it is the exclusive attribute of those who govern, whether by force or delegation. Even in a modern democracy, notwithstanding soothing words, and although they elect their rulers, the people's are often opposed to the decisions of their elected representatives. Furthermore, they cannot be sovereign with respect to other nations, because they lack the corresponding vis a vis which alone gives sovereignty its meaning: the people of one country do not negotiate with the people of another. 

When democracy removed sovereignty from the hands of the monarch to give it to 'the people', it brought the notion of Otherness much closer to home. He, or those, to whom the individual submits is by definition 'Other', and now the Other is no longer the king in his castle, but potentially all those who belong to an 'Other' group. The minority must bow to the sovereignty of the majority, and notwithstanding democracy's claim to universalism, the Otherness of the majority can become a form of tyranny. At its most benign it requires the minority to respect its will (you shall do this because it is what most people think is best). But while proclaiming freedom of expression, the temptation is almost irresistible to hem in the minority's right to be heard. In its most acute form, it prevents the minority from forming its own sovereign state.

The battles for independence being waged by various 'small peoples' who, in a multinational state are destined to be minorities, express, among other things, their refusal to accept tyranny under the cloak of universalism. Many of these peoples reaffirm universalism as the timeless political ideal from which public life flows, and which is inalienable, similarly to the 'God given' rights referred to in the American constitution. However, states have difficulty accepting that universalism must also protect that which differen-tiates one people from another. Ethnic or religious minorities have no specific rights other than the system of checks and balances that protect all individuals from government. 

Logically, the people's right to choose their form of government should imply the right of ethnic and religious minorities to set up independent states. Surely, groups who share a common history, geography, language, customs (or any of the things that distinguish it from another group and sooner or later lead to war), are entitled to live together under the rule of the strongest among them (referred to as 'their elected leaders'). 

Universalism, which we could call "Ground', constitutes the basis upon which other civil rights are erected, and is the indispensable foundation of civil peace. Since it can be put into practice just as well in ethnically homogeneous countries such as Japan or Hungary, as in melting pot societies, and since all democratic republics are alike to the extent that they share the same universality - the only differences be-tween them being, precisely, ethnic or religious - how can we demand that they blur those ethnic or religious traditions that distinguish them from others in the name of the universality they share with them?

In a world made up of kings and princes, it was imperative to move beyond feudalism to some semblance of unity in order for society to progress. Cur-rently, progress lies in ungluing the pieces on one level, and gluing them together on another, in order to increase the effectiveness of decentralized, local democracy. Increasingly, political analysts warn that we are entering a new Middle Ages, yet in a sense we need to reinvent the internationalism of that time, while replacing the notion of the universal republic derived from the authority of kings, with that of a republic of gens derived from individual internal authority.

We shall discuss the relationship between inner authority and freedom further on. Here we need to digress a moment on that between economic pro-gress, identity, and freedom. When Marcuse focused on the issue of whether freedom was a public or private affair, he missed the essential: both individual and public freedom are limited by the other party's freedom. All notions of freedom imply limits. When we say "my freedom stops where my neighbor's begins', we are talking about individual limits. When we say "my country's freedom stops where another country's freedom begins', we are talking about sovereign limits. I call freedom associated with space, and with peace or conflict, lateral freedom. But freedom or its lack can also be linked to the power of the few over the many with respect to the latter's economic conditions, and this I call vertical freedom.

During the 19th century, various peoples, valuing economic progress over identity, accepted to forego a measure of lateral freedom and unite within nation-states. Since then, in the developed world at least, basic economic rights have been enshrined, and men no longer have to sacrifice their identity to lateral domination in order to achieve vertical freedom. Hence a multitude of efforts to restore lateral freedom, embodied in national independence, whether by groups within a state (such as the Corsicans), or inha-biting a territory they consider to be their own (such as the Serbs). 

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Deena Stryker Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Born in Phila, I spent most of my adolescent and adult years in Europe, resulting over time in several unique books, my latest being Russia's Americans.

CUBA: Diary of a Revolution, Inside the Cuban Revolution with Fidel, Raul, Che, and Celia Sanchez

Lunch with Fellini, Dinner with Fidel: An Illustrated Personal Journey from the Cold War to the Arab Spring


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