AuthorChafetz, Josh
PositionAnnual Book Review Issue

SOVEREIGNTY, RIP. By Don Herzog. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2020. Pp. xiii, 299. $40.


About two-thirds of the way through Sovereignty, RIP, Don Herzog (1) recounts one of the more macabre moments of the Stuart Restoration. Three leaders of the revolt against Charles I who had the good sense to pass away during the Commonwealth had their bodies exhumed and hanged for nine hours. They were then decapitated, and their heads were displayed on poles above Westminster Hall (p. 181). This symbolic violence against regicidal corpses--supplementing, of course, the actual violence against those regicides still living when Charles II returned to English soil--was a dramatic reassertion of Stuart sovereignty and a powerful rebuke to the argument that a monarch could be haled before a tribunal and made to answer for his misgovernance.

Herzog uses this incident to illustrate one of the three components of what he terms the "classic theory of sovereignty," which "holds that every political community must have a locus of authority that is unlimited, undivided, and unaccountable to any higher authority" (p. xi). The treatment of the regicides is presented as an illustration of the "unaccountable" prong: for those who had dared to call a sovereign to account, there could be no peaceful repose, even in death. But one might also discern in the incident a metaphor for Herzog's project as a whole: a dead conception of sovereignty is repeatedly exhumed, exhibited, and brutalized for all to see.

Herzog's title suggests an awareness that sovereignty is already dead and that he comes merely to bury it. But the text itself is a polemic against sovereignty, written in a tone of breathless urgency that suggests live stakes. For Herzog, one must either renounce the core attributes of the classic conception of sovereignty, in which case one is left with an empty slogan, or one must embrace them, in which case one is left with a pernicious political system. But Herzog also does an excellent job of demonstrating that we--at least, we in twenty-first century liberal-ish democracies--don't really buy into any of the elements of the classical conception of sovereignty. In the end, then, the reader is left wondering just what the stakes of Herzog's project are.


    There seems to be something of a mismatch between Herzog's method and the larger point he wishes to make in Sovereignty, RIP. The method is admirably inductive and practice-grounded. As Herzog puts it at the outset, "Not metaphysics, not ontology, but what a wide range of actors have said and done and fought over occupy me.... Nor am I interested solely in discourse or concepts or ideas. I'm interested in actual practices because I think that's the best way to grasp the stakes of theory" (pp. x-xi). In short, Herzog wishes to examine the historical practice of sovereignty in order to understand something about the theory. This seems to me an eminently worthwhile project.

    One way such a project might work is through a genealogical account of a concept, aimed at demonstrating its contingency by bringing to light the particular historical conditions under which it arose. (2) Indeed, passages in Foucault's brilliant essay on Nietzschean genealogy share powerful similarities with Herzog's description, quoted above, of his own method: "[T]he genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, ... he listens to history," writes Foucault. (3) And what does history teach the genealogist? First and foremost, "how to laugh at the solemnities of the origin." (4) Genealogical accounts of a concept are "capable of undoing every infatuation," (5) both in their focus on contingency (6) and in their insistence that "[h]umanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination." (7) Genealogical stories may not be happy ones, but they do provide critical tools for analyzing the status quo and for resisting Whiggish teleologies.

    There is much in Herzog's book that partakes of this genealogical impulse. He tells a vivid and compelling story about a conception of sovereignty arising out of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European wars of religion (chapter 1). Nor does he shy from emphasizing the embodied domination that gave rise to the classic theory of sovereignty: "[L]et's gaze unflinchingly at 'this horror of blood and massacre,' at some unspeakable tales of life--no, death--on the ground" (pp. 2-3; footnote omitted). The tales turn out not to be unspeakable after all, as the reader is treated to vignettes from the gory exploits of the Duke of Alba in the Netherlands, the Count of Tilly and Albrecht von Wallenstein in Pomerania, and more (pp. 3-11). For Herzog, the Reformation--or, more precisely, "the collision between the success of Protestantism and that older commitment to the unity of Christendom" (p. 12)--pushed Europe into decades of conflagration, and the classic theory of sovereignty was the attempt to find a solution (p. 16).

    It is therefore not a coincidence that sovereignty becomes an obsession of early modern European political writers, and Herzog gives us a brief tour through Bodin, Hobbes, Grotius, Pufendorf, Burlamaqui, Locke, Blackstone, et many, many al. (pp. 16-41). The profusion of citations is compelling (even if the individual exegeses are a little thin): the classical conception of sovereignty was an idea, Herzog shows, that came to be in widespread circulation in the decades after, and very plausibly as a reaction against, the horrors of the wars of religion. So, too, Herzog gestures toward the Foucauldian point that innovations in political theory merely redirect domination rather than displace it:

    Sovereignty might provide an apt explanation of what's wrong with Catholic Spain sending the Armada against Protestant England, or for that matter with Pope Pius V's 1570 bull branding Queen Elizabeth a heretic and instructing English subjects and nobles alike not to obey her on pain of excommunication. Both meddle in what intuitively seem like the internal affairs of other countries, and again the theory of sovereignty gives those national boundaries new significance.... But sovereign authority over religion, coupled with ... [the notion] that social order requires religious unity, immediately turns dissident subjects into incipient traitors, (pp. 36-37; footnotes omitted) Thus, at the same time that sovereignty serves as a tool for suppressing international war by purporting to make the "internal" affairs of one state the business of that state alone, it equally serves to justify internal persecution by turning political (including religious) heterodoxy into an attack on the very foundations of the political system. The locus of domination shifts, but the quantum remains the same: the penalties meted out to the Gunpowder Plotters are hard to distinguish from the depredations of the Duke of Alba. Moreover, at least sometimes, there's a resistance-repression dialectic at play: "State repression redoubled resistance; resistance redoubled state repression." (8)

    So far, Herzog's account has all the ingredients for a genealogical argument. The classical conception of sovereignty is not some universal truth but rather arose under...

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