Heroes: The contradictions of sovereignty

“I’ll protect you,” he says.

“Just give me half of everything you make.”

His armour gleams as he says this. Behind him his men stand about with the relaxed confidence of the strong, their weapons casually visible.  The look on his face resembles an image of paternal kindliness. He has practiced this look.

You wonder: protect me from whom?

Like a lot of boys I fantasized about being a hero. All those stories: Star Wars and The A-Team and Daredevil and the Karate Kid and Doctor Who.  When we got a VCR my brother and I watched Uncommon Valor, like, a dozen times.  What happens to those boyish desires when we become adults?

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins fights giant spiders in a dark forest and sneaks into a dragon’s den. These acts transform him from unwanted burden on those around him to a leader who takes care of himself and others. From childhood to adulthood. Courtesy of a magic ring and a magic sword and acute zero-sum-game confrontations with uncomplicated evil.

A hero defends us by destroying our common enemy. That’s the ideal, anyway.


The roots of our current civilization, says Norbert Elias, stretch back a thousand years to the fields and forests of Western Europe. There, after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, kings ceased for a time to have any effective authority over the day-to-day doings of local knights.  Each knight was his own master and made law as he would on his little territory.

Then, gradually, some knights acquired power over others, becoming big lords to whom the many little lords paid tribute, until the time came when a man whom others called “king” was more than just the head man in time of war, but once again could impose law. And these kings deprived the knights, bit by bit, of their right to feud with each other, their right to maintain their own men-at-arms, even their right to be leaders in war, until these lords with their ancient titles were nothing more than courtiers with large estates.  Eventually, sovereigns themselves ceased to be individuals, and slowly became institutions, bureaucracies, with even a few democratic trappings. And so the modern state was born.

But what were the knights, before they were reduced to being glorified landlords? The image of the heroic knight treads through our dreams, from King Arthur and Prince Charming to Aragorn and The Dark Knight and The Avengers. Tony Soprano, in his own way.  Boys learn to dream to be heroes and girls, if Bonnie Tyler is to be believed, learn to yearn for them. We talk about ordinary people as heroes, of course, the heroism of a woman who pulls a stranger out of a burning car or a man who stands up to corporate corruption. But our dominant image of the hero is that of the knight: a man of action, armed and armoured, ready for quick and violent deeds.

The knights were men of violence. They were men with weapons and the skill to use them, who could hire other violent men to be their soldiers. To pay for all this they taxed the peasantry on their land. That is, within a given territory they could say to the farmers in their cots and the tradesmen in their villages, pay me or else.  Pay me and I’ll protect you: from bandits, from other knights, but most of all, from myself.

In other words, they were extortionists.  Mobsters. And their kings were mob bosses.

Charles Tilly makes this point in an essay titled “State Making As Organized Crime”.  The modern state has its roots in a protection racket.  The crucial difference, of course, was that these mobsters also got to make the laws.

But there is more to it than Tilly describes.  For, standing at the pinnacle of social hierarchy, the knights and their kings got to define the ideal mode of being human. What is the essential, abstract human subject according to modern philosophy? An isolated being, separate from the rest of the universe, self-sufficient and self-determining, and surrounded by an uncertain environment full of enemies or potential enemies. The sovereign individual subject — modeled on actual sovereigns, or an idealized image of them that makes invisible all the subjugated labour (of servants, of women, etc.) on which they actually depend for their existence.

Only the sovereign gets to be fully human, according to the scheme by which we recognize humanity. No wonder we are so fascinated by the doings of princes, and by the celebrities who have taken over the symbolic functions of the sovereign (to the extent that actual royalty are mere celebrities among others). We want to be them.

And, likewise, we want them to be us.  If those who dominate me are, essentially, just like myself, then I am not really dominated.  If the President thinks and acts as I would do, then it is as if I am President.

Of course we want to believe that when the hero fights, he fights for us.

When the historical knights went to battle, they did so for all sorts of reasons: to expand their territory by encroaching on that of another, to defend their territory from encroachment by other knights, to subdue bandits or rebels who would challenge their rights within their domain. In the process, they inevitably defended whatever relationship they had formed with their subjects, and hence whatever sense of law and justice and fairness had accumulated in that relationship. And perhaps at times they even imagined that these ideals were what they really fought for. But as a class, they defended their people in the same way that a homeowner might defend her house or a farmer his fields: as a possession and a resource.

The same pattern holds today when states go to war to protect ‘our’ way of life, our justice, our democracy.  Sovereigns fight to defend and expand their own sovereignty. In the process, sometimes they defend the bargains that we, their subjects, have struck with them, the bargains that we call “rights”, “democracy”, and so on, the demands that we have made in exchange for our subservience. But while for us these things are ends in themselves, for the sovereign they are never more than means to an end, the end of sovereignty itself, which is domination by force.

In a capitalist economy, working people sell their labour-power to obtain wealth, self-realization, inclusion in society, but in doing so we enrich the social forces that threaten to impoverish and dehumanize and isolate us. This is the contradiction of capitalism.  Sovereignty has a similar contradiction.  As subjects, we subordinate ourselves to a sovereign (by obeying the law, paying taxes, etc.) in the hope of obtaining safety, security, and freedom, but by doing so we feed the forces of that threaten and terrorize and dominate us. The relationship of sovereignty itself divides humans into sovereigns and subjects, and this relation pits us against each other in a ceaseless struggle.

That contradiction does not only pertain to external relationships between classes of people. It operates within us, in the relationships we enact with ourselves. Part of the self identifies with the sovereign. But in our waking lives we are not sovereigns, we are subjects. So we can never truly be ourselves. To live out the fantasy of being a sovereign, we must dominate others. Maybe in innocuous ways: by being the smartest, the best-looking, the most popular, the most successful in business, of all our significant others.Or, maybe, simply by tyrannizing over those who are vulnerable to us: our employees, our families.

At the end of the day, if nobody else is available, we can dominate ourselves. We can tell ourselves that we are worthless, inadequate because we are not sovereign enough. In this private way we hang on to the impossible dream of being the hero.

When we dream of becoming heroes, we dream an idealized image of our own oppression. Perhaps the time has come for us to awaken from that dream.

4 thoughts on “Heroes: The contradictions of sovereignty

  1. Wonderful piece, once again, Chris. Your discussion of Tilly also reminds me of Franz Oppenheimer’s “conquest theory” of the state (1914), which sees the origins of the state as an institution forced by a victorious group onto the defeated group with the purpose of regulating domination and securing privileges. Quite simply, the state is a mechanism to maintain economic exploitation.

    I was introduced to Oppenheimer’s theory by way of Kevin Carson, an American individualist anarchist and theorist of economic mutualism. Carson exposes the false distinction between a (so-called) free market and government interventionism, instead seeing how the two have been deeply entwined since the very origins of capitalism. He has a provocatively titled essay, “The Iron Fist behind the Invisible Hand: Corporate Capitalism as a State-Guaranteed System of Privilege.”

    Clearly, we need to get over the paradigm of sovereignty and move towards less hierarchical and anti-supremacist models of society. Are there alternative paradigms to be found in the rich intellectual traditions of anarchism? And is there much to be learned from Indigenous modes of governance (e.g., the work of Kanien’kehaka scholar, Taiaiake Alfred)?


    • Thanks for the kind words! And for the reference. I haven’t read Oppenheimer’s work but I will look it up.

      The questions you ask are very much on my mind. I’m planning to take my research in precisely this direction, to look at non-hierarchical decision-making in contemporary social movements and in other settings like Indigenous governance.


  2. You know, I’m going to circle back to this post later when I have time to share what I’ve taken away from a more esoteric theory of the history of political economy, “Systems of Survival” by Jane Jacobs. But I’ll mention the tie-in now, and if you’re curious maybe you’ll get a chance to read her book for yourself. It’s essentially an attempt to explain economic behavior in ways that transcend history and culture – by abstracting principles from anecdotes drawn from around the world, and from ancient to modern times. Of course, this can’t be done with convincing thoroughness or objectivity, but the results are still pretty fascinating. She was one smart lady, and I say that even though I probably disagree with at least half the things she believed.

    One of her more convincing arguments in this books is that zero-sum games are about territorial control, and they are incompatible with exchange theory economics. (Which is interesting, considering how much game theory is used by economists – but not too surprising, because advice on maximizing profits is in demand, but a healthy market with price equilibrium ends up minimizing profits.)

    But she would differ from your argument that feudalism and gangster control of territories are identical, pointing out that the mob is in trade, but feudal lords considered commerce more dishonorable than what you call “extortion” (i.e., “pay me protection money, or if no one else will pillage your property, I will do so myself”). She thinks the prohibition on commerce among feudal lords was about instilling values within military hierarchies that would discourage people from selling information on castle defenses to the enemy.


    • Thanks (belatedly) for this post. I’ve been meaning for years to read Jane Jacobs; I quite like the sound of her work. That’s an interesting point about feudal lords and commerce. Of course there are all sorts of differences of detail between feudal rule and contemporary organized crime. What I think is identical to both is the formal structure of taxation-for-protection (although this may be a slightly dated reference; I don’t know how important protection rackets are to contemporary mafia compared with, e.g., vice trades). In both cases the “protecting” party is essentially parasitic on the “protected” party and on the system as a whole, although of course the “protector” has the option of trying to legitimate themselves by performing other services (e.g. arbitration, welfare) for the host population.


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