Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol.5, Spring 1998
sovereign (‘sovrin). . .I. sb. 1.
a. One who has supremacy or rank above, or authority over, others; a superior; a ruler, governor, lord, or master (of persons, etc.). Freq. applied to the Deity in relation to created things.(2)
In his answer to his article’s title question, The Internet as a Threat to Sovereignty? Thoughts on the Internet’s Role in Strengthening National and Global Governance,(3) Henry Perritt relies on the liberal theory of international relations, and liberal understandings of state, market, and morality, to argue that the Internet does not necessarily pose a threat to sovereignty, but may in fact bolster it. As Perritt states, "the Internet has the potential to strengthen national and global governance-thus enhancing sovereignty rather than destroying it."(4) From the perspective of national governance, Perritt argues, the Internet can help strengthen the rule of law by providing access to government documents and decisionmaking. From the perspective of global governance, the Internet can help strengthen international law by promoting access to information (from international treaties to on-the-ground reports of human rights and other abuses) and by strengthening global markets and economic interdependence.
My response to Perritt is motivated by two chief concerns. The first has to do with the opposition between liberalism and realism in international relations (IR) theory within which Perritt situates his arguments. Rather than viewing liberalism as the antidote to a realist position, which characterizes IR in terms of anarchy and brute power relations among sovereign states taken to be abstract actors, I propose we view liberal IR theory as part of an ideology that encodes and works to enforce problematic visions of state, sovereignty, market, and morality. Other theoretical trends in IR theory might help us out of the liberalism/realism impasse and throw into question the implicit moral judgments about governance, democracy, and international order at the heart of liberalism.
The second concern has to do specifically with Perritt’s claims about the market. Perritt assumes that the Internet can help reduce transaction costs, making the market more "efficient" and helping more and more people and governments to become market players. Increasing participation in the market means, according to Perritt and other neoliberals, increasing interdependence, which, in turn, means increasing peace among peoples and nations. As Perritt writes, when "states and their citizens become more vested in the smooth operation of global markets, prospects for peaceful settlement of disputes improved because the economic costs of political disruption are too great for any side to bear."(5) He continues: "Under the liberal tradition, it is a positive achievement to reduce the power of the government over the economy and place that power in the hands of private citizens, who will trade and invest internationally, creating economic interdependence that provides a foundation for world peace."(6)
In the sections that follow, I explore two recent specific instances where the Internet has been used as a market–in offshore financial services, or the "tax haven" business that currently underwrites the economies of several small Caribbean states, and the "digital cash" initiatives of several computer and banking firms which promise to "revolutionize" the market itself. This exploration questions the assumption that increasing economic interdependence, facilitated by Internet technology, serves the interests of both "sovereignty" and "world peace." Doing so entails denying "the market" the privileged position it occupies in Perritt’s article, and in much of the writing on globalization from both the left and the right, as a kind of "black box" whose workings are immune to analysis, and which we must at all costs either work to resist, or help to "grow" and "expand", lest we become its hapless victims.
This article is guided by the assumption that "sovereignty", the construct at the heart of Perritt’s article as well as many of the assessments of Internet technology and economic globalization, cannot be taken to have given, self-evident, or stable meanings. Differently positioned persons and governments have different conceptions of sovereignty and put them into play in state and market politics in different ways. Notions of sovereignty also change over time. Thus, I have chosen to head each section of this essay with definitions of sovereign from the Oxford English Dictionary.(7) My aim in doing this is to destabilize the terms of the debate as I throw light on cases where the meanings of sovereign, state, market, and subject, and the moral implications of these meanings, are currently being reformulated and made more complex beyond the limits of liberal theory.
b. A husband in relation to his wife. Obs.(8)
One of the advantages of liberal IR theory compared to realism is its recognition that sovereignty is not a monolithic concept, something that states simply "have", and that they use as a basis of their power in an anarchic world. As Perritt argues, liberalism compels us to put "sovereignty" in "its proper political contexts. . . ."(9) For liberals, this proper context ought to be "democracy", and they argue that one of the main obstacles to the world order envisioned in liberalism is the continued presence of totalitarian, non-democratic states. For liberals, sovereignty should not be the preserve of the sovereign state alone, but must be seen as emanating from the subjects who empower their state to act in the international arena. Thus, liberal IR theory emphasizes the goal of "democratization." Perritt’s vision of "good governance" hinges on this liberal ideal. Another key to good governance, according to liberal theory, is minimal state interference in the affairs of the private market where individuals realize their interests and freely achieve their ends.
Democracy and the free market are equated here: both depend on individuals able to realize their interests without interference from other individuals or state agents. Only in such a context can people make consumer and political choices that reflect their "true" interests. Because, for Perritt, the Internet can enhance democratization by increasing access to and participation in governance, and because it can facilitate market transactions, it can therefore enhance the liberal vision of sovereignty. Only totalitarian states whose sovereignty depends on control over their subjects have anything to fear from the Internet.(10)
Perritt is quite correct to emphasize the political contexts of sovereignty. Liberalism, however, must at the same time be accountable for its own assumptions and moral claims, some of which may not hold up under critical scrutiny. Chief among these, perhaps, is its assumption about the implicit morality of the "free market", which is presumed to exist above and beyond politics or culture, to be truly universal, or at least potentially so, if only states would get out of the business of meddling in the economy. It is no surprise that, in Perritt’s account, the Internet comes to resemble a free market.
There are, however, other trends in IR theory that question the tenets of liberalism and highlight the shared assumptions of liberalism and realism. Alexander Wendt labels these trends "critical IR theory", and they include postmodernism,(11) constructivism,(12) neo-Marxism,(13) feminism,(14) and others.(15) I will not review these different contributions in any depth here. Most useful for my purposes is the theoretical trend called constructivism. Constructivism draws attention to the fact that the sovereigns, subjects, interests, and identities presupposed in liberal and realist IR theory are never given, but are actively constructed, in intersubjective social relationships. The meanings these entities contain, the kinds of actions they are capable of carrying out, and the moral implications of those actions are revealed in specific historical, cultural, and political contexts.(16)
As Wendt argues in an influential article that debates in IR between realists and liberals reveal these parties’ "shared commitment to ‘rationalism.’" Like all social theories, rational choice directs us to ask some questions and not others, treating the identities and interests of the agents as exogenously given and focusing on how the behavior of agents generates outcomes."(17) Both realists and liberals, Wendt continues, "take the self-interested state as the starting point for theory."(18) They also, in the slippage that equates states with individual human persons, take the self-interested individual as the starting point of theory. Following Foucault’s analysis of liberal governmentality,(19) I suggest that we cannot view the kinds of individual persons constructed in modern worlds as separate from the kinds of states they inhabit and construct and which at the same time inhabit and construct their personhood. Any constructivist discussion of the state must also include a constructivist discussion of the human person. This latter approach is something at which anthropology has been very good, and I will return to anthropological discussions of the construction of persons in the next section.
Timothy Mitchell, also following Foucault, argues that the state must be seen as the effect of relations of power that call it into being as having a force all its own. He writes that "[t]he state needs to be analyzed as. . . a structural effect. That is to say, it should be examined not as an actual structure, but as the powerful, metaphysical effect of practices that make such structures appear to exist."(20) For Mitchell, the state is an effect of
detailed processes of spatial organization, temporal arrangement, functional specification, and supervision and surveillance, which create the appearance of a world fundamentally divided into state and society. . . . These processes create the effect of the state not only as an entity set apart from society, but as a distinct dimension of structure, framework, codification, planning, and intentionality.(21)
Just as the state is an effect of specific historical circumstances and relations, so too is sovereignty. Mitchell’s analysis of the state can easily be extended to the sovereign, the market, and the individual person of modern democracies. In the process of such analysis, all of these constructs must be momentarily held apart to demonstrate the contingency and historicity of their linkages (as in the relatively recent historical notion of the "sovereign state", for example). As Wendt writes, "[t]he sovereign state is an ongoing accomplishment of practice, not a once-and-for-all creation of norms that somehow exist apart from practice."(22) This statement compels analysts to recall sovereignty’s original definitions, having to do with God-ordained monarchical power as well as other, not obsolete or hidden definitions like "a husband’s dominion over his wife." As feminist political theorists remind us, of course, the latter is not a definition of sovereignty substantially challenged by liberal theory, but in fact reinforced by it.(23)
I am arguing, thus, that we need to view sovereignty as an effect of practices and a justification for practices that call it forth as an autonomous space of power. As my discussion of offshore finance and digital cash below demonstrates, we need also to view the market as the effect of practices that construct state and sovereignty and that shape and reshape the human subjects who enact such practices. Understanding the co-construction of state, sovereignty, market, and subject throws into relief the moral claims subjects make in any momentary configuration of these power-effects. Such moral claims tend to hide or naturalize the very terms–sovereignty, the market, the rule of law–from which they draw their moral force.
c. A person or thing which excels or surpasses others of the kind. Now rare.(24)
What kind of subject is presupposed by modern, liberal sovereignty? And how might Internet technology unsettle it, or at least expose its fabrication? Authors from across the social sciences have examined the construction of the modern subject as an autonomous individual, consisting of a stable self, rooted in a place or nation, relatively solid and unchangeable, knowing its interests and needs and trying rationally to fulfill them.(25) The subject of liberalism is also sovereign, in the sense of owning itself and having sole control over its actions and thoughts. This is what made the subject of liberalism so unique and radical at its inception during the Enlightenment. Rather than being authored and animated by God, who placed it in relation to other subjects in a great chain of being, the liberal subject self-authors, self-regulates, and self-defines.(26)
The few ethnographic studies of human-computer interactions that now exist seem to suggest that the Internet has the potential to reshape this sovereign subject of modernity by highlighting some of the processes that work to ensure its seeming stability. In doing so, they echo, ironically enough, anthropological discussions of conceptions of personhood in societies radically different from those of the modern West. These conceptions help highlight the contingency and specificity of the kind of modern subjectivities that underlie market, state, and sovereignty under liberalism.
In her ethnography about "constructing identity in the culture of simulation," Sherry Turkle argues that the virtual worlds of the Internet have the potential to reshape notions of mind, self, body, and machine.(27) Turkle begins her investigation with "multiple-user domains" (MUDs), virtual spaces in which people craft alternate personas (human, non-human, and other) and interact with such personas crafted by other people (and, often, computers themselves). As Turkle argues, "MUDs put you in virtual spaces in which you are able to navigate, converse, and build."(28) To Turkle’s informants, their sense of self, in large measure, often derives from their interactions with other virtual persona in MUDs. As one put it, "[p]art of me, a very important part of me, only exists inside PernMUD."(29) People can exist in multiple MUDs at once, through different (or the same) virtual persona. For some of Turkle’s informants, "RL", or "real life", is just one of the many social spaces in which their personas are engaged at any given time. As one related to her:
I split my mind. I’m getting better at it. I can see myself as being two or three or more. And I just turn on one part of my mind and then another when I go from window to window. I’m in some kind of argument in one window and trying to come on to a girl in a MUD in another, and another window might be running a spreadsheet program or some other technical thing for school. . . . And then I get a real-time message [that flashes on the screen as soon as it is sent from another system user], and I’ll guess that’s RL. It’s just one more window. RL is just one more window . . . and it’s not usually my best one.(30)
Turkle’s study suggests that participants in Internet communities are engaged in a deconstruction of some of the dichotomies at the heart of the liberal subject: self/other, mind/body, public/private, male/female, etc. In pulling apart these dichotomies–having experiences on the Internet as a creature of a different gender, or an imaginary gender, crafting multiple "private" lives in the multiple "public" spaces of MUDs, and so forth–participants in Internet communities bring to light the contingency, constructedness, and mutability of the sovereign subject. As another of Turkle’s informants states, "why grant such superior status to the self that has the body when the selves that don’t have bodies are able to have different kinds of experiences?"(31)
In her reflection on subjectivity in the computer age, Allucqu