Notes on the Relationship between Sovereignty and Commonwealth

1. There is a distinction between the commonwealth and the sovereign. The sovereign produces and promulgates the laws of the commonwealth, but is a member of the commonwealth. His right to rule flows from the common good.

2. This distinction is commonly lost today. “The United States” is the state apparatus (i.e., the sovereign), and is thought of as claiming absolute dominion over the commonwealth coterminous with its territory. The limitations on the power of the state are not determined by the common good, but by a perceived balance of power between this dominion and other dominions (e.g. of individual states, municipalities, corporations and citizens).

3. In this politics of dominion, “right” and “law” are determined by a carefully regulated tension between spheres of dominance. In each particular sphere, as far as possible, the dominant figure is left undetermined as to his activities and end. The whole is united, not as a community in friendship, but as a set of cogs and gears carefully set in opposition to each other, each moving about its own center, which by their separate insistence on having their own way perpetuate the motion of the whole.

4. This politics of dominion must be done away with, and replaced by a politics of agency in communione. Right and law do not flow from the negotiation of a multitude of undetermined egoisms, but from the common orientation of the parts to the whole and to the good of the whole, which is a natural good. Whoever holds the place of sovereignty (as it were) in any domain does not determine the good of the whole, but acts for it, as one member among many.

5. Who is sovereign? Sovereign is he who sets the things in his care in order toward their proper end. In an individual, the will judges particular appetites according to the good of the whole person, and quells or quenches them depending on their merits. In a commonwealth, sovereigns judge the parts and set them in order for the common good. The will is not the life or essence of the person. The sovereign is not the personality or soul of the commonwealth. These things too are parts ordered to the good of the whole.

6. It seems to me that the identity of a sovereign cannot be determined by “right”. No individual or group has a “right” to political sovereignty, and theories of government by consent basically function as myths to quell popular unrest (“we chose the sovereign, so our will is being done through it”), in the same way that divine right theories may have quelled dissent in the past.

7. Whence sovereignty, then? It seems that the responsibility for government emerges from the fact that one is charged with the care of the community. And where can we find this power? Accidentally, in the possession of arms necessary to maintain order, in the recognition of one’s pronouncements as binding by the people… but essentially, in the centrality of one’s role as guarantor (de facto) of the common good.

8. An interesting aside: some steps toward a peaceful theocratic revolution would be: for the Church to usurp the State’s responsibility for welfare, for the Church to be the primary source of moral reasoning, of the principles of right, of jurisprudence…

9. Sovereignty does not depend on the consent of the governed, but on their collective assumption that such and such a person is indeed sovereign. Cooperation within the parameters of order set by the sovereign, not consent to his reign, determines the reality of government.

10. Legitimacy depends on two parallel realities: essentially (i.e. in the real order), on the extent to which the sovereign acts to promote the common good; practically, on the extent to which manners conform the idea of “legitimacy” to the actuality of the sovereign.

11. The Orwellian idea is fairly superficial: the totalitarian state dominates by manipulating history and manufacturing enemies. In reality, the more effective totalitarianism would work not through a trumped up patriotism, but by collapsing thought about government (and the common good) into categories which guarantee the endorsement of the existing order. This is what we call “civics” in the US. And yet the actual constitution of the commonwealth is never discussed in the schools.

[This is a revised version of a post by E Milco from Ursus Elisei.]