UJ’s Prof Peter Vale shares his thoughts on the state, its sovereignty, and the idea of statelessness

Our understanding of states, sovereignty and statelessness is being tested, writes Prof Peter Vale.

Prof Vale the Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) penned an opinion article, State sovereignty challenged by the stateless world, published by The Times, 26 January 2016

State sovereignty challenged by the stateless world

One leg of a complicated travel schedule over the holidays imprisoned me in an airport lounge for 12 hours: caught in this liminal space, I began to think about the state, its sovereignty, and the idea of statelessness.

It is not the first time these thoughts have come around.

When the glamour of globalisation was the rage a decade or so ago, it was tempting to believe that – to invoke Leon Trotsky’s famous 1917 phrase – the world was on the edge of condemning the state and sovereignty to the dustbin of history.

But I was disbelieving that globalisation could herald some kind of new market-driven nirvana where states and sovereignty would no longer count for much.

The idea of making both peace and paradise through the power of the purse was never really on: too many messy corners remained to be tidied up, and it is to several of these that my holiday peregrinations took me.

In the late-1960s, however, I was attracted to an earlier strain of post-sovereign thinking, the idea of “the global village”. This has been largely associated with Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan. The idea was that greater connectivity would “shrink” the world, but leave state sovereignty intact.

This notion of shrinking the world was recently re-captured by the acclaimed Marxist theorist, David Harvey, in the phrase “time-space compression”. We live in a “24/7” world, while geographical boundaries have been rendered meaningless.

In one form or another the ideas – globalisation, the global village, time-space compression – were once easily illustrated by pointing to what was happening in Europe.

After centuries of promoting conflict, sovereignty within Europe was demonstrably losing its grip: states previously at war were willing to surrender their dominion in order to merge, mingle and mix. Surely, this was the pathway to modernisation.

But Europe’s value as the proverbial case-in-point has recently been drawn into question.

The promise of economic prosperity for all who live within its capacious borders has been hobbled by market-inspired thinking. The very idea of Europe has been eroded by the incessant bleating by the British that their sovereignty is exceptional – destined to command the world, not be sullied by European provincialism.

But importantly for present purposes, events in Europe suggest something new about states, sovereignty – and the stateless.

Notwithstanding solemn declarations by Brussels – and separate deals with neighbouring states – it is a sure bet that the inward migration to Europe will continue unabated.

The reason for this is plain: those dislodged by conflict in the Middle East know that Europe – a place with no internal borders – is almost within walking distance.

It is true, of course, that around the wider EU borders are in place. These were once the edge of what, a decade and more ago, was called “Fortress Europe” – a ring of legislation and international law which could protect prosperous Europe from the intrusion of outsiders.

But it is difficult today to see how – short of war, as in the Ukraine – Fortress Europe can reassert this outer boundary of its sovereignty.

The lesson of this is clear: no longer bound by states, those who have become stateless seem to be seeking a place in the only space where sovereignty has little purchase on the lives of individuals.

There seems to be something else going on too: our understanding of states, sovereignty and statelessness is being tested.

Paradoxically, as the stateless seek out Europe, thousands are leaving it to join the ISIS caliphate, a sovereign-free zone straddling two nominally sovereign countries – Syria and Iraq.

But here, law and politics clash. In effect the caliphate exercises political sovereignty, although legally it has none. So it occupies that liminal space between “what is” and “what should be”.

As a result, the idea of the caliphate is testing our lexicon, our grammar and our political imagination.

Many questions follow of which this may be the most important: short of war, how are we to deal with it if it is invariably seen as dystopian, or described a “threat”?

A small conference in Delhi, which came at the end of a month-long perambulation, drew me towards the understanding that we can only read state, sovereignty and statelessness as a process of social negotiation. Seldom are these notions settled: instead, they are continuously mediated by circumstances.

In contrast to what we have been taught – or teach our students – we live in an increasingly hybrid world.

In this world outcomes are produced that are not stable and so generate only doubt, not certainty.

The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessary reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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