Literature Study GuidesEmpirePart 2 Chapter 2 Summary

Empire | Study Guide

Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri

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Empire | Part 2, Chapter 2 : Passages of Sovereignty (Sovereignty of the Nation-State) | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • As European modernity began to take shape, different machinations of power emerged in response. One path was the creation of the modern sovereign state, while the second path led to the concept of nation-states in order to further establish order and power.
  • In a section subtitled "Birth of the Nation," nation-states are seen as having emerged from the concept of patrimonial states, in which a state belonged to the monarch as feudal property. Any property of the monarch was also considered part of God's property. To many, a patrimonial monarchy guaranteed peace.
  • By the 17th century, the feudal bases of power that supported the patrimonial state were in decline. Yet until the English, American, and French revolutions took place, no alternative political model existed. The model survived, but was transformed.
  • The model of patrimonial states began to be replaced first on a spiritual, or theological, level. Where once the monarch was seen as divine, now a spiritual identity was being attached to the nation as a whole rather than to one individual.
  • This shift in structure dovetailed with new capitalist processes of production at the same time that national identities were emerging. Where once people were considered feudal subjects of the monarch, now they began to identify as an order of citizens of a nation.
  • The path from modern sovereignty to national sovereignty also required a new balance between capitalism and power. Class still dictated the accumulation of capital, although modernist capitalization claimed to bring together different classes for political unity and economic development. Yet the process of defining and constructing a nation conjured up just as much discord as the process of sovereignty, given the remaining tension of a multitude pitted against a disciplinary power.
  • In a section subtitled "The Nation and the Crisis of Modernity," the authors discuss French political philosopher Jean Bodin. Bodin anticipated the concerns that arose with the concept of national sovereignty. He pointed out that the origin of political power, and the very definition of sovereignty itself, is rooted in one side or figure claiming victory at the expense of others, who then become the subjects. Thus, sovereignty is created through force.
  • After Bodin, two schools of thought emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries around the role of sovereignty that anticipated the idea of national sovereignty. One was called the "natural right tradition" and the other the "realist (or historicist) tradition of state theory." The natural right school was concerned with the institutional and administrative realities of sovereignty. The realist tradition was more interested in the historical development of sovereignty as it related to divine concepts. This interpretation believed that a nation's identity existed before historical development.
  • In a section subtitled "The Nation's People," the authors explain that the concept of national sovereignty began to be solidified by the beginning of the 19th century. This solidification was ushered in by the French Revolution. Although national sovereignty was forged through politics, it was also a "spiritual construction," meaning a construction of identity. That identity was made up of cultural meaning, a shared history, and a common language.
  • It was during this time that the idea of "nation" began to be conflated with the concept of a democratic community, which felt like an innovation. Yet the dynamics of power continued through subjugation and domination. This shift brings up the very definition of a nation as well as the definition of "a people" and how both definitions are created. A people are different than "a multitude" in that a people can be defined as having one will, while the multitude represent a multiplicity. The authors state, "Every nation must make the multitude into a people."
  • A national identity means that people feel legitimized and that they can expect a certain sense of unity, stability, and potential for economic growth.
  • In a section subtitled "Subaltern Nationalism," the authors claim that the concept of "nation" outside of Europe was different, given that Europe was the dominant world power. A nation's identity emboldened its citizens to demand independence from occupying nations.
  • The other side of resisting the power of dominant nations meant that subordinate nations focused on a kind of internal oppression, repressing differences in order to strengthen a national identity. The authors note, "Protection and oppression can be hard to tell apart."
  • The development of a nation also serves to unify diverse groups, despite differences in religion, ethnicity, culture, and language. In this lens, nation becomes a way to imagine a community into existence. The authors use the example of black nationalism in the United States to demonstrate how nationalism can define a community without boundaries, and the internal issues that can still arise.
  • In a section subtitled "Totalitarianism of the Nation-State," the authors contend that the crisis of modernity continues under the concept of the nation-state. One result of nation-states was a European civil war, and World War II saw nations as stand-ins for class conflicts. For example, nationalism went hand-in-hand with Russia's identity as a socialist country. Totalitarianism is another political tactic that emerged out of nationalism.
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