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A Revolution in Sovereignty

October 27, 2010

In his book on sovereignty, Robert Jackson writes (pg. 38):

During the Reformation in many parts of north-western Europe the cosmopolitan Catholic Church was greatly reduced in its authority and power. Its sacerdotium was undermined and even terminated. Its lands were expropriated by kings and distributed to aristocratic supporters. Its clergy were shorn of autonomy and often reduced to being functionaries of a national church…The regnum, however, was expanded substantially in its authority and power: it was becoming a sovereign state. Not only was it now a location of independent government but it was also a home of spiritual life as well. The king replaced the pope as head of the national church, which became the church of crown and realm.

At the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche famously announced that God is dead, which was never a pronouncement of his atheism (though he was one), but more of a statement about the dissapearing authority of the “spiritual.” Because of a moral vacuum left by this waning authority, he prophesized that in the next century men would project onto the state a spiritual life they fooled themselves into thinking science had explained away. The terms would be different, but the emotional resonators would remain the same, only at  terrifying scale. And that disgruntled German was right.  All too right. Nowadays it is by no means an exaggeration to say we live under the Church of Unlimited Government.

But if the executive branch is the pope, who will be the Henry the VIII of the competitive government movement? It’s not clear from what Jackson writes which came first: did the dissolution of the Church occur because its moral authority vanished? Or was it that the conflict over spiritual authority was merely a subtext to the raw struggle for power and authority? I tend to think the latter, which means the incentives created by new shifts to the balance of power are more important than changes in the society-wide perception of this or that moral authority.

Technology changes faster than culture and alters the logic of violence between the center and the periphery. The rest is post hoc rationalization.


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