An interesting but in some respects puzzling article, Antarctica: Notes on the Fate of Sovereignty,
came across my screen this morning. It is by John Keane, author of The Life and Death of Democracy and other works on the world history of democracy.
The recent article appeared in The Conversation and is not necessarily all that clear to the reader new to his thought. In his magnum opus, Keane made the interesting point that what we generally call democracy now is the 19th century version of that practice, in which sovereignty is exercised by elected representatives. Keen believed that this type of democracy is not sufficient for the conditions of either the 20th or 21st century. He convinced me, largely because looking at the United States with its 18th-century Constitution and Canada with its 19th century parliamentary structures, we see that in neither case do the common people have a meaningful role in government, once the very rich and very influential have had a chance to undermine these earlier approximations of democracy. Democratic governments, 19th-century style, exercise sovereignty, absolute power justified by ancient beliefs that are deeply undemocratic, even when exercised by a prime minister or cabinet instead of a monarch.
Keane's prescription for greater democracy in modern times requires in his phrase "monitory democracy," institutions that monitor other institutions and investigate and correct problems that arise from the natural oligarchical inertia of human societies.
If you have this background, this new article makes a lot more sense.
Keane believes that Antarctica may avoid the trap of sovereign government, since international agreements that created the institutions of Antarctica are not based on sovereignty. Keane argues – unfortunately without much in the way of concrete examples – that a network of monitoring institutions have grown up in Antarctica, and this may be an example for everybody else in times to come.
Fascinating excerpts from the article:
Antarctica could be said to be a strange new form of slow democracy. By that I am not referring to the familiar point (once attributed to Thomas Carlyle, the lover of noble talent, no great friend of democracy, and recently repeated by David Runciman), that democracy is cumbersome, slow and inefficient, but in due time the voice of the people will be heard, and their latent wisdom will prevail, through good leadership. I rather have in mind something more complicated, more enigmatic and more pragmatic: under Antarctic conditions, when questions arise concerning who gets what, when and how, and who represents whom, matters are typically subject to open deliberation and decided through what are called decisions, measures and resolutions - each following their own practical rule-bound logic, and each subject to a unanimity rule. Decisions bear upon internal organisational matters of the ATCM. Resolutions are not legally binding on the contracting parties; they are hortatory texts, directed beyond their ranks to include various interested parties. Then there are measures, which are legally binding once they have been approved by all the Consultative Parties.
Decisions, resolutions and measures are all encased within multilateral legal networks that highlight the passing away of the fiction of the legal sovereignty of territorial states. Yes, talk of sovereignty survives. Perhaps it is on the increase, often sustained by bizarre definitions (the Argentinaclaim, for instance, is based on such ragbag criteria as ‘historical heritage coming from Spain’, former ‘seal-hunting activities’, ‘installation and management of lighthouses’, scientific and military operations and the ‘rescue’ of two Englishmen from misfortune). ...Despite these anomalies, the new Antarctic reality has moved beyond the old world of sovereignty. The polycentric governing institutions of the continent are proving durable, in no small measure because they come clothed in law. Subject to legalisation through forms of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ (erga omnes) legal arrangements, these institutions regularly function as brakes on attempts by states to exercise power arbitrarily, without public scrutiny, in the old sovereignty ways.
If Antarctica is a law-abiding post-sovereign polity comprising a salmagundi of clumsy power-sharing institutions, themselves designed to produce and administer decisions subject to the exercise of voting rights, then matters are made even more complicated, conceptually speaking, by the fact that its governing instruments are not tied in any simple sense to territory. Entangled in world-wide webs of interdependence that are oiled by space- and time-shrinking flows of communication, Antarctic politics does not stand in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Spill-over effects, arbitrage pressures and butterfly effects are common. The upshot is that things that happen politically within and around the continent sometimes have effects elsewhere, in far-away locations. The reverse also commonly happens: events, information flows, declarations and deals that happen in far-off places can and do touch off immediate consequences in Antarctica.
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Sovereignty and the Domination of NatureIt is not often noted that Antarctica has dispensed with the formal imagery of sovereignty. It’s true there is an emblem of the Antarctic Treaty, featuring a white continent marked by lines of latitude and longitude; and there’s a richly contested variety of both serious and satirical cartographic representations, ranging from the continent wrapped in national flags, including the ensign of the short-lived Nazi protectorate of Neuschwabenland, to the multi-coloured LGBT flag map of Antarctica. Yet the fact is that Antarctica has no official flag, no national anthem or currency or coat of arms. Something much more historically unusual and of deeper long-term significance is also at work: a novelty that brings us back, full-circle, to the lead theme of the Antarctopia pavilion.
Put simply, Antarctica is the first continent to rid itself of the bestial metaphors in which the doctrine of sovereignty always came wrapped. The point is typically ignored by journalists, diplomats and scholars alike. Expressed in terse terms, sovereignty always had a feral snarl. The big and pompous modern European idea of sovereignty typically supposed that a people living within a territory would otherwise quarrel and be violent, and tear one another to bits, unless governed, above all in moments of exception, by a sharp-edged form of armed power that is unified, unconditional and indivisible.
The whole idea of state sovereignty supped with the devilish image of the sovereign ruler pitted against the wild animal. Sovereign are those rulers who manage to separate themselves from, and rise above, the world of nature, which was typically thought of as a fear-ridden domain ruled by beasts locked permanently in deathly power struggles. Sovereign rulers are different, or so it was argued. They bring orderly rule. Yet in laying down the laws, within a demarcated territory, using force if necessary, they reserve for themselves the prerogative of acting outside the laws, just like wild animals.
Since the 1950s, numerous developments in Antarctica have strongly challenged, and in some cases rejected outright, the deeply anti-democratic, bestial imagery coded into the old sovereignty principle. As Ben Saul, Tim Stephens and others have warned, the paralysing uncertainty surrounding the polity of Antarctica should not be underestimated; but, in fact, the rejection of bestial imagery may be the most important, and irreversible, achievement of the governing arrangements of Antarctica, where metaphors of fixed territory, rule and wild animals are conspicuous by their absence.Humble stewardship of the dynamically contingent, the fragile and the vulnerable: especially since the adoption (from the end of the 1980s) of the Environmental Protocol and its numerous Annexes, these metaphors, and general sympathy for the biosphere, have come to replace the old bestial images of sovereignty. The flipside of this semantic switch is a new politics of representation of the non-human world. When analysing the ‘spirit’ and practices of such bodies as the Convention on Biological diversity (CBD), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Agreement on Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), all of which politically shape Antarctica as we know it today, what’s striking is how they widen and deepen inherited meanings of political representation.
What’s meant by this? All human societies create ways of registering or re-presenting their interdependence with the natural world and its (sometimes invisible) elements by means of verbal, oral and pictorial signifiers. Antarctica obeys this rule, but gives it a twist. It’s perhaps an exaggeration to put things this way, but the continent is a world-leading laboratory in the arts of enfranchising nature. It brings to life, and puts into practice, new ways of imagining the political inclusion of the biosphere as a legitimate, potentially equal partner, within human affairs. In Antarctica, the nature/politics dualism of the doctrine of sovereignty no longer makes sense. It’s not just a continent where non-human nature constantly makes its presence felt among the humans who dwell or visit there. It’s also (conversely) a place where awareness runs high among humans that there are different ways of representing and acting upon the biosphere. In other words, the biosphere is not seen as raw, non-human, ‘out there’ nature, ripe for human exploitation, but as a complex set of interacting living elements whose significance is shaped by human perceptions and actions, which are themselves bound up with the deep dynamics of the biosphere.
By experimenting with new ways of practically extending voices and votes to our fragile biomes, Antarctica does more than revive and stretch the principle of the political representation of non-human domains. Arguably, the most far-reaching political significance of Antarctica is the way both positive and threatening developments there prompt fundamental 21st-century questions about whether human beings are capable of humbling ourselves by collectively recognising our ineluctably deep dependence upon the biomes in which we dwell. Are human beings capable, in theory and practice, of ridding ourselves of our own anthropocentrism? Can we live beyond the still-dominant view that we humans are the pinnacle of creation, lords and ladies of the universe, ‘the people’ and their states who are the ultimate source of sovereign power and authority on Earth? Is Antarctica perhaps even an important harbinger of the global commons principle, a reminder that the Earth’s surface should not be carved up by national jurisdictions?
These are fundamental political questions that await twenty-first century answers.Image: Narmer, club-wielding sovereign lord of Egypt: