A Few More Sovereignties

Janice Thomson’s Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns (ISBN: 0691025711) is a wonderful little book. The story it tells is simple, but rich in implication.

Thomson’s topic is the state’s monopoly on violence. Or rather, her topic is the surprising recency of that monopoly. Until about 1900, she demonstrates, the state was by no means the only legitimate source of international force. In the six previous centuries, mercenaries, pirates, quasi-independent merchant companies, filibusters, and other violent actors were accepted parts of the international order. Only gradually did nations take serious steps to displace these other sources of violence.

It’s a simple hypothesis, and she argues it convincingly. At first, states enjoyed the benefits of being able to use “nonstate” violence. To take one example, commissioning privateers required no upfront government investment the way that raising an army might. But these alternative systems created unintended consequences. To continue the example, privateers tended to turn pirate after the end of formal hostilities. As a result, states took action first to give up their capacity to draw on these nonstate sources of violence (e.g., no longer commissioning privateers) and then to get rid of them altogether (e.g. outlawing piracy altogether).

Here are a few of the fascinating boxes Thomson opens:

  • Piracy is ancient, but “piracy” is a relatively modern construction. Only after the elimination of privateering does it become possible to truly define pirates as the enemies of all nations. As long as nations condoned “good” piracy on the Francis Drake model, the modern consensus that pirates are outside the law was unavailable. These facts are an embarassment for those who would argue that terrorists deserve no law on the basis of the “timeless” and “universal” norm against piracy.

  • “Sovereignty” is a strange creature, and only gets stranger the longer you stare at it. The old merchant companies (e.g. the East India Company) don’t fit comfortably in any modern conceptual boxes. They had armies and navies, conducted international relations, and had full governmental powers over “their” people and turf. For a time, the Hudson’s Bay Company was the fourth-largest territorial sovereign on the planet. At times, these companies even came to blows with the nations that chartered them. In light of such strange hybrids, can we please strike the phrase “essential attributes of sovereignty” from the legal vocabulary?

  • Violence used to be a market commodity: you could both buy and sell armies on the international system. No longer. It is now considered illegitimate to sell military services for money in a naked transaction; such deals now have to be disguised, when they take place at all. Not all global trends are towards markets.

And finally, one wonderful quotation from the book’s conclusion (page 148):

This evidence suggests what I take to be the key difference between the subject and the citizen: the rights and duties of the citizen are institutionalized. A subject could be authorized to privateer, lose that authority a year later, and be defined as a pirate, and be granted amnesty and a new privateering commission six months later. The citizen’s rights in the national state system are more precisely defined, permanent, universal, and not (as) subject to arbitrary changes by state rulers.

Worth reading for the stories about the filibusters (def. 2) alone …