Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Slippery Slope of Sovereignty & Suzerainty

Try saying that three times fast...

Today I read that Mel Gibson is buying a 5,411 acre island in Fiji. Trouble is, "natives" (and I don't use quotes to disparage their claim, but rather to point out that this is not as clear-cut a label as many believe) claim that they were forcibly evicted from this island many generations ago, and that they are the rightful owners.

Add to that a developing group in the "sovereign-citizen" movement: the "Little-Shell Pembina Band". This is basically a group of Confederate flag-wavers who claim to be adopted and naturalized members of a Native-American group that never negotiated their "sovereignty" away to the US government... so, they claim, they are therefore not subject to US law.

So who really "owns" land? Is there really such a thing as "sovereignty", some divine mandate of heavenly authority on Earth? Or (as I think, most of the time...), is "ownership" and "sovereignty" nothing more than a claim AND the physical power necessary to back it up (or at least the ability to create the perception of that physical power)? So does Mel Gibson "own" an Island in Fiji? No: his money, and the general value to a certain class in Fiji of "rule of law" (read: the power to back up a certain set of decrees) provides the physical force (Fijian army, or at least their police force) to back up his claim. The "little-Shell Pembina Band" are attempting to undercut the claim of sovereignty over land and people by the US government. Good luck: the US government has more physical power. Their only hope is that they can prevent the US government from applying that power--by (as presented in "A Theory of Power") either removing their will to apply that power (maybe by "claiming" to be sovereign, but not doing anything about it that ticks off Uncle Sam), creating a localized power imbalance (they could become guerrillas in the Badlands?), or flying under the radar (too late, they have a website and license plates...).

From the effort that both of these groups appear to be going to explain and reinforce their claims, they seem to be trying to work within the "law". Law, of course, is nothing more than a body of rules and procedures intended to govern the application of violence by an entity (State) that claims a monopoly on violent acts. Think about it: don't pay your taxes, what happens? Well, eventually, you get arrested and given some kind of punishment. If you resist? Well, you can't because the State claims (and can normally enforce) a monopoly on violence, so they make you, through threat or application of physical force. This jump--the claim of a monopoly on the use of (or at least a monopoly on the regulation of) violence--is what really sets the State apart from Chieftains, Tribes and other anthropological labels for levels of societal organization. But let us not forget that this always remains a claim--one that must often be backed up, and one which often cannot back itself up. The history of revolution and insurrection, social evolution, law, sovereignty, suzerainty and "ownership" is ultimately one of recourse to violence. We can dress it up as nicely as we want, but the foundation of social order remains the ability of one group to beat the crap out of another.

Well, at least the perception of that ability. So I guess as long as the Fijian natives have seen Braveheart, Mel Gibson will get his island? Unless Russell Crowe decides he "owns" it.

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