State and sovereignty


Understanding the past is always enlightening and helps us to pave the future path. To understand what is going on in the present, it is essential to know what happened before we entered the stage. Whether we like it or not, we cannot ignore the fact that the codes of the past are a deciding factor in the present and has a great impact on the future. This impact could be negative or positive; to choose wisely is in our hands.

The situation we are in now is grim and grave. The country is dangerously politically unstable and economically facing a crisis. As we have been discussing for the past three weeks, the mess we are going through now surely has roots in the recent past. We must understand the mistakes to avoid them. We need to know the bigger picture.

 To know more about the political mess we are facing today, we contacted an expert on this subject, Kaushalya Abeywickrama, who is a journalist, author, and researcher on Political Communication. She is also a woman and child rights activist, a motivational speaker, and a life coach. She holds two post-graduate degrees in Mass Communication, and Conflict, Peace, and Development Studies.

Head of the State and the State’s Law

Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli writes in his book The Prince that, peace and law must prevail in order to bring prosperity to a country.

According to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the ruler or the Head of the State is the undisputed leader of the monarchy.

Similarly, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and, Hugo Grotius say, “The source of political power derives from the people, and the State is the product of popular consensus.”

“The king is acting on a promise he made,” writes Thomas Aquinas. When those promises are broken, the king loses the throne. Or he should be removed from the throne. Kings in Europe lost the throne following this tradition.

In his 1651 book, Leviathan, Hobbes pointed out that there must be a strong government or ruling system to maintain law and order in society. Peace should prevail in society and if the public has any rights that interfere with it, such rights should be removed in order to keep the peace.

“This can only be done through an agreement. That agreement will bring peace by removing the disruptive rights of the public. The concept of state emerges as a result,” said Abeywickrama.

Government should make sure peace prevails

Locke, in his book Two Treatises of Government, writes that, “Man is independent and he is also wise. He will do nothing to harm the other. But there are times when his safety is threatened; especially in times of anarchy, his life is not secured. Therefore, a government is essential to protect the public from harsh situations caused by natural disasters and to protect the citizens from war or armed conflicts.”

Abeywickrama explained that, according to Locke, people hand over their rights not to supreme power, but over to the society itself.

In Locke’s view, life, freedom, and wealth are the main things in life. That is the essence of life.

When people rely on their rights to society, they hand over the responsibility of their above-mentioned birthrights to be protected by a State. Therefore, the Government has risen to power to fulfil a limited number of named purposes for the public. Locke suggested that the powers of the king should be limited and the power of the Parliament should be increased.

Locke further says that it is fine that the Government does not represent the views of all. The views of a few chosen educated, wise visionaries can represent and reflect the views of all.

What is a State?

Locke explains that the concept of the State emerges as a result of the transfer of the natural freedom of the powerful to society. Accordingly, the power of the State should be limited and it should not be arbitrary.

“The State is a board of trustees. It exists for the benefit of the subjects,” said Abeywickrama.

She also said that as Locke explained, people have the power to violate the legislature and the Government must be constitutional. Locke pointed out that the Government can only continue as long as the people wish to.

People’s rights should be protected by the law

John Rox’s in his book, Social Social Contract, relentlessly criticised the then authoritarian regime in France. He stated that the people of a state could not fall back from the equality of a free society to an unequal society.

How would the citizens experience peace when there is no law? How to maintain equality when poverty prevails and when there is no personal wealth? Therefore, what should be done is to hand over the protection of the peoples’ rights and welfare to an institution.

What is referendum?

Rousseau explained that the referendum which is the public opinion is for the public. In his view, it is this referendum, not the government, that is being insulted when people’s rights are not protected.

A referendum does not mean it represents the opinion of the entire society. It is the opinion that wishes goodwill for the public and this opinion is known as the referendum.

Accordingly, a referendum does not mean the consensus or a combination of all opinions, but the common feature of the public opinion.

Through the referendum, it is possible to know as well as anticipate the common good that is expected by the public. Rousseau pointed out that the sovereignty of the State is based on a referendum.

He said the Government and the referendum were not two but one, adding that the Government would not be indifferent until the two appeared to be one.

The State, law, and people’s rights

According to Rousseau, the law is the expression of public opinion. Sovereignty is inseparable and cannot exist. The executive and the legislature should not be one but should be operated separately. Secondly, officials must be appointed to enforce the law.

Rousseau said that because ethics and morality are the basis of social organisation in society, that social characteristics must also be the basis of Government.

After Rousseau’s opinion about State, it was Hegel who explained it explicitly. He argued that, “true freedom is the rule of law”. He said that, “True freedom is obedience to the law,” and that this law is reflected in the social order.

State and Marxism

In Karl Marx’s view, the Government was seen as a weapon of the bourgeoisie. Marx said that man is a product of the environment and that human qualities are superior to the environment, but that man’s ingenuity has the power to change that environment. In his view, society exalts, not the individual, and adheres to the principle that the individual belongs to society.

The evolution of the State

Evolutionists bare a different opinion about State. According to their ideology, people who are scattered in different geographical locations began to live together in a commonplace bounded by social norms, and social organisations were formed based on kinship, religion, living in a commonplace, security, economic security as well political sentiments. This social system gradually evolved into giving birth to the concept of the State. As a result of settlements within a geographic boundary and common social norms, peoples’ feelings of racial bond developed, eventually leading to the rise of nationalism.

Class conflicts began with the emergence of the private property system, and to solve those conflicts States evolved. In these gradually evolved States, characteristics such as land, population, state, and sovereignty can be identified, and with the establishment of a centralised system of government, the expansion of the official system took place.

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy