Sovereignty Without Territoriality?

The concentration of manpower was the key to political power in premodern Southeast Asia… This overwhelming concern for obtaining and holding population at the core is shot through every aspect of precolonial statecraft. What Geertz says about Balinese political rivalries—that they were “a struggle more for men than for land”—could apply equally to all of mainland Southeast Asia. This principle animated the conduct of warfare, which was less a grab for distant territory than a quest for captives who could be resettled at the core… Early European officials were frequently astounded by the extremely vague demarcation of territories and provinces in their new colonies and puzzled by an administration of manpower that had little or nothing to do with territorial jurisdiction… As Thongchai Winichakul’s insightful book shows, the Siamese paid more attention to the manpower they could summon than to sovereignty over land that had no value in the absence of labor.

That’s from Chapter 3 (pp. 64-68) of James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. To an inhabitant of the “modern” world who studies international politics, Scott’s description of powerful states that only vaguely demarcated and policed their putative territorial boundaries serves as an intriguing reminder that the fusion of territoriality and political sovereignty we now take for granted is not inevitable. Organizations can and have exercised substantial authority over human society without husbanding exclusive control over specific patches of land. Scott sees similar processes at work in nineteenth– and twentieth-century sub-Saharan Africa:

The theme of manpower concentration permeates the literature on indigenous politics: “The drive to acquire relatives, adherents, dependents, retainers, and subjects and to keep them attached to oneself as a kind of social and political ‘capital’ has often been remarked upon as characteristic of African political processes.”… As in Southeast Asia there was little emphasis on sharp territorial boundaries, and the important rights were over people, not places, except for particular ritual sites. The competition for followers, kinsmen, and bondsmen operated at every level.

In fact, I’d say there are at least three interconnected but distinct spaces in which political authority can be organized—physical (territory), social (people), and economic (trade)—and the three don’t necessarily have to hang together. Scott has already described for us states whose sovereignty was rooted primarily in the social and economic realms with less attention to territory.

Contemporary drug cartels arguably exemplify the possibility of organizations that compete for power in trade space without asserting sovereignty over territory or society in the way that modern states do. Large cartels sometimes attempt to establish territorial zones of impunity or even governance, but those efforts often come in response to rivals’ attempts to quash their power in trade space. More important, the point of that territorial control is usually to gain freedom from interference in their economic activities, not to assert the full panoply of political authority we attach to the modern idea of sovereignty. As John Sullivan says of contemporary “criminal insurgencies” in Mexico and elsewhere,

Organized crime groups (gangs and cartels)…usually seek to elude detection and prefer co-opting (corrupting) the instruments of state rather than engaging in direct confrontation… Yet as the current crime wars illustrate, these actors can directly confront the state when their interests are challenged (Bailey & Talyor, 2009).  Criminal insurgency is the mechanism of the confrontation with the state that results when relationships between organized crime and the state fall into disequilibrium.

Criminal insurgency presents a challenge to states and communities. Criminal insurgency is different from conventional terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy and economic control over territory. They do so by hollowing out the state and creating criminal enclaves to secure freedom to maneuver.

It’s harder for me to think of an organization that competes for sovereignty in the social realm without seeking control over territory or trade. I suppose organized religion comes closest. Although some hierarchical religious organizations historically have also pursued control over land and trade, in ideological terms, their main claim attaches to the souls of their adherents and nothing else. Ethnicity might fit the bill, too, insofar as leaders of these communities of putative kinship claim authority over members wherever they may be and whatever trade they might take up. It’s also interesting to think about whether or not cyberspace is emerging as a fourth realm for political organization, intertwined with but at least partially independent of the other three, but that’s a question for another day.

What’s confusing to modern ears, I think, is the application of the word “state” to these other things. Scott explicitly did so, and I’m implicitly doing so here. My point in doing so is to highlight that the constructs we call “states” are just one of many organizations constantly competing for power in these various spaces. What’s unique about the modern state is its explicit claim to dominion over all three of those spaces—physical, social, and economic—within a particular set of sharply demarcated borders.

So, let’s flip it around: instead of calling all of these organizations states, let’s reserve that term for the modern thing, but let’s allow Scott’s passage to remind us that states are neither as inevitable nor as successful in their efforts to establish that dominion as we often assume. Instead, they are just one organizational form competing for sovereignty in these various realms, and their success in those struggles is neither as complete nor as final as they would like it to be. The fusion of sovereignty in the modern state is a specific idea, not a natural fact, and a self-serving one at that.

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  1. Oral Hazard

     /  May 6, 2013

    I don’t believe that the human animal exists in any meaningful sense in the absence of “economic” analysis. Consumption of resources and allocation of externalities of living, i.e., homeostasis, by definition, is “economics.” I think the rise of behavioral economics is helping divorce the study from the more a priori notions of “classical economics.”

    That’s why I think you won’t find a social-only organization, as you are defining it, because groups are always concerned, at least in some part, with material well-being of constituents. Facebook and Google come closest, but one of my favorite sayings is “If you aren’t buying a product, then YOU are the product.”

    • “… because groups are always concerned, at least in some part, with material well-being of constituents.”

      Groups, perhaps, but not all individuals.

      • Oral Hazard

         /  May 7, 2013

        I’m sorry, I don’t follow you. Jay’s post was about non-territorial organized groups, not about individuals.

  2. Nicely put Jay. A couple of points:

    – other dimensions might be added to your ideas of spaces – perhaps ideal/ideological/beliefs?

    – is this tantamount to saying that sovereignty is a culturally relative (Western) idea? Or a historically relative one (relevant to a world of European states pursuing a particular kind of land warfare?


    • Thanks, Andrew.

      On other dimensions, I think ideas might be the meta-category into which all of the dimensions I identified fit. Or one of two, anyway, because clearly none of this makes any sense without *some* physical component, be it land or goods or human bodies. In other words, I think there’s both a physical and ideational aspect to competition in all three of the spaces I listed, but the points of emphasis differ significantly.

      On your second point, yes, I am saying that the notion of sovereignty over all of these dimensions inhering in a territorially bounded state is a construct with specific cultural and historical roots. Organizations formed around that idea seem to be faring pretty well right now in the political ecosystem, but their supremacy isn’t and never has been even close to total, and at some point in the future, that relative fitness will wane and something(s) else will work better for another while.

  3. LFC

     /  May 6, 2013

    from the Scott quote:
    “Early European officials were frequently astounded by the extremely vague demarcation of territories and provinces in their new colonies….”

    If those officials had known more about the territorial histories of their own countries, they might have been somewhat less “astounded,” since in many cases the boundaries (both ‘internal’ and ‘external’) of European polities took a long time to become reasonably well-defined and continuous.

  4. Reblogged this on Roderick's Journal.

  5. Hello Jay! Very nice post as usual 🙂
    What you address in this post is just so important, it and the books you mentioned should be compulsory reading for all political scientists, as well as practitioners, from diplomats to analysts.
    If you read Thongchai, it seems to me that you will be taken in this world where competition is for followers… It is a wonderful and enlightening book…and his work on maps (notably, your insight is right linked to religion is astounding). Try also (I know the pile of must read is awful) Tambiah on Galactic polities (World Conqueror and World Renouncer : A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology). Cambridge University Press, 1976.)
    And I fully agree with you that the word state should be kept for the modern state and then the modern nation-state. Personally I tend to follow Tambiah and to use “polities” as well as the so convenient “political authorities” which does not box us down into a specific historical form, but allows us to specify these forms.

  6. Bart

     /  May 7, 2013

    It might be helpful to distinguish the concept of territory of its different conceptions. The consensus view of international law seems to treat territory as a property scheme, something that political communities have rights to and obligations for independent of comprehensive physical habitation. That is borders count even if they are not guarded. An alternative might be territory as possession where political communities have rights and obligation over the physical space where a political community happens to be at this moment. One could easily imagine other conceptions of territory; territory as identity, territory as a use right, etc. It seems to me less about the relationship between sovereignty and territory and more about what we mean we we use ‘territory’.

    • I think we agree on the substance here and are just using different words for the same thing. Specifically, I think you’re proposing to use “territory” the way I was trying to use “space.” So, to make it clearer, I could relabel my three domains geographic space, social space, and trade space. The first concerns physical territory regardless of who’s in it; the second concerns aggregations of people regardless of where they are; and the third concerns specific goods or types of exchange regardless of where they occur. Sovereignty is about the assertion of ultimate authority, and an organization can make that assertion in any one or combination of more than one of these domains. Modern states make it in all three, with territory as the primary delimiter. Other organizations compete with states in one or more of these domains, but with different primary delimiters. Some emphasize souls, others specific goods, and so on.

      • Bart

         /  May 8, 2013

        Although I like your three part distinction, I believe we are talking about different things. By ‘territory’ I do mean physical space. My distinction is about the nature of the claim to that physical space. Perhaps, some what surprisingly, there has been some dispute about this in Western political theory. For example, Locke, Kant and Pufendorf treat that physical space as property. Grotius and Hobbes seem to believe that territory is geographic space possessed, but not owned. Hegel appears to ground the claim in the relationship between physical space and group identity. In the phrase ‘territorial sovereignty,’ territory tells us something about sovereignty, but does nothing to enhance our understanding of territory. So, even if modern states dominate the three spheres you mention, it may still be worth thinking about the different ways one might conceive of the claim to physical geographic space.

      • Okay, now I see the point you’re making, and I agree. I suspect we could tease out similar variations within the other dimensions as well (e.g., claims on souls vs. claims on bodies as sources of manpower).

  7. Grant

     /  May 7, 2013

    Territory sovereignty wasn’t so firm prior to some point (perhaps the 1800s or so) in Europe’s history. Before then an invasion of that land was an invasion obviously, but territory owned by a state could be swapped or sold to another state. I’d guess the focus on absolute territorial sovereignty was in part created by the practicality of governing an unmoving place rather than mobile humans (aided by ideas of ethnic nationalism).

  8. Oral Hazard

     /  May 7, 2013

    Jay, obviously from the comments you can see you’ve tapped into another rich vein of thought. I’m wondering to what extent cartography was what we’d call today “disruptive” technology? Reasonably accurate mapping is only a couple of thousand years old.

    • I don’t know much about the history of the technology, but James Scott certainly has a lot to say about the effects of mapping on state behavior and thus on the societies they “rule.”

  9. Re mapping: v. important for various things, among them the early-modern European state’s effort to move toward reasonably continuous boundaries.
    See, e.g.:
    Michael Biggs, “Putting the State on the Map,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41:2 (1999)
    Jordan Branch, “Mapping the Sovereign State,” Int’l Organization 65:1 (2011)

  10. Exterritorial autonomy for volunteers is explored e.g. under many terms, among them panarchism and polyarchism, at and and its monetary implications e.g. at There are also many writings on personal law and voluntary taxation online. PIOT, John Zube: Panarchy In Our Time or: To each the government or the non-governmental society of his or her choice.

  11. PJ

     /  May 17, 2013

    I think if you look at what states are for, then it becomes more clear what is going on. They are parasitic organizations designed primarily to concentrate wealth. So, whether it be land-based or human body-based or drug cartels or prehistoric tribes, it all boils down to the same thing. Any other way to tap into wealth will also be another one of your “spaces”. The most obvious one right now is the attempt to impose taxes on the internet. There may be “virtual internet territories” where different parasitic organizations strive for access to that stream of wealth.

  12. Silva

     /  October 27, 2013

    I’m under the impression that religions not trying to control land are weakened ones: Christianity, Islam and Buddhism all held vast territories at their heights, Hinduism only coalesced relatively recently (and after its area had been invaded), and most other religions are puny in comparison (population-wise) – I’m not sure about Zoroastrianism at height. Thoughts?

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