XI / Sovereignty and the polycrisis

by Sabrina Fernandes

Sovereignty is usually defined in relation to the nation-state, with attention to borders and state formation, the control of territory and resources, and the self-determination of peoples. But, even though the national question cannot be overlooked, the internationalist must consider sovereignty separately from it.

An internationalist perspective is one that recognises the need for coordination of forces around the globe, not only because the universal ideals of emancipation and justice provide a basis for solidarity, but also because even the most particular local issues are connected to larger political-economic and ecological phenomena that operate simultaneously within and beyond borders. In fact, the existence of old and new borders (and nationalisms) directly impacts how political organisations interact and respond to each other across the globe. 

While internationalism contends with state actions, it is made necessary by the impossibility to address a problem in one state, without considering others and the struggles within them. Internationalism also looks beyond the relations between states, into social and political formations, identifying how actors strive to connect to each other. It acknowledges conflicts between class and national interests along the way, such as when the economic stability in one country is secured through international economic relations that destroy ecosystems elsewhere.

Capitalist development is historically uneven and contradictory. There are patterns of unequal ecological and economic exchange through which natural resources are taken from one place to be used in industrial production in another, while the cheap labour in the former ensures the local working class cannot reap the benefits of the manufactured goods and investment in public infrastructure in the latter. 

These contradictions in development have intensified over centuries of global trade and colonialism, and, in a time of major crises and resource competition, they urge us to think of sovereignty beyond the perspective of just one people. For instance, the critical minerals required for ‘just transition’ in Europe often come from places like Latin America, where workers are underpaid and their ecosystems are damaged. How just is this transition if one’s national interests undermine those of another?

In recent years, three ‘events’ have greatly contributed to the current polycrisis. And they have demonstrated how the international political economy of production and consumption, embedded in imperial disputes and centre-periphery relations, affects relations between peoples and their organisations globally: the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the climate emergency. 

This essay calls for a rethinking of traditional conceptions of sovereignty in an age of multiple crises, specifically of polycrisis, in which the added risks and impacts of their interconnectedness make for a whole that is potentially more destructive than the sum of all parts. It stresses that the complexity and added risks of the polycrisis render a purely nationalist approach to sovereignty inefficient and obsolete. The defence of nations’ sovereign interests may actually contribute further to worsening crises due their interconnectedness.

It further addresses the central role of resource extraction and economic growth in the assertion of state sovereignty in times of peace, as well as their purpose in times of war and global uncertainty. It proposes that a twenty-first-century internationalist view of sovereignty must acknowledge the nature of international intra-class conflicts, and raises the need to redefine sovereignty in accordance with radical sustainability.

Compounding crises, uneven answers

From the perspective of countries located on the periphery of the global capitalist system, crisis is an on-going phenomenon, rather than an exception. Economies are dependent on the ebbs and flows of richer countries, political unrest is common (sometimes fomented by foreign actors), and there is more susceptibility to disturbances due to lack of a strong welfare system, imperialist intervention, and fewer resources to draw upon to tackle new challenges. 

Even though it can be claimed that crisis is the default state at the margins, it is not always the same crisis. The notion of polycrisis here is useful in that it approaches not just the sum of the simultaneous crises – global and local – but also how they impact each other and lead to a scenario of greater instability, more risk and less predictable outcomes. Currently, there are several crises of global scale, which, as Scott Janzwood and Thomas Homer-Dixon suggest, entail ‘extreme complexity, high nonlinearity, transboundary causality, and deep uncertainty’.

A class analysis of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the climate emergency begins with recognition that the systemic forces of capital helped to produce each of these crises, and that each has a particular negative impact on workers. In the case of Covid-19, researchers have consistently shown that we have now entered an age of considerable vulnerability to pandemics due to changes in landscapes and ecosystems, and the way in which society interacts with other species. 

Evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace points out that novel viruses cannot be treated as isolated incidents, since their emergence is deeply tied to the dominant system of food production, the behaviour of multinational corporations, and induction by capital of particular human living arrangements that lead to disease hotspots. How societies respond to the spread of diseases is also political, subject to capitalist power structures and forms of private property. State intervention in the first period of the Covid-19 pandemic prompted experts to claim that the ‘state was back’ after a long retreat under neoliberalism. 

Increased levels of public spending on healthcare, the purchase of vaccines, and centralised policies on social distancing and lockdowns undermined the normalisation of neoliberal market self-regulation, but they did not bring about alternatives to the existing regime of private property and profit. As Adam Tooze puts it, the initiatives were top-down, hardly influenced by class-struggle, and primarily designed to stabilise economies that now had to adapt to the sanitary crisis.

If at the national level, governments adjusted their budgets to prevent further complications from the pandemic and economic losses, internationally the situation mostly oscillated from regional coordination for border control, to failed attempts at agreements that could address some of the healthcare inequalities across the globe. Efforts towards a TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver for vaccines ended in major failure, while pharmaceutical companies, receiving an unprecedented amount of public money, amassed huge profits.

On the periphery, states lacked the funds to access vaccines or were under the control of authoritarian governments that sacrificed lives to ‘save’ the economy, as was the case in Brazil. In such contexts, where underdevelopment undermines healthcare infrastructure, states negotiated with emergent powers or humanitarian actors to secure vaccines. But little has been done to address the ‘structures of disease emergence’ Mike Davis discussed in relation to capitalist rural and urban configurations.

Just two years after the pandemic began, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted another wave of debate about the form internationalism ought to take. Obviously, this is not the only armed conflict in the world today, nor even the deadliest. The influx of humanitarian aid and concern for Ukraine, especially as refugees arrived in European capitals, led to open criticism of how predominantly white societies in wealthier countries respond with less urgence and compassion to war and terror in the Global South. This can be explained with reference to what Oyenike Balogun-Mwangi terms ‘intergroup empathy’, as well as to the geopolitical dynamics that expose the pursuit of interests by great powers, and indeed by states on the periphery.

Tensions over the role of NATO in the conflict have pushed Global South states to refuse a binary position on the war, assuming a strategic non-alignment and taking direct measures to build a more multi-polar international order. Brazil’s progressive president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva refused to sign the final document of the US-led Summit of Democracy in 2023, since the declaration directly condemned Putin rather than setting out a non-partisan plan for peace.In the meantime, China has taken on a pragmatic approach that appeals to states that do not want to pick sides. As argued by James Traub, whereas the West tried to hog vaccines and consistently failed to provide adequate funding for climate change adaptation in poorer nations, China has allocated billions of dollars to investment through the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Today’s complex scenario exposes different perceptions of who bears responsibility and what imperial interests are in play in each conflict. These perceptions that influence campaigns and acts of solidarity are, of course, driven by ideology as well as material interests.

It is much easier for those in the West to identify horrors in the actions of Putin and the Russian army than in the systematic domination of the US and the interventions by Western powers in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. It is easier to speak of Ukraine as the issue of our time than it is to cast opinion on the brutal wars in Yemen or Tigray. As soon as Russia invaded Ukrainian territory, the Canadian government enacted the Canada-Ukraine Authorisation for Emergency Travel, while Afghan refugees did not have a right to the same facilitated processes, despite decades of ongoing conflict and despair.

The third event is the climate emergency, key to the polycrisis in the way it affects every territory and nation in the world, albeit in highly unequal ways. Climate change recognises no borders – internal or external – but often its most brutal effects are dictated by inequality that is historically shaped by the actions of nation-states concerned with their own economic interests, to the detriment of others. This provides context to calls made at the United Nations for countries to ‘work toward the common interest, beyond narrow national interests.’ Yes, the climate crisis leads to deteriorating living conditions and adds to a series of global disaster risks, but where a country stands in terms of historical liability for global warming and its current capacity to engage in transition projects is directly connected to the kind of national interests at play. 

The countries that have contributed the most to climate change are the ones that possess the wealth that would allow them to make fast and relatively smooth transitions towards a low-carbon, more sustainable society – primarily the United States, the United Kingdom and members of the European Union1; yet, they are also the ones promoting paradigms of transition that continue the tradition of plundering resources of poorer nations and using them for projects that will not achieve the necessary results for staying below 1.5ºC. Worse yet, these are projects and parameters that place profit above transition targets and, because of this, keep the emitting industries in positions of power that slow down the overall process. 

In the US, while conversations around a Green New Deal have gained momentum in recent years, commitments to abandon fossil fuel use are lacking and the transition of the energy grid is still hostage to a mentality of diversification of fuel sources, rather than actual substitution and necessary infrastructure change. In the meantime, small poor nations such as Tuvalu have urged the global community to act to phase out fossil fuel use, but since it is neither a major fossil fuel producer nor consumer, its plea as a highly vulnerable country does not possess the same weight in political negotiations dictated by the market. 

The irony is that, whereas Tuvalu’s claims to sovereignty are undermined by other states’ perpetuation of a global fossil fuel economy, soon enough, the sovereignty of these same states that thrive on fossil capital could be threatened by natural disasters and economic turbulence related to climate change.

Sovereignty as an internationalist and continuous capacity

Economic sovereignty is conventionally understood as independence from external actors, such as international economic organisations, and autonomy to manage balance of trade, corporate presence, and macroeconomic policy. Under capitalism, it is associated with the autonomy of producers and markets, which, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, places it in tension with the concept of popular sovereignty, which is associated with democratic rights. Meanwhile, in the context of war and invasions, a political sovereignty is often invoked to justify intervention and occupation.

But an internationalist concept of sovereignty fitting for a time of polycrisis should be grounded in the notion of permanence, the capacity to stay and thrive. This notion underpins the concepts of food sovereignty and energy sovereignty. That which is affirmed to be sovereign must also be lasting. Food sovereignty in a community means more than just ensuring food security; it pertains to structures of production and consumption and an altered, more socially just relationship among those in the community that ensures the continuity of practices and their benefits. In the same way, an internationalist concept of a general sovereignty of peoples and states needs to go beyond national borders and immediate economic interests to promote the continuity of relations of solidarity that can attend to the structural causes of polycrisis, rather than simply its localised effects (to which chauvinist posturing is a common and ultimately destructive response).

The basic understanding that marginalised peoples will not be free from exploitation and suffering in one place without the extension of this freedom to other peoples too speaks to solidarity, but also demands consideration of a complex web of contradictions. Resource-based conflicts fragment alliances and reinforce immediate intra-class disputes that often weaken internationalist efforts to tackle the root causes of the crises. 

In the case of vaccines, the power of Big Pharma led to a general vaccine apartheid, according to which countries that could pay for the most vaccines and secure the fastest contracts benefitted in the pandemic market over others, which were usually located in the Global South. An excessively nationalist perspective of sovereignty – focused on sanitary questions and border security – also played a role in the unequal distribution of vaccines. Solidarity here, was at best, an afterthought. 

Amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, there have been different claims to sovereignty. Most obviously, the Ukrainian government has decried Russia’s disregard for its territorial sovereignty. The Russian government has also claimed that it invaded Ukraine to protect its own sovereignty. But there are also matters of energy sovereignty in play: the development of the Nord Stream pipelines, disputes over who purchases fossil gas and from whom. The sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia were partial and left the door open for imports of Russian fossil gas and uranium. Meanwhile, concerns about an energy supply crisis in Europe benefitted a previous project to alter the EU Taxonomy to label fossil gas and nuclear power as green energy sources.

Rather than acting to speed up a full transition from fossil fuels, countries like Germany have justified their backtracking on the phasing-out of coal and nuclear energy as a way to mediate their dependence on Russian gas. This negatively impacts the prospects for climate change mitigation, exposing how traditional wars may be waged in the name of territorial sovereignty and national interests, ultimately contributing to more climate vulnerability, especially for communities that have no historical liability for these crises.

The worse the climate crisis gets, the more fragile are the conditions for countries on the periphery to adapt to incremental impacts. This, too, is a matter of sovereignty, since it connects to loss of territory and habitat, economic distress, pressure on migration, and all other subsequent losses in terms of living conditions, culture, access to food, water and energy sources, and the relationship to other species and ecosystems. As a general rule, great-power disputes lead to practices of ecological imperialism, primarily through unequal ecological exchange and extractivism.

The complexity of the polycrisis is such that traditional sovereignty claims end up perpetuating historical inequalities, with global consequences. Not only are the interests of the dominant classes put above those of workers and other marginalised communities, but geopolitical disparities and dependency relations between nations are reflected in unequal conditions to face the crises in each place, with the interests of the vulnerable in richer countries sometimes placed ahead of the interests of the vulnerable on the periphery. States with more capacity to provide access to energy will choose to do so for their own populations, even if it means turning communities elsewhere into sacrifice zones that suffer the consequences of extractivism without reaping any benefits of increased energy capacity. 

The reaffirmation of a logic of ‘first us, then the others’ works in the short-run, but adds to the systemic risks posed by polycrisis through continuing the same practices that created the crises and their vulnerabilities. The same goes for traditional developmentalist perspectives on the periphery, which claim a version of ‘finally us’ to argue for their own turn to engage in predatory extractivism, anti-refugee policies, and chauvinistic sanitary measures in order to assert their own sovereignty against imperial interference and neo-colonialism. The historical liability of others is denounced, but the ecosystemic responsibility to prevent destruction of what is left, and the need for a system of international solidarity, are deprioritised.

A system of internationalist solidarity demands more than temporary campaigns, efforts to raise awareness, and aid. The role of solidarity in internationalism is also to negotiate immediate conflicts across the globe, recognising that adverse conditions in one place may be caused by the terms of development elsewhere and by an international division of labour that, at the end of the day, implies different interests for workers in different places – sometimes interests at odds with each other, as would be the case of miners of lithium in Chile and other communities turned into sacrifice zones, workers in the electric car industry in Germany looking to keep their jobs, and workers in Canada wishing to purchase electric cars with government incentives. The contradictions in these relationships involve local and national interests of different sorts and a simple approach to the defence of sovereignty – in economic and territorial terms – fails to solve the tensions and renders less effective the campaigns of support for people affected by mining practices and people fighting for public transportation.

The more complex the global scenario gets, the more it is necessary to shift perspectives on sovereignty to focus on the continuous capacity of people across different countries, different regions. The significant risks of catastrophe posed by a combination of ecological, sanitary, economic, and political crises demands a reassessment of the meaning of sovereignty in internationalist praxis. ‘Mechanisms of solidarity’ must be developed for the provision not only of what is owed, but also what is just. This could take the form of reparations to ensure conditions for those without historical liability to take on the necessary responsibilities to tackle the polycrisis.

Reparations should include the cancellation of unjust colonial debts, since the continuous indebtedness of states on the periphery undermines their sovereignty claims – and this worsens when, in response to the polycrisis, the only option is to take on new debt to fund the construction of critical infrastructure. This is also a view of radical sustainability oriented towards establishing a better equilibrium in the relations between humans and the planet we occupy. Perpetuating the dependence on fossil fuels as a means of securing sovereignty today undermines sovereignty in the future, when conditions to transition will be harder, the polycrisis more complex, and resources ever scarcer.

The polycrisis reveals that sovereignty is not just a matter of control or dominion. It also relates to the capacity of nations and communities to stand on their own and stand together. As the stakes for humanity continue to rise in a time of catastrophe, we cannot afford a politics built on imperial or chauvinistic views of sovereignty. These views add to the crises and fail their own proponents in the long run.

1 China and other emergent powers have become bigger emitters through the years, though they are still behind Western superpowers when considering data since the 1900s.

Sabrina Fernandes - Alameda Institute

Sabrina Fernandes

Sabrina Fernandes is a sociologist and a postdoctoral fellow focused on Latin America and the Anthropocene at CALAS at the University of Guadalajara. Her current research draws from Marxist ecology to discuss just transitions and their contradictions. She was formerly an editor at Jacobin and fellow with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. Sabrina is also Senior Sesearch Advisor at Alameda.
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