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Imagining a Post-sovereign Polity as a “Realistic Utopia”

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Rethinking Democracy for Post-Utopian Worlds

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The image of a large collection of separate and independent individuals conferring power on a sovereign State, even if inaccurate as a historical account of the emergence of civil order, constitutes the dominant narrative of political authority and power of our time. According to this narrative, the supreme instrument of social governance, the sovereign State, is either endorsed or endorsable as a matter of principle, by a social contract among a territorially defined collection of equal and independent persons. This narrative shapes our thinking about politics and power quite pervasively, both in reference to international relations and in reference to domestic political order, so much so that non-sovereigntist models of politics are often pre-emptively dismissed or ignored. I am especially interested in this paper to consider an alternative way of conceptualizing the internal structures of a polity, specifically how political authority is distributed and organized in the domestic sphere. I wish to engage in a form of “realistically utopian” thinking (to use Rawls’s term) to imagine a way of organizing a polity that prescinds from the notion that a single actor is the supreme source of law and order within a territory. The purpose of this exercise is less to propose a detailed blueprint for political order, than to expand our moral and political imagination by exploring forms of political life that are not contemplated by the dominant paradigm of the sovereign State. I hope to show that such forms of political life are not only imaginable but also consistent with plausible assumptions about human nature.

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  1. 1.

    One striking example is the self-description of King James I, who is reported to have said to the English Parliament on 21 March 1609, “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods” (Wootton 2003: 107). For discussions of the concept of sovereignty and its historical development, see inter alia Grimm 2015, Laski 1916, and King 2013.

  2. 2.

    Morgan (1988) offers an excellent account of this transfer, mainly in the context of Britain and the United States.

  3. 3.

    I borrow this term from Taylor 2004. In his account, a “social imaginary” is “that largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation, within which particular features of our world show up for us in the sense they have” (25).

  4. 4.

    There have been numerous historical efforts to imagine and apply polycentric, decentralized models of governance, including defences by political and legal theorists of associative and legal pluralism, e.g. Teubner 2012, Muñiz-Fraticelli 2014, Levy 2015; and attempts by political philosophers to develop a sound theoretical articulation and defence of “bottom-up,” federated or confederal accounts of political order, e.g. Ostrom 1991, Elazar 1987. The Catholic-inspired tradition of subsidiarity (see, e.g., Cahill 2021) also advocates a strong deference towards the autonomy of local associations. This essay could be considered as one among numerous possible interpretations of these intellectual traditions.

  5. 5.

    The view that a plausible version of legal and associative pluralism entails the rejection of a single authoritative mechanism for resolving social disputes across the board is shared by numerous pluralists, including Levy 2015 and Muñiz-Fraticelli 2014.


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The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of Fundación Ciudadanía y Valores Proeduca Summa S.L., Spain.

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Correspondence to David Thunder .

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Thunder, D. (2024). Imagining a Post-sovereign Polity as a “Realistic Utopia”. In: León Casero, J., Urabayen, J. (eds) Rethinking Democracy for Post-Utopian Worlds. Palgrave Studies in Utopianism. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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