I am not sovereign
Rupert James Alison
There’s a lot of talk these days in the wellness and personal development worlds about the importance of being ‘sovereign’. The new must-have status, it seems, is ‘sovereignty’. It refers, I guess, to a reclaiming of personal power, being able to own, and fearlessly state, your own boundaries and desires. To stop others taking advantage of you. Which all sounds great. So why do I not claim, or strive, to be 'sovereign'?
Firstly, it’s to do with power. Most of the world we live in is based on a ‘power over’ model, where a few have power over the many, and use that power to their advantage. Increasing awareness of systemic oppression and privilege can bring uncomfortable recognition of ways in which we ourselves may be complicit in non-consenual power over others, or how others have power over us. Into this mix comes the notion of sovereignty. What does this word mean?
The sovereign of a country is the one who has ‘power over’ all others. Usually, the others haven’t consented to this (we don’t vote for our kings and queens). So being 'sovereign' implies a non-consensual ‘power over’ model, but where we've flipped the tables so we are now the one at the top of the power pyramid.
The wonderful writer Matthew Remski describes sovereignty, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, as ‘self-identifying as regal’. I think he makes a valid point. And being a sovereign is also a lonely position. When no one is your equal, how can you maintain healthy, authentic relationships with others? In reality, none of us is sovereign. We are all interdependent – and co-created community, cooperation and consent are vital to our wellbeing as human beings.
So for me, a more useful approach is to consider the three different types of power, as described by the writer Starhawk:
'power-over', referring to domination and control;
'power-from-within', meaning personal ability and integrity;
'power-with', our social power or influence among equals.
If we are to co-create consent culture, then rather than continuing the 'power-over' model, of being the 'sovereign', we could be supporting and encouraging both 'power-from-within' and 'power-with' as more sustainable and justice-based models of power.
Of course, those currently celebrating their 'sovereignty' often mean having sovereignty over themselves, rather than over others. But this raises further questions. Does it mean, for example that our rational mind has sovereignty over our body - or the other way round? Does our risk-taking part have sovereignty over our cautious part? Does our brave part always rule over our vulnerable part? Or vice versa? Which part of us is sovereign over all our other parts?
I contend that even at the individual level, sovereignty is not a useful model. Better for all our inner parts to be in dialogue with each other as equals, and for each of our parts to communicate and listen to each others' needs, desires and boundaries. In search of congruence and integrity, rather than 'sovereignty'. (For further observations on parts work, see this blog on self-consent.)
To be sure, most of us probably have an inner part which enjoys feeling like the exalted one, the almighty king or queen, resplendent on a throne. Who wouldn't want to experience that sometimes! But if we over-identify with this part of us, then what happens to all our other parts? And what happens to our relationships with others, if we only ever relate to them from this regal part?
Another consideration for me is that the term ‘sovereign citizens’ is used in the far right libertarian movement. These people argue that because they identify as ‘sovereign’, they have no obligations or responsibilities to anyone else or to the state, e.g. to obey the law of the land or pay their taxes. The FBI classifies some "sovereign citizen extremists" as domestic terrorists, and in a disturbing new development some QAnon conspiracy theorists are now aligning themselves with the 'sovereignty' movement.
Similarly, the 1997 book, The Sovereign Individual describes in glowing terms a chaotic and hyper-individualistic future, where communities break down entirely, and only the wealthiest and most technologically adept few thrive at all - i.e. the “sovereign individuals” (which the authors consider themselves to be, of course).
The notion of 'sovereignty' was also widely used by many Brexit supporters in the UK, to justify creating barriers to trade and other forms of cooperation with the EU, resulting in the loss of freedom and prosperity for many people on both sides. (In reality, the UK had never lost its sovereignty when it was part of the EU, as it was primarily in a 'power-with' arrangement, not a 'power-over' one.)
Of course, meanings of words can be multiple and often change with time. But when a particular word has the kinds of associations described above, I feel wary of it.
For me, the words 'sovereign' and 'sovereignty' have a slight whiff of "fuck you" about them. Of course, there are times and places where that's exactly what's needed. If a person, a group, a people or a whole nation are being oppressed, then the only way to escape that oppression might well be to reclaim their sovereignty. When oppressors won't negotiate as equals, this may be the only avenue open, at least as a first step.
So a question I would ask of those proclaiming their sovereignty, is whether doing so is a radical and liberating step, or whether they're the kind of person, group, people or country who've simply got used to always 'wearing the crown'.
The Wheel of Consent
In summary, I’m completely in favour of people reclaiming their power, their potential, their integrity, their agency, their pleasure, their voice and their choice. This is what the ‘Wheel of Consent’, which I teach, is all about. The Wheel is also a practice of 'power-from-within' and 'power-with'; rather than power-over. For me this entails a vision of working towards greater equality, by undoing our roles in both personal and systemic non-consensual power-over paradigms.
And of those who proclaim their 'sovereignty', I would ask whether they are doing so as a way of overturning oppression, or if are they simply choosing to 'self-identify as regal'.
Positionality statement: Rupert (pronouns he/him) is a white, British, cisgender, heteroflexible, middle-class man.
To find out more about the Wheel of Consent see this workshop in March.
I’m always open to feedback and comments. Feel free to message me here.
Rupert James Alison, January 2021
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