Constituent power: a genealogy

Lindsay, Adam (2017) Constituent power: a genealogy. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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That ‘the people’ is a representative claim is accepted by many democratic theorists. Many of these same theorists take constituent power to be the capacity of the rightful bearers of this title to express this claim and found a constitution. Accordingly, constituent power is understood as the ‘other’ of constituted power, a radical and self-legitimating collective will that is outside or beyond the law. Some suggest that this relationship is ‘paradoxical’, and so the appropriate task of constitutional theory is to conceive the appropriate democratic relation between the voluntarist constituent power and the constitutional form that it inaugurates. Though this has become a pivotal instrument for political and legal theorists engaging with constitutionalism, constituent power is cast too constrictively.

I argue that constituent power is not a capacity but is itself a political claim. Understood as a political claim, the concept of constituent power can be arranged in various ways. I will show how constituent power as claim within an argument can, by leaning upon a conceptual framework that draws upon the philosophical truth-function of origins and biblical Genesis, shore up, undercut or bracket out appeals to political power and authority. In addition, I show how, when conceptualised in a variety of ways, arguments employing constituent power assist in limiting and defining the identity of political collectives, and legitimising the sorts of political action in which they might engage, deepening the understanding of the normative commitments involved in what it means to invoke the name of ‘the people’.

To show this, I adopt a genealogical perspective, while drawing insights from Michael Freeden’s approach of conceptual morphology. In doing so, I place emphasis upon particular articulations over a general theory of the constituent power. By asking not what constituent power ‘is’, but what it ‘does’, I consider how various formulations of constituent power assist in organising political life through the relation between collective subjects, political origins and the symbolic order of law. This entails tracking various articulations of constituent power within arguments on authority during the English Civil War, and especially in the work of Thomas Hobbes, various practices of constitution-writing in America and France, through to its voluntarist reading in the work of Carl Schmitt, and the way in which this has been received by Antonio Negri. Far from the contemporary understanding of constituent power as a radically democratic concept, I argue that constituent power has an ambiguous history, enmeshed with political absolutism and imperialist European constitutionalism. In the final chapter, I step back from examining individual articulations of constituent power, and I examine Hannah Arendt’s contribution to the politics of founding. Arendt understood constituent power as a ‘stock phrase’ that serves as shorthand in political thinking, one that conceptualises founding within the strictures of European sovereignty. This illuminates further how constituent power works as a political claim, though one that also patterns our unconsciously political thinking, and organises our political practices within certain parameters.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Holland, Ben
Wenman, Mark
Keywords: constituent power, political theory, political philosophy
Subjects: J Political science > JA Political science (General)
J Political science > JC Political theory
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Politics and International Relations
Item ID: 43820
Depositing User: Lindsay, Adam
Date Deposited: 13 Dec 2017 04:40
Last Modified: 14 Dec 2017 08:22

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