Paulina Ochoa Espejo, The Time of Popular Sovereignty (PSU Press, 2011) is an interesting and innovative study of the notion of the ‘people’, because it stresses how we need to think about this notion as developing and changing through time. She argues that the ‘people’ is not a single, fixed entity, and this creates a number of tensions that need to be explored. It’s grounded in liberal political theory, but departs from what might be seen as a standard canon, and develops links with process philosophy.
This book is about the people changing in time. I will argue that we should conceive of the people as a process rather than as an aggregation of individuals. Doing so, I argue, dissolves the problem of legitimizing rule democratically as the composition of the people changes. The people conceived as a process can be a source of democratic legitimacy that moors state institutions but is compatible with surprise and innovation (p. 3).
The book also makes some interesting comments about the role of space or territory in constituting a people. Ochoa Espejo suggests that “this conception [the collection of individuals] has traditionally been tied to the notion of a territory, a place, or a ‘there’” (p. 37). Thinking about the people as a process might challenge how we think about this relation, or at least its fixity. This opens up some interesting possibilities, because the idea that a territory is fixed – that its borders are unchangeable – is a very recent innovation in political practice, dating from the early 20th century, whereas the idea that the king, emperor, state, or other political ruler is the absolute sovereign within that area (later a territory) can be traced back to roots in the late 13th century. These implications are not really worked through here, though there is the suggestion that “processes do not have well-defined edges, hence their boundaries are not clear-cut either in space or in time” (p. 165).
In a note she suggests:
To address disputed borders we need a theory of territory, which is a relatively unexplored area of political philosophy. Recently, however, there has appeared an interesting treatment of the relation of people to territory according to their perception of land and land use; see Kolers, Land, Conflict and Justice. Other political theorists have dealt with the role of space in political theory, particularly in regard to identity. On this, see Keith and Pile, Place and the Politics of Identity, and Bauböck and Rundell, Blurred Boundaries(p. 166 n. 56).
Indeed, the Kolers book has the subtitle of ‘A Political Theory of Territory’, but I found that misleading. What Kolers does, I think – and I’ve argued this at length in a review essay for Political Geography (freely available here) – is to show how conceptions of liberal political theory can be applied to an unproblematic sense of territory. While justice, rights, power, sovereignty etc. need careful conceptual discussion, my argument has long been that the engagement with the relation of these ideas to territory needs to recognise that ‘territory’ itself is complicated and contested, and not only when seen in relation to other ideas. What Kolers does is to provide a liberal justice theory of territorial issues, not a theory of territory.
Paulina organised the ‘Walls and Fences’ conference at Yale I attended in April (see my comments here), and her next project is looking more at territory and borders. I hope she develops these ideas, and that this book gets picked up by more than just political theorists – there is a lot to think about here. (The PSU Press site doesn’t list it, but there is a paperback available.) She talks about The Time of Popular Sovereignty in this interview: