In addition to a book theorizing the contemporary trend of building walls, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is also a contribution to the political theory of sovereignty. It joins a number of other theorists who have sought to define this concept, most notably Giorgio Agamben, who had written two influential books on the topic before Brown published hers. These were Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995) and State of Exception (2005). Comparing the works of these two theorists adds more depth to the definition of “sovereignty” at the same time that it brings into relief the stakes of Brown’s argument.
Agamben’s starting point is a concept coined by Carl Schmitt called “the state of exception.” We already saw Brown discuss Schmitt’s book on The Nomos of the Earth, in which international order derives from the planetary distribution of land. Schmitt also theorized national sovereignty by defining the sovereign as the one who can declare a “state of exception.” In this state, the rule of law is suspended without being overthrown. The point is that only the sovereign can make this decision that the nation is in a state of emergency.
Agamben notes an increasing trend in governments in which the declaration of national emergencies are becoming the norm, rather than an “exception.” For instance, in response to terrorism, the United States has declared a perpetual state of exception which also allows for the narrowing of constitutional rights. The rights of citizens are diminished because of the declaration of an emergency requiring it. Agamben says this is essentially authoritarian. Indeed, he notices that Nazi Germany came into being largely through declaring a state of emergency that allowed the state to have absolute power:
The entire Third Reich can be considered a state of exception that lasted twelve years. In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system. (The State of Exception, 2).
In declaring a state of emergency, the state revokes citizens' rights in the name of preserving the state itself; supposedly, citizens must temporarily forgo their rights in order to secure them in the future. Thus, according to Agamben, sovereignty easily leads to totalitarianism, because the sovereign power can also suspend the law in the name of which it governs.
Brown shares with Agamben the belief that exceptional threats like terrorism are often used as an excuse to suspend rights and thus harm the citizens that it is supposedly protecting. She is particularly interested in the ways in which racial and religious discrimination is intensified, as for instance in racial profiling of people of Arabic descent in the United States. However, her account departs somewhat from a sense that this is sovereign overreach, or a sign of sovereigns becoming all-powerful and totalitarian. Rather, her argument is that states exercise this kind of power because they are compensating for having actually lost power. For Agamben, the threat of terrorism is used by states as an excuse to consolidate power. For Brown, terrorism shows the increasing extent to which nations are actually irrelevant in global politics. Thus, states have lost sovereignty, rather than consolidating it.