Two conflicting paradigms

Perhaps the reference to Sieyès as the original theorist of national sovereignty is best traced to the work of the influential French constitutional scholar Raymond Carré de Malberg (1861-1935) (see Chapter 10). Carré de Malberg claimed that Sieyès “defined representative government, at the beginning of the new era of public law, with an accuracy and precision that has not been exceeded since then” (Carré de Malberg, 2003, II, p. 257). It is in Sieyès’ ideas on national representation, which he opposed to direct democracy, that Carré de Malberg saw the origins of the national sovereignty paradigm. In contrast to Carré de Malberg’s reading of Sieyès, today Sieyès is a prominent reference in radical democratic conceptions of popular sovereignty as constituent power (e.g. Kalyvas, 2005). According to this approach, Sieyès is part of a tradition of revolutionary democratic understanding of popular power coming from below. Which one is the real Sieyès then?

Historically, Sieyès’ reception has been highly diverse. Sieyès significantly contributed to the continuous debate on new political forms during the revolutionary decade. Moreover, the author of the infamous pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état? influenced subsequent thinking about democracy and democratic founding for two centuries onwards. His legacy carried over into classical nineteenth-century French liberalism, the constitutional controversies of the twentieth century, and twenty-first-century debates over democracy. Having lived till 1836, Sieyès was a direct witness to all major events of the revolutionary years in France: the Tennis Court Oath in 1789, the execution of the king in 1793, the establishment of the Directory in year III, and the coup of 18 Brumaire (see Laquièze, 2008). Forgotten during some periods, Sieyès’ ideas have undergone several revivals, each of which has accentuated different aspects of his thought in light of the pressing debates of the time. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, debates that engaged with Sieyès included those over individual rights and the limitation of power (the Coppet Group: Madame de Staël and Benjamin


I am assuming conceptual interconnectedness between ‘freedom’ and ‘sovereignty’.

Constant), national sovereignty (Adhémar Esmein, Léon Duguit, and Raymond Carré de Malberg), and constituent power (Carl Schmitt) (Laquièze, 2008). The scope of contemporary readings of Sieyès that are informed by the revived interest in democratic founding and constituent power is remarkable. From revolutionär)' thinker to theorist of constitutional limits, Sieyès exists in contemporary thinking in a variety of manifestations.

Not only is this diversity of interpretations indicative of the richness of Sieyès’ thought, but it also gestures to a paradox at the heart of his theory of representation: While regarded as one of the first theorists of modern representation, some of his ideas appear to be anti-representational. Acclaiming the new revolutionär)' potential of the French nation, he says that “if a nation had to wait for a positive mode of being in order to become a nation, it would simply never have had an existence” (Sieyès, 2003, p. 136). Statements like this contribute to a line of thought that suggests that representation does not create the nation, which already exists, but only the national government. Yet, in other passages of Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état?, he asserts that the nation is “a body of associates living under a common law, represented by the same legislature” and that “a nation is made one by virtue of a common system of law and a common representation” (ibid., pp. 97-99). This would seem to suggest that he believes that the nation cannot speak other than through its representatives. These different inflections within his thinking have, in turn, found their home in different interpretations. On the one hand, because of Sieyès’ extensive analysis of representation and the way in which he posits it at the centre of his politics, many assert that he follows the Hobbesian tradition in his argument about the nation (Forsyth, 1981; 1987; Hont, 1994). On the other hand, some fundamental claims made by Sieyès are ultimately anti-Hobbesian (Clavreul, 1982; Jaume, 1986; Laquièze, 2008). Consider, for example, the claim that “the nation exists prior to everything; it is the origin of everything. Its will is always legal. It is the law itself’ or

a nation is independent of all forms and, however it may will, it is enough for its will to be made known for all positive law to fall silent in its presence, because it is the source and supreme master of all positive law.

(Sieyès, 2003, p. 138)

These claims, together with a powerful statement equating the Third Estate with the entire nation, cast Sieyès’ theory of representation in a paradoxical light. They raise the question of whether Sieyès conceives of representation as the fundamental way of understanding political relations or whether the nation as a political agent can also be conceived and express itself in a pre-representational, direct way. The central problem is, in short, whether the nation is formed by the representative will from above or is expressing itself directly from below.

My interpretative approach departs from this more common debate on Sieyès’ idea of representation. While, within this debate, the problem pertains to how the nation expresses itself (via representatives or directly), I am concerned with what is being expressed. While I too believe that the concept of representation is central for Sieyès, I choose to shift the focus of my enquiry away from the either/ or of representation versus the direct will of the people and frame my interpretation in terms of immanence and transcendence. My reading in the present chapter offers a division of Sieyès’ ideas into these two paradigms. Representation remains important for both paradigms since, for Sieyès, the idea of representation is fundamental. That is to say, what changes in his thought is not how he conceives the national will being expressed - either directly or by means of representation. Rather, what changes is what he thinks is being represented (and by whom) - immanent relations that already exist in a society or transcendent norms that should shape an ideal nation. In this chapter, I do not want to construct a system out of these paradigms. Rather, I want to think of them as two archetypes of thought that are both present in how we think about democracy today.

One final remark is due about the concept of sovereignty itself. I read Sieyès with regard to the tradition of national sovereignty that is central to the Belgian case analysed in this book. However, it is necessary to note that Sieyès himself was critical of the concept of sovereignty and almost never used it in his own work (see Rubinelli, 2016). He associated the term ‘sovereignty’ with the tradition of absolutist rule that he was trying to debunk with his work. In his mind, ‘sovereignty’ meant an absolute undivided highest power that was in conflict with the new liberal ideas of national representation that he proclaimed. Sieyès’ conceptions of representation and constituent power were directed against the personal power of the monarch. For Sieyès, ascribing sovereignty to any group of people would mean advocating for a form of tyranny. Later in the nineteenth century, ‘sovereignty’ came to also mean an attribute of an abstract rather than a concrete agent - a nation rather than a monarch. This is not yet the case for Sieyès. Yet, even if he is critical of a particular meaning of the term ‘sovereignty’, Sieyès remains a recurring reference in discussions of sovereignty. Ideas that he framed in different concepts, e.g. constituent power, have enriched the meaning of various conceptions of sovereignty and continue to do so today.

Revolutionary immanence: Constituent power of the oppressed

Born in 1748, Abbé Sieyès pursued a religious career until 1788, when Louis XVI called for the convocation of the Estates-General in Paris. After publishing his renowned pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état?, Sieyès was elected a representative of the Third Estate to the Estates-General, which was soon to become the National Constituent Assembly. Sieyès’ pamphlet not only changed the course of debates at the time but also inspired the eventual revolutionary turn of events. Moreover, modern political categories continue to bear the mark of his innovative contribution (Guilhaumou, 2002). Yet, before developing his famous insights in Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état?, Sieyès had already experimented with big ideas in his pre-revolutionary studies in metaphysics and political economy. During his education at the Sorbonne, he was influenced by, among others, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Adam Smith, and the school of the physiocrats. In my reading of Sieyès, I trace two lines of arguments from his pre-revolutionary writings - metaphysical (what Guilhaumou calls Sieyès’ “métaphysique du moi" [Guilhaumou, 1999, pp. 513-535]) and economic - that influence Sieyès’ thought in Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état?, especially the idea of constituent power. It is these ideas that I frame as the immanent paradigm.

Living force of society

Guilhaumou (1997) has pointed to the particular influence of Leibniz’ monadol-ogy and his principle of individuation on Sieyès’ Le cahier métaphysique (1773-1776). It is Leibniz’s philosophy of physics and his conception of vis via, or living force, that appears in Sieyès’ thought as force vive. Leibniz, in the famous controversy with Sir Isaac Newton, rejected Newton’s first law of motion, according to which an object will obey the law of inertia, i.e. an object in motion stays in motion and an object at rest stays at rest unless it is acted upon by another force. In Newton’s mechanistic system, the understanding of motion is predicated upon a causal understanding of movement, i.e. movement is conceived as only caused by another force. In Specimen Dynamicum, Leibniz (1695/1989) develops a concept of vis viva, or living force, the earlier formulation of what we know now as the principle of the conservation of energy, according to which the energy of a system is not created or destroyed but is transformed within a system. Simply put, contrary to Newton, movement within a system does not presuppose an external cause; a system contains the constant principle of movement within itself. No outside transcendent source of motion and energy needs to be posited in order to account for the principle of movement of things - the cause of the movement is immanent in the moving thing.

In Sieyès’ thought, this idea of living force reappears as force vive And is used in analysing the dynamics of a society. In Letters to the Economists, Sieyès writes that a society has an immanent force of its own:

Society, independently of the power of nature which produces goods, must have a living force coproductive of wealth, and it is necessary that the elements of that force, united by society, produce more than they would if they remained isolated. The sum of the labors of all citizens forms the living force. If there is a citizen who refuses his portion of activity, he renounces his rights; no man may enjoy the labor of others without exchange. General labor is therefore the foundation of society, and the social order is nothing but the best possible order of labor.

(Sieyès, 1985, p. 32)

Sieyès’ theory of society rests on the analogy between a physical conception of living force and the economic theory of labour. Sieyès (2003, p. 95) argued


In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke articulated it as “bodies operate by impulse and nothing else” (Essay, Il.viii. 11).

extensively against the economic theory of the physiocrats who claimed that economic value is derived exclusively from agricultural labour. Instead, Sieyès considered that value derives from labour in general, which encompassed not only agricultural labour but also the labour of industrial and service workers as well as that labour used in social reproduction. This idea of general labour as a living force resembles Marx’s later conception of living labour {lebendige Arbeit'). Similarly to Marx, living labour for Sieyès produces not only value but also social connections and sociability. In other words, this immanent force organises social relations before and prior to any external intervention.

This account of immanent social force can also be found in Sieyès’ Qu’est-ee que le tiers-état?, where, in attempting to give a definition to the nation, he famously excludes the privileged classes from the definition of the nation for “a class like that is surely foreign to a nation because of its idleness” (ibid., p. 97). Sieyès’ pamphlet is revolutionary because it exposes how there is a conflict between existing social relations and the political system of the Régime. This idea allowed Sieyès to formulate the revolutionär}' definition of the Third Estate as an entity that becomes a political subject because it performs “the activities that support society” (ibid., p. 95) but lacks political rights. For Sieyès, the Third Estate constitutes the living force of the social body because it performs the labour required for its subsistence, but the dominant system of social organisation does not recognise the Third Estate as equal and oppresses it. Sieyès argumentation in this pamphlet is operating within what I call the ‘immanent paradigm’ as it is built on highlighting the conflict between the existing immanent dynamic of relations in a society and a system of domination that ignores this built-in vitality.

Constituent power

Within this immanent paradigm, the emerging political subject can be conceived on the basis of existent social relations that are not reflected in the current political system. In the pamphlets of 1788 and 1789, the theme of the contradiction between social reality and political inequality is apparent. This is expressed in Sieyès’ view that constituting a new people {un peuple neuf) requires first getting rid of all the privileges separating people. He explores this point in his piece Essai sur les privileges, printed in 1788 and reprinted in 1789:

It is the essence, the characteristic, of privilege to place the possessor of it beyond the boundaries of common right. [...] [People] seem ignorant that their property, thus increased, with all the additions which a new spirit of


“Labor not as an object, but as activity; not as itself value, but as the living source of value” (Marx, 1857/1993, p. 296); “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the laborer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has purchased of him” (Marx, 1867/1981, p. 342).

industry has been able to accumulate in a social state, is in reality their own, and could never be considered as the gift of an extrinsic power. [...] The grant of any exclusive privilege to any person with respect to that which belongs to all would be to wrong the whole community for the sake of an individual; which is an idea at once the most unjust and the most absurd.

(Ibid., pp. 70-71)

This point shows that privileges exist above the law (common or positive) because they operate as if no law can regulate them. While privileges can be instituted in the law itself, e.g. by legally establishing the division of society into social orders, privileges can also function tacitly as “the deplorable effect of long servitude on the human mind” (ibid., p. 70).

Having noted that the Third Estate constitutes the entire nation based on the living force of labour and that the unjust system of existing privileges oppresses the Third Estate, Sieyès can introduce his famous idea of pouvoir constituant

The nation exists prior to everything; it is the origin of everything. Its will is always legal. It is the law itself. [...] The first in order of precedence will be the constitutional laws. These laws are said to be fundamental, not in the sense that they can be independent of the national will, but because bodies that can exist and can act only by way of these laws cannot touch them. In each of its parts a constitution is not the work of a constituted power but a constituent power.

(Ibid., p. 136)

Even though Sieyès does not spend much time defining the concept of constituent power, the concept has become influential in democratic and constitutional theory. While there is much debate around the meaning of the concept, ‘constituent power’ generally expresses the intuition that the people themselves should be the authors of the basic rules by which they are governed. Sieyès clearly makes this argument when he asserts that the unprivileged Third Estate can speak for the entire nation as the unjust laws imposed from above have been oppressing them for too long. In other words, in Sieyès’ immanent paradigm, the exercise of constituent power by extraordinary representatives frames and expresses the grievances of an oppressed group and aims to change the dominant social and political order. Having made this argument for what I call revolutionary immanence, Sieyès confronts the question of how to combine in thought and in practice the assertion of the revolutionary potential of the people and the organisation of the new political system.

Antonio Negri, the well-known Marxist theorist of constituent power, acknowledges Sieyès for being the first to introduce labour as an exclusive theme in the discussion of constituent power (Negri, 2009, p. 212). For Negri, Sieyès’ economic definition of society shapes the content of his other concepts, e.g. constituent power and representation. According to Negri, Sieyès represents society as “a laborious, unified and compact whole, standing on the social work organized by the bourgeoisie, and whose development is obstructed by the contradiction between labor and public functions, on the whole usurped by the aristocracy” (ibid.). Yet, Negri is critical of Sieyès for he believes that Sieyès’ concept of labour and hence his conception of constituent power is inherently conservative. For Negri himself, constituent power is a concept that reflects class struggle and, thus, the transformation of social relations. For Sieyès, a new political order should conserve already existing labour relations rather than change them. Hence, Negri concludes, Sieyès’ representative notion of constituent power prevents and suppresses actual revolutionary socio-economic change (ibid., p. 214).

Yet, Sieyès’ immanent paradigm does justify revolutionary transformative action insofar as it allows for the transformation of the old oppressive system into a regime animated by a new conception of the people. The difference between Negri’s and Sieyès’ understandings of transformation lies in the fact that Sieyès does not advocate for direct action. Like Negri, Sieyès sees the foundation of transformative action as existing immanently in society; unlike Negri, he understands this action as representative in nature:

Citizens who appoint representatives renounce and must renounce making laws themselves; they do not have a particular will to impose. If they dictated their wills, France would not be a representative state anymore, it would be a democratic state. The people, I repeat it, in a country that is not a democracy (and France cannot be a democracy), the people cannot speak, cannot act other than through their representatives.

  • (Archivesparlementaires de 1787à 1860, pp.
  • 594-595)

Nadia Urbinati has framed Sieyès as a theorist of the nation of electors; unlike Girondists such as Marquis de Condorcet, he did not conceive of elements necessary for a participatory democracy (Urbinati, 2006). It was Sieyès’ anti-federalist position and praise of representation that made Carré de Malberg frame him as the first theorist of national sovereignty. While Sieyès does advocate for representation over direct action, his deeper concern is the exact nature of this representation: what should be represented and by whom? Once he uncovers the idea of the revolutionär}' principle immanent in society, he starts questioning who can embody and exercise this principle to transform society. It is in respect to this questioning that one can single out a transition period in Sieyès’ thought in which he shifts from the immanent to the transcendent paradigm.

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