Where Does the Power Come From? Of Churches and States and Worldbuilding Sovereignty

middle eastern countries in a world map

Who has the power?

When writing political intrigue—whether set in this world, a fantasy world, or a science fiction universe—this is the first question you have to be able to answer.

Who has the power—and where does that power come from?

In this post, I’m going to be looking specifically at one potential source for power in fictional worlds: Sovereignty.

1. What is sovereignty?

Sovereignty is an entity’s right to govern a specific sphere without outside interference. This sphere of influence is often a physical territory, but as we will see later, it isn’t always so.

Ever wonder why billionaires don’t hire private armies to take over countries? They used to about 400 years ago—for example, Albrecht von Wallenstein made moves behind his ruler’s back to consolidate his own power. However, that changed after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which disallowed individuals from participating in the international system apart from their ties to a state. In other words, states could interact with states, and everyone else was lesser than—and thus the birth of the modern state.

This means that sovereignty is a norm. Essentially, the people with the guns got together and said “Our people won’t smack your people as long as your people don’t smack our people” and they shook on it. Inherent in this agreement is that if you don’t have the ability to keep your people from smacking their people, then the other guys will come in and smack your people for you, as we see with the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.

As you can tell, rules and norms benefit some people while harming others. The current international order has a tendency to benefit those with the guns, as the people with the guns were the one who made it, but your fictional world doesn’t have to behave the same way. Consider, for example, Brandon Sanderson’s Cytonic. In this space-faring universe, the people who benefit are the traders who have an absolute monopoly on hyperdrive technology. Because war is bad for trade, they are also a very strict peaceful society. Consider how your own story might have different norms and how they might have come about.

2. What can you have sovereignty over?

Short answer: Religion, physical territory, intellectual property rights, and human rights are just some of the categories we see people claiming exclusive authority over today. But let’s take these one by one.

  • Religion

Religions often claim to be the sole arbiter of the truth of what exists beyond this world and as such claim spiritual authority over their followers. Depending on the organizational structure of the religion, this might grant exceptional power to the religious hierarchy.

For example, before the Treaty of Westphalia (and after it as well, somewhat), the Papacy was a major power broker in Europe due to its claim to have spiritual authority over all Christians. Your king had physical authority over you, but the Church decided where your soul went—and it often leveraged this authority to achieve its own ends. It also resulted in several extremely destructive wars ostensibly about religion (but let’s be real, it’s always about power). Europe’s strong push towards secularism and the United States’ insistence on the separation of church and state can be seen as a reaction towards this bloody history and an attempt to ensure it doesn’t happen again. However, this isn’t the case across the world, and many countries (such as Saudi Arabia) do still claim to have both spiritual and physical authority over their people.

  • Physical Territory

Here lies the nation-state’s claim to exercise sole authority over any and all goings-on within a set boundary. This includes law enforcement, international trade, and sometimes committing genocide against your own people. For a while it seemed that religion had been successfully shoved aside and this was the only source of sovereignty, but a growth in the interconnectedness of the world has shown that physical boundaries aren’t as solid as they used to be.

  • Intellectual Property Rights

In the United States, we have the norm that if you invent something, then it belongs to you – you have the right to sell it, but no one else does unless they ask your permission first. This is an individual right, but a right that is reenforced by the government (specifically, the patent office). This is also a norm that is not recognized internationally – just ask the Chinese government. And whenever you have a right that is recognized by some but not all, that plants the seeds for conflict, as will be discussed later.

  • Human Rights

While organized religion has largely lost its power in the international sphere, the concept of human rights has become increasingly important. Unlike religion, there isn’t a single entity that claims sole authority over human rights. However, entities such as the United Nations often appeal to human rights to support their mandates, as the UN otherwise does not possess much real power over its members.

3. When sovereignties clash

At the beginning of the 21st century, we still live primarily in a world that emphasizes physical territory as the boundary of sovereignty. However, current trends seem to show that this norm is changing. And what happens when overlapping spheres of sovereignty clash?

Answer: War.

In his book Modern Mercenary, Sean McFate talks about a phenomenon he terms neomedievalism, whereby sovereignty is now no longer invested solely in the state but is rather spread out over several different actors—the dissolution of sovereignty. Like the medieval period where sovereignty was split between the church and the state, now sovereignty is split between supranational organizations (organizations that incorporate entire countries, such as the EU or UN), large corporations, and states. But whenever you get overlapping claims of sovereignty—human rights versus physical territory, trade versus religion—you end up with conflict.

In the medieval era, this resulted in religious wars. Maybe in your science fiction book, it results in corporate wars, mercenaries against mercenaries as states sit back and watch. Or perhaps the church has a resurgence. One of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who has the Doctor travelling into the future and running into some soldiers. After one soldier refers to another as “bishop,” the Doctor explains to his companion that ‘the church has expanded a bit.’ And whenever you have expanding spheres of interest, you have expanding opportunities for conflict.

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As any reader knows, the heart of a story lies in the tension of conflict. Where might overlapping sovereignties come into conflict in your stories? How might you turn the norms of our world on their head in order to surprise readers with your creativity?

If you’re building an expansive universe, consider mapping out who has power over what. This can be extremely helpful, particularly if political intrigue plays a role in your story. In a later post, I’ll be explaining how the concept of neomedievalism informed the worldbuilding for Post-Third Apocalypse. Make sure to keep your eye out for it!

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