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Juridical Coups d’état – all over the place. Comment on “The Juridical Coup d’état and the Problem of Authority” by Alec Stone Sweet

By Wojciech Sadurski
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There is a strong temptation to take the metaphor of “coup d’état” too seriously and follow it up by showing that it is not all that accurate. Normally we speak of a coup d’état, at least in a democratic setting, when there is an illegitimate capture of the existing power structures by a group that has no mandate (normally, electoral) to rule. So the coup d’état used in its proper locus, that is, in the description of the political power-capture, has both normative and descriptive content: (1) normatively, it has usually a condemnatory color; (2) descriptively, it identifies a change of the ruling group within more-or-less unchanged authority structures. None of these ingredients applies to the intriguing and thought-provoking analysis offered by Alec Stone Sweet: (1) juridical coups d’état are clearly not condemned by him: at least he tells us that his analysis is purely descriptive rather than normative; (2) juridical coups d’état result in fundamentally altered authority structures: indeed, it is, for Stone Sweet, their main definitional feature. So taken pedantically, the metaphor of coup d’état is singularly inadequate for Stone Sweet’s purposes.

But of course, one should not be pedantic, and the temptation to labor the metaphor should be resisted: like any metaphor, it may be good in some respects and bad in others, and in one respect at least in the present discussion it is certainly good, namely that it adds a certain dramatic flavor to Stone Sweet’s analysis, thus stimulating reflection better than different, more aseptic language, would do. And yet I wish to dwell on the metaphor just for a moment because, as we know, metaphors are not innocent, and the language used may tell us something about the attitude of the speaker. It is hard to dispel the impression that Stone Sweet, notwithstanding his protests to the contrary, has a certain negative attitude towards the decisions he dubs juridical coups d’état; there is a sense of usurpation, illegitimacy and unfoundedness...