Sovereignty is the exclusive right to complete political control over an area of governance, people, or oneself. A sovereign is the supreme lawmaking authority, subject to no other.
The source or justification of sovereignty ("by God" or "by people") must be distinguished from its exercise by branches of government. In democratic states, sovereignty is in theory held by the people. This is known as popular sovereignty; it may be exercised directly, as in a popular assembly, or, more commonly, indirectly through the election of representatives to government. This is known as a representative democracy, a system of government currently used in most western nations and former colonies. Popular sovereignty also exists in other forms, such as in constitutional monarchies, usually identical in political reality as in the Commonwealth Realms. Systems of representative democracy can also be mixed with other methods of government, for instance the use of referenda in many countries.
A more formal distinction is whether the law is held to be sovereign, which constitutes a true state of law: the letter of the law (if constitutionally correct) is applicable and enforceable, even when against the political will of the nation, as long as not formally changed following the constitutional procedure. Strictly speaking, any deviation from this principle constitutes a revolution or a coup d'état, regardless of the intentions.
In constitutional and international law, the concept of sovereignty also pertains to a government possessing full control over its own affairs within a territorial or geographical area or limit, and in certain context to various organs possessing legal jurisdiction in their own chief, rather than by mandate or under supervision. Determining whether a specific entity is sovereign is not an exact science, but often a matter of diplomatic dispute.
History of the concept of sovereignty
Basileus is the Greek word for "king," who has auctoritas, the Latin root for authority, which is to be distinguished from simple imperium, also a Latin concept of power, akin to that retained by an archon the ancient Greek equivelent to something like a "magistrate".
Jean Bodin (1530-1596) is considered to be the modern initiator of the concept of sovereignty, with his 1576 treatise Six Books on the Republic which described the sovereign as a ruler beyond human law and subject only to the divine or natural law. He thus predefined the scope of the divine right of kings, stating "Sovereignty is a Republic's absolute and perpetual power". Sovereignty is absolute, thus indivisible, but not without any limits: it exercises itself only in the public sphere, not in the private sphere. It is perpetual, because it does not expire with its holder (as auctoritas does). In other words, sovereignty is no one's property: by essence, it is inalienable.
These characteristics would decisively shape the concept of sovereignty, which we can find again in the social contract theories, for example, in Rousseau's (1712-1778) definition of popular sovereignty, which only differs in that he considers the people to be the legitimate sovereign. Likewise, it is inalienable - Rousseau condemned the distinction between the origin and the exercise of sovereignty, a distinction upon which constitutional monarchy or representative democracy are founded. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu are also key figures in the unfolding of the concept of sovereignty.
Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) defined sovereignty as "the power to decide the state of exception", in an attempt, argues Giorgio Agamben, to counter Walter Benjamin's theory of violence as radically disjoint from law. Georges Bataille's heterodox conception of sovereignty, which may be said to be an "anti-sovereignty", also inspired many thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida, Agamben or Jean-Luc Nancy.