Sovereignty v. neoliberalism: trial over a treasure


The treasure was probably the most valuable ever found at sea and was the object of litigation opposing two states and 25 individuals, from 2007 to 2012.

In a paper published in the journal Political Theory, Yves Winter (McGill University) and Joshua Chambers-Letson (Northwestern University) explain that Spain had to prove the ship was the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk in 1804 while on a mission for the Spanish Crown and, as a result, was a sovereign vessel, preventing anyone from claiming her. In the end, the company had to return the ship to Spain.

The authors consider this case an illustration of two overlapping and conflicting rationalities: on the one side, the neoliberal logic of capital and commerce, and on the other side, the logic of sovereign prerogative.

“The case is symptomatic of a key paradox in the current global political order,” says Yves Winter, an assistant professor of political science at McGill. “As states advance the interests of capital by pursuing neoliberal policies, they simultaneously undermine their own power.” He views the stance shared in the case by Spain, the U.S. and the Court as a “nostalgic” gesture. “That nostalgia affirms the illusion that sovereign power offers an effective alternative to neoliberalism.”


Shipwrecked Sovereignty. Neoliberalism and a Disputed Sunken Treasure Winter, J Chambers-Letson
Political Theory, 2014
Picture credit: Jacinta Lluch Valero