The Myths of the Nation-State

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Commentaries on geopolitical developments often seem to start from a classical understanding of the nation-state, which is based on the convergence of central government, the idea of cultural-social unity and a resource-based economy. This idea is a nineteenth-century construction that no longer corresponds to reality: people are no longer simply tied to a country; information, the crude oil of this time, is infinitely divisible; and the energy itself is increasingly infinitely renewable. This does not mean that the nation-state will disappear, but we do have to look for an understanding of the nation-state that fits the fluidity of contemporary economic and geopolitical life.

Countries are not persons. They don’t have a brain and they can’t think, they don’t have a mouth and can’t speak, they don’t have limbs and therefore can’t act. Yet many pretend that they are. America has decided to do something, the Netherlands thinks something else, China acts in a certain way, Germany has chosen its course.

You see this personification of countries especially with experts, journalists and commentators when they speak and write about geopolitical issues. Governments of countries are seen as ‘strong’ if they seem to speak with one mouth, while countries that don’t do so are considered ‘weak’. It is usually Europe, ‘who’ is the considered to be the loser, compared to the massive blocs of the US and China.

There are many reasons for being suspicious of this type of analysis. The US is designed to be an incoherent whole, so that the government can never get too strong. The exception is its military power, where the government is allowed to intervene so to outcompete other countries.

The decisiveness with which China is setting up major economic and technological projects is usually contrasted with the sloth of decision-making here. But I think such projects are not so much an expression of unity, but are necessary to ensure unity. There is no trust in leaders or institutions, but technology and planning keep things together.

However, what bothers me most about this kind of analysis, are the underlying ideas of what a country should be. The commentators who assume a unitary state appear to be stuck sometime in the nineteenth century: the era when nation-states were formed, in which the nation-state was seen as the destiny of a community linked by language and geographic territory and in which shared history of ‘people’ provided a cultural identity and a moral unity. The fact that this unity was only invented in retrospect and that language was only standardized after the boundaries had been drawn did little to diminish the ideology of a national identity.

Countries are not persons. They have no brain and cannot think, they have no mouth and cannot speak, they have no limbs and therefore cannot act. Yet many pretend that it is. America does this, the Netherlands thinks that, China thinks this way, Germany does that.

You see this personification of countries especially in experts, journalists and commentators when they speak and write about geopolitical issues. Very quickly, governments of countries are seen as “strong” if they seem to speak with one mouth, while countries that don’t would be “weak”. The piss is often Europe, which would be weak against the massive blocs of the US and China.

There are many arguments for suspicious of this type of analysis. The US is designed to stick together like loose sand, so that the government can never get too strong. The exception is military power that is exercised in other countries, where the government is allowed to intervene.

The decisiveness with which China is setting up major economic and technological projects is then contrasted with the sloppiness of decision-making here. But I think such projects are not so much an expression of coherence, but are necessary to ensure coherence. There is no trust in leaders or institutions, but technology and planning keep things together.

What bothers me most about this kind of analysis, however, is the underlying ideas of what a country should be. The commentators who assume a unitary state have stuck with their analyzes sometime in the nineteenth century: the time when nation-states were formed, where the nation-state was seen as the destiny of a community linked by language and geographic territory and where the shared history of ‘peoples’ provided a cultural identity and a moral unity. That unity was only invented in retrospect and that language was only standardized after the boundary.

This traditional idea of ​​the nation-state is highly reminiscent of the family, this other social constellation that was perfected in the nineteenth century. The family consisting of father, who like a king cared for his wife and children, like a king cared for his subjects like a father.

The nineteenth-century family was represented outside the house by the father, the man of the house. He was able to enter public life. There he held a job and was allowed to vote. Only the man was expected to be able to act rationally. Wife and children stayed at home − locked up.

We now think this is retarded. Thank goodness. But when it comes to politics, this idea is still reproduced. The political leader is the one who is allowed to ‘go outside’ to represent the interests of the country. It is no coincidence that the state is presented as a ‘household’.

In the geopolitical game, a country is supposed to be represented by one person, with a few ministers and diplomats as ventriloquists. Countries are independent, sovereign. Within the borders citizens and politicians are allowed to speak with many mouths, like the children at home, outside they must be quiet and leave the floor to the father or the monarch or president. Only in this way autonomous sovereignty can be protected.

This frame gives rise to a zero sum game. Territory can only belong to one country. Nation states must therefore constantly be aware of other land grabbing. This forces these nation-states outwardly to monism. If you don’t act like the nineteenth-century father, if you can’t cope with public, geopolitical life, then someone else will take your house.

The emergence of nation states has been a long and contingent process. A process that you can describe most concisely as the combination of the military power of the dynastic rulers with the economic power of the cities. In the Middle Ages there were numerous royal houses in Europe, where power was connected with the land owned by the monarch. War and inbreeding created ever more powerful royal houses. At the same time, cities developed hubs of trade and industry, with money becoming concentrated in these cities. This was the money that the rulers needed to pay for their military operations. The monarchs imposed taxes on wealthy citizens, who demanded more and more participation to the point that monarchs were replaced by democratically elected governments that came to controlled the unitary state. Nonetheless, this centralized government is still about collecting and distributing tax money and about the monopoly on violence so that citizens can be protected from each other while the boundaries can be guarded.

The economic and political role of land has changed. Where in the Middle Ages the land itself was the essence of power, it came to concern the natural reserves that a country could provide. Over time, the emphasis came to lie to the resources that were under the ground. Grain, livestock, pelts and timber have been replaced by ores, oil and gas. Soil treasures have become a determining factor in the prosperity of a state, and the military power of such a state is not the protection of the land itself, but the protection of the economic resources found under that land.

The resource economy has entered into a triangular relationship with the practice of a central administrative apparatus and the idea of ​​cultural unity. This trinity has come to determine our understanding of the nation-state and the geopolitical relations between those nation-states.

But the reality of the nineteenth and twentieth century is no longer the reality of today. Raw materials are still important, of course, but today’s economy is mainly about information and knowledge. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it, the economy has become ‘fluid’ limited only by the speed of light − literally, because information can be spread around the world via fiber optics at that speed.

Economic power is no longer located in fixed locations such as industrial areas, mines and ports, but in servers and offices that you can place anywhere in the world. More and more energy is no longer obtained from stuff that a number of countries happen to have underground, but it comes from renewable sources such as the wind and the sun. Money is not a salary that you receive in an envelope, and it is not limited by a supply of gold hidden somewhere in a safe. You do not make it by turning on the money presses, but by pressing an enter key. It is a virtual unit whose stock can be increased indefinitely.

The economic power still resides in cities, but those cities seem less and less embedded in the structure of a single nation-state. Instead, cities have become part of an international network. Cities are business centers in which the different infrastructures of telecommunication, communication, services and offices come together. Well-trained professionals work in the cities who use the same computer programs all over the world and who communicate in English. Cities are more important to these professionals than countries. You’re going to London, not to England; you’re going to Berlin, not to Germany. Not only has the economy become fluid, workers have also become nomads, not tied any longer to a specific location.

The geopolitical consequences of the liquid economy are hardly appreciated. It is clear that cyber warfare has replaced classic forms of warfare and espionage, but it remains unclear what the object of warfare will be in the future. Territorial war does not make sense when it comes to knowledge and information. How can you create a monopoly on these?

There is a lot of thinking going on about the consequences of the energy transition for traditional oil companies, but much less about its geopolitical consequences. It seems as if states are mainly concerned with protecting their interests, but it is not only the raw materials that will change in the energy transition, but it will also be the interests and it can be expected that the very character of the states will also change. Not that I think the state will disappear, as this still is the appropriate structure that allows the efficient management of infrastructures and institutions, but it will be a different kind of state.

I don’ t know how states will change. I can’t make predictions here. But at least we can deal with the moral implications of a liquid world. The idea of ​​national destiny is hard to maintain when borders between countries become diffuse and a nomadic life in a global economy has become normal.

It is important to emphasize that people can identify with a community, which provides solidarity and a moral compass, but there is no reason to believe that a shared history has to rely on the nation-state. On the contrary, the past has shown that such identification is extremely dangerous. Such a community is quickly presented as a singular ‘people’, a group of people who share a history and a destiny. Those who do not belong to that ‘people’ have no chance of ever being included and being admitted, and they will not be allowed to say anything about the values ​​and practices that are used. Numerous exclusion mechanisms are thus maintained and legitimized.

A community is also not automatically based on language. Of course people share language, but as mentioned above, we are also able to speak other languages. Usually, that’s a shaky form of English, but that’s good enough to bond with a person who doesn’t share your native language and your history. In this way we are enabled to get to know new worlds and new realities.

Compare this with reading translated books. There are always aspects that get ‘lost in translation’, but this loss is incomparable to the enormous richness you gain by being able to read all the books in the world instead of just those written in your own language.

Communities are always complex, they consist of networks of overlapping and changing communities. As individuals we are able to orient ourselves towards many different communities. We have a huge range of loyalties running from our family, the company we work for, the football club we are fans of, the country we live in, the city we move to, the church we attend, the party we vote for, down to the whole global population. We constantly switch from one loyalty to another, often without realizing so. This implies that it would be sensible to replace the starting point of moral unity by a pluralistic starting point that fits the fluid contemporary world.

This also implies that we have to distance ourselves from a rigid conception of central government. The coincidence of this government with a particular community to which individuals are loyal can’t be assumed any longer, there are several layers of government linked to a patchwork of jurisdictions and electorates. Again, we must get rid of the idea that pluralism is an act of weakness, that strong leaders are politicians who pretend to be the singular personification of a country.

To me, a strong state is a state in which there is thinking taking place about its new role, instead of persevering in defunct political-economic dogmas. Political leaders must ask themselves how the geopolitical game should be played when the most important raw materials can no longer be found in the soil. It doesn’t make much sense to be playing a zero-sum game when information is infinitely divisible and energy is eternally renewable. States must learn to play this game as if they were cities − as Benjamin Barber describes in his book If Mayors Ruled the World −, they should look at how competition can lead to an innovative climate and how cooperation can lead to mutual benefit.

States can no longer be seen as if is a family, they are not communities that convey a shared identity. There are no blood ties between citizens, but there is a network of imagined relationships, using all kinds of criteria: language, history, religion, origin, interests, etc.

Not that it is easy to develop a pluralistic community model. The first problem is that democratic ideas usually start from a single political community. The identification of an individual citizen with such a political community enables civic spirit and meaningful political participation. This identification has a strong emotional component, individuals feel connected to the political community. It is not without reason that I described above that there is a close link between traditional views of the nation state and the family, they are connections that nurture emotional connections. Connections which allow you to share your pain or your joy. Such an emotional identification becomes much more difficult when you’re dealing with a multitude of communities.

Just look at the difference between the national and the European parliament. It’s not just about knowing the names of your country’s top politicians, you also feel involved with them. You feel happy when your political party does well in the elections, you are ashamed of the statements of a politician who says disgusting things, none of that is the case with the faceless parliamentarians in Brussels or Strasbourg.

An attitude that suits us has not really developed yet, but the European Union is a salient example, as Bruno Latour also shows. It is far from perfect, but it is a political context that effectively enables us to work together, to travel, to make decisions, to respect differences, to articulate similarities, and so on. A reality that has become so normal for many that we no longer even realize it.

A bigger challenge lies elsewhere. The globalized economy with its fluid borders also leads to victims: those who depend on the traditional economy. People who depend for their income on the location where they work, who largely derive their identity from the environment where they live. People who do not live or work in the ‘old economy’. And obviously there are many of these people.

They should not be told to re-educate themselves or just adjust to the new age. This is a kind of paternalism that assumes that people have consciously chosen their circumstances and can reconsider their choice without loss. Starting points that are not only unrealistic but also fail from a moral perspective. It would be better to think about how the loss of stability, of opportunities, of identity can be compensated. We must show solidarity.

The catch-22 here is that it is precisely the nation state that is ideally suited to redistribute resources. Compensating for those who lose because the traditional nation-state is disappearing should be done by that same nation-state. Such a redistribution again assumes that a group of people show solidarity with the community as a whole. I can’t yet develop a coherent imagine of the nation-state 2.0, but it seems to me that we should first say goodbye to the nineteenth-century nation-state as a guiding ideal and investigate how pluralistic principles can be made actionable and liveable.

Further reading:

Barber, B. R. (2013). If mayors ruled the world: dysfunctional nations, rising cities: Yale University Press.

Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Polity, Cambridge.

Latour, B. (2018). Down to earth: Politics in the new climatic regime: John Wiley & Sons.

Poggi, G. (1978). The development of the modern state : a sociological introduction. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

 

 

 

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