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Sunday, November 22, 2015

The End of the Nation-State

The nation-state is a modern concept fashioned in Europe and spread to the Americas and former colonies and throughout the world. It stems from divine right monarchies gathering fiefdoms to republics in the age of revolution and on to territorial countries with national identities that became nation-states chartering corporations in the industrial age.  It is a concept that shaped the modern social order and still shapes the modern mind. The divisions of Europe and the Mideast after WW1 and of the whole world after WW2 were based on the nation-state idea.

As we transition from modernity, nation-state is still a potent concept that guides the behavior of the Islamic State, the Jewish State of Israel, and former colonial territories of Africa and India. This modern concept is a fiction, as are all concepts. And fictions need to be changed to meet current times, desires, and hopes. The fiction of nation-state, I contend, is one that needs modification as we move into our postmodern age. That is if we choose to create a world without violence and cruelty and a world of general peace, prosperity, and happiness.

The state was invented in ancient times, after the agricultural revolution, as a means of governing areas by monopolizing the means of violence and thus reining in tribal conflicts. Max Weber identified two kinds of states: the patrimonial which is essentially an extension of the property of the ruler and the impersonal whereby a relatively efficient bureaucracy is established to carry out governance of the ruled. China was the first such state. Francis Fukuyama (Political Order and Political Decay) adds two other elements to a successful impersonal state: 1) the rule of law under which everyone is equal, and 2) institutions of accountability to and feedback from the governed.

The governed in the great states established by the Roman, Persian, and Islamic Empires were made up of diverse tribal, ethnic, and nationality groups and socio-economic classes, i.e. nations. Nation is a cultural idea that relates to language, art, tradition, myth, religion, values, and social identity. State is a political-economic idea that relates to governance of the many and the order by which the governed create and share in the wealth of the state.

The modern invention of nation-state would have states carved up by cultural identity and enforcing a  national identity. This cultural identity with its heroes, myths, and rituals is sometimes called the civil or public religion. This is different from the traditional religions, which we in modern times privatize into denominations separate from the secular state though they are often entries into and provide symbols for the public religion of the nation-state. In the US for instance, one can usually adhere to the American public religion by being a mainline Protestant, a Baptist, an Evangelical, a Catholic, a Jew, and a Mormon, though not yet in most places as a Muslim or an Atheist.

The industrial revolution and the invention of the corporation chartered by the state gave tremendous impetus to the nation-state concept. The subsequent globalization of the economy, the rise of transnational private, nonprofit, and public corporations, and the world wide net are pushing us to rethink it.  I suggest that we need to revisit and revise this concept, not to return to some premodern tribalism or imperialism, but to shape a world order in which people can find a source of meaning in their diverse cultures while enjoying a fair share in the wealth of the global economy under generally accepted rules.

The new book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Nations of North America, by Colin Woodward advances the notion that while North America has three states (US, Canada, Mexico), it has eleven nations, each with its own history, tradition, values, or culture which he describes. And though Woodward assigns these nations to territories, he admits that their boundaries are fuzzy. And he acknowledges that all persons within the territories designated do not have exactly the same culture. Yet he claims that in each of the eleven nations there is a predominant culture and narrative that everyone needs to come to terms with.

Global governance through some world federation of openly bounded nations seems possible only  well into the Star Trekian future. Perhaps only in a century when earthlings see the necessity of developing a Galactic Federation of Worlds. Today the United Nations is but a voluntary association of autonomous, independent states. The UN does not control the means of violence in order to end conflict among nations as a global political order for the common good. But it is a step in that direction.

My main point, however, is that the modern concept of nation-state with its chauvinist patriotism, its arrogant exceptionalism, its exclusion of aliens, its rigid boundaries, and its idolatry of flag should be reexamined. It is presently a dangerous concept that divides insiders from outsiders, incites misunderstanding and conflict, and masks brutality and violence. Can we design a political economic order that will respect diverse national cultures coexisting and interacting within that order? Our recent struggles and suffering seem to be calling for some thinking about that.





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