The demise of the nation state
After decades of globalisation, our political system has become obsolete – and spasms of resurgent nationalism are a sign of its irreversible decline. By Rana Dasgupta
France “narrowly escaped a heart attack” in last year’s elections, but the country’s leading daily feels this has done little to alter the “accelerated decomposition” of the political system. In neighbouring Spain, El País goes so far as to say that “the rule of law, the democratic system and even the market economy are in doubt”; in Italy, “the collapse of the establishment” in the March elections has even brought talk of a “barbarian arrival”, as if Rome were falling once again. In Germany, meanwhile, neo-fascists are preparing to take up their role as official opposition, introducing anxious volatility into the bastion of European stability.
Europe, of course, invented the nation state: the principle of territorial sovereignty was agreed at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The treaty made large-scale conquest difficult within the continent; instead, European nations expanded into the rest of the world.
By the end of 19th century, European nations had acquired uniform attributes still familiar today – in particular, a set of fiercely enforced state monopolies (defence, taxation and law, among others), which gave governments substantial mastery of the national destiny. In return, a moral promise was made to all: the development, spiritual and material, of citizen and nation alike. Spectacular state-run projects in the fields of education, healthcare, welfare and culture arose to substantiate this promise.
Almost all those nations emerged in the 20th century from the Eurasian empires. It has become de rigueur to despise empires, but they have been the “normal” mode of governance for much of history. The Ottoman empire, which lasted from 1300 until 1922, delivered levels of tranquillity and cultural achievement that seem incredible from the perspective of today’s fractured Middle East.
Empires were not democratic, but were built to be inclusive of all those who came under their rule. It is not the same with nations, which are founded on the fundamental distinction between who is in and who is out – and therefore harbour a tendency toward ethnic purification. This makes them much more unstable than empires, for that tendency can always be stoked by nativist demagogues.
Today’s great engines of wealth creation are distributed in such a way as to elude national taxation systems (94% of Apple’s cash reserves are held offshore; this $250bn is greater than the combined foreign reserves of the British government and the Bank of England), which is diminishing all nation states, materially and symbolically.
As new local and transnational political currents become more powerful, the nation state’s rigid monopoly on political life is becoming increasingly unviable. Nations must be nested in a stack of other stable, democratic structures – some smaller, some larger than they – so that turmoil at the national level does not lead to total breakdown. The EU is the major experiment in this direction, and it is significant that the continent that invented the nation state was also the first to move beyond it.
Citizenship is itself the primordial kind of injustice in the world. It functions as an extreme form of inherited property and, like other systems in which inherited privilege is overwhelmingly determinant, it arouses little allegiance in those who inherit nothing. Many countries have made efforts, through welfare and education policy, to neutralise the consequences of accidental advantages such as birth.
Inventing national identity
by Anne-Marie Thiesse June 1999
The supranational prospect held out by EU appears to be threatened in two ways: by a deficiency of European identity, in striking contrast to the continuing vigour of national identities, and by a process of fragmentation into micro-nations.
Nations are much younger than their official histories would have us believe. No nation in the modern, that is political, sense of the word existed before the ideological revolution that began in the 18th century and conferred political power on “the people”. From that time on, the nation was conceived as a broad community united by a link different in nature both from allegiance to the same monarch and from membership of the same religion or social estate. The nation no longer derived from the ruler. It was henceforth independent of the contingencies of dynastic or military history. This powerfully subversive concept opened the way for entry into the age of democracy; but if it was to succeed, the future had to be justified in terms of loyalty to the past.
We have become used to distinguishing between two opposing concepts of the nation: the French concept, based on free, rational allegiance of the individual to a political collectivity, and the German concept of objectively determined membership of an organic body. However, the construction of European nations has always involved a mix of both of these concepts, even if the proportions have varied with the political and social context.
It is easy enough to draw up a list of the symbolic and material items which any real nation needs to possess: a history establishing its continuity through the ages, a set of heroes embodying its national values, a language, cultural monuments, folklore, historic sites, distinctive geographical features, a specific mentality and a number of picturesque labels such as costume, national dishes or an animal emblem.
in 1800 we were still in the first stages of fabricating what Benedict Anderson has called “imagined communities”
And so history, ethnography and philology were invoked to establish national property rights over territories on which different populations had coexisted or succeeded each other through the centuries.
For in the 20th century the nation is considered throughout the world as the only legitimate basis for the state. The struggles against European colonial powers were conducted by national liberation movements, and any claim to secede from an existing state necessarily involves proclamation of the existence of a specific, oppressed nation.
Nevertheless, the formation of nation-states raises a major problem: how can state and nation be made to coincide?
There are, however, other ways of making states nationally homogeneous. The most violent method is to expel the “national minorities”. The tragic “ethnic cleansing” operations in former Yugoslavia are only the most recent examples of this method. It has been applied frequently in the course of this century, as witness the massive population “exchanges” between Greece and Turkey after the first world war (my note: my MA thesis from Sofia University was about the same exchange but between Greece and Bulgaria), the expulsion of the Sudetan Germans from Czechoslovakia after the second (in response to Nazi annexation of the region), and above all, the Nazis’ attempt to render Germany Judenrein. The extreme right-wing movements of the present day continue unhesitatingly along the same path with their calls for the expulsion of immigrant populations in the name of national salvation.
Still other ways of achieving national homogeneity have been attempted. They have consisted in denying the existence of different nations within the state. For this purpose politicians have resorted either to coercion or to inculcating a feeling of belonging to a single unit. Coercion has been more frequent in states lacking proper democratic process. Examples are the forced Magyarisation of the Slav minorities in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire following the 1867 Compromise, the repression of demands for regional autonomy in Spain under Franco and, more recently, the forced Bulgarisation of the Turkish minority (who were even required to change their patronymics) by the dying communist regime in Sofia (my note: I lived through this in 1989).
The nation was conceived as a secular brotherhood – at once protector, vehicle of democracy, and supreme ideal for which people should be prepared to lay down their lives if necessary.
A new collective identity began to be constructed in the middle of the 19th century – class-based internationalism as opposed to nationalism based on union between classes. The struggle between the two, which has been a major theme of European history in the 20th century, appears to have ended in the victory of the nation.
The upsurge of micro-nationalisms within established nation-states of Western Europe probably reflects a belief that reconstituting the state on the basis of a more “authentic” nation will better protect the rights and interests of citizens – especially where the territory of the would-be nation has strong economic potential.
Nations are not eternal. Nationalism’s present vigour may be better explained by the fact that politics has not yet caught up with economics.