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The Tortured Demise of the Nation-State


In the age of advanced globalization, it is common for intellectuals to argue that the nation-state is in decline. David Held, for example, who distinguishes between a state’s autonomy and its sovereignty, contends that international organizations such as the European Union, NATO, and the World Bank both limit states’ autonomy and infringe upon their sovereignty.[1] Edward Said, on the other hand, observes that a “generalized condition of homelessness” characterizes contemporary life.[2] One could embellish this insight by pointing to the social atomization that seems to be ever more pronounced in much of the world, and that vitiates the rootedness of truly belonging to a national community. It appears, therefore, that the nation-state is under assault on more than one front. In this paper I will argue that that is indeed the case; I will also clarify some of the processes at work.


It is necessary, first of all, to define the nation-state. Anthony Smith gives a reasonable definition of the fully formed nation in saying that it is “a named community of history and culture, possessing a unified territory, economy, mass education system and common legal rights.”[3] The term “nation-state,” then, makes explicit the fusion of such a community with its own government that administers and regulates the social order. On this understanding, nation-states are a modern creation: history is full of empires, city-states, tribes, and nomadic groups, but before the late nineteenth century there were no full-fledged nations or nation-states. To say they are purely a modern “invention,” however, or an elite construct with no basis in historical reality—as some scholars imply—is to go too far. Smith is right that the nation has historical antecedents. Both the ancient and medieval eras boasted “durable cultural communities,” ethnic communities with common historical memories, homelands, languages, religions, and a sense of solidarity.[4] Some of these not-always-well-defined communities eventually formed the basis of particular nationalities.


Benedict Anderson is right to emphasize print-capitalism as having made national consciousness possible by creating “unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars.”[5] In the centuries after Gutenberg’s invention, print-capitalism spread across the continent, “assembling” related vernaculars by creating “mechanically reproduced print-languages capable of dissemination through the market.”[6] Speakers of the many varieties of French, for example, could now understand one another through print. Literacy increased as writing became more accessible. Print-capitalism also gave a new “fixity” to language by encouraging the standardization of spelling and syntax. Third, Anderson notes that print-languages inevitably exalted certain dialects at the expense of others: High German and the King’s English, for instance, eventually became languages of power, causing other dialects to atrophy and sometimes to die out. These processes fostered linguistic uniformity, which contributed to the rise of national consciousness.


In fact, without print-capitalism it is hard to imagine most of the things that are thought to have facilitated the emergence of the nation-state. The Reformation was made possible by print, as was the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the spread of such ideologies as liberalism and republicanism, thereby the French Revolution, industrialism, the immense bureaucracy of the modern state, mass education, etc. Similarly, the large-scale state projects undertaken in the heyday of the nation-state would have been impossible without print. One might consider the history of the state to have climaxed in these projects that exemplify what James C. Scott calls the “high modernist” ambition for the “administrative ordering of nature and society,” with which such figures as Le Corbusier, Stalin, Robert Moses, and Robert McNamara are associated.[7] Soviet collectivization is an example, as is the construction of Brasília between 1956 and 1960. Similar projects are still going on today—though not, it seems, in North America or Europe—as for example China’s relocating of hundreds of millions of peasants into newly constructed cities such as Chongqing.[8]


Considering the importance of print-capitalism as a foundation for the rise of the nation-state, it is ironic that what one might call electronic capitalism is contributing to the decline of the nation. Here, however, we must distinguish between the nation as an “imagined community” and the state, the government apparatus. The former is declining faster than the latter. Already with the spread of television in the 1950s and 1960s, the atomizing potential of electronic media was becoming apparent. In a sense, television gave and continues to give people common cultural touchstones, shows they can watch and discuss, advertisements they can all relate to, news items, ubiquitous soundbites, etc. More fundamentally, however, television has fragmented communities and families, atomized the national culture, instilled mental and behavioral patterns of passiveness, and in the long run degraded civil society. Lauren Berlant is right that “television promotes the annihilation of memory and, in particular, of historical knowledge and political self-understanding.” Print media have a tendency to encourage dialogue and reify culture, to bring people together to participate in a broader community, ultimately a national one; electronic media—in the context of capitalism, at least—tend to substitute isolation and self-involvement for direct interaction with others, as well as to degrade communication into instantaneous visual and auditory stimuli whose effect is to undermine identities (be they personal, national, or whatever).


These trends are even more evident when one considers the impact of video games, cell-phones, computers, the internet, and such “social media” outlets as Twitter and Facebook. A society in which most people spend an inordinate amount of their time sitting in front of TVs, playing video games, shopping online, searching for soulmates through internet dating, imbibing bits of information in short bursts from an endless variety of global news and entertainment sources, and electronically “chatting” with acquaintances or strangers located anywhere from the next room to the other side of the world—such a society does not have much of a tangible national culture, and its “imagined community” is indeed imaginary, a mere abstraction with little basis in concrete reality. In short, the individualistic, passive, and consumerist nature of a capitalist society saturated by electronic media[9] is interpersonally alienating and destructive of civil society, hence destructive of a shared national consciousness.


At the same time, because electronic technology makes possible nearly instantaneous communication across the world, the kind of community it fosters is global rather than national. One may start to feel more affinity for people ten thousand miles away than for one’s compatriots. Global social movements become easier to coordinate; things like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street can emerge to break down national barriers and birth a global consciousness.


Electronic capitalism has also helped make possible the hegemony of transnational corporations, which have their own role to play in the destruction of the nation. First and foremost, their actions tend to bring about the equalization of conditions between countries. As corporations seek cheap labor abroad, impose ever-poorer working conditions on domestic employees, deindustrialize Western countries in part by obsessively pursuing productivity advances that make possible shrinking workforces, and fight to dismantle economic regulations and the welfare state, they cause a creeping Third-Worldization of the core capitalist countries—while facilitating a creeping industrialization of the former Third World. The point is not that the Global South will ever achieve anything like the once-prosperous level of the North; rather, it is that the world is heading towards a relative convergence of social conditions everywhere, in the form of extreme economic inequality, political disenfranchisement of the majority, environmental degradation, “privatization” of resources, and so forth. In the West especially, class polarization is increasing and infrastructure deteriorating. National differences thereby become of less substance; the urgent task appears of globally confronting power-structures, since it is only on the global stage that transnational corporations can potentially be defeated. (After all, they can play off country against country in their quest for advantageous regulatory regimes.) The slogan “Workers [i.e. non-capitalists] of the World, Unite!” becomes more timely than ever before, since nation-states really are, this time, deteriorating from within and from without.


Like the national community, though less obviously, the state—particularly in the core capitalist countries—is under assault. As David Held says, it is slowly losing its autonomy and sovereignty to international organizations, and increasingly it has to coordinate its policies with other states. As it grows ever more debt-encumbered and beholden to corporate entities,[10] it begins to lose its ability to administer the social order, which itself is becoming less governable and more unstable as the population increases, class polarization intensifies, and infrastructure decays. The predictable consequence is that a quasi-police state will take the place of the welfare state—as is indeed happening, with heightened government investment in the “national security” state, in powers of surveillance, the expansion and privatization of prisons, the militarizing of police forces,[11] the ever-more-frequent suspension of civil liberties, etc. From one perspective, such developments heighten the power of the state; seen in their true light, however, they are symptoms of a social and political crisis. Far from indicating the health of the state, they show its sickness. In the long run they may prove to be its death-throes.


Said differently, the Western state is ceasing to be the public state it once was; it is becoming a government explicitly for the rich, a “private” state, a “security” state. More and more of its functions are privatized, including education, national security, law enforcement, and administration of prisons. The repressive functions of government—some of them taken over by outside contractors—become more important as the citizen-empowering, civil-society-enhancing functions start to wither away. Again, this is all in the interest[12] of “The Corporation,” which can accumulate more capital and power as citizens lose their capacity to resist.


No doubt reactionary nationalist movements will appear, in fact are appearing, as these crises deepen. Their significance, however, is precisely the death of the nation-state, not its resurgence. David Held is right that the world is simply too interconnected now, and transnational corporations have too much power, for a return to the era of sovereign and autonomous nations to occur. Xenophobia and nationalism are coughed up with the drawn-out death-rattles of the Western state, as conservative sections of the public take up arms against the implications of corporate globalization.


The impact of all this on capitalism itself is another interesting question. Suffice it to say that, just as capitalism and the nation-state matured symbiotically together, so they will probably meet their demise in a fatal embrace. As capitalism evolved from its primitive commercial character in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to a more mature mercantilism and proto-industrialism, thence to full industrialization in the nineteenth century, finally from this phase of so-called “competitive capitalism” to “monopoly” or “corporate” capitalism in the twentieth century, the nation-state evolved from its primitive beginnings in the late feudal era to its apotheosis between the 1930s and 1960s in the “high modernist” schemes that James Scott discusses.[13] Capitalism’s evolution made possible that of the nation-state, and the latter’s evolution made possible the former’s.[14] Capitalism’s continued maturation, however, in the form of advanced globalization, has, as we have seen, begun to undermine the nation-state, a process that in the long run cannot but undermine capitalism itself. For the latter has, at least since the 1500s, required a state to maintain order and facilitate the accumulation of capital. As the state loses its capacity to keep order, and as people across the world unite to resist corporate depredations, capital accumulation will face ever more obstacles.[15] In the end, one can expect the current world order to implode; some sort of post-capitalist, post-statist order will rise from its ashes. What it will look like, no one can foresee.




[1] David Held, “The Decline of the Nation State,” in Becoming National: A Reader, eds. Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 415.


[2] Quoted in Liisa Malkki, “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees,” in Becoming National, 435.


[3] Anthony Smith, “The Origins of Nations,” in Becoming National, 107.


[4] Ibid., 109, 110.


[5] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006), 44.


[6] Ibid.


[7] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 88.


[8] Robert Dreyfuss, “Chongqing: Socialism in One City,” The Nation, November 18, 2009.


[9] And by “print versions” of such media, for example magazines devoted to celebrity gossip and instant gratification of whatever sort.


[10] For some of the reasons behind these developments, see Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005 (New York: Verso, 2006).


[11] See, e.g., Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartmann, “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,” The Atlantic, November 7, 2011.


[12] The short-term interest, that is. See the final paragraph below.


[13] Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1994).


[14] See Peter Kropotkin, The State: Its Historic Role (London: Freedom Press, 1997).


[15] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) discusses these obstacles in detail.

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