“The crumbling of the nation state”

An interesting article on Thursday in The Guardian (a phrase I use less and less these days) by Rana Dasgupta. He sees recent events in national politics (Brexit, nationalist parties doing well in general elections in Europe, Big-Brother-style “distraction by war” by Putin and Erdogan, and the rise of politicians (e.g. Trump in the US, Duterte in the Philippines) whose pronouncements leave one open-mouthed in disbelief) as all being linked to the decline of the nation state. We in the west are horrified by the feeling that national authority and national independence are under threat:

In brief, 20th-century political structures are drowning in a 21st-century ocean of deregulated finance, autonomous technology, religious militancy and great-power rivalry. . . .  The history of the nation state . . . is in many senses one of taxation; and the failure of national political authority derives in large part from the loss of control over money flows . . . More dramatically, great numbers of people are losing all semblance of a national home, and finding themselves pitched into a particular kind of contemporary hell [e.g. Libya, Syria].

He traces the rise of the nation back to the principle of territorial sovereignty enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 after the dreadful thirty-years war. The 19th century saw the setting in stone of the European model of the nation state (controlling a set of enforced state monopolies such as defence and taxation, and usually ethnically cohesive). At the end of the first world war, Woodrow Wilson outlined the principle of “national self-determination”, which became the model worldwide. Less well-remembered is Wilson’s original programme for “a comprehensive intra-state democracy designed to ensure global co-operation, peace and justice”. And so the nation state model was exported to decolonised countries in the mid-20th century, whether they were suitable candidates for it or not, and their independence was always compromised by pressure from outside forces.

Dasgupta has something interesting to say about empires:

“In the world’s poorest countries, the picture is different. Almost all those nations emerged in the 20th century from the Eurasian empires. It has become de rigueur to despise empire, 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 tranquility and cultural achievement that seem incredible from the perspective of today’s Middle East.

(I’ll take that last statement on trust, but “tranquility” – even at the cost of sclerosis, corruption and capricious misuse of absolute power? – is surely preferable to what is going on in Syria.)

Dasgupta sees the rapid formation of so-called states after decolonisation as doomed to failure in their attempt to make the disparate cohesive – they were “parodies of serene European states”. They were rarely functional; if they appeared so, it was down to authoritarianism and dictators who benefited from the international community’s adherence to a self-serving “respect” for national authority “no matter what horrors went on behind its closed doors”.

Yes, so far, so familiar. I recall reading about transnational corporations (now multi-national corporations) in the 1980s and how their power was growing to be greater than that of national governments. Dasgupta sees this as very deliberate:

The destruction of state authority over capital has of course been the objective of the financial revolution that defines our present era. As a result, states have been forced to shed social commitments in order to reinvent themselves as custodians of the market.

Which sounds even more familiar.

His respect for the notion of empire requires me to think a little harder though: as a Guardian-reader, I am practically obliged to regard the British Empire as a Bad Thing. Less facetiously, I have absorbed from Greece the blanket vilification of the Ottoman empire, whether justified or not. (The Roman empire still gets quite a good press; nobody talks about the destruction of Carthage as they do of the Amritsar massacre.)

He sees the crisis getting worse:

First, the existential breakdown of rich countries during the assault on national political power by global forces. Second, the volatility of the poorest regions, now that the departure of cold war-era strongmen has revealed their true fragility. And third, the illegitimacy of an “international order” that has never aspired to any kind of “society of nations” government by the rule of law.

The solution, according to Dasgupta, involves global financial regulation, global flexible democracy (the EU being a salutary experiment), and new conceptions of citizenship involving “deregulating human movement”. He sees the creation of the French and American republics as pointing the way – but, I would add, in his broad sweep overlooks the Reign of Terror. Perhaps that just counts as breaking a few eggs.

The backstory and the current state of affairs are outlined convincingly, but I think Dasgupta’s solutions are unlikely to see the light of day. There are too many beneficiaries of the “illegitimate international order” who are unable to contemplate the orderly change – and the adjustment in living standards – that would be required to make these things happen. (And, yes, I do include myself in that category.) Moreover, there is no mention of climate change or environmental degradation, which may leave us all with little opportunity to exert control over future events.

But it was an interesting and stimulating read nonetheless. Too much of what I read in newspapers and magazines is by the same old writers: it’s good to benefit from a perspective that stretches from Europe, the US and India.

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About aides mémoires

This is a chronological list of things I have seen, places I have visited, and thoughts that have wandered through the space between my ears. A reading group of one; an art appreciation society limited by my preferences and prejudices; opera criticism by one who knows nothing about the subject.
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