After another study-induced hiatus I’m back with a bit of a rant about why I don’t think nation-states should be the last word in human political organisation. This is not to say that I think the end of the nation-state is close at hand – far from it in fact – but the problems I see with the nation-state model mean that I have to hope there is a way to move past it. In part this post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with a friend about my earlier post which focused on the future of the EU, and this post will further explain some of the positions I took in that one. I’m also not going to go into the history of how nation-states as a concept came into being but it does fascinate me and is probably a good place to start if you want to think more about them as cultural institutions today.
So, first things first: definition. A nation-state is, according to Mirriam-Webster: “a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; especially : a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities” – which shows how awkward it can be to define. If this definition was taking as strictly true then how many countries would actually qualify? Most you care to name have some relatively significant ethnic minority which would count them out… but that’s not actually how we conceive of the nation-state when we bandy the term about. Instead, I would suggest that a nation-state is this: a sovereign state (i.e. a political entity which exercises an absolute monopoly on legitimate violence within a clearly defined territory) which defines its legitimacy through some sense of collective cultural identity and shared historical narrative. This definition doesn’t exclude minorities from being part of a nation-state, but what it does do is show how pretty much every state in the world defines itself. Even in Africa, where colonialism jammed different ethnic groups together and made states out of them, the post-colonial inheritors of these states have attempted to define their legitimacy through the shared experience of the colonial yoke.
This is all well and good, but not everyone is always going to fit into the collective identity and narrative of the “nation” bit of the nation-state, and this is where the problem begins. Right at the start of the UN charter in Article I there is a clear expression of the right to self-determination of peoples – but where does this end? Can any ethnic group which self-identifies as distinct from those around it secede and claim a nation-state of its own? If so, what happens to places like Papua New Guinea, where there are about 800 languages spoken by a population of 6 million-ish? If we assume each language represents a distinct cultural group then I guess Papua New Guinea should become 841 new nation-states. PNG isn’t alone in this either, although it may be an extreme example.The good ol’ CIA has a nice list here of the ethnic makeup of the various states of the world. Interesting reading.
Furthermore, each national identity gets created as an expression of “same” and “other,” so people outside it become marginalised and excluded, not to mention possibly discriminated against. Each time a new nation-state forms and defines its national identity in a certain way then a new group will be the “other” and become excluded and marginalised. Take a look at the breakup of the former Yugoslavia to see what happens when this process gets out of control. Then there is the problem of what happens when to different nations want a state in the same place because that’s what their identity and narrative tells them to do – say hello to Israel/Palestine. The idea that a nation should have absolute sovereignty over the territory of its choosing is undeniably flawed, and yet all over the world people still fight for the independence of their own nation from another, larger one. Clearly, if states continue to gain legitimacy from nationalist identities this will go on indefinitely.
The solution as I see it is decentralised federalisation and pan-national states. Getting there won’t be easy, and certain parts of the world will probably always be organised as nation-states, but the idea that nation-states are the only valid way to politically organise large groups of people needs to be dropped to avoid the violence and suffering which comes from identity politics gone mad. After all for most of history empires, city-states, and tribal-level political units all existed and interacted at one time. National identity can continue to exist but it does not need to be the foundation on which our political units are based.