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.

Just as I was starting to enjoy my new reputation as a Twitter radical who makes people really angry, The Guardian publishes a long read on the demise of the nation state and unmasks me as the normie that I am…

Rana Dasgupta does a good job here of sketching out the current dilemma, both in Europe and around the world, particularly the contradictory tendencies of international state relations.

When we discuss “politics”, we refer to what goes on inside sovereign states; everything else is “foreign affairs” or “international relations” – even in this era of global financial and technological integration. We may buy the same products in every country of the world, we may all use Google and Facebook, but political life, curiously, is made of separate stuff and keeps the antique faith of borders.

Dasgupta goes on to point to “the loss of control over money flows” as the key catalyst in dissolving national borders, both physically and psychically.

Capital deterritorialises. We know this. What I don’t get is how the correct response is then to moralise these flows themselves, as if to say that if our nations were more morally robust, capital wouldn’t flow so waywardly…

(The position of this blog is that it’s irrelevant. Financiers suck because they follow these flows like cleaner fish, scavenging the rot, but moralising the rot itself is pointless.)

Without wanting to sound too smug about it, Dasgupta then rehearses many of the arguments described here in recent weeks, including how, since we don’t know anything else, the decline of “national political authority” feels like “the end of the world“.

Despite this, Dasgupta seems to fall into the very traps they describe. To let the idea of the nation state die is apparently to go backwards and embrace whatever we had “before”. Again, these are the same arguments we have seen being rehearsed ad nauseam about capitalism: it’s not working but to let it collapse is inherently to go backwards. This still feels like a sign of a populist left unable to give up the ghost of a naively universalist progressivism.

(To be clear, it’s universalism which is the problem here and its funneling progressivism into a single, unwavering straight line. Progressivism reveals itself to be political tunnelvision. When you’re political system starts to offer you the Kool Aid, progressivism becomes putting it down and heading for the exit. There are surely better paths on the outside.)

Mark used to say that the restlessness of capitalism is a result of a failed escape from feudalism — which is to say that there’s too much hangover for us to class it as a clean break — and the restless compositions of our nation states are surely related to this.

Even if we wanted to restore what we once had, that moment is gone. The reason the nation state was able to deliver what achievements it did – and in some places they were spectacular – was that there was, for much of the 20th century, an authentic “fit” between politics, economy and information, all of which were organised at a national scale. National governments possessed actual powers to manage modern economic and ideological energies, and to turn them towards human – sometimes almost utopian – ends. But that era is over. After so many decades of globalisation, economics and information have successfully grown beyond the authority of national governments. Today, the distribution of planetary wealth and resources is largely uncontested by any political mechanism.

But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge the end of politics itself. And if we continue to think the administrative system we inherited from our ancestors allows for no innovation, we condemn ourselves to a long period of dwindling political and moral hope. Half a century has been spent building the global system on which we all now depend, and it is here to stay. Without political innovation, global capital and technology will rule us without any kind of democratic consultation, as naturally and indubitably as the rising oceans.

There’s something interesting happening here.

In many ways I agree wholeheartedly with the above quote. The suggestion that politics as we know it is over and warrants innovation is absolutely correct but to limit politics to “democratic consultation” — i.e. politics as we know it — feels contradictory. The innovation needed is surely to allow for the free expression of extra-democratic dynamics.

Similarly, Dasgupta keeps insisting throughout the article on how the collapse of nation states is to do with our waning moral fibre. Our governments certainly do little to inspire confidence with their own blind faith in capitalism, upholding it at all costs, and their failure to handle the global refugee crisis is likewise a major issue more than worthy of criticism, but to generalise the moral fibre of our nations is surely the most boring and predictable response to the decline being described. We’ve heard that so many times before and generally, lest we forget, from the mouths of reactionaries and conservatives.

This trend continues throughout this Long Read. I agree with it consistently but it seems incapable of thinking the very limits it demands be thought.

That is how we will complete this globalisation of ours, which today stands dangerously unfinished. Its economic and technological systems are dazzling indeed, but in order for it to serve the human community, it must be subordinated to an equally spectacular political infrastructure, which we have not even begun to conceive.

Well, that last part is definitely not true…

It will be objected, inevitably, that any alternative to the nation-state system is a utopian impossibility. But even the technological accomplishments of the last few decades seemed implausible before they arrived, and there are good reasons to be suspicious of those incumbent authorities who tell us that human beings are incapable of similar grandeur in the political realm. In fact, there have been many moments in history when politics was suddenly expanded to a new, previously inconceivable scale – including the creation of the nation state itself. And – as is becoming clearer every day – the real delusion is the belief that things can carry on as they are.

I could keep quoting from this article at length but I won’t. I’d definitely recommend reading it as a pre-primer for Patchwork 101.

Dasgupta, unfortunately, isn’t thinking about alternatives but this article at least demonstrates why we should be.

Nevertheless, for Dasgupta, any future requires three things:

  • global financial regulation
  • global flexible democracy
  • new conceptions of citizenship

I’m unconvinced by all three of these suggestions, since they simply continue the globalisation trend.

The homogenisation of finance, democracy and citizenry feels like a real failure of imagination considering the problems we are faced with. All this seems to advocate is the expansion of powers outwards to the global hubs — your EUs, your UNs — so that all the dissidence Dasgupta has pointed to can be subsumed within an even larger whole. (The equivalent of just buying a bigger carpet when you can’t brush any more dissent under the current one.)

Transnational flexibility and a rethinking of political identity are good inclusions but, unfortunately, they’re in the wrong package, and I don’t see a situation where these ideas don’t continue to eat the system we have from the inside out.


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