The demise of the nation-state in the 21st century

4 Jan
At the moment the nation-state seems to be the right and natural way for humans to govern themselves, and yet we know that it was a historical invention cobbled together and refined over decades and centuries initially in Europe and then elsewhere. Will the nation-state be the dominant form of large-scale governance by the end of this century? I think not. Writing in Eurozine, Robert Menasse sketches a case:
I have looked through the telescope and I have seen: nation-states will die. We now arrive at our topic: the European Union must inevitably lead to the extinction of nation-states. And rightly so. I won’t be able to convince the current political elites of this, nor the columnists of the national press and all the other high priests of national identity and the defence of national interests. Nor will I be able to convince them of the basic reasonableness of a post-national world-view. I may not be able to convince you either. Still, let me tell you: the sooner you understand and accept this fact, and arrange your life accordingly, the better for you and your children. That’s not an opinion. An opinion, as Hegel rightly said, is mine and is something I can just as well keep to myself. No, it is a fact. To be on the safe side, let me say in advance that I don’t believe that history has a goal, nor do I believe that it has a meaning. Historical processes, on the other hand, do exist; human life on this planet can only be conceived as the production of history, just as individual life is the production of biography, and only biography can fully determine who an individual is. To think historically and perspectivally is to establish meaning in the meaningless, to give form to the processes of life, rather than just to undergo them. In the world-view of the overwhelming majority of people today, the belief in the idea of the “nation”, the belief in its rational basis, the belief in the almost ontological and hence inextinguishable longing of human beings for “national identity”, has taken on an almost religious character. The tendencies and movements towards renationalization that we are currently seeing belong to the conflicts of faith and wars of religion that are erupting globally. Despite the historical experience of National Socialism and its bloody trail of death and destruction, the fact that countless people literally believed in it has not yet permanently shaken the faith in the idea of “nation”.
Nations, markets, aggressors:
The formation of nations was merely a historical step made in order to unite provinces and regions, to extend common law jurisdictions and above all to create bigger markets. However, nations have systematically proven to be aggressors, to be a reoccurring threat to peace and human rights – through the violent seizure of land and random drawing of boundaries through cultural spaces that have evolved over time, and above all through the constitution of communities able to define themselves only in terms of their difference to others. In these differences alone, in the construction of the idea of “national identity”, there lies an eternally smouldering potential for aggression, which in times of crises finds an outlet as hatred towards others and the persecution of supposed scapegoats. However dramatically one judges it, it is clear that the formation of nations cannot be the end of the story – as Victor Hugo realized in 1850: “A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form a European brotherhood, just as Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, all our provinces are merged together in France.” Victor Hugo was ridiculed back then, but the Franco-German war turned out to be not quite so funny, and when the people of Europe set upon one another in 1914, national arrogance turned into a multi-national tragedy, and Stefan Zweig wrote: “Nationalism has destroyed European civilization”.

Globalization spells the end of nations:
Today, all the basic phenomena that we have to deal with politically, be they economic or social, have long since been transnational. The power of multinational companies, the financial flows, the chain of value creation, the migration movements, the Internet and the dangers connected to it, like surveillance and the misuse of private data, ecological problems and so on, none of these can be managed within national borders in sovereign independence, nor can they be halted at national borders. Globalization basically means nothing other than the dissolution of all national borders. There is no clear reason why, under these circumstances, political decisions should be made solely nationally and democratically legitimated solely at the national level. If, in a union whose founding intention was to overcome nationalism, in which the member states have already handed over a whole series of sovereignty rights to supranational institutions, if the first response to problems that arise in that union is to defend national interests, then this contradiction logically leads to crises. This demands a crisis management that, if the chimera of national interests continues to be defended, in turn only produces new crises, which demand ever new crisis summits that cannot solve the crises. What began as a politics with the ambition to shape society became, through the renationalization of Europe, dull, day-to-day politics in the literal sense: today we are rescuing the euro, tomorrow we will rescue the euro again, and the day after tomorrow is a new day on which the euro will be rescued. Exactly the same is happening with the mass refugee and migration movements: today we’re building a fence here, tomorrow we’ll build a fence there, and the day after tomorrow we’ll need to build another fence somewhere else. Nation-states are inundated with rescue packages that are slowly piling up, unopened.
A Europe beyond nations:
What is at stake is nothing less than a European republic, with the same political, economic and social rights and rules for all, with a completely new, modern and forwards-looking model of democracy. At present, no one knows concretely how this completely new, previously non-existent, world historical avant-garde project – namely post-national European democracy – will ultimately be formed institutionally. To discuss this, with all the fantasy of the dreamer, with all the creativity with which this continent is capable, this is the task that faces us today – instead of encouraging people to raise levels of production dressed in historical costumes that, since 1945, have been neither fashionable nor comfortable, let alone functional. If we fail, the European peace project will be present in Europe merely as the ghost of itself. That is the challenge facing all of us for whom the universalism of human rights is the basis of all political and social action; the respect of human dignity, the recognition of human interests wherever they exist, instead of the protection of the interests of national elites; equal opportunity for the development of individual talent. That is the universal European – whose job is to assert their own sovereignty, rather than defend the sovereignty of the nation.

One Response to “The demise of the nation-state in the 21st century”

  1. Charlie Keil January 5, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

    Federations or A. Ocalan’s “democratic confederalism” (my main hope or strategy for the peaceful and prosperous future) can only work if the first principle is “self determination of peoples” and the “right of secession” is always respected. Secondly, the units being federated or confederated have to be roughly equal or the “same size”.
    Leopold Kohr (see his Breakdown of Nations, the edition introduced by Kirkpatrick Sale of “Human Scale” fame) was the only prominent theorist who predicted the breakdown of the USSR, and also predicted that any European union plan would fail because Germany would dominate it. Even units the size of Bavaria, Prussia, Hesse, etc are probably too big to be truly democratic, accountable, responsible.
    Swiss cantons vary in size, some homogeneous, some multicultural-lingual, but the federation works very well. Exemplary. What definitely is NOT working: Big Powers promoting big arms sales and perpetual, unilateral, preemptive war!
    Anyone dreaming about one big Europe in which nationalities gradually disappear is dreaming and delusional. Ask the Catalans, the Basques.

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