by Spencer Pearson
Nationalism as a modern ideology emerged alongside, and in alliance with, all the other great political ideological traditions of the Industrial Age around the time of the French Revolution. Since that time is has been associated with the advocation of the nation state. Indeed from the 20th century onward it has largely been associated with people who see states as more important than nations. However I would argue that the nation state is only a “strategic” method of delivering the implicit objectives of the underlying values of nationalism, it is not the unchangeable objective of nationalism. Two hundred plus years after the Revolution we have the luxury of examining how the nation state has performed from the historical record rather than, like the first modern nationalists, predicting its performance from theory. I would like to suggest that any analysis of that performance based on the value set which gave rise to nationalism can only conclude that it has failed; badly. Here are five reasons why nationalists can no longer advocate the nation state.
V. Self Determination
The original nationalists, through painful experience, learned that it was never a good thing to have a ruler that wasn’t on the team. The worst variety of this misfortune was to have a ruler that wasn’t even from your own nation; this was fairly common in the age of European empires in which nations were traditionally passed around as wedding gifts by the European elite. The monarch of some other nation, which just happens to rule yours because his grandfather fucked someone, rarely had the interests of your nation at heart and would frequently loot or at least neglect it.
The situation was little better if you ruler happened to be from your own nation but was keen to expand his operation. This kind of ambition usually had the effect of transforming national assets like young men and gold into smoking holes full of bones to the extent that most European states were perpetually bankrupt and short on sporting events.
The nationalist solution to this problem was that each nation should be ruled my members of it in the interests of that nation. This concept is known as “self determination”. This by no means completely resolved the problem since there is no guarantee a ruler will not be a prick just because he happens to have come from the nation he rules.
The obvious extension of the logic of self determination to resolve that problem was to make the nation responsible for choosing its own leaders, i.e. democratic electoral systems. By such means nations, if they were not well ruled, had little to blame but themselves
Sadly it would appear that changes in the nature of Western societies mean that the assumption that this neat resolution is based on no longer holds. For one thing it’s no longer possible to draw a nice line around a nation and declare everyone in it a member. Most European states now contain huge numbers of people who are not of the relevant nation and frequently who have very little interest in the wellbeing of that nation. Another complication is that it has proved to be fairly easy for small groups to subvert the “democratic process” and use the state for its own ends rather than that of the nation. Alliances of economic interests and certain political movements have succeeded in this subversion and there seems little prospect of correcting it. Even if it could be, the weakness that allowed it to happen could recur and therefore must be corrected to secure the wellbeing of the nation.
At a slightly more abstract level there is an inherent flaw in the strategy of the nation state if the objective is that of self determination. Nationalists tend to assume that the interests of the nation as a whole are obvious and that the nation can be relied on to identify what they are and pursue them accordingly. This has proven not to be the case. Moreover the differences of opinion that this confusion and differing objectives creates means that as long as the whole nation is yoked under a single government a substantial element of the nation will be being ruled against its will. Under such circumstances it’s difficult to see how that nation could be deemed to be self determining. This may appear to be a rather esoteric point but if one of those elements gets pissed off enough the result tends to be the kind of violent instability nationalism, and sane people, like to avoid.
When states began to develop they usually “sell” themselves to their prospective citizens as being about “protecting” those potential citizens. Traditionally this is against the threat posed by “outsiders” and in particular those “outsiders” in the immediate vicinity that have already got states to “protect” them. Once the state has got its hands on some suitable equipment for the protection of its citizens, such as cannon, swords or AK 47s, it usually finds that, since there no external threats for it to protect people from just at the moment, it may as well put those assets to work to protect the people from internal threats. Thus the state is born.
So the state sets itself up in the business of “protection”. In our society the state has got our back against any conceivable threat from global pandemics and insane dictators to binge drinking and porn addiction. However this presents something of a problem for the nationalist.
The Romans might have been the first to note the paradoxical effect that the more the state provided security and comfort the more the population turned fag on them. To the right wing mentality (and the Romans had no other one) this is counter intuitive, surely people will fight harder if they have something worth defending? For people with a slightly better understanding of the human condition it is equally self evident that people will be less inclined to undergo hardships and risk an agonising death when they could have a nice, safe, comfortable life back at the villa. Whereas if the alternative is constant fear and grinding toil and poverty the possibilities of a little glory shine that much brighter.
Moreover the fatter, stupider and lazier the population became as a result of the conveniences laid on for them by Republic and then the Empire the less able they were to defend that Empire even if they wanted to.
So even if the state succeeds in its mission of protecting the nation the effect is not to make the nation stronger, but weaker. Ultimately this process can only have one outcome, the nation will become so feckless, dumb and cowardly that however good the state is at protecting the degenerate nation it farms it must finally fail for lack of resources. At which point that nation is in a far worse position than it was at any point before since it is now defenceless and fat and stupid.
So we have seen that if a nation state succeeds in its objective of protecting the nation the effect is certain to be the enfeeblement of that nation.
But what if we apply the same process to the state itself? Just as the nation becomes ever weaker if the nation states succeeds in protecting it so does the state. For one thing it is going to be drawing its leadership from the degenerating nation and thus those leaders are likely to get progressively less competent.
However there is another process which might be even more damaging than that. Over the Industrial period nation states have enjoyed a sort of symbiotic relationship with industrialisation. Industrialisation provided the resources which were required to develop the kind of powerful states we are familiar with today. Pre-industrial states were limited in their influence by the lack of resources available to them; there was no Medicare or NHS in Medieval Aragon.
Many have come to believe that this process of industrialisation is subject to “a law of diminishing returns”. A late 19th century railway cut the journey time between New York and San Francisco by 90% in return for a moderate increase in expended energy whereas for jet aircraft to do the same cost vastly more resources. Moreover cutting the journey time and effort from three months to three days is, in absolute terms, far more significant than from three days to six hours. Indeed thanks to various factors acting on that system the journey time is now increasing (since it takes time to be violated by people looking for terrorists).
Meanwhile the problems which industrialisation creates such as social dislocation, environmental degradation, natural resource depletion, economic distortions etc are subject to no such limits. At some point then these negative consequences will overcome the “forward” momentum of the industrialisation process and bring it to a halt. In fact they are likely to do far more than that since they have a momentum of their own and as they act to disrupt the capacity of an industrialised society they reduce the resistance to their own progress. Which is to say, there is no reason why these opposing forces should find equilibrium; no reason why meth should stop spreading because it has reached the point of causing an entire community to collapse in chaos. In fact the converse is true, its spread becomes all the easier for the lack of resistance from the state and because it has destroyed potential alternative lifestyle choices, like not being a crack whore.
The state we are familiar with is a product of the phenomenon we know as industrialisation. Nationalists have taken for granted that the process of industrialisation would continue to provide ever more resources, this is now a questionable proposition. The effect of the collapse of a state, whether suddenly or gradually, on a nation which had come to depend on it would be catastrophic and quite possibly lethal to that nation. This represents a risk which is surely too great to be run by anyone who truly has the best interests of nations at heart.
We all like to think that if we were made dictator of our nations the result would be an unprecedented age of prosperity, happiness and rejoicing which would result in the mass production of flattering statuary featuring ourselves in heroic poses. No-one is guiltier of this than nationalists who almost invariably imagine that a few simple measures will resolve all of the deep seated problems facing our societies.
What if we are wrong? The concept of the nation state is based on the classic “all in” mentality of the Industrial age which is about concentration of resources in an attempt to maximise output. The problem with this mentality is that is risks complete failure in order to attempt to reach optimal performance. At the level of states that means the fate of entire nations is staked on the success or failure of a single organisation, at best if that organisation succeeds that nation gets a little bit richer, or healthier, or happier or whatever objective it is pursuing which is a small reward compared to the risk of misrule leading to invasion, civil war or economic collapse. Nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced that in regard to the nation state, in no other sector of society is a single organisational allowed to dominate an entire sphere of activity, although Apple and Microsoft appear not to have received that particular memo.
If nations were organised into smaller units of governance then rather than betting the farm on a single strategy they would be able to experiment with dozens of societal arrangements. This would produce competition and cross fertilisation with the best methods of social, economic and political organisation spreading as a consequence of their proven success. The compares with the traditional nation state strategy whereby innovations are haphazardly trialled on a national level based on theoretical predictions of their performance. It is likely that such a competitive environment would produce real dynamism in all sorts of techniques of social management. This dynamism offers the prospect of accelerating the process of societal adaptation creating better environments for all.
And after all what is the worst that could happen? One element of the nation makes some bad decisions and suffers a localised breakdown of society. From the point of view of the nation as a whole that event would actually serve a useful purpose in that it would have been discovered that whatever had caused the breakdown was defective. Moreover since only one element of the nation was affected the rest could swiftly intervene to rescue the unfortunate community. Whereas if such a disastrous policy set was enacted at a national level through a nation state the consequences would negatively impact the entire nation. History is full of example of nation states doing exactly that, indeed looked at in a certain light none of them have ever done anything else.
There is an issue of justice here also, there are any amount of people within any society who think they have a better idea of how it should be run. In many cases these ideas are manifestly stupid and yet their advocates never have to pay the price for this stupidity as they are constantly thwarted by the state. Surely natural justice and simple common sense says these people should be invited to show us what their favoured arrangements can do? And if that ends up with half of them dead and the other half ruined and emaciated as a result of their own idiocy then the problem resolves itself and justice is served.
Perhaps there is some small section of my intended audience which has not yet been persuaded that the traditional nation state strategy of nationalism is in theory and practice no longer sustainable. There might be those unmoved by appeals to ideological consistency, whose faith in the nation state is unswayed by two centuries of failure and who are careless of the risks the nation state model poses to nations.
So here’s the killer.
There is no fucking way on Earth that anyone who adheres to any of the traditional values of nationalism, or any variant of them, is ever getting anywhere near controlling a nation state again, if they ever did.
No reasonable or informed person can imagine a conceivable sequence of events by which the elites currently in power in the West can be removed or replaced as controllers of the nation states. However even if we could then that alone would be insufficient since unless a majority of Western states enacted some sort of simultaneous revolution, something like 1848 but this time it would have to actually work, the surviving establishment states would destroy any “occupied” state completely.
All other points are moot.
Nation state nationalism has failed, and it is not likely to be resurrected. Moreover it failed because of intrinsic flaws within the strategy. If the concepts inherent to nationalism are again to become a serious force within Western societies we must begin to re-consider how they might be manifested. It’s time for post nation-state nationalism.