Instead of Nation States

It’s disturbing to see how neatly nationalism dovetails into fascism. While we must not allow the fascists to define what the nation is, or who it belongs to, it’s worth keeping in mind that nationalism, in all its many avatars-socialist, capitalist and fascist-has been at the root of almost all the genocides of the twentieth century. On the issue of nationalism, it’s wise to proceed with caution.

Arundhati Roy, April 2002

It’s disturbing to see how neatly nationalism dovetails into fascism. While we must not allow the fascists to define what the nation is, or who it belongs to, it’s worth keeping in mind that nationalism, in all its many avatars-socialist, capitalist and fascist-has been at the root of almost all the genocides of the twentieth century. On the issue of nationalism, it’s wise to proceed with caution.

Arundhati Roy, April 2002

A state can be defined as a ‘coercion-wielding organization that exercises priority over all other organizations in a definite territory’, after Charles Tilly.

Tilly says that the logic of states is to try to expand their power territorially by making war with their neighbours, and to deepen their power over the territories they do control, and to extract the resources they need to do so. The nice things that governments do–like running schools, building roads, and putting out urban fires–are side effects to the basic violent function of the state.

Some–including anarchists but also many people who don’t consider themselves anarchists but take democracy seriously–don’t like states, and argue that the nice things can be accomplished without empowering violent organizations if people could figure out how to solve their disputes, put out fires, run schools, and build roads based on mutual aid and solidarity.

One question for those who don’t want violence to arbitrate everything is–if we have some kind of government, who is going to fall under it, and who isn’t? If we have states, it’s simple–whoever the state manages to conquer ends up under its jurisdiction, and others end up under the jurisdiction of other states. But if violence isn’t to decide, what is?

One option is to have governments based on nationality. What is a nationality? It’s not defined purely by language, or territory, or history, or shared cultural practices, but some combination of these attributes makes a group a national group. The suppression of national groups’ demands for separation by states controlled by other national groups is the cause of a good deal of misery today.

Turkey and Iraq oppress the Kurds, Israel oppresses the Palestinians, India and Pakistan oppress Kashmiris, Sri Lanka oppresses Tamils, states in the Americas oppress indigenous nations. Is the solution for each of these national groups to have their own states?

It is clearly an injustice that some national groups have states– these coercion-wielding power instruments with armies and definite control over territories–and others do not. Either everyone should have the right to a state for their national group, or no one should. But which should it be? Should we divide the world into thousands of separate states–because there are thousands of nations, not hundreds but thousands–or should we all become ‘stateless peoples’?

Nationalists argue that the problem in Turkey, Iraq, Israel, South Asia, Sri Lanka is precisely that the suppressed nationalities lack states of their own. They argue that a national group will not be safe in a world of nation-states unless it has a state of its own. This was the argument of the Zionists as well.

And they are, unfortunately, right. No national group will be safe in a world of nation states unless it has a state of its own. Nor will many national groups be safe even when they do have states of their own. That is because it is a world of nation states, and that is what has to change.

What could replace the nation-state? There is a need for government, even if there isn’t a need for states. Some mechanisms for collective-decision making and dispute resolution are needed, and this means some form of citizenship is required.

A citizen of some polity is one who has the power to contribute to decisions in the polity and the duty to abide by the rules of that polity. There is also a need for some norms for the development, use, and jurisdiction over land and resources. The ultimate arbiter of these things in our world, in spite of all the tremendous control that corporations have, is still the nation-state (which cedes this control to corporations and provides the force to back corporate control up).

So there is a need for a non-national basis for citizenship, and a non-national basis for land tenure and jursidiction.

First, the issue of land. Land is a fundamental resource in economic development, and it is also a basis for political power. It is a way of organizing political, and even cultural, rules. Different rules can apply in different territories.

But this means that economic, political, and cultural norms come into play in the disposition of land. In a just economy, resources are apportioned in accord with equity, solidarity, and self-management. These values preclude private ownership of land, but allow use rights. Who is to get use rights to land? In a just economy the benefits from the development of land for whatever purpose accrue to all, and are not monopolized by the users of the land.

So the economic logic would be to give use rights to those who could get the most benefit out of the use of the land–which benefit would be distributed equitably throughout the society. But there is also the political question, of whose jurisdiction will a parcel of land fall under? If there are multiple political units, which gets to make rules for the development of a parcel of land?

The political principle of autonomy and self-management gives decision-making power to an actor in accord with the degree that actor is affected. As far as land goes, the people most affected are those who are currently on the land (or in the case of refugees, those who have been pushed off of the land). These people would have to have the greatest degree of decision-making power over particular pieces of land.

Next, the issue of citizenship. In a democracy citizens would have to take decisions at all kinds of levels. They would have some say in decisions from local expenditures on schools to global expenditures on climate change mitigation. They would be subject to everything from local laws on water use to international human rights laws.

In between, they might be subject to ‘road laws’ or ‘railway laws’ for whole continents. So citizenship ought to be differentiated at these levels as well. Local, territorial citizenship based on residence in an area, and wider citizenships in wider jurisdictions besides. This might be more complex than a single national citizenship–but would permit a more rational system than the system of militarized borders, racism against immigrants, and enforced poverty and political disempowerment for whole populations of third world countries.

This could not happen overnight for a number of reasons.

First, one of the reasons border and immigration controls are so stringent is because of huge differentials in standard of living that create impulses for immigration from poor to rich countries. A more rational system of citizenship and a shedding of borders necessitates equalization of standards-of-living of the kind that social movements against imperialism and capitalist globalization have been calling for.

Another reason this could not happen overnight is that nationalism, and mutual distrust between oppressed and oppressing national groups, is powerful and will not simply wither away. Between a nation-state-less world and today there might be a need for the creation of new states for oppressed national groups, especially Palestine (although in this case folks have only recently given up on a democratic, secular, binational state in Palestine).

A transition to such a system would most likely be one of a progressively relaxing federalism and progressively greater autonomy for national groups, as well as an bolstering of democratic mechanisms at international levels. The relationship between Quebec and Canada is an example of a sensible federalism that has worked to ease tension by increasing the autonomy of the ‘stateless’ group even as representation of that group is increased at the national level.

Contrary to what the majority groups in national states think, minority claims for self-determination are best answered by granting greater autonomy, not by suppressing those claims with force. Suppression gives the secessionist groups a better claim to not being able to get justice within the union.

Examples of the bolstering of international mechanisms would include the establishment of a world parliament to decide on matters like climate change mitigation and international trade (like George Monbiot mentioned in his essay on ‘how to rule the world’) and an international criminal court to try crimes against humanity.

Charles Tilly, mentioned at the beginning of this essay, offered in his book ‘Coercion, Capital and European States’ not only a definition of states but also a reason for their existence and war-making nature.

He stated that the reason for states is ‘coercion works: those who apply substantial force to their fellows get compliance, and from that compliance draw the multiple advantages of money, goods, deference, access to pleasures denied to less powerful people.

There is little point in offering an alternative to nation-state organization if there isn’t a way to change the fact that coercion works. In this new stateless world, if one political jurisdiction decided to organize an armed force and take the lands of its neighbours, its neighbours would be forced, however reluctantly, to organize states of their own, and perhaps ideologies like nationalism to glorify the actions of these states.

We would then be back where we started. So in addition to offering a way of re-organizing citizenship and territory, there is a need for a plan to maintain this re-organization and prevent the return of nation-states to the scene.

One such plan was offered in the 1960s by Arthur Waskow in a little paper called ‘Keeping the World Disarmed’. Waskow had in mind national governments, specifically great powers, enforcing nuclear disarmament treaties, but his system generalizes.

The idea is that these political units, each with some minimum amount of armed force– known, negotiated and agreed to by the other parties to be an amount insufficient to overwhelm or conquer neighbouring units- – meet together in council. If one political unit, call it Suspicia, suspects another unit, call it Armada, of starting to arm with conquering intentions, it is allowed to send a single, unarmed inspector to investigate.

If, on the other hand, it wants to send a larger force, perhaps to shut down a weapons facility, perhaps armed with tear gas, it would need a greater degree of consensus– say, the backing of one-third of the council. If it wants to send a still larger force, it needs more consensus. If the international inspector finds an arms buildup in Armada, those responsible are punished as criminals, and Armada is not punished as a whole.

The system is essentially one in which the use of more force requires greater consensus. The reason it could work in practice is because the greater the imminence and size of the threat, the easier it would be to achieve consensus. And if the initial, single, unarmed inspector received a thrashing and was sent home, it would likely become easier for Suspicia to win backing for a larger force the next time.

It is also practical because if every party agrees at the outset to have limited armed forces, raising armed forces for a big action would require international consensus.

This system also works in the cases where a political unit is oppressing its own population. Unarmed monitors and inspectors could be ordered without any consensus by any country in the council, while forces for a ‘humanitarian intervention’ (a real one, though) could be raised by consensus– which would get easier to achieve as low levels of force failed to deter the oppressive regime from continuing its program.

Neither the economic values of equity and solidarity, nor the political values of autonomy and liberty, nor the cultural values of humanism, free expression, and diversity, can be realized in a world of nation-states. Luckily, there are alternatives to such a world.

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.