Those waiting for the demise of the nation-state may be waiting for a while

Robert Shiller makes a valiant attempt to push back against the current climate of pessimism and nationalism in a recent Project Syndicate piece, arguing that increasing empathy will eventually reduce the political and emotional salience of the nation-state:

For the past several centuries, the world has experienced a sequence of intellectual revolutions against oppression of one sort or another. These revolutions operate in the minds of humans and are spread – eventually to most of the world – not by war (which tends to involve multiple causes), but by language and communications technology. Ultimately, the ideas they advance – unlike the causes of war – become noncontroversial.

I think the next such revolution, likely sometime in the twenty-first century, will challenge the economic implications of the nation-state. It will focus on the injustice that follows from the fact that, entirely by chance, some are born in poor countries and others in rich countries. As more people work for multinational firms and meet and get to know more people from other countries, our sense of justice is being affected. …

Ultimately, the next revolution will likely stem from daily interactions on computer monitors with foreigners whom we can see are intelligent, decent people – people who happen, through no choice of their own, to be living in poverty. This should lead to better trade agreements, which presuppose the eventual development of orders of magnitude more social insurance to protect people within a country during the transition to a more just global economy.

To put this in the terms of Dani Rodrik’s globalization trilemma, the argument is that the natural direction of human history is to choose economic integration and democratic politics over the nation-state. It seems that this was Rodrik’s own hope when he originally formulated the trilemma, though recent events like the UK’s vote for Brexit have made that direction seem much less inevitable. Shiller seems to think of political change as a kind of widening circle of intellectual empathy: over time, the boundary of empathy widens from your immediate neighbors, to include people of different races, different religions and eventually different nations.

I think this is an insufficiently anthropological approach that neglects how actual social institutions create more powerful ties than an abstract sympathy. Re-reading this year Benedict Anderson’s wonderful book on nationalism, Imagined Communities (it still ranks as one of the best reads of any academic book ever) has reinforced my feeling that this kind of purely intellectual approach neglects the very things that have made the nation-state a powerful and persistent institution. The nation-state is not an arbitrary oppressive illusion that people will see through once they become sufficiently advanced. Rather, it is a specific social institution like any other; to quote Anderson:

All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

The nation is imagined but it is not imaginary; it is founded in actual shared experiences, real relationships and established institutions, and these generate an emotional attachment. Anderson again:

Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

For the nation-state to become politically irrelevant in the way Shiller suggests, it is not enough for people to be polite to the foreigners they see on their computer screens. Rather, the nation-state would have to be superseded by another “imagined community.” And this is a little difficult to (ahem) imagine.

What new social institutions are now creating shared experiences that could eventually supersede the nation-state? Many early nationalisms were based on shared experiences of imperialism and colonialism. So it makes some sense to argue that the nation-state’s successor is being bred by the experiences produced by the contemporary strain of global capitalism.

The multinational corporation is the example favored by Shiller; another obvious one is the European Union. The much-remarked age difference in the UK’s Brexit vote–youth overwhelmingly voting to remain–could perhaps be an early sign of changing attachments. A new generation, raised in the reality of a united Europe and taking pan-European travel and job opportunities as their rightful birthright, perhaps is indeed starting to imagine a community that supersedes the nation-state.

But is a multinational Europe (or Nafta, or whatever) in fact a community, or just a much wider field on which individuals pursue economic self-interest and career advancement? Do the participants in these multinational zones really see themselves as a community–are they forming emotional relationships rather than just engaging in arms-length market exchanges? I am not saying the answer is obviously no, but neither is it obviously yes.

I suspect it will not be until something more than economic self-interest binds together the emerging multinational class that the nation-state will be finally replaced by some other institution. I think this comment of Anderson’s is still an effective riposte to Shiller’s argument, despite having been made back in 1983:

In themselves, market-zones, ‘natural’-geographic or politico-administrative, do not create attachments. Who will willingly die for Comecon or the EEC?

One Comment

  1. Your contention, informed by Shiller, seems correct. But I’d add this-

    If the territorial state were to lose more position, it need not be replaced by an imagined community that was global in scope, nor even by ever larger regional ones. It might also involve different forms of tribal allegiance- cross border allegiance to ethnic groups, extended families, corporations, professional associations, ideologies, networks of like minded cities, economic interest groups, ad nauseam…

    All of which already exist to some extent and always did, but they had some loss of salience in the nationalist era.

    For that matter, dynastic allegiance may not have gone away.

    Not for the first time, I wonder if science fiction has not shown the way.

    That and the work of the some of the English school IR theorists like Hedley Bull and others who characterized the future as some form of ‘neofeudalism’. There are degrees of neofeudalism of course. I hope not to live long enough to be indentured.


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