The Failing State

The nation state is the most successful and important social institution in the world. Anything larger — the EU for example — tends to be a technocratic exercise without emotional pull. Anything smaller lives at the mercy of the nation; Kashmir being this week’s illustration of that general principle. For most of us, a world map is a map of countries.

What else could it be?

Yet, the nation state is a relative newcomer in the history of the world. There were only 77 sovereign states in 1900 while there are 195 today. Most of the new entrants came during the era of decolonization with a few more thrown in when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed.

As far as I can tell, there’s no general principle that answers the question: “what’s the basis for creating a state?” Geographical continuity is a major plus (Pakistan at independence and the US today being prominent exceptions) but it’s not a sufficient condition for most national boundaries are between neighbors. Religion and language also help, but not always. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that linguistic concepts were often family resemblance categories. His famous example was that of games: some are competitive, some are team sports and some are board games. There’s no single definition that covers all games.

The concept of nationhood is also a family resemblance category, except that it’s not just a concept. It’s out there in the world and with real consequences. Close to the Wagah border, it’s not clear to me if I should draw the boundary between India and Pakistan — the current situation — or between Punjab and non-Punjab (which is how some people might want it). Identities aren’t etched in stone even if national boundaries are.

Despite these philosophical conundrums, the list of states is relatively stable. We haven’t added many in the last few decades except for those that took on a sovereign identity after the Soviet collapse. In fact, the stability of nation states is so important that even when foreign powers meddle in their affairs, they don’t change territorial boundaries. Coups yes, Operation Iraqi Freedom yes, but don’t redraw the map please.

Stable boundaries are a good thing I suppose, especially when there’s a global consensus that we don’t use violence to change those boundaries. Unfortunately, this rigid designator is inadequate for many of our challenges.

Some challenges arise at the sub-national level, where the national identity has a hard time co-existing with sub-national identities. I don’t mean the liberal complaint that the nation can’t handle multiple identities, that I can’t be Tamil and Indian at the same time (yes, I can!). That challenge also exists but I am thinking of a different problem: the violence of the state and/or its citizens when they detect what they believe to be a betrayal of national loyalty. Why can’t we be better about juggling allegiances? Why can’t I be Indian while cheering on another country’s cricket team? There’s a strange residue of monotheism in the way we calculate national loyalties.

Consider Kashmir. I am betraying no confidence when I say that most valley Kashmiris want out of India while most of their Ladakhi and Jammu counterparts want to stay. It seems like the only way to “solve” that problem is by breaking the state apart and intensifying the military presence in the valley.

Nation states being what they are today, there’s no chance that India will allow the creation of an independent Kashmiri nation. But why is independence the only option? Or unending repression? We don’t have good models for the sharing of power, of multiple sovereignties.

Then there are the problems that arise at the supranational level because the reach of the sovereign nation is partial. While people have to be content with a primary sovereign, capital has no such allegiance. I have to apply for a visa to go to China, but my money can go there in a few seconds and come back a few weeks later as a computer. That works for me as a consumer, but creates real challenges for me as a worker doesn’t it? I can’t switch jobs from one country to another while my employer can switch factories far more easily: Bangladesh today, Vietnam tomorrow and back to the US only when protectionist sentiment is high.

The mobility of capital (and the capitalist) vis-a-vis the immobility of labor is both a cause of the close relationship between the lords of industry and political elites across the world and caused by that relationship. Those cozy relationships at the top are the basis of a global cybernetic system in which finance plays the role of a controller (in the way that switches and steering wheels are controllers in a mechanical system) that sends signals to a labor that in turn moves matter from place A to place B upon receiving the controlling signals.

Photographer: Andy Watkins | Source: Unsplash

Which leads to another problem. The further matter moves, the more energy it consumes. It doesn’t take me any more effort to click a button and buy a widget from China rather than the town next door, but the carbon footprint of the former is so much greater. Here the nation state conveniently plays exactly the opposite role that it plays in the labor-capital nexus. It enables the liberation and movement of carbon but prevents signals opposing that movement (international pressure, for example) from coming in. As the Amazon burns, the Brazilian government claims its sovereign right to do what it pleases with the lungs of the earth while criticizing international NGOs for creating trouble.

I am not saying the state will go away or even that it should, but it sure looks incapable of being the institutional form in which the wickedest problems of the times will be solved.

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