Structured Text on Sovereignty, Nationhood, Statehood

On the core tenets of modern politics, examining in abstract the problématiques of 'who governs' and 'where is the locus of power'

About the content and presentation of this book

1 The Structured Text on Sovereignty, Nationhood, Statehood (STSNS) is a work on political philosophy.

1.1 STSNS explores topics pertaining to the two central metapolitical problématiques of “who governs” and “where is the locus of power”.

1.2 We define metapolitics as the field of research that examines the general themes common to all instances of politics. It is the study of the abstract structure of political phenomena. Patterns and constants that can be discerned in day-to-day events, yet remain withdrawn from immediate experience because of their higher degree of abstraction.

1.2.1 The prefix “meta” is applied in the same sense as in the Aristotelian corpus of work. “Meta”, literally meaning “after” (from Greek μετά), is the body of research that follows from the practical understanding of the subject at hand. In Aristotle’s work, meta-physics (after the physics) is the inquiry into the abstract structure of physics; an inquiry that follows from the study into the particulars of physics.

1.2.2 As such, the prefix “meta” does not acquire its typical contemporary meaning of self-reference. “Meta” is the field of research that connects concrete findings to generalisable rules and higher order insights. To do metapolitics, we must be versed in politics. And this, by the by, is how we ought to approach philosophical considerations. Start by mastering the specifics. Else risk constant confusion and frustration.

1.3 The present book is not a thorough exploration of the metapolitical space. It has a limited scope. To study at some depth the major magnitudes of sovereignty, nationhood, statehood. What is political agency? Does the state express the will of the nation? Is there such a thing as a singular will of an otherwise heteroclite collective? Is there any use to distinguishing between the state and the polity? Should sovereignty be regarded as fixed, static, or otherwise bound to a certain set of prevailing conditions? Can sovereignty, or political agency at large, be emergent? Are nations, or other [ostensibly/actually] organic collective wholes, indivisible? Is their treatment as entities per se, justified? Can a nation emerge from within another nation, or more generally, an organically linked group come to form from within another one? And what does that say about the quality of the original qua organic?

1.4 The target audience of STSNS is the informed citizen, politician, or researcher who is willing to critically reflect on the issues examined herein. You do not need to be a philosopher. Just be prepared to entertain a thought without accepting it in advance.

1.5 STSNS expects you to take it seriously and invest time in it. Fear not; it is a short piece.

1.6 While philosophical, this book does not conform to the stereotype of being flamboyant. No obscure language is used. Common terms are not given a mystical, ‘profound’ meaning that only insiders can grasp. The signification attached to a technical term remains constant throughout. No charlatanry. Sentences are concise. Everything is explained in context and is structured in a logical way.

1.7 Obscurity is our bane. Clarity is our friend. As such, it is important we subscribe to two rules of thumb:

  • Rule of plainness. Between two equally correct explanations, the one with the simpler language should be used.
  • Rule of frankness. Terms should not be intentionally used to deceive or to obfuscate meanings.

1.7.1 Any deviation should be considered a serious fault of the author.

2 This book is written in the form of structured text.

2.1 Structured text is an indexed (numbered) series of thoughts. Each chapter’s first paragraph starts with 1, and the number is incremented accordingly. When there is a thematic shift, it is increased by 1. Otherwise it is increased by 0.1. The latter is called the level of “depth”. Some statements increase in depth, so that a statement with three numbers, such as 2.2.1 marks the first comment on statement 2.2. And so on.

2.2 At first sight, this may not seem intuitive or anyhow superior to the standard essay. Indeed, it is a different paradigm: more suitable to a study that unfolds over multiple sessions. For such cases, I find this format to be more accommodative than the essay. You can tell from the structure alone where one line of reasoning starts and where it ends. Referencing statements also becomes easier. Just note the index and the chapter’s title.

2.2.1 It is why my last two publications on philosophy follow this approach:1 a philosophical opus is typically read more than once.

2.3 The reason for adding “structured text” to the title is three-fold:

  • Being conscious of the presentation can help optimise for it. A book is useful only if it communicates well.
  • Explaining the format is necessary because it is not standard. Knowing those details will help you read through this book.
  • The irregularity of this particular presentation is the inline comment, or else what we will be referring to as the “interposed statement”. This is a sentence, or series thereof, placed right before the statement or paragraph being referenced. Their function is ancillary. Typically to express a tangential thought, or to add a short summary. Think of interposed statements as verbose marginalia. Normally, you would want to read them, though that is not strictly necessary. They can be ignored, as they do not expand on the line of reasoning that is being developed.

;; Interposed Statements are styled differently.

2.3 Interposed Statements are always formatted in italics and are declared/initiated with a double semicolon sign ;;.

2.3.1 Those familiar with programming will notice the parallel to source code documentation. Comments in between the actual content. Good documentation is a sign of well formulated code. This is no different. Structured text is about clarity. Keeping things understandable already at the syntactical level.

2.3.2 Ideally, structured text would benefit from all the innovations computers bring to typography. Text highlighting for instance. Or “line folding” that could toggle the visibility of sections on and off (such as hiding all interposed statements). But because the reader may eventually print this out, such possibilities are not explored any further. We rely on conventional methods of typography.

;; Why this book?
;; The public dialogue needs an upgrade.

3 Sovereignty, nationhood, statehood form the core tenets of modern politics. The international world order is based on them. Indeed, the very notion of “inter-national” would be meaningless without the construct of the nation. Similarly, the idea of independent nation states would be impractical without an understanding of what independence entails.

3.1 The purpose of this book is to develop a clearer understanding of the ‘bigger picture’ of politics. It is an attempt to both explore and re-appraise notions that are assumed as common knowledge or self-evident. Ultimately, this serves the purpose of formulating a new or enriched appreciation of the magnitudes that underpin quotidian political phenomena. Better knowledge of the core tenets of modern politics will help avoid confusion, common errors, and crass misunderstandings.

;; Social media tends to skew reality.
;; Extremes enjoy disproportionate exposure.

3.2 This is a time where politics is very reactive and emotionally-driven. Demagogues are forcing their way into the forefront. Coupled with the opportunism and short-termism of social media as well as its propensity for favouring echo chambers and filter bubbles, the cumulative effect is a degradation of the public dialogue’s quality. Reasonableness gives way to dogmatism. Populism becomes the new normal, complemented by widespread misinformation and poor journalistic ethics. And while a ‘populist anti-populism’ may seem tempting, it too would have to appeal to the people’s base instincts, ultimately accommodating an arena for trolls and fanatics to battle it out. That is a race to the bottom.

3.3 Rationality and deliberation have no substitutes. Those in search of alternatives to the populist juggernaut had best review things they consider basic before going any further. Challenge the underlying assumptions, the main assertions. Think: what is it that makes sovereignty necessarily national? Or, to put it in terms of the European integration process, why is integration always equated to ‘power transfers’ and a loss of sovereignty?

3.4 Take this book as an impetus to reflect on these and relevant topics. STSNS may not necessarily exhaust any one topic. It will, however, urge you to contemplate on the propriety or adequacy of your beliefs. A rethink is key to changing the parameters of the public debate.

4 Each chapter of this book tackles a single theme in this order: (i) sovereignty, (ii) nation, (iii) state, (iv) nation state.

4.1 Each chapter builds on the findings of its preceding one.

4.2 While the chapters can, for the most part, stand on their own, the reader is expected to study them in their defined sequence.

5 The Structured Text on Sovereignty, Nationhood, Statehood is distributed free of charge, under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC BY-SA), version 4.0.

5.1 This book’s canonical URL is an extension of my website at

What is sovereignty

1 In essence, sovereignty is supreme political authority within the confines of a political order. It is:

  • The power that overrides every other.
  • The justification for governance.
  • The enabler of governance.
  • The boundary to governance.

1.1 Supreme political authority is the equivalent of “the main archy” (from Greek αρχή). It denotes a political order with a locus of power, or else a system where [more] power is concentrated somewhere.

1.1.1 The absence of an archy is a state of anarchy.

1.1.2 This should be disambiguated from the ideologies of anarchism which, strictly speaking, want to set up an instituted system, albeit a distributed one.

1.1.3 An “instituted system” means a political order. It is the product of convention, not the state of nature.

1.2 Sovereignty is always expressed through—is made manifest in—an agent.

1.2.1 If supreme political authority rests in a person, then that person is the sovereign. There is an identification between the magnitude of sovereignty and the agency. Or else, the magnitude is personalised.

1.2.2 Whereas, in the modern era, sovereignty is found in a more abstract construct: the nation. The nation as such is the sovereign. Yet, unlike a person, the nation is impersonal. Sovereignty understood as national sovereignty is expressed through forms of political organisation and modes of governance that are supposed to be consistent with that nation’s culture or traditions.

1.3 Sovereignty conforms with the dual cardinal function of political organisation: recognition and confirmation.

1.3.1 The sovereign is recognised as such either explicitly or implicitly insofar as it remains undisputed. Tacit recognition is the lowest requirement.

1.3.2 Serious challenges to supreme political authority suggest an implosion of the status quo.

1.3.3 Confirmation is the ongoing approval of the recognised supreme political authority. It can also be explicit or implicit.

1.3.4 The absence of disputes hints at the lowest minimum of confirmation. Supreme political authority is allowed to function unencumbered, while its subjects keep on with their daily activities. That suggests a compromise between at least two mutually exclusive options: (i) upsetting the establishment without a clear understanding of what may follow, or (ii) committing to life as usual because the current order is preferable to an unpredictable state of affairs.

1.3.5 The democratic equivalents to recognition and confirmation, those of legitimacy and accountability, set a higher bar for the normative aspects of sovereignty, in conformity with the principles of democracy. So that, for instance, accountability is assessed in accordance with expected procedures and objective criteria rather than just the absence of internal strife. These are differences of degree not substance. While of paramount importance to politics, they are of tangential relevance to metapolitics: a study that seeks to understand things at their formal level.

1.3.6 The idea is that even an absolute despot must enjoy some kind of consent. At least a close group of associates must act in concert with the authority. Else there can be no supreme political authority, for power of this kind does not hinge on the physical capacity of a person to exert control over others. That is severely limited.

1.3.7 Without a modicum of recognition/confirmation (a state of anarchy), other forces within the political order would eventually seek to gain sovereignty. Alternatively, a supreme political authority, or institutional arrangement with the same effect, would have to be devised in an attempt to dissuade such opportunists.

;; The ideal of democratic sovereignty.
;; This assumes a working, modern democratic system.

1.4 For democracies, sovereignty is initially conceived as a composite of the dual cardinal function of political organisation and the values of popular rule (by, with, for the people). This gives us the magnitudes of legitimacy (recognition) and accountability (confirmation).

1.4.1 In essence, democratic life is the interplay between legitimacy and accountability; a feedback loop between the body of citizens and the group of their representatives. Citizens grant authority to their representatives to engage in governance. This makes representative rule legitimate (assuming consistency with the legal order). In turn, representatives act in ways that demonstrate their commitment to the promotion of the public interest. They answer to their electorate.

;; Political organisation is continuous.
;; Legitimation and accountability occur all the time.

1.4.2 Legitimacy is not validated once at the point of its assignment. It is confirmed incessantly through the political process. This is what accountability is about. Representatives must demonstrate that they are performing the task of governance in the service of the public interest at all times. Legitimacy and accountability are two sides of the same coin (hence the notion of a dual cardinal function of political organisation). An official entity can only be legitimate if it may be held accountable. Otherwise it is abusive in proportion to the competences conferred to it and the adequacy of the means for assessing its operations.

1.5 The dual cardinal function of political organisation is not actualised in a cultural-historical vacuum. Each political order has a set of criteria that regulate the various aspects of quotidian life. While forms and content may vary considerably, these range from statutes to customs. In the modern era, the standard is a corpus of law that consists of several branches, each with a particular application on a facet of daily life. At its foundation is the primary law, or else the constitution. Every law must be aligned with it. Complementary to the legal order is a vast body of rules of custom regulating various aspects of social activity and the political process in a more decentralised, bottom-up fashion (since these are not strictly enshrined in law and are not enforced by the judiciary).

;; The democratic feedback loop expressed through the regulation of political processes.

1.5.1 The relationship between the legal order and governance is reciprocal. Laws represent a political order’s commitment to comply with predictable procedures that prevent instances of abuse or tyranny. In a sense, these can be understood as short term restraints. But only as temporary and limited in nature.

1.5.2 The legal order is not exogenous to the political entity. It is the body of citizens, mostly through their representatives, that makes the laws. Every rule is subject to change. Some may be more difficult to amend, such as the constitution, but that does not alter the fact that all laws are conventional.

1.5.3 Strictly speaking, laws do not constrain supreme political authority. For law is an expression of sovereign will. They may limit the actions of the government, or of decision makers in general. Such bodies are performing the function of governance, which is not equivalent to sovereignty. Their nomination rests on sovereignty. Their operations do not exhaust it.

;; Democratic sovereignty is not limited to the powers of the government. Do not forget the people. There are two ways to appreciate this insight:

  • If supreme political authority is limited by another force, then it is not supreme.
  • Democratic sovereignty is initially conceived as the composite of the dual cardinal function of political organisation (recognition/confirmation or else legitimacy/accountability) and the norms and values of popular rule. Democratic sovereignty thus encompasses both the actual powers of the state apparatus and the broader capacity of the people to legitimise and to hold accountable their authorities.

1.5.4 Democratic sovereignty is thus subdivided into state sovereignty and popular sovereignty. These work in concert.

1.5.5 State sovereignty contains the powers peculiar to governance (legitimacy) and the accompanying obligations (accountability). While popular sovereignty describes the functions whereby the people grant legitimacy to the various parts of the state apparatus and then proceed to confirm it through the political process.

1.6 Democratic sovereignty in its outline form is the result of the interplay between the body of citizens and the group of representatives. This, however, is a description that does not correspond to any actual political order. It ignores the temporal dimension, which is embedded in the underlying culture and codified in the legal system.

;; The legal order reflects historical evolution.

1.6.1 The underlying culture and the legal order must be understood in terms of temporality. A continuous evaluation, adaptation, and enforcement of effective morality. Culture and its expression in law maps the evolution of applied ethics to rules that have effect throughout the political order. When law makers pass a new piece of legislation, they are in effect expressing the prevailing collective response to the task at hand. This is contingent on the circumstances and, thus, subject to change over time.

1.6.2 While considering the relationship between the democratic feedback loop and the underlying culture, it is appropriate to think in terms of temporalities. In other words, to understand that what happens in day-to-day politics unfolds at a rate that is not necessarily synchronous to the pace of change that determines a political order’s legal or moral tradition.

1.6.3 Asynchronous temporalities can explain the gradual phases a people goes through in its history. Why a people cannot just vote to break free from the cultural-historical path it follows. It rather is the cumulative effect of incremental changes that can bring about such a wide-ranging transition over the longer term. The very phenomenon of a major paradigm shift is only graspable with the benefit of historical hindsight.

1.6.4 Sovereignty seen from a macro historical perspective is trapped in the web of its present time. Even instances of revolution—presumably measures for accelerated radical reform—are more likely than not to be held back by such inertia.

;; There is no clean slate.
;; People start from somewhere in terms of their current state of knowledge, beliefs, values. Consider how the American Revolution developed a system of representative democracy where the President is not too dissimilar to a monarch, in terms of their powers. Or how the French Revolution paved the way for Napoleon (an emperor, nor a democrat, the historical circumstances notwithstanding). In more recent times, how the Arab Spring largely failed to deliver the speedy democratic transition it was touted to. France eventually broke free from its old order, even though its semi-presidential system has retained certain features of monarchy. Similarly, countries where the Arab Spring took place may eventually realise their original ambition in the future. The point remains: there is no escaping a cultural-historical path. Certainly not in the sense of changing everything at once, from the roots to the branches. Whatever the agency of sovereign will, it is not derived from nothing nor does it operate in nothing. It always springs from and is immersed in a given cultural-historical environment. It exists within those boundaries.

1.6.5 The notion of an absolute sovereignty would have to be qualified as “absolute in the sense of being uncontested”. That would still confine it to the broader magnitudes of historical evolution. If, however, “absolute” means decontextualised or transcendent, then there is no such thing as absolute sovereignty. All sovereignty comes from a cultural-historical milieu and remains couched in those terms.

;; Introducing the distinction between headline and effective sovereignty.

2 Supreme political authority is not limited to a legal or normative claim on all the rights and responsibilities—the concrete powers and potentiality—of ruling over a political order.

2.1 Supreme political authority refers to the highest form of authority within the political whole. The main archy. “Who governs”. Other notions of sovereignty that are bound to some sense of propriety, such as the democratic sovereignty described above, are matters of convention.

2.1.1 “Conventional” signifies that which is in conformity with the prevailing practical morality: with what is considered appropriate in the given time and space.

;; Headline sovereignty is supreme political authority on paper.

2.2 To signify the facet of sovereignty that is aligned with convention, we borrow a term from economics: headline. Headline sovereignty describes the state of affairs as it ought to be in accordance with the established rules of custom and legal principles. It is the indicator of supreme political authority within a political order that is unadjusted for the prevailing circumstances.

2.2.1 The economist employs the term “headline” as a shorthand for denoting that the indicator under consideration does not describe things in fullness. For example, headline inflation does not tell us anything about the general price level’s adjustments resulting from fluctuations in energy prices.

2.2.2 In the modern era, headline sovereignty is enjoyed by nation states that are internationally recognised as such.

;; Effective sovereignty is supreme political authority in practice.

2.3 The adjustment to the actual conditions gives us effective sovereignty. It refers to supreme political authority within a political order as it actually stands.

2.3.1 The term “effective” is used to signify that which is in effect; the one that holds true in practice. Similar to how we employ the concept of “effective control”.

;; The equality of states pertains only to headline sovereignty.

2.4 In an ideal scenario headline and effective sovereignty are matched. All entities that enjoy headline sovereignty also have the capacity to exercise effective sovereignty to a degree commensurate with it. That, however, necessitates a global equilibrium where every political order is equal to all others in terms of its capacity for effective sovereignty.

2.4.1 In the absence of such an equilibrium, there can only be instances of a mismatch between headline and effective sovereignty. Either magnitude exists in greater proportion to the other.

;; Power understood as a set of factors of effective sovereignty.

2.5 Whether we refer to perfect symmetry between political orders, or the lack thereof, we are hinting at the power each entity wields. Where powers are equal, there is an equilibrium of the sort here considered. Where they are not, some entities enjoy greater effective sovereignty at the expense of the rest.

2.5.1 Power is a broad term. Perhaps a description that is more conducive to further research is “factors of effective sovereignty”. This covers any state of affairs or driver that enables or otherwise enhances the capacity to exercise supreme political authority under the circumstances.

2.5.2 The factors of effective sovereignty are context-dependent. Here is a short enumeration of some of the most obvious and common ones, with the proviso that these are not necessarily discreet and independent of each other: economic robustness, reduced exposure to environmental risks, internal peace, capacity to leverage the knowledge base for formulating policy, reliable military that dissuades aggressors while backing diplomatic initiatives, credible alliances.

;; Examples of the factors of effective sovereignty.
;; While non-exhaustive, these should give a fair idea of the concept.
;; Ultimately though, the factors need to be appreciated in the specifics of each case.
;; This is not a check list. It has to follow an evaluation of what applies under the circumstances. A political order with sound finances may be in a better negotiating position when it comes to signing a relevant deal. It has a higher chance to get things its way. That makes fiscal/financial solidity a factor of effective sovereignty within those circumstances. Those following EU politics can relate this to the dominant position of Germany during the years of the euro crisis, compared to the countries of the European South. Internal peace is contingent on a number of issues, such as the rule of law, fair burden sharing, solidarity between the people, equal opportunities, an inclusive body politic that does not marginalise communities. Internal peace renders the people more likely to act in support of each other in the face of a common challenge to their way of life. The absence of internal peace makes it easier to undermine the political order’s capacity to wield supreme political authority (divide and conquer). A relevant example would be homegrown terrorist cells. They mostly develop in places where marginalised communities and parallel societies are present. At its extreme, social exclusion can be likened to a time bomb that is placed at the political order’s foundations.

;; Politics and supreme political authority are inseparable.

3 Supreme political authority is inherent to a political order.

3.1 The absence of a political order is the state of nature. The only constant therein is the rule of might exercised through the use of brute force (law of the jungle).

3.2 What distinguishes the various applications of sovereignty from each other is the distribution of power and control across the members of the political order. Those are the modal features: whether we refer to a personalised or an impersonal sovereign, the rule of one or the rule of many, the concentration or diffusion of power, the compulsory or consensual nature of inter-personal relations and social experiences, and so on.

3.2.1 “Modal” denotes a feature that is specific to a mode of being. So not just that something is, but the exact way in which it is.

What is the nation

1 The nation is a potential impersonal agent of sovereign will.

1.1 By “agent” we refer to the subject that forms sovereign will. The prevailing conditions in which agency is made manifest constitute the “structure”, the objective magnitude.

1.2 By “potential” we indicate that we account for circumstances that could hinder or altogether prevent sovereign will formation. The capacity to act is not realisable independent of the structure. Action is not absolute.

1.2.1 The need to factor in the circumstances hints at the distinction between headline and effective sovereignty. What appears “on paper”, that which ought to be, does not necessarily correspond to reality.

1.3 And by “impersonal” we signify the nature of this entity as a collective. It is in contradistinction to other types of sovereign agency, where a person is touted as the embodiment of supreme political authority or as the personification of the state.

1.4 What exactly amounts to a nation remains imprecise. The lack of a physical, readily identifiable presence leads to ambiguity. A nation can, at first, be any of the following:

  • A culturally defined group of people, without access to an integrated political order (stateless nations, diasporas, ethnic minorities residing outside the boundaries of their ‘parent’ nation’s territorial confines).
  • A legally defined group of people, without a common identity, or, with a loose overarching cultural affiliation (newly-formed states comprising multiple cultural nuclei, decisively multicultural societies, the possibility of a nation that emerges from a union of nations).
  • Combinations of the above, with either of the two contributing to the formation of the other.

;; Cultural-historical constructs.
;; Nations are not limited to biological factors.

1.4.1 As to where genetics fit in this description, the consideration has to be two-fold: (i) a common culture can be the natural extension of shared ancestry, even though it is not limited to it nor is culture a function of kinship, and (ii) if biology were an irreducible factor of nationhood, then only biologically homogeneous nations would exist as natural constants.

1.5 Regardless of their origins as cultural-historical or legal constructs, nations can only function as agents of sovereign will formation if they are inwardly homogeneous.

;; Inward homogeneity is a nation’s sense of self.

1.5.1 Homogeneity of this sort pertains to the group’s self-awareness. Each individual identifies with their nation, in whatever terms the mutual bond may be defined in.

1.5.2 If the members of a given nation do not feel any connection to it, or swear allegiance to another collective, then the presumed nation cannot exercise sovereignty as a nation. A subset may claim to be representing the totality of the group, forcing its will on the rest. But in such cases, the nation exists as an inwardly homogeneous whole in name only.

1.5.3 There is, nonetheless, an element of temporality involved. At any given period, a nation may be fragmented, such as in instances of internal strife, or ideological divides like the Cold War. The fragmentation can be fully evaluated as temporary or as the new normality only with the benefit of historical hindsight. Amidst the events, all that can be said is that the nation is not operating as a singular agent of sovereign will formation.

1.5.4 Temporality or, more generally, the prevailing conditions, can explain cases where one presumed nation has more than one states or, conversely, where multiple nations form part of a greater nation.

2 Inward homogeneity and its byproducts are here defined as a nation’s irreducible quality of “inwardness”.

2.1 From a macro historical perspective, nations develop organically as collectives with a tendency for inward solidarity, that can culminate through means of supreme political authority. The sense of belonging is the basis for shared experiences and the further development of norms and value systems. These engender a belief in togetherness: a commitment to the nation.

2.1.1 The term “organic” should not be interpreted as denoting biological factors.

2.1.2 An organism is a distributed, self-sustaining system.

2.1.3 A system is a nexus of variable factors that produces local and global effects germane to the factors’ joint presence. It is a set of relations that gives rise to emergent phenomena.

2.1.4 Emergent is the phenomenon that can only be discerned in the joint operation of its contributing factors, never in each factor’s isolated state.

2.1.5 Put concretely, an organic whole is one that is sustained without incessant outside intervention.

2.2 The sense of togetherness that is peculiar to nations is derived from within the operations of the nations’ particulars. It is endogenous.

2.3 Unlike a tribe, nations need not share a common ancestry in the strict sense. Blood ties are secondary to the shared sense of belonging. The belief in the collective, in the very presence of a body that encompasses and binds together individuals, leads to a fundamental generalisation: individuals do not have to share any specific connection to their fellow nationals in order to feel close to them. The mere understanding that they belong to the same nation is a reliable starting point for developing virtuous relationships both at a personal and a political level.

2.4 Affinity can be understood in terms of affirmation or negation. Concerning the latter, it can be formulated in juxtaposition to a dissimilar presence. The sense of feeling closer to a fellow national can be reinforced by comparing them to individuals or groups thereof of a different background. A “we-they” method. Whereas the affirmative approach develops the parts of the identity that are peculiar to the nation: the shared experiences, historical images, values and representations, etc.

2.4.1 National identity does not necessarily commit to any one of these approaches. It can be a combination of affirmation and negation.

2.5 Inwardness is but a propensity. Be it as a whole or in either of its components of togetherness and solidarity.

2.5.1 A propensity is not a constant, not an absolute value that holds true regardless of the prevailing conditions. It is context dependent. As such, the term “propensity” is more of a way of denoting that individuals feel close to—or express solidarity towards—their fellow nationals “during the good times”, or “under normal circumstances”, or even “when the entire nation is compelled to act united”. It is a way of noting the possibility that a given nation does not exhibit holistic inwardness at any one point in time. Put differently: that it exhibits inwardness in a limited, selective, or incomplete fashion. For instance, structural violence, segregation, social inequalities, and other forms of injustice indicate the absence of holistic inwardness. What consolidates a nation’s inwardness, its propensity for solidarity and for togetherness, is the appropriate configuration of norms and institutions.

2.6 The primacy of inwardness as the defining feature of a nation does not preclude kinship. There can be nations that are biologically homogeneous, while still sustaining an identity with their peculiar magma of traditions and values. They can exist as a very big family of sorts.

;; Do not think of nations as natural constants.

2.6.1 Such a possibility needs to be backed up by sufficient evidence, which is outside the scope of this work. Defer to anthropology and neighboring fields of research. In the absence of sufficient evidence, claims on a common ancestry are more a product of ideology, ill designed research methods, or pseudoscience. They might hint at a kernel of truth, though not the entirety of it.

2.6.2 Furthermore, whether biology can actually be a predictor of nationhood remains open to scrutiny. There has to be sufficient proof that points at a causal link between blood relations and cultural-historical artefacts. Biology would need to be defined as the primary cause or, at least, as a major contributing factor of collective experience and development. Unless that is proven to be the case, a nation’s inner workings must be tentatively considered independently of genetics.

3 A nation is a broadly distributed interpersonal—an emergent—phenomenon.

3.1 The nation is impersonal. It is not made manifest in any given shape or form. It is amorphous.

3.2 A nation’s presence is contingent on the common belief of its existence among its members. Individuals forming the nation must have a shared faith in its presence. Only then the nation actualises as an inwardly homogeneous group bound by a spirit of togetherness and solidarity.

3.2.1 A group of people becomes a nation when it develops the credence of its identity to a point where it organically exhibits inward homogeneity.

3.2.2 The organic quality is paramount. It introduces the temporal magnitude, so that the nation is confirmed as such intergenerationally. Otherwise any like-minded group would be virtually indistinguishable from a nation.

3.2.3 The other element that is essential, is the sense of being close to people who are complete strangers. Again, that distinguishes the nation from a club. Nationals feel related to each other even when they have never met. They can assume that they have many things in common and that they are more alike than compared to people from a different background.

3.2.4 Each individual may have a particular idea of what the nation is or means to them. What matters is the common denominator. A set of factors that all can recognise and agree to.

3.2.5 Language, shared traditions, a history of proximity and close affiliation, would be obvious markers.

3.2.6 However, there is no exhaustive list of criteria, nor is there a requirement that all of them are met. Different nations exhibit different features. For example, Americans are a nation of immigrants. The United Kingdom is a nation of nations. Germany and Austria are considered two separate nations even though there have been times in their history where they were seen by some as different political organisations of an otherwise singular nation. Russia is a nation that includes, among others, diverse groups of people each with its own republic within the Russian federation. Nations can exhibit unique characteristics. That is to be expected. They are formed in a cultural-historical context. Each set of conditions is likely to be specific to a given time and place.

;; A nation is contingent on convention.

3.3 A nation has to be cultivated in the mind as such. Biological factors are not sufficient to bind together a large group of strangers, especially in the absence of a common basis for establishing political constructs.

3.4 Ultimately that hints at the centrality of ideology. A nation can be made to be. It can form from within another nation, emerge from a union of nations, or be developed from an arbitrary assemblage of people that are initially only related to each other by mere circumstance.

What is the state, what is the polity

1 The dichotomy between headline and effective sovereignty carries over to the distinction between the state and the polity.

1.1 States may enjoy headline sovereignty, but conditions can be such that [part of] effective sovereignty is exogenous to them. The ramifications are understood in the appropriate context: inter-state or inter-national relations.

1.2 The international dimension means that sovereign will formation is not confined to the boundaries of any one state. A policy implemented at the state level can have aspects that derive from international conventions. It might even be the outright extension of an international initiative, rather than self-determination in the narrowest sense.

1.3 Relations between states, insofar as they have implications on collective decision making, reveal an emergent form of effective sovereignty. The parties or the primary actors may be nation states. The dynamic produced by their relationship is a case-dependent stratum of supra-state (supra-national) political authority that is neither a nation nor a state.

;; Where is the locus of power?

1.3.1 For as long as that supranational level can determine—or otherwise provide the impetus for—collective will formation, it enjoys effective sovereignty for the matters concerned. These types of supranational authority may emanate from a trade agreement, the balance of power and relevant struggles between states, and so on.

1.3.2 Seen from the perspective of policy—or a policy framework—, the terms “state” and “polity” should not be treated as semantically equivalent. The state is a given institutional order with defined boundaries. It follows a certain cultural-historical path. It has its own constitutional identity and practical morality. Whereas a polity is emergent from within the specifics of the case. It is the source of a given policy or set thereof: the province of effective sovereignty from whence that policy initiative comes from. For instance, a trade agreement as such has no normative claims on supreme political authority. No headline sovereignty. It is understood that the parties to the agreement hold rights. The agreement itself is a token of their shared capacity to exercise them. Yet the agreement has implications on the distribution of effective sovereignty, in that it forces conditions on the parties to it, while enabling a range of possible courses of actions that was theretofore unavailable.

;; The polity is elusive.

1.3.3 So where is the locus of power for the items—the relevant areas of policy—that concern the agreement? It is not instantiated in any one of the parties to it. It is emergent from the case as such. “Emergence” in this context means circumstances-specific and greater than the parts in isolation. The conditions themselves bring about that eventuality. Furthermore, “emergence” here denotes the presence of a stratum of effective sovereignty, without it being a [new] state or nation. This stratum comes into effect dynamically. It remains a function of the circumstances that bring it about. It ceases to be, in the way or extent that it is, when its contributing factors change.

;; State and polity are the same in a decontextualised state.
;; This, however, is a product of thought, with no correspondence to any case.

1.4 Assuming a sovereign nation as such, a nation state in its own right, the magnitudes of state and polity are indistinguishable. All authority comes from and is limited to the state. However, consider the broader framework of global affairs. It is a complex web of relations between nation states. Each set of relations generates its own dynamics. The implications on effective sovereignty can vary. Against this backdrop, it is more likely that “state” and “polity” are decoupled.

1.4.1 The state can be likened to a constant. It is static. It is there as a legal personality. In contradistinction, the polity is dynamic. It only appears in instances where relations between states give rise to a supra-state level of political authority.

1.5 A polity is a policy-[framework-]specific form of supreme authority that is derived from the relationship between states, or between political orders in general.

1.6 Headline sovereignty is always enjoyed by a personified or impersonal state. In the modern era, the latter is a nation state.

1.6.1 Effective sovereignty can come from a locus that is not recognised as either a nation or state in the strict sense. Still, the distinction drawn herein may be more difficult to discern in actual politics. Consider the complex phenomenon of the European Union. The EU is not a nation. Yet there is no doubt that it exercises effective sovereignty over the areas of policy that have been conferred to the European level. Similarly, the EU is not a state, properly so called. It is a union of nation states that is best described as a federal system with its fair share of idiosyncrasies. Again, that does not prevent it from exercising supreme political authority over matters it has competence over. Is the EU a state or a polity? Why? It is static, well defined, not emergent from evolving circumstances. As such, the problem is a matter of semantics, where “state” can mean different things as nation state or as an administrative entity within a federation. Perhaps then, the EU is a political order that can be named a “republic”. What is a trade agreement, such as the proposed TTIP, in terms of its impact on effective sovereignty? It forms a polity for the issues it encompasses and remains irrelevant for all the others.

2 To further elaborate on the dichotomy between the state and the polity, consider the factors of statehood: (i) population, (ii) territory, (iii) governance, (iv) outwardness. A state, properly so called, must satisfy all of them.2

;; The first factor of statehood is a permanent population.

2.1 The entity must have a permanent, replenishable population.

2.1.1 Seen from a broader historical vantage point, permanence implies that the population does more-or-less identify itself as a collective. It has an adequate degree of homogeneity that prevents a part from trying to sever its ties with the rest of the body politic. From the perspective of the factors of effective sovereignty, the sense of belonging, kinship, or togetherness is of paramount importance. It is the foundation of solidarity: a prerequisite to the preservation of social peace. Togetherness produces a common bond between the people and the structures that may make up a political hierarchy. People can identify with the individuals and institutions that rule over the populace where such a bond exists. A population that thinks of its presence as a singular entity in a cultural-historical sense, functions as a unified whole.

;; Second factor of statehood is a defined territory.

2.2 The entity must control a certain space. It has to occupy a clearly delineated territory.

2.2.1 Territoriality is a prerequisite of any political order. Collective human experience, such as economic activity, occurs in space. Whomsoever controls the space, can exercise political authority. This is a litmus test for the establishment’s capacity to wield effective sovereignty at any given moment in time. It shows whether the political order controls the media for the implementation of its authority; to exercise powers that are characteristic of supreme political authority, such as to levy taxes or maintain a standing army. Territoriality may also suggest independence from external influences, though this should not necessarily be the case. For as long as there can be emergent forms of effective sovereignty, control over a certain territory can only safely imply that the entity concerned enjoys effective sovereignty over matters that pertain to this control only.

;; Third factor of statehood is governance.
;; Governance ≠ government.

2.3 The political order must be capable of uninterrupted governance.

2.3.1 “Governance” is not the same as “government”. The latter is an institution. A collection of people that perform certain tasks in accordance with a set of rules or expectations. Whereas the former is a process: that of managing political affairs. A government engages in governance. Accounting for the first factor of statehood (population), perhaps a more descriptive definition of governance is that of managing political affairs in accordance with the norms, traditions, rules, and expectations of the self-conscious people.

2.3.2 In the modern era, this would suggest that the political order has a fully fledged legal system, credible institutions as well as established processes for adopting decisions and/or resolving disputes. These provide for predictability and make the authorities recognisable among the populace. Permanent institutions are important for confirming the idea of a common identity derived from the sense of belonging. Subjects of governance can relate to the government.

2.3.3 A coherent legal-institutional order is a clear indication that the society lives in peace and operates unencumbered by internal strife. A single recognisable government does, among others, imply that there are no warring factions vying for control. Any political disputes are resolved with existing means within the available procedures. Governance is consistent.

;; The fourth factor of statehood is outwardness.
;; The entity can engage in relations with other political orders.
;; Not to be confused with the international recognition of nation states.

2.4 The political order must have the means to engage in relations with other entities, including other political orders.

2.4.1 This is not the same as the capacity to maintain an international diplomatic presence. It is broader than that. It encompasses any kind of recognition, acceptance, or approval of the political order as a singular entity.

2.4.2 Outwardness is confirmed in relations between states, but also in transactions with non-state actors, such as foreign investors willing to enter in contractual arrangements with the political order and/or invest in its domestic economy.

2.4.3 Outwardness covers any kind of partial or scoped recognition by internationally recognised states. Such a scenario is the acceptance of the political order as a singular entity within a certain context or for a given process or even area of policy.

2.4.4 Outwardness is judged on the basis of its impact on effective sovereignty. If exposure to the outside world can lead to benefits or to virtuous cycles, then the political order demonstrates a capacity to stand on an equal footing with internationally recognised states.

2.4.5 As such, outwardness is not the equivalent of formal recognition from the international community. It is, nonetheless, the substance of what renders a political order recognisable.

2.4.6 Formal recognition may amplify the effects of outwardness. But amplification points at a difference of degree, not category. As such formal recognition is not a factor of statehood per se. It is a requirement for participating in the international community in a formal capacity. Which means to enjoy headline sovereignty.

2.4.7 Formal recognition must satisfy the criterion of correspondence to reality: the political order to be recognised as a formal state must already satisfy the criteria of statehood, as these are understood under the scope of effective sovereignty. Without such correspondence, recognition is but a token, perhaps a diplomatic device for forwarding a certain agenda. Formal recognition as such does not turn a political order into a fully functioning state nor does it guarantee such a condition.

3 The state is a defined apparatus. The polity is a circumstances-dependent stratum from whence effective sovereignty comes from. The locus of power can only be known by studying the contributing factors of the case.

What is the nation state

1 The nation state is the alignment and consequent identification of the three magnitudes of nation, state, homeland.

1.1 The nation qua potential impersonal agent of sovereign will formation is actualised as sovereign through the state.

1.1.1 The nation is fastened upon the institutional architecture of a state, in ways that one becomes a substitute for the other. National sovereignty is thus synonymous with state sovereignty.

1.2 The state is the vehicle of national sovereign will. It exercises supreme political authority, “in the name of” or “courtesy of” the nation.

1.2.1 This implies a division of labour, or else a delegation of competences. For if the state is the means through which the nation realises its potential for sovereign will formation, then the nation as such is reliant on another mechanism for its fulfillment.

1.2.2 It follows that the nation and the state are not one and the same, despite their nominal identification. They are two distinct entities that are impressed in the mind as one.

1.3 The feedback loop between the nation and the state hints at the dual cardinal function of political organisation: recognition and confirmation. The state draws its recognition (or legitimacy) from the nation and remains answerable to it. This is not a requirement for democracy per se, but a more generic commitment to use the state apparatus in the service of the nation, in the promotion of the national interest.

1.4 The homeland is the magnitude that the nation claims as its original space.

1.4.1 The nation is identified with the homeland, so that belonging to a certain country becomes the equivalent of belonging to the corresponding nation.

1.4.2 The homeland is the physical expanse of the state. The area where sovereign will is implemented in a manner that is considered a priori rightful.

1.4.3 The homeland epitomises the nation’s inwardness: the sense of belonging among its members. One’s country—and by extension the people residing in it—is considered one’s natural home.

2 At its core, nationalism is the ideology that identifies a nation to a state and a homeland. We term as the “quintessential nationalist tenet”, the linkage between the nation and the state.

2.1 Couched in terms of the dual cardinal function of political organisation, the nation is believed to recognise the state as the vehicle of its sovereign will, while assuming the duty of confirming said recognition.

2.1.1 It is why the state qua nation state is said to be the rightful apparatus for the realisation of sovereign will.

2.2 The quintessential nationalist tenet introduces potential disparities once realised. The state can be clearly defined as a set of rules, institutions, and personnel wielding power. Whereas the nation, in the context of the nation state, may remain open to interpretation.

2.2.1 The identification between the nation and the state is thought of as permanent. There is no further criterion of sufficiency when it comes to the dual cardinal function of political organisation: recognition and confirmation. There is no need for a perfect match between the nation and the state at any given point in time.

2.2.2 A state is assumed to be the rightful embodiment of national sovereign will, regardless of the circumstances. A government can claim to be acting in the name of the nation or to be pursuing the national interest, without having to conform to any precise objective criterion that would validate such assertions.

2.2.3 By the same token, an individual in office may purport to be the personalisation of the national spirit, the leader who has captured the essence of national will, and who proceeds to govern accordingly.

2.2.4 The lines are arbitrary. The only kind of measure for the impact of such phenomena on the integrity of the linkage between the state and the nation, is a negative one: the absence of internal strife. For as long as there is cohesion of the state, for as long as it controls the homeland, its claims on nationhood are taken at face value.

2.2.5 Even in instances of civil war, the state is thought to embody the nation as a whole. Yet the nation that experiences fission cannot simultaneously have a single medium of expression, for it has no singular will.

2.2.6 The quintessential nationalist tenet places a very low bar for drawing the identification between the magnitudes of the nation, state, homeland. The very presence of the state, its ongoing functioning, is considered sufficient.

2.2.7 The quintessential nationalist tenet is encapsulated in Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789 CE). It stipulates that (my translation): “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation; no body, no individual can exercise authority that does not emanate expressly from it”.3 This article can be read as setting a very high bar for the exercise of authority. That would indeed be the case were the nation—in the context of the nation state—defined in precise terms. In the absence of a definition, conditions that enable the exercise of authority may vary considerably. One possibility is the rule of might. The strongest force gains a grip on power and proceeds to legitimise its authority by claiming to serve the national interest. Another scenario is the game of numbers characteristic of representative democracy. Depending on voter turnout and how votes are counted, a government can have a majority while representing a fourth or fifth of the citizens. Whatever the numbers, there is no clear demarcation line between representation that is not really representative of the nation as a whole and one that is. Furthermore, it is not clear whether a majority, however defined, can ever be equal to the nation as such, which again brings the disparities of the quintessential nationalist tenet to the foreground. Ultimately though, there is no objective way of knowing with absolute certainty when authority emanates expressly from the nation. The evaluation is based on arbitrary arrangements of power and control. If the established political order can maintain its claims on nationhood, then it can just as well present its rule as the rule of the nation, its interest as the national interest, and so on. Let this be considered “nationalism’s problem of identification”.

3 Nation states are the primary actors of world affairs.

3.1 World politics are understood as affairs between nations, hence “inter-national”. Whether it is about power struggles (localised or regionalised), the promulgation of universal rights, regulations on trade and other cross-border activities, the nation state remains at the epicentre.

3.2 Nation states, in their capacity to exercise supreme political authority, can be treated as moral agents.

3.2.1 A moral agent is one whose actions have moral value. By “moral value” we mean that they are relevant to a discussion of morality, be it in terms of the conditions they set or the consequences of their behaviour. For instance, human rights are enshrined in international law; a covenant between nation states. In principle, the international community assumes responsibility for enforcing and safeguarding all such normative values.

;; How does the nation, in the form of the nation state, have a singular presence?

3.3 Moral agency is assumed for the nation state as a whole. As such the nation itself is thought to be engaging in behaviour with moral value. It follows that internal injustices within a nation state are a form of persistent self-contradiction. Which means:

  • The nation qua nation state is thought to be expressing a singular will. It is treated not just as a group of people but as one entity.
  • Nationalism’s problem of identification is laid bare. The state, led by any given government, acts as it sees fit without necessarily exercising sovereignty that emanates expressly from the nation as a whole.

;; How is the nation singular if there are groups within it that have different orientations?

3.3.1 Moral agency also has implications on nationalism’s problem of identification, especially in instances where parts of the nation seek to break free from the established political order.

3.3.2 Rebel groups or regions that want to escape from their environing nation state are treated as forces that aim at dividing the nation. Whereas in their perspective, the environing order is being abusive and is the one that prevents the expression of their own nationhood.

;; How can something be an integral whole and a heteroclite assemblage at the same time?

3.3.3 For nationalism this reveals a certain inconsistency. If the original nation is an organic whole that is fully expressed in the state, and if the state already occupies the totality of the homeland, then any secessionist tendency would have to be assumed external to it. It would make no sense for a homogeneous, contiguous, integral entity to experience shifts that point at heterogeneity and fragmentation.

3.3.4 Secessionists are endogenous though. They come from within the established nation state. They have as their guiding principle the formation of a new nation state, or if they do not, they arrive at that point eventually, due to how the world order is arranged. Which means that they too proceed to formulate their cause along the lines of the quintessential nationalist tenet: a nation that identifies with a state and occupies its natural habitat, else homeland.

4 Couched in terms of statehood, the nation in conjunction with the homeland is a quasi-objective means of delineating spheres of influence; of defining political hierarchies and divisions along lines that are more-or-less identifiable and often touted as natural constants.

4.1 Any sort of arbitrariness is accepted as a feature of the world order’s prevailing conventions, even if tacitly so.

  1. The works are: (i) Notes on the Modes of Scepticism (2017-07-28), (ii) Prolegomena to a study of Metaethics (2017-08-11). [^]

  2. The factors of statehood presented herein are a re-evaluation and reformulation of the Montevideo Convention of 1933. [^]

  3. The original Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in French: “Le principe de toute souveraineté reside essentiellement dans la nation, nul corps, nul individu ne peut exercer d’autorité qui n’en émane expressement.” [^]