Crises, transnationalism, and the demi-state

In an April 29, 2019 article titled The Virus that Changed the World, Joschka Fischer highlights the shortcomings of the international institutional architecture, while pointing at the supposedly pressing need to rekindle the spirit of transnationalism. As the author puts it:

While nation-states will remain indispensable in providing good governance and contributing to global efforts, the principle of nationalism will only exacerbate future systemic crises. The pandemic must be followed by a new age of international cooperation and a strengthening of multilateral institutions. This applies to Europe, in particular.

Now more than ever, we need to reclaim the spirit of 1945. We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us.

While I agree that nationalism, made manifest through the centuries as nation-statism (more on that later), is too limited in scope and cannot cope with the challenges of a global magnitude, I am not convinced that more centralisation of power at the international centre is the solution to our problems.

Fundamentally, the crises we are facing, be it the pandemic, climate change and ecological calamities, the Great Recession of the past decade and the coming Greater Depression, can be understood as epiphenomena of increased inter-connectedness, else inter-dependence. Rather than distributed systems that can remain robust to a range of shocks, the human world is becoming ever-more monolith-like and fragile as a result.

The fact that our hospitals did not have even the basics in sufficient stock is due to the neoliberal ideology that underpins the world’s legal-institutional order: the belief that global trade is sufficient to deliver production on demand and everything should be outsourced. So the hospital in country A becomes dependent on the supplier in country B and, therefore, is exposed to whatever shocks may emanate from the prevailing conditions in that country. A crisis in one area becomes generalised by means of the sheer mechanics of the system.

More inter-dependence will only exacerbate the systemic nature of the crises and will further amplify their invidious effects. This is an insight that us Europeans should have learnt from the peak of the eurocrisis: a single currency area connects local economies in such a way that a persistent downturn in one part is enough to pose an existential threat to the common currency itself through a cascading effect of widespread failures and bankruptcies, as well as self-fulfilling prophecies in market expectations for identifying the next weakest link in the chain.

In practical terms, Fischer’s thesis can only hold true as an immediate reaction to the challenges of the pandemic: the system cannot be refashioned in one stroke amid the crisis and, therefore, no country can reliably act unilaterally in the meantime. Over the longer-term though the genuine solution is to scrutinise and ultimately dismiss as pathogenic the dogma that centralisation is a necessary blessing.

Which brings us to the false dichotomy between nationalism and internationalism. None of the two is appropriate, while they do not stand in direct opposition to each other. Nationalism was the first step towards the rapid acceleration of inter-connectedness within and then across borders, hence the inter national world order.

The nation-state is the apparatus that consolidated power at the country’s capital, effectively establishing a technocracy with elements of democratic custom and majoritarian decision-making. It is the mechanism that pampered and reinforced the familiar two-tier system of the capitalist power edifice, where a rentier class of platform owners (I call them “platformarchs”) exists in symbiotic relationship with—or as a de facto extension of—state structures, while the rest of society copes with precarity and the vicissitudes of the business cycle (i.e. they are handed generous bail-outs and privileges, while we get grinding austerity and radical uncertainty).

In essence, nation-statism created a new class of corporate overlords that are best understood collectively as the demi-state. I define it thus: the social class comprising private interests that are enabled, supported, protected, or otherwise sustained by the state’s acts of sovereignty, which controls the entry points, critical infrastructure, or other requisite factors of economic conduct, and which, inter alia, provides state-like functions in domains or fields of endeavour outside the narrow confines of profit-oriented production and consumption in exchange for a legally-sanctioned oligopolistic privilege in the markets it operates in.

Think of how cashless transactions that involve private money in the form of inter-bank payment systems allow the government to track market activity by being integrated with the handful of bankers/operators in this particular area of specialisation. Or how tech giants are becoming increasingly intertwined with surveillance corps (“security agencies”) and partake in tacit foreign policy or even internal affairs through cyber means.

The demi-state is the pinnacle of the capitalist system and the most vicious monstrosity the nation-state ever established. This is why there needs to be a distinction, albeit analytical and academic in spirit, between nationalism and nation-statism. The former is a romantic/idealist notion that never developed into a form of governance. At its core, it is about being cognisant and supportive of one’s cultural identity. Whereas the nation-state expanded on that idea by interpreting three distinct magnitudes as consubstantial: the nation, the state, the homeland. For the nation-state, these three are the same thing to which we often read commentary along the lines of “America should do this” or “the Germans want that”: it conflates the citizens with the country, the land with the state, the government with the people, reifying the resulting aggregate as an exalted transhuman entity (also read my essay Against the secularised theology of statecraft).

Couched in those terms, national sovereignty is hypostatised as the supreme political authority of a power elite in the nation’s command centre. The lofty ideal of “we the people” is, in the nation-statist worldview, realised as “we the few pretending to serve the people” or even “us the chosen ones who embody the spirit of the nation”. It is this very disconnect, indeed absurdity, that has allowed the once disparate national demi-states to extend beyond their borders and draw linkages between them. Or, to put it differently, the oligarchies decided that inter-connectedness would forward their agenda and so they pressed ahead without concern for side-effects that are always felt the most by those who survive in precarious conditions.

As for the attitude of being pro-nation, nationalism properly so-called, this is always exploited by the nation-statists whenever they want to protect their interests. Sometimes as outright racism. Others as a moral imperative. Think of how it is a ‘national duty’ to bail out some mega corporation—‘our’ companies—or to send people’s children to die in a far away land in pursuit of the master’s imperialistic mania.

Again to bring an example that us European are well aware of: the creation of the euro. An elitist initiative which established the most undemocratic institution that could ever exist in an ostensibly democratic legal-institutional arrangement: the European Central Bank. As explained in my ~4000-word essay from 2017-04-02 on ECB independence: concept, scope, and implications, this entity is practically immune to scrutiny. No body, no institution, be it national or supranational, can place conditions on the ECB or hold it accountable for its shortcomings using objective criteria. Moreover, no authority has the power to redistribute resources upwardly across the euro area. None except the ECB, which is blithely channelling resources to the privileged few, guaranteeing virtually limitless demand for the assets of corporate elites, effectively shielding them from the forces of the market, creating an uneven playing field, and putting them in a position of strength from where they can plunder the forlorn with impunity.

To this end, the dichotomy between nationalism and internationalism must be re-framed in order to correspond to the actuality of things: it is a continuum that maps differences in degree. The internationalist mindset is the same as that of nation-statism without being limited to the borders of a single nation. Put differently, it is nation-statism freed from technical managerial constraints: faster travel, better telecommunications, and all the technological means of escaping physical limitations of yester year that kept logistics confined to a smaller scale.

The case of the EU notwithstanding, we can already get a glimpse of the technocratic features of such a superstructure by recalling the observation that disproportionately powerful institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Health Organisation are practically unaccountable. Or how the United Nations is but a glorified bureaucratic shadow play of rules-based global affairs that essentially obfuscates the fact that not all nation-states are made equal (a point that Joschka Fischer concedes). Or how the internationalist demi-state concentrates ever more power in its hands, while paying little-to-no taxes by leveraging a network of preferential jurisdictions that enable tax base erosion and fiscal engineering. And, lest we forget, how all this is expressed as an ever expanding chasm of inequality and an uneven distribution of resources between countries and among social classes.

“Transnationalism” is a term that attempts to bestow a sense of righteousness and enlightenment on the nation-statism and internationalism that brought the world to where it currently is. The transnationalist will complain about the evils of nationalism and will lament the rise of ‘populism’ while conveniently ignoring the fact that it is the “spirit of 1945”, as Fischer puts it, that established the first iteration of what later became the EU and that defined the international architecture we are all familiar with. No populist bugaboo ever contributed to the inter-dependence of the world. The notion that some malevolent nationalists are undermining all the good things that the international order offers is flatly incorrect (also see my essay on The shadow play of “populism”).

Alas, we have been indoctrinated into the belief that we must never challenge the dominant narrative, for we run the risk of being labelled a ‘nationalist’ or some of the other more sinister labels associated with that term. We are, in other words, brainwashed into seeing the world in binary terms, where you must either be a transnationalist or you are some nationalist scum. Good versus bad. No nuances. No possible permutations in between the extremes. This is a pernicious folly and the telltale sign of a humanity that has failed to internalise the scientific ethos, the attitude of questioning, the spirit of being tolerant by virtue of recognising one’s overall ignorance, the need for researching things and not accepting claims ex cathedra; the mark of a world that is moving full speed into a new Dark Age of false certainty and hubris.

The answer to the crises does have a philosophical facet, in that it requires us to think of complexity as such and to remain aporetic in the face of the establishment’s hypocrisy and conventional wisdom. More concretely though, what we need is to disinvest and decisively downsize our operations: not just average me and you, but the insatiable billionaires of this world—especially them!

Inter-dependence is unsustainable for humans and the rest of the planet. We need to become increasingly autarkic at the local community level. Learn to cultivate our own land while relying on polyculture and sustainable methods, produce our own sourdough bread away from the mild poison that is industrial loaf, stand in solidarity with our fellow people in our immediate surroundings, gain a sense of responsibility towards respecting and safeguarding the ecosystems we are immersed in.

In short, we must shift from the arrangements of global inter-dependence and personal irresponsibility to a network of largely independent micro-centres of local participatory government and personal empowerment. This presupposes a thoroughgoing review of the principles that underpin the current paradigm of production-consumption-ownership and a direct opposition to the uncivilised moneyman of the capitalist regime.

Joschka Fischer just echoes what many decision-makers and influencers like him have failed to realise or otherwise admit: that their vaunted beliefs are the root cause of the crises, not the much-touted panacea they envision.