On the nation-state, democracy, and transnationalism
In this video presentation, I talk about the nation-state’s claims on legitimacy, the concept of national sovereignty, supranational affairs, and their tension with democracy.
What follows is the text of the presentation:
#+TITLE: On the nation-state, democracy, and transnationalism
#+AUTHOR: Protesilaos Stavrou (https://protesilaos.com)
Hello everyone! My name in Protesilaos, also known as Prot. In this
video I will talk to you about the tension between democracy as a system
of collective decision-making and the nation-state as a form of
legal-institutional arrangements that depend on---and promote---a
modicum of homogeneity among the subjects of government.
I will elaborate on concepts such as the spurious theology that
underpins the concept of national sovereignty, the presence and
functioning of the demistate, transnationalism and its impact on
technocratic forms of governance, and more.
The notes of the presentation will be available on my website. If you
are watching this on the video hosting platform, I will provide a direct
link to them in the description:
* Basics of the nation-state
The nation-state is an institutional order that combines three otherwise
distinct magnitudes: a culturally defined people, the territory of that
people, and the institutions that hold force in that area and which bind
those people together.
Unlike other forms of state, say, a city-state or an empire, the
nation-state is predicated on the notion that there exists a common
thread running through the aforementioned magnitudes, which can be
conceived and reified as the will or the character of a singular entity:
This entity is supposed to have an inter-generational reach. It is not
merely the totality of people who are alive in the given country. And
this pertains to the cultural dimension of the people, which itself
developed organically through an extended period of time. This
intertemporality between generations applies to everyday political
affairs to the point where it is considered a given. For example,
treaties that were ratified by previous generations continue to be
legally binding, while legislation that could have been promulgated
centuries ago remains the law of the land.
We further understand the substantiation of this entity in terms like
the "national interest", which is supposed to derive from this common
thread that unites the three magnitudes (people, territory, state): it
is reasoned as the discernible constant, the /simile in multis/ that is
claimed to be indicative of the nation as such.
The nation-state is, therefore, the identification of a state apparatus,
else a mechanism for the exercise of legitimate force, with this
supra-personal and effectively eternal entity that is called "the
nation". And so, when we refer to the national will, or the national
interest, we are, in effect, thinking in terms of those policies or
stratagems that are put forward by the state /qua/ legally personified
nation, the state as an agent of political initiative whose temporal
reach is itself intergenerational.
* Nation-statism and sovereignty
Sovereignty is the term we use to describe supreme political authority:
the power that overrides all others within a given institutional order.
It can also be explained as the quality or set of connatural qualities
we identify by seeking answers to two intimately linked questions:
+ Who governs in this legal-institutional order?
+ Where is the locus of power therein?
Sovereignty can, in principle, exist independently of the nation-state
though in the modern world it is largely identified with it. We will
discuss some exceptions later.
Who governs and where the power resides within the confines of the
nation-state is almost always with the central government and thus with
a small group of people. Think, for example, how the central government
of the United Kingdom used a marginal majority in an open-ended question
put to the referendum to push forward with leaving the European Union
even though some parts of the country were predominantly in favour of
remaining in the EU. This is a case of knowing in practice "who
governs" and "where is the locus of power". Same principle for all
matters, such as gaining accession to the EU or agreeing to the creation
of a European-level entity in the first place. And so on for every
aspect of life.
For the nation-state, its claims on sovereignty spring from a normative
proposition on its legitimation: it is the only entity that can express
the will of the three magnitudes it combines and identifies with,
namely, the people, their homeland, and their institutions, and so its
very presence endows it with legitimacy.
"Legitimacy" here means the perception of justifiability in the use of
force, which practically translates as the acts of the state being
justified by the mere fact that it exists.
And by "use of force" we mean compulsion, not outright violence, though
the state does have that option as well.
* National sovereignty as secular theology
We have already covered the fact that the nation is reified as a
supra-personal entity with an inter-generational reach. Now what
exactly that means remains a mystery or, rather, open to interpretation
by those whom we identify as being in a position to exercise governance.
This obscurity is by design as it provides the ruling class with the
means to adapt to evolving circumstances, interpreting both the nation
and figments such as the national will in whatever way is expedient. It
is like a spurious theology where everything goes, only in this case it
concerns everyday affairs not something that happens in some other
domain of existence.
This decisively secular theology of nation-statism is expressed at least
since the French Revolution in Article 3 of the Declaration of the
Rights of Human and Citizen of 1789 (translation is mine from the
original in French):
The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No
body, no individual, can exercise authority that does not emanate
expressly from it. [EN]
Le principe de toute souveraineté reside essentiellement dans la nation,
nul corps, nul individu, ne peut exercer d'autorité qui n'en émane
This could be interpreted as saying that supreme political authority may
only be exercised when it comes directly from the people, though we know
from history and experience this not to be true and then we have the
problem of specifying the term "people". All of them? Some of them?
All the time? On special occasions? And is not the "people" the same
kind of abstraction that purports to express the common in the multitude
among individuals and, perhaps, across generations (e.g. the
constitution of the USA)?
A closer reading shows that the reference is to "the nation", not the
people. Which leads us back to the supra-personal, eternal entity that
we already discussed.
We may therefore read the intent of Article 3 as a self-justification on
the exercise of supreme political authority. The nation-state, which
already identifies with the nation, holds that all legitimate authority
must spring from it. In that sense, it invokes the idea that the nation
is God-like for all intents and purposes. It is its own cause, its own
* Representative democracy and national sovereignty
To avoid the obvious problems with the secular theology of national
sovereignty, the modern nation-state is supposed to operate as a
democracy or, more specifically, a representative democracy. The idea
is that the national will can be expressed as some kind of average or
rough approximation through the voters or, rather, that the process of
periodic elections justifies a /fait accompli/ with regard to "who
governs" and "where is the locus of power".
Representative democracy offers the impression of a more immediate
source of legitimation than the kind of mumbo jumbo stipulated in
Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Human and Citizen of 1789.
Still, the notion of "representative democracy" is at best a euphemism,
at worst a contradiction in terms. The /demos/ is the body of citizens,
meaning that a subset of the totality of the citizenry is not the demos
and the system is, /a fortiori/, not the rule of the demos (democracy) but
of a smaller group (oligarchy). Only in a perfectly homogeneous set can
a subset be fully representative of the whole.
On the matter of homogeneity, think, for instance, that the European
Parliament has 705 members that decide on behalf of ~450 million people.
This breaks down on a per-country basis, though the ratios are still
dubious, such as 91 Members of the European Parliament representing more
than 80 million Germans, or Malta with 6 MEPs for half a million people.
How representative is that tiny sample? And how representative is it
across the full range of policies over an extended period of time?
Furthermore, representation of any sizeable and diverse group of people
is highly unlikely to capture some uniform common will. Imagine putting
100 strangers in the same room, who have not been indoctrinated to
express a singular will or who do not come from a special interest
group. Have them deliberate on every aspect of politics. Let them do
so substantively, from agriculture, to tourism, the arts, technology,
industry, foreign affairs... Everything. The chances of finding a
common will, which can then be passed on to a single representative of
this small group are, dare I say, fairly slim.
Now add to that the dimension of time. A representative typically gets
to serve for a term of four to five years. Not only do those random
strangers need to agree on everything today, they are also supposed to
remain in agreement for the duration of the representative's term,
despite evolving circumstances that can affect each of them differently.
Moreover, they must commit to such a deal ahead of time. The problem
grows exponentially the further away power is from quotidian life.
Representation does not scale well.
However you go about it, representative democracy in terms of a
nation-state is an oligarchy: relatively few people in power.
* Representative democracy and individual policies
Not only are citizens supposed to express an immutable collective will,
they are also assumed to have provided their consent to decisions that
do not accept their input at all or in any meaningful sense. For
example, the operations of the monetary function of the state, performed
by an institutionally independent central bank.
Central banks manipulate the macroeconomics of their area of authority
by influencing the nominal growth rate in GDP, which relates to the
inflation rate. They do so in accordance with their mandate or within
their remit. That of the European Central Bank is enshrined in the
European Treaties and pertains to "price stability": a nebulous concept
that can mean just about anything and which is further complicated by
the ECB's own definition of an inflation in the common basket of goods
that is "below, but close" to 2% over the medium-term. Below, but how
close exactly? And how many days, months, years stand for the
medium-term? In other words, what is the objective criterion?
Was the demos asked explicitly about this open-ended power? No. Is the
demos being consulted on what the effective interpretation is? No. The
specific measures? No.
Over the last few years, all major central banks have been conducting
what is known as "quantitative easing". This basically involves the
expansion of their balance sheet. They create new money with which they
buy assets from the private sector, i.e. mega-corporations such as banks
and major industrial entities. Central banks are channeling oodles of
cash into the coffers of those corporate actors, shielding them from
loses on their investments. This added security further amplifies the
concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer people, as the corporation
which has been saved from likely losses amidst an uncertain economic
environment can use its newfound money to reinforce its oligopolistic
hold in the sector it operates in.
The bonanza continues because wage repression for the average person
means that their diminishing spending power cannot push prices higher to
expose the inflationary expansion. Also, investors use the fresh funds
they got from the central bank to buy luxury goods or items which do not
count towards the nominal inflation target of the central bank.
Was the demos involved in this apparent upward distribution of wealth?
The infamous apologia is that central banks enjoy so-called "output
legitimacy": they are justified by fulfilling their mandate based on how
they interpret it. Which is the same kind of circular reasoning of the
secular theology of the nation-state.
* Sovereignty and the demistate
We have already clarified that "representative democracy" is neither
representative nor a democracy. It is an oligarchy. Yet this oligarchy
is not limited to the legal-institutional order, as it encompasses
certain private actors who exist in symbiotic relationship with the
Banks are again part of this, as we just explained with the cycle
between the central banks and the private sector and how the interplay
between the two reinforces both of them, each in pursuit of their own
The same is true in every other economic sector. When you hear about
"national champions" in business, or calls to bail out some company
because of its critical role in the economy, you can expect that the
matter is not strictly about business: it concerns the interwoven
interests of state and private elites.
For example, the economic competition between America and China also
unfolded in the world of a mobile phone's Operating System, as Google
effectively blocked Huawei from using Android. While this was aligned
with the foreign policy ambitions of the US administration, it also
served to hinder a major current or potential competitor from the
What we thus notice is the presence of an intermediate stage between the
public and the private, which I name the "demistate" and which I define
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.
Basically this means that some corporations are extensions of the state,
partners in statecraft, in a mutually beneficial relationship with it.
And all this is wrapped in the narrative of national sovereignty and its
claims on legitimacy.
* The demistate and elections
Let's return back to the point of representation and consider both
day-to-day politics and election cycles. For a new political initiative
outside the establishment to gain popularity, it has to reach out to
people. Within the boundaries of a nation-state that usually means that
it has to rely on telecommunication media.
The first problem is that a new political initiative that wants to enact
thoroughgoing reform has no funding. It must start with volunteers. So
it depends, among others, on the charisma of its founders and their
devotion to the cause. To secure more funds, such as through donations,
it needs more members. So it has to find a platform to reliably connect
with an audience.
Platforms like so-called "social media" are controlled by the world's
corporate elite in the tech sector. Same for the infrastructure of
computing technology that underpins those media's activities. So a new
political initiative is effectively exposed from day one to the whims,
the secretive algorithmic machinations, or generally the vicissitudes in
the maintenance of those proprietary walled gardens.
Then we have media such as TV and newspapers, whose ownership is
by-and-large in the hands of a handful of individuals in each and every
country. Again we are talking about an oligopoly that is linked with
the state in a symbiotic relationship. Think, for example, how much
power rests in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, the Axel Springer group,
Silvio Berlusconi, and so on. A new political initiative must go "on
air" during elections to communicate its message. If it says things
that run contrary to the vested interests then it will either see no
prime time, or will get a tiny fraction of it, while exposure will be
placed on those issues that are suiatable to the media proprietors'
To top it off, the incumbent forces will use the results of the
elections to claim that "the people" were given the chance and decided
not to support this newfound movement. The assumption is that of fair
competition, kind of like a Marathon run, even though the odds are
stacked in favour of incumbent forces, from the distribution of
resources to the reach they have through the media.
Elections are not a level-playing field. The fact that they take place
does not, in and of itself, mean that we have democracy or that the
oligarchy that is in place is representative in any meaningful sense.
More so when we factor in electoral systems, such as district
representation as opposed to proportional representation, or how a
government can have an effective share of a tiny percentage of the
citizens, yet still form a majority.
Faces change, the structure remains constant.
* Platformarchs and the free market
The demistate reflects a key aspect of the globally predominant
organisation of society, which is the two-tier system of economic
relations along the divide of security and precarity. We have the
privilaged forces who enjoy the direct or indirect support of the state,
which amounts to protection from competition, and then we have everybody
else who operates in accordance with principles that are closer to a
The protected class consists of what I call the "platformarchs". This
is another way of describing the demistate, as those platform owners or
rulers are the ones who control key resources or infrastructure in each
of the sectors they operate in. They face no real competition and are
state-like in their supreme authority over their business field as
enablers and de facto regulators of it.
Think, for example, how much power Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon,
and Apple wield over the Internet or over how people can experience the
Internet. Same principle for car manufacturers, big pharma, the upper
echelons of the food industry, mass media, sports franchises, and so on.
This links back to the uneven distribution of power and resources in
society. We already discussed how that takes the form of a glass
ceiling for new political initiatives with a reform agenda, and how it
translates into policies that are designed to further the interests of
the platformarchs, as in the case of quantitative easing policies.
Couched in those terms, the kernel of free market that we see at the
level of smaller scale businesses serves as a proxy for legitimation.
It is said that those with the money worked hard for it and earned it
rightfully. What is not mentioned, is how they benefit from legal
arrangements they have unscrupulously helped design. Think of how
multinationals can maintain an army of lawyers and accountants which
they use to siphon their profits through preferential tax jurisdictions,
i.e. tax havens, to erode their tax base or, in other words, to not pay
their fair share. Same principle for platformarchs who benefit from
historically unfair privilages, such as contracts made with a corrupt
Let's simplify this. In Western media you hear about the notorious
"Russian oligarchs" who hold most of the wealth in Russia. Well, the
same is true for American oligarchs, German, French, British, Italian,
etc. Don't let the pretenses on democracy make you think otherwise.
And don't generalise the elements of free market activity at the small
scale into how power arrangements are ossified at the top.
* The nation-state, transnationalism, and the framework-state
The nation-state has to be treated as a product of history, which was
made possible by a given state of technology that allowed economies of
scale. In this day and age where it is easier for multinational
corporations to shift profits across the world's jurisdictions, and
which can easily gain access to new markets, we witness the trend for
evolving the nation-state into a component of transational state
arrangements. A case in point is the European Union, which had started
off as a trade agreement and evolved into a single market before
becoming what it is today.
The EU is, in effect, a federal system whose members are nation-states,
yet which enjoys sovereignty or "competences" over key areas of policy,
such as the common European market and the monetary function performed
by the European Central Bank for all countries whose official currency
is the Euro.
From a business standpoint, what the EU is effectively providing is a
system of rules that allows mega-corporations in some countries to tap
into a wider market than that of their host country. It further sets in
place a system of economic governance that depoliticises the national
level by removing any meaningful fiscal and monetary space for
differentiated policy actions. It is a mechanism for imposing
uniformity and thus centralisation, wrapped up in a rhetoric of
diversity, lofty European values, and the like.
The point is that the scale of operations changes from the nation-state
to the continent-state or, more broadly, the framework-state. The
/simile in multis/ is no longer defined in national terms, but as a
narrative of geography or sphere of influence within a politically
We are therefore at a point where the nation-state no longer holds
primacy as it once did. It will remain relevant, though it becomes part
of a multi-faceted distribution of competences. Regardless, we still
experience the exact same problems of legitimation as before, namely,
that "who governs" and "where is the locus of power" are answered in a
way that does not point to the demos. The transnationalist drift means
that power moves further away from home in some other capital or to a
more dynamic and complex set of relations involving international
treaties and trade accords.
Regardless, there is no inherent conflict or incompatibility between the
nation-state and whatever framework-state it is integrated with because
the latter effectively piggybacks on the legitimacy that the former has
established for itself.
* Democracy and the mismatch of sovereignty
What the shift towards transnationalism reminds us of, is a fundamental
problem with the claims on sovereignty made by nation-states that
purport to be democratic. And that is a mismatch between the two
magnitudes of sovereign authority, which I define as popular sovereignty
and state sovereignty.
In a democracy, we have the demos in charge of its own affairs. This
necessarily means that the scale of operations is small, as in an
ancient city-state like Athens. In such a case, we have the citizens
participating directly in quotidian affairs: the formation, enactment,
or refashioning of institutions comes from the citizens, it frames their
decisions, yet remains open to be redefined by them. This is a case of
autonomy, else rule by self (here meaning the collective self of the
What we call "the state" is thus the instantiation of an agreement
between citizens that delimits scopes of authority and defines roles in
the running of daily affairs. The citizens create institutions with
which they regulate their collective life. Those institutions are, in
turn, open to revaluation by the citizens. So there exists a virtuous
cycle of legitimation and accountability between the creation or reform
of institutions and their workings. In a democracy, sovereignty is this
When that cycle turns vicious, when either of the two analytical
constructs gains more power over the other, we notice a drift away from
democracy. If popular sovereignty runs unchecked, we have the rule of
the mob, else ochlocracy. If, on the other hand, state sovereignty
becomes practically unaccountable, the system turns into an oligarchy of
some sort or an outright tyranny.
Representative democracy in a nation-state is an oligarchy, because
state sovereignty is effectively self-justified, while participation
exists in name only.
Making the scale of operations ever larger, lets the tensions grow, to
the point where citizens are effectively alienated from the institutions
that determine their life. A case of heteronomy, else rule by an other,
which compounds the actual unaccountability of the institutional order.
* Gigantism and democracy are irreconcilable
This brings us to the realisation that we cannot escape the realities of
locality. The greater the scale of operations, the more distant it
becomes from life in human communities. And thus, this propensity to
concentrate power at the centre, this highly structured model of
top-down governance, leads to the aggrandisement of inequalities and,
ultimately, the uneven distribution of power and control.
I call this phenomenon "gigantism", where a hierarchy develops a sense
of self and an instinct of self-preservation and proliferation. We see
this unfolding at the state level, but also in the workplace. Democracy
is considered the norm in the modern era, the flaws of existing systems
notwithstanding, yet a large part of one's adult life is likely to
involve some hierarchical form of rule at their work.
There is no democracy as an inter-subjective experience that occurs on a
daily basis. Workers do not get to decide for their workplace. Instead
they are abstracted away as "human resources" or as input that is
evaluated in terms of "human capital". Those generalisations are akin
to how "the people" can express through some representative qua medium
"the national interest"; the set of policies that some bureaucracy aloof
from the fray spins a narrative about.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the current pandemic have made the case
for gigantism ever more unappealing. The more it grows, the more
distant it gets from the demos or, rather, it makes the concept of a
demos irrelevant. Instead, it engenders a type of oligarchy whose
claims on legitimacy are less about the will of the people or the nation
and more about the insight of the experts.
Technocracy is the new normal. Except those supposedly apolotical
experts are ideologues in their own right and their appeal to science is
largely detached from the rigours of genuine science, which involves
remaining dubitative and inquisitive about one's own findings. Imposing
one's supposedly objective expertise as an edict is contrary to the
scientific ethos of scepticism. Do you think, for instance, that the
experts who conduct quantitative easing have figured out all that
science has to offer and all they could find was how to give more money
to the demistate?
Democracy is about alternatives, not the ideological excuse of "There Is
No Alternative", not this false determinism where impersonal forces
somehow justify the erosion of liberties and the rise of what
effectively is a technotheocracy.
* Concluding remarks
On that final point about technocracy, I have a publication about
Science and Scientism but I will not elaborate on this right now. You
can find the text on my website:
The main takeaway from this presentation is that democracy and the
nation-state are mutually exclusive, hence the advent of representative
democracy, which we already dismissed as a non-representative oligarchy.
We are at a point in history where even the appeal to representation is
being discontinued by the powers that be. And if those trends continue,
we will witness a further reduction or degredation in the elements of
democracy that we still enjoy; elements of democracy that previous
generations fought for and which need to be reclaimed and expanded upon.
The nation-state was never instrumentalised in the service of the demos.
Instead it appropriated the democratic discourse by identifying the
citizens, the country, and the culture with the state, making it kind of
a mortal sin to challenge the legitimacy of the institutional order as
that would be equivalent to doubting or outright attacking the existence
of the nation.
Transnationalism, understood as the framework-state that brings together
nation-states in pursuit of common objectives, is increasingly becoming
everyday normality and it blends in together with technocracy to
gradually change the narrative about its own legitimacy. Again, this is
a disguised attempt to undermine the spirit of democracy and to
brainwash citizens into thinking that they cannot enact change in their
milieu due to the increasing complexity of the world that only some
enlightened experts with their nimbleness of thought may truly grasp.
The world can be made simple though. It is all a matter of perspective
and mentality. It starts small, by organising with actual people at the
local level, developing communities with them that are predicated on
genuine solidarity, and by campaigning for tangible reforms in their
In a democracy, it would be unacceptable that amid a pandemic some of us
do not know whether we will have enough money for next week's groceries.
We are at a stage where the systemic failures are apparent and we
recognise how the current structures are designed to maintain a highly
stratified society where the vast majority live in precarious
Things must be critically reconsidered and that starts at the level of
concepts and theories, for it is impossible to pursue alternatives you
have not fathomed. It is pointless to attempt to change the world if
you do not first reprogram your mindset.