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: <https://protesilaos.com/politics/2021-05-29-nation-state-democracy-transnationalism/> * 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: the nation. 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): #+begin_quote 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 expressement. [FR] #+end_quote 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 telos. * 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? No. 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 nation-state. 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 ends. 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 market. 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 thus: #+begin_quote 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. #+end_quote 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' agenda. 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 free market. 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 regime. 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 delineated space. 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 demos). 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 virtuous cycle. 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: <https://protesilaos.com/books/2021-04-28-notes-science-scientism/>. 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 life. 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 conditions. 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.