Protesilaos Stavrou
Philosopher. Polymath.

What is the nation state

Structured Text on Sovereignty, Nationhood, Statehood - Book index

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”.1 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 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.” [^]