Saturday, April 21, 2018

Demise of the Nation State?

The British Indian novelist and essayist Rana Dasgupta recently wrote a very long earnest piece about the alleged demise of the nation-state. You should read it. Dasgupta makes a few good points. It is true that many rights which we don't normally allow governments to violate (at least in theory or without a really good reason established via due process) are "violated" every single day by corporations. Corporations have become powerful enough to begin to unfetter themselves from meaningful oversight or control by some of the nations where they do business. It's true that for some countries that globalization has caused greater diversity and in others raised average incomes. Dasgupta badly missteps when he argues that globalization in its current form is inevitable or that the increasing nationalism in some countries is merely a reactionary last gasp against needed permanent change to political, economic and cultural systems. Dasgupta tips his hand near the end of this piece. Dasgupta doesn't evince much interest in independently occurring nationalist, sectarian, ethnic or racial feelings outside the West, though their intensity can rival anything in today's West. 

No the main point that Dasgupta wants you to take away from this 6000 word essay is something that he initially obfuscates but ultimately just can't resist bluntly stating. He thinks that citizenship itself is manifestly unfair. To be precise, Dasgupta thinks that citizenship in the West and especially citizenship in the United States is unfair. And he wants to end it, primarily to make people in the Third World wealthier.
The history of the nation state is one of perennial tax innovation, and the next such innovation is transnational: we must build systems to track transnational money flows, and to transfer a portion of them into public channels. Without this, our political infrastructure will continue to become more and more superfluous to actual material life. In the process we must also think more seriously about global redistribution: not aid, which is exceptional, but the systematic transfer of wealth from rich to poor for the improved security of all, as happens in national societies.
Third, and finally: we need to find new conceptions of citizenship. Citizenship is itself the primordial kind of injustice in the world. It functions as an extreme form of inherited property and, like other systems in which inherited privilege is overwhelmingly determinant, it arouses little allegiance in those who inherit nothing. Many countries have made efforts, through welfare and education policy, to neutralise the consequences of accidental advantages such as birth. But “accidental advantages” rule at the global level: 97% of citizenship is inherited, which means that the essential horizons of life on this planet are already determined at birth.
If you are born Finnish, your legal protections and economic expectations are of such a different order to those of a Somalian or Syrian that even mutual understanding is difficult. Your mobility – as a Finn – is also very different. But in a world system – rather than a system of nations – there can be no justification for such radical divergences in mobility. Deregulating human movement is an essential corollary of the deregulation of capital: it is unjust to preserve the freedom to move capital out of a place and simultaneously forbid people from following.
Contemporary technological systems offer models for rethinking citizenship so it can be de-linked from territory, and its advantages can be more fairly distributed. The rights and opportunities accruing to western citizenship could be claimed far away, for instance, without anyone having to travel to the west to do so. We could participate in political processes far away that nonetheless affect us: if democracy is supposed to give voters some control over their own conditions, for instance, should a US election not involve most people on earth? What would American political discourse look like, if it had to satisfy voters in Iraq or Afghanistan?
This last statement is insultingly stupid. It's beyond insane. No, U.S. elections should not involve most people on the planet. The United States can't, shouldn't and won't allow people across the planet to vote in U.S. elections. That is suicidal.

It is unfortunate that there are countries on this planet where large numbers of people think that women shouldn't talk to men without their relatives' permission or that albinos are magical people or that raping a virgin can cure AIDS or that defecating in public is acceptable behavior or that cow waste has curative properties or that grown men having sex with pre-pubescent boys is normal or that generations of first cousin-intermarriage have no ill effects or that raping and murdering children to teach a lesson to THOSE people is a reasonable thing to do or that adulterers should be raped and flogged or that blasphemers should be beaten, imprisoned or executed

But that is not something that can be solved by extending U.S. citizenship to the world or by inviting the world here. Doing either of those things would make things far worse for everyone. One reason those countries are usually less desirable places to live is precisely because large numbers of people accept bad ideas that don't work. Why would I want the U.S. political discourse to include any of the hyperlinked dumb ideas?

People aren't fungible. They are different. Cultures contrast. People have divergent and occasionally incompatible ideas about how society should be organized. In some countries it is self-evident that the interests and needs of the larger whole (nation, family, business) are always more important than those of the individual. In other nations arranged marriages are normal. In some nations same sex marriage is not only considered ridiculous but also downright evil. Yada, yada, yada. The only way that the planet's 7.6 billion people can even begin to manage their differences, large and small, is by having separate, independent, sovereign nation-states. You do things your way in your country; I'll do things my way in my country.


There is a simpler term for "deregulating human movement". It's called invasion. People across the horizon become envious or get upset that a different group has something they want. So they decide to take it for themselves. This is an old human trait. It will never go away. After the deed, the invader can always invent wonderful rational reasons why the invaded people should be happy to have been invaded, subdued and conquered. And on occasions maybe the invader might even have a point.

But usually, with apologies to Monty Python, the people who were invaded don't like it one bit. Unless there is utter extermination, total defeat or complete assimilation, the population that was invaded will resist and fight back even if it takes them hundreds of years or even if they aren't that racially or ethnically different from the invaders. Almost every group of people, regardless of how they define themselves, has some patch of land or community, small or large, which they consider "theirs". 

Other people, that is to say, outsiders, don't get to determine what goes on in that land or community. The basis of having a voice in a given community is that everyone there accepts you, grudgingly or not, as part of the community. That acceptance stems from having being born in the community or from having moved into the community with the permission of the current residents. There literally is no other way. Every other choice leads to war. Political entities always have boundaries. This is something that is fundamental to human nature. Trying to get rid of nations or communities, insiders and outsiders, is a quixotic task that will end in pain, just like Marx's "New Man". No national political unit can include the entire planet.


It is critically important to point out that you need not be a hateful blood-and-soil race soldier conservative to believe that nations and citizenship should still mean something. There are important progressive goals that are best pursued within the confines of a nation. For example, a $15/hr minimum wage could possibly be done within the U.S. It could not apply to the whole world where labor standards and costs are very different. The idea of being free to speak your mind even if the rulers don't like it us not something that is conceivable in many nations on this planet. You can (and probably should) work to help different peoples across this world. We all share this world. That doesn't mean you have to share your nation with the entire planet. Anyone can be an American. But not everyone must be an American.

There is a classic book I like titled Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. One of the book's tragic villains, a feckless boy named T.J., is jealous of the new coat that his classmate, a decent boy named Stacy, has received from his family. T.J. constantly pesters Stacy. T.J. tells Stacy that it's not fair that Stacy has a coat and he doesn't. He mocks Stacy's appearance. Finally, tiring of T.J.'s ridicule and bullying, Stacy gives the coat to T.J. T.J. immediately changes his tune. He starts telling everyone how nice he looks in the coat and boasting about how he tricked Stacy.

At the family dinner, Stacy is forced to admit to his mother that he gave the coat away to T.J. even though it was a gift and winter is coming. His mother upbraids him and orders him to go back and get the coat from T.J. But Stacy's visiting Uncle Hammer, who is protecting the family while Stacy's father is away laboring, disagrees. Disgusted with Stacy, Hammer tells his sister-in-law and Stacy that if Stacy is stupid enough to give away what his family struggled to provide for him, then maybe he doesn't deserve to have it in the first place. Uncle Hammer forbids Stacy from getting his coat back. He explains this to his nephew:
“Then if you want something and it’s a good thing and you got it in the right way, you better hang on to it and don’t let nobody talk you out of it. You care what a lot of useless people say ‘bout you you’ll never get anywhere, ‘cause there’s a lotta folks don’t want you to make it. You understand what I’m telling you?”
Dasgupta is like the fictional T.J. here. He wants to convince people in the United States and Europe that they should turn over political control of their countries to the rest of the world. Well that's not going to happen. There aren't yet enough stupid people in the United States. This proposal is unworkable and undesirable. Nice try, Dasgupta.
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