Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The end of nations

Concluding the discussion on migration featured in the current issue of the New Scientist

At one time countries used to worry more about keeping people in than keeping them out. Then came the nation-state and the need to control citizens. Governments only started to control who entered their country relatively recently. Roman and medieval laws kept peasants bound to their farms. In the 1600s, English labourers needed locally issued passes to travel for work, partly to stop them “benefits shopping” for parish poor relief. But controls were largely internal. External passports were mere requests for safe conduct, rather than restrictive documents determining where you could go, says John Torpey at the City University of New York. The passport as an instrument of state regulation was born of the French revolution of 1789. At first, ordinary people were issued passes to control internal movement, especially to Paris. But after the king tried to escape, and foreign aristocrats attacked the revolution, the authorities started requiring such papers for exit and entry to the country. The revolution created one of the world’s first “nation-states”, defined by the “national” identity of its people rather than its monarchs’ claims. “This novel importance of the people and their nationality made identity papers integral to creating the modern state,” says Torpey.

As the idea of the nation-state spread, so did passports. But as the industrial revolution snowballed in the 19th century, there was pressure to allow free movement of all the factors of production – money, trade and labour. Passport requirements were widely relaxed across Europe – in 1872, the British foreign secretary, Earl Granville, even wrote: “all foreigners have the unrestricted right of entrance into and residence in this country”. The situation was similar in North America. In the early 20th century, European legal experts were divided over whether states even had the right to control people’s international movements. But the nationalism that was propelling Europe towards war changed that. Among other things, it meant foreigners might be spies.

Nation states cause some of our biggest problems, from civil war to climate inaction. Science suggests there are better ways to run a planet Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them. And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a caliphate Islamic State. Many of the conflicts, from Palestine to the Ukraine and from rows over immigration to membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way. Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it. The nation-state model also fails often: since 1960 there have been more than 180 civil wars worldwide.

Yet there is a growing awareness that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments. The nation state is a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world.

For most of the past thousand years, there were no nations in Europe. It was a hotchpotch of tribal groupings, feudal kingdoms, autonomous cities and trading networks. Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states, says John Breuilly of the London School of Economics. If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in. Humanity started as wandering, extended families, then formed larger bands of hunter-gatherers, and then, around 10,000 years ago, settled in farming villages. Such alliances had adaptive advantages, as people cooperated to feed and defend themselves. Several villages allied themselves under a chief; several chiefdoms banded together under a higher chief. To grow, these alliances added more villages, and if necessary more layers of hierarchy. These alliances continued to enlarge and increase in complexity in order to perform more kinds of collective actions. For a society to survive, its collective behaviour must be as complex as the challenges it faces – including competition from neighbours. If one group adopted a hierarchical society, its competitors also had to. Hierarchies spread and social complexity grew. Larger hierarchies won more wars, fed more people through economies of scale, which enabled technical and social innovations such as irrigation, food storage, record-keeping and a unifying religion. Cities, kingdoms and empires followed. But these were not nation states. A conquered city or region could be subsumed into an empire regardless of its inhabitants’ “national” identity. “The view of the state as a necessary framework for politics, as old as civilisation itself, does not stand up to scrutiny,” says historian Andreas Osiander of the University of Leipzig in Germany.

Agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more. Even quite late on, rulers spent little time governing, says Osiander. In the 17th century Louis XIV of France had half a million troops fighting foreign wars but only 2000 keeping order at home. In the 18th century, the Dutch and Swiss needed no central government at all. Many eastern European immigrants arriving in the US in the 19th century could say what village they came from, but not what country: it didn’t matter to them. Before the modern era, says Breuilly, people defined themselves “vertically” by who their rulers were. There was little horizontal interaction between peasants beyond local markets. Whoever else the king ruled over, and whether those people were anything like oneself, was largely irrelevant. Such systems are very different from today’s states, which have well-defined boundaries filled with citizens. In a system of vertical loyalties, says Breuilly, power peaks where the overlord lives and peters out in frontier territories that shade into neighbouring regions. Ancient empires are coloured on modern maps as if they had firm borders, but they didn’t. Moreover, people and territories often came under different jurisdictions for different purposes. Such loose controlmeant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. Some, like the Roman Empire, did this on a very large scale. But complexity – the different actions society could collectively perform – was relatively low. In 1648, Europe’s Peace of Westphalia ended centuries of war by declaring existing kingdoms, empires and other polities “sovereign”: none was to interfere in the internal affairs of others. This was a step towards modern states – but these sovereign entities were still not defined by their peoples’ national identities. International law is said to date from the Westphalia treaty, yet the word “international” was not coined until 132 years later.

The tipping point was the industrial revolution. This demanded a different kind of government. Unlike farming, industry needs steel, coal and other resources which are not uniformly distributed, so many micro-states were no longer viable. Meanwhile, empires became unwieldy as they industrialised and needed more actual governing. So in 19th-century Europe, micro-states fused and empires split. In 1776 and 1789, revolutions in the US and France created the first nation states, defined by the national identity of their citizens rather than the bloodlines of their rulers. According to one landmark history of the period, says Breuilly, “in 1800 almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did.” For various reasons, people in England had an earlier sense of “Englishness”, he says, but it was not expressed as a nationalist ideology

These new nation states were justified not merely as economically efficient, but as the fulfilment of their inhabitants’ national destiny. A succession of historians has nonetheless concluded that it was the states that defined their respective nations, and not the other way around. France, for example, was not the natural expression of a pre-existing French nation. At the revolution in 1789, half its residents did not speak French. In 1860, when Italy unified, only 2.5 per cent of residents regularly spoke standard Italian. Its leaders spoke French to each other. One famously said that, having created Italy, they now had to create Italians. Siniša Maleševic of University College Dublin in Ireland believes that this “nation building” was a key step in the evolution of modern nation states. It required the creation of an ideology of nationalism that emotionally equated the nation with people’s circle of family and friends. That in turn relied heavily on mass communication technologies. Benedict Anderson of Cornell University described nations as “imagined” communities: they far outnumber our immediate circle and we will never meet them all, yet people will die for their nation as they would for their family. Such nationalist feelings, he argued, arose after mass-market books standardised vernaculars and created linguistic communities. Newspapers allowed people to learn about events of common concern, creating a large “horizontal” community that was previously impossible. National identity was also deliberately fostered by state-funded mass education.

According to Brian Slattery of York University in Toronto, Canada, nation states still thrive on a widely held belief that “the world is naturally made of distinct, homogeneous national or tribal groups which occupy separate portions of the globe, and claim most people’s primary allegiance”. But anthropological research does not bear that out, he says. Even in tribal societies, ethnic and cultural pluralism has always been widespread. Multilingualism is common, cultures shade into each other, and language and cultural groups are not congruent. Moreover, people always have a sense of belonging to numerous different groups based on region, culture, background and more. “The claim that a person’s identity and well-being is tied in a central way to the well-being of the national group is wrong as a simple matter of historical fact,” says Slattery.

According to the mythology of nationalism, all they needed was a territory, a flag, a national government and UN recognition. In fact what they really needed was complex bureaucracy. Dictatorships exacerbate ethnic strife because their institutions do not promote citizens’ identification with the nation. In such situations, people fall back on trusted alliances based on kinship. Insecure governments allied to ethnic groups favour their own, while grievances among the disfavoured groups grow – and the resulting conflict can be fierce.

People self-segregate. Humans like being around people like themselves, and ethnic enclaves can be the result. Communities where people are well mixed – such as in peaceable Singapore, where enclaves are actively discouraged – tend not to have ethnic strife. Larger enclaves can also foster stability.

Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, using mathematical models to correlate the size of enclaves with the incidences of ethnic strife in India, Switzerland and the former Yugoslavia, found that enclaves 56 kilometres or more wide make for peaceful coexistence – especially if they are separated by natural geographical barriers. Switzerland’s 26 cantons, for example, which have different languages and religions, meet Bar-Yam’s spatial stability test – except one. A French-speaking enclave in German-speaking Berne experienced the only major unrest in recent Swiss history. It was resolved by making it a separate canton, Jura, which meets the criteria. Ethnicity and language are only part of the story. Lars-Erik Cederman of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich argues that Swiss cantons have achieved peace not by geographical adjustment of frontiers, but by political arrangements giving cantons considerable autonomy and a part in collective decisions. Cederman’s analysis confirms that trouble arises not from diversity alone, but when certain groups are excluded from power (The US set up just such a government in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.) Bar-Yam’s and Cederman’s research suggests one answer to diversity within nation states: devolve power to local communities.
“We need a conception of the state as a place where multiple affiliations and languages and religions may be safe and flourish,” says Slattery.
“The future structure and exercise of political power will resemble the medieval model more than the Westphalian one,” Jan Zielonka of the University of Oxford says. “The latter is about concentration of power, sovereignty and clear-cut identity.” Neo-medievalism, on the other hand, means overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, multiple identities and governing institutions, and fuzzy borders.

Now that the nation’s time may be drawing to a close, the World Socialist Movement advances the concept of world socialism, a planet without borders and without the State. We argue for forms of free associations of producers and world-wide federated communes. 

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