So deeply ingrained is the tendency to funnel society into the mold prepared for it by the nation-state that we cannot conceive of societies except as thoroughly congruent with the state, as if the teleology of all social entities were the state.
This truism constitutes a succinct expression of the pre-eminence of the nation-state in global societal organisations. The world is largely divided up into these unitary, enclosed identities whose legitimacy is derived the ‘nation’ or the ‘people’ as the sole source of sovereignty. Obviously, the degree to which the state can claim such legitimacy varies a great deal, but at the very least the state claims to represent the national interest. Yet, the nation-state as the overarching meta-paradigm of how a cohesive society should organise itself political is currently being undermined under several fronts, whilst, as evident in the wilful destruction of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the bloody emergence of newly created nation-states in the region, where it is being revived its worst qualities are revealed.
The modern theory of the state rests upon the nation as source of sovereignty and legitimacy. A political arrangement between society and the government towards the protection of citizens and their rights. Hobbes perceived the state as ‘an artificial life’, a conscious, willed construct.
For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a common-wealth, or State which is but an artificial Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the Sovereignty is an Artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body. (Hobbes 1951: 81)
Ronen Palan argues, from a perspective that seeks to place technological innovation at the centre of our understanding of changing international relations, that the Hobbesian use of metaphors of the state as an organic entity or as ‘automata’, ‘engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch’ (ibid.: 81) establishes a model that encourages us to conceive of the globe as being partitioned into highly organised, bounded and self-enclosed societies. Further from this is the tendency to see the geographic area which the state claims sovereignty over as the actualisation of the social body, thus determining that the defence of the national territory as the primary concern of the state (Talalay et al, 1997: 17).
Arising from this organic/mechanical conception is a sort of anthropomorphism of the state where it is held to have a rational intelligence as well as desires that whilst comparative to that of a person are conceived on a far grander scale. Thus as an individual may seek to accumulate possessions or elevate their status within society the state sought its own self aggrandisement through ‘the accumulation of power and prestige’ (ibid.: 17).
Palan propounds that in regarding the state as a person its nature becomes self-evident, the ‘reason of state’ and its underlying rational reveals itself to our gaze. Conversely, if we desist in our treatment of the state as a person, and the unitary coherence that such a metaphor suggests ‘the entire realist edifice crumbles’ (ibid.: 17).
The rise of the ideology of nationalism is crucial in understanding the progression of the state. David Miller usefully describes a sense of nationality as consisting of five essential elements: shared belief and mutual committment; exetended in history; active in character; connected to a particular territory; marked off from other communities by its distinct public culture. These qualities, according to Miller, mark nationalism as unique to other forms of public identity (Miller 1995: 27).
The nationalist ideology is one which seeks to provide a narrative of political legitimacy to the state (Clarke et al 1999: 9). It seeks to construct and promote a homogenised identity as unifying force for society the basis of which has been summarised by Anthony Smith as geo-political, religious-ideological and ethno-cultural in nature. This triangulation of forces, from which the mythic national force has been presumed to be emergent, is a difficult construct, but upon it rests the derivation of the authority of the state. This is exemplified by the declaration of 1791 by the National Assembly at the birth of the first modern liberal state, France. Article three states;
The Nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual, or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it (Paine 1996: 72).
The main problem with this assertion is that both ‘people’ and ‘nation’ are equated as synonymous entities and no matter how we seek to define this body it must in a sense have an exclusive, as well as inclusive impact. Nationalism is permanently in danger of entering into so confining a description as to exclude the other on the basis of a different language, different traditions of religious worship, different ideological beliefs, different ethnicity to the majority, and different cultural relations. As Donna Haraway observes in the present confused era of identity politics; ‘Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. And who counts as ‘us’ in my own rhetoric? Which identities are available to ground such a potent political myth called ‘us’, and what could motivate enlistment in this collectivity?’ (Haraway 1997: 155).
The state seeks to construct a stable identity for the people through the agencies of nationality, education, tradition, language and religion which are contested by marginal, peripheral and alienated forces which from a continual sustained tension within the state and its own claims to legitimacy. As the dominant identity gains dominance as the pre-eminent construct of ‘authentic’ identity, the other is forced further to the margins and more radical redefinition in fundamentalist doctrines and the violent subversion against the state’s coercive powers. Thus the logic of identity is by necessity one which labours against its own contradictions in seeking to control the expression and indeed often the very right to existence of the other (Said, 1994: 353).
The attempt at nation buliding in the post-colonial states of Africa is a case in point of how the traditional liberal-model of the nation-state can frequently fail to provide for its citizens those universal rights held to inalienable. The reasons for this are complex but dominant among them is the fact that in their design they were conceived to satiate the desires of the imperial countries. The boundaries which were created, in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, indifferently divided homogeneous political and social units between the great powers. Frequently peoples of different cultures, traditions and languages whose allegiance was to manifold and diverse authorities, were thrown together hence lacked any unifying common mythology with which to sustain the integrity of the fledgling nation-state. The colonial masters felt little need or desire to try to foster any feelings of loyalty amongst the peoples to the states which they had created, for there was never any intention that they should enjoy an existence separate from the mother country. All that was required of these new imperial subjects was obedience and the paymant of taxes. Additionally, a desire not to bear the financial burden of administration led to a reliance on indigenous authorities to carry out much of the work of local government. Such an arrangement naturally served to reinforce allegiance to the existing authorities which anteceded occupation rather than to the new central government (Ingham 1990: 2).
Basil Davidson acutely observes that in the struggle for independence from the colonial powers the indigenous leaders had adopted the ideology of nationalism, however they found themselves nationalists without nations, a situation that cannot be said to have changed greatly, at least in the first few decades following independence (Davidson 1978: 304). The laborious workmof nation building was undertaken by many able energetic actors who tried to achieve unitary closure of diverse ethnic groupings and their spokespersons ‘within a shell of unified national effort’ appealing to the masses for enthusiatic support. Their efforts were however undercut by the the propensity of ethnic leaders to show favour their own ethnic groupings, whilst mere national flagwaving would prove a poor substitute to the promised benefits of the modern state to the multitudes of the urban and rural polities. The emancipation which nationalism had offered rested upon two branches: freedom from foreign rule; social betterment through industrialisation and modernisation. The ultimate failure of the secondary part of the nationalist programme would ultimate constitute a betrayal of the people and a failure of this national liberationist philosophy.
Clarke, D. M., & Jones, J. (1999) The Rights of Nations: Nations and Nationalism in a Changing World, Cork University Press, Cork.
Davidson, B. (1978) Africa in Modern History: The Search for a New Society, London.
Haraway, D. (1991) A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature New York, Routledge, pp.149-181.
Hobbes, T. (1951) Leviathan, C. B. Macpherson (ed.), Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Ingham, K. (1990) Politics in Modern Africa, London, Routledge.
Miller, D. (1995) On Nationality, Oxford, Clarendon Press.
Paine, T. (1996) Rights of Man, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Classics.
Said, E. W. (1994) The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination 1969-1994, London, Random House.
Talalay, M., Farrands, C., & Tooze, R. (eds) (1997) Technology, Culture and Competitiveness: Change and the World Political Economy, London, Routledge.