Thursday, September 18, 2014


Note: this entry was composed at approx. 4:30 pm on Sept. 18, 2014, roughly 40 minutes before the polls closed in Scotland. The results of the referendum were unknown at this time.

The modern nation state took its form in the eighteenth century. Depending on who you read, France is given as the earliest example of a modern nation-state. Since the French Revolution, France has undergone several changes, some very violent, before settling on the entity we have today. Since the eighteenth century, the world has created untold versions of the nation-state, but the consistent thing in all of this is that the nation-state is regarded as the most advanced and most modern political expression of humanity's will to live and work together as a cohesive unit.

Simply put, a nation-state is a political organization that derives its authority from a sovereign people. The nation-state may comprise several ethnic or cultural groups of people: several religions, several languages, several philosophies may exist within a nation-state. For example, before the French Revolution, there was no real idea of what "France" was. "France", in the middle ages, was the area surrounding the city of Paris: other people who lived in what we now call France identified themselves as Gascons, Bretons, Normans, Acquitanians, etc. Only through centuries of effort by strong monarchs and equally strong ministers such as Richilieu, Mazarin and others, did the far-flung regions begin to feel that they were part of something larger, something stronger, something more secure ... something that they began to call "French".  Other nations in Europe, notably Germany, Italy and Spain went through similar experiences.

In the Middle Ages, it was relatively easy to determine a "nation". If you shared an ethnicity within a defined geographical space, if you spoke the same language, if you worshipped the same gods, then you were a citizen of a nation. In England, all people eventually spoke English and worshipped in the same church. In Japan or Korea, all people living in those lands were of the same ethnic background. In the aboriginal history of North and South America, you knew you were Mohawk, Lakota, Maya, Quechua, Aymara or Inuit because the other people in your general land area were the same as you. But as the centuries unfolded, people began to overlap. Mohawks joined with Seneca and others to form the Six Nations Confederacy. Incas evolved out of a Quechua tribe conquering other tribes to forge an empire. Saxons, Bavarians, Westphalians and others fell into the Prussian influence to become Germans. And, as a result, nation-states were born. Over time, people took on the larger identities as explained above.

The key ingredient in forming the nation-state, besides the emotional and visceral feeling of being a "Frenchman", or a "German", or an "Italian", or any other nationality, is having a strong central authority to keep the nation-state together. In older times, this was usually in the form of a strong monarchy. Later, the authority was in a strong central or federal government. As long as the authority of the central government went unchallenged, the nation-state worked smoothly, and loyalty to the nation-state was unquestioned. But, occasionally, people or regions would begin to question the authority of the central government. That's when the nation-state began to totter. The best example of this is the Civil War in the United States. Other nation-states have endured brutal civil wars: Greece, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, many modern Arab and Middle Eastern nation-states come to mind. And when people decide to explore the dissolution of nation-states peacefully, separatist movements and referenda occur: Canada, the former Czechoslovakia, and currently the United Kingdom come to mind.

Which brings us to the present day. Events around the world seem to be heralding the demise of the nation-state. Not just politically, but economically and culturally, do we see people more willing to shed the narrow definitions of who they are. Politically, we may be on the verge of witnessing the historic dissolution of the United Kingdom if Scotland votes in favour of independence. In 1989, an equally unbelievable event occurred with the dissolution of the USSR into its several components. In the 1990's, Czechoslovakia went through the "velvet revolution", breaking themselves peacefully and willingly in half, forming the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Even stable and thriving nation-states such as the United States and Canada are fraught with division and disagreement that sometimes results in political paralysis. The nation-state of Belgium, one of the most stable states in Europe, famously went without a federal government for several years because the two major ethnic components, Flemings and Walloons, couldn't find a way to form a workable political coalition.

Perhaps the most insidious threat to the nation-state is economic in nature. The rise of multi-national corporations has been such that it is difficult to determine where a corporation's "country" or "home office" is located. Questions arise: to whom does a multi-national corporation answer or obey? Under what laws does a business operate? If a multi-national runs afoul of a nation-state's laws, does it simply shut down operations in that nation-state and relocate elsewhere? If workers try to organize or earn higher wages, benefits and pensions in one nation-state, does the multi-national have any obligation to allow this when workers in a different nation-state do not organize or earn higher wages etc? Do multi-national corporations make decisions based on the corporation's best interest, or in the best interest of a nation or a people?

So, as Scots today go to the polls to determine their place in the larger nation-state of the United Kingdom, we watch fascinated and a little apprehensive. But does the apparent demise of the nation-state mean disaster? Or is it a good thing? Nation-states, particularly strong ones, have caused wars and injustice throughout our history. Could smaller nations, possessing no large forces, or large egos, or external ambitions be the way to go? It has been suggested that the possibility of large-scale wars, like the world wars of the last century, could be a thing of the past since such wars are bad for business, and multi-national corporations are so inter-connected , so global in their outlook, that war would be unacceptable to the corporations. And people may evolve into feeling a greater loyalty for the world itself, given the ease with which we travel, the amount of global culture we consume, and the financial wealth we accumulate from the far corners of the world.

The end of the nation-state could be one of the most enlightened choices we, as a species, could ever make.

1 comment:

  1. We do not live in Paris. Perhaps there are reasons for the cartoons that we do not know about. As of now Muslims are 10% of Frances population and growing. In Paris a lot of the muslims are immigrants and live in the immigrant slums. Gangs, looting and firebombings are a daily way of life. Could it be Charlie is urging Parisiennes to fight and take their city back