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Opinion | Nationhood at its zenith and nadir

Nations may have more genuine political independence than ever before, but they also face an unprecedented degree of powerlessness in the sphere of economics

(from left) Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito at the 1956 summit of Non-Aligned Movement at Brioni Island. Getty Images
(from left) Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito at the 1956 summit of Non-Aligned Movement at Brioni Island. Getty Images

India in 2020 contains more people than the entire world did 200 years ago. If over a billion individuals can feel bound together by the sense of a shared destiny the way most Indians and Chinese do, what stops seven or eight billion from feeling that way? Why have we failed to evolve the planetary consciousness John Lennon pleaded for when he sang, Imagine there’s no countries / it isn’t hard to do / nothing to kill or die for… ?

It seems important at this moment to think beyond national borders, given how interlinked the world’s economy is, and considering the close international cooperation necessary to deal with both the immediate threat of the covid-19 pandemic as well as the longer-term challenges posed by climate change, Artificial Intelligence and genetic modification. Yet, strangely enough, sovereign nation states are more powerful today than at any time in history.

Although the idea of nationhood is ancient, and the concept of the sovereign nation state dates at least as far back as 1648’s Treaty of Westphalia, much of the world was divided into empires rather than independent countries before the middle of the 20th century. A process of decolonization inaugurated after World War II set dozens of nations free but many of them, along with a few that had previously been autonomous, possessed sovereignty in name only. The member countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) were satellites of the erstwhile Soviet Union, while the US nurtured puppet regimes and client states across the globe during the Cold War.

The collapse of the Soviet Union created a fresh group of democratic nations in East and Central Europe. However, any nationalist euphoria was tempered by three countervailing factors: a unipolar global order dominated by the US; an expansionist European Union with ambitions of forming a super-state; and an emergent globalization marked by borderless flows of capital and information.

These factors led intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama and Kenichi Ohmae to believe the world was transitioning to a global liberal democratic order or even a complete dissolution of national boundaries. The globalizers were shocked by the attacks of 11 September 2001, which constituted a rude incursion of atavistic religious ideas into political discourse. The conversation turned to an examination of deep-rooted cultural differences in books like Samuel Huntington’s The Clash Of Civilisations published in 1996. Although Huntington’s thesis was wide-ranging, it was received primarily as an account of an inalienable conflict between Islam and the West and came to be seen as prescient after 9/11.

What remained insufficiently understood at the time, and is so even today, was that the pan-Islamism espoused by the likes of Osama bin Laden was enabled by precisely the forces of globalization that were undermining the power of nation states. The dream of a reconstituted Caliphate was untenable without a concomitant erasure of the importance of national boundaries. It required a collaboration of atavistic ideals with contemporary technological and economic formations.

The ramifications of wars in the Middle East consequent to 9/11, notably an outflow of migrants headed West, led to an intensified concern about the sanctity of national borders. It helped engender a rejuvenated nationalism that was right-wing, authoritarian and majoritarian in orientation, which now dominates global politics. It is best represented by a dozen or more strongmen (muscularity and masculinity are intrinsic to their appeal) presently heading national governments. A list, which is not exhaustive, would include China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Donald Trump of the US, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

These leaders all combine appeals to belligerent nationalism with policies aimed at maximizing the benefit to their countries from the current global economic order. Many are reputed to be able administrators and associated with economic dynamism in the minds of their constituents. Outside of China’s unique model of totalitarian state capitalism, however, it is noteworthy that no leader has produced an original development plan or suggested ways to resolve structural imbalances in the prevalent economic system. Their choices remain restricted to playing by globalization’s rules. They have massive political capital but are unable to utilize it to bring about fundamental economic change. Nations may have more genuine political independence than ever before, but that independence is accompanied by an unprecedented degree of powerlessness in the sphere of economics.

It is worth recalling that when the idea of a European super-state was first enunciated, the most strident objections were voiced by socialists who believed a federal Europe would deprive nations of the ability to choose economic policies that suited them best. Today, the resistance to European integration is dominated by the right. Its most important manifestation, Brexit, was driven not by a desire to forge a significantly different economic path but, rather, by the urge to set up protective walls against migrant labour. There is, as a result, no economic vision animating post-Brexit Britain divergent from that of the European Union.

In the absence of such an alternative, nationalism is restricted largely to the ideological sphere, and turns identitarian and majoritarian. In India, Hindutva has comprehensively displaced pluralistic ideals of nationhood, as seen most recently in the mobilization of the state apparatus for the foundation stone-laying ceremony of a temple in Ayodhya. The liberal and socialist conceptions of nationhood that inspired the freedom struggle have withered before the right’s appeal to ressentiment and revanchism. The same pattern plays out across the globe.

Following a long period of politics attempting to accommodate the economics of globalization, we have now entered a phase where the economics of globalization is having to accommodate nationalistic politics. It is possible that the dislocations involved in that difficult adjustment will open up new ideological spaces to counter authoritarian majoritarianism.

Meanwhile, John Lennon’s appeal to transcend nationality goes unheard because identities remain based on in-groups and out-groups. The in-group may balloon from a tribe of a few dozen to a nation or faith of a billion, but it always defines itself against that which is outside of itself. In our minds, we need something to kill or die for.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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