The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 3 (Fall 2017)

Why Nations Matter

Wilfred M. McClay

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The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 3)

The end of history prophesied by Hegel and announced by Francis Fukuyama has been indefinitely delayed in its arrival. Like a storm-beset airliner, it circles and circles in the thick clouds over its destination, as suspicion grows that it will not be able to land there at all, but will instead quietly spiral away into the foggy realm of the might-have-been.

Why is this happening? The problem is that, although the liberal-democratic regimes that have been nominated to represent history’s apex have persisted and even grown in number around the globe, the West’s commitment to the intellectual and moral premises that have upheld the development of liberal democracy has been steadily weakening, and now seems feeble indeed. Hence, what many intellectuals of the left and right now are willing to dismiss as “the Enlightenment project” is in serious trouble, a development that has implications far beyond the seminar rooms and academic conclaves where such matters are discussed.

The very existence of liberal-democratic institutions depends upon an unwavering prior commitment to ideals of individual liberty, rational inquiry, religious toleration, constitutionalism, representative government, freedom of speech and thought, and a whole basket of other institutions and practices, many of them the fruit of early-modern and Enlightenment thought. Signal institutions, such as the free press and the modern university, would be reduced to shams in the absence of such ideals (a proposition that our universities seem ominously prepared to test). In turn, the characteristic political form in which these things have flourished, the nation-state, has been under steady assault.

That the modern nation-state has many inherent problems and dangers we all know. Indeed, we probably know it too well. Belief in the nation-state’s unique propensity to legitimate violence, ethnocentrism, and almost every other form of collective arrogance and bad behavior has become a conviction approaching an article of faith among educated people in the years since World War II. It is a conviction that has become so one-sided as to drive out nearly all complicating factors. John Lennon’s plaintive song “Imagine” expresses a vivid if excruciatingly naive version of that conviction, but it is not far from representing the conventional wisdom. More generally, there is a widely shared belief, one of the enduring metanarratives of high modernity, that understands the nation-state as the principal source of the last century’s immense bloodshed, and supposes the world to be evolving steadily, even inexorably, toward the breaking down of all provincialities and particularisms, toward greater and greater integration of economics, culture, and political governance.

This story has capitalist and socialist versions. The former emphasizes free markets and the free movement of capital and labor across national boundaries, all of this in obedience to the great god of “comparative advantage” and with a view to inducing the gradual irrelevance of the state in favor of ever more commerce, consumption, and cultural fluidity. The latter emphasizes the benign direction of the economy by bureaucrats operating out of multilateral institutions, such as the European Union, who are laying the groundwork for a superstate or an eventual global regime that will forever supersede the noxious particularisms of the past and ensure a peaceful, equitable, and sustainable world. Despite their differences, the two versions have much in common, and one thing that surely unites them is disdain for the idea that the nation-state is an indispensable building block of political life.

Imagine there are no countries…. Very well, but it is not so easy to imagine what could take their place as a locus of our political identities and loyalties, and our communities of memory. We have not found an adequate substitute for the nation-state, whether by seeking it through the consolidation of existing polities into ever more massive postnational entities like the EU, or by allowing nations to disaggregate into homogeneous and even tribal entities. It is surely one of the chief lessons taught by the blunderbuss political disruptions of 2016, from the Brexit-induced splintering of the EU to the election of Donald Trump, that national consciousness remains a powerful force in the world, and its cosmopolitan and postnational rivals can no longer count on automatically receiving sustained applause and the future’s blessing. The delusion of global inevitability has been given a rude shock, one that its believers are still struggling to comprehend.

There are very practical reasons why the cult of global consolidation is being rethought. One of the many aftereffects of the near collapse of the world financial system in 2008 has been a recognition in some quarters that global, integrated, interconnected, and centralized are not necessarily better, when those things mean that systemic risk and moral hazard will be amplified and universalized in lightning fashion in times of crisis, with no one in particular being held accountable for the disasters that ensue. The “antifragile” principle of reducing the chances of widespread calamity by dividing sources of power, wealth, and control in the world seems far safer than the fantasy of a comprehensively interconnected world ruled by that sorcerer’s apprentice, “the Internet of things.” It is not clear that this recognition has yet carried the day, particularly among policymakers and Silicon Valley visionaries, but it is now at least part of the discussion.

So too, at long last, are the immensely destabilizing effects and social costs of globalization, which have been for so long dismissed as the mere birth pangs of an emerging new order. In that connection, an equally important issue is that a substitute has not been found for the nation-state as a locus of citizenship. That consideration takes us directly to the most fundamental questions about the nature of political society itself, particularly in the liberal democracies of the West. There are many meanings to be drawn from Aristotle’s famous declaration that we are by nature “political animals,” but chief among them is that we are in some sense incomplete unless we are able to live in community with one another. It is in our nature to be belonging creatures, and one of the deepest needs of the human soul is a sense of membership, of joy in and gratitude for what we have and hold in common with others, including those who have died and those who are yet to come. Citizenship is the highest political expression of this mutuality and relatedness, a mark of our equal dignity and empowerment, a condition supported by a dense web of reciprocal obligation, of rights and responsibilities in equal measure, a condition and a status that make public life into a school of civic and personal virtue. All this being so, how are we to reconcile our efforts to create multinational and transnational forms of association, which have many profound benefits, with maintenance of the core meaning of citizenship itself, which is intrinsically associated with the life of a particular nation?

It is not very helpful to speak of training people to think of themselves as citizens of the world. This might be good for globalizing your markets and your labor force, but it is not so good for fostering a sense of place, or for forming a proper regard for your neighbors, not to mention those who came before you and made your way of life possible. Citizenship is always particular and exclusive, citizenship “of” something, of some place, some jurisdiction, one entity rather than another. To call oneself a citizen of the world, as Diogenes did, is a grand rhetorical flourish, but it amounts to little more than a sentimental metaphor, and may be a way of dodging the commitments that come in tandem with our embrace of our duties and loyalties to particular people, places, and things—a way of loving humanity while despising actual people. Moreover, without a particular system of laws and governance that citizens have had the opportunity to deliberate upon and assent to, within which they are accountable to one another, and by means of which their governments can be made formally and functionally accountable to them, citizenship becomes an empty word, interchangeable with consumer or subject or personnel. Many of the British citizens who voted to leave the EU last year were moved by just such concerns, specifically the belief that they were being governed increasingly by individuals whom they had no role in selecting, and whom they were increasingly unable to hold accountable. They feared they were becoming citizens in name only.

Did last year’s Brexit rebuke mean an end to the European project? Not necessarily, because the answer depends upon what one means by “Europe.” If one means the ambitious but struggling project of welding the continent into a borderless and ever more tightly integrated economic, political, and cultural union, held together by an invented supranational identity, by a common currency adorned with generic secular symbols, and by the tentacles of an administrative magistracy headquartered in Brussels—in other words, an exemplar of the administrative state, serving as a disinterested Weberian substitute for obsolete historical conventions or customs—then that is one thing.

But if one means by “Europe” a certain rich, complex, and varied way of life, and the values and institutions and forms of consciousness that make that way of life possible—free and self-governing institutions, constitutionally limited governments, prosperity-generating market economies, equality of men and women before the law, protection of fundamental human rights, freedom of expression and rational inquiry and imagination, recognition of the dignity and privacy of the individual, a high regard for the acts of criticism and self-criticism, and a glorious and cosmopolitan heritage of ideas, stories, artifacts, sciences, languages, faiths, cuisines, literatures, historical consciousnesses, and arguments, all laid out before us as if on a single vast table stretching from antiquity to tomorrow—then that is quite another thing.

The two meanings of “Europe” are obviously closely related, but they are by no means the same, and it is a grave error to imagine that they are—or to believe that the honorific term cosmopolitanism refers only to the first meaning. In the course of things, the two meanings inevitably become antithetical, so that any success enjoyed by the newer understanding of “Europe” will, in the end, necessarily come at the expense of the older, bringing in all the unsought consequences that come with the decision to push aside national polities and cultures and abandon the forms of sovereignty and institutions of self-rule that heretofore have been essential to the perpetuation of such nations.

Some degree of European unity is a desirable thing, done in the right way. But it seems likely that its optimal shape will need to be reconsidered, and the effort to erode or supplant national sovereignties be abandoned. There may be no workable substitute for the particularisms inherent in what Charles de Gaulle called “L’Europe des patries,” an older way of understanding and mapping Europe that is more in accord with the forces of human history and human sentiment. For guidance in these matters, Europe may want to look to the United States for an example of a sturdy form of constitutional federalism, one that divides political power between and among units of government—central and local, higher and lower—in such a way that all retain significant elements of autonomy and self-governance.

Such arrangements need not mean giving up on the laudable goal of increased international cooperation. Instead, they mean giving up on the fantasy that a single unelected governmental entity presiding over a large collection of highly diverse peoples and cultures, with different histories and different economies, different fathers and mothers and memories and aspirations, can take the place of the nations. They mean accepting that there are hard limits to what any supranational combinations should try to accomplish. Similar limitations also apply to the nation-state itself, of course; every size up and down the scale of government, from the village to the empire, has its distinctive excellence and appropriate mission, and its characteristic forms of overreach. So declares the oft-invoked principle of subsidiarity, which reserves the chief political responsibilities for the smallest and most local units of governance, with central governments (theoretically) playing only a subsidiary (i.e., secondary) function. Yet that admirable principle, which was fundamental to the thinking of the EU’s founders and remains an important point of reference in EU discussions, is so vague as to be meaningless, in just the way that “citizen of the world” is meaningless, without a serious constitutional framework in place to superintend the proper delegation of powers, and ensure that the resulting arrangements are durable and resilient.

There may come a time when Europe can accommodate itself to such a constitution. It will take something more than the coercions of a central bank and a shared currency to get it there. And to be successful, it will have to build upon the nation-state rather than renounce it. For the foreseeable future the nation-state remains the indispensable context for the flourishing of liberal democracy, the cohesive form within which the most robust and inclusive conception of citizenship, entailing a high calling to live in solidarity and mutuality with one’s fellows regardless of their class or race, will have to be rooted. If it is to survive, liberal democracy must be understood as something more than just a self-reinforcing regime of imprescriptible human rights. It is also a vehicle of responsible self-governance, an institutional expression of Rousseau’s famous dictum that freedom means living in obedience to a rule that you have made for yourself. For liberal democracy, that rule is called a constitution.

Nor should national sentiment be disdained. The heart has its reasons, and its memories. It is hard to see how a vast collection of people could ever be persuaded over the long run to make sacrifices for the common good, if that commonality is not somehow rooted in fellow-feeling, in a sense of “us” that is something more than shared belief in a philosophical abstraction. Such feeling can also serve as an effective counter to some of the least attractive tendencies of the new political economy: global businessmen who operate freely on the world stage with scant regard for the well-being of their own people; or ambitious commissars who would like to place their policies and dicta forever beyond the reach of popular majorities. A more federative conception of the EU, with strictly enumerated powers, would allow men and women to continue to be citizens of their localities and nations, in the richest and fullest sense possible, yet not forgo the benefits and advantages of the global connectedness that is the unique contribution of our historical moment. Under such circumstances, the future of nationalism and cosmopolitanism would not need to be seen an either/or proposition.

It would not quite mean the end of history. But it might mean the beginning of something far more modest, and far more workable.

Wilfred M. McClay is G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty and director of the Center for the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.3 (Fall 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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