'Another world is possible': nationhood and global justice

Globalisation has depended upon a unitary idea of progress. Now it's time to look again at national space and its role in formulating a democratic world interest. The first piece in the new OurKingdom series,     Re-birth of the nation? Challenging 'global citizens'.


The birth of the global justice movement: Seattle 1999

How can we begin to take seriously the expression ‘global economic crisis’ when the territory covered by its use is so vast, the specificity of its publics so varied, the flows of people and capital too fast to grasp? Financial discourse has its own story to tell about globalisation, one of growth, contractions, debt, and bubbles – but the impact of its forensic instruments on culture and identity have brought with them the motion sickness of precariousness and anxiety. As top-down austerity programmes collide with sharply rising inequalities in wealth and power, the bodies of a ‘universally free’ public theorised in codes and algorithms have, in countries across the world, spoken out against their destiny in a loud - and in many cases violent – testimony of dissent. Protests erupt and communicate across continents, conversing through signs and networks to combat the deployment of virtual power.

As ever, at the heart of these relative forms of deterritorialisation is the historic grumbling of the nation – audible both in the endurance of state-national institutions and of national publics. Globalisation was initially heralded by Gen-X as a liberation from the ‘outdated’ oppressions of the nation, which, for the web architects of Silicon Valley, was frequently interchangeable with the state. In the climate of Cold War nationalisms and its accompanying technology boom, the vision was a seductive one for avant-gardes across the political spectrum as the nation appeared unable to transcend its narrow, primordial definition. To tackle the legacy of imperialism – and the desire for new forms - one had first to silence the concept itself.

Of course, the rise of the multinational was in practice a far cry from the liberating vehicle that many who shared in this fantasy imagined it might be. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt theorise the Janus-head of this utopia and its relationship to previous imperialisms in their notion of ‘Empire’ “a global form of sovereignty” in which the authority of Bretton Woods institutions such as the IMF and WTO is presented as belonging to the same “total system” as the new financial oligarchies: a global form of imperialism which transcends the nation-state. Given the absolute nature of the laws governing this system, “the enemy”, they argue, can no longer be national or ideological. The only way to resist Empire is “negation”: all identities have been displaced and the struggle against its authority must be undertaken in the diaspora – as a challenge to the laws under which globalisation is allowed to operate.

This analysis is useful for its account of the relationship between the post-war international bodies and the evolution of finance capitalism, but what is increasingly clear is how flawed their solution is. Despite the proclamations of neoliberal web-utopians, the operation of Empire continues to depend on key state institutions and their relationship with national communities. If power had become totally decentred, as Negri and Hardt argue, why would banks and multi-national companies continue to lobby and fund political parties across the world? It was imagined by left-wing libertarians that neoliberalism could be understood as a new kind of anarchism, premised on freedom from unproductive and alienating bureaucracy. This illusion is now collapsing on itself. Indeed, if neoliberalism is a form of anarchism, it is of a funny kind, propped up by an assault on public space, the construction of vast databases, the propagation of monopolies and the deployment of police force. It would be inaccurate to overlook the national interests that enable this vision; to ignore the fact that at the centre of this deployment of Empire, as in the previous forms of European imperialism, remains the state institution of Government.

In Britain, the complicity of the Westminster elite in generating Empire is masked through the ideological appropriation of the nation by the state, who continue to disguise their subservience to oligarchal interests through an abrupt volte-face in which these interests are presented as the interests of ‘the British public’. Despite what Anthony Barnett identifies as a climactic crisis in the ecology of its “great institutions”, Britishness is presented by its Government and reflected in large portions of the media as global, progressive and free; admirable, even, with its ‘public’ inquiries such as Leveson. By contrast, goes the tale, alternative nationalisms in England, Scotland and Wales would necessarily be realised as parochial, narrow-minded and somehow less global – a return to a feudal and impoverished lifestyle under authoritarian politics. It is vital to the idea of Britishness – and to the moral justification of globalisation - that ‘we’ are a positive force in the world even as this ‘greatness’ is premised on the denial of the autonomous expression of collective identity. In this mythological schema, for the UK to be a progressive beacon, England, must be disregarded as a ‘return’ to ethnic bigotry; a denial of the developments of planetary consciousness.

Of course, this binary collapses on itself with little provocation. It is difficult to argue for the UK’s positive global influence when, despite a world epidemic of corporate tax avoidance, it continues to brand itself as a ‘safe place’ for the City; while millions of pounds of income are generated by its arms industry; while countries across the world continue to struggle against the economic and cultural legacy of imperialism. Moreover, not only is there no ‘positive’ argument for the intrinsic backwardness of alternative modes of national imagination, this ideological sleight of the state’s form of Britishness is itself a form of dogmatic nationalism: one whose authority lies not in participation (a key word in the calls for a radical Scottish independence) but in the essentialism and reductiveness of the market logic to which it is wed.

At the core of the successful deployment of globalised power is an ongoing commitment to the concept of a unitary public interest, something that might be seen to translate in specific contexts as an anti-national form of nationalism. ‘The Great British Summer’, and most particularly the London 2012 Games, operated on the spectacular affirmation of this interest, in which the celebrations were declared “good for all” despite LOCOG systematically breaking public legacy promises while ruthlessly enforcing brand exclusivity for the major international sponsors after the undemocratic bid, the cost-estimate of which - £2bn - snowballed to an eventual £9.3bn (over 90% of the total expense). Globalisation has certainly profited from this epistemological intimacy with nationalism, in which the ‘single interest’ of the state is translated to feed into a ‘world interest’ that should be shared universally. Rejecting this duality does not mean abandoning the importance of shared values and collective action or a reluctance to tackle issues that effect us all such as climate change, internet freedom and the exchange of goods and knowledge. What it does suggest is a starting point: that all of these discussions must begin from a recognition of the importance of self-determination, equality and empowerment in interpreting what different speakers and authors mean when participating in such conversations.

On this point, the cyber-utopians were onto something - the internet does provide a novel opportunity for constructing new forms of experience, but it has a corresponding impact on how we understand the historical category of nationhood; where it might develop and what might follow or accompany it. How do languages evolve on the Internet, revealing points of dissensus within different social groups often treated as unanimous? How do forums for sharing music, art and video negotiate the issue of place? How do religious groups correspond online about the transcendental issues while expressing national differences? The Occupy movement captured the media’s attention because of its global orchestration, but, as Sabine Selchow and Mary Kaldor point out in their discussion of ‘Subterranean Politics in Europe’, what was frequently missed in its commentary was a comparative focus on the conditions that underpinned its emergence and, in some places, disappearance. Taken as a whole, the Spanish indignados with their wide demographic and enduring local collectives bear only a passing resemblance to the short-lived experiment that was Occupy Bournemouth. Exploring the nature and reasons for such differences could be a key component in strengthening the duration of such movements, and their ability to encourage wider participation.

The desire to declare the nation ‘dead’ is, at best, premature - the clarion call of a system of logic that has obtained a semantic as well as economic victory. But if its appropriation in Britain as elsewhere is to be revealed as the sock-puppet of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, the effort to express the concept in alternative terms must be made explicitly; tackling head-on the difficulties and possibilities accompanying the term and overcoming the tendency to disregard its relevance. The perfect reduction that globalisation promised has found itself radically disfigured by the complexities of global space, but the potential of the nation to disrupt the unitary mindset orchestrating this process is yet to be realised. Negri and Hardt are right to note that resistance begins from a state of “productive alienation”, but the space remains open to frame this discussion through global perspectives on nationhood, where placed participation and anthropological delicacy may supplant economics as the guiding principles of a heterogenous world interest. 

Go to the new OurKingdom series, Re-birth of the nation? Challenging 'global citizens'

The next piece in the series, Nations and Networks, will be published on Friday. 

About the author

Jamie Mackay (@JacMackay) is a researcher in Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick and a contributing editor to OurKingdom