The modern state is in crisis - and not just in Britain

Nation states are in crisis across Europe and globally, their legitimacy undermined by the power of global corporations and the reassertion of pre-modern forms of identity and allegiance.
David Marquand
20 August 2010

An OurKingdom exchange: David Marquand > Anthony Barnett  > this post.

I agree with you, Anthony, about corporate power. Indeed, I would even go further. Arbitrary and unaccountable corporate power is arguably a greater threat to personal freedom and democratic politics today than the overmighty centralised state. One reason is that corporate power knows no frontiers - certainly not national frontiers, and not even the frontiers of the supra-national European Union. Marx famously thought the workers had no country. He was wrong: they did, and they still do. But what Marx wrongly thought was true of the working class is most definitely true of the giant corporations of our day.

Look at the depredations of BP in the Gulf of Mexico: the real point about the whole shocking business is that BP is a free-floating agglomeration of economic and political power, effectively with no national anchor. After the event, and following enormous indignation among American voters and political leaders, the US federal government has started to clip its wings. But that doesn't alter the basic point that, before the oil spill, BP was effectively free to do as it liked. The imbalance between states and corporations is, of course, both a consequence and a cause of 'globalisation' - or of what I prefer to call the untaming of capitalism. And you're right that this is now the most important and most difficult issue facing what we used to call 'the left'.

But it follows from what I've said that it is not a British problem only. Partly because of that, I'm afraid I disagree with a major implication of your piece: that the UK's undoubted legitimacy crisis is in some sense more acute than the equivalent legitimacy crises of other states. Do you really think that the Italian state now presided over by Berlusconi is in any meaningful sense more legitimate than the British state? Or the French state presided over by Sarkozy? Or even the federal German state presided over by Angela Merkel? And how do you read the American state, insofar as there is one? Why, despite his marvellous campaign oratory and his comfortable election victory, is Obama now in the doldrums? Why has the Republican Right recovered so quickly and so easily? Why are so many Americans still in denial about global warming and fossil fuel dependency?

Everywhere, politics is losing out to markets and states to corporations. What Burke called the 'little platoons' are doing their best to fill the gap, and they are achieving some successes. Your Modern Liberty convention which, to my huge chagrin, I couldn't make in the end, is one example. But the little platoons are too little - and too fixated on their local, parochial problems.  

The truth, I think, is that the so-called Westphalian nation-state - the nation states that emerged at the start of the modern era, and that the founders of the EU thought would be the building blocks of their Union - is now little more than an empty shell, all over the European continent. Everywhere from Catalonia to Flanders, and from Lombardy to Scotland, ancient, pre-modern ethnic communities have come out from under the carapaces of the classical nation states that tried to bury them. The British state may be broken-backed, but the new (and at the same time, very old) communities subsumed by the devolved regimes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are alive and well.

As you say, England is not (yet) in that position, but I think the main reason for that is that the English themselves haven't yet made up their own minds what they really want. You're right that this is a crucial issue for the Coalition. But it takes two to tango. There has to be a conversation, so to speak, between the new Government and the people of England. It makes no sense to expect the Government to begin the conversation if there is no one out there to take part in it. And, if past history is any guide, the conversation will have to begin with civil society, not the Government. 

In Europe, at least, the crucial question is how to combine the manifest revival of the patchwork quilt of the pre-modern era with the post-modern realities of globalisation and Europeanisation. We can't even think seriously about the issues raised by irresponsible and unaccountable corporate power unless - and until - we grope our way to an answer to that question.  

So, more power to your elbow!

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