Socialist Vision beyond the Nation-State


[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]



"There was a wall…an idea of boundary…Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on."


Ursula LeGuin- The Dispossessed



As we imagine a different society, we must carefully look to ensure that what we retain from today’s world will not corrupt or distort our efforts in the future. Borders, like walls, are designed to keep people both in and out. They act as a form of control, a means to give some the power to decide who belongs and who must go.


Like others here I see a participatory society as a desirable model and vision for the future. I agree with the notion of self-managed communities, with nested councils that allows for decision making power and responsibility to reside at the ‘bottom’ rather than the hierarchical structure that we presently endure where power and decisions are concentrated at the ‘top’ or the failures known as state socialism.


I support societal vision that addresses racial, gender and class inequalities in a self-managed, participatory fashion. A vision that does not rely upon an enlightened vanguard, one that does not reflect the restrictive and oppressive structures, divisions and bias of the current system. Even in a participatory society of democratic nested councils and worker and consumer councils, the existence of such borders, and their power of division and on the imagination leaves the possibility of using such boundaries as mechanisms of control. The ability to imprison, to control due to the existence of nation-states poses a challenge for socialist vision. The control of such borders can be used for gain, to objectify, creating a distorted sense of superiority.


What is not explicitly addressed in such models is the fact that it’s quite possible to achieve a political organization of a society of nested councils and a participatory economy and yet unfortunately leave the conceptual core of the nation-state intact. As a mere organizational measure in a global socialist community and economy, the term is not inherently problematic if we take a nation-state to just be the sum of its components or the spheres of society – political, economic, kinship and cultural. These are the areas of society that we seek to transform from exploitative and oppressive to free, fair and self-determined. What we perhaps overlook in these specific critiques is the power of the nation-state as a narrative, as a creator and mirror of identity, that provides a sense of reassurance even for people aware of the problems of society’s institutions and relations. The accumulated oppressive institutions of society imprint themselves on national identity and vice versa. Not recognising this potentially leads our movements to failure.


We thus need to not only address the various institutions that contribute to the suffering and inequality found in the world, but in doing so address and discard the limitations of nationalism and the nation-state.


Critiques of the current economic division of labour or the structure of current politics focus on the divisions that are created and relied upon to create inequality and privilege. A division of labour that preferences some forms of work or the holding of a deed of title over more routine or demanding jobs. The current political structure distinguishes between political representatives and the general populace. Such divisions allow for power and control to be accrued with disregard to the preferences, desires and needs of those most affected by their decisions or economic activity apart from limited democratic practices such as voting. Most repressive features in society overlap, accommodate and help define each other. So while we have presented various models of how a socialist society would institutionally limit or disable such interrelated and fluid forces in a political, governance or economic sense, we must also turn our attention to the wider structures and features of the nation-state.  A nation-state is another such division that accrues power and privilege, an institution that is much more fluid than just the sum of its institutional parts. The power of borders, of nation-states, is their power to create a perception of difference (real or imagined) and inflate and distort it.


For many, nationalism and patriotism gives meaning in otherwise meaningless lives. In an alienating world, a sense of belonging to a wider community is often achieved by taking aboard some sense of national duty, turning the nation-state into a paternalistic protector or ideal. Many people may have deep issues with class inequality, racism, or sexism but find that the flag, the national community, an unproblematic entity.


It’s hard to imagine that nationalist/patriotic sentiment in the sense I mean here will disappear just from a change of our political, economic and cultural structures. Such changes might go a long way, but not enough. Even in today’s, albeit competitive world, compassion and empathy rarely extend past the lines on a map, even as those in the global North enjoy comparatively larger amounts of wealth and political and economic conditions. Similar to Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Community’ the nation-state relies on the mental preferencing and privileging of those within one’s perceived borders, as members of the same nation/state, even if they never meet or have any commonalities. This has positive and negative elements. This involves a degree of solidarity; unfortunately this solidarity is created and maintained not by common values, an enlightened morality, or mutual interests. It’s created and shaped by the overarching power of the nation-state’s narrative and identity, via explicit and subtle formations of nationalism and patriotism within the popular psyche.


Nationalism as a process is value-neutral. It’s an analytical and organizational tool used by many. How it’s put to use is what determines whether it can be judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Hence the difference between say white nationalism and an anti-colonial nationalism. The commonality between all forms of nationalism is the underlying logic and processes involved. Nationalism relies on difference both real and imagined but in an essentialist or reductivist manner. It seeks to create community via creating a common/shared identity and defining it against what it is not, the ‘other’. This is a problem in that the community and identity created never truly reflect the actual diversity within a particular society or culture. The underlying logic is dualistic and hierarchical, creating and framing identity in a manner that creates a divisive paradigm that is hard to reconcile with socialist aims and visions of a more connected, diverse and inclusive society. Participatory democratic models seek to create institutional restrictions on anti-social modes of behaviour in keeping with humane values such as self-management, equitable outcomes, cooperation. These institutional arrangements rely on and create a logic of cooperation compared to one of competition. These arrangements seek to encourage positive human interaction and behaviour but don’t rely on such changes alone to create a cooperative and socialist society. The problem with nationalism is that it creates a conflict of logics that require different institutions and encourage conflicting forms of behaviour. This seems to be detrimental for our efforts and potentially damaging in the long term if not reconciled. Just as markets and their basic logic cannot co-exist with a participatory economy, I argue that nationalism and the nation-state cannot co-exist with a participatory polity and society. These institutions seek to create participation and encourage social human behaviour while the nation-state and nationalism rely on limiting such desirable activities to a privileged group, however that might be determined. On the Left nationalism is a problematic means in presenting important and vital critiques, creating understanding and solidarity, and expressing and sharing identity.


What might be involved in moving towards a post nation-state world? These are some suggestions that I’m sure can be elaborated upon after further discussion and debate


Ø       In the short term there is a need to change attitudes and conceptions. This may involve challenging nationalist identities and symbols and presenting alternative visions.

Ø       Continued support for diversity, anti-racist and anti-imperialist action.

Ø       Present and develop conceptions of polyculturalism and polycultural identities.

Ø       The development and promotion of post-national institutions in the economic, political, kinship and cultural spheres. The proposed International Organization of Participatory Society is just one example of this. Participatory reforms of existing international bodies and organizations is another possibility to create a post-nation state world.

Ø       Evaluation and debate on the utility of nationalism as a force for progressive change and the long term problems of such approaches.

Ø       Open borders campaigns


Our current efforts are (relatively) inward looking, focusing upon the institutional features of a society and the diversity of cultures and the formation of cross-sectional identities within communities. The suggestions above are (relatively) external looking (globally and in critiquing identity via the creation of a inferior ‘other’), in addressing the marginalization of differences within society to create some type of dominant, singular ideal that critically contends with other similar identities. The suggestions above confront and seek to redistribute the unequal power advantages given to some cultural practices due to their connection to a broader nation-state psyche so as to help undo particular forms of cultural domination. We must avoid attempting to do so by creating competing nationalist narratives as a platform for a new society that assume the persistence of the nation-state. The dismantling of the wider notion of the nation-state, and associated nationalisms and patriotisms, thus ties into the vital work to transform the four spheres of society identified above.


We must envision our societies in a way that ensures that compassion, empathy, and solidarity don’t stop at the border. To ensure that borders both in a physical and cognitive sense are truly broken down or removed. We must create new forms of communal identity outside the constraints of a nationalist logic. This does not mean that we abandon cultural and ethnic practices or identities. What it does mean is that we disengage meaningful cultural practices from belonging to some type of national identity. By doing this along with creating post-state institutions and conceptions we ensure our efforts towards a better society are not limited by the boundaries of the world we find ourselves in.

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