In Defense of Nationhood

Are nations evil?

The question would seem to be worth asking, since vast numbers of people currently seem to be acting on the belief that they are. Everyone has always agreed that some nations are evil, and that all nations sometimes do evil things. But that old understanding turned on the basis that the things a nation does can be evil – like things that a person can do. In contrast, the perception currently sweeping much of the civilized world seems to claim that it is the state of nationhood itself which is evil.

But is it?

The Random-house college dictionary defines a nation thus: “A body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its own unity to seek or possess a government particularly its own.” That seems to be a fairly reasonable description of the concept. And I readily admit that there is abundant room for abuse in that concept. But for those of you who reject it, I have to ask – with what would you replace it?

A specific group of people, attached to a specific territory, with a government specific to them. That is our definition of nation, correct? If we rule this idea out as ‘barbaric’, ‘racist’, ‘tyrannical’, or ‘bigoted’ what options are we left with?

Either we have to abandon the ‘specific’ and say that all people, everywhere, should be governed by a universal government, or we have to abandon ‘governments’ and ‘bodies of people’ entirely and say that people should exist in a fragmented state without any form of law or group organization.

If we reject the nation we are left with a choice between a world state or total anarchy.

Now, some people do seem to act like they want these things. But let’s really consider the ideas for a moment.

There seems to be a confusion in some circles of anarchy, the absence of all law and order, with freedom, being free to run your own life and have your natural human rights respected by others. But they are not the same thing. They are not even compatible.  An individual can be ‘free’ in a lawless society only by being the the most powerful person around.  In other words, the only way a human can make other humans respect his rights without law is to be strong enough to enforce them himself, would be to be the strongest person around in an area with very little population pressure. Tarzan might be free in the jungle (most of the time). But we don’t live in the jungle. And very few of us are physically analogous to Tarzan. Only those with the personal strength to enforce their rights, and sufficient space to avoid large numbers have ‘freedom’ in anarchy. Which brings us of course to the fact that in anarchy there is nothing to protect the weak and slow from being preyed on by the strong and unscrupulous. The weak have no rights in anarchy. They still posses those rights human beings. But they have no way of enforcing them.

“But why are you expecting that everyone will be so evil?” I’m not. I’m assuming that there will be individual evil people. And because decent people no longer have any framework to protect each other with, the evil people will have to be dealt with on an individual level by the decent people – and then it comes down to sheer power.

“But what about friends and family? The stronger protect the weaker!” Well I agree they should. But now you’re veering into group organization and the state of tribehood. And that might be a very sensible thing to do. (In fact there seems to be evidence for the small tribe being the social structure most suited to human psychology, and historically it is the most prevalent form of human society.) But that would no longer be anarchy at all. We now have a specific group people with a specific organization (however small). In fact, we have left anarchy behind and put our feet on the steps of nationhood.

“But what about the other option? What about the world state?” The idea has been floating around for some time. Numerous peoples have attempted to make one. In the ancient world, the Persian empire sought to subjugate as much of the world as possible. The Roman Empire turned vast swaths of Asia, Europe, and even Africa into provinces of a Roman state. The spirituo/political ideology of Islam commands it’s adherents to work and fight for the spread an Islamic State across the world (an attempt which continues openly to this day). In the 20th century there was a concerted effort to forcefully apply the communist ideology to the whole globe. It’s far from a new idea.

I think most of us can agree that had the above attempts succeeded, they would not all have been unmitigated utopia. In fact, in so far as they did succeed, many of them exacerbated rather than alleviated the dangers of barbarism, racism, and tyranny. They did not all do so equally – Rome (in spite of its undemocratic imperialism and what is by modern western standards terrible barbarism) is famous for having brought on the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, among its provinces. On the other hand, it is doubtful that the world ever saw another massacre like the class-cleansing of the early communist states. And all of them – even the best – had by necessity involved slaughter to create, and then top-down control to maintain.

“But” – some of you might be saying – “we don’t mean that kind of world state. We don’t mean an empire. We mean a good world state.” Quite so. Quite so. And you have thereby put your finger on the beginning of the problem with the concept.

A universal government would be a government like any other. Its sheer size and ubiquity would not make it any less capable of the crimes smaller governments commit. “But what about racism,” you may say, “and war. It would do away with those, wouldn’t it?” But would it? People would still be jostling for power in such a situation and those different ‘interests’ would still sometimes be expressed racially (and sometimes religiously, and sometimes economically, and sometimes by locality….). And if it became politically convenient for enough ‘interests’ with pull on the state to attack a particular group, to whom would that group turn, when all the world is under one colossal thumb?

And war? Even worse. To assume there would be no war under such a circumstance is not only to assume that the state is so powerful, omnipresent, (and competent) that it can intervene and prevent all local squabbles before they happen, but also to assume that everyone is uniformly complacent with the state of affairs and no one ever decides they want to run things closer to home. In fact it assumes that not only would this world state have very tight and efficient police control, but also that there would never be any revolutions against it. The first assumption seems to me to be both alarming (large, heavily controlled regimes are rarely ‘nice’ entities) and naïve. For large organizations are not usually extremely competent. The second is ridiculous. There would be attempts by this or that group to either break away from or radically alter their position within the state. And so there would still be war – but instead of there being war between nations, it would small factions against a megalith with the globe’s whole power behind it. It would be exchanging wars between nations for revolutions against a powerful, omnipresent state. The only way I could see to avoid that would be to follow North Korea’s example and crush and confuse the entire population into such a state of petrified submission that they never dared dream of stepping out of line. I think we can agree that that is hardly a utopian idea. (And who knows how long that could strategy work, anyhow.)

So no – a world state in itself would not fix any of the problems that nations are susceptible to. Those qualities of size, power, and omnipresence which would make it a world state would not prevent it from committing the same crimes as nations. What they would do is allow it to carry out those crimes on a vastly larger scale.

“But the type of world state I’m thinking of wouldn’t commit those crimes!” Well, if you’re talking now about building a government so well designed that it didn’t commit any of the crimes governments are susceptible to, you’re now simply talking about ‘how to build a good government’, and not ‘nations versus world state’ at all.

So, not only would the world state be subject to the same dangers as nations, those dangers when they arose would be more terrible due to the enormity of the power behind it. In fact, the world state might be more susceptible than small nations to many of those crimes.

When one single state rules the globe the entire world is subject to whomever gets ahold of that power structure. Even if we assume for the sake of argument the (highly unlikely) proposition that this world government would start out in good hands, we have no way of ensuring that it would stay in good hands. By democratic process? Why would the process which is considered so inadequate in the case of the nation suddenly be inviolable when applied to a world state? Also, strict democracy gets harder and harder the bigger the groups in question get – they get more removed from the actual voter/citizen. It might still be technically representative, but at such a scale, the distance between the citizen and the representative would be enormous, the connection tenuous at best. The actual amount of control the people would have on such a system would be so small as to be negligible in practice. Only very large interests indeed would actually have an effective say in what the state became. And this state run primarily by large, powerful ‘interests’ would have legal control of the entire world, would have the entire power of the globe behind it, and would, to maintain its existence, need to be in the habit of putting down any dissent.

All this without assuming any intentional evil on anyone’s part. This only assumes that the state will attempt to uphold itself and the interests controlling it will pursue their interests. But assuming there will be no direct evil is assuming far too much. In actual practice humans will be just as selfish, foolish, and power-hungry as before, but some very few of them will have power over all the others.

No one in known history has ever achieved world domination before. Do we want to start now?

Now, I know that not everyone who is condemning the nation actually wishes to do away with it entirely. Probably some people are now saying that they never wanted a great big top-down megalith, they simply wanted all the nations to bond together in terms of understanding and peace.

If that is what is in question, I will have have to ask whether you mean independent nations being on terms of alliance with each other and having certain agreed upon treaties about behaviour? Or whether you mean nations being subject to an international entity?

If the latter, if in fact the nations are subject to an international entity, then you have the world state.

If the former, you simply have what most civilized nations have agreed upon for a long time.

So, I am at a loss as to what anyone thinks would be gained by doing away with nations. I am at a loss as to why people hate the concept of nationhood itself. Like any human institution it leaves room for evil. But as long as humans are evil, all human institutions will have some evil in them. The problem of human authority containing some evil is not solved by replacing authority with sheer power, nor is it solved by making that authority universal and omnipresent.

If nations are not in themselves any more evil than the alternative, why are we trying to hate them? This hatred is in some cases taking very extreme forms. Some insist that to love one’s nation means only to hate people of other nations. But how is that? If I love my own kids, does that mean I hate my neighbour’s kids? No indeed! In fact, if I don’t love my kids, I’m not very likely to love my neighbour’s kids either. If I allow my love to become an obsession which over-rides all human decency, that does open the door to problems. But the issue was not that I loved them. The issue was that I became blindly obsessive.

This is a point which I think could stand to be better noticed. We have been telling ourselves for many years – as well we should – that we need to love the stranger, love those who are different from us, love those who are far from us. This is true. ‘Love your enemy’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ says Christian theology. But it is a twisted inverse of that which is being pushed right now. ‘Hate yourself’ and ‘hate those things which are close to you’. Hatred of the things which are ours is no key to loving the things which are not! In fact, if we do not love the things near to us, how shall we love the things which are far? If our own people are to be reviled, what makes any other people to be loved? And how shall we love them, having trained ourselves in hatred where we should have learned love?

It seems to me to be a terrible mistake. Impartiality in applying justice is important. But impartiality is not hatred. This teaching the self to hate the things one would normally find easiest to love is not going to increase the self’s love for the distant – it will simply make love more imaginary. If love is pushed farther and farther away, and hatred is pulled in close, it is actually hatred that you are training yourself in. Love becomes a phantom, hatred becomes your real attitude.

We learn to love our universal neighbour not by hating our physical neighbour, but by loving our physical neighbour and then learning to apply that to all as much as we can.

No country is perfect. And love for your country should not be set up as an idol. But loving and working to protect your country is the first step to both bettering your country and to learning to have respect for countries in general. And only by maintaining your country as a sovereign nation can it protect the rights of those within it.

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