Are nations overhyped?
The old decision making context is not working - Media Ecology Newsletter #18
Nations have sort of agreed a common process to maintain the global warming under 1.5 degrees. But as IEA shows in its new report, their promises are not enough. Nations will have to collaborate much more to get where the world population needs to be in 2050, with net zero emissions. (IEA)
Next, in Glasgow, will come COP26, the gathering of nations deciding about climate change. Six years after Paris, where nations agreed on limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees (the world has already warmed more than one degree since preindustrial times). But IPCC is saying that a stronger effort will be needed to achieve the goal. Nations struggle to make it. Green ONGs are working hard to make their voice heard. Three religious leaders have spoken together: Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, asked the leaders of all nations to «listen to the cry of the Earth and of people who are poor». Nations don’t seem to be able to decide with sufficient strenght about a global problem. They are not made for this kind of task.
Are nations overhyped?
Are nations still the primary policy context? Will they always be?
The banality of the criticism of US President Joe Biden, blamed by opponents and friends alike for the way things turned out in Kabul, was the result of an obvious instrumentalization of the facts. In reality, the end of the American war in Afghanistan was precisely implied in the way it began: with confused objectives, dictated by propaganda, guided by leaders imprisoned in the short period of electoral cycles and in the plethora of interests of military budgets, destined to get bogged down by the inability to understand the culture of the people living in Afghanistan.
Nation building in Afghanistan?
In any case: it was one thing to look for and prosecute terrorists, it was another thing to wage war with the goal of building an Afghan nation. The failure of "nation building" in Afghanistan is the failure of the idea that Western institutions are the end point of any rational and modern political evolution. The long duration of tribal experiences is not compatible with the artificial and accelerated introduction of political components totally alien to the traditional culture. The fact that half of the Afghan population is under 17 years of age, i.e., was born under American occupation, should not generate a misleading perception: three quarters of the population live in rural areas, far from the dynamics of the attempted modernization mainly centered on the cities, and are divided into very different ethnic groups, which do not recognize themselves in any political unit whatsoever and, if anything, use the centers of politics to manage their tribal relations: Pashtuns (40%), Tajiks (25%), Turkophones, Uzbeks and Turkmen, (12%), Hazaras, mostly Shiites, independent Baluchis, plus many other peoples. (Treccani)
The nation-state is a rather peculiar phenomenon, full of flaws, useful under certain historical conditions, fundamentally incomprehensible elsewhere.
This Afghan failure is yet another reason to reflect on the difficulty of considering as progress only any evolutionary step that brings a territory closer to the institutional, organizational and human conditions that have formed in the West.
A minimum of background
Entire libraries have been devoted to the concept of the nation. They range from those who think it is a deeply cultural reality that becomes institutional to those who think it is a narrative construction derived from the need to justify an institutional aggregation. Indispensable for an overview: Anthony Smith, "The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism", Wiley 2000; Eric Hobsbawn, "Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality", Cambridge University Press 1992. For the construction of the Italian nation it remains necessary to read Alberto Mario Banti, "La nazione del Risorgimento. Parentela, santità e onore alle origini dell'Italia unita", Einaudi 2000. If in the nineteenth century it was possible to think, in literary terms, that the future was the liberation of the nation from the European empires, on the continent and in the colonies, in the twentieth century, the authoritarian effect that the concept of nation alludes to and sustains, concentrating attention on internal interests against those of everybody else, has been touched upon: so that the nation of the new millennium seems destined to generate all its distortions and to hinder many forms of political innovation. Certainly, the nineteenth-century equation that saw the European nation as the road to progress can no longer be shared.
An Italian version of this post is on my blog
Are there any national perspectives?
A great article by Alex Hochuli entitled "The Brazilianization of the World" challenges that very idea of one-way progress. Brazil, the eternal country of the future, never becomes one. It is the country that was born modern and evolves toward backwardness, Hochuli says. It is the country that instead of unifying progressively becomes more and more divided. It is the country where you find rapacious capitalists destroying a unique environmental heritage, corruptible politicians, painfully unbearable inequalities. The article should be read and perhaps criticized, but it is clear on one point: just as not all roads lead to Rome, in the age of complexity, so progress is not a straight line that from wherever it starts, inevitably leads to the West (American Affairs).
And if Brazil is in these conditions, Africa remains a black hole. How can we not look with concern at the major African free trade agreement, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which came into force on January 1 of this year and has been slowed down by the lack of infrastructure fundamental to the management of international trade? A treaty signed by 54 African "nations" based on the assumption that lowering customs duties increases trade between countries. A treaty that does not prevent a country like Kenya from entering into a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom, which in fact has an economy larger than that of all of Africa and speaks a language that is understandable to many Kenyans because of a colonial history. A treaty, the AfCFTA, that is written in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Swahili, while over two thousand languages are spoken in Africa and the main peoples are increasingly clearly stating their preference for expressing themselves in their own language. In short, a treaty based on the idea that there are "nations" in Africa capable of mediating in economic issues, while in fact trade relations are based on trust and understanding between companies and populations that do not necessarily identify with those "nations". We need to study this issue more and come back to it. But it is clear that even in Africa, the concept of "nation" must be put in relation to more traditional concepts of social aggregation in order to design something that can be felt as one's own by the populations (AfCFTA)
Do nations still work?
In the end, even Italy is a "nation" up to a point. It's still an aggregate of different traditions, for sure. Not just different territories and different histories. The very importance of the family diminishes the importance of institutions, and not just because of amoral familism. Although the dynamics of modernization have thoroughly involved Italy, the country is not yet a "national model" from the institutional point of view: it becomes a nation only when Italians spontaneously join together to pursue a common goal, ready to split up as soon as they have achieved it (this applies to the entry into the Euro as well as to the soccer team). Indeed, perhaps the Italian institutional construction will take place not so much in the context of the nation-state as in the more complex context of the European Union.
But the conjuncture is not so simple. From Central America to the Middle East, from Turkey to Russia, democratic logics are giving way to authoritarian dynamics. And in the United States itself, as in many European countries, the binary logic set by the right is severely testing the resilience of democracies. Which need institutional quality in order to express themselves in a meaningful way.
But if Europe has any chance at all, it lies in its unity and in its ability to convince the nations that make it up to work in concert. Of course, the United States - like England in the nineteenth century - is very good at dividing Europeans. But in the end, the European nations, in order to count, will have to really collaborate and cede sovereignty to their Union. Unless they decide to get encompassed in other spheres, as the United Kingdom is doing after Brexit, allowing itself to be fully trapped in the orbit of the United States.
The question of the nation-state is overstated. The importance of culture and its longevity is underestimated. Setting a vision for the future must take into account that the banality of the nation-state, as much as it has been a reason for modernization for certain Western countries, is no longer sufficient. The choices humans must make together, for climate and social inequality first, can no longer be wasted on power systems as small as nation-states.
Small? Sure. Small in the face of multinational corporations. Small in the face of global problems. Small in the face of social movements that stem from deep trends-from inequality to inclusion, from migration to the consequences of social networks, finance, the crisis of neoliberalism, and so on-that occur at a much more general level than the national one.
In this context, while supranational structures appear to be the only ones that have the dimension to deal with contemporary global problems, nations often become the place of reaction, conservation, political violence. In order to save the impact of democracy, in order to develop participation, the national dimension has to be scaled down also with regard to the expectations of problem solving: it is up to the citizens, the cities, the communities, to take back their destiny, to inform themselves about the supranational dynamics, to help their development as much as possible, to re-imagine a series of issues and to find the new contexts suitable to face them. Limiting the power of nations, increasing supranational structures and social and cultural aggregations based on networks of cities, is the way to limit the power of multinationals that thrive precisely by playing on the defects of relations between nations. If we expect nations to find the solution we are likely to be disappointed.