Title: Has Globalisation Ended the Rise of the Nation-State?
Author: Michael Mann
Publication: Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1997)
The social sciences, in recent decades, have seen the emergence of a group of ‘enthusiasts’ who are already writing ‘epitaphs’ for the nation-state. These enthusiasts, mostly from west-Europe, despite their differences, are united by the conviction that contemporary changes are eating away at the foundations of the nation-state undermining its power. These ‘contemporary changes’ are the transformations brought about by globalisation and capitalism which in turn rest on the ‘technological-informational innovations’ of current times which have made transport rapid and communication instantaneous.
But is it really the case? Four theses are raised by these enthusiasts.
- Capitalism which has become truly global is undermining the nation-state by influencing macroeconomic planning, welfare programmes and citizen identity.
- New global issues — environment, population, pandemics — which cannot be handled by the nation-state alone are emerging.
- Identity politics, especially aided by new technology, is increasing the prominence of local and transnational identities at the expense of national identities.
- Post-nuclearism has rendered mass mobilised warfare irrelevant undermining state sovereignty and hard politics.
The article will examine the veracity of these theses. It will also consider the following counter-theses.
- State institutions are still effective in providing the necessary conditions for social existence.
- The variety of states — i.e. their differences in power, size, geography, development, type of government etc. — can work to limit the effects and reach of capitalism and globalization.
These counter-theses cannot be denied. The nation-state in being transformed, no doubt, but the task is to find out how and to what degree it is being transformed.
Before investigating that, however, some conceptual distinctions need to be made between the following socio-spatial networks of social interaction in the world today:
- local networks — subnational networks of interaction;
- national networks — territorially bounded (by the nation-state) networks of interaction;
- inter-national networks — relations between nationally-constituted networks;
- transnational networks — networks passing right through national boundaries unaffected; and
- global networks — networks that cover the whole world (or most of it).
Over the last centuries, local interaction networks have been superseded by longer-distance networks — national, inter-national and transnational.
Since national and inter-national networks are constituted or fundamentally constrained by the nation-state, the future of the nation-state thus turns critically upon the answer to two questions: Is the social significance of national and inter-national networks declining relative to some combination of local and transnational networks? And to the extent that global networks are emerging, what is the relative contribution to them of national/inter-national versus local/transnational networks?
The ‘Modest Nation-State’ of the North
In ‘northwest’ Europe, there arose a state claiming political sovereignty over its territories and also legitimacy through the people (or nation) inhabiting them. This was the ‘nation-state’. From initial monopoly of judicial regulation and military force, the nation-state expanded its control to include communications infrastructures and management of the poor during the 19th-century and then onto welfare programmes, macroeconomic planning and nationalist citizen mobilization in the 20th-century. Meanwhile, these nation-states became locked into national interaction networks supplemented by inter-national relations between each other. This is the story of the ‘rise and rise’ of the nation-state and the nation-state system.
But simultaneously, there was a growth of transnational capitalism and cultural identities which developed a complex relationship of relative autonomy and symbiotic interdependence with the nation-states. Meanwhile, the nation-states also lost certain functions as most of the social and economic life remained or became private and as they became more secular, nation-states lost control over moral regulation. Thus, only a ‘modest nation-state’ became dominant. In the 20th-century, it defeated the multi-national empire, fascism and socialism and diffused across the rest of the ‘the north’. This ‘modest-nation state’, in some limited sense, seems to dominate the globe. Is this threatened?
The Capitalist Threat
In a formal geographical sense, capitalism is now more or less global, having massively expanded thanks to decolonization and the collapse of the USSR. But capitalist networks are not truly global. These seemingly global networks are for the most part constituted by local interaction networks and supported by national and inter-national networks. Many of the economic networks are systematically structured by the nation-state. Finance is more transnational with speculative trading sloshing through state boundaries freely. But its institutions are marked by a bureaucratic regularity which is noticeably national in character.
What about Europe? Firstly, Europe is an extreme case. Secondly, its capitalist interaction networks are marked by a symbiosis of both transnational and national interaction networks. And thirdly, the transnational relations are more trilateral than they are global, as they are concentrated between Europe, North America and East Asia. Also, the global economy is subject to inter-national regulation through institutions like the IMF and World Bank.
It is thus clear that what adds up to the global is actually a very complex mix of the local, the national, the inter-national and the transnational.
The constraints of finance capital — in no small part due to its mobility, velocity and quantity — on the fiscal policy of nation-states is greatly emphasised. But the significance of these claims is difficult to assess. For one, the sheer quantity of financial flows which vastly exceeds world trade actually tells us precious little about power relations. Also, it is unclear whether nation-states, even when they were able to be interventionist, were ever effective at macro-economic planning.
North America is dominated by the USA. The US is an unusual state whose federal government controls only slightly planned agriculture, industrial-military and health sectors while most welfare services are left to the local ‘state’ governments. There is little macroeconomic planning by any level of government given the difficulties of coordinating between a President and his Cabinet, the Congress, the Judiciary and the fifty states. It is, thus, empty to talk of declining US government powers as they were never exercised actively in the first place. In fact, American organisations are becoming more nationally integrated in the wake of increasing immigration.
Capitalist transformations have of course influenced the US. This is most visible in the formation of NAFTA between the US, Canada and Mexico. But NAFTA reflects as much the effect of capitalist transformation as it does the geopolitical dominance of the US.
East Asia, economically dominated by Japan, is marked by its state-market coordination, political stability and advanced civil society all of which is supported by phenomenal economic growth. As such, governments are more assertive and are even protective of national industries. None of which, by the way, seem to deter corporations from setting up shop there.
Europe has experienced significant transformation. European nations are losing the power to effect varying national policies. Decisions are being taken at Brussels. While the initial intent was geopolitical and military, the economic mechanisms that bound the EU intensified the transformation. The European economy is substantially transnationalised.
But the EU remains an association of nation-states and does not preclude specific geopolitical arrangements between states. And while economically weaker states appear to have lost much of their sovereignty, they are still represented. Also the EU agenda is ‘soft-geopolitics’ which is still structured by inter-national and the attendant national networks of interaction.
The south can be penetrated by capitalist transformation only if the requirements of stable government, social order, education and health reach a minimum. But what organisation can provide these if not the nation-state?
What if the economy became truly global and trade became truly free? Would it amount to a single transnational/global economy? Yes and no. Yes, because a single global market would emerge and commodity penetration would increase. But even so, a significant portion of the market would still be dominated by nation states — for example, the US government monopolizes (and will continue to do so) the three largest sectors in the economy: defence, health and illicit drugs.
The conclusion is that even though capitalism appears significantly global, its globalism is a combination of both the transnational and the inter-national.
New Social Movements and a
New Transnational Civil Society
The threat of environmental destruction which has been made possible by mankind’s exploitation of nature looms large on the entire world. Pollution, population growth, water scarcity, climate change etc. pose a great threat to humanity.
Present responses to these environmental issues come from two sources. The first are local-transnational pressure groups and NGOs. They are spreading globally and they often outflank national and international capital during their activities. The second are inter-governmental agencies seeking to generate coordinated policy decisions through soft geopolitics. While the first may transcend nation-states, the latter works by coordinating nation-states.
Ethnic politics are too variable to be dealt with in a few paragraphs (and I am writing about them at length elsewhere). So, one sentence will do here: ethnic politics may fragment existing states, but — given the defeat of alternative multinational and socialist states — they fragment them into more, supposedly more authentic, nation-states.
The modern state, unlike the ‘modest nation-state’ which stayed out of private life, is becoming more active in moral, welfare and social legislation. The new identity movements — based on sexuality, religion or gender — often involve transnational interaction networks; but within their own nation-states, they are demanding more regulation increasing the consequence of national politics.
Post-Militarism and a New World Order
The two world wars pioneered weapons so destructive that states are no longer interested in wholesale war. The backbone of the nation-state has, it is argued, been turned into jelly. This holds true for Europe — the instigator and victim of the great wars.
The US meanwhile remains the global policeman, able and willing to use its overwhelming powers, especially after 9/11, despite sustained cuts to its defence budget. The world continues to remain conflict-ridden — India-Pakistan tensions, ethnic separatism, China’s rise to power, the prevalence of military regimes and so on. It’s unlikely that militarism will become irrelevant.
We must beware the more enthusiastic of the globalists and transnationalists. With little sense of history, they exaggerate the former strength of nation-states; with little sense of global variety, they exaggerate their current decline; with little sense of their plurality, they downplay inter-national relations.
The scope of the networks of interaction are too wide and the patterns, too contradictory to lead to either the conclusion that the nations-state and the nation-state system is strengthening or weakening. Local networks are declining and global networks are strengthening but the trend is neither singular nor systematic but rather variable and uneven.