‘No existing state has been immaculately conceived.’ — Murray Rothbard
Dominating the image for this article is the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the Indian president, and erstwhile, the Viceroy of the British Empire. When it was finally completed in 1929, this grand mansion and estate was meant to stand as the ‘ne plus ultra of British colonial certainty’, and of the modern Empire’s total takeover of its Muslim predecessors.
It’s design, courtesy of Edwin Lutyens, molded the ‘playful, Mughal, Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Indian design’ with a litany of ‘oriental iconography’ to the likes of ‘lions, snakes, elephants, crescents and lotus-blossoms’ — all of which kept in line by columns, domes and walls of perfect, Romanesque, proportions. No building better symbolizes the eternal nature of European statehood. With this palace, the Empire stamped its legacy upon Indian soil forever. It is the perfect physical motif of the enduring power of the nation-state, of its ability to seek, conquer, and embed itself in the lives of all people.
Beginning with Imperialism, and ending with the United Nations, statehood has become the default mode of human organization.
All around us we may see the trappings of the nation. The police station, the town hall, the roads, and the license that allows you to drive on them - all are imprinted with the signs of your governance. The critical question is: could we, and should we, abandon this system forever?
To begin to answer this question, it is important to acknowledge that the state, as we know it, has not existed for time immemorial. Today’s centralized bureaucracies, with their clear boundaries, are a product of the colonial era, and developed as a result of various circumstances and events. Before this age, as noted by Deborah MacKenzie:
‘If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in.’
The rigidly defined countries that we now find ourselves in are products of ‘nation-building’, which ‘required the creation of an ideology of nationalism’ that equated the nation with the personal identity of its citizens. The idea that individuals have always been ‘tied’ to a national group ignores the reality that identity is ambiguous and often based on overlapping connections to ‘region, culture’ and ‘background’.
The political scientist Benedict Anderson’s groundbreaking work developed these facts into the idea of ‘imagined communities’ — illusionary but sovereign — that have the power to unite large swathes of seemingly different individuals under the same banner. The nation is in itself imagined because:
‘regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.’
Such is the power of nationalism that the rich exploiter and the suffering worker are considered to be comrades in their national identity.
So how did we come to have these imaginary communities or states? Andreas Wimmer and Yuval Feinstein summarise three of the most prominent answers in an article for the American Sociological Review:
1 — The Economic
Proposed by the social-anthropologist Ernest Gellner, economic theories highlight the ‘epochal shift from an agricultural to an industrial society’ as inevitably leading to the development of the nation-state. ‘The educational apparatus’ and the ‘new, standardized’ and ‘homogenized’ culture it creates provided industrial society with exactly what it needed. The state, with its immense power to shape the lives of its citizens, creates the conditions needed for mass production.
2 — The Political
Mainly theorized by the sociologist Charles Tilly, political understandings of the nation focus on the importance of the ‘permanent war between competing European states’, which started in the sixteenth century. The fierce competition between these nations made ‘techniques of government control and resource extraction ever more effective and efficient.’ The ‘direct-rule’ of a unified, centralized government laid the groundwork for the power needed to win the everlasting warfare of this era.
3 — The Cultural
Benedict Anderson sees the development of statehood to have come about through reformation, state bureaucratization, and the rise of print capitalism — which ‘propelled literacy in vernacular languages’ and therefore aided in the dissemination of European colonial discourses around the globe. The ‘vastly expanded educational system’ which Imperialism brought to the colonies helped propagate the ‘segmentation’ of nationalism and the need for national states.
In considering these three approaches we might come to a better understanding of how the nation-state developed. There is nothing timeless about nationalism; instead, it is the result of a combination of economic, political and cultural forces. There is no reason why these forces might not be altered.
Indeed, in the aforementioned article, the two researchers make the following point:
‘Generations to come will certainly imagine other communities than the nation and reshape the world’s political landscape according to tectonic principles that we cannot possibly imagine today.’
The keyword here: imagine, hearkens back to Anderson’s own concept of the state. If nationalism, statehood, and all its trappings rely upon imagined systems, then it is our own imaginations that may easily undo them.
So, in reality, we most certainly could abandon the state system, as I questioned earlier, but does that mean that we should do so? There are a litany of individuals and schools of thought that would undoubtedly say ‘yes’ to that question, both from the left and from the right.
One thinker, Gerard Casey, puts it — quite forcefully — in the statement:
‘States are criminal organizations. All states, not just the obviously totalitarian or repressive ones.’ … ‘ I intend this statement to be understood literally and not as some form of rhetorical exaggeration.’
Though left- and right-wing academics come to greatly different conclusions on how best to organize ourselves post-state, there is a general agreement that the nation is, as Max Weber explains, the ‘only human Gemeinschaft which lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimized use of physical force’. Whether this is used to extract taxes, as hated by the right, or force us into wage-slavery, as hated by the left, the state can use its physical power to commit acts unwarranted by the wishes of its citizens. The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin takes Weber’s comments even further in claiming that:
‘If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another and, as a result, slavery; the State without slavery is unthinkable.’
Both the slave-trade and wage-slavery were sustained and advanced by the all-controlling nature of the state, which, on a mass scale, keeps the slaves in line at the behest of the slave-owners.
Postcolonial theorists, of all the fields of thought, know the extent of this slavery the best. Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, for example, in his work Decolonising the Mind (the title of this article being a nod to this incredible book), makes it clear that:
‘imperialism is total: it has economic, political, military, cultural and psychological consequences for the people of the world today.’
The experiences that writers such as Thiong’o had of colonialism in Africa have taught them of the state’s uncompromising attitude towards power.
The grasp of Empire on the continent led to what he describes as an ‘alienation’, ‘like separating the mind from the body’ so that you end up with a society of ‘bodiless (sic) heads and headless bodies’. The state seizes one’s own body and mind, ripping off your head and stuffing it with the language, politics, culture, and values that it deems acceptable.
Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, picks up on this duality in determining that the inferiority of the colonized becomes an assumption and psychological reality of life under the colonial state.
The case against statism believes in our ability to govern ourselves, to go about our business without a bloated bureaucracy breathing down our neck. We should desire, in the words of proto-anarchist William Godwin, ‘that each man should be wise enough to govern himself’, since ‘government, even in its best state, is an evil’.
Writing this in 1793, Godwin sees in the state nothing more than ‘a necessary evil for the present’, something to be momentarily put up with but which is nonetheless ‘an usurpation upon the private judgement and individual conscience of mankind’.
The controlling nature of the state stands in antithesis to self-governance, to autonomy, to freedom itself. Robert Paul Wolff, in his work In Defence of Anarchism, concludes nicely with the following:
‘If all men have a continuing obligation to achieve the highest degree of autonomy possible, then there would appear to be no state whose subjects have a moral obligation to obey its commands. Hence, the concept of a de jure legitimate state would appear to be vacuous, and philosophical anarchism would seem to be the only reasonable political belief for an enlightened man.’
So we now know that the state, as an illusory, constructed phenomenon, could be abandoned by a new philosophy. But we also now know that the state, as something violent, dominating, and antithetical to freedom, perhaps should be abandoned.
It is up to us to go through the process of “denationalizing” our minds and the minds of others.
It is up to us to envision something after the state, just as there was once something before it. The march of human progress does not have to remain shackled to the limitations of statehood forever. We do not have to remain caged by imaginary national identities, nor must we obey forever the rules set out by rulers that we have no real connection to.
Humankind made the state, and humankind can break it.