Podium: Arguing the case for the nation state

From a lecture by the Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics
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The Independent Culture
WHAT DOES globalisation mean? It is a process in which activities, and relations between both individuals and institutions, expand beyond the parochial and the national to the international or global. It is economic in the first instance, arising from trade and production, but very quickly it involves social elements (tourism, migration and ecumenism) and with the increasing emphasis on communication it begins to refer, above all, to a spreading form of shared human awareness.

It is a rather cute term, much liked by journalists and others who live by spinning words. It is something of an alternative to all those "posts", such as post-industrial and post-national. One crucial globalising fact is television, a visual medium; and vision, as Hobbes pointed out long ago, is the sense out of our five senses which encourages our propensity to fantasy. What we see is often superficial.

This helps create a new situation in which millions of people become increasingly aware of a materially delightful lifestyle available to other people - foreigners, the rich, whites - but which they cannot possibly share in because it has taken us in the West centuries to work it out and develop the capital on which it depends. The resources for everybody sharing it do not exist in current technology. It requires invisible moral virtues these people do not have - forms of prudence, self-control, regularity of work and, above all, a conception of other people as fellow beings to be treated in a regular and helpful way - by contrast with those who can only take seriously people who are kin in some sense. ("Treat a stranger as a thief" is, I am told, an old Japanese saying.)

The continent of Africa most notably lacks many of these virtues and has proved, in our time, incapable of running modern societies. The virtues these countries do have - tribal or ethnic solidarity, for example - are self-defeating in market terms, though not, perhaps, in what I consider below as "war economies." Asia, in many cases, has similar problems.

Globalisation, or at least economic relations extending beyond the local, has been going on for millennia, and its high point, in fact, was the period up to 1914. After that, protectionism, mercantilism and different varieties of war economies dominated the world until after 1945.

The significance of the idea of globalisation is that it has become the basis for a political argument: we human beings are now becoming increasingly interdependent, and we need global institutions to respond to this new situation. Environmentalists are especially prominent in arguing that international authority must supersede national. Soros is another declared foe, and much of the thinking behind the European Union is the attempt to defeat globalisation.

Hundreds of international treaties cover everything from the environment to trade to human rights. These treaties are already coercive, as the Pinochet case illustrates.

The concept of globalisation suggests that the world is moving inexorably towards an achieved unity, a system that embraces everyone, and this unity, though no doubt moral in terms of human rights, is based on economic transactions. The laws of economics are universal, and human beings may be understood as pursuers of incentives. It is this assumption that feeds into the implication that globalisation has the potential for a peaceful future; it sometimes functions as another branch of the "end of history" thesis.

The common media appreciation is that globalisation is an unstoppable force, that democracy is spreading through the world as the child of rising standards of living, and that the nation state is losing its capacity to control its citizens, because they can now move both themselves and their capital elsewhere. Taxation is becoming subject to competition.

My own suspicion is that globalisation is this time, as in the 19th century, a highly uncertain process which can and will be stopped when convenient. Democracy, I have no doubt, is doomed. It is already pretty notional, a mere responsiveness, and the growing complexity of the world is the perfect soil for experts.

And the nation state ought not to be written off. This is where the power has been, and there is a lot of enthusiasm to keep it there. I might add that, horrible as it has often been, the nation state - at least in the Anglo-Saxon world - remains the only institution that offers a release from the parochial. The village community is a nightmare, the international world the arena of meaningless abstraction. All we have, for the moment at least, is the state.