Nation and polis

In an article in Forth magazine, I argue for an alternative to nationalism that goes back to the roots of democracy:

AS A political doctrine, nationalism has been remarkably successful. A peculiar combination of Enlightenment philosophy and Romantic sentiment, it binds an abstract ideal (the nation) into the machine of government. The development of an identity shared among people who may never meet in their lives was the key to its success, as it enabled the ancient Greek ideas of democracy to take root in political systems much larger than the town square of the polis.

Nationalism changed all that. The concept of a shared identity beyond the city walls, embracing strangers living days distant, was a liberating and empowering innovation. Despite a largely failed initial experiment in France, the power of the national ideal was too strong for Europe’s petty states and empires alike. Some of its earliest triumphs were constructive, such as the unifications of Germany and Italy. Later, it entered a phase of creative destruction as defeated European empires were carved up into new nation-states. Its apotheosis was the UN Charter and the subsequent dissolution of the British and French empires and (belatedly) Soviet-influenced sphere.

One might be tempted to conclude that nationalism is therefore in rude health. On the contrary, it is running out of steam. In the West, the easy gains were made long ago. There is no longer any widespread resistance to the idea of national independence, so most nations that could easily declare independence have already done so. The national independence conflicts today are for the most part internecine arguments that have more in common with Naseby than Bannockburn. Compare the newsworthy independence movements of fifty years
ago – India, Algeria, Cuba – with those of today. Who doubts that if Scotland voted for independence it would be granted? The obstacle is not English intransigence, but that Scots themselves are unconvinced. Independence movements rumble on in certain quarters, but their grassroots support has in most cases withered. The wicked hegemon is not what he used to be.

In other parts of the world, the concept of nationhood itself is weak. Most African states are multinational – when the colonial empires collapsed under their own price tags, each administrative unit was given its independence with scant regard to the shared qualities of nationalism, such as language, religion and culture. Ethnic patchworks in parts of Africa are as complex as the Balkans or the Caucasus, and not well understood in the wider world. India shares a majority religion and a history of being unified under successive empires, but does not form a nation that any European would recognise. China shares qualities of both nation and empire.

And in Europe itself, nation-states that found themselves overshadowed by the superpowers in the Cold War are in the process of voluntarily giving up some of the prized spoils of their independence, in search of the one thing that a small, independent nation-state can never have: economy of scale.

So is nationalism dead? Far from it. It is, however, approaching the limits of its usefulness. There is a flawed assumption at the heart of the nationalist project. Nations, based on individual self-identification, are entitled to self-determination, but political power in the modern world is exercised by states, based on territory. Where the nation that requests power can be assumed to reside in a contiguous territory on which to base a new state, nationalism provides for a remarkably accountable form of government. Where this assumption
does not hold, the consequences are varying shades of dire. The impossible ideal of the nation-state will inevitably find followers willing to place it above trifling matters such as human rights. Representative democracy gives them power, and the people are duly altered to better fit the perfect theory. Minorities are either declared non-existent (as in Turkish Kurdistan), disenfranchised (pre-Civil Rights Northern Ireland), or purged (Bosnia).

Representative democracy, human rights and nation-states are thus in general mutually exclusive – you can have any two, but cannot guarantee all three. The old Stormont system was fairly democratic and approximated a nation-state, but at the cost of the human rights of those who did not ‘belong’. Now we have improved human rights, but because the political parties still cling to the nation-state ideal, democracy has had to be compromised instead. If one is lucky enough to live in a land where the nationalist assumption applies, then
the choice doesn’t have to be made. But if the assumption does not apply, the question is stark: which one of democracy, human rights or nationalism is least important? The choice is not hard to make, and the nation-state must therefore be abandoned. Some parts of the world may never be part of a true nation-state.

And yet, it cannot be denied that self-determination works. Decisions are best made as close to the citizen as possible, and the perennial tendency for power to be centralised in the name of efficiency must be counterbalanced. The plucky nation-state in defence of its rights is quite capable of doing so, but what of the rest? How to build common cause among those that share a location but not a culture? There is of course a clue in history.

The Greek polis was a small unit – a city and its surrounding farms, the economic building block of its day. Thanks to advances in communications and transport, the modern equivalent is much larger – the commuter belt. It is the area within which people willingly travel on a daily basis, within which there is a chance of regular interaction, within which friendships are made. If the binding force of the nation is culture, the binding force of the polis is location. Where the nation has language, the polis has buildings. Where the nation has music, the polis has parks. The shared experience is of a different nature, but the binding force is the act of sharing itself.

Those parts of the world where the nation has brought strife might have better luck with the polis. In fact, many small ‘nations’ already have more in common with the polis than they might think. A good case for polishood could be made for the North of Ireland, for example. The lesson to be learned is that the nation is not the only, and certainly not always the most desirable basis for democracy.


2 thoughts on “Nation and polis”

  1. Congratulations on getting this article published! I hadn’t come across Forth magazine before but it looks interesting. Must have a look through the rest of it.

    A few random thoughts on your article:
    1. Is the difference between polis and nation simply a matter of time? For example, the distinction between Anglo-Saxon and Norman is completely irrelevant in England today.
    2. Does the fact that Scotland hasn’t voted for independence mean that nationalism is running out of steam? Or that more Scots are defining their nationalism as being British rather than Scottish?
    3. You are assuming that larger entities will be more efficient and get economies of scale. That is not always true. There are dis-economies of scale as well. Most of the nation states in Europe are at or above the limit of efficiency already. This is why the EU makes us all poorer, as the benefits from a free market are outweighed by the regulatory cost of imposing a single market across such a diverse area.
    4. What scale can get you is resilience. Microstates tend to either be very wealthy or very poor, not something in between. Larger countries can cope better with damage, be that a natural disaster or a fundamental shift in the economics of a key industry. Of course this relies upon the people in the still prosperous part being willing to pay the costs of helping the less prosperous parts. This does tend to be much easier in a nation, i.e. where there is a sense of just “us” rather than “us” and “them”.
    5. Choices:

    If one is lucky enough to live in a land where the nationalist assumption applies, then the choice doesn’t have to be made.


    But if the assumption does not apply, the question is stark: which one of democracy, human rights or nationalism is least important? The choice is not hard to make, and the nation-state must therefore be abandoned. Some parts of the world may never be part of a true nation-state.

    I’m not so sure. I don’t see how you can separate democracy and nation-state? Perhaps this is a matter of definition of nation? Is nation-state a specific cultural and ethnic identity? Or a system of government over a particular area of land? The government people are voting for will only have legitimacy if the people identify with it and with the other voters. There is no universal definition of what democracy should be (even that it should exist at all) nor is there a universally accepted definition of human rights. A successful, highly diverse polis is of course possible, but without some sense of shared principles and purpose it is very difficult.

    1. Sorry it’s taken me a while – I’ve been up to my eyes in a show for the past week.

      The editor approached me after I (clumsily) took him to task on one of his previous articles, and he suggested I write a response piece. I was rather surprised myself!

      1. England was never a polis, so I don’t think your example is useful. You’re right in that a polis might develop into a nation over time, but I wouldn’t suggest it was inevitable.

      2. It’s a good question, but I don’t see any sign of Scottish identity getting weaker. It’s nationalism that has stalled, not patriotism.

      3. I merely noted that economy of scale was the justification used for EU integration, case in point being the single market. Whether it works or not is outside the scope of this article. :-)

      On point 4 I’ll just say that in a functioning polis, there is still an “us” – it’s just not an “us” based on an ethnic-cultural identity. This is the necessary innovation.

      5. I think part of your confusion comes from my narrow definition of “democracy” – I had in mind the standard representative-majoritarian model (as opposed to power-sharing, direct democracy, etc.). Power-sharing as used in NI is commonly accepted to be less than ideal, but without a permanent solution for the national question a standard majoritarian system is out.

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