Donald Trump’s ascension to the US presidency has defied almost every political taboo of the last few decades. He denounced NATO as superfluous, threatened punitive taxation against companies that took jobs south of the border, and proposed a ban on migrants from Muslim countries.
With the help of Brexit campaigner and chief UKIP strategist, Nigel Farage, he engineered a zeitgeist moment: Here were the civilised people of the West, reclaiming national sovereignty by tearing down supranational structures that had for decades served the ruling classes, and impeded upon the ability of governments to serve their electorate.
No longer would we go down that road littered with the broken promises of global capitalism and the contentious bones of multiculturalism.
This message is music to France’s far-right Front National leader, Marine Le Pen. Long confined to the periphery of mainstream politics, her anti-migration and anti-European Union (EU) stance has gained considerable traction over the last five years. She believes that the spectre of terrorism and the international cynicism regarding Islam’s compatibility with Western cultures will play in her favour when France goes to the polls next year. She has praised the construction of new walls, declaring that “the time of the nation state is back”.
Conventional wisdom will have you believe that this aggressive populism marks the resurrection of the nation-state, but when did the nation-state die? What was it, in whose interest did it exist? Where was its spirit during its hiatus? Why is it back? Is this a ‘return’ or is it the emergence of a new kind of nation-state, emerging out of the crisis of global capitalism? How will it manifest itself in the unfolding context, and what role will it play in deciding the fate of fraught supranational institutions, like NATO and the EU?
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A nation-state, as Benedict Anderson succinctly described it, is an imagined political community; a political order that derives its legitimacy from a constellation of common historical reference points, assembled to create a particular narrative of belonging. It adorns itself with status symbols (liberty, strength, power, democracy, modernity), practises a suppression of dissenting narratives, and believes itself to be the guardian of a unique culture that is superior and more advanced to others.
We see this in Trump’s view of Muslims in the US. If he could string together a coherent sentence, we might hear him say this: the American people have common ethnic roots, they are bound together by a unique historical tradition that makes them pervious to freedoms that are incompatible with Islam. This country is founded upon these national traits, and the state must exercise its sovereignty in order to possess, preserve and secure these freedoms from the threat of Islam.
The nation-state is supposed to have exhaled its last breath in the 1970s and 80s when Thatcher-era neo-liberalism went global. However, this is not entirely true. Sure, there was a reordering of politics: Supranational structures emerged, physical barriers between countries were removed but the EU founded its own brand of nationalism, and hoped that the nationalisms of the past would dissolve and subordinate themselves to the utopian promise of the single market.
Meanwhile, the EU secured its outer borders by applying the same rationalities and techniques that its constituent nation-states once had. Its civilisational rhetoric and fetish for status appealed to a trans-national populism, organised around the free market. It abandoned ‘the populism’ of welfare, and shifted its focus to utility maximisation and management of personal interest through an effective regulation of the market.
Where it was supposed to neuter the old aggressive form of European nationalism, the EU created a semblance of German economic hegemony in Europe. European nation-states were never absent from this game — they were evolving, competing and developing within it. They have emerged, not as a thing of the past, but as a substitute to the crisis of capitalism and supranational governance.
At the time of its conception, the European single market was seen as the legacy of a coherent historical process that had to be completed in order to secure European ‘destiny’. This concept of ‘destiny’ is the cornerstone of nation-state mythology. We observed it during the Scottish referendum, and then during Brexit.
Brexit is often understood as a response to the discontent of fiscal austerity, and though this might be true of countries like Greece, who have suffered a great deal under anti-welfare policies, this cannot be said of the UK, where austerity is an entirely home-grown issue. Brexit was not about protectionism, it was about deregulation — a dismissal of the transnational technocracy that had supposedly blocked Britain from achieving its destiny as a leading European economy.
Why is one form of the nation-state withering and another emerging — this we do not know yet. What is it, how do we understand it, what is its purpose — these questions also require further discussion. The issue here is not so much as whether the old nation-state has made a return, but rather what is its latest assertion. What new game is afoot? What impact will it have on the future of global politics?
Trump and Brexit have a very high, negative symbolic value that can unleash uncontrolled political forces, as it sends a signal to populists all over Europe. There is also uncertainty over Donald Trump’s foreign policy. If the US discontinues its involvement in the NATO alliance, the remaining members of the EU might have to rely on Britain’s superior military strength to fend off the Russian threat. Britain might use this as a bargaining chip in its exit negotiations.
There are equally strong reasons why the EU may not roll over. It may push for a harsh Brexit in order to intimidate and discourage Euro-sceptics from leaving. Plunging deeper into the abyss of its own making would not be a wise move, so it may take a different approach and pass regulations to reassure progressives who have lost faith in its value.
But the market has imploded and the myth of its destiny has unravelled. Sooner or later, the EU will have to allow the poorer economies to embrace independent fiscal policies. What this means is that the most effective antidote to the power of nationalism in Europe may actually be found in reasserting the power of the nation-state.