Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2007

The Twilight of the Nation State

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

With the war in Iraq now in its fourth year, all other struggles against imperialism have seemed to recede into the background. However, with the German protests against the G8 meeting in early June, we are reminded that the anti-globalization movement still has the power to move large numbers of people into struggle. Furthermore, at a higher level, the two struggles against the occupation of Iraq and against neoliberal trade agreements are dealing with the same phenomenon. That at least would be the argument of Prem Shankar Jha, the author of the recently published “The Twilight of the Nation State: Globalization, Chaos and War.” While the question of whether the nation-state is being made obsolete by globalization will continue to be debated now and in the future, there can be little argument with the mass of data presented by Jha. He makes a stunning case for the existence of a systematic domination of the weak by the powerful and the need to resist it.

As a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs in 1995, Jha found himself growing increasingly uneasy with triumphalist Fukuyama-style encomiums to capitalist democracy. Until that year, he had been an editor at the Hindustan Times and had his doubts about the free market system from first-hand experience. The India he was familiar with first-hand seemed to defy Fukuyama’s pat solutions. His unease was communicated in a series of articles for “The Hindu” that year, one of which presciently concluded that “a large segment of society now feels that it has become a victim of changes over which it had no control, and which the government and ruling class did nothing to protect it from.” Those articles form the kernel of “Twilight of the Nation State.”

The first chapter is a critique of both Fukuyama’s “The End of History” and Samuel Huntington’s “The Third Wave”. (If Fukuyama has stepped back from his mid 1990s triumphalism, it is only because history has forced him to. One imagines that if a more adroit imperialist foreign policy had been pursued, he would have remained just as cocky.) Although best known for his “Clash of Civilizations” article, Huntington had been thinking along the same lines as Fukuyama. He believed that there were democracy “waves” from 1828-1926, 1943-1962, and now the latest from 1974-1990. He used (or misused) World Bank statistics to show that the more prosperity a country enjoyed, the more democracy would obtain. And, echoing cold-warrior Rudy Rummel, Huntington further argued that democracies do not go to war with each other.

In addition, apologists for globalization like Thomas Friedman argue that when capital has untrammeled freedom to flow across borders, the end result can only be increased prosperity. In “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” he writes that globalization only increases the incentives for not making war since it will be more costly than “any previous era in modern history.” With the costs of the Iraq war now beyond the $1 trillion point, Friedman is both right and wrong. It is more costly, but that has not prevented a “democracy” from incurring the associated costs.

Taking Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of Extremes” as his guiding star (Hobsbawm wrote the preface to “Twilight”), Jha puts forward a much more pessimistic and realistic assessment:

In The Age of Extremes Eric Hobsbawm described the last three decades of the twentieth century as ‘crisis decades’ that saw the re-emergence of disorder in human society and concluded with the observation that he felt ‘less reason to feel hopeful about the future than in the middle 80s. This book attempts to explore the causes of his instinctive pessimism. It suggests that the root cause of the growing disorder is that capitalism has burst the confines of the nation state, and is in the inexorable process of converting a large part (although as yet not quite the whole) of the globe into its new ‘container’. The process is highly destructive and fraught with violence. This is the process that we refer to as globalization.

For Jha, the concept of a container is critical to his entire argument. First introduced by Fernand Braudel, it refers to the successive frameworks that a capitalist economy operates within until it busts them asunder under the pressure of new technology and economic imperatives. In his view, capitalism has done this three times. Initially, the Italian city-states gave birth to capitalism but were superseded by Holland and then by Great Britain. By the end of the nineteenth century, capitalism began to outgrow the nation-state itself and required a more dominant global power like the U.S. But today, the imperatives of capitalism require turning the entire planet into its container–hence globalization.

Prem Shankar Jha

While it is doubtful that any book, no matter how powerfully argued, will ever resolve the debate about the obsolescence of the nation-state, there can be no doubt about Jha’s impressive painstaking research and command of the data in contrast to Hardt and Negri’s data-challenged “Empire,” a book that shares many of the same core assumptions. One might disagree with Jha’s conclusions, but all the same be more than enlightened by his findings.

For example, in dealing with the question of whether the late nineteenth century was just as much on the leading edge of globalization through the first-time use of steamships and telegraph, Jha points to the qualitative changes produced through the telecommunications revolution:

No conceivable reduction in telephone charges could have unified the world’s commodity, foreign exchange, money and stock markets into a single global market in which there was round-the-clock trading in real time. One needed permanent computer hook-ups on the internet to make that possible. It is the change in both the speed of communication and in the sheer volume of information that can be processed and transmitted in seconds, more than simply the decline in costs, which makes the present knitting together of global economy qualitatively different in kind from what occurred between 1850 and 1913. In 1913 while trade was international, manufacturing remained wholly (or, in the case of Japan, largely national.) The difference is captured by the composition of foreign direct investment. In the nineteenth century three-fifths of foreign direct investment went into the development of infrastructure that was designed to facilitate trade. By contrast, more than three-fifths of today’s foreign direct investment is going into the establishment of manufacturing facilities abroad.

Clearly, whatever one thinks about the problematic of the nation-state versus a globalized economy, one can profit from such a substantive work. Even when I found myself disagreeing with some of the author’s conclusions, I continued to underline passages that I would find useful in my own research on the global economy.

Ultimately, questions about American hegemony, the obsolescence or non-obsolescence of the nation-state, how capitalism was born, the degree to which the capitalist system is crisis-ridden, etc. can never really be resolved since the data is so impossible to reduce to a single set of verifiable propositions. Indeed, the more I read literature dealing with these issues, the more I am convinced that disagreements over the relevant data account for all other differences.

In the spirit of ecumenical scholarship of the left, I can heartily recommend “The Twilight of the Nation State.” It is by far the most convincing case I have seen for the globalization hypothesis, as well as being a impassioned manifesto against the rich and powerful on behalf of the world’s disempowered majority.

Order from U. of Michigan Press or Pluto Press

1 Comment »

  1. I find it interesting that the nation state has proved so robust, that capitalism hasn’t thought it more efficient to demolish border posts like it has trade barriers.

    But you can see it happening in Europe. Just a sign with D, B, L or F by the side of the road is all you notice as you drive around near Luxembourg into one of the three neighbouring countries across borders, in the 30s, that were amongst the most fortified in the world. Roll on the deletion of more lines.

    Comment by Southpawpunch — June 21, 2007 @ 2:39 am


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