The big lie of nationalism is that borders are necessary.
Of course borders are necessary, if you are a nationalist (e.g.: supporter of the system of nations we call “nationalism”).
I’ve been puzzled about this since I was a kid; the whole system of nationalism appears to me to be a gigantic, immoral, scam. I suppose parts of that statement are redundant, but it’s important, to me, to emphasize how odd and just plain wrong it all is. Back when I was reading Étienne De Boétie’s (1549) Discourse on Voluntary Servitude [stderr] the whole time, I was extending the question De Boétie asked toward nationalism, in general. He asked, “why is it that so many people submit their will to rulers, who are generally only individuals far fewer in number than the populations they control?” Why is it that 328 million americans participate in a fake democracy that has been so controlled and manipulated that a relatively small number of people (let’s say congress and the executive and their immediate followers) are able to control them so that they participate more or less peacefully in their own subjugation. Why is it that 328 million americans participate more or less willingly in a system that offers medical care so bad it’s unacceptable, yet spends billions on F-35s that don’t work, and are designed for wars that the population has no interest in fighting? How does this happen? What is wrong with people, so that they put up with it?
De Boétie’s answer is that people are divided amongst each other. It’s what I’d call an “emergent conspiracy” – there is no master clique that meets in a dark room, deep underground, and charts the course of this massive plot – it’s simply that doing these things is a matter of convenience for the manipulators, who see opportunity as a result of doing certain things, and do them. For example, the american south’s dependency on slavery was not designed by some secret committee, it happened because of greed and laziness. Ditto, when the US assembled its constitution – the south was granted disproportionate power simply because they were in a position to force the north to negotiate with them in that way; it’s not as if there was some secret cabal of southerners who set that situation in motion – they simply saw the way the cards had been dealt, and played them. I guess that’s part of my answer to “why do these things happen?” For all intents a lot of humans’ actions are randomized (within expected boundaries) and it’s probably impossible to plan that far ahead. When I think of history, and the history of “grand strategy” it’s mostly a string of failures. Emergent plans (i.e.: muddling through) seems to work better.
So, nationalism is a system that divides people from eachother, in order to make them more tractable. That doesn’t mean it’s less of a scam; that means it’s more. If we’re all born free, with a package of rights and privileges simply from being human and alive [I actually doubt this] then for many humans, nationalism immediately steps in and violates those rights. At the very least, simply because we are born within some imagined lines on a map, that means we are subject to the laws (and coercive force) of the government that has emerged to control that territory. Over at Mano Singham’s, the other day, there was some discussion about Taiwan, [mano] and I made a meta-inappropriate comment from a post-nationalist perspective: there is no Taiwan, it’s all a result of people’s political imaginings. Sure, there are plenty of people who believe in it now, but that’s just because it’s been there for a while; originally it’s a result of a pissing contest between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai Shek, and some American leaders all of whom are dead and politically irrelevant by now. Taiwan, as a political entity, is some sort of lingering idea of the Taiwan of Mao and Chiang, but it’s sort of like a standing wave of an idea: there is no Taiwan except in people’s minds. That sounds crazy (even to me) but it explains why we have situations in which people and nations have very different and contradictory ideas about the meaning of some piece of land: we’re dealing with a sort of consensual delusion.
Of course, political systems, including nationalism, accrete around themselves protective mechanisms to give a reality to the delusion. As someone once said, “it doesn’t matter if you believe in the mafia; the mafia believes in you.” All of the mechanisms of international law, border controls, wars and posturings for wars, diplomacy, etc., – those were constructed to give teeth to the idea of nations. You can’t continue to deny the reality of a nation for long if it’s willing to kill you, after all. Which, of course, they are: by being born within their borders they assert the right over you to harness you into their economic system, force you to participate in their military, tax you, maybe give you health care and some services, but otherwise the fact that you were born within these lines on a map means they assert the nation’s right to your enslavement. One particularly striking example of this, for me, was the recent “return” of Hong Kong to China. There was a deal made by some colonialist imperialists and a no-longer existing government of the empire of China, in which the colonialists won a war based on superior technology and forced an agreement that the colonialists would govern Hong Kong for 99 years. Nowadays we understand how evil colonialism was, but – why, in 1997, did Hong Kong return itself to Chinese control? There was a huge population – entire cities – full of people in Hong Kong who did not consider themselves subjects of the government of China, who woke up one morning and found themselves subjects of China. That makes remarkably little sense, unless someone wants to whip out specious arguments like, “ungoverned people simply cannot exist without our help.” But that is, basically, what governments say, when they’re willing to argue and not simply resort to main force, which is their usual response. The mafia believes in you, your beliefs are irrelevant.
Meanwhile, you can enjoy the main drama in which the United States, itself a colonial empire welded together out of a grab-bag of land-grabs, threatens dire violence against China if it attacks Taiwan’s sovereignty, while utterly failing to question whether giving the entire citizenry of Hong Kong to China, like a trading card in some game, makes any sense at all. The “United States of America” is in no position to chide anyone about their disrespect for sovereignty, of course. In fact, the United States is – like any large, successful empire – hardly in a position to claim moral high ground.
That’s why I stare agape when I read about “the crisis on the border.” What “border”? What moral basis does the United States or any other government apply to assert its power to control the people outside of its borders, or inside for that matter? How and why does it claim moral authority?
It doesn’t, of course. It threatens with force. Even if there is a majority of believers in the “United States of America” who feel they have some kind of authority to keep others out of their imaginary lines on the map, what, other than force, is that based on? We have seen, for the last 10 years or so, that the US is willing to resort to brutal measures – criminal measures – to enforce its borders, but that just compounds the moral crime. You’ve got a bunch of folks chasing other folks out of “their’ country – saying, without intended irony, “it’s ours, we stole it fair and square.”
All that crap about “the social contract” was a fairly good attempt to assert a relationship between government and governed, to tease out the aspects of that relationship that distinguish a legitimate state from an authoritarian gang. The social contract, however, would specifically reject the notion that a state has “borders” that it can “protect” from would-be participants in the body politic. I know virtually nobody in the US believes it, but those people would be pretty happy taxpayers – the “immigrant success story” of the US is undeniable: historically it has done a great job of absorbing the hard-asses, rejects, kooks, and criminals of other countries and turning them into paid-up members of the economy. As long as they are white, that is.
This is why I sit with my jaw hanging, while I hear the descendants of Germans, Poles, Irish, and English saying “the country is full, go away.” They have absolutely no moral right to say that: the lines on a map that they are trying to enforce are simply the imaginary boundaries of their power. Not their authority. They have no right, or authority, to say that immigration can or should be controlled. Of course the United States has granted itself that right, but look at the panoply of “rights” the US has granted itself: the right to commit genocide, the right to enforce Jim Crow, the right to gerrymander elections, the right of its politicians to put themselves up for sale in the most crass manner imaginable, the right to bomb whoever a small group of cowardly warhawks in the government think can be bombed, today, the right to fleece vast amounts of tax money from the people, etc. Like any other government, the United States has no political legitimacy other than its grotesque monopoly on the use of force (now backed with nuclear weapons). If Rousseau were here, today, he’d be pointing out that for a government to be legitimate, it needs to be taking care of the least of its citizens, not its richest. Those least citizens are the ones crossing our southern border, who want to join this great big seething mess, to gain power and economic prosperity so that, eventually, they can rain down the shit of disapproval on new versions of their former selves.
This is an example of those “problems too big to have a useful suggestion for” – I see no practical way that nationalism (which is now allied with capitalist oligarchs) can be unseated. Yet it seems to me, by its assertion of a priority of rights over the individual’s, to be a criminal enterprise. Basically, the nations of the world are rival gangs, writ large, with a “divide and conquer” philosophy. That’s how we can see one government stand by, with its arms crossed, as the citizens “belonging to” another nation are slaughtered. Sovereignty is the assertion of the right to do that, basically – the right to control the people within a border. I suppose it’s not hard to imagine anything more immoral – all you have to do is look at the things nations regularly do, and there’s a great big laundry-list. I wish I had an answer to what to do about nationalism, but I expect it co-evolved with us humans. Pace Rousseau, there was never a “state of nature” unless that “state of nature” was proto-humans ruled by the most vicious, willing to harm others to inflict their will – probably a male, a proto-ruler. Oligarchs have always been with us, and they’ll be with us at the end – because they’ll be what kills us.
I would say that this posting is literally anti-social, in that it attempts to break down core tenets of society – which, these days. organizes itself under a nationalist system. Is there anymore more “out there” than saying we ought to scrap all that? And what would we replace it with? I don’t know, but the virus of tribalism and nationalism seems to guarantee that every social collapse turns into <i>The Road Warrior</i> world, fairly quickly. None of this makes me confident that anything will survive the +4C rise that’s coming. (We are on track for much more, and we already acknowledge that we can’t survive +4C. Great, huh? Nationalism is going to kill us with nukes or incompetence; it hardly matters.)