Defending the nation-state

Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Serving our corporate masters. And pasting smiles on our faces, too … Or better yet, imagine a world where citizens control their own destinies, within a peaceful and environmentally sustainable international order. That’s the real way forward.

by the Honorable Kelvin Thomson

I am a big fan of Rob Harding’s idea of a United Nations Framework Convention on Population. There is no reason in principle why the nations of the world should not come together and set targets to put a stop to the runaway global population growth which has proven to be so environmentally, socially, and economically destructive. And there is every practical reason why they should.

Such a Convention could be modelled on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and of course population growth is a key driver of greenhouse gas emissions growth. It may prove easier to get countries to agree to at least stabilising their own populations – this is something which would benefit each country individually, as well as the planet collectively – than it has proven to get agreement on emissions reductions targets. The latter effort is of course heavily weighed down by the large gap between the wealth of rich and poor nations, and the legacy of different emissions profiles in each country.

Photo by Cesarexpo (edited).

But until the happy day when the UN gets its act together and gets serious about the global Population Ponzi scheme, the best hope for sanity and action on the population front lies with individual nation states. And unfortunately, the power of the nation state is under relentless assault.

I was impressed by a recent article in Harper’s magazine by Rana Dasgupta, titled “The Silenced Majority”. The article notes that after the Chinese Government crushed the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989, global capital rushed into China. During the 1980s, foreign direct investment hovered around $2 billion, but by the mid-nineties it had grown tenfold. Any number of high-tech companies now do their manufacturing in China – Apple, Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and many more.

The impact of this on blue collar workers in Western countries has been devastating, and its health and political consequences are pretty well known. But the carnage shows no sign of abating, with middle and upper middle-income jobs in areas such as architecture, law, accountancy, teaching and medicine now being automated or offshored. The faith that the destroyed or relocated jobs will be replaced by others is misplaced. How else do we explain the “jobs, jobs, jobs,” cacophony which is embedded in modern political discourse?

One consequence of this corporation-led globalisation is rising inequality. According to a UN Report, 40 million Americans now live in poverty, including 5.3 million “in third world conditions of absolute poverty”. But the 15 richest Americans have a combined wealth of more than a trillion dollars! The lords of multinational business are not so big on paying taxes, or sharing their wealth or power.

The distribution of wealth in the United States. By

Rana Dasgupta writes that “The neoliberal revolution aimed to restore the supremacy of capital after its twentieth century subjugation by nation states, and it has succeeded to an astonishing degree. As states compete and collude with gargantuan new powers, a new political world arises. The principle of labour, which dominated the twentieth century – producing the industrious, democratic society we have come to regard, erroneously, as the norm – is once again being supplanted by a principle of property, the implications and consequences of which we know only too well from our history books”.

Of course, we cannot unscramble the egg of corporate globalisation. But we can and must do a better job of protecting ourselves against its excesses. To do this, we must also defend the role of the nation state in looking after communities through taxation and regulation. Preserving democracy as a living, vibrant entity, rather than seeing it degenerate into a hollow charade, depends on it.

What’s the connection to population? Over the years, I have concluded that one of the most powerful barriers to getting opinion leaders to support action on the issue of population is the view that people should be able to live wherever they choose, and that governments have no business trying to stop them.

It is not what most ordinary people think, but this view is widely held among political, business, and media elites, and it crosses the left-right divide. The right is libertarian, doesn’t think government should do much at all, and are fans of globalisation, which enables corporations to escape from government rules and regulations. The left believes in open borders, and thinks that allowing people in poor countries to re-locate to rich ones is a pathway to social justice – oblivious as they are to the role of population growth in generating poverty and inequalities.

An effective challenge to this world view involves rejecting globalisation’s undermining of the nation state and supporting the UN’s original vision of a community of nations, with greater focus on self-sufficiency and sustainability at the national level. I think that the best chance for the environment (and for democracy and social justice) lies in decentralised decision making, and the principle of subsidiarity. I know there are plenty of examples of local communities failing the environment, but I think local communities are generally more trustworthy than multinational corporations, or their kept politicians.

The politics of this view can work. People who support manufacturing in their own country and support their own nation state are also less likely to support open borders. There is scope to recruit blue collar workers, retirees and people who are welfare dependant to a population stabilisation platform that is framed in terms of self-sufficiency, sovereignty, and sustainability.

Conversely I think that if the environmental movement ignores this political terrain, it is likely to be vacuumed up by populists who don’t give a damn about the environment. America’s outgoing President is the most spectacular example, but there have been plenty of recent populist uprisings in the Western world, taking advantage of the gulf between elite and public opinion on globalisation in general and migration in particular, such as Brexit in the UK, Le Pen in France, and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Australia.

The answer to toxic and environmentally harmful populisms is a progressive, pro-environment politics which is not out of touch with people. It should be grounded in reality: above all, the reality that for the foreseeable future, democracy, equality and sustainability all depend on powerful nation states to act as counterweights against amoral, undemocratic transnational corporations.

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5 thoughts on “Defending the nation-state

  1. Sure won’t happen while we have Big 6 global media conglomerates controlling, substantively, ALL the information for what might be called the Free World, with their “information” every bit as propagandized as that in North Korea, China, or whatever totalitarian state! That as even the well-educated among us don’t see it or what Reagan’s and Clinton’s deregulation have done to the PEOPLES RIGHT TO NEWS REPORTED WITH INTEGRITY! (I spent most of 40 years in journalism or publishing!)

  2. More evidence that points to the seriousness of this situation. For developed nations, as the US most of the growth in population comes from immigration. When, in this country, we already have “40 million Americans now live in poverty, including 5.3 million “in third world conditions of absolute poverty,” bringing in more, mostly poor and low skilled people, will only exacerbate the rich – poor divide. How, can one be surprised when we actively import poor people, one finds the growth of poverty growing. A lot of the wealthy get that way by exploiting the new comers as a source of controllable and cheap labor. Unfortunately, that ‘cheap’ labor has external costs as housing, education, food and poverty relief plans. Yes, corporations are controlling the direction we are headed and as more humans enter the world the onus is more and more on jobs. Now, that mechanization is growing, the day will shortly arrive when a huge number of people will be displaced by smart machines and suddenly find themselves without jobs and then there will be a global crises that makes the present one look puny by comparison.

  3. We get stuck in untenable work when we get stuck in the near term. Defending the nation-state because globalization has run amok? We still live in a world of nation-states pursuing globalization and fighting over the various interests. As long as we are imagining, let’s imagine no people, .

  4. If we look at the rational for taxation differently we may be able to have the global corporations pay tax at the rate that applies where the corporation accesses the population. Can you imaging that taxes could be based on turnover or sales for access to a society? Can you imagine that a McDonalds franchisee would be able to get access to the McDonalds method/s unless they paid a continuing franchise fee for such access.
    In short, consider taxes as a form of franchise fee payable to a society in order to access that society. No exemptions.

  5. Let’s not forget though how oppressive nation states can be towards internal minorities. There’s examples from every continent, even in Europe regional movements for autonomy or independence are sometimes horribly oppressed (look at Spain…) Internal migration to “colonise” independence-seeking populations is one such strategy (Kashmir, Yugoslavia to some extent and look what happened…). Nation states also tend to try to assimilate or eliminate indigenous populations that often also live more sustainably, in order to acquire their resources for exploitation by everybody else.
    The problem is that every form of government entails some form of oppression, but you cannot do away with some government of human affairs. We should not idealise “the nation state”, “the village”, “the tribe”… they are all populated by humans, and thus imperfect – and warmongering.

    Back to the issue of population and migration, look at what’s happening in the EU. In theory, all states should take some migrants in, cooperate, etc. In reality, the weaker states or those most exposed or with the most vested interests in taking them are bearing the burden (Italy, Greece…), while the stronger states or those more removed from the influx act all outraged but take in as little as they can (with the partial exception of Germany, which will however not repeat the one-million-refugees-all-at-once thing). I think France is the worst: they’ve called us monsters for not taking migrant ships in (for a couple days), but won’t let any into their ports and horribly abuse migrants trying to make into France from Italy. Croatia is torturing migrants, Bosnia letting them freeze to death, Greece letting them burn… no one is taking them in, no one is sending them back. So much hypocrisy.
    We’re kind of having the worst of both worlds: the union as an excuse to do nothing, yet not helping at all.
    I wish there was a serious debate in Italy about getting out of the EU and taking back control, but unfortunately everyone is loving all the money they are letting us borrow and acting like we won’t have to pay it back…

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