“The Problem of Nation-State in Democratic Politics” by Yi Shen Ma

The meaning of nationhood is a hotly debated issue in Western political theory. Despite its intrinsic ambiguity, however, most scholars agree that the idea of a “nation” is real enough to impact the world in a significant way, especially in a world where nations are supposed to align with states, as expressed in the common designation “nation-state.” In fact, most people who inhabit the world today naturally identify themselves as belonging to a nation. Quite often, this feeling of belonging arouses strong visceral attachments, which can be thought of as nationalism. As Craig Calhoun argues, in regards to the modern understanding of the nation-state, nationalism is the foundation of both “unjust prejudices and discriminatory practices” and “a form of social solidarity and one of the background conditions on which modern democracy has been based.”[1] For Calhoun, it is clear that nationalism is a crucial dimension of the world in which we live, although there is no consensus as to what a nation actually consists of.

While many intellectuals, such as Jürgen Habermas, promote globalization and are highly critical of nationalism, Calhoun laments that many of them are so blinded by their uncritical enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism and the possibility of a global democratic society that they are unable to see the intimate connection between nations and cosmopolitanism. For him, any theoretical and practical attempt to move completely beyond nation and nationalism inevitably leads back to assuming their existence, as exemplified by such phrases as “international affairs” and the sociological category “civil society.” In this paper, I argue that in emphasizing the importance of nation and national identity formation for democracy, Calhoun overlooks the significance of other non-nationalistic forms of solidarity also central to democracy and the violence inherent in the idea of national identity.[2] Bringing together post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha and postmodern political philosophers William Connolly and Saul Newman, I expose Calhoun’s theoretical limitations by showing how democratic energy often emerges from alternative social belongings at the periphery of the nation that frequently challenges the dominant social identity.  I begin by analyzing Calhoun’s account of nationalism and cosmopolitanism and discuss why it is inadequate. Then, I proceed to discuss how Anderson’s understanding of nation neglects to account for what Bhabha calls the “subjective and performative aspect of national identity” that both destabilizes nationalism and exposes its violence against minorities. Third, I critically examine Connolly’s theory of pluralism and democratic praxis. In the process, I also discuss the significance of negotiating religious differences for moving beyond nationalism. Lastly, I push Connolly’s project further by challenging the political theology of sovereignty and, in dialogue with Saul Newman, imagine new ways to conceive of democracy that are consistent with the spirit of Connolly’s pluralism.

Nationalism and Democracy

For Calhoun, “nationalism is not a moral mistake.”[3] He laments that nationalism is too often associated only with atrocities committed in the 20th century. He argues that nationalism is also an important “form of social solidarity and one of the background conditions on which modern democracy has been based.”[4] Calhoun points out that while it is easy to dismiss the evils of nationalism, most liberal cosmopolitans ignore nationalism’s important political contributions. One of nationalism’s contributions, according to Calhoun, is that it laid the foundation for democracy and other forms of social solidarity, precisely what liberal cosmopolitans celebrate. Therefore, Calhoun sees a degree of hypocrisy when liberal cosmopolitans quickly dismiss nationalism in exchange for their vision of global democracy or, at times, global citizenship.

In order to support his claim that nationalism made democracy possible, Calhoun appeals to the history of the idea of nation. Nation, for Calhoun, is a socially constructed idea and a relatively new sociological category. He writes, “But in neither the Ottoman Empire nor the West were nations basic units of political organization before the rise of the modern state.”[5] In other words, Calhoun believes that the rise of nations coincided with the emergence of the modern state. According to Calhoun, prior to the realization of the modern state, “descent, divine authority, and sometimes simply military success” were the basic criteria of political legitimacy.[6] However, he explains that after countless religious wars and skirmishes between European empires, which ultimately resulted in the Peace of Westphalia, the idea of having a common culture and language became more central to the idea of political sovereignty. This change of affairs, Calhoun explains, increased the social mobility of many Europeans and therefore instilled in their minds a sense that they belonged to a nation made of more or less equal individuals. For Calhoun, nationalism, then, became a new discursive formation that “treated nations as the prepolitical bases for political legitimacy,” while it undermined the authority of rulers, gods, and military might.[7]

For Calhoun, the concept of a nation-state was born partly because the idea of nation became closely associated with political sovereignty. As Calhoun makes clear, this is not to say that there was no violence involved with the formation of nation-states. In fact, powerful groups in a nation-state often “enforce cultural conformity, challenging both the individual freedom and the vitality that comes from cultural creativity.”[8] At the same time, Calhoun argues, precisely because nationalism is so intertwined with the way modern people understand political legitimacy and social solidarity, it cannot simply be dismissed. For Calhoun, while nationalism is a “source of so many evils, it is also the framework in which the modern era produced history’s most enduring and successful experiments in large-scale democracy.”[9] For example, the relative success of the United States’ large-scale democracy would not have been possible, according to Calhoun, without nationalism.[10]

The rest of the article is located here.

The image is used with permission from MadGeographer via WikiMediaCommons.

[1] Craig Calhoun, Nations Matter: Culture, History, and the Cosmopolitan Dream (New York: Routledge, 2007), 1

[2] I am fully aware that the desire for firm foundations in democracy and politics is motivated, in part, by the internal paradoxes of democracy, which I shall discuss later in the section: “The Liminal Space.”

[3] Ibid, 1

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, 2

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, 3

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, 4

[10] Ibid, 48

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