The Nation-State: a Sketch of its Origins

18 February 2009


The nation-state: a map drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.

The nation-state is the dominant political institution of our time, and a paradigm case of what I have here been calling social technology. In my Political Economy of Globalization I made this observation the first thesis:

Thesis 1

Any analysis of globalization must begin with the nation-state.

…while globalization is as yet embryonic, the nation-state today is inescapable, a mature world-historical development, and if a viable globalism is to emerge, it must emerge from the context of nation-states. Globalization is the ultimate category of political economy, but is as yet merely potential. If actual political economy does culminate in global political and economic institutions, the process of globalization must begin with the nation-state as the pervasive fact of our time, the primary and decisive factor in the political and economic organization of peoples the world over.

The question of the origins of the nation-state is a fascinating one, and one to which I have often thought of devoting a book. At present, we will settle for a mere sketch — actually, not even a proper sketch, but some impressions for a sketch.

The early modern period was a time of rapid and broadly-based change over many sectors of society. Both destructive and creative forces were at work. The creative destruction that Schumpeter identified as essential to capitalism also play out in the political arena. The destructive forces unleashed by rapid change cleared away the mature institutions of medieval society. The creative forces planted the seeds of incipient institutions that would not fully mature for centuries to come.

Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase 'creative destruction' to describe the growth of a capitalist economy, but it could just as well be used to describe the growth (and dissolution) of political institutions.

Luther’s support for the legitimacy of established political authority, as well as his insistence upon the separate spheres of secular and sacred authority cleared room for the emergence of a new institution – the nation-state. The protest of Protestantism began, as do many popular movements, with an initial fury of destruction directed at the prevailing old order. Once the work of nihilism has sated the appetite of the people and the ground has been cleared, the more constructive work that is the result of grim determination can go forward. And the early nation-state was a grim construction indeed.

Martin Luther was the trigger for the Protestant Reformation, and the culture of the Reformation was crucial for the formation of the early modern nation-state.

Martin Luther was the trigger for the Protestant Reformation, and the culture of the Reformation was crucial for the formation of the early modern nation-state.

The emergent practices of the early modern nation-state were felt to require a theoretical justification. Early modern political theory was, at least in part, a reaction against the feudal fragmentation of Europe. One condition of the unity of medieval Christendom was internal diversity, lack of substantial unity; the unity had little content, but great symbolic and rhetorical value. With the emergence of nation-states this began to change. The medieval political synthesis began unraveling at the same time as the medieval philosophical synthesis was unraveling at the hands of nominalists and experimental scientists. practical men are wont to believe that when their world begins to unravel that it is merely an exception to the rule of stability, and sometimes this is true; but at other times, worse and more of it is to come. The serious men of the late Middle Ages probably could not comprehend that their world was in the process of dissolution, even while another world was being born.

William of Ockham, simple Franciscan Friar that he was, contributed to the unraveling of the medieval synthesis with his logically motivated nominalism.

One political philosopher after another extolled the virtues of absolutism, and the difference between their doctrines was a matter of detail in the formulation of absolutism. Later modern political theory in the Enlightenment was, in turn, a reaction against the absolutism celebrated by their predecessors. With the rise of absolutist nation-states came a degree of order that the middle ages did not possess, but it also inaugurated an epoch of state repression—repression of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural minorities, repression of individuals, repression of dissent—novel forms of repression not conceived before the birth of the absolutist nation-state.

Thomas Hobbes was one of the political philosophers of the early modern period who formulated an unforgiving doctrine of absolutism. Hobbes did much more than that, of course, but he must also be placed among the theoreticians of absolutism.

The extreme political theories of the early modern period are a reflection of the formation of extreme political institutions—absolute monarchy and the nation-state. Absolute monarchy is an innovation of the modern period, and is the direct ancestor of the nation-state. Louis the XIV summed up both the monarchical and the statist aspects of modern political thought in his famous bon mot: “L’etat, c’est moi.”

le Roi Soleil: Louis XIV (baptised as Louis-Dieudonné, "Louis God-given") (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715)

le Roi Soleil: Louis XIV (baptised as Louis-Dieudonné, "Louis God-given") (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715)

The same claim—“I, the monarch, am the state!”—is a perfect formulation of public power in private hands, which is the essence of feudalism. The French during the Enlightenment were aware that the French political system was in many ways continuous with medieval feudalism. Alexis de Tocqueville’s great book on the Ancien Regime, in particular, takes on the feudal character of the French monarchy.

Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for Democracy in America, but his posthumously published work on the Ancien Regime is equally fascinating.

Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for Democracy in America, but his posthumously published work on the Ancien Regime is equally fascinating.

While the early modern period of political thought can be seen in continuity with European history as a reaction against feudalism, and as establishing a position which would provoke the reaction of Enlightenment thinkers, it can also be seen in the context of the discovery of the New World, which had profound intellectual implications for the Old World, quite apart from the obvious economic and demographic implications.

At the same time that these early theoreticians of the state were formulating doctrines of absolutism, they had to assimilate a profound challenge to the continuous tradition and historical authority of the Old World. A whole New World had been discovered of which the ancients had said nothing, and concerning which the Gospels were silent. None of the authorities upon which these political theorists thought to base absolute political authority were even aware of the existence of the New World prior to its accidental discovery. And had the explorers, geographers, cartographers, and cosmologists of the era understood the extent of the Americas—which appeared initially as a mere archipelago of islands—they would have been all the more astonished.

As it was, the immense size of the Americas was revealed only gradually, discovered piecemeal as it were, as small groups of Spaniards, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and French crossed the Atlantic and happened upon ever more lands unvisited by Europeans and not marked on any map. Thus at the same time that the foundations of the nation-state and of political absolutism were being laid, the historical continuity and integrity of the European tradition of civilization which these foundations sought to establish once for all, had to be questioned in way in which they had not before been questioned.

The end of the Spanish colonial regime in South America resulted in a devolution from large areas with a unified administration (e.g., the Viceroyalty of Peru and Gran Colombia) to smaller areas unified along different lines, and consequently there is no land empire in South America as in North America. This is also a consequence of South America being settled from the coast inward, whereas there were no major urban areas on the west coast of North America settled from the coast rather than overland through supply lines that tie the development of urban areas to earlier settled areas.

The nation-state in South America is the nation-state in its nineteenth century incarnation, the nation-state of romanticism and nationalism. This gives to the nineteenth century nation-state a particular, peculiar quality. In contrast, the nation-states of continental Europe emerged from absolute monarchies that in turn emerged from feudalism.

The history of the nation-state in the Western Hemisphere is fascinating in and of itself; the whole story of the nation-state — the global story — is the more interesting yet. There are no end of interesting interstices in the warp and weft of history. A life would be well spent searching them out and learning what they have to teach.

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One Response to “The Nation-State: a Sketch of its Origins”

  1. [...] Nation-States Rise.  And Then They Collapse. [...]

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