Indispensable Political Entities
8 June 2012
In my book Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to formulate my theses in the greatest possible generality (Russell’s influence was at work here, since he often urged formulations of the greatest possible generality), and, to this end, I did not loosely write in terms of states or nations or countries, but chose to write instead in terms “political entities.”
From the glossary appended to the same work, here is the definition that I gave for political entities:
Any actor whatever engaged in political activity. Political entities include, but are not limited to, individual persons (under the aspect of homo politicus, i.e., political man), interest groups, peoples, city-states, nation-states, and republics. The demarcation between political entities and economic entities (q.v.) is in no sense fixed, as many entities are both political and economic actors. An NGO (q.v.) is a political entity, though it is no kind of state, which latter may well be the paradigmatic political entity. And the nation-state (q.v.), in so far as it engages in quasi-economic activity (q.v.), is both a political and an economic actor.
When I opened my book with a discussion of the nation-state, I tried to be clear that while the nation-state is the central political fact of our time, it is only one political entity among others, and just as other political entities were central to the world system prior to the advent of the nation-state, so too other political entities will someday supersede the nation-state. But don’t expect it to happen soon, or in your lifetime. These things move at a glacial pace, and are only apparent in hindsight to the historian; they are hidden from our view by the onrushing events of the present.
Another way to formulate the preeminence of the nation-state in the contemporary global system is to say that it is the indispensable political entity of our time. I thought of this formulation a few days ago when I was writing The Radicalization of Miners in Andean South America. I was re-reading the Pulacayo Theses and came across this formulation early in the very first item:
1. The proletariat, in Bolivia as in other countries, constitutes the revolutionary social class par excellence. The mineworkers, the most advanced and the most combative section of this country’s proletariat, determine the direction of the FSTMB’s struggle.
And in the original Spanish:
1.- El proletariado, aún en Bolivia, constituye la clase social revolucionaria por excelencia. Los trabajadores de las minas, el sector más avanzado y combativo del proletariado nacional, define el sentido de lucha de la FSTMB.
Note: this may sound a bit slow on my part (sometimes I can be rather dense), but when I was studying this a few days ago I hadn’t even thought to search for an English language translation, but I found one today at the Permanent Revolution website, and that is the English language version that I have given above. I had rendered this as, “The proletariat, in Bolivia as in other countries, constitutes the indispensable revolutionary social class.”
This is boilerplate Marxist doctrine: the proletariat is the revolutionary class, and will be the force that expropriates the expropriators, though it may have to be prodded into action by revolutionary cadres of bourgeois intellectuals converted to the revolutionary cause. While such claims become tiresome when repeated rote by doctrinaire believers, placed in a larger and more general context of political entities it becomes interesting.
In my definition of political entities quoted above I didn’t even think to mention social classes (though I did mention interest groups, which aren’t quite exactly the same thing), though I have an out because I did specify that my list was not exhaustive. A social class like the proletariat must be counted among the political entities that have played a central role in history. Among various political systems, different political entities can serve as the indispensable political entity of that particular system — the conditio sine qua non of a given form of political thought.
Thus it is that, in the world today, the nation-state is the indispensable political entity; for the Marxist, the proletariat — a class — is the indispensable political entity; in the Hellenistic world of antiquity, the city-state was the indispensable political entity, and it is to be noted that Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics both address the political structure of a city-state. One of the interesting things about feudal systems, whether found in the West or elsewhere in the world, is that no one particular class is indispensable. In feudalism, each class has its role that is indispensable to the social whole; it is the class system itself that is the indispensable political entity — which makes feudalism a kind of meta-Marxism.
There are so many different kinds of entity that could serve as the indispensable political entity for a political system that it is almost surreal and reminds one of Comte de Lautreamont’s wildly disparate grouping of the umbrella and the sewing machine on a dissecting table, or of Latourian Litanies.
What else? What next? What might be (or become) an indispensable political entity? This obviously suggests a negative formulation: what could not serve as an indispensable political entity? I do not think that there is any adequate system of political philosophy yet formulated that can even give us a clue as to how to begin to answer this question. Where do we set limits, and why?
The nation-state is a geographical entity tied to a legal and an economic regime; the proletariat is a social class tied to a revolutionary idea; feudal systems are social structures that apportion classes within a society but are not identical to any one class or class interest; the city-state is an urban entity. Contemporary ideas of urban planning might be said to be converging upon the city as the indispensable political entity, but this is a very different sense of urbanism than the urbanism of ancient city-states. Other examples might be the Caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire, the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, or possibly a mythological time of the foundation of a political order, to which all political structures are made to refer. Not only is there nothing essentially in common between these indispensable political entities; there is not even any kind of discernible family resemblance between these diverse objects representing the centralization of political power.
This ought to a lesson to us in terms of thinking that political development has ended or reached a dead end (the “end of history” thesis). I’ve addressed this aspect of the “end of history” thesis from a related angle not long ago in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, where I argued that Gödel’s own interpretation of incompleteness results points to ongoing intellectual development.
It seems odd to even have to say it, but the incredible, overwhelming inertia of unimaginative political thought forces us to repeat the fact that human political thought is still in its infancy and has yet to even reach a point at which complex and difficult problems can be intelligently and rationally discussed. Almost all political thought to date has consisted of a kind of political theology that engages in special pleading for some kind of pre-determined end. Until we get past this point, we will not yet see the first glimmerings of the maturity of our political thought.
When we have, as a species, at least glimpsed the possibility of mature political thought, we will be able to systematically lay out the limits as to what can and what cannot serve as the indispensable political entity of a political system. We are not yet in a position to do so.
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