Early in my career, I went to a presentation by a well-known anthropologist whose work I liked a lot. It was a good presentation, but the last quarter of it or so was devoted to a very loose, speculative argument that current structures of globalization had already effectively made nations obsolete in a great many ways. This wasn’t the conservative version of this argument, about the supranational authority of a “new world order”, but instead an argument that the movement of goods, people, media, money and so on across borders had already undercut the underlying pretenses of Westphalian sovereignty, just like the existence of borderlands, refugees, cosmopolitan enclaves, shadow states, NGOs, MNCs, and other non-national constructs with considerable social power in the contemporary world. The presenter argued that it would take some time before that reality became explicit and visible at the conceptual level, however. In a way, his presentation reminded me of the picture Neal Stephenson draws in Snow Crash, in which the vestigal apparatus of the nation-state has been reduced to something to nothing more than a flag of convenience, a commodified service used when needed.
My response at the time was that this was a bit like concluding that because the social and intellectual authority of Christianity over temporal life had been seriously eroded by the end of the 19th Century, religion itself would soon follow. “God is dead”, ran the argument, “so religion will soon die”. “Sovereignty is dead”, so too the nation? The first supposition was wrong, and I expect that the second is as well.
On the other hand, it has never been more clear than right now that many social mobilizations carried out in the name of the nation do not cut deeply into the identities or consciousness of those social actors. Official elites in many postcolonial African nations speak on behalf of the nation, but very little of what they concretely do when they invoke the nation has anything to do with the classic conception of sovereign national interest. Many social and political movements across the world which now compete with national governments for authority or influence scarcely even bother to invoke national interest any longer. They do not try to formulate themselves as a loyally national alternative to the party or group presently in power. And just as the presentation I heard some years ago suggested, more and more people live in places or communities where the nation holds little sway, or where it is openly understood to be a paper tiger, a farce.
I’m thinking about this terrain partly because I’m still struggling with the concluding chapter of a manuscript in which I want to talk about sovereignty and nation-making in post-1960 Africanist scholarship as well as on the ground in Zimbabwe.
However, I’m also thinking about it the past few weeks in the context of reportage about the presidential race in the United States. One of the narratives that has really come together in the past month from reporters is about undercurrents of racism, xenophobia, and exclusivist ideas about “real America” swirling around inside the McCain campaign.
Keeping in mind that it is very hard to know just how typical or widespread these kinds of views actually are, it’s still interesting to think about the way many of these views basically kick over the traces of anything remotely resembling conventional loyalty to the nation as an abstract institution. In this view, the American nation is only “real America” if it is governed by people who closely correspond to the religious, ethnic, political, social and moral character of one group of Americans. The institutions of the United States hold no residual legitimacy in this view, so if the wrong kind of person with the wrong kinds of views or identity is elected to national office, there isn’t any need to acknowledge that person’s authority as an expression of national will or imbued with national power, as acting on behalf of a nationally-defined “people”.
What we end up with is social actors whose primary point of commitment is to local community, to civic organization, to religious congregation, to a highly particular belief system, who paper over that commitment with a thin veneer of rhetoric about Americanness but with no particular loyalty to national institutions if they are not narrowly aligned to some sectarian project. For example, the kind of fringe sentiment on the religious right that Obama is the anti-Christ, which may speak about loyalty to the United States of America in passing, but which is really about a commitment to some post-national or non-national form of social identity.
It may be that contemporary nations do not need strongly felt loyalties that cut deep into the selfhood of national citizens in order to mobilize power on behalf of the nation. Maybe in fact they never needed that kind of subjectivity on a constant or regular basis, just as religion as an institution turns out to have had far less need for constant temporal enforcement of theological doctrine than secular European thinkers at the end of the 19th Century sometimes assumed.