The nation-state system is a recent invention, and it already shows many signs of crisis. What is the future of this system?
The first issue is that the nation-state is not just one single thing. We tend to look at the nation-state as it emerged in metropolitan societies, but in the colonies it was very different. It was characterized by violence, plunder, and dispossession. Labor was often forced, and labor law and penal law were often the same. In Europe, in the same period, nation-states were introducing social security and laws to protect workers. So these two systems have a divided past, and whether they have a common future we still do not know. But instead of talking about a decline or end, I like to talk about a mutation. The nation-state is currently being reconfigured. It is working a giant transformation on itself, to an extent that has been barely noticed.
What characterizes the mutation of the nation-state?
The first transformation has to do with markets. In the European imagination especially, the state was an agent of non-commercial relationships. It ensured that people could access services such as healthcare and education outside the markets. Now the state is doing just the opposite. It is the great agent of privatization. Trump will eliminate Obamacare: 29 million people will lose state-funded health insurance, and they will have to go to the market. The state is organizing its own erosion, which global capitalism cannot do on its own.
What does this mean for the state?
It is being informalized. The most powerful state in the world is now managed by Twitter, which Trump uses to announce major policies. What happened to laws, regulations, constitutional principles, Congress? Traditional policy-making processes are eroded, which is justified by images of proximity – the state is “this guy.” Trump tweets every morning, and as he tweets, the law changes. People call this populism but really it’s a new form of political action.
Do you see other structures that could compensate the mutations of the state?
To be honest: I don’t. There is no global government, which was the 1970s utopia. If workers lost rights at the national level, they would recover them at an international one. That was the idea. But it has not happened. The European Union was supposed to function in that way, but now the EU is just an international committee for neoliberalism. But the people who most need what the state once offered are still there. Look at homelessness in the US. Are we going to depend on Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to organize shelters? No. But not only is the state not doing it, it is actively punishing homelessness. The state has become repressive toward the very people it was designed to help.
How does this development relate to the history of the modern state?
The welfare state was not invented by socialists. It was invented by Bismarck in order to prevent a revolution. The problem now is that capitalism is no longer afraid of its enemies. It was not just socialism that came down with the Berlin Wall, but social democracy too. Today, global capitalism is no longer afraid and it has become irresponsible. It is suicidal. And the state is nurturing this suicide.
What about the new machismo in politics? Is this just a performance of authority, designed to cover up the fact that the state has been eroded?
I think it is a sort of displacement of the contradictions. The contradictions of our time are hidden. People go for visible enemies. They think the state’s role is above all to define and defend borders. When they look at refugees they see that the state is not protecting them from aliens and invaders. It doesn’t matter that Europe needs these people! – for if European states are going to carry on providing social security, they need 23 million young people to enter the continent and start working. But financial markets are invisible. Refugees are visible, so they are the enemy. The new nationalism arises from the production of enemies like this. So the real crisis remains inaccessible.
What does this mean for individual people?
State investment in the military, police, and surveillance is growing all around the world, even when states are supposed to be so poor that they can no longer spend money on social protection. But human nature is also very plastic, and people have become adapted to this new condition. They have accepted that the state, which used to be an instrument of hope, is now an instrument for managing fear. That’s why it’s so difficult for people on the left, like myself, to imagine alternatives.
Since the US-led wars and the Arab Spring we have seen enormous levels of turbulence within several postcolonial states. Do you think we are in for more?
There are no failed states. There are states that are made to fail. States like Libya and Syria are disasters caused by global capitalism and ongoing colonialism. Why Libya? Because of natural resources. And because the former Leader Gaddafi saw that one of the options for such states to protect themselves from global capitalism was to unite. He was the Chairperson of the African Union and wanted to unite African countries into a single state with its own currency. Hillary Clinton’s emails are very clear. The US had to destroy Gaddafi because he was a threat to both the US dollar and the euro.
What will happen as a states collapses? Will the system also collapse?
No. Large states will sustain failing states as protectorates. As in earlier times. Angela Merkel conceives of Greece as a protectorate of Germany, and many other states similarly will become clients of big states. It is not the end of the state system. But there will be continually more violence, and more chaotic violence.
How will human life change with everything you are predicting?
If the collective makes the individual, and the collective is more chaotic, violent, unequal, colonial, and capitalist – then individuals will change in the same direction. There will be no society in the sense we dream of, and we will escape to a super-society: religion. Religion is a very convenient kind of “society” because you are together, but only in a light way. You are not committed to any kind of social solidarity; you don’t have to pay taxes. The idea of the individual is very unusual in human history. Most societies have emphasized the collective. But we are putting everything on the autonomy of the individual. And that will lead to destruction, because the individual is too fragile to sustain this pressure. That’s why people (always used to) have gods up there.