Democracy Symposium: Geographic Chains of Democratic Nationalism
Precis: Liberal democracy is a product of geographic nation-states. Globalization is creating a new transnational elite that takes us back to a pre-nation-state era of statecraft. Liberal democracy as it exists will not be viable if this trend continues.
The seeds were planted at the Treaty of Westphalia. The blood of the American and French Revolutions helped it germinate. But it was the nationalist impulses of the 19th and 20th century that ultimately made the nation-state the default unit of organization in the international system. Nationalism required that states be geographically continguous and self-contained ethnic entities. It created chains that forced the state to be limited by geography. We see this even more starkly today in the Post Cold-War environment, where every year, it seems a nation seeks self-determination in the form of its own state. Even Scotland, in union with England since 1707 is discussing the potential of self-rule.
It was the chains of geography and nationalism that allowed liberal democracy to mature and flourish. The transnational bonds that had held together the ancien regime gave way to national, geographic loyalties. Now, a force that liberalism unleashed threatens to undo these chains. Globalization has recreated the borderless world of the ancien regime. Transnational elites may be a power again, and this might bode ill for the primacy of liberal democracy.
Let’s back up a moment and think on the historical rise of liberal democracy.
For much of the history of European statecraft, the dominant elite were beyond national boundaries. Most of those ensconced on the thrones of dynastic Europe were of multinational origin. Nobles could and would often be found serving in whatever army would offer them employment. Dynastic marriages between ruling families was commonplace.
Ultimately dynastic considerations were typically more important than those of the people they governed. There were of course exceptions. Some monarchs lost their heads to nobles who were particularly insistent about their corporate privileges, but for the most part they were interested in their dynastic power first, their realms second, their religion close after that and their nation none at all.
The French Revolution and the American Wars helped to upset some of this balance. The formidable forces of the First French Republic (which later became the First French Empire) and the ability for appeals to nationalism helped galvanize a sense that nationalism was the new progressive force in European affairs.
The rise of an urban middle-class and their co-opting of nationalist and liberal language of the enlightenment (aided of course by dynasties less interested in nationalist projects serving as foils) helped to cement the idea of democratic nationalism as a liberal force. Nationalism and self-determination became cowords in the liberal democratic project.
This was helped by the fact that geography ultimately constrained how much people could move. States and governments were constrained into being culturally and linguistically homogeneous. Even the elites of these locales were recognizably part of that culture. As a result there was always an inclination to look inward: The right of exit may have existed on paper, but it was not exercised. As a result, most people were forced to cooperate into the liberal democratic project.
The Rise of a Transnational Elite
Nowadays of course, globalization has made culture both more homogeneous and more accessible. It has also made capital more mobile, and lifestyles more fluid. A metropolis like Moscow, London or New York have more in common than say New York City and Salamanca, New York. English is ubiquitous in large cities. Culture is transferable. That Broad Way show that just opened in NYC? Will be performing in London next month.
Meanwhile, mobility for those with capital has increased enormously. Travel between large cities takes at most a day. One can keep residences and businesses elsewhere. Mobile communications let you stay in touch nearly anywhere in the world.
What’s this got to do with it?
Simply this: Those with the most capital have more in common with one another than they have with anyone else. They now form, in a sense a nation of their own. Their consumption patterns, their habits of life and their interests are substantially diverged from the rest of society.
This is not in itself a negative. The problem is when this is combined with a political system that assumes the interests of the powerful are also constrained by geography. Even systems of ownership and property holding assume on some level that capital is constrained within national borders.
Regulatory bodies, even transnational ones assume this as well. On some level, we have industries that are now moving at levels beyond the reach of government. They have grown sufficiently large or straddle sufficient national boundaries that they’re able to pick and choose regulations to follow, move capital as they see fit, and control a large enough portion of economic activity that they are close to sovereign actors in themselves….
What’s the answer here? I honestly don’t know.
Localism and smaller systems of government are certainly more responsive. They’re also more democratic. What does it mean when we start getting industries and markets that are beyond even national boundaries to contain? While so far it would appear financial markets are the most egregious example of this behavior, it’s hard to rule out the possibility of other sectors growing in this fashion. And then what?
The EU which is now suffering from a surfeit of democracy in favor of technocratic solutions imposed upon member-states, may be more a harbinger than we care to realize…and that is not a promising sign of liberal democracy’s future.