Democracy Symposium: Geographic Chains of Democratic Nationalism

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Democracy. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.

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.


Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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22 Responses

  1. david says:

    The third arm of the trilemma, as identified by Rodrik, was global federalism of some sort.

    It doesn’t have to be explicit; it has a de facto existence the moment politicians can say to their voters: we need to do this unpleasant thing, or we will lose access to this global market that we like (for buyers of our bonds, or our industrial goods, or our mined resources, or…) and be taken seriously – when economic disengagement becomes not only a minority but also delegitimized as an option at a popular level.

    • James Hanley says:

      Ditto what David says here about global federalism. And to the extent federalism lets you vote with your feet, it, too, is democratic. That said, a global federalism will not necessarily be a liberal form of democracy, but could be a Tiebout-sorting form where people pick and choose the country that offers them the most desirable (to the particular individual) package of policies (taxes, regulations, benefits).

      This wouldn’t necessarily benefit only the transnational elite. The poor have frequently emigrated, often bundling what small amounts of wealth various family members are able to contribute to get one person established in the new place, then bringing other family members, one or a few at a time. This has happened both between and within countries.

  2. Kolohe says:

    I like this piece very much, esp the ‘I don’t know’ part. Neither do I.

  3. Citizen says:

    One topic I don’t see discussed when addressing global, is that most people live local. A vast majority will do their living within 40 miles of their home. It repeatedly appears to be ignored. This creates an abundance of problems as your trying to interface with a global market from a local vantage point. Not every location has a product useful to the global market, and those that do exist can be easily monopolized. I guess there could be point in moving everyone within 40 miles of a global product? We could be stacked like sardines in our new utopia.

    Some culture cannot be transfered, nor would you want it transfered. One displaced culture can negatively impact another and create a amplifing feed back loop that destroys many cultures.

    Some cultures are a certain way because of the local natural environment and would appear completely out of place anywhere else.

    We are each a little different, and if you are born into a community that doesn’t fit, it is good to have a variety of cultures to try. If the cultures become to much alike there is a possibility you will fit in none of them.

    • NewDealer says:

      What are the mobility rates of people in developed nations over people in less developed nations?

      I know a lot of people who are very mobile in the US but they tend to come from the upper-middle class. Basically they were born and grew up in one area, probably went to undergrad in a different city or state, then grad school or first job somewhere else, and then they eventually find a “home” in their late 20s-early 40s. Sometimes later.

      How many people in the United States stay local for college/university vs. going to somewhere where commuting is impossible?

      I think mobility is an increasing part of being part of the upper-middle class unless you long to a profession (lawyer/doctor) that is local in nature. Lawyers are constrained by bar licenses to a certain extent (it is very common to have two or three but more is excessive) and medicine is a more local profession in general. The business people who really pull ahead are the ones who don’t mind uprooting their families to live abroad when the corporation needs it.

  4. Rod says:

    Excellent post, Nob. I’ve read sci-fi stories that incorporated in the background landscape the idea of trans-national corporations becoming something like free-floating nation-states in their own right on a par with geographically based ones (which still existed). This went as far as transforming the employment relationship into a kind of citizenship, for example.

    Given the reality of our global economic regime and the current tension with our political orders, I’m coming around to accepting that we may as well formalize this development and consider what this should look like. For instance, a great deal of the concern over Citizen’s United from some quarters is precisely the fact that, given the trans-national character of the ownership of large corporations, much of our national political discourse appears to be driven by parties with no national loyalties. It puzzles me why certain people (ahem… Conservatives) who publicly display the most burning concern over the possibility of non-citizens voting are also the most sanguine over non-citizens influencing our politics via political advocacy.

    Related to the above is the observation that until sometime in the mid-twentieth century protectionism was a plank in the Republican party platform. Wealthy Americans had a pecuniary interest in protecting and advancing American corporate interests over foreign competitors. Anti-protectionism was then something of a progressive value since the poor desired access to cheaper foreign goods. Now the situation is reversed since the American corporations are increasingly less so and the fortunes of those same wealthy Americans are similarly divorced from the fortunes of American industry and America itself.

    I don’t have any great insights into where this all will or should lead, but I think we should start by recognizing the reality that Exxon is no more or less American than BP (formerly British Petroleum and incorporating the old Amoco–American Oil Company). GM makes most of its profits overseas and autos ostensibly manufactured in the U.S. incorporate at least 50% foreign-made components. Markets and the companies that serve those markets are thoroughly global entities, yet people live in local communities with local economic interests.

    Perhaps our trade agreements should be with Corporations rather than other nations. If we (at least some of us, maybe not you) would be outraged at an advertisement sponsored by the People’s Republic of China urging us to vote for candidate X, why are we not similarly incensed at such an advertisement sponsored by the Monarchy of Petroleum?

    • Stillwater says:

      Excellent comment Rod. (As usual, I might add.) I share lots of puzzlement and wonder about these developments as well.

    • James K says:

      Perhaps our trade agreements should be with Corporations rather than other nations.

      There’s actually a simple and rational way to deal with this – don’t have any trade barriers in the first place.

      • Rod says:

        I’m making no judgements or claims related to actual trade policy here. The point I’m trying to make is that we already seem well on our way to a world composed of geographically-bound “ground-states” and free-floating “capital-states.” How long before we see a trans-national fully detach itself from a chartering country and be based, not in one or another nation-state, but on a sea-steading platform or maybe an orbital station?

        Oft-mentioned is the genius of our founders in setting up a system of checks and balances between the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches. Could we maybe take that idea farther and set up competing spheres of governance organized around land, capital, and labor? Perhaps add transnational labor-states to the mix? Could this be organized along the lines of the poly-centric law of European Christendom?

        Perhaps the question posed by the OP could be better addressed as what manner of governance is appropriate to each flavor of state? Perhaps a capital-state is best governed in a top-down, hierarchical, structure, while a labor-state is more naturally a democratic beast, and a land-state requires a more technocratic structure as advocated by Murali.

        And all of this evolves in a manner advocated by Roger! Gee, what are we fighting about? Let’s just do bidness!

    • wardsmith says:

      Rod you ruined an otherwise excellent comment with the part about Citizens United and Chinese corporations buying political ads. You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.

      Viz the rest of your good comment, Rollerball seemed the most likely outcome to me at the time. Would we trade our freedom for “the good life”?

      • Rod says:


        First, thanks for kind opening comment. My point wasn’t that actual foreign corporations would be running ads via CU. It was that many nominally American corporations are only American to the extent that their papers of incorporation are sitting in a file cabinet somewhere in Dover, DE. We have no capital controls in the U.S. (and I’m not arguing that we should) and there’s nothing to prevent a nominally American corporation from being majority owned by foreign interests. There’s also no reason the top management can’t be foreign citizens. And there’s absolutely no reason to believe that the interests of said “American” corporation can be meaningfully distinguished from an explicitly foreign one.

        BP is actually an excellent example. My wife inherited a (very tiny fractional) interest in some oil and gas properties in SW Kansas. So we have been getting monthly royalty checks from various oil companies for the last 30 years or so. For quite a while one of those companies was Amoco, an American-based oil company. Then those checks started coming from BP, a British-based oil company. Nothing changed for us but the logo on the checks. Is the American arm of BP a British or American company? How does that work vis-a-vis CU?

        Put it this way… would you consider a group representing illegal immigrants to be advocating American interests merely because it was formed as a non-profit org under American laws?

        Anyway, my main point wasn’t about CU and I hate to get into a big digression over that. It was merely to point out that there is more to much of the opposition to that decision than just liberals not liking big, bad, corporations. Many conservatives have similar reservations.

  5. Roger says:


    Our posts are basically polar opposite views of the same situation. Yours brings up the mobility of factors of production and laments that this may lead to bad results. Mine that it may lead to less exploitation and less involuntary redistribution (which not all view as a bad thing)

    Of course, it could lead to both.

  6. Stillwater says:

    I’m glad you tackled this issue Nob. It’s a difficult and perplexing topic, no doubt. I particularly like the suggestion that fixed capital was part of the traditional conception of a nation. I think you’re right that breaking down capital constraints creates a tension in how we conceive of nations and national boundaries, and ultimately that capital flexibility is in tension with liberal democracy. I think we’re seeing it played out right now, in fact.

    Like Roger said, maybe it’s good, maybe it leads to bad outcomes. But I agree with you that our conception of self-governance in a liberal democracy will have to change as globalization proceeds.

  7. CK MacLeod says:

    Very useful post – thank you!

    Though globalization is a crucial fact, perhaps the defining fact of our age, ours is not the first globalism. There is even a hint of globalism in Old Testament prophecy (“and many nations shall join themselves to the Eternal in that day”), and it’s inherent in any thought of humanity as a species or species-being. Our globalism has a concrete form and history that differentiates it from prior orders of the Earth. Technological factors are critically important, but, as the post implicitly acknowledges when it compares the present-day transnational elite to the elites of prior eras, they are far from the only critical ones and must themselves be understood in context.

    Getting to “the answer,” assuming there is one, requires understanding the question, which in turn requires understanding its premises. It will be necessary to deal with some approximations and generalizations, but under close attention to what is being scanted or skimmed over, since, unless it’s being scanted for good and well-understood reasons, it can easily and often does turn into an unexamined controlling assumption. For instance, are fixed capital and labor really totally monetizable and therefore completely fungible, or close enough to be treated that way for our analysis, or is it just an assumption of the market system that they must be treated that way, alongside a (destructive) tendency to convert them into “pure commodities” as much as actually possible? Are the transnational elite really as detached from pre-existing and determinative and broadly speaking geographical origins and divisions as they like to think or to seem, or is geography still destiny even and in fact especially for them? What, for instance, would happen to their presumptions regarding their own mobility and their access to their wealth under conditions of economic, political, or natural-ecological emergency, including war? Clearly, they have a major vote, or set of potentially conflicting votes, regarding all aspects of further developments, but they do not have the only votes. The same switches that turn on their computer systems and let them gaze at digital representations of their money can be turned off.

    The highly, one might even say maximally, controversial Carl Schmitt tackled the larger questions from the vantage point of ca. 1950 in his book on The Nomos of the Earth. His focus was mainly on the legal and legal-philosophical concepts that underpinned the prior Eurocentric globalism that divided the world up, essentially, into Europe and fair game.

    As Schmitt explains, many of the Eurocentric order’s assumptions were borrowed from or had to re-configure the assumptions of the prior European order (Medieval Christendom) and of the one before that (the Roman Empire). Even today, we still deploy many concepts (“just war,” for example) developed in those much earlier contexts without recognizing the ways that new contexts transform and even invert their meaning and effect. The critical new facts of modernity for Schmitt were not just technological or political (or philosophical), but geographical in the strongest and more concrete sense of the term: The circumnavigation of the globe and, even more, the discovery of the New World. He observes that to comprehend the true significance of the latter we’d have to discover a new planet Earth next door.

    Much more could be said about Schmitt’s understanding of the fall of the Eurocentric order and why it coincided with the completion of the settling of North America, and the ways in which it corresponds with alternative mainly economic or mainly philosophical orderings of historical events and contemporary national and international politics, but the most telling question he raised, telling because it’s the same one that contemporary history and economics are raising for us, is whether the new “Nomos of the Earth” is, can, or should be a single universalism, or whether an arrangement of what he called “Grossraueme” (lit. “large spaces”) and what we might call Spheres of Influence wouldn’t turn out to be either preferable or preferable because more practical. It may be that the triumph of the transnational virtuosos and super-beneficiaries of Amero-centric universalism will be temporary, and leads inexorably to re-division, including sets of lesser re-divisions and re-distributions, not just conceptually and politically, reaching all the way down to the ground and further.

  8. James K says:

    An interesting post Nob. In some ways this isn’t a new problem, Adam Smith noted that people who make money from capital are not bound to any particular country. Still, it’s definitely a bigger problem that it used to be.

    This is where I think the model of government as technology comes in handy. If Westphalia isn’t doing it any more, we need to think about what would.

  9. NewDealer says:

    Did you happen to see the article in the Atlantic on this issue from last summer?

    Like others, I thought this was a very good post and agree like you that I don’t know what the solution is. The author of the Atlantic article suggests that the solution might end up being something dramatic like punitive actions to drag the global elite down to the nation-state level especially if people feel left behind. So people would use the tools of liberal democracy to destroy the global elite who have transcended liberal-democracy and the nation-state.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Where do I sign up? Oh, that’s right, I already did. 😉

      “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”—WFB

  10. miguel cervantes says:

    No, the point is that a transnational elite is not democratic, consent by the governed, has been
    a momentary interlude in the great scheme of things.

    • James Hanley says:

      The transnational elite may not be governors, the may simply be those who are willing to withdraw their consent from bing governed and particularly vpcaoable of effectively doing so.

  11. James Hanley says:

    I understand why people are disturbed by the idea of a floating transnational elite and mobile capital, but it seems to me that the only effective way to stop it would require a very illiberal policy of denying people the right to move themselves and what they own. It would require a new type of feudalism in which people are still tied to the land of their birth, and a sort of virtual Berlin Wall to keep them in.