In Defence of the Nation State:
Nation, Nationalism, Internationalism, Supranationalism – Basic Democratic Principles
by Anthony Coughlan
Nations and nation states make up the international community. Globalisation and the development of supranational institutions such as the European Union affect the environment of Europe’s nation states but do not make them out of date. Nationhood, shared membership of a national community, is the normal basis of democratic states in the modern world. This is shown by the advent of many new European nation states to the international community since 1989, and the likely advent of many more, in Europe and across the globe, as the 21st and 22nd centuries unfold. The following democratic principles are proposed as rational ways of approaching questions of nationhood, state sovereignty, internationalism and supranationalism. They are presented as expressing the classical approach of democrats to these issues.
1) INTERNATIONALISM, NOT NATIONALISM, IS THE PRIMARY CATEGORY
We are internationalists on the basis of our solidarity as members of the human race. As internationalists we seek the emancipation of mankind. The human race is divided into nations. Therefore we stand for the self-determination of nations. The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 laid down the principle that sovereign states should not interfere in one another’s internal affairs and should check one another’s ambitions through an equilibrium of power. The right of nations to self-determination inspired the 18th century American Revolution. The French Revolution proclaimed this right as a democratic principle of universal applicability in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. The right of peoples to national self-determination is now recognized as a basic principle of international law, enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
As democrats and internationalists we assert the right of those nations that wish it to have their independence, sovereignty and a nation state of their own, so that they may relate to one another internationally on the basis of political equality. The democratic principle of internationalism does not mean that one is required to urge people of other nations to assert their right to self-determination; but rather that one respects their wishes and shows solidarity with them if they should do that. It is as true of the life of nations as of individuals that separation, mutual recognition of boundaries and mutual respect based upon that – namely political equality, neither dominance nor submission – is the prerequisite of free and friendly cooperation between nations, of internationalism in other words. Good fences make good neighbours.
2) NATIONS AND NATIONALITY COME BEFORE NATIONALISMS AND NATION STATES
Nations exist as communities before nationalisms and nation states. To analyse nations and the national question in terms of “nationalisms” is philosophical idealism, looking at the mental reflection rather than the thing it reflects. Nationalism developed as an ideology legitimising the formation of nation states in the 18th century, although its elements can be found centuries before in some of the world’s oldest nation states, for example Denmark, England, France, China, Japan. Nations evolve historically as stable, long-lasting communities of people, sharing a common language and territory and the common culture and history that arise from that. On this basis develop the mutual identifications, solidarities and shared interests that distinguish one people from another.
Some nations are ancient, some young, some in process of being formed. Like all human groupings, for example the family, clan, tribe, they are fuzzy at the edges. No neat definition will encompass all cases. The empirical test is to ask people themselves. If people have passed beyond the stage of kinship society where the political unit is the clan or tribe, they will know themselves what nation they belong to. This is the political and democratic test too. If enough people in a nation wish to establish their own independent state, they have the right to do that, for political democracy can normally exist only at the level of the national community and the nation state. The reason is that it is principally within the national community that there exists sufficient solidarity and mutuality of identification and interest among people as to transcend other social divisions and induce minorities freely to consent to majority rule and to obey a common government based upon that.
Such mutual identification and solidarity characterise the demos, the collective “We” which constitutes a people that possesses the right to national self-determination. If that people is incorporated into a state with its own government, this mutual identification and solidarity underlie that people’s sense of shared citizenship of that state and their allegiance to its government as “their” government, possessing democratic legitimacy, and their willingness to finance that government’s tax and income-transfer system, thereby tying the richer and poorer regions and social classes of that nation state together.
When people speak of the “common good” which it is the duty of the state to uphold, it is the community of the nation, the people, the demos, whose welfare they refer to. The solidarities that exist within nations do not exist between nations, although other solidarities may exist, international solidarity, which becomes more important with time as modern communications, trade, capital movements and common environmental problems link all nations together in international interdependence as part of today’s “global village”.
3) MANKIND IS STILL AT THE RELATIVELY EARLY STAGE OF THE FORMATION OF NATION STATES
Only a dozen or so contemporary nation states are more than a few centuries old. The number of member states of the United Nations has grown from some 60 in 1945 to some 200 today. The number of European states has grown from some 30 to 50 since 1989. This process is not ended even in Western Europe where people have been at the business of state formation for centuries. It is ongoing in Eastern Europe. It has scarcely begun in much of Africa and Asia, where the bulk of mankind lives, where large numbers of people are still members of clan-tribal societies based on kinship and have not yet developed a national consciousness, and where state boundaries were drawn by the colonial powers following World Wars 1 and 2 with little consideration for the wishes of indigenous peoples.
At the start of this century there were over 6000 different languages in the world and hundreds of families of languages, of which the Indo-European, although the largest, was but one. At their present rate of disappearance there should still be 600 or so left in a century’s time. These will probably survive because in each case they are spoken by a million or more people. There clearly are many embryonic nations. There are also many long-established nations without their own nation states, which have a national identity but are not independent – for example the Scots, Catalans, Kurds, Palestinians, Chechyns, Tibetans, Tamils, Ibo. A nation can keep its identity in servitude as well as in freedom. Many new nation states, dozens and possibly hundreds, are likely to come into being during the 21st century and 22nd. In so doing they will acquire the two classical pillars of independent statehood, the sword and the currency: the monopoly of legal force over a territory embodied in an army and police force, and the monopoly of the issue of legal tender for that territory. A world of several hundred nation states will be a world of several hundred national currencies.
4) MULTINATIONAL STATES, WHETHER UNITARY OR FEDERAL, MUST RESPECT THE RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION OF THE NATIONS COMPOSING THEM IF THEY ARE TO BE STABLE AND ENDURE
The right to self-determination of nations does not require that a nation must seek to establish a separate state. Nations can co-exist amicably with other nations inside a multinational state, as for example the English, Welsh and Scots did for three centuries inside the British state, or the many Indian nationalities inside India. They can do this, however, only if their national rights are respected and the smaller nations do not feel oppressed by the larger ones, in particular culturally and linguistically.
If this condition is not observed, political pressure is likely to develop to break-up the multinational state in question. Some multinational states are the legatees of colonial conquest – for example, India, Indonesia, most of the states of Africa. Others have been formed by the governments of large nationalities extending their power over smaller ones and incorporating the latter into either a unitary or a federal state – for example Britain, Spain, Russia, Turkey. The historical tendency seems to be for multinational states to break up into national ones, mainly because of the breakdown in solidarity between their component nationalities and the development of a feeling among the smaller ones that they are being put upon by the larger.
Shared civic nationality is the political basis of multinational states, shared ethnic nationality the political basis of nation states. In both cases, if the state is a democratic one, all citizens will be equal before the law and the rights of minority nationalities in multinational states and of national minorities in nation states will be equally respected. Historically, multinational federal states are all twentieth century creations – the Russian Federation, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia etc. Some lack the stability and popular legitimacy that come from centuries of tradition. Some have disappeared – Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Yugoslavia – others may well do in time, as various peoples within them assert their right to self-determination and national independence.
5) INTERNATIONALISM AND SUPRANATIONALISM ARE OPPOSING VALUES. INTERNATIONALISM IS PROGRESSIVE, SUPRANATIONALISM IS REACTIONARY
Internationalism and supranationalism are opposing concepts. Supranationalism – from the Latin “supra”, “above” – is where nation states surrender their authority to a superior entity which rules them and has legal primacy over them, at least in the policy areas surrendered. The term can refer to a multinational Federation where sovereignty is divided between a superior federal level and subordinate regional or national states, as in such federal states as India, Pakistan, Russia or Nigeria. It can refer to imperial arrangements like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where different nations were ruled by a centralized bureaucracy in a distant imperial capital. It can refer to the inter-state dispute settlement mechanisms now being incorporated into some commercial treaties, which establish tribunals that enable foreign private investors to sue states unless they alter their domestic laws to accommodate investor interests. It can refer to the contemporary European Union where national powers have been shifted to unelected supranational institutions, the EU Commission, Council of Ministers and Court of Justice, bodies that are collectively responsible to no-one. In these different supranational spheres cosmopolitan elites and a global nomenclatura hold sway, their stewardship safe from the judgement of citizen-voters and their policies beyond democratic control.
Internationalism – from Latin “inter”, “between” – implies the pre-existence of nations and nation states. It refers to relations of co-operation between the nations and nation states that constitute the international community, but with each controlling and deciding its own domestic and external affairs. Internationalism implies legal and political equality between the parties. Supranationalism by contrast implies a hierarchy, with the supranational level having primacy. Properly understood, internationalism is opposed to all forms of chauvinism and xenophobia. It implies coexistence among progressive “nationalisms” – a broad nationalism rather than narrow – using the sense of that word in English which implies patriotism and love of country, combined with respect for the many national communities into which humanity is divided and recognition of their cultural and other achievements. Internationalism delights in the diversity of nations. Supranationalism seeks to erase or minimise national differences, either because they threaten the dominance of a particular ruling group, or they make it more difficult for transnational big business to establish a world of homogenized consumers or employees. Supranationalism implies the erosion of State sovereignty. Internationalism seeks to establish and defend it.
The glory of European civilisation has been the diversity of its national components – in culture, science, political institutions, economic actors, legal systems, education systems, tax codes, fashion. Classically in Europe emulation and competition between nations, communities and individuals spurred cultural creativity. The peak cultural achievements of Europe occurred when its political units were numerous and small – in Athenian Greece, Renaissance Italy, 17th century Netherlands, 18th and early 19th century Germany. This classical Europe, which is synonymous with much of what is best in human civilization, is the opposite of the centralised “Europe” of the Brussels bureaucracy, with its mania for uniformity and “harmonization”.
6) THE EUROPEAN UNION IS FUNDAMENTALLY UNDEMOCRATIC AND CANNOT BE DEMOCRATISED, FOR THERE IS NO SUPRANATIONAL EUROPEAN “COMMON GOOD” WHICH PEOPLE REGARD AS SUPERIOR TO THAT EMBODIED IN THEIR OWN NATIONAL STATES
It is the absence in the European Union of anything like the underlying national solidarity which binds Europe’s nation states together that makes the EU integration “project”, and especially the euro-currency scheme, so problematic and therefore unlikely to endure. The EU is a creation of powerful political, economic and bureaucratic elites, without popular legitimacy and authority. It is directed from the top down rather than the bottom up and is therefore fundamentally undemocratic. There is no European people, no European “demos“, no European “We,” that is bound together by solidarities comparable to those that bind nations and nation states together. Rather the EU is made up of a plurality of Europe’s nations and peoples. The links binding its member states are essentially legal, institutional and bureaucratic. They are artificial and external, not organic and internal. There is therefore no EU “common good” comparable to that underlying its component member states, whose achievement could be regarded as justifying the establishment at supranational level of state-like governmental institutions.
All independent states are monetary and fiscal unions as well as political unions. As monetary unions they have their own currency, and with that the capacity to control either the domestic price of that currency, the rate of interest, or its external price, the rate of exchange. As fiscal unions states have their own taxation, public spending and social service systems. By virtue of citizens paying common taxes to a common government in order to finance common public spending programmes throughout the territory of the state, there are automatic transfers from the richer regions and social classes of each state to its poorer regions and classes. This sustains and is sustained by a shared national solidarity, a mutual commitment to the common good of the national community in question.
By contrast, the euro-currency project, European Economic and Monetary Union, is a monetary union but not a fiscal union. Never in history has there been a lasting monetary union that was not also a fiscal union and political union, in other words a fully-fledged state, deriving its legitimacy from a shared national solidarity and common good which its government existed to serve and which in turn underpinned a common fiscal transfer system. History, however, shows many examples of monetary unions that have broken up because the solidarity that is necessary to sustain a supporting fiscal and political union was non-existent or broke down.
The euro-currency scheme deprives the poorer EU states and the weaker EU economies of the ability to maintain their competitiveness and to compensate for their lower productivity, poorer resource endowment or differential economic shocks, by adopting an exchange rate or interest rate that suits their special circumstances. It fails to compensate them economically for that loss by the automatic transfer of resources from the centre which membership of a fiscal union entails. Compensatory fiscal transfers at EU level to the extent required to give the EU monetary union long-run viability are impossible, in view of the sheer size of the resources required and the unwillingness of the richer EU countries to provide them to the poorer because of the absence of the shared solidarity that would compel that. Currently expenditure by Brussels in any one year amounts to little more than 1% of EU annual gross domestic product, a tiny relative figure. This contrasts with expenditure on public transfers by the EU’s member states of between one-third and one-half of their annual national products.
Thus the fiscal solidarity that would sustain an EU political union and an EU multinational state does not and cannot exist. Democratising the EU in the absence of a European “demos” is impossible. The EU’s adoption of such traditional symbols of national statehood as a flag, an anthem, passport, car number plates, driving license, Olympic games, youth orchestra, history books, motto, annual “national” day, citizenship, fundamental rights charter and Constitution, are so many doomed attempts to manufacture a European “demos” artificially, and with it a bogus EU supranational quasi-nation and related “national” consciousness. They leave the ordinary people of Europe indifferent, whose allegiance remains to their own countries and nation states. The more European integration is pushed ahead and the more the national democracy of the EU member states is undermined in the process, the more the EU loses legitimacy and authority in the eyes of ordinary citizens. Consequently the greater and more certain the eventual popular reaction against it. To align oneself with such a misguided, inevitably doomed project is to be out of step with history. It is to side with a supranational elite against the democracy of one’s own people, to spurn genuine internationalism for the intoxicating illusion of building a superpower.
7) RESPECT FOR STATE SOVEREIGNTY IS A FUNDAMENTAL DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLE AND THE CORNERSTONE OF INTERNATIONAL LAW
Insistence on the sovereignty of one’s own state is a natural right as well as a social duty. It is in no way an expression of misguided national egotism. Sovereignty has nothing to do with autarchy or economic self-sufficiency. The national sovereignty of a democratic state is analogous to the freedom and autonomy of the individual. It means that one’s domestic laws and foreign relations are decided solely by one’s own parliament and government, which are elected by and responsible to one’s own people.
State sovereignty is a result of advancing political culture and is an achievement of modern democracy. It is not an end in itself but is an instrument of juridical independence, determining the possibility of a people that inhabits a particular territory deciding its own destiny and way of life in accordance with its own needs, interests, genius and traditions, and determining freely its relations with other peoples. It is the opposite of every kind of subordination to foreign rule. Without sovereignty a nation’s politics become provincial, concerned with marginal and unimportant issues. Maintaining state sovereignty can alone guarantee the political independence of a nation and create conditions for its members to maintain their right to self-determination and their ability to determine their national common good.
The sovereignty of a democratic state means at the same time the sovereignty of its people. The end of the sovereignty of a state is at the same time the end of the sovereignty of its people. The sovereignty of a state and of its people is democratically inalienable. No government, no parliamentary or referendum majority, has the right to alienate it, for they have no right to deprive future generations of the possibility of choosing their own way of life and deciding the common good of that society. The only mode of international cooperation that is acceptable to democrats therefore is one which will not demand of a state the sacrifice of its sovereignty, a sacrifice which the European Union requires of its member states. Respect for national sovereignty makes possible the free cooperation of free peoples united in independent states based on juridical equality, which is fundamental to a stable international order.
These principles have implications for politicians, at least for those of them who care for more than personal advancement or careerism. The prime duty of the politician-statesman is to defend the independence of the state they are in charge of, to maintain its internal unity and to foster the material well-being and cultural level of its people.
8) “POOLING” SOVEREIGNTY MEANS THE END OF SOVEREIGNTY . . . IN THE EU CONTEXT THIS CONCEPT IS COVER FOR THE EFFECTIVE HEGEMONY OF THE BIGGER EU STATES
Concepts of “shared sovereignty”, “pooled sovereignty” and “joint national sovereignties” are deceptive terms for having one’s laws and policies decided by EU bodies which one’s own people do not elect, which are not responsible to them and which can have significantly different interests from one’s fellow national citizens. EU membership means that countries can no longer decide their own laws over a wide range of public policy matters. Countries and peoples that surrender their sovereignty to the EU become in practice ever more subject to laws and policies that serve the interests of others, in particular the bigger EU states.
The claim that if a nation or state surrenders its sovereignty to the EU, it merely exchanges the sovereignty of a small state for participation in decision-making in a larger supranational union, is simply untrue. The reality is different. The EU continually reduces the influence of smaller states in decision-making by abolishing or limiting national veto powers. Even if bigger states divest themselves similarly of veto power, their political and economic weight ensures that they can get their way in matters that are decisive for them. Treaty changes also increase the relative voting weight of the larger EU states. The provision of the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon/EU Constitution which puts EU law-making in the Council of Ministers on a population basis, increasing the weight of the bigger states and diminishing that of the smaller, underlines this fact.
Equally false is the contention that the advent of new states to the European Union and their surrender of sovereignty to the EU would increase their practical autonomy and influence. The nation that gives up its sovereignty or is deprived of it, ceases to be an independent subject of international politics. It becomes more like a provincial state than a national one. It is no longer able to decide even its own domestic affairs. It literally puts its existence at the mercy of those who are not its citizens, who have taken its sovereignty into their hands and who decide the policies of the larger body. In the European Union the big states, in particular Germany and France, decide fundamental policy. Juridically EU integration is an attempt to liquidate for its member states the democratic heritage of the French Revolution, the right of nations and peoples to self-determination, which they need to maintain if they are to advance their political and economic welfare. That is why the more the EU moves towards closer integration and accrues to itself ever more features of a state, the more it loses legitimacy and authority in the minds of people across Europe.
9) AS THE EU INSTITUTIONS VIOLATE THE DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLE OF THE SEPARATION OF POWERS, THE CONSTITUTON OF THE EU IS FUNDAMENTALLY UNDEMOCRATIC
The principle of the separation of powers as between legislature, executive and judiciary has been recognised as the basis of democratic states and as fundamental to the liberty of citizens since the days of Locke and Montesquieu. The institutions of the European Union flagrantly violate this principle.
The Brussels Commission is the EU’s executive, but it has the monopoly of proposing all EU laws as if it were a parliament. Its members are nominated by governments, not individually elected. It has judicial powers and can adjudicate on competition cases and impose fines on EU members. Even though there may be an appeal to the Court of Justice, the Commission acts as if it were a lower court. It draws up and administers its own budget, with minimal democratic control. Under its aegis are some 3000 semi-secret working groups whose members are not publicly known, where most Commission decisions are actually made and where corporate lobbyists wield great influence. Only some 2% of Commission decisions come up at meetings of the full Commission. The rest are decided lower down in the bureaucracy.
The Council of Ministers is called a Council, but it makes laws just like a parliament on the basis of the Commission’s proposals. It makes those laws in secret, often on the basis of package-deals between its members, and it takes some executive decisions. Some 85% of EU directives and regulations are agreed privately in some 300 committees of civil servants from the EU member states which service the Council and they are approved without debate at Council level. Only 15% of EU laws are actually discussed or negotiated at that level. The Council of Ministers is responsible to nobody as a group and is irremovable as a body. It is a committee of legislators, which is the classical definition of an oligarchy.
The EU Parliament is more a council than a parliament. It cannot initiate any European law, although it can amend laws that come from the Commission and Council as long as the Commission agrees and members of the Council do not unanimously overrule it.
The Court of Justice is not just a court but sometimes legislates like a parliament or lays down new fundamental principles like a Constitution-maker. It continually interprets the EU treaties in such a way as to extend the legal powers of the EU to the maximum. It is “a court with a mission”, as one of its judges once characterized it – that mission being to advance ever closer union in Europe. A court with a mission is a dangerous thing.
Legislative, executive and judicial functions are thus not separated in the EU institutions but are inextricably intertwined.
The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon gave the EU the constitution of a classical federal state, in which state sovereignty is divided between the supranational federal level and the national member state level and in which everyone has two citizenships, one of each level. One can only be a citizen of a state and all states consist of their citizens. The EU’s is the first state constitution in history to be drawn up entirely in the interests of big business, without the slightest popular or democratic input into its making. It mandates economic neo-liberalism. Its foundational “four freedoms” – free movement of goods, services, capital and labour – enshrine the axioms of classical laissez-faire as constitutional principles that no government or elected parliament may legally change or violate, regardless of the wishes of their voters.
10) THE EU TURNS MEMBERS OF THE EXECUTIVE AT NATIONAL LEVEL INTO SUPRANATIONAL LEGISLATORS, GREATLY INCREASING THEIR PERSONAL POWER WHILE REDUCING THE DEMOCRACY OF THEIR OWN PEOPLES
The accretion of power by Brussels is the result of decisions at national level by the Member States and the politicians that run them. Every time successive EU treaties abolish further national vetoes and shift law-making over particular policy areas from the national level to the supranational, where laws are made by qualified majority voting in the EU Council of Ministers, national parliaments and citizens lose power correspondingly, for they no longer have the final say in the areas concerned. Simultaneously, individual Government Ministers, who are members of the executive arm of government at national level and who must have a national parliamentary majority behind them for their policies, are turned into legislators for over 450 million Europeans as members of the 27-person Council of Ministers. National politicians thereby obtain an intoxicating accretion of personal power at the expense of their national parliaments and peoples, even though they are open to being outvoted by a qualified majority on the Council. They can also blame Brussels for laws and policies that prove unpopular at national level, thus escaping adverse electoral consequences at home. These are the reasons Government Ministers tend to be so europhile and to cooperate so willingly in denuding their own parliaments and peoples of their power.
The more policy areas shift from the national level to Brussels, the more power shifts simultaneously from national legislatures to national executives, and the more the power of individual Ministers and bureaucrats increases. Keeping on good terms with their fellow members of the exclusive Council of Ministers “club” of EU legislators becomes more personally important for Ministers at EU level than being awkward in defence of their own peoples’ interests. They come increasingly to see their function vis-a-vis one another as delivering their national electorates in support of further EU integration.
A member state on its own cannot decide a single European law. Its people, parliament and government may be opposed to an EU law, its government representative on the Council of Ministers may vote against it, but they are bound to obey it nonetheless once it is adopted by qualified majority Council vote. This devalues the vote of every individual citizen. Each policy area that is transferred from the national level to the supranational EU level devalues it further.
This reduces the political ability of citizens to decide what is their national common good and deprives them of the most fundamental right of membership of a democracy, the right to make their own laws, to elect their representatives to make them, and to change those representatives if they dislike the laws they make. European integration is therefore not just a process of depriving Europe’s nation states and peoples of their national democracy and independence; within each member state it represents a gradual coup by government executives against legislatures and by politicians against the citizens who elect them.
The European Union hollows out Europe’s nation states, leaving their traditional institutions formally in place, but with their most important functions transferred to the supranational level. It turns each Member State itself into an enemy of its own people, while clamping a form of financial feudalism on Europe.
11) PEOPLE NEED TO RECLAIM THE STATE TODAY, TO DEFEND IT AGAINST THE SUPRANATIONALISTS AND IDEOLOGICAL GLOBALISERS WHO SEEK TO SUBVERT IT FOR THEIR OWN SELFISH PRIVATE INTERESTS.
Societies need direction to secure the welfare of their members. They need a structure of laws and institutions to give people security, to protect them against internal and external enemies, to advance public health, to raise peoples’ educational and cultural level, to ensure fairness of income and wealth distribution, to allocate space for housing and other purposes, to develop democracy by fostering participation in public life. These are the essential functions of the democratic State. They can be properly exercised only if the authority and geographical boundaries of that State, whether it is nationally based or multinational, are accepted as legitimate by its citizens.
12) THE DOMINANCE OR ATTEMPTED DOMINANCE OF A PEOPLE BY THE GOVERNMENT AND POWER ELITES OF ANOTHER STATE IS IMPERIALISM AND AN AFFRONT TO DEMOCRACY
Imperialism can take the classical form of direct rule, in which a dominated people is openly treated as a colony, or the more modern form in which a people may have formal political independence but their resources and their external political and economic relations are largely under foreign control and are directed at continuing their dependence or subordination. Neo-colonial relations of this kind are common in the contemporary world between metropolitan powers and former colonies and are against the interests of the peoples of both. EU Commission President J.M. Barroso referred to the European Union as having a “dimension of empire”.
13) DEMOCRACY MEANS RIGHTS OF EQUALITY, WHICH PEOPLE AGREE TO ACCORD ONE ANOTHER AND WHICH THE STATE RECOGNISES
Democrats acknowledge the possession of equal rights by all citizens of a state, as well as equality of human rights between people of different sex, race, religion, age and nationality, based on their common humanity. Ethnic minorities are entitled to have their rights protected within a democratic state. Majority rights and minority rights are different from one another but are not in principle incompatible. The struggle against racism, sexism, ageism and national oppression are all democratic questions, concerned with equality.
By contrast, the traditional issues which divide political Right and Left in modern industrial societies, proponents of capitalism and socialism, are concerned with inequality – in ownership and control of society’s productive forces, in power, possessions, income and social function. The mass democracy that historically was first achieved under capitalism serves to legitimate and make more tolerable the inequalities of power, wealth and income of capitalist society.
Traditional leftwing thought holds that capitalism creates the material conditions for the application of the principle of democracy to the economic sphere, in the form of socialism, social democracy or a social market economy. Socialism, or indeed any other “-ism”, requires the prior attainment of national independence. The old adage holds: “Attain first the political kingdom and then all other values will be added unto one.”
Traditional rightwing thought extols the rights of the individual against the collective as embodied in the state and upholds the competitive market provision of goods and services as being more efficient than state provision. Traditional leftwing thought extols collective as against individual rights and champions public provision of essential goods and services. Sensible people acknowledge that both public and private provision are necessary in their respective spheres, that there needs to be a creative tension between the two and that their boundaries are ever shifting in line with technological development and the changing balance of class forces in society.
Political parties and movements of Right and Left tend to be divided between those that understand the importance of national independence and democracy and those that do not.
14) GLOBALIZATION CHANGES THE ENVIRONMENT OF NATION STATES, BUT DOES NOT MAKE THEM OUT OF DATE . . . INTERNATIONALISM, NOT GLOBALIZATION, IS THE WAY TO A HUMANE FUTURE
The notion that “globalization” makes the nation state out of date is an ideological one. Globalization is at once a description of fact and an ideology, a mixture of “is” and “ought”. It refers to important trends in the contemporary world: ease of travel, free trade, free movement of capital, the internet, the world-wide impact of man-made climate change and pandemics. The effect of these on the sovereignty of states is often exaggerated. States have always been interdependent to some extent. There was relatively more globalization, in the sense of freer movement of labour, capital and trade, in the late nineteenth century than there is today, although the volumes involved were much smaller. At that time also most states were on the gold standard, a form of international money. By contrast modern states do more for their citizens, are expected by them to do more, and impinge more intimately on peoples’ lives than at any time in history, most obviously in providing public services and redistributing the national income.
Globalization imposes new constraints on states, but constraints there always have been. States adapt to such changes, but they do not cause nation states to disappear or become less important. Globalization as an ideology refers to the interests of transnational capital, which wishes to be free of state control on capital movements and seeks minimal social constraints on private capital owners. The relation of transnational capital to sovereign states is ambivalent. On the one hand it seeks to erode the sovereignty of states in order to weaken their ability to impose constraints on private profitability and restrain “the furies of private interest”. On the other hand individual transnational businesses look to their own state, where the bulk of their share ownership is usually concentrated, to defend their political and economic interests internationally when these are threatened.
Liberal individualism is the creed of the opponents of national sovereignty and those whose income and lifestyle make them beneficiaries of globalization. This creed proposes to erode the solidarities of nation, community and family in the interest of creating a society of atomised consumers and homogenized producers, global in extent, where transnational capital decides fundamental policy and national sovereignty is abolished or weakened. This creed is anti-human and all decent people who understand the evils it gives rise to will reject it.
15) PEOPLE ON THE POLITICAL LEFT AND RIGHT HAVE A COMMON INTEREST IN ESTABLISHING AND MAINTAINING STATE SOVEREIGNTY AND IN UPHOLDING NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE AND DEMOCRACY
People on the political Right want the state to legislate right-wing measures, people on the political Left want left-wing ones; but neither can have either unless they are citizens of an independent state in the first place, which possesses the relevant legislative power and competence to decide. That is why people who are politically Right or Left have an objective common interest in establishing and maintaining an independent state and a government that represents and is responsible to the nation.
Likewise, within each state different social interests align themselves for and against the maintenance of state sovereignty, seeking either to uphold or to undermine national democracy. This is a central theme of the politics of our time. It is why democrats in every European country today, whether on the political Centre, Left or Right, are potentially part of an international movement in defence of the nation state and national democracy, and against the political and economic forces that seek to undermine these – most obviously the European Union in our part of the world.
16) STATES HAVE THE RIGHT TO PROTECT THEIR CIVIC OR ETHNIC COHESIVENESS, AND THEIR LABOUR STANDARDS, BY CONTROLLING IMMIGRATION, BUT NOT AT THE COST OF DISCRIMINATING AGAINST ETHNIC OR NATIONAL MINORITIES WITHIN THEIR BORDERS
There is no international, positive or natural legal right that entitles people to migrate to live and work in other peoples’ countries – apart from political asylum seekers, who are recognised as possessing such rights under international and natural law. Independent states have the right to decide who shall settle in their territories and how newcomers may acquire rights of citizenship. At the same time, once people of different national or ethnic origins have settled in a country, they have the right to be treated the same as everyone else.
It is evidence of how the European Union erodes the sovereignty of its member states that the government of each EU country must now extend such classical components of citizenship as rights to residence, work and social maintenance to the citizens of all other EU member states as a requirement of supranational EU law. The EU member states have surrendered the right to decide such matters, something that is a fundamental abandonment of their sovereignty and democracy by their europhile politicians. Two distinct democratic principles are involved in assessing international migration policy: the right of national communities to protect their social and cultural cohesiveness and integrity, and their labour standards, in face of uncontrolled or excessive immigration, and the right to equal treatment of all people within a country. Confusing these two rights impedes rational discussion of migration issues.
17) PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS IS A PRIME DUTY OF SOVEREIGN STATES
No one state or group of states has the right to constitute itself an international policeman over the domestic affairs of other states. International action to protect human rights should be grounded in respect for state sovereignty. This principle can be overborne only in accordance with the generally recognised principles of international law based on a broad consensus of the world community – the two recognised conditions for such international intervention nowadays being if one state violates the frontiers of another by force or if a state attempts genocide against an ethnic group within its borders.
18) DEMOCRATIC STATES WILL SEEK TO MINIMISE RENT-SEEKING BEHAVIOUR WHEREBY MONOPOLY OWNERSHIP OR CONTROL OF SCARCE ASSETS CONFERS A BENEFIT ON THEIR POSSESSORS REGARDLESS OF ANY EFFORT OR INVESTMENT ON THEIR PART
The classical example of rent-seeking that confers an unearned income is the ownership of land or other natural resources. In modern societies rentierism extends to monopoly control of intellectual property, digital platforms, financial assets, government licenses to private providers and public outsourcing contracts. Private monopoly or limited competition in such areas inhibits technological innovation, discourages economic development and aggravates income inequality. Democratic states will oppose rentierism and rent-seeking behaviour by means of anti-monopoly and competition policy, tax policy and public credit and investment policy.
19) MANKIND IS AS YET AT A RELATIVELY EARLY STAGE OF DEMOCRACY
The human race is some 1,000,000 years old, history some 4000 years, industrialism 400 or so, and political democracy, understood as provision of the universal franchise and the recognition that all men and women possess human rights regardless of where they live, has existed for little more than a century.
Over much of the world these rights are still denied and many nations that seek statehood are denied their right to self-determination. At the same time the universal franchise is only one dimension of democracy. It is of limited value in the absence of fair and proportional voting systems and controls on electoral spending to prevent the rich and powerful “buying” votes.
Other desirable dimensions of political democracy on the basis of the universal franchise, but which most states do not yet recognise, are direct legislation by citizens through referendums, the right of a specific number of citizens to initiate a referendum and rules for fairness in referendums, the institution of term-limits for holders of public office to encourage the circulation of political elites, provision for the recallability of public representatives who flout their election pledges by enabling voters to force a by-election if an agreed percentage demand it, and establishing an optimal balance of central and local government to encourage citizen participation in public administration and efficient provision of public services. People will be struggling to establish such democratic rights as these for centuries to come.
20) REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT CAN TAKE DIFFERENT FORMS
Every electoral system has its pros and cons. Proportional systems are more democratic than winner-take-all ones. While different proportional systems seek to ensure that the parliamentary representation of different parties is in proportion to the number of citizen-voters supporting them, the so-called “additional member” or “alternative vote top-up” system would seem to have most advantages and least disadvantages among these. Under this proportional system voters chose their parliamentary representatives in single-member constituencies by allocating their preferences among the various candidates, these preferences being then distributed so as to ensure that whoever it elected has at least half of the votes in each constituency. The disproportionality in the whole country that necessarily arises from having single-member constituencies is then compensated for by having the number of those elected in such seats “topped up” by representatives drawn from a party list – typically covering a quarter to a third of all the seats – so that the overall national result is proportional. A minimum quota of the national vote is required to get representation for the party list. Voters therefore have two votes in national elections, one for their local constituency representative and the other for the national party whose list of candidates they favour.
This document has been compiled by Anthony Coughlan of the National Platform EU Research and Information Centre, 24 Crawford Avenue, Dublin 9, Ireland. It may be downloaded from the internet web-sit www.desmondgreavesarchive.com under the tag “Related Articles”. Readers are free to use or adapt it as they see fit and to disseminate it more widely without any reference to or acknowledgement of its source. If changes are made to the text, however, they should not be ascribed to its author.