• September 16, 2014

Book Review: Is the Nation-State Dying?

Is the Nation-State Dying? 1

Bradley Garrett, eyevine

London

It would be difficult to find two books as similar as Metamorphoses of the City and If Mayors Ruled the World.  Both argue that the city is the best form of government, finding this truth embodied in the political philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Both are steeped in the thoughts of political philosophers such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau. And both proclaim that the nation-state, which is the primary form of political organization in modern society, is on its last legs.

It would also be difficult to find two authors as dissimilar as Pierre Manent, a political philosopher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris, and Benjamin R. Barber, a political theorist and senior research scholar at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The leading Straussian of our time, Manent, a conservative, is pessimistic to the point of despair, while Barber, a man of the left, believes that a solution to our problems lies just around the corner. Manent writes in dense prose, Barber with breathless earnestness. The former dwells in the past, while the latter speculates about the future. One is deeply read in theology and the history of religion, while the other praises a pragmatism unmoved by larger questions about human meaning.

Manent's interpretation of how we got where we are runs something like this: The Greek city-state taught that people are capable of directed action toward a telos, or higher end, such as justice. Actions require words to justify them, and as the West developed, that task was fulfilled by, among others, the church. The discrepancy between a state that acted and a church that held actions to a higher standard was resolved by Machiavelli, who advised leaders to do what was necessary rather than what was good.

The modern state inherited that task by giving authoritative meaning to words, and it did so by claiming to represent the society for which it speaks. In our time, however, the representative regime, the nation-state, is losing its authoritative character. The ideal to which modern nations strive is a sense of humanity itself, leaving them lacking any higher goals. As a result, Manent writes, "the necessity to articulate words and actions politically has been lost from view. The technological norm and juridical rule are supposed to be enough for organizing common life."

In similar fashion, Barber opens his book by proclaiming that "the nation-state is failing us on the global scale." For him, however, that has little or nothing to do with a failure to achieve a higher end; it is the product of the nation-state's inability to solve problems, whether global warming or traffic management.

If nation-states are hemmed in by gridlock and financial shortfalls, cities are dynamic and experimental. Not constrained by borders, mayors can talk directly to one another. Capable, like New York City's Michael Bloomberg or London's Boris Johnson, of ignoring political parties, they care only about what works. "Cities around the world are finding ways to do what nation-states can't," writes Barber. Beyond the nation-state lies a global parliament of mayors. When mayors rule the world, the world at long last will be ruled.

Academics are often criticized for sticking so close to their specialized fields that they fail to discuss big questions. Neither of these authors could ever be accused of that; proclaiming the end of the nation-state is hardly a modest idea. Is it, however, a correct one? I remain unconvinced.

Manent has chosen an odd time to proclaim the "self-destruction of Europe." Since the end of World War II, Europe has carried out the single most impressive political feat since the creation of the Roman Empire: more than half a century of peace, accompanied by astonishing prosperity. That system, or, as Straussians like to say, regime, is fraying and could even unravel as demands for austerity clash with popular public programs. But it takes an especially gloomy perspective to ignore all of the benefits that ordinary European cities have obtained—children no longer sent off to die in war, extensive vacation time and travel, guaranteed health care—and to focus instead on the state's inability to find words that satisfactorily justify its actions.

Compared with Europe, the American state has been less ambitious in its ability to realize a good life for a majority of its citizens. But it remains the one political institution with the resources to tackle huge problems. It was neither cities nor individual states that made Social Security possible. Only the federal government could have guaranteed the civil rights denied to black people by slavery and segregation; indeed, rights in general are not so much protections against government as they are powers that only governments can enforce. No mayor could have pulled the country out of its recent financial crisis. Barber is surely correct that nation-states fail at some things. But they succeed rather well at others. His method of dealing with the successes, however, is to ignore them; Social Security, voting rights, and health insurance receive far less of his attention than bike lanes and community policing.

If both authors fail to persuade, they do not do so equally. My political views are closer to Barber's than to Manent's, yet the latter's book is by far the more impressive. I cannot do justice to Manent's close readings of classic and modern texts. His vision of a political science that joins experience and reflections on experience is far richer than nearly all of what appears in the American Political Science Review. When so much emphasis is placed on the importance of technology, it is refreshing to be reminded of the purpose of politics.

Barber, by contrast, by arguing that politics is no longer necessary, goes out of his way to prove Manent's point. He tells us that we need to move beyond left and right—this at a time when the right has never been more aggressive. He understands that much of the innovation taking place in the cities relies on what he and others call "market fundamentalism," and he wishes it did not, but he fails to appreciate just how easily privatization fits into the pragmatic problem-solving he so admires.

He even has favorable things to say about the two aspects of American constitutional development most relied upon by reactionaries to undermine national authority: the Articles of Confederation and the 10th Amendment. In the current political environment, it is not difficult to imagine a city such as Phoenix or Dallas, freed from federal supervision, "innovating" by denying minorities the right to vote. 

 Manent would clearly prefer life in a Greek city-state, or at least a European one with an authoritative church. Barber believes that the only thing standing in the way of living in a "glocality"—a dreadful term, which he fortunately did not coin—is our failure to take the last step in the direction we are already headed.

I prefer what we have. I love cities. I live in one. But I also happen to think it important that I live in the United States, and not France, Brazil, or South Africa. Nations—the languages they speak, the novels their authors write, the music and art their geniuses produce, the citizenship they confer—continue to define who we are. If they are not perfect, then ignore the apocalyptic tone of both of these authors and render them better.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College.

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