Unity & Freedom I: Democracy Corrupt at Birth, Research Time, 16/08/2016

I sometimes think that states on the European model were built for empire, right from the start. That’s not just because Antonio Negri explained in Empire how imperialism is basically the same governance structures of the nation-state on a global scale. 

I mean, my uptake of Negri’s arguments are a big part of that. I first read Empire in 2007, so these ideas have been part of my political thinking for nearly a decade. But they were gestating through my academy years. Only recently did I decide to act on them, getting involved with critical activist voices.

We can't ignore it any longer.
Maybe the times decided for me, even if I was a little late.

Contrasting what I've read of Negri with what I've been reading of Etienne Balibar is interesting, though. I remember reading about how Balibar is considered a liberal counterweight to Negri’s ideas in this broad field of left-wing European academic political thinkers. 

Yet I find their premises and traditions quite similar. At least philosophically. Balibar just seems to have a little more faith in institutions like the European Union to revolutionize how people think of themselves ethically. That is, as communities, nations, ethnicities, identities.

I think the EU had that potential, even though by now it’s been thoroughly squandered. I’d rather we keep a strong memory of what was lost than believe that wrecked potential never existed in the first place. Otherwise, we’d lose all hope that we can do better.

If you read the link above, Yascha Mounk writes that the most powerful political movement in Western society right now is about stripping the liberal values from democracy. 

What he calls illiberal democracy keeps the institutional levers of democracy like elections while enforcing internal racial and class hierarchies, excluding immigrants, and stifling critical speech and political activism. I’d call it nationalism by ballot box.

There's a deeper structural problem that Mounk’s insightful and terrifying analysis doesn’t dig for, though. He takes for granted that the state is the natural home for liberal democracy. He doesn’t hit on Negri’s point: that the state relies on unquestioned authority to function, and so is structurally anti-democratic. 

Being a good citizen of a state means following orders, doing what you're told. The fundamental gesture of democracy – democracy’s birth in every such moment, really – is “Fuck you.

They should never have let us listen to this in ninth
grade. Now we'll never do what they tell us. Except for
the ones who always do anyway.
One aspect of Balibar’s analysis in his essays on the (philosophical) nature of the EU focusses on the state as an exclusionary body. I discussed this a little bit yesterday. But the details are important. 

The European model of nation-state has a peculiar history, which only appeared like the universal model for government because European nation-states has powerful militaries that literally conquered the Earth a couple of hundred years ago. 

And that history makes European culture terrible at handling any kind of immigration – even in countries like Italy where immigration can only help the society and economy, thanks to their low birth rates.

Modern Europe's precursor actually was a unified identity: Christendom. Much of its identity forged through military conflicts with Muslim empires and ongoing persecution of Jewish and Roma minorities. As Christendom fractured among internal conflict, the nation-state emerged as the new institution of peace and unity.

However, this did nothing to bring peace to the region, since the nation-states had even narrower identities than the religious definition of European society. Nation-states had clearly defined borders, and those borders were for people with shared ethnic-linguistic identities. All others were excluded.

As long as states define themselves as nations, there will always be those left behind. Exclusion is necessary. And total. Just how total? . . . Hoo, boy. . . . To Be Continued

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