Continued from last post . . . When something is taken for granted – and I mean on a social, society-wide level – our experience of the phenomenon has a really interesting structure. How do you experience something that you never notice?
It's like asking what your experience of glass is. We rarely ever experience glass. We literally look through glass all the time. We experience it as an absent presence. I’m having a little trouble, as I write, explaining this idea in the abstract in anything other than a few token gestures. They might remind you of how a mediocre teacher would discuss Husserl or Heidegger’s phenomenology.
But I want to keep talking about the nation-state. Politically, states and their borders are the glass of our politics, according to this tortured metaphor.* We're so accustomed to states and borders as a part of our politics, that we can’t even really see them until their structure gets broken.
* I feel like this post is a really intense example of the model of blogging as the nakedly public first draft. I’ve grasping really vainly for the appropriate expressions, and I feel like I’m only barely making myself understood. I like the title, though. It feels like something a Trumpist would write, but my actual ideas about borders would make a Trumpist’s head explode.
When the glass shatters, we’re horrified, and can’t pick up the pieces without bloodying our hands.**
** Okay, that’s actually a pretty good metaphor. Getting there was torture, though, and I’m sorry about that, readers.
Borders are in crisis today, with global flows of migrants making a mockery of their territorial controls. Even so, the legal structures of sovereign borders and state citizenship control can and often do make those migrants’ lives into different styles of hell.
One of Balibar's essays lays out three simple causes of how our state-centric political structure have begun to destabilize. They’re very complex phenomena in their affects, of course, but we can describe them as currents and changes pretty clearly and quickly.
And we can spot them pretty clearly if we have any basic idea about how politics functions today. They’re truisms by now, more facts that we barely take note of because we take them so much for granted. We have trouble conceiving of politics without states – Do we now also find it so hard to conceive of politics without these transformations?
Multinationals are free from constraint. By this, I mean that they aren't dependent for their existence and thriving on the particular state where they began. Corporations used to be dwarfed by the power of states and their laws. But now, the most powerful of them have collected so much financial power and wealth that they can dictate terms even to the more powerful state governments on Earth.
The entire world is open for business. Writing these essays when he did – in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Balibar is trying to process a cataclysmic event that we in the West all passed over much too quickly. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the communist bloc of allied states.
Popular culture, and even our long-experienced political leaders all took the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union as an univocal victory for the West. The conception of the event was much too simple – “The Cold War is over! We won! Yahoo!”
Fuck's sake. I used to think about the end of the Cold War this way. I saw it unfolding on cable news, lying on my mother’s carpet in the basement apartment where we lived when I was a kid. I was eight years old when the Soviet Union fell apart. And our popular understanding of the time – even of the most experienced politicians we had – was no more advanced than an eight-year-old’s.
We're learning now – maybe about a decade too late – that the end of the Cold War was a more complicated social phenomenon than this. One that deserved the kind of philosophical attention that Balibar gives it.
One part of Balibar’s analyses describes the end of the Cold War in a way that I hadn’t really thought through before. With the end of the communist bloc, there was now no part of the world where the mega-corporations of the world couldn’t go. They were the last states that refused to bend to the command of a multinational.
Enlightenment by communication. After what might at first seem a dour conclusion, Balibar gives us a genuine sense of hope. Our communication networks have spread around the globe. They're faster and more powerful than any such network that's existed before. And literally billions can join them.
We can learn about and support each other’s struggles more easily now than we ever could. As dangerous as that can be, it also comes with potential for liberation. States no longer have such tight controls on what their people can learn. An information underground is much easier for everyone to access.
That means we can organize for real democracy better than we ever have before. And it’s a truly global process. Our communication networks help demonstrate to each of us individually that the Earth is a single system politically, communicatively, and ecologically.
So what do we do with this knowledge? That’s the key question for global democracy in our century. What would a world without states and borders look like? . . . To Be Continued
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