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The cost of globalisation

The book offers a compelling analysis of why many of our problems are rooted in the decline of the nation-state.

india Updated: Oct 30, 2006 16:30 IST

The Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War
Prem Shankar Jha
Publisher: Vistaar Publications
Price: Rs 480
Format: Paperback
Pages: 374

Global forces — the increasingly trans-national character of capital, the erosion and sometimes voluntary surrender of state sovereignty — have made states less powerful.

This is a book with a compelling and well-worked-out argument. It is based on the author’s considerable experience as a journalist and columnist. The foreword by the renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm points out that most commentaries on ‘globalisation’ are written by authors from Europe or North America, and that therefore a book by an Indian on the subject is to be welcomed, since it is from such a perspective that ‘the negative effects of capitalist globalisation’ can be seen more easily. Jha himself sees the book as tracing the globalisation of capitalism and the consequent destruction of the institutions of ‘nation-state- based-capitalism’, for which he has a certain reverence.

The central theme of the book has been discussed in academic circles for some years now, and has become something of a conventional argument in political science and international relations courses, in connection with the somewhat empty category ‘globalisation’. Global forces — the increasingly trans-national character of capital, the erosion and sometimes voluntary surrender of state sovereignty (in trans-state alliances such as the European Union) — have made states increasingly less powerful.

 India and the World

For some, this is a cause for celebration: the world is becoming a smaller and more integrated space. For others it is a cause for lamentation: states, especially the less powerful ones, are unable to control their destinies, and become victims of forces beyond their control. Jha belongs to the latter group. For him, the (alleged) decline of the nation-state is the source of many of the ills of the contemporary world. Its citizens lose control of their day-to-day lives (which, of course, assumes they once had such control).

This brings us to the crucial conceptual confusion in the book: the conflation of the nation and the state, represented by the hyphenated or juxtaposed words nation-state. A state is an institution that exists: it allegedly has sovereignty, internal and external, it has monopoly of coercive power, authority over its citizens to enforce certain laws (legally) and conventions (morally or hegemonically), among other things. A nation is a group of people who claim to have a common culture, tradition, sometimes language.

There is not much agreement on what constitutes a nation, but scholars now agree that it is invented on the basis of strategically rewriting one’s past to fit the needs of one’s present, and it is hard to predict the basis of that invention. Nations do not always have states; but where states exist, nationalism often becomes the official ideology of the state. And if ‘culture’ has been the crucial element of imagining a nation, it follows that someone must become the arbiter of ‘culture’ to enforce national belonging upon those who do not fit into the dominant culture. The Jew or the Negro in Germany or France, or the Muslim or Naga in India, to provide a few examples, have had a long history of discovering this through experience. Therefore, to hide the tyrannical potential of nationalism in the apparently innocuous term ‘nation-state’ should be resisted. To be fair, Jha is far from the only one who makes this error. He points out that having lived in India, he understands the power of nationalism. Perhaps; but is this any reason to go along with it?

Imperialist states, great powers, superpowers and now the ‘hyperpower’ have been able to override the sovereignty of states either directly or indirectly. Meanwhile, nationalism has been used by governments in control of states to control its citizens by enforcing conformity to those governments’ norms and aims. This applies as much to aggressor states as to victim states.

And crucial among what states do now is to use nationalism to restrict the flow of labour, while capital flows easily where it wants. According to neoclassical economic theories of equilibria, capital will flow towards areas of cheap labour, but labour will flow towards areas of expensive labour, thereby bringing down the cost of labour there and raising the cost of labour where it was once cheap by reducing the available numbers. There will be ‘bottlenecks’, of course; and it seems that states use their power to provide the bottlenecks. In the developed world, quotas, controls and oppressive legislation curtailing the movement of people, derogatorily called ‘economic refugees’, are justified in the name of protecting ‘national’ resources and jobs. The ‘national’ principle is seldom applied to capital in the developed world: it is trans-national in the sense predicted by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.

First Published: Oct 30, 2006 16:30 IST