The Myth of the Nation State

Here begins a mini series, which will take a few blogs to get to where I want to go, but please bear with me, as I give some background to where my thoughts are currently!

I had until fairly recently misunderstood what is meant by a myth. I thought it to be a story which lacks truth. This can be the case but is only one of its meanings. It can also describe “a traditional/legendary story which may or may not have a factual basis and is used to explain some part of life.” Or it can refer to “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social norm.”

If we are going to reimagine the future, we must become more aware of some of the myths we believe to be true and question their basis for having shaped our thinking. I have recently been reading a book entitled ‘Theopolitical Imagination’ by a chap called William T Cavanaugh. It is deeply challenging. Cavanaugh argues that all politics is a practice of our imagination. The state itself, he argues doesn’t actually exist. It exists only in our imaginations. What actually exists are things like buildings, tax forms, border patrols and aeroplanes. “What mobilises these into a project called ‘nation-state’ is a disciplined imagination of a community occupying a particular space with a common conception of time, a common history and a common destiny of salvation from peril’. Our belief in this myth is so strong that a young man (or woman) from a rural village can become convinced that he/she must travel to another part of the world to kill people he/she knows nothing about. (Think on that for a minute or two). We have become reliant on the state for our provision and protection.

The nation state, as we know it, is relatively young, having only found its place in history within the last four hundred years. Cavanaugh argues that the myth was born out of the context of the ‘religious wars’ in Europe (in the sixteenth and seventieth centuries) to ‘save us’ from the ill effects of religion and enable us to live peacefully. The hope being that the borders and flags to which we would give our allegiance would save us from the divisions that plague us. Yet this has not been the case. The borders and flags in fact deepened our sense of the ‘other’ and created barriers where previously there had been less. Cavanaugh would argue that it was the ‘spirit of empire’ that used religion as an excuse for the wars, that was the real culprit. Mitchell would argue, however, that it was a complicit agreement between Church and Imperial powers that lead to the vast blood shed in the 30 years war that in turn gave way to the enlightenment and the creation of the nation state. What’s the point? The point is that the nation state is not our saviour. It is built on exactly the same foundations of empire and employs the same currencies – money, law and violence.

If you don’t believe me, then witness the economic threat of Westminster towards Scotland, or see how much clout the banks and huge corporations play in their lobbying power of government and ability to run the show. Or think about those who are held in the state of exception in our eleven detention centres around the UK alone (plenty of examples in other countries) where law is put aside to maintain the status quo, revealing the true foundation of ‘the law’. Or have you noticed how we now talk of those who die in war as being ‘martyrs’? I am not saying that we shouldn’t remember the lives of those who were given so appallingly in war, but let us also clearly see the undergirding message that strengthens the myth of the nation state. “War brings peace”. ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’…. it is sweet and right to die for one’s country…….

The nation-state project is both waning and failing. But the myth which perpetuates it is incredibly strong and acts as a huge barrier to our imagination of anything different. Peace will not come through a remodelled version of empire. True nationhood will not be recovered whilst configured as states. But there is a hope rising of something different, of new ways of being. Sometimes we have to tear down some mindsets in order to think in new ways……

4 thoughts on “The Myth of the Nation State

  1. I follow what you say and the work you and Mitchell, Sparkes and others do is essential.
    A few disparate comments:
    You seem to be espousing (or at least quoting) a position that is more existential than Platonic.
    If the myth of nation state did not exist, there would be something else, as we cannot ‘uninvent’ our imaginations. If nation statehood is not the irreducible minimum (which I agree) what is? For instance there objectively different ‘ethnes’ and if one mentality is about drawing the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, this or another excuse will be deployed to buttress that position such as language; age; height; ability; gender; music tribe etc.
    Further, we derive our sense of self from many sources and we derive our sense of safety or threat from many sources too, not just the identification with the state.

    I do think that the power of the state is still strong in individual and collective imaginations and that men particularly can substitute the state as one of the powerful ’causes’ to espouse in the absence of total fulfilment with the Father.
    Keep going!

  2. Thanks so much, Matthew. I massively appreciate your comments and engagement and stretching!
    I guess what I’m trying to do here is not look for a reorganisation of states, but to subvert them a bit in our thinking. I think it’s the rhythm of subversion and submission that is so important. Once we see the nation state for what it is, rather than holding it up to be a great agent of ‘eschatological peace’, then we can submit back into it, and continue to disregard the powers.
    I am pushing for a greater embracing of nationhood, which I think gets mistaken for the same thing as nation states. For example I love the way in Leeds that they have gone past talking about multiculturalism and now talk about interculturalism, looking at gift of culture rather than separation.
    It’s also why I love William Cavanaugh’s stuff on eucharist because we need to keep on remembering that every dividing wall has been broken and there is a togetherness for humanity in stewarding resources that we have not yet fully embraced.
    However, it is beginning to happen in loads of ways acorss the earth, it’s just that undoing our mindsets whilst building creative alternatives is an ongoing and headbanging discipline!

  3. I enjoy reading this as I am pondering the changes our future holds. How does one honor the state they are in and reform to something else…reality…the kingdom of God…a healthy way of living. I think that our potential can be seen in the parable of talents as well as the NT church. We are people called to occupy or make business in the world, yet in this we represent a new beginning for humanity, demonstrating a love from God, a principled life that brings life to others…My thoughts for now.

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