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……

At What Cost?

I was handed a book this week entitled: “People over Capital” (the co-operative alternative to capitalism) and I’m looking forward to reading it on my way to Toronto later next week. The back cover starts with these words: “Economic turmoil, rampant inequality, austerity politics, climate chaos. Capitalism is clearly failing and ordinary people are being forced to pay the price. Faced with such deep-rooted problems there is real hunger for alternative ways of organising our economic systems.”  Increasingly I am becoming aware of the effect of what Foucault calls “biopower” or the commodification of life itself.

The film UK Gold has highlighted with insightful and expository brilliance the true relationship between the UK ‘democratic’ government and the corporate giants. If we’re not careful, we turn a blind to the cost of the cuts and the immense toll that the squeeze is really having on the little people. Whilst literally billions of pounds are being siphoned off into tax havens to bolster the super rich, we are making unbelievable cuts to our public services and welfare systems. The heartbreaking truth is that we are paying for this, not only financially, but people are being eaten up like bread, fodder for the economic machine that is destroying the very life we are made for. I know of two people in the last few days who sadly took their own lives under extreme pressures being placed on them as they tired to serve the public good – one a police officer, the other a social worker…….

I have blogged about ‘revolution’ and the need for something utterly and life-givingly different to what we have now, but I maintain that even in the face of the pain and sorrow, stress and strain that many find themselves in, the answer has never been and will never be violence. There is another way, and it is the way of love. We must love those who perpetrate these crimes against humanity. Our only hope is to forgive the wrong we are suffering and so find a better future for us all. How do we ‘turn the other cheek’ when we feel smacked in the face by an uncaring system that would squeeze the very life out of us for the sake of keeping the economy going? How do we give of ourselves lovingly in the face of such opposition and uncaring greed? How do we dance to a different rhythm than the dominant marching beat that sets it’s metronome to the whims of ‘market forces’?

Now is the time for creative experiments, like those of William Penn, before his sons sold out to greed and dominating hierarchy. These are days to love our enemies until there is nothing left for them except to love us back, as Martin Luther King demonstrated. We are in a moment of extraordinary potential. We must not rush, but take our time to let new hope, vision and pragmatic ways of reorganising ourselves to germinate within us. Kenarchy is about emptying out power, laying our lives down in love for one another, prioritising the dispossessed and radically renegotiating our relationship with money (sacred economics). We can remain as we are but the stark ongoing cost will be destruction, demoralisation and death. Or we can put on love, forgive the past, learn from it and embrace the future. It will cost us everything, but our hope is one of life.

Reimagining Money aka Sacred Economics

For a long time I have been convinced that we cannot reimagine the future if we do not redefine our relationship with money. A number of years ago I read a book by a chap called Alan Kreider in which he was talking about how we foster community. He said that the sad truth is, until we’re able to talk about money in a free and open way and sort out our finances, we can never truly learn to be community.

Since the financial crash of 2008, I have been fascinated to watch the unfolding interplay between the banking sector and the ‘political elite’. We suffered a massive earthquake, the after shocks continue and serve as a warning that more disaster is on its way; but we have an hilarious situation in which the politicians tell us that by some weird combination of printing more money, tightening our belts or spending more (depending on who your finance minister is!), punishing the poor and ‘regulating the banks’, whilst bailing them out, we  will somehow recover from this trauma, so that we can continue business as usual. But it is business as usual that caused this crisis and it is business as usual that will lead us back into one.

I have been disappointed by the lack of alternatives discussed in the public political arena. In my mind, it matters very little which party is in power, as the general direction of all of the current alternatives is towards future growth of the economy with more of humanity and the earth itself becoming fodder to the ever hungry machine. Here in the UK, the conservatives tell us that austerity is the answer, and we must particularly blame the ‘feckless poor’ for the mess we are in. The labour party tell us that actually spending more is the answer, but the responsibility must lie with the ‘greedy rich’. The liberals are lost at sea and seem to have forgotten what liberalism is, (at least for a while) and then UKIP arrive to offer the ‘heroic’ idea that what we really need is self protectionism, independence and more patriotism. Kill me now.

And yet, we remain in an amazing moment of anomy, in which many, the commons, the multitudes are undeniably calling into question meaning and purpose at a profound level. We are at the fullness of what Foucault calls ‘Biopwer’ – the commodification of life itself. And people are sick of it. People are sick of feeling like they are being eaten rEVOLutionup like bread in order to keep the economy going, to keep the targets met, to keep the debts serviced. I see teacher after social worker after nurse after builder after sales person have breakdowns in my consulting room, because they can no longer stand under the rod of their oppressors. I see managers and directors having breakdowns as they realise they are losing touch with their own humanity and for what? Is this what we were made for? Is this the best we had hoped for? But it is in these moments that we must allow the songs of ‘Les Miserables’ to become our own – “Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men, it the music of a people who will NOT be slaves again….”

There is a sound emerging in our hearts, there is a rumbling in the people, there is a hope rising in our hearts that this dog eat dog world of violence and suffering is not the future we must endure. There is an alternative. There is a possible future of peace and love, but raging against the machine and losing our voices shouting at it may not accomplish very much – at least that is what I am learning! I have ranted to myself and others many times, but what has it achieved? Perhaps a stirring of hearts, perhaps a rising of hope, perhaps a new determination that life can and will be different for the multitudes. But ranting will not suffice, nor dreaming alone. It is time for brave acts, to disregard the powers and to begin to be creative.

But our creativity must be both prophetic and practical, experimental and pragmatic. We call for a new future and we live differently. And so, we must redefine our relationship with money, not do away with it, but refine what we mean by ‘money’ and ‘the economy’. With that in mind, I want to do some blog posts on a phenomenal book I have just finished entitled ‘Sacred Economics’ by Charles Eisenstein. It gives voice to Sacred Economicsmany things I and others have thought about but lacked the understanding or language to communicate. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Charles believes in the creative commons, when it comes to copyright – (check out their website), so I am free to copy passages of his book where that is helpful, but I want to honour the brilliant work he has done. He gives a brilliant history lesson in our relationship with money, how it has led to an age of separation where community is broken down and we have lost relationship with one another and the earth, how we recover a ‘gift economy’ and how we practically move forward to “the more beautiful future our hearts tell us is possible.” I hope the coming blogs are inspirational, encouraging and practical.

The photo “revolution is taken by Tim Pierce. http://www.flickr.com/photos/qwrrty/6209634263/