Nations, states, and The State
Dana Williams
Americans are far too casual with their speech. We carelessly use words to describe things inaccurately and, as a result, frequently find ourselves unable to understand complex things about the world-- and about ourselves.

Take the idea of the “nation-state”. When this phrase is used, people usually mean to say “country”. A nation-state is an incredibly rare thing on our planet. As Martin Glassner notes in “Political Geography”, a state is a political unit, a nation is a group of people, and a nation state is the intersection of the two. Thus, a nation-state is a geographical region that is both a state and composed of a nation (note: not multiple nations).

According to Glassner, states must have the following: land territory, permanent resident population, government, an organized economy, and a circulation system. Nations, on the other hand, are a “reasonably large group” of people sharing common culture traits, religion, language, political institutions, values, and/or historical experience.

Japan, Sweden, and a few other “countries” could qualify as a nation-state, but few others. The point is crucial: states that have many nations within their boundaries have diverse interests, rife with conflict. Further, many nations span the space of multiple states (such as Kurds, Mayans, Lakotans, Laplanders, Bedouins, Hmong, and others).

The United States is a primary example of mislabeled “nation-state”. It is quite possibly the most nation-ful state ever to exist and by far the most powerful state ever in existence. Since the US contains literally hundreds of nations within it, it is impossible to call the US a “nation”. When it was formed by the Articles of Confederation, it was intended as a collection of states (in the above meaning, not the way we conceive of them today), which were confederated (or “United”) together for common purpose. States were thus autonomous to do all the things that Glassner says states do. However, with the advent of the Constitution, supreme power was centralized under a “federal” government, with the states thereafter subjugated to that overarching power. Thus an experiment in decentralized confederation ended for the supreme sake of The State.

The American Heritage Dictionary (which one would assume to be expert on the subject), describes a “state” as “the supreme public power within a sovereign political entity.” As the “supreme power” it demands utter loyalty from those within its boundaries. Although not often receiving such loyalty, tools such as patriotism, jingoism, and [the mis-described] nationalism are employed to further blur crucial human distinctions.

Nationalism, as we know it is really statism. Since many misuse the word “nation”, they correspondingly abuse the term “nationalism”. People who are seek self-rule, autonomy, their own land, etc. often seek their own nation state, not their own nation (which they already have). They are often united explicitly by their already existing nationality. Consider the terms “Arab nationalism”, “Black nationalism”, and so forth-- what is really sought is more power for their nation. Separatist movements are even better descriptions of this statism. In essence, what is mislabeled “nationalism”, ought to be termed “self-determination” a kinder term for people seeking to control the institutions and dynamics affecting their own lives. “Nationalism” as it is used by the Western media refers to jingoism-- the belief that one group of people is superior to another, a belief gained through suppression and force.

Ward Churchill jokes that the United Nations (UN) should have called itself the United States, except that the name was already taken by the US. This would be a more accurate portrayal of the world we live in, yet we are trapped in linguistical trickery and deception.

People who believe in freedom should try to clarify the cleanse their vocabularies to better explain their values. For those who believe in the self-determination of all people, the language of The State has no use. In fact, The State itself has no use. It seeks to divide nations from each other, conquer people internally and externally into homogeneous partitions, and expand its own power. The mere existence of states and their borders is a deep offense to the sensibilities of human beings-- why should one stretch of land be ill-suited to the presence of one or peoples? The horrors of colonialism and war are etched in such values. The terror of forced relocations, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and “second-class citizenship” are the products of this belief in lines in the sand.

Freedom-lovers should adopt multi-culturalism, self-determination, and borderlessness as their credo. For all the atrocity wrought by the creators of the Articles of Confederation (the African and Native Genocides), they were not far from a good idea. They created “strong states” in a weak confederation, or strong internal vision and loose external linkage. Left-libertarians and anarchists might want to consider these issues as they form affinity groups, collectives, organizations of all kinds, coalitions, and federations. The anti-authoritarian values they held dear are important since they infer that decisions are best made on a local level, that no one should be coerced by or be lost in bureaucracy, and that solidarity amongst the diverse is a humanizing and inspiring power.

It would do us well to remember one other definition: fascism. It is “totalitarianism, marked by right-wing dictatorship and bellicose nationalism.” Sleep well tonight, America, if you can.

Whether we are thinking in terms of geopolitics, struggles of liberation, or even bland self-identity, we ought to remember that the words we use have meanings. And behind the words we sometimes casually use can lie both volatile ideas (liberation) and violent institutions (the state). We need to realize the difference and be able to act in favor of the good of all when necessary.