12th Grade: From State-Nation to Nation State


This week we continued looking at the development of states, attempting to make the connection between the various elements in society that propel change.  We looked this week at the ‘State-Nation,’ and the ‘Nation-State.’

Th ‘Territorial-State’ (1648-1776) was a conscious move away from the monarchical ambition and religious motivated violence of the previous era.  They sought order, symmetry, balance, and proportion.  This required careful international diplomacy, and sought to prevent any inward social upheavals, for good or ill.

A variety of factors lead to the breakup of this constitutional order.  For one, the Enlightenment grew stale and begged for a more ‘Romantic’ counter-reaction.  But perhaps more than that, the expansion of Territorial States stretched the logic of their identity based on contiguous property (and not ideology, which travels in the minds of men).  The French-Indian War is perhaps the most striking example of a Territorial-State conflict that gives birth to the ‘State-Nation’ here in America.

The French-Indian War created a sense of identity, a sense of a ‘people’ in the English North American colonies.  This ‘people’ would naturally now not want to be treated as pawns in an international game.  They would inevitably demand rights, and this is at least part of the roots of the conflict between the colonies and England.

A look at the Declaration of Independence and Constitution gives us insight into the emerging world of ‘State-Nations.’

  • We have the basis of the particular relationship between government and the people rooted in universal ideas (all men are created equal)
  • We have recognition that the ‘people,’ not territory or states, are the basis for political power, i.e. “We the people. .  .”
  • At the same time we still have a somewhat aristocratic, paternalistic attitude towards ‘the people.’  Government was responsible “for” the people, but neither George Washington, John Adams, Robespierre, or Napoleon would have thought in terms of government “by” the people, or “of” the people.

Napoleon is a great example of someone who understood how the socio-political landscape had changed, and understood how to take advantage of it.  The French Revolution destroyed not only the aristocracy, but the professional army led by aristocrats.  Napoleon had mass, energy, and ideology at his disposal, but lacked the well drilled and trained armies of the rest of Europe.

With a “people” now organized in France to form a “nation,” Napoleon could mobilize more support for his campaigns.  He had the supplies, backing, and motive to take his army far (we are liberators of the oppressed).  His took this energy and channeled, achieving superiority of mass at points of his choosing.  This rag-tag ball of energy created by the French Revolution and harnessed by Napoleon made quick work of the rational, balanced, symmetrical, and aristocratic armies of Europe.

But then a curious thing happened.  The countries Napoleon occupied inevitably brought with them the ideology and ‘constitution’ they espoused.  If France was so great, why couldn’t Prussia or Austria be great too?  If they wanted to resist, they would need to raise a new army rooted in this new sense of solidarity, this new sense of a ‘people.’  The old aristocratic officers had been discredited by their initial defeat at Napoleon’s hands.  The armies that defeated Napoleon from 1809-1815 from Spain to Russia, from Prussia to England, were in sense, Napoleon’s accidental creations.

Napoleon’s success and ultimate failure have many lessons.  For our purposes I want the students to see how elements of society fit together and in a sense, carry the same message.  Different ideas and actions create new social and political contexts.  Without awareness of the ripple effects of these changes, nations will end up behind the 8 ball, much like Spain of the early 17th century, France and England in the late 18th century, the Austro-Hungarians in the early 20th century, and so on.

We discussed in class the various ways the transition from these two state models might manifest itself.  The “State-Nation” built itself on universal ideas, (i.e. “all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”)  These grand, sweeping ideas have their incarnation in Beethoven’s music, for example.

But the music of the next model, the “Nation-State” reflected different values.  It was more group oriented, so the music aimed not everywhere but for the broad middle, creating more “popular” and “accessible” music.

Later we had. . .

And then. . .

The ‘Nation-State’ (1914-89) was the era that you and I grew up in.  Sometimes its easy to assume that we experience is somehow universal, but in fact that America was different than the America of Thomas Jefferson, and the America of our children will be different as well.

What characterizes this era?

We see here that, in Bobbitt’s words, “Government’s are responsible to and for the people.”  In contrast to Washington, Jefferson, etc., whereas before, people found their identity in ‘the state,’ now ‘the state’ finds its identity in ‘the people’ (my thanks to Addison Smith for this insight).  Gone is the more aristocratic, patriarchal attitude of the founders.  One can see beginnings of this shift in Jacksonian Democracy.  The closing of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ puts forward a new basis for government’s relationship to the people.

Essentially, the Nation-State will end up creating a sense of unity and community.  Many of us remember growing up playing with kids from ‘the neighborhood.’  ‘We are the World,’ and ‘Hands Across America’ were major cultural phenomena.  We listened in with all our friends to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 to see what the #1 song was for the week.

Politically, if we are a family, we take care of the family.  So programs like Social Security to take care of the elderly and Welfare to care for the poor make sense within this rationale.  Iconic presidents on both sides of the political spectrum arise like FDR and Reagan that can rally the whole nation behind them.

It is easy to romanticize this era, and it has many strengths.  But this was also the era of ‘Total War,’ for if whole populations make up ‘the State,’ then whole populations can be the targets.  The horrific devastation of World War I & II come out of this mentality.  Also, mass groups define themselves at times by who is outside the group as well inside.  So the Nation-State era also experienced terrible levels of ethnically motivated violence of which the Holocaust is only the worst example.

The ‘Long War’ of 1914-89, like all epochal conflicts, inevitably forces states to innovate.  And so they did.  The weapons that won this war (nuclear weapons, the computer, international trade) just as in the past, ended up destabilizing the nation-state order and helped bring about our current one, what Bobbitt calls the ‘Market-State.’

We might contrast the two orders by recalling some common experiences then and now.  In the Nation-State, you had to go to a few centralized locations to ‘consume culture,’ for example.  If you wanted to hear a couple songs from an artist, you had to buy the whole album.  If you want news, go to one of the 4-5 major outlets, most of which said much the same thing.  It was the era of the ‘water-cooler’ show, where everyone tuned in to see the Cosby Show, for example (‘Seinfeld’ may have been the last show truly like this).

Now, thanks to technology, identity politics, Vietnam and Watergate, among many factors, we have many more choices.  We can individualize our lives in ways not possible even 15 years ago.

I wanted the students to think about the implications for modern America, and the modern state in general.

First, we noted that governments now have a much harder time controlling the message they want heard. Government’s simply won’t be able to mobilize mass opinion as they could before.  The Arab Spring is one example of this, but there are countless other smaller ones.  Note the leaking of the Abu Ghraib scandal, for example.  Perhaps a downside to this is that with the wealth of options available, we never have to listen to the ‘other side’ if we don’t want to.  Might this contribute to the current rancor in politics today?  Both Bush and Obama have been compared to Hitler, which in my opinion does not foster healthy, responsible debate on their relative merits.  Still, every president or senator is bound to have plenty of critics.   In one sense then, governments have much less power than they used to.

But on the other hand, technology puts a tremendous amount of information at the government’s disposal.  What will happen to the concept of privacy, for example?  The globalized market de-emphasizes territorial boundaries among states.  In the same way, traditional notions of private and public boundaries are also changing.  Will our interpretation of the 4th Amendment also change?

Regardless of where we might stand on these developments, we must avoid a) Vainly wishing for a bygone era, or b) Assuming that every change is inherently good because it is change.  The Market-State, like any other model, will give and take away, and we need to be discerning to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.