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Philip C. Bobbitt

  • Distinguished Senior Lecturer

The Archbishop is Right: The Nation-State is Dying

by Philip Bobbitt
The Times (London), December 27, 2002
Reprinted with the author's permission

Writing a long book such as The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History is like sending a message to HQ from behind enemy lines. You may never know if the message was received, or if it was understood, or precisely what action was taken. So I was especially pleased when the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Dimbleby Lecture, about the rise of the market state, called upon the Church to take up some of the moral responsibilities the 20th-century nation-state is beginning to shed.

Alas, however, the Archbishop cannot assume that everyone who heard the lecture had read the book, and although his analyses drawing on the work were impeccable, I can appreciate how his critics have misconstrued novel terms and ideas that he could describe only briefly.

Some reactions were absurd, others far more extensive, and they deserve to be treated seriously. I think that my terminology, and the fact that the Archbishop could only summarise the basis for my analysis, misled otherwise thoughtful commentators into offering reactions that are wide of the mark. Take the estimable Matthew Parris, whose work I so admire that it is quoted in my book. He dissected the Archbishop’s lecture as mistaken in every element. “The nation-state is not being torn away,” he wrote. “The citizen has never in history enjoyed a higher level of protection and shelter from government… The idea that the nation state is being blown away by the global market is a fashionable view for which there is no sound evidence. The delusion has three understandable causes: first, we in Europe are conscious that some functions previously exercised by our domestic governments are in the hands of the European Union… Secondly, we are uncomfortably aware of the emergence of a new imperial power… Thirdly, now that currencies float and protectionism is out of fashion, we have the illusion of being newly exposed to global market forces.”

None of the three reasons for the delusion Mr Parris perceives has got anything to do with why the nation state will be increasingly unable to fulfil its citizens’ expectations.

The state is not declining, nor is the nation dying, but the relationship between the two is changing and the particular version of the State which has dominated for a little more than 100 years is undergoing a profound change.

Like earlier versions of the State, stretching back to the Renaissance, the constitutional order of the nation-state (dating roughly from 1865/1871 to the present) rests on its own unique premise for legitimacy: give us power and we will better the material wellbeing of the people. Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin all made this same promise, although they had different ideas about how to achieve it. Indeed the long wars of the 20th century determined which of three forms of the nation- state — fascist, communist or parliamentary — would accede to the legitimacy of the imperial states of the 19th century. Now, at the moment of its greatest triumph, the nation state is increasingly unable to fulfil its legitimising premise.

Five developments are chiefly responsible for this. First, the recognition of human rights as norms that require adherence within all states, regardless of their internal laws; this is why Slobodan Milosevic is in the dock today, not because he disobeyed any of the laws of the state of which he was the elected leader. Second, the development of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction that render the defence of state borders ineffectual; this is why it is untrue that “no generation has ever been better protected”. Third, the proliferation of global and trans- national threats — such as those that damage the environment, or threaten states through migration, population expansion, disease, or famine — that no nation-state alone can control or hide from. Fourth, the growth of a world economic regime that ignores borders in the movement of capital, which curtails states in the management of their economic affairs. Fifth, the creation of a global communications network that penetrates borders and threatens national languages, customs and cultures.

A constitutional order will arise that reflects these five developments and hails them as requirements which only it can meet. The emergence of this new order will also change how states interact with each other. The European Union, the increased power of the United States (which some mistakenly believe to be a new empire), floating currencies: these are all consequences of the five developments, not drivers.

Mr Parris completely mistakes this point and he seems to acknowledge it when he writes: “The second leg of Dr Williams’s argument therefore baffles me. ‘Where the State was once seen as guaranteeing the general good of the community,’ he says, ‘the State no longer has the power to keep its side of the bargain.’ I have no idea on what the Archbishop bases this remark.”

Exactly. And having mistaken the analysis, he misses the link to Dr Williams ’s point about the emergence of the market state, the likely successor to the nation-state. It is not, as Mr Parris alleges, that Dr Williams claims that we live “in a new and market-driven age of individual greed.” And thus Mr Parris’s riposte that individuals are no greedier today than they ever were, while doubtless true, misses the point.

The link to Dr Williams’s argument about the role of faith-based institutions is the following: if the legitimising premise of the nation-state will be increasingly difficult to fulfil, the state will not simply wither away, rather it will change that premise. The premise of the market state is that it will maximise the opportunity of individuals.

A market state is not a market. The state is not going away, and in some respects it will be more powerful than ever. Nor does the nation state have a monopoly on nationalism; far earlier constitutional orders reflected intense nationalism. Rather, Dr Williams is arguing that the emergence of the market state will see the state evacuate areas of responsibility that it had, in the last 150 years, undertaken. When the Left argues for affirmative action, and the Right for criminalising abortion; when the Left wants to make hate speech a crime and the Right wants to criminalise drug use; when the Left seeks to create “hate crimes” and the Right wants to ban non-national languages: all are regarding the state as a nation-state, employing law and regulation to enforce moral positions. But when the Left urges the deregulation of reproductive choice, and the Right the deregulation of industry, they have moved to a market-state perspective. Phenomena such as the replacement of conscription with an all- volunteer force, welfare reform that attempts to replace unemployment allowances with education and training to help the unemployed to enter the labour market, and the use of non-governmental organisations and private companies as adjuncts to traditional government activities, reflect elements of the barely emerging market state.

And this is the Archbishop’s point: that a state that is, owing to these new forces, relatively (compared to the nation-state) indifferent to loyalty, civility, trust in authority, respect for family life, regard for privacy, reverence for sacrifice, equality and solidarity will require that the society it governs promotes these qualities through non-state agencies. As the Archbishop put it: “It is inevitable that governments can no longer deliver in terms of setting out a moral basis in law — other institutions will have to take up a new role.” This is why he focuses on “the willingness of the market-state government to engage with traditional religious communities in a new way.”

I cannot help but wonder whether, if the Archbishop had substituted the phrase “non-governmental organisation” — such as Amnesty International, Médecins sans Frontières, trade unions or multinational corporations — instead of “religious communities” as taking up new responsibilities, anyone would have been so terribly surprised.

After all, underlying his proposals is an analysis that suggests new roles for businessmen, and for the private sector generally, not just for religious institutions. Thus, here, too, the Archbishop’s critics mistake their target when they respond to his lecture by saying that the Church has no monopoly on moral argument.

I urge the Archbishop’s critics to give their reactions to his lecture a second — and a third — thought.

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Philip C. Bobbitt

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