The nation laughs last

Yesterday British voters decided that their country should leave the European Union. I have never been so disheartened by the outcome of an election in which I had so little a personal stake. Since I am neither a European nor a Brit (the latter is still, we should insist, a subset of the former) my mobility, my citizenship, and my institutions are not at immediate risk. But I fear that last night the whole world passed over an ominous threshold, and that we are headed now into a time of great change, in which the fractures that have etched through society over the past two decades will widen irreversibly into chasms. I despair for my British friends and colleagues, who must feel today as though that some incomprehensible and uncontrollable malign force has darkened their present and future lives. But I despair also for us all, since it is now evident beyond any doubt that the nihilism of decay, destruction, and anger is rising above the weakening powers of cooperation and cohesion. The engines of modernity are groaning to a halt.

By far one of the most puzzling features of the history of the past century is the continued relevance of the nation-state. There are really not that many problems which are best handled at that size of polity (whether geographic size or demographic size). The regulation and control of trade, manufacturing, finance, currencies, pollution, communication networks, agricultural production, and planet-destroying weaponry are all now substantively global problems. No one nation, not even North Korea, can meaningfully claim to be “sovereign” on any of these issues. At the opposite end, there are many concerns, like whether dogs should be allowed in parks or how to properly celebrate public holidays, which are best handled at the local, face-to-face level, in polities about the size of an elementary school catchment area, where people can express the first-hand mutual engagements of democracy unmediated by formal bureaucracies. Many other functions of the modern state, from planning housing developments to enforcing consumer-protection laws, are best handled by regions consisting of nodal cities balanced in an equal, not vampiric, relationship with outlying belts of suburban, small-town, agricultural, and wilderness domains.

Perhaps language is one of the few problems that remains well-fitted to the nation-state scale. And yet we have not withered the nation-state away to the size of the editorial board of the Oxford English Dictionary or the members of the Académie française.

The reason why the nation-state remains so powerful is because it still controls three major functions: military aggression, the control of migration, and the hand of the welfare state. These, it turns out, are the functions that many working-class people in the Western world turn to when they seek security in an uncertain and tumultuous world. The nation-state therefore serves as an emotionally-charged club for those whom it has served well: something which can be made Great Again or turned back into a premodern Hobbiton of “decent people.” It is important to note that the continued power of the nation-state is therefore equally a project of right and left politics, since it relies both on guts-and-glory flag waving as well as the institutional structures of mutual economic support.

The opposite pole of the ideological spectrum from the nation-state atavists is said to be “cosmopolitan.” This consists of the people who no longer need the functions of the nation-state: they believe that the safety of the world is controlled in airport executive lounges, not military briefing rooms; their jobs are not threatened by poor migrants in rafts; and their retirement checks will come from their estate bankers, not from a social-security pension. Here is a group which can feel comfortable praising the way that London and Berlin and Dubai and Hong Kong are all deeply intertwined in a global network of ideas and goods, while at the same time furiously trying to de-intertwine themselves from their own poorer neighbors.

This is why the Remain camp had already lost when it tried to turn the Brexit referendum into nothing more than a gamble about the economy and markets. If international cooperation and integration is simply a device to keep investors happy and currency traders safe, then it was always doomed to die at the hands of the people who do not see why their precious “sovereignty” should be exchanged simply for the benefit of the IMF and ECB, or for keeping a smooth line on volatility-index charts.

Wider and more intensive integration must be built through the slow and gradual work of convincing people, in their politics and in their everyday lives, that our fates are cast in together—that an ever-larger Here encircles an ever-larger Us. We forget that these categories do not exist in a timeless, always-existent way. They must be built. In 1811, Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts recoiled in horror at the idea of admitting “wild men on the Missouri” and people who “bask in the sands on the mouth of the Mississippi” into a political union with New Englanders. It took many decades (and indeed the process is still stumbling along now), but the United States was able to eventually shed Quincy’s distinction between Here and There, partly because people recognized the economic and material ties which connected Boston, New Orleans, and St. Louis, but more importantly because they began to think of each other as inhabiting substantively the same place.

If the left is to confront the rise of ethno-nationalism, as it absolutely must, it cannot simply nullify the geographic and ethnic attachments to the functions of the nation-state. The cosmopolitans propose to atomize society into a beautiful quiltwork of individual consumers whose fates are unhitched from the specific communities they inhabit. This is insanity—all the Snapchats and online bank accounts in the world will not free people from responsibilities and claims on their neighbors. Even if the Internet and frictionless capitalism could annihilate the importance of the places in which we live, why would we want it to? To belong together in groups is amongst the most human of desires, and it is a feeling to which we will always return in moments of confusion and insecurity.

Instead of indulging in the deracinated cosmopolitan fantasy that neighbors no longer matter, the left needs to make the case—and to convince ordinary people—that there is a sphere in which neighborliness is defined, a sphere in which Here and Us are constituted, which does not follow the aggressive, exclusive lines of the nation-state. This does not mean simply opening borders to the unlimited flow of people and capital without also opening the borders of political control and mutual responsibility. While we cannot and should not turn back the clock on economic globalization, we must insist that the institutions which regulate and moderate wildcat capitalism continue to grow and adapt with the geographies of modernity. And those cannot be merely technocratic, caretaker institutions of elite consensus. They must also be new territories of togetherness, both smaller and larger than the nation-state, with real powers, real functions, and real communities that match the needs of today’s world.