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Nations and Capital: The Missing Link in Global Expansion

Most theorists of nationalism claim that nationalism is a modern phenomenon. However, they commonly fail to notice that the phenomenon to which they vaguely refer as Modernity is absolutely determined and defined by a very compact and precisely structured socio-economic system, that of capitalism.

This is why capitalism as a whole – rather than its particular aspects, such as Gellner’s “industrialism”, Anderson’s “print-capitalism”, Nairn’s “uneven development”, Hechter’s “internal colonialism”, Tilly’s “mass-militarisation”, or Conversi’s “Westernisation” – inevitably arises as the most adequate framework for analysis of nationalism as a historical phenomenon, offering the reasons for nationalism’s emergence and continuing existence.

Whereas the principle of unequal exchange and accumulation of wealth in all previous systems was to provide socio-economic security and set social hierarchy, capitalism has built a mechanism which makes unequal exchange self-perpetuating, so as to make accumulation of wealth perpetual and limitless. Capitalism’s imperative for perpetual private profit, present in all its phases, both pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial, generates particular social conditions that tend to undermine the very sustainability of the capitalist system: a perpetually widening gap between the exploiting elites on one side and the exploited masses on the other side leads to a perpetual rise of insurrectionary potentials of the latter, threatening the stability of the entire system.

Bridging that gap without changing the structure of society becomes the paramount task for the capitalist system in its attempts to preserve the mechanism for incessant exploitation of labour and limitless accumulation of capital. Therefore, this system has introduced a social glue tailored to conceal, but also to cement, the actual polarisation of society. This glue has been designed as an ideal of absolute social unity, based on the assumption that both the exploiting and the exploited are born as equal, with equal rights, identical interests, and common identity, and that together they form an entirely new entity, the nation.

The nation is conceptualised as a simulated community whose homogeneity generates its power over the territory it inhabits and whose power over the territory it inhabits generates its homogeneity. In other words, the nation is designed as a community whose capacities for social homogeneity and political sovereignty stand in direct proportion: the might of homogeneity creates the right to sovereignty, the might of sovereignty creates an obligation to homogeneity. In historical, political, and social reality, the nation and nationalism always operate in accordance with this logic.

The nation, by its very nature, consists of nationalism. To paraphrase Gellner, not only does nationalism invent nations where they do not exist, but nations themselves exist only in the form of nationalism: in social reality the nation operates as a fluctuating discourse rather than a fixed substantive and enduring entity. In this sense, nations function as nationalism: nations are generated and brought into being by their respective nationalisms; and nations continue to exist as long as the societies that have been politically framed as nations remain capable of perpetuating their respective nationalisms.

The nation-state arose as superior to the other forms of state characterising early capitalism – such as city-state and mercantilist empire – due to its ability to protect the domination of the capitalist class by systemically containing the potential discontent of other classes. For capitalist elites, the nation-state performs yet another important function: while populations fashioned as nations become increasingly isolated one from another by their respective nationalist ideologies, symbolic boundaries, and physical borders, and thus become increasingly powerless, capitalist elites further strengthen their position by operating across and above these ideologies, boundaries, and borders, as a powerful trans-national network.

Eventually, supported by the ideology of nationalism, capitalism redesigns all states in the world as nation-states, by which they buy a must-take ticket for entrance into the global capitalist system. Reliance on nationalism, based on this must-take principle, has also been adopted by all left-wing and communist regimes, in their permanent striving for full-fledged membership in this system.

Nationalism successfully played the designated role within the capitalist system until the last decades of the twentieth century. However, the global neoliberal revolution, spread under the label of globalisation, has widened the gap between the rich and the poor to such an extent that classical nationalism, connected with liberal-democratic principles, has ceased to be able to conceal that gap, having made the capitalist system unstable, or even unsustainable.

Therefore, capitalist elites have identified a possible solution in a resurgence of nationalism in a more robust, non-democratic, authoritarian form. This form of nationalism announces a new phase in capitalism’s development, the phase of hyper-capitalism, in which exploitation of labour and accumulation of wealth tend to become absolute, supported by overtly robust, authoritarian methods of rule.

This book demonstrates that capitalism needs and generates nationalism, both democratic and authoritarian, as its structural requirement that eventually becomes a conditio sine qua non of its very existence. In other words, not only is there no nationalism without capitalism; more importantly, there is no capitalism without nationalism. 

Source: Zlatko Hadzidedic for Atalayar

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