Nations, Self-Determination, and The Future Political Landscape

Separatism in 2014

There were five major attempts at national self-determination that caught the attention of the world last year. The first, most well recognised in the Anglophone world, was the Scottish independence referendum. The second, more well known among the continental Europeans, was the Catalan Self-Determination Referendum. The third, as an long on-going concern, was an attempt by Palestine to have the UN Security Council resolve to end the occupation of the West Bank by 2017 and establish Palestine as a state. The fourth is the pro-Russian secessionist groups in eastern and southern Ukriane, already subject to it's own review on this site. The fifth, perhaps more commonly overlooked of because the process of it's establishment, is the Syrian Kurdistan.

The five attempts are especially notable because of the divergence in the process used to determine the result. The Scottish Referendum was an official and legally binding vote on the United Kingdom. The electorate, consisting mainly of residents of Scotland, did mean that some seven hundred thousand people born in Scotland but living in the UK were not eligible to vote, and that some four hundred and fifty thousand people born in other parts of the UK, but living in Scotland, were eligible to vote. In Catalan, the "citizen participation process" was a non-binding vote organised by the regional government. The electorate consisted of Spanish citizens resident in Catalonia and citizens outside of Spain linked to a Catalan munipality; citizens whose origin is in Catalan but reside elsewhere in Spain were not eligible to vote. As a creature of the global distribution of state power, and most certainly not a democracy, the UN Security Council vote came with two votes against Palestinian statehood (the U.S. and Australia) and eight in favour and five abstentions, falling one short of the need to invoke a veto power from one of the permanent members, which the United States already indicated that it would use.

In the Crimea and the regions of 'Novorossiya' in the Ukraine, these have been both subject to armed takeovers with highly questionable referenda which endorsed the takeovers, in both cases without endorsement from international or local law. Whilst the Novorossiya separatists of Donetsk and Lugansk are part of of an ongoing conflict, the military intervention by Russia in the Crimea has turned that question into a fait accompli. As for Syrian Kurdistan, this is a matter determined by the military capacity of the Kurdish People's Protection Units, establishing control over three non-contiguous Kurdish areas, establishing agreeements with rebels in the Free Syrian Army, and with conflicts with both government forces and against groups such as the Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The issue with the Syrian Kurds is, of course, complexified by Kurdish nationalist aspirations in contiguous areas in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

The Rise and Coming Fall of Westphalian Nation-States

Any review of the legitimacy of such claims, recognising that they are contested and sometimes violently so, requires some grounded definitions and even a historical overview. A nation means a group of human beings, whose membership is defined at birth, from the Latin "natio". From the seventeenth century onwards it was strongly tied to ideas of commonality through "blood and soil", that members of a particular nation had shared descent and a common homeland. A more contemporary perspective emphasises use of shared symbolic values; thus national identity becomes very close to cultural and linguistic identity. Nationality is different to country and to state. Countries are a region of land; a state is the institutional governance of that region. The matter is not helped by the insistence of states calling themselves "nations" or by bodies like the United Nations which is, in reality, a body of states. Or by such terms like "international law", which is invariably framed not between nations, but between states.

This admixture is primarily due to two reasons; the first is the institution of the 17th century institution of Westphalian sovereignty and the principle of territorial integrity, following the destruction of the Thirty Years War and the second the notion of universal equality of citizen's rights within a State regardless of their ethnic heritage. Whilst the former has been the norm for some three hundred and fifty years, the latter serves as a challenge on the last one hundred; where such equalities did not exist there was an impetus for successionism with independence movements. Although perhaps among the worst of practioners of the principle, Lenninist Marxism did argue "it would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning anything but the right to existence as a separate state", a position which dovetailed with the arguments of Woodrow Wilson against European colonialism in his Fourteen Points speech.

But increasingly there are trends against Westphalian sovereignty, trends which are to a large extent irreversible unless a country adopts a policy of extreme isolationism or stasis. The experience of genocidal governments has led to the rise of multilateral treaties and organisations such as the International Criminal Court and the legal doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect which both limit the unfettered claims of sovereignty and allows for special circumstances for international intervention. Economic and technical trends have encouraged the formation of various levels of multistate economic integration (e.g., free trade, common market, currency and monetary unions) and supra-state political federations, such as the European Union. These must be understood as increasing trend towards internationalism and globalisation with the ultimate tendency towards international governance and world citizenship, but also in the current context of political economy, the globalisation of capitalism.

Content Is Everything

Whilst there are some claims for national self-determination that still have legitimacy in the early modern notions of self-determination in the sense of the nation-state these tend towards having the most justification in economically and politically underdeveloped regions (e.g., West Papua, Tibet). In most developed countries, the debate over self-determination is more of a confused admixture of liberal calls for universal human rights, which are certainly agreeable, but also with the interests of multinational corporate capitalism. It is little wonder then that some have genuine criticisms of liberal imperialism, but that only tells part of the story, and even then from anti-interventionist ideology. Significant opposition also comes from those who oppose transnational agreements which sign away those economic rights and public ownership achieved through decades of reform and struggle.

The anti-globalisation and popular-national movement in advanced economies can hardly be discounted either; the extreme-right, with their racist and often quasi-fascist political orientations (e.g., the French National Front, the British National Party, etc), combine the interests of local and petty-capitalists threatened by external competition through existing racism and conservatism among the poorly educated. The irony that such concerns is a direct result of centuries of imperialist domination and their inevitable collpase is, of course, not lost, and it should also be fairly obvious that from both perspectives popular nationalism is ultimately on an utterly unwinnable long-term trajectory. Nevertheless it does serve as a warning for those who find something progressive in arguments for national self-determination - anti-imperialism in the course of 'liberation' also includes a kernel of racism and irredentist imperialism of its own, an issue painfully obvious in the Eastern European conflicts from the 1990s.

Despite a stubborn attachment to sovereign nationalism, it should be fairly obvious to any forward-thinking person that it will be increasingly irrelevant - Rosa Luxemburg recognised this a century ago, as a number of Marxists adopted an opportunistic support for national-self-determination (which was then, of course, ignored). In contrast Luxemburg raised priority of content; it is a step backwards if national self-determination results in a worse political system, with less civil rights, and less democratic control. Ultimately national self-determination is, of course, contradictory because nations are not conscious actors in their own right.

Technology, that most relentless cause of social change, directs us to a world of increasing movements of capital and labour and an increasingly global issues. However the organisations that do have an international perspective that includes civil liberties and democratisation of resources - such as the International Labour Organisation, the World Social Forum, and the International Union for Land Value Taxation, the Free Software Foundation - are hampered by the relative size, their institutional restrictions, and - most of all - the lack of a theoretically grounded model that combines the emancipatory potential that each of them offer. Whilst this remains unresolved, one should expectation of conflicts between "liberal imperialism" and "nationalist popularism" to continue.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on March 3, 2015.


(Australia) Amanda Vanstone(LNP) and another announcer on radio were saying that a nation does not give stability, and what if no nations and just cities. I think the TPP and FTAs are steps along that direction. Also suggestions to dismantle one tier of government or to restructure voting are also likely to be risky in the current govt context.

I think we are living at a time when money has decided that humanity is optional(other humanity) and so the constructs which are framed around stability for geographic place and community are being deconstructed with money going to those with the power to buy government. I think that capitalism is designed for self interest above other priorities and that the inequality of wealth and power has reached a point where stability is a problem.

In part I think that this is exacerbated by climate change because we have overpopulation and overconsumption. One response to this might be to collapse economies and to reduce aid to populations where high birthrates. Which seems like the kind of thing our government is doing with austerity and with change of aid to arms.

I don't know if nations will be a part of our future. It is a construct which at least has a longer term frame of mind. I think we need an economics which starts with the constraints of the natural world and values life systems and species as real assets. And perhaps profit could be reframed as the part of what we do which is paid forward as ecology and life systems for the future. ie If that is the goal then our economics should fit within that frame.

Not sure how to do something like that. Not sure if triple bottom line accounting has enough to help in that direction and not sure if people have enough agency now to make things shift to a model which is not designed for war and ecological carnage. We need some ways to tell ourselves stories of being joined together constructively. All future stpries seem to be framed re dystopia and war is the only tool in the box.

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