As the EU debate rages in the UK, many of the arguments being advanced for leaving the EU capitalise on a sense of national pride. Tapping into this from a broader political-philosophical perspective can illuminate the question. The issue runs deeper than how to organise one aspect or another of our governance and is related to the fundamental question of the nation-state. We need to be thinking about what kind of a world our children will be living in and make the right choices for their sake.
The nation-state’s position as the primary unit of human governance and allegiance was being established in the centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution. Marx saw it as a creation of capitalism, the emergence of which required such established spheres of governance in order to reap the benefits of international trade. Allegiance to one’s country means supporting economic growth there over that of other countries. A sense of patriotism, of belonging to one’s nation-state, was central to the system of governance upon which capitalism was built.
Patriotism involves projecting the people’s desire for community onto a national stage, thereby engendering support for the system created by the ruling class. It’s ironic (or chilling) that large corporations, which rely on a system that exploits patriotism, nevertheless think in a thoroughly transnational way. Clearly we need a form of governance that can hold them to account in a transnational way as well.
Patriotism is in decline, even in the US, and it’s clear that the fiction of the nation-state is in question. Surely technology and the environment will be determining factors in its fate. Technology changes the landscape of communication, putting us in touch with everyone around the (technology-enabled) world. ‘Communities’ can now mean groups of people scattered in many different places across the globe. How long before people’s allegiances and sense of belonging turn from nation-states to the stratified global community they feel is most relevant to them?
As democratic and authoritarian regimes, political parties, church councils, and school cliques have demonstrated over the ages, the people’s allegiance is the most important factor in any system of governance. If we bow now to the arbitrary walls cemented during the Industrial Revolution, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot instead of showing up bright and early for whatever happens next.
The environment is the most pressing category of concerns facing the whole world at the moment. This is why it’s the stage on which international institutions are exercising some real authority. For all of us, there are limits as to the spheres in which we believe international institutions should have power. The environment is one of those arenas in which people tend to believe they should: it is hard to argue against a case for working together on something which affects all of us so deeply and so imminently.
The environment could well be a crucial unifying factor for humanity, creating structures of governance broader than the nation-state, upon which other collaborations may be built. Indeed, in a model of a future global order shown to be more likely than some others, the nation-state no longer holds such primacy, but there is a network of structures and power relations, with different types of decisions being taken at different levels.
International governance can make us feel distant from decisions that affect us. We all want to feel close to our leadership and able to effect change; but why does that have to be only at a national level? Why not also your European voting region, of which the UK is split into 12? Your transnational interest group or political community? The nation-state is cemented and upheld by those who benefit from it; it is only to our advantage to divide our allegiances between different levels of power.
Leaving the EU would not reverse the global trends already in place. It would be a backward decision, designed to hold in place for as long as possible the fictitious community of the nation-state. If we stay, then rather than disempowerment and disconnection, we will be offering our children a firm footing in the new world order, whatever its shape.