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The National or the Global: Between “the People” and "the Multitudes"

Sergio Fiedler c/o Dr Wooo writes

"The National or the Global:

Between “the People” and "the Multitude"

Sergio Fiedler

University of Technology Sydney

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Nationalism and Globalism Conference

15-16 July, 2002


As pointed out by Michael Hardt in his report on the Porto Alegre Social Forum, the tension between national and global responses to globalisation remains one of the main questions dividing the movement against neo-liberalism in different parts of the world today. This paper discusses the relationship between nationalism and globalism in reference to the notions of “the people” and "the multitude," and why the national has been surpassed as main arena of anti-systemic struggle by the global character of social movements themselves. Moreover, it highlights the need to create a counter-empire of the multitude as a response to global corporate and military power, rather than retreat to nationalism.

The patrimonial state of pre-modernity was the property of the sovereign, the monarch. Such a state was based on a juridical and religious transcendentalism by which the source of the monarch’s authority emanated from outside this world, from the powers conferred to him or her by God. In contrast, the nation-state is said to be the property of “the people”. In this case the main source of political authority is immanent. It emerges from within the world, through the powers bestowed by “the people” on their political representatives (Hardt & Negri 2000: 94). Under the patrimonial state, therefore, the relationship between the sovereign and the population was based on the passivity and submission of the latter. Under the nation-state, on the other hand, the achievement of peoplehood is based on citizenship, that is the active engagement by “the people” in the political process through a social contract of duties and rights.

The transition from patrimonial forms of authority to the formation of nation-states epitomizes a critical element of the passage to modernity. This is the moment where the realm of the political ceases to be the space of those who are closer to God and becomes the space of those who are closer to earth: “the people”. In modern political theory, liberal-democratic as well as nationalist and communist thought have celebrated this transition as an extremely progressive one. In all these political projects, the concepts of the nation-state and “the people” were intimately bound together within a common ideological horizon, one through which democracy and socio-economic development could be delivered in the centres as well as the peripheries of the world system. What this modernist optimism failed to consider, however, was that in shifting the source of sovereignty from heaven to earth, the very notion of “the people” inherited transcendentalism in a secular form. By wrapping itself in the sense of cultural and biological superiority provided by a national identity, peoplehood would become a source of catastrophic exclusion rather than liberation.

The irony is that in this modern passage from God to “the people”, the nation-state dispensed with the only potentially democratic element of what constituted the patrimonial state. No matter how submissive to divine inspired authority a population ought to be, the transcendental God still recognised all humanity as a part of his universal kingdom, without exclusion of anyone. By rejecting the universalist dimension of religious power, the nation-state embraced the most archaic feature of patrimonialism and transformed the people-nation into a secularised version of divine superiority over the rest of humanity. It was not an accident that when the Creole population of Chile fought for independence from Spain in the 19th Century, the indigenous populations in the south of the country sided with the royalist Spaniards as they thought they would better off if Chile remained under the power of the Spanish crown. Similarly, during the US War of Independence, a major defection of black slaves from their pro-indepence masters took place when the English monarchy offered the slaves freedom in exchange for their military support (Pybus 2002: 30). Clearly for those who lived and suffered outside the category of “the people”, the paternalism of the crown was often more “progressive” than the benefits offered by the new nation-states.

The patrimonial state is clearly not an alternative to the nation-state. But it must be recognised that in the liminal space between both, there was not a linear and necessarily singular rationality of historical development. The project of nation-state and the people-nation emerged triumphant as paradigms of social order only within a context of a political struggle waged by a multiplicity of political forces, which were not accounted for by the binary between the patrimonial and the national. (Hardt & Negri 2000: 76-77). In other words, the rise of the national was not an inevitable development. It was the expression of the political victory of the bourgeoisie, on the one hand, over the old forces of the feudal and colonial order, and on the other, over the emerging counter-power exercised by a multitude of new political subjects such as the urban poor, the peasantry and indigenous people.

The nation-state, by imposing the exclusionary and homogenising notion of “the people” on extremely diverse populations, detained the democratic potential of the very social and revolutionary movements on whose back it triumphed. The nation-state and the invention of “the people” were in fact the acts of political closure and cooption by which the constituent power of the multitude in early modernity was terminated and its revolutionary temporality of freedom reversed. This reversal was the crucial feature of the new bourgeois political order. Napoleon’s ironic statement in December of 1789 encapsulates the meaning of this political closure, while recognising the constituent power that called it into existence: “Citizens, the revolution is determined by the principles that began it. The constitution is founded on the sacred rights of property, equality, freedom. The revolution is over!”(In Negri 1999: 3).

This demand for closure was in line with the new economic demands of the newly emerging system of production: industrial capitalism. The constitution of the nation-state and its people was structured by the materiality of capitalist production and reproduction. The universal logic of the market imposed the need for the cultural and juridical integration of existing populations on the basis of “the biological continuity of blood relations, spatial continuity of territory, and linguistic commonality”(Hardt and Negri: 2000: 95). In this context, the creation of “the people” was something more radical than simply “imagining” a national community (Anderson 1983). “The people” constituted the political and symbolic marking of the collective body of an often recalcitrant and revolutionary multitude to transform it into a disciplined and productive bio-political entity for the new system of production (Foucault 1999; Deleuze & Guattari 1994; Elias 1978).

The multitude and the nation-state

In this dialectic of transformations, a central political antagonism providing the background to the new system of production was the confrontation between the ideology of “the people” and the ontology of the multitude. As suggested by Antonio Negri (1999: 324) and Paolo Virno (1996: 199-200) in their reading of the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Spinoza, the multitude should be understood as the physical substance through which the absolutism of real democracy takes place. Since the multitude never transfers its democratic capacity for decision to any sovereign power as “the people” do as citizens of the nation, it remains a plurality that resists any systemic totality opening a public space that is profoundly anti-capitalist and anti-statist. The multitude is the mobile and powerful force of production through which the political innovations of modernity take place, but also provides the social basis for its very instability. The multitude represents, therefore, not only the source of practices of struggle, defection and resistance through which all the revolutions and reformisms of modernity have occurred, but also the very possibility of contesting that modernity, of creating alternatives passages within it.

The openness of the power exercised by the multitude is necessarily constitutive. It creates society. “The people”, on the other hand, becomes a disciplinary mechanism for the appropriation and submission of this constituent power. It is not that the potential of the multitude has ceased to exist within the notion of “the people”, but that it exists captured by a national identity. While the disowned multitude amounts to an Other repressed within the container of the nation, its political and collective force still lingers as spectral power within the actions of “the people”. To use Zizek’s Lacanian argument of the fantasmic Real (2000: 64), the multitude is fundamentally the trauma of bourgeois society. It is the radically democratic and autonomous power that provides the very ontological ground on which the people-nation forms. Yet the multitude remains a dimension of radical otherness that must be politically unacknowledged for national identities to remain operative and efficient. The paradox of the situation, however, is that insofar as the multitude stands as a sphere of an otherness marginalised and repressed by the symbolic order of nationhood, the very antagonistic character of its presence within peoplehood opens the possibility for resisting the notion of national identity itself.

As against the multitude, “the people” of the nation state becomes a subject endowed with its own sense of superiority, personality and historical destiny that cannot be surpassed by any other people-nation in the world. While the multitude is the opening of borders, “the people” represents their consolidation. As a notion that developed simultaneously with the structures of the world market (Balibar 1991: 88), the idea of “the people” provided the ideological ferment on which imperial enterprises and wars were executed through the symbolic erasure of social multiplicity, including class and gender. The celebration of “the people” becomes the celebration of a narrative of events through which national identity is constituted, conveniently leaving out those events and groups that have challenged the dominant narrative. The martyrdom in Gallipoli becomes the ritual moment where the Australian character is actualised and projected historically, despite the fact that at the time of World War I there also emerged a considerable anti-war mass movement opposing Australia’s participation in the conflict.

The sublimation of the multitude within the category of “the people” becomes therefore the displacement of the multiplicities and antagonisms that constitute the social. “The people” becomes the discursive device through which-–to use an old Althusserian concept--the modern state interpelates the multitude and transforms it into an exclusive community of rights, and by doing so it reduces all social difference to the binary relations between the national “us” and the foreign “them”. Antagonism is removed from within the imagined community of the nation and positioned outside its borders. By invoking the nation-state as the place called “home”, and the exclusive property of “the people”, the latter recognises itself only in opposition to other “peoples” and other nation-states (Balibar 1991: 93-94).

Today, the Australian Federation puts asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in mandatory detention for challenging the integrity of its national borders. By invoking the national wellbeing and interests of its population, draconian border protection policies have become higher on the agenda of the current conservative government in Australia. This, however, has not gone without opposition from the more liberal and democratic minded sections of Australian society. Ironically this liberal–democratic opposition shares with Australian racists and conservatives the exclusionary notion of peoplehood as a founding mediation in the relationship with the “outside” world. Well intentioned slogans such as “refugees are welcome here”, for instance, reinforce the ideology that the ultimate power to accept new immigrants lies within the boundaries of the nation-state and its “people”. Such a slogan assumes that the people of Australia have a portion of this “right” which they may exercise, not only in the manner of saying “yes, come in”, but also in retaining the option of saying “no, you do not belong here” (Mitropolous in Moreno 2001). The liberal-democratic opposition to mandatory detention “still calls Australia home”.

National liberation and the left: the multitude within “the people”

This is not the first time that the people-nation has captivated the imaginary of oppositional politics and social movements. Throughout the 20th Century the entire revolutionary and reformist agenda of the left, particularly in the Third World, was built around the idea of “the people” and the nation. Often in radical opposition to the nationalism of “the people” of the imperial metropolis, there also emerged forms of subaltern nationalism among the oppressed peoples of the colonies. These Third World nationalisms stood for an independent road of national development from a world system dominated by imperialist powers. In the historical struggle between the colonising power and the colonised, the far left –particularly communism- stood mostly on the side of the colonised. This position even led revolutionary personalities such as Leon Trotsky to argue that in the eventuality of a war between “fascist” Brazil and “democratic” England, the duty of all revolutionaries was to side with “fascist” Brazil. For Trotsky as for other communists, the central question for determining revolutionary strategy was not the nature of the political regime within each of these countries, but the fact that Brazil was a colonised and oppressed nation within the global capitalist system. Not surprisingly, when the Argentinean military dictatorship took over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands from the British in 1982, the vast majority of the Latin America left supported Argentina in the conflict, regardless of the fact that the dictatorship had murdered thousands of left-wing activists a few years earlier.

Left-wing support for Third World nationalism was, however, never gratuitous and opportunistic. Whether it was in the social-democratic register of “humanising capitalism”, the Stalinist revolution by stages, the Maoist prolonged popular war or the Trotskist permanent revolution, the strategy of the left obeyed the dialectic of building mass movements, often under conditions where the industrial working class represented the minority of the population. In the case of all these left perspectives, though certainly with different emphasis in form and development, support for subaltern nationalisms was deemed the necessary political passage between capitalism and socialism, the stepping-stone for radical change and revolution. However, when nationalist movements took power, often in heroic battles against the colonial powers, the oppressive and homogenising dimension of peoplehood emerged once again to suppress class politics and multiplicity (di Tella 1970). When one thinks of the amazing process of mass organisation that these subaltern nationalisms were based on, one cannot but recognise the constitutive power of the multitude as energising their dynamic. But when the nation-state emerged as the point of resolution to the crisis caused by the confrontation with the colonial power, the social productivity of this constituent process was captured and brought to an end once again. The left was often capable of grasping this constituent power and pushing for new organisational possibilities, but ultimately actively participated in its destruction by endorsing these subaltern nationalisms and the “national interest” as an alternative to global capitalism (Laclau 1979: 161). The support by the Communist Party for the Ba’thist regime in Iraq, for example, brought about a catastrophic decline of communism in that country during the 1960s and 70s. Even when the party suffered the devastating effects of political repression under Saddam Hussein’s regime during this period, it was only in 1979 that Iraqi communists ceased to advocate a “patriotic front” with the ruling Ba’thist party (Zaher 1986:153-54).

Third World nationalisms were once significant not only because they were powerful forms of contestation of Western imperialism, but were themselves an effect of the globalisation of the Western cannon of the nation as a paradigm of political emancipation. To dichotomise between the national and the global therefore is theoretically spurious, when the relation between both of them has been an isomorphic one not one of opposition (Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 464). In fact, the national has always been the domain of realisation of global capitalism. Even in its most radical forms, the progressive dimension of subaltern nationalisms was limited by the desire to extract a better deal from global capitalism and to participate within it from certain position of strength, but never truly break from it. From the Stalinist idea of “socialism in one country” to the African National Congress’s acceptance of the free market, nationalism and globalism therefore have always been two faces of the same coin. It could be argued that the Chinese “delinking” from the world market under Mao was about a process of primitive capitalist accumulation –the creation of a modern and yet subservient working class- destined to prepare the social conditions for China’s subsequent “opening” to world capitalism.

The passage to Empire

The nation-state has been a point of entry for global capitalism, not of rupture from it. I do not want to enter the debate about the extent to which there has been a decline in the power of the nation-state as a result of neo-liberal globalisation. Nevertheless, if there has been a drastic transference of political sovereignty from the national to the trans-national sphere since the 1970s it is not because the nation-state has become a sudden enemy of global capital. If the nation-state as a hegemonic weapon of capitalism has declined, it is because it has ceased to be an effective political mechanism of social reproduction and ordered governance. It was the rise of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s across the globe, not capital, which in the first place contested the power of the disciplinary civil institutions that provided the foundation for socialisation and the formation of the people-nation (Hardt & Negri 2000: 273-75). In fact, as these movements exceeded and circulated beyond national borders, the creative forces of the multitude entered in conflict with the capacity of nation-states to sustain an image of peoplehood based on the discrete hegemony of ethnic and national boundaries. The Vietnam War was certainly a war of national liberation, but was also the political signifier connecting the struggles of the metropolis with the struggles of the periphery regardless of national borders. The Vietnam War was won on a global stage, not within the boundaries of the nation-state.

A number of authors have defined this period of crisis and social mobilisation as the one initiated a “molecular revolution” (Guattari 1989) bringing about a “legitimation crisis” for Western democracies (Habermas 1979). The crucial question for our discussion, however, is that this global political rupture was calibrated by the release of a potential of human desire from the institutions of peoplehood imposed on the multitude; a process through which an entire mode of subjectification based on the nation-state radically broke down. This is not to say that nationalism has disappeared. In fact, there has been a rise in nationalist movements world-wide. But this proliferation of new nationalisms is a development that has taken place in a context and as result of forces which are profoundly different to those operating before the 1960s. Capital responded to the exodus from nationhood experienced by the multitude during the late 60s with its own escape from the nation-state towards forms of global governance appropriate to the new political needs for order and governability. A new multinational capitalism required now the constitution of a new multinational legal and military complex. This is what Negri and Hardt (2000: 346) have recently called the deterritorialising logic of Empire, as the defining dynamic of neo-liberal globalisation and strategic response to the social movements of the late 60s and 70s.

The logic of Empire means that capital has proceeded to subsume and control new areas of natural and social life through the expansion of the market and commodification as hegemonic mechanisms regulating social relations. This is has been an intensive and extensive process. Intensive insofar as capital invades and neutralises spheres of everyday life, civil society and biology; extensive insofar as its domination extends to fundamentally every corner of the planet, including those zones of the world which have been subsumed through their own exclusion from the global market such as the African Sub-Sahara. This process has had significant consequences for the newly emerging nationalisms and nation-states. Before the 1960s, nationhood represented a semi-autonomous sphere of political, institutional and cultural mediations between the power of capital and the power of the multitude. There were the institutions of Third World nationalism that mediated and channelled the grievances of the multitude towards imperialist powers, and actually shifted the global balance of force in favour of the peripheries of the world-system (Arrighi 2000: 321). Under the conditions of Empire, in contrast, the nation-state has not disappeared but has ceased to be a mediating mechanism, to become a cultural and political dimension itself mediated by the capitalist market. Genuine nationalism has remained only insofar as it has become an intrinsic part of the business and mediatic spectacle of capitalism. “Peoples” might rejoice or cry with the collective and dangerous effervescence of the old nationalisms while watching their national soccer teams to fall and rise during the last world championship. However, the crucial new dimension of this nationalism today is that peoplehood has become one of the many life styles and identities offered for sale in the “postmodern” consumer market of Empire. Food, flags, t-shirts and other tribal merchandises conform the texture of ephemerality of this new nationalism: “tell me what you buy, and I’ll tell you from which country you come from”. And this without mention of the use of patriotism by the US government and advertising agencies as a “feel good factor” for boosting the business cycle depressed by the impact of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Centre (WTC).

For the multitudes of the periphery, the consequences of this shift seems more far reaching than the mere commodification of national identity. Empire is above all a dynamic of enclosing and decomposing the constituent power of the multitude at a global level, of detaining its flight and democratic practice within new borders. Within the new environment, the role of challenging imperialist domination played by numerous Third World national liberation movements throughout the post-war has been completely neutralised and coopted. In the last ten years, from the Balkans to the former Soviet Union and including East Timor, the processes of “national liberation” and the establishment of new nation-states have taken place subsumed within the politics of Empire and not against it. This basically means that all the new nationalist regimes and movements have accepted the global neo-liberal agenda of socio-economic development -as dictated by the IMF and the World Bank- as a constitutional cornerstone for their new nations. As pointed out by Arrighi (2000: 323), from a situation where the First World bankers begged Third World states to borrow in the 1970s, now it’s the Third World governments that are begging the metropolis for credit to maintain their nation-states afloat.

Empire is not necessarily a top down formation. It functions from below, by imperial military and economic superpowers delegating dimensions of sovereignty to local powers in a networked manner. If the US has become the leading force in terms of military intervention today it is only because it has been able to forge not only an economic and political alliance among the core nation states of the world system, but recruiting the active political support of these new nationalist movements or other local powers against rogue political forces. Empire is not simply about the US or any other superpower invading unilaterally a country as the old US marines did in so many occasions throughout the 20th Century, but supporting allies on the ground by providing economic aid, training armed forces and giving advise on nation-building, among other things. In the same way the Roman Empire was based on integrating difference rather than imposing homogeneity to sustain ever-expanding borders, today’s Empire uses the proliferation of new nationalisms as Trojan Horses for market economics. Like in the commodification of national identity, global capitalism incorporates the national aspirations of the peripheries and semi-peripheries, rearticulates them, and even constitutes them, so that they become compatible with the existing system of domination (Zizek 1999: 30).

It may then be possible for the US--and in fact also Israel--to accept the creation of a Palestinian nation-state in the near future as way to resolve the Middle East crisis by respectable liberal-democratic means. After all, the Israeli demand on Arafat to crack down on militancy (and more generally on any form of dissent which does not accept Israeli sovereignty) can only realistically be fulfilled if the Palestinian Authority is provided with the military, ideological and policy means to do so; in other words, if it is actually provided with the tools to build a strong nation-state. It is for this reason that I am rather sceptical that, in the context of Empire, a new Palestinian state turned against its own population from the moment of its inception could provide a solution to Palestinians in the long term. Moreover, the emergence of a Palestinian nation-state would not bring peace but the formalisation of the partition of Palestine on the basis of the already existing ethnic and political enclosures, creating the potential for further bloodshed (Said 2002). As a part of the Oslo agreements, the PLO accepted the imperial logic of partition as a matter of fact, drastically retreating from its earlier, far more democratic national liberation stand: the creation of a secular, democratic and non-racist state of Palestine where both Jews and Arabs could live together.

The movement of many movements

The PLO epitomises the conservative shift of Third World nationalism over the last twenty years. It provides an example of how, since the late 60s, the idea of “the national” is receding from centrality as arena of anti-systemic social mobilisation. In fact, the moments when national liberation movements have proven most successful in recent times have been when they have appealed to global audiences and reached for the support of the multitude of social movements positioned beyond the identity boundaries of the people-nation. In the 60s and 70s, Cuba and Vietnam themselves overcame the isolation of their own national revolutions with the support of a vast network of international solidarity.

Despite their centrality, the struggles of the 60s and 70s were defeated, but not without establishing a different framework for the constitution of social movements. The anti-corporate globalisation movement –the movement of many movements- which developed after the Battle of Seattle in 1999 marks a transition from preceding anti-systemic movements, but only to some extent a drastic break from them. This is because the new movement has taken up the struggle at the very arena where the multitude of the 60s left it: the arena of the global. Despite the right-wing offensive of the 80s and 90s, “the movement of many movements” has not stood on a defensive position. By expanding and redeploying the affective and communicational richness inherited from the social mobilisations of the past, the new movement has offered a challenge to our new “imperial” condition. Its achievements have been truly impressive considering that the balance of political forces has clearly favoured the neo-liberal and conservative right in the last two decades. The defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the derailment of the ‘Millennium Round’ of the WTO trade negotiations in Seattle 1999, the paranoid defensiveness of media commentators and governments towards civil disobedience, the impressive growth of alternative networks of global communication such as Indymedia, the ability to bring together political “identities” not always compatibles with each other -such as trade-unions and environmentalists, have placed the movement in a position of strength to create new spaces for the elaboration of new alternatives (Goodman 2002: 227).

The new movement recognises itself as global, but it also identifies itself as being diverse. This means that national solutions as alternatives to the globalism of Empire have not been absent among the different proposals for change put forward within the movement. In the last 2002 Social Forum in Porto Alegre, groups like ATTAC from France and the Workers Party (PT) from Brazil delineated the framework of the debate on that basis. While for the PT social change through “national liberation” remains the ultimate goal for social movements in Latin America, ATTAC advocates the strengthening of “national sovereignty” in the face of the social impact of neo-liberal globalisation (Hardt 2002: 115). On the other side of spectrum, however, there are those who advocate within the movement an “alternative globalisation” or a “globalisation from below”, rejecting nationalism by arguing that the breakdown of the nation-state has not only created new problems but has raised the radical possibility of constituting new autonomous forms of sociality through political cooperation across national borders and communities. The most outspoken and militant representatives of this position are grouped around the networks of autonomous social centres in Italy and the civil disobedience group Ya Basta otherwise known as the White Overalls or the Desobedienti.

The 9-11 attacks on the WTC and the new imperial rhetoric of the “war on terror” are, however, shaping a new political context for the new movement to operate. Anti-corporate activists are now realising that Empire is not simply about the power of finances and the global media. Empire is also the unrelenting militarisation of global politics under the veil of humanitarian liberalism. The new global political situation calls, therefore, for the new movement to more clearly define the politics around which the multiplicity and innovation of its collective power are going to expand and develop. Given the political foreclosure imposed historically on the power of the multitude by projects of national sovereignty, the answer quite clearly lies in the ability of the new global multitude to constitute itself as a counter-empire, not retreat back to the nation-state.