Boris Johnson and the “demise of the nation state”

Boris Johnson (center) is far from alone. He joins (clockwise from top left) Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, Scott Morrison, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi and Donald Trump.

And so, another reactionary demagogue joins the ranks as Boris Johnson becomes head of state in Britain. He joins Donald Trump, Narendra Modi (India), Scott Morrison (Australia), Viktor Orban (Hungary), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) and Vladimir Putin (Russia), to name a few. Along side them is the rise of reactionary nationalist movements like AfD in Germany or the various brands of Islamic fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, etc.

That is the only way to understand the election of Johnson – as part of a global trend. Yes, each society has its own particular features, such as Brexit in Britain, but they have something in common also.

“Demise of nation state”
A year and a half ago, an article appeared in the Guardian called The Demise of the Nation Stateby Rana Dasgupta. The author commented on the “national nervous breakdown” of the Brexit vote, explained that certain pressures were affecting “all countries everywhere” and commented “The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. This is why a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism is so widely in vogue.”

The article talked about the rise of global capitalism on a scale never even approached before. The ease with which capital can flood from one country or even entire region to another vastly undermines the power of the national governments. “These fleeing trillions undermine national communities in real and symbolic ways. They are a cause of national decay, but they are also a result: for nation states have lost their moral aura,” they wrote.

It’s not only that these “fleeing trillions” have thrown workers around the world into a state ranging from constant insecurity to absolute desperation. After all, “thou shalt not live by bread alone” and workers the world over have their identity to hold on to. National identity has always competed with class identity, but class identity – class consciousness – has in general declined in recent decades. Workers are not only aware of the economic insecurity caused by the “fleeing trillions”; they are also seeing their national identity challenged.

An additional challenge to the old national identity comes in the form of mass migrations, especially from the former colonial world to the advanced capitalist countries. A New York Times article for example reported on the 25% growth of the population in Australia and the fact that 60% of the immigrant population comes from Asia. The conception of Australia as a European country is being challenged by the facts on the ground. This demographic change played a role in the surprise election of Morrison as Prime Minister there. He is a similar type to Johnson and Trump.

The “demise of the nation state” is also being seen in the former colonial world. There, the nation states were established from the outside, by the colonial powers, rather than having arisen organically. The establishment of national borders was more for the convenience of and control by the colonizers than for anything else.

Millions of younger people, growing up in a much more multi-ethnic and multi-national world, are tending to rise up above the national consciousness. And potentially, the mass migrations could lead workers to rise above the national consciousness; it could strengthen class consciousness. However, the weakness of the workers organizations – the unions and the old working class parties – mitigates against this.

Nation states and theory of permanent revolution
Dasgupta in effect admits that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is correct in that he admits that the capitalist class of the ex-colonial world could never truly build united nation states like it did in the imperialist world. Instead, what developed was “quasi states”, and they too are now breaking down, aided and abetted by non-state actors. First and foremost among them is ISIS, which openly proposed to destroy the borders of the nation states in North Africa/West Asia – borders that were created by France and England under the Sykes Picot Accord. Erdogan’s dream of recreating the golden era of the Ottoman Empire is similar as are the pretensions of the Iranian regime.

The other aspect is the disaster that exists in Syria and some other countries, including Afghanistan. As the Guardian writes, “Nothing advertises the crisis of our nation-state system so well, in fact, as its 65 million refugees – a “new normal” far greater than the “old emergency” (in 1945) of 40 million.”

Breakdown of “world order”
It is not only the breakdown of order within the nation states; it is also the breakdown in relations between the states. Previously, the capitalist world was ordered by the conflict between capitalism and the Soviet Union. As the unchallenged capitalist super power, US capitalism was able to impose a degree of order on the rest of the capitalist world in those years. Now, not only is the rest of the capitalist world no longer driven together by the existence of the Soviet Union and its allies, US capitalism is no longer the unchallenged super power. This situation has opened up space for a whole series of second and third rung capitalist states to seek their own influence in their corner of the world.

Workers are seeing their old world crumbling under their feet. Not only whatever economic security they felt they had, but also a sense of order on a world scale is collapsing. “The idea of the western nation as a universal home collapses, and transnational tribal identities grow up as a refuge: white supremacists and radical Islamists alike take up arms against contamination and corruption.”

Nor is it only the working class that is responding to this breakdown. Recently, the journal Foreign Affairs, which is the journal of the premier US capitalist think tank, The Council on Foreign Relations, had a series of articles about the breakdown of the “liberal world order”. One article, The Liberal Order, cited the increase in world disorder, but still asserted that The liberal vision of nation-states cooperating to achieve security and prosperity remains as vital today as at any time in the modern age.As long as interdependence—economic, security-related, and environmental—continues to grow, peoples and governments everywhere will be compelled to work together to solve problems or suffer grievous harm. By necessity, these efforts will build on and strengthen the institutions of the liberal order.

This article was swiftly refuted by another one, The Myth of the Liberal Order. Its authors refuted the claim of the previous article that it was the “liberal order” that had enabled decades of peace and prosperity. It points out that this liberal order “privileges the strong (nations) over the week” as exemplified in the veto power of the five major capitalist countries in the UN Security Council. The idea of the US constructing a liberal world order is a dream, it basically concludes. The best US capitalism can do is maintain sufficient international order in order to keep things relatively stable (and profitable) at home.

The editors of the Wall St. Journal, who express the views of the most rapacious elements in the US capitalist class, joined in the fray in their commentary on “Ukrainegate”. They explain the “liberal… Atlantacist” strategy of the majority of the US capitalist strategists. They argue that the shift in US foreign policy should be aimed more at Asia than Europe. But in any case, they also dispute the very concept of the US trying to establish a liberal world order.

These developments do seem to mean that more such national leaders and movements may be on the rise. What can counter this trend?

How workers learn
The working class does not learn simply by debate and argument. In fact, in the main, it learns through events. One important aspect of events is the struggle itself. That is what transforms the consciousness of millions. For example, during the Occupy movement in the United States, the entire national dialog was transformed and workers were thinking about the so-called one percent vs. the ninety-nine percent. It will be the huge movements in the streets that calls forth class consciousness and pushes national consciousness – nationalism – into the background.

In fact, the process of revolution is already rising, especially in the ex-colonial world, but also in France.

For countries like Britain and the United States, that seems to say that the next round of workers struggle will not tend to be fought out so much in the electoral arena. It seems that those workers who are now seeking a return to the previous, secure world will not be convinced otherwise by propaganda but by the mass struggle in the streets, work places, etc.

This is the general background in which we should see the election of the Tories and Boris Johnson in Britain.

Boris Johnson (center) is far from alone. He joins (clockwise from top left)

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