What is a nation?

I know Michelangelo has already asked and answered this question, and NOL has dealt extensively with “the nation” before, but:

Nations are now defined not as races or peoples but by their possession of a state, and states are legitimate only if they express political will of a nation. The strange new idea of nation-building was born, the other side of the coin of state-building in the decolonizing world. It is a game played by given rules, above all that no other forms of political will and action were legitimate, especially wars of conquest.In outcome, the poor, the small, and the marginal gain the freedom of self-determination, the telos of independence, but their democratic rights extinguish utterly at the border. They have right of influence anywhere else.(137-138)

I have just two thoughts about this nugget of insight from American anthropologist John D Kelly, writing on the Wilsonian ideal in his book The American Game: Capitalism, Decolonization, World Domination, and Baseball. 1) The “given rules” Kelly writes of are still a factor in today’s world. You can most clearly see them via international governing organizations (IGOs) like the UN, World Bank, IMF, WLO, etc. Given rules are handed down to former colonies by IGOs not as a way to control these colonies but to guide them gently into the modern era. This may seem quaint, but this is how Wilson and his ilk viewed their rules and their fellow man in the colonies of Africa and Asia. If you think about institutions, even weak ones like IGOs, you know that the rules and ideals that such institutions were created to embody are hard to break; often a critical juncture is needed to do so. So the given rules of the international system are, I would argue, still based on condescending early 20th century notions about non-European peoples. This is partly why Scots and Catalonians are allowed to vote on their secessionist arguments while Kurds and Balochs and Biafrans are labelled terrorists or rebels, and states like Montenegro and Kosovo are allowed to enter the international system with virtually no hiccups while Kurdistan, Balochistan, and South Ossetia are ignored by IGOs and only informally recognized when an official state like the US requires an ally to fight an enemy.

2) This is hard for me to admit as a libertarian, but the Wilsonian ideal has helped to almost entirely eliminate old-school imperialism (violent conquest followed by oppressive government and extractive economic policies) from the earth.

McCloskey, Western equality, and Europe’s Jews

Warren shot me the following email a few days ago:

Brandon, do you know the name Deirdre McCloskey?

She is a first-rate economist with extensive expertise in history, literature and anthropology.  She recently finished a trilogy, the third volume of which is “Bourgeois Equality.” It’s a fat book but you would be well rewarded for time invested.  You don’t have to read the first two volumes to benefit from the third.

The purpose of the trilogy is to explain why we’re 30 times richer than our forebears of 250 years ago, as best that can be estimated.  Conventional answers like the industrial revolution and rule of law don’t go far enough.  The answer lies in attitudes toward commerce.

I haven’t read McCloskey’s book yet, but it’s been on my amazon wishlist for awhile and thanks to Warren’s prodding it’ll be my next purchase. (Here is all of NOL‘s stuff on McCloskey so far, by the way.)

My first instinct on this topic is to think about Europe’s Jews. Bear with me as I lay out my thoughts.

McCloskey’s book, which as far as I can tell takes readers to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom from the 17th to 19th centuries, is about how Europeans began to reconceptualize equality in a way that was very different from notions of equality in the past.

A very basic summary is that notions of equality in Europe prior to the modern era largely aligned with notions of equality elsewhere in the world. Basically, an established hierarchy based on either inherited land ownership or clerical ranking was justified in all cultures by a religious appeal: “we’re all Christians or Buddhists or Muslims or fill-in-the-blank, so don’t even worry about what we have and you don’t have.” This way of thinking was irrevocably altered in 17th century northwestern Europe. Once I actually read McCloskey’s book, I can give you more details (or, of course, you can just read it yourself).

This argument, that northwestern Europe became free and prosperous because of a change in ideas about equality, is of course very broad and qualitative, but I buy it. The big “however” in this line of reasoning is Europe’s treatment of its Jews.

I forget where I heard the argument before, but somebody or some school of thought has argued that because Europe’s Jews were forced by legislation to go into “dirty trades” like commerce, they became more broadly open-minded than other ethnic groups in Europe and therefore more prosperous. Dutch and British bourgeois culture no doubt had a Jewish influence, and because bourgeois culture is internationalist in scope this Jewish influence must have penetrated other European societies, but anti-Semitism in these other bourgeois centers was more rampant than than it was in the UK and the Netherlands. Why was this?

My main guesses would be “Protestantism” (because Protestants at the time were more open-minded due to being at odds with the Catholic Church), or “the seafaring character of British and Dutch societies.” These are just guesses though. Help me out!

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Turkey and the Case of the Magical Vanishing Coup
  2. Is the overthrow of a democratically elected government ever justified?
  3. John and Abigail Adams educated their son, John Quincy, to become the worthy successor of the Founding generation of the new regime
  4. An American economist’s observations from Europe
  5. The Influence of Culture on Science, and the Culture of Science
  6. Confessions of an Ex-Prosecutor

PS: Did anyone else notice that the Brexit vote was 51%-49%? I mean, there’s a lot to think about there, especially for libertarians who claim that democracy sucks but Brexit/Nexit/Grexit is totally and completely justified if the people demand it…

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Dr Khawaja is back in Palestine for the summer
  2. The nation-state is making a global comeback
  3. Nationalism isn’t replacing globalism
  4. Can Multiculturalism Be Exported? Dilemmas of Diversity on Nigeria’s “Sesame Square” (pdf)
  5. The West’s biggest statue: a tall tale

From the Comments: Pushback in favor of Brexit

Dr Stocker‘s recent post arguing against Brexit elicited the following response from Chhay Lin in the ‘comments’ threads, and I think it’s worth highlighting in a post of its own:

Very well explained, Barry Stocker. Although it can be good for Britain to leave the EU, it entirely depends on how they go on from there. I am worried that Britain will move unto the path of less free trade which would be an erosion of the 4 freedoms – free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. On the other hand, it seems to me that the EU was steadily moving toward greater centralization and harmonization of regulations that would decrease the competition between its member states and thereby becoming quite harmful. I think that the EU should have never had greater ambitions than the 4 freedoms with a European Court of Justice that would protect these freedoms. Now they can impose EU-wide tariffs and quotas against products from countries outside of the EU or they can impose EU-wide sanctions. Some harmful examples of the EU: the quotas on cheap Chinese solar panels and EU-wide sanctions against Russia. A wise independent Britain would have free trade agreements with countries within and outside the EU, but I’m afraid that too large a portion of the Leave supporters are hostile to immigration and open markets.

Chhay Lin has written more about Brexit, in Dutch, on his homepage and I do recommend you check it out.

A quick note on the Brexit debacle

I think Barry (here and here) and Edwin (here and here) have made the best contributions to the debate on the EU and sovereignty here at NOL to date, so I’m just going to add a couple of open-ended thoughts to the recent vote (which I think was a huge mistake).

One of the big theoretical debates over the years concerning the EU is the concept of European-ness and how it can never replace the nationalisms that already exist in each state across the pond. This makes no sense to me, though, especially if you buy the argument (as I do) that nations come and go largely in reaction to current events. German-ness or French-ness or British-ness could easily be subsumed by a European-ness.

I don’t want to be one of those doomsayers who claims that, because things did not go my way, all will be lost. The UK is going to be in for a little bit of hurt, financially, as is the European Union; losing the UK is a big deal, and so is leaving the EU. However, the UK is not exactly Sweden or Germany. The United Kingdom is poorer than Mississippi, the poorest administrative unit in the United States. It’s possible, if a bit unlikely, that the UK will be better placed to negotiate itself back to economic prominence if it doesn’t have to work through the EU to attain some of its goals. The UK has deep connections with a number of states and regions around the world thanks to its now-dead worldwide empire, and I don’t why a more Euroskeptic UK would decide to shun the rest of the world too, especially if the “rest of the world” was once a part of the UK’s empire (the glorious past of the UK seems to be an important talking point for Euroskeptics).

Immigration may not cease either. An irony here is that the Euroskeptics who won rode hard a wave of anti-immigration sentiment sweeping across the UK (and the rest of Europe, too). But it seems to me that, because of the UK’s deep connections to its former imperial provinces, most of the immigrants in the UK are going to be South Asian or Gulf Arab rather than Polish or Greek. Given that much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe stems from a deep distrust of Islam, I find it odd that British voters could be so gullible on this matter.

Does anybody know if this vote is the final say on whether or not the UK will leave the EU? [UPDATE: see Dr van de Haar’s comment for an answer to my question] It seems to me that there has got to be some legal mechanisms, via courts, that have been put into place in order to slow down things like mob rule mass voting.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Anthropology as critique of reality: A Japanese turn (pdf)
  2. Flat-footed Giants: Zaibatsu and Industrialization in Meiji Japan, 1868-1912 (pdf)
  3. A hypothetical federation between Japan and the United States