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7. Democracy and the ‘Post-nation’ State

7. Democracy and the 'Post-nation' State

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: 7. Democracy and the ‘Post-nation’ State

Author: Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison

Publication date: 13/10/2012

Civilisation and Society I: Politics of Power

7. Democracy and the ‘Post-nation’ State

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation & Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the seventh of 12 sessions which make up the Politics of Power module. The entire session will last approximately 1 hour and comprise a lecture of around 40 minutes, followed by a 5 minute interval, and ending with a short question & answer period. You are encouraged to make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture.

Last week we examined four key features of modernity, whose direct and continued bearing on current social and political configurations feature most prominently in the extended political legacy of the French Revolution. This week we will look at the notion of the ‘post-nation’ state, the progressive degeneration of liberal democracy and some of the challenges it faces.

Let us begin by looking briefly at the definition of the nation state. As our primary concern today are the foundations of the modern centrally structured state rather than a historical survey of earlier forms of polity, the origins of national identity or a discussion of constitutional theories, it is sufficient for our present purposes to look to 1648 as the starting point for the idea of the nation state as we know it, and the series of treaties known as the Peace of Westphalia (referred to in Lecture No.2), which effectively brought to an end the Thirty Years War. The treaties did not define the nation state as such, but they established a balance of power between the principal European nations and remnants of empires that presupposed a mutual recognition of territorial boundaries, integrity of sovereignty and national self-determination.


The definition of the nation state as it has developed since Westphalia may be understood in simple terms by looking at the constituent elements of the term separately. The nation may be regarded as that population whose shared linguistic, cultural and traditional heritage provides the substance of their collective identity. This sense of the word can be seen clearly in reference, for example to the Zulu nation or the Sioux nation, or indeed in the Qur’anic reference to, “peoples and tribes…” [Al-Hujurat: 13]. The state, on the other hand, is essentially an administrative, geopolitical construct. Therefore, the conjunction of these two terms suggests the geographical convergence of the realities they each represent. 

The process by which this convergence has occurred throughout the history of state formation has differed markedly according to time and circumstance. In very broad terms, it appears that the main distinction lies between those cases where a cultural and linguistic concentration on identity has preceded state formation, such as could be argued for the unification of Italy and Germany in the nineteenth century; and those cases such as France and the UK that could be said to have been ‘state-driven’, or largely ‘imposed’ such as occurred during the rash of post-colonial nation state formations which began in the mid-twentieth century with the partition of India.

For most of the last two centuries the modern nation state proper has held sway as the recognised vehicle for the geopolitical organisation of the world’s populations and the repository for their cultural patrimonies. Although, it must also be said that the various historical and current expressions of nationalism have often transcended state borders, leading on many occasions to serious political tensions and bloody conflicts such as we have seen relatively recently in Central Africa, the Balkans, and even closer to home, in Northern Ireland. By recruiting to its cause the forces of myth, folklore, ancient history, language, religion, racial theories, art, literature and music, regular eruptions of popular nationalism have provided a constant counterpoint to the process of controlled state formation, bringing into high relief the underlying tensions between what has variously been called state or civic nationalism and popular or ethnic nationalism. Some historians have posited these contrasting currents on the one hand, in terms of the drive to ‘state-building’ (which equates to the state-driven state formation I referred to earlier) and on the other hand, in terms of cultural/identity driven nation-building which once politicised, becomes the basis for nationalist claims ranging from Black and Southern separatism in the USA, to the case for devolved government for the Scots and the Welsh here in the UK.

The key point is that the nation state has been more or less successful in channeling these currents for two hundred years through a combination of military might, economic coercion, religious and educational indoctrination, and the symbolic paraphernalia of national flags, national anthems and national football teams, together with the much more consequential national bank and national currency. After a brief survey of the various ways state-formation in Europe has been analysed, Davies concludes as follows:

“The supposedly ultimate destination, the nation-state, has been achieved many times. But the paths leading to that destination have been extremely varied. In the last resort, everything turned on power. ‘Qui a la force’ , wrote Richlieu, ‘a souvent la raison en matière d’État.’ In short, ‘might is right’. Which only makes one wonder whether the nation-state should really be the ultimate destination.” [Europe ND p. 456]

However the case may be, the nation state has certainly become the predominant arrangement for the government of sovereign territories in the modern era. The other leading models, such as multinational states and confederations, have so much in common with the nation state that the remaining variations are too peripheral to have any meaningful bearing on the issues that are of concern to us today.

Returning then, to the defining attributes of the nation state, if we are to make a proper assessment of its modern reality, the matter of effective sovereignty is of central importance. Leaving aside for the present the formal distinction that is drawn between the external and the internal, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought provides the following definition of internal sovereignty:

“This is an attribute possessed by a political body in relation to a society that falls under its government. Sovereignty in this sense lies in supreme command over a civil society, and it has a de jure (legal) aspect, as well as a de facto (coercive) aspect. Legal sovereignty vests in that person, office or body whose decisions cannot legally be challenged in the court. Coercive sovereignty vests in that person, office or body which in fact controls the powers exerted and enforced in the name of government. Schmitt famously argued that sover- eignty in this second sense is vested in the one who is able to take control in a crisis – i.e. when custom and habit give way to obedience and command. And ultimately, he implied, this is the only kind of sovereignty that matters, since all else depends on it.” (Underlining added)

However the case may be, the ideal it seems, is to be found in the complete convergence of both the legal (de jure) and the coercive (de facto) aspects under one authority. For good measure Wikipedia usefully contains the following essential summary of the sovereign state:

“A sovereign state is a political organization with a centralized government that has supreme independent authority over a geographic area. It has a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither dependent on nor subject to any other power or state.”

The thing to observe here is the centrality within these descriptions of the phrases, “supreme command” and “supreme independent authority” over a society or geographic territory, and being “neither dependent on nor subject to any other power or state”. The current tendency towards a globalist re-ordering of both political and cultural realities has seriously undermined the capacity of the democratic nation state to maintain any justifiable claim to the autonomous exercise of supreme authority over its territory. There can be no doubt that being organised into multi-state blocs such as the European Union inevitably implies loss of sovereignty for individual member states in terms of legal supremacy to, for example, the European Court of Justice and to a lesser extent the European Court of Human Rights. In terms of executive authority, loss of sovereignty is also the case in the distribution of  competences between EU institutions (European Commission, European Council, European Parliament, etc.). 

Another key area of sovereign compromise extends to the monetary policy of those states which have entered into monetary union by adopting the Euro, which is under the overall control of the European Central Bank (ECB). The national banks of member states outside of the eurozone are comprehended within the European System of Central Banks over which the ECB exercises considerable control. The sovereign debt crisis which has become apparent since the full eruption of the international banking crisis in 2008, has done a great deal to reveal where de facto political authority actually lies as over the past year we have been witness to high profile instances (Greece, Italy) where banking interests were able to ensure the appointment of financial technocrats to positions as heads of state and effectively to dictate policies which included the ongoing imposition of so called ‘austerity measures’ in the face of rioting electorates. The crisis has also led to the rapid setting up last year of a European framework of financial supervision consisting of the European Banking Authority (City), the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (Frankfurt) and the European Securities and Markets Authority (Paris) all of which combined wield considerable formal powers over the financial regulation of member states. The whole framework is underpinned by the European Systemic Risk Board (Frankfurt) which is also operates within the domain of the ECB.

Looking beyond the EU we see that the nation state sovereignty is even further circumscribed and conditioned by the overarching competences and interventions of a plethora of supranational organisations and agencies that include the UN and its many subsidiaries, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to name a few of the most prominent ones. Between them such organisations through their international remits are able to order, determine, modify, reverse, disqualify or otherwise influence the actions and decisions of individual government in everything from the judicial, to the commercial, and to the military. It is also worth mentioning here that the USA, as the dominant world superpower, is in no way an exception to this process, on the contrary, its very pre-eminence in every sphere of world politics, finance, technology, media, trade and the military, has made it the foremost means and the primary point of projection for the advancement of the post-national imposition of what is, in effect, a single global state.

This brief and superficial overview of the nation state in relation to the EU and the USA is enough to indicate the larger project into which they are both totally integrated alongside the Russian Federation, Southeast Asia and Australia, and increasingly the nations of the Arab League, South America, the African Union, Southern Asia and China. With the exception of those countries or regions that are insufficiently ‘developed’ or for whatever geopolitical reasons are as yet insufficiently stable or accessible to the worldwide financial nexus to be fully absorbed, it should be quite clear that what we are confronted with is a new worldwide dispensation of property and power organised under the inexorable, all-encompassing logic of a technological dominion that facilitates the wealth accumulation and control system operated by an ever diminishing number of mega-rich and powerful financial oligarchs through the global banking, commodity trading and currency market network of abstract money creation and capital generation, leading to tangible asset capture, vast real estate holdings and corporate power distributed throughout the system. 

All of this points towards the almost complete displacement of the nation state and the considerable diminishment of its political relevance in terms of actual sovereignty vis-à-vis the steady consolidation of autonomous power within the banking matrix, except as we observed last week, as a ‘democratic’ cover for the largely nameless power brokers whose political domain is the global market. Ian Dallas puts it in the following terms:

“‘The State must not interfere with the market.’ This hidden codicil emerged more and more at the turn of the century [20th]. Still no-one dared point out that it meant that power had passed from the State to the Market. Therefore, whoever ruled the Market ruled the people. The State, the ‘National’ State was now national only in its government and its football team. Its finance had slipped the century’s long moorings of nationalism and become enmeshed in the webbed structuring of banking and commodities acquisition. The more complex the legal framework of State and inter-State imperatives, the more elusive and hidden become the movement of wealth and therefore power.” [ToB part 2 section I, p. 131]

In tracing the extended legacy of post-revolutionary modernity by the path that is most apparent and ready to hand we encounter the descriptive rationale offered by postmodernism. This line of approach is able to capture our immediate attention because of its familiar reflection and ease of accessibility. That is not to say that the panorama it opens always makes for comfortable viewing, but its existential dilemmas, paradoxes and ironies are presented to us from within, and proceed recognisably from, the pattern of liberal academic discourse we are accustomed to. Therefore, as awkward as the challenges presented may appear to be on the one hand, on the other hand, they extend to us from within themselves an offer of reassurance that the ‘solutions’ are ultimately there to be found further along the same route of ‘progressive’ thinking. 

The postmodernist discourse proceeds from the proposition that modern society’s linear progression has taken it beyond the modern into a ‘postmodernist’ phase of liberal democratic culture, defined in opposition to the central pillars of modernity which are identified as the scientific method, economic production, the claim to objectivity and a materialist view of existence. Given the general understanding that postmodernism reflects the particular economic or cultural conditions of society as they appear after modernity, it is not surprising to find the term being associated with every province of cultural, professional, philosophical, artistic, religious, analytical and political activity. However, the following short summary of JCD Clark’s useful outline of postmodernism as it manifests in the realms of literary scholarship and philosophy should be sufficient for our purposes. 

Firstly, its outlook is characterised by a denial of the historical dimension that he describes as ‘de-historicisation’ or ‘presentism’ in that for the present to take precedence it must be emancipated from the impositions and constraints of the past, real or imagined. Then there is its opposition to modernity already mentioned and which is expressed in the culture of consumerism as opposed to the accent on production which marked modernity; the politics of cultural identity in contrast with the politics of class; modernist notions of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ are  called into question resulting in history being on a par with myth, fiction, advertising and propaganda. Thirdly, the chronological sweep of historical narrative is deconstructed into stand alone ‘mini-episodes’ making them less dependent on the element of chronology; history is exchanged for timelessness. Furthermore, this timelessness or de-historicisation is essentially atheistic in its unilateral silencing of the historical dimension per se of religion) as opposed to the dialectical process of secularisation of the ‘modern’ era. The combined outcomes of these reconfigurations of reality are many and various, including: hostility to the traditions of public morality, public duty, and the sense of history per se; the loss of cultural continuity; the sidelining or redefinition of history teaching in schools; the intellectual narrowing of popular culture; the progressive reduction of spoken discourse to the present tense; the failure of traditional loyalties and the resulting loss of social cohesion; the individual and collective psychological consequences of historical identity loss; the coercive pressures of ‘political correctness’ generated within an academic and media apparatus co-opted into the democratic process… It is with this last point that we are able to hear the answer to the question that is put by Dr Dallas (writing as Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi) in the manner of the one who knows that the King has no clothes:

“What then is the doctrine that has to be used to persuade people that the move from monarchy to republic was evolutionary and inevitable, and did not really represent a move from personal rule to inhuman systems government? What is necessary to make people conform to democratic government when it has already proved the instrument of genocidal and total war across the whole world? How do we keep people from noticing that money devalues in their pockets and that a decreasing number, now already reduced to hundreds, hold the greater part of all the world’s wealth?”

The doctrine is presentism and the means of persuasion is political correctness. It is also at this point that we will begin to see that postmodernism is simply a ripening of the modern project whose nihilistic trajectory was identified in the twentieth century, but from a vantage point independent of the liberal framework, by a group of inspired thinkers whose insights reveal the implacable logic of the enveloping world state. The Time of the Bedouin introduces these men to us as the author’s groundbreaking thesis approaches its climax:

“The victory of the ‘Allies’ - of course, deadly enemies - in 1945, imposed dialectical method on philosophy and therefore political discourse. By mid-century only a quartet of intellectuals stood apart from the mass ethos, insisting not just that a whole social system was, in Malaparte’s final diagnosis, ‘Kaputt’, but that the time was moving towards an utterly renewed world order […] Heisenberg was their scientist […] Heidegger was the philosopher of the four […] Jünger was the visionary of the quartet […] The fourth, Carl Schmitt, represents the legalist in the group. It must be understood that there is no equivalent to this formidable quartet of intellectuals. It is the synergistic impact of these four giants that marks them as being the unique guards at the abandoned gateway to the future, negating emphatically the conviction of the Sect that they had cancelled the future to replace it with an eternal non-historical presence that had replaced discourse with consumption.” [part 2 section VI, pp. 278-84]

Their revelation of the defining drive of technological nihilism towards the end of modern politics represents a crucial juncture in the advancement of political philosophy. Writing to Jünger in 1955 regarding the effect on his thinking of Jünger’s seminal text The Worker, Heidegger’s gratitude is conspicuous in the sincerity of his praise:

“Much of what your descriptions brought into view and to language for the first time, everyone sees and says today. Besides, The Question Concerning Technology owes enduring advancement to the descriptions in The Worker. In regard to your ‘descriptions’ it might be appropriate to remark that you do not merely depict something real that is already known but make available a ‘new reality.’”

Miguel de Beistegui’s excellent study Heidegger and The Political demonstrates a firm grasp of Jünger’s thinking in offering the following clear interpretation of the “new reality” referred to by Heidegger in his letter:

“What the world was witnessing at the time of the First World War was the phenomenon of planetary domination revealed through the figure (Gestalt) of the Worker (Arbeiter). Every epoch is marked or stamped by a particular ‘figure’ which shapes the world in a specific way. The epoch in which Jünger then believed the world was entering, the stamp with which time, space and men were being coined, all led to the sole figure of the Worker. The Worker is not the representative of a class, a new society or a new economy; it is a universal and original figure, one that shapes and informs the world according to a logic and a rhythm of its own.” [p. 68]

It should by now be quite clear that our phrase, the post-nation state is essentially just one more way of indicating that the mode of politics, whether in terms of territorial sovereignty, international law or human rights, of which the nation state was the last expression, has given way to an era of globalised control whose inner nihilism Martin Heidegger, following the insights revealed by Ernst Jünger, describes as “monstrous”. Both men identify technology with the modalities by which the world is re-ordered and its resources (human, material and financial) are mobilised according to an irresistible inner logic which is manifest everywhere through the ubiquitous form of the Worker. Beistegui goes on to describe one particular facet of the monstrousness that is already upon us in the following way:

“Nothing falls outside of this technological organization: neither politics, which has become the way to organize and optimize the technological seizure of beings… nor science which, infinitely divided into ultra-specialized sub-sciences, rules over the technical aspect of this seizure, nor the arts (which are now referred to as the ‘culture industry’); nor even man as such, who has become a commodity and an object of highly sophisticated technological manipulation (whether genetic, cosmetic or cybernetic). The hegemony of technology, which can take various forms according to the domains of being it rules over, seems to be limited only by the power of its own completion. It is, for technology, a question of organizing the conditions of its optimal performance and ultimate plan - whether these be the totalitarian or imperialistic politics of yesterday, the global economics and the new world order of today, or the uniformalized culture and ideology of tomorrow.” [ibid. p. 71]

What he does not really give us here is a clear picture of the political logic underlying the “new world order of today” and where it has taken us. So, let us remind ourselves once more of the reflections of Leo Strauss on the thinking of Carl Schmitt that we examined last week, in which he writes:

“The present situation is characterised by the fact that a process three hundred years old has ‘reached its end’. The age at the end of which we find ourselves is ‘the age of neutralizations and depoliticizations.’ Depoliticization not only is the accidental or even necessary result of the modern development but is its original and authentic goal; the movement in which the modern spirit has gained its greatest efficacy, liberalism, is characterized precisely by the negation of the political.” [Notes on The Concept of the Political p. 84]

By referring to “three hundred years” Schmitt is clearly looking back to the first visible shoots of what would eventually grow into fully fledged nation states out of the Westphalian balance of power struck in 1648 to curtail the prospect of perpetual military conflict between the recognised sovereign territories of Europe. Therefore, within less than one hundred and fifty years of Napoleon’s originating statist dispensation, these extraordinary men had already identified the terrible implications of the political and technological nihilism, which half a century on, still remain largely concealed from the distracted masses living under democratic governments. As we noted briefly above it was Schmitt who made the key asseveration that the only kind of sovereignty that matters is that vested in the one who is able to take control in a crisis; when the everyday rule of law has to give way to emergency measures. I cannot improve upon the incisive analysis of how the implications of this fundamental political insight have unfolded in the present time, as it was presented by our Chancellor and legalist, Hajj Abu Bakr Rieger who, writing in 2003 on the subject of Nihilism and Human Rights, draws on a deep understanding of the thinking of Schmitt and others, in order to arrive at the following penetrating conclusions:

“In the political realm, Giorgio Agamben wrote a seminal work in the late nineties entitled Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. In the book, the philosopher introduces the concept of the concentration camp into the centre of the political discourse. According to Agamben the goal of modern power-politics is no longer the national, sovereign state but, shockingly, the concentration camp. He portrays the camp as the true symbol of the modern age. The ultimate worldly-political sovereignty and power is revealed in the camp, that is, in the decision to strip speech, law and space from ‘bare life’. This prophecy is being fulfilled in Guantanamo and in the known and unknown camps of that world state which is emerging today. To Agamben the camp is now an integrated and long-term component of the global nomos. The famous definition of Carl Schmitt regarding political sovereignty, namely, ‘Sovereign is the one who decides on the state of emergency’ is thus given a terrible extension of meaning: ‘Sovereign is also the one who is able to set up a camp.’ […] 

“Let us reflect a moment upon the meaning of the world state, about which Carl Schmitt rendered another interesting definition. According to him, nihilism is the separation of order from location. In other words, to him the world state is nihilistic as it separates order from location. Or, as the Italian philosopher Negri defined it in his work The Empire: ‘The world state is an empire without any recognisable centre.’ If we now think of Agamben and Schmitt’s insights together, the following remarkable, almost mathematical equation is revealed. Again we are departing from the principle that nihilism is the separation of order and location. The following conclusions may be made about the concept of the ‘camp’ and the ‘state of emergency’:

- The camp symbolises location without order. It is a bio-political nomos which transforms life into 'bare life'.

- The state of emergency, on the other hand, symbolises order without location, a nomos devoid of legality and without a centre.”

That profound note brings us to the end of today’s lecture. In our next lecture we will continue to look at the idea of revolution and the illusion of politics in the modern age. I will include any recommendations for further and preparatory reading in the published notes to this lecture, insha’Allah. Thank you for your attention. 

Assalamu alaykum.

Bibliographical References

Beistegui, Miguel de. Heidegger and the Political: Dystopias. London: Routledge, 1998

Dallas, Ian. The Time of the Bedouin: On the Politics of Power. 

Dallas, Ian. The Time of the Bedouin: On the Politics of Power. 

Cape Town: Budgate Press, 2006.

Davies, Norman. Europe - A History. London: Pimlico, 1996

De Jouvenel, Bertrand On Power: The Natural History of its Growth. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1976

Scruton, Roger. The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

Strauss, Leo. Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (trans. J. Harvey Lomax). 

Chicago, 1932. Reprinted in Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (ed. and trans. 

George Schwab). University of Chicago Press, 1996


Rieger, Abu Bakr. Nihilism and Human Rights

MFAS Archive, 2003