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Nation-state or country-state: how do we discuss belonging in an age of fluidity?
The use of the term "nation-state" confuses current debate around countries, states and nations. We need new rhetorical structures to help us make sense of this age of uncertainty, where the mass movement of individuals has caused the erosion of the homogenous cores around which nation-states around the world were once built.
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Democracy, Democratic, Democratic Theories, Democratic Theory, Ideas of democracy, Nation-state, Political Theory, Themes of democracy on March 25, 2020 0 Comments 5 min read
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Nation-state or country-state: how do we discuss belonging in an age of fluidity?

Originally published by openDemocracy, April 12, 2011.

[I did not think this short essay would spark a debate, but it did. See Michael Gardiner’s counter-argument here. I wrote the essay in a worry over the homogenizing effect of “nationalism”, particularly so as I was then reading about the theory of “nations within a nation” (as concerns indigenous nations in the United States)—it seemed to me the very notion of the nation was conceptually, at least, squashing the real pluralism inherent in the state’s human population (citizens, residents, visitors, students, etc).]

The extant literature is, in my opinion, sufficiently clear that the term “nation” and its pairing with the term “state” is in need of considerable reconsideration.

There are two substantive areas of thought which might do well to illustrate my point: the first is the communitarian versus cosmopolitan debate. In perhaps overly simplified terms, the prior has an emphasis on the state and lower-tiers of government and society whilst the former argues that these structures haven’t sufficient power to protect the individual as before. A synthesis of Richard Shapcott (2010) as well as Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson (2009) may allow us to see both sides as marriageable, of course that’s a different argument than the one I am trying to make.

The second area of thought is the work being conducted on societal aggregates and what these mean in democratic systems. We see both quantitative and qualitative studies questioning whether there are such things as homogeneous “cores” in pluralist societies or whether such a “core” might be an amalgam of various heterogeneous interests. What is key is that both of these fields typically focus on the “state” and lesser so to the “nation-state” as it is a socio-political reality that is increasingly difficult to find.

Although I presume not be alone, I argue that this is the case due to the mass movements of individuals. This might be explainable if we look to the mechanisation of transportation these past two hundred years or so as it became more sophisticated and available. In theoretical forms, I hesitantly reason a nation to be a body of ethnically similar individuals who practice common cultural rituals or share similar fetishes (see Baycroft and Hewitson, 2006; Reich, 1991; Visvanathan, 2006; or most of Hobsbawm’s works for further particulars about the debate over what constitutes a nation). But even this thin membrane breaks when we “zoom in” to the individual’s level and heterogeneity becomes the norm. But if we were to adopt this fragile concept of a “nation” we might reason that at present these bodies may stretch across many different countries, and that there may be a pluralism of nations within a pluralism of countries.

Should we try to find a modern country that was in vast majority a unitary nation, then perhaps we would need to look at small countries in Europe or the Middle East, like Lichtenstein and Qatar.1 But in this thought experiment we once more run into difficulties: at which percentage point of culturally homogeneous individuals can a country be considered a “nation-state”? Furthermore, what does this mean in particular to the rights of minorities? If minorities are allowed to participate politically in a nation-state, does that drive a wedge between nation and state?

This was perhaps rather easy to answer in early-modern Europe when nation-states were legally conceived. We are currently under the impression that these “nation-states” had a vast majority supporting one particular form of religion, which shared common understandings of the family, of labour, of rights, of duty, of honour, of gender, and so forth.

But that is certainly not the case today. In a conversation with Professor David Held, he shared that we have entered an Age of Uncertainty which ties in very well with Professor Ulrich Beck’s work on risk and varieties of modernity (again, a different argument). I agree with Held’s assertion and reason that we would do well to start forming new rhetorical structures to help us make sense of these uncertainties. Because of this, I would like to coin a term that may prove more useful when discussing countries, states and nations.

When referring to a government or plurality of peoples at the highest territorial level, instead of using the now confusing “nation-state” we could use “country-state” instead. This has the added benefit of differentiating between “medium” governments that organize states or provinces within a “country-state” (which is another rhetorical difficulty we encounter in our discourses). The term also acts as a point of reference for the changing nature of the State. As earlier argued, it can perhaps only in very limited circumstances be said to be tied directly to a unitary nation. In most circumstances at present, countries have many nations within them and vast pluralities of individuals which brings about the rhetorical difficulty I (and presumably many others) have with the term “nation-state.”

Although we see calls in the literature to understand the “nation-state” as a term that has undergone some morphology, it creates rhetorical confusion which is why I reason a new term would do well in our discourses. It is hoped that “country-state” may prove to be a useful term for adoption and that it might contribute in some small way to further discussion about nations, the “nation-state,” the now normative “country-state,” and where this might lead us to. 

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