Can the State Preserve the Nation?

On the Double-Edged Sword of the State

In the era of globalization the desire of states to defend the identity and interests of their historical nations has eroded. Yet the “anti-neoliberal” critique dating from the nineties, which argued that free market deregulation had destroyed State capacity, has been shown to be false. The so-called pandemic proved that when the state wants to act, it can, in that case by enforcing lockdowns and curtailing individual freedoms to an unprecedented and unbelievable degree. 

War is another area where the state still retains vast power. In Ukraine, two armies built using levies and mass mobilization are trading blows in a meat grinder conflict that resembles World War One. Likewise, the advance of the IDF into Gaza shows how the state can still mobilize vast military resources in the face of existential threats.

In states of emergency, or what Carl Schmitt called the “state of exception,” state capacity remains unmatched. However, despite the growing tendency of liberal regimes to expand the criteria that enable emergencies in order to expand their own power, exceptionality, by definition, cannot become normal. Accordingly, on the level of the day-to-day operations and everyday competence, we can see the state is losing ground.

One important loss concerns state capacity to impose a unifying narrative on all its citizens. As society has grown more fragmented, the state has responded by diluting its national identity to an increasingly generic, hollow idea. For example, Canada recently changed the historical symbols of the crown, exchanging the Christian iconography for a generic fantasy Northern Kingdom. Meanwhile, migrant communities project a much more aggressive identity. Especially in Europe, these communities run parallel societies defined by their own religion and culture, and their own institutions. On the one hand, they retain strong connections with their country of origin, on the other, they penetrate the state of their host countries to advance their demands. In recent anti-Israel demonstrations, they have been able to mobilize significant numbers to engage in political action. In other cases, they have become a security risk fostering political violence, social violence, and terrorism.

The growth of parallel societies is one example of how a network of parallel institutions, a “deep civil society” exercises de facto power over state cultural policies. In many contexts, this network is able to resist government policies and democratic sentiments that oppose multiculturalism. This situation poses a problem to Western nations that have delegated the task of preserving their cultural identity to state institutions, and lack a robust, allied civil society network of their own.  

Lamenting the ills of multiculturalism is useless. Multicultural reality is unlikely to be overturned: it is now part of a generational identity. Cultural globalization can not be surpassed without deep economic, political and even technological shifts. Not even China, with its “Great Firewall,” has been able to maintain a society free of foreign influences. 

We need to recognize the nature of the globalized cultural terrain we inhabit in order to build the civil institutions to defend national cultural autonomy. Consider the typical meme of an online “nationalist” activist, with his room full of flags of every ‘based’ nation but his own. In US online networks, one sees praise for Ernst Jünger or for Yukio Mishima more frequently than praise for figures from the American tradition, like Teddy Roosevelt, or Charles Lindbergh.

The state is simultaneously an autonomous institution with its own bureaucratic rationality, a tool used by governments to enforce their programs, and a political battleground, traversed by factional divisions. Recent events in Spain are an example of the radical ambiguity of the state. Spanish nationalists who supported security forces when they acted to suppress pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona last week were surprised when they met the hostility of the police forces they considered ‘their own’ in their own mobilizations against the new Socialist government. 

Depending on the state’s capacity to preserve national identity will always put nationalist movements in a fragile and submissive position. Even when movements seem to be on the offensive, the rhetoric always tends to degenerate into a defensive and nostalgic posture. State-sponsored culture always lacks energy, because it depends on the power of state institutions to eliminate competition rather than inspiring itself. The recent decay in quality of many Hollywood productions under pressure from politically correct virtue-signaling requirements is one obvious example.

The state, fundamentally, is a double-edged sword. One doesn’t need to take a radical libertarian position to be cautious about the faith in the state now emerging in some conservative and ‘post-liberal’ quarters today. Those views not only imperil organic local communities and the freedom and autonomy that they represent, but risk putting ‘old wine in new bottles’ and reduplicating existing problems under a different name.

In recent years, Conservative, populist, post-liberal, and nationalist movements have been able to generate communication platforms but rarely successful political machines. They are increasingly winning electoral battles, but they are still far from succeeding in imposing their vision and bringing sociological change. For example, in Poland, despite having the pro-Catholic PiS in office for almost a decade, Catholicism is rapidly losing power in the country. 

This is the issue that must be addressed. On the fragmented terrain of globalized multiculturality, ‘post-liberal’ movements need to produce their own civil society institutions and autonomous structures that embody and foster national cultural leadership. This initiative should be combined with better territorial penetration on local fronts. That is where in the long-term the cultural battle is won, and where a robust network of autonomous institutions should be built. This kind of work is less immediately satisfying than online LARPing, but it is much more consequential in the long run.

Miquel Vila is a researcher focusing on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of East Asia and on nationalist movements.


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