Many thanks to the good folks at AFOE for the invitation to guest-blog here for a while. To include a non-European and non-European-resident among this crowd is not a little humbling; I hope I do the blog justice. I have no handy bio available, so suffice to say that I’m an academic, I teach political philosophy, once lived in Germany (but not for nearly long enough), now live in Arkansas, and often stay up late trying to get our two-month-old daughter to go to sleep. For more information, feel free to peruse my own blog, W?ldchen vom Philosophenweg.
Recently I ran across a fascinating article by James C. Bennett, he of “Anglosphere” fame. The article, one of the cover features of the most recent issue of The National Interest, is titled “Networking Nation-States” and is heavy-laden with ideas and insights. Bennett is an unapologetic defender of the globalized free market, who sees politics through the prism of contract and transaction, meaning that he understands healthy polities to be those which maximize fluidity, entrepreneurship, reflexivity and innovation, with little distinctions between the political and the economic spheres. Like some others here at AFOE, I find this kind of neoliberal triumphalism wearying. But I forgive Bennett because he has such an intriguing grasp of the related issues of “space” and language in the construction of societies. Those interested in the EU, and the argument over its relationship to traditional understandings of political identity and sovereignty (which I tend to think is a complicated philosophical matter, and not simply an IR debate over terminology), would do well to think hard about what Bennett is saying.
Bennett’s thesis is a large and rambling one, but it can essentially be boiled down to this: alongside various transformations in technology and social relationships has come the collapse of most of the costs associated with “sovereignty services,” meaning that the effective monopoly of what he calls the “economic state” (that is, the traditional nation-state) over the “transfer [of] resources from one sector of society to another” (through taxation, subsidies, welfare payments and such) is coming to an end. Of course, it’s been “coming” ever since the advent of modern means of communication and travel began to make people and material and financial goods easily mobile; but we’ve now passed the point of no return, according to Bennett. This does not mean, however, that the future belongs to wholly new forms of social organization that will be (as the EU has been described) “neither fish nor fowl”; he doubts both “crypto-anarchist” predictions of a stateless, apocalyptic future and confident descriptions of “omnidirectional cooperation.” Instead, Bennett sees nation-states evolving into “network commonwealths”–collections of more or less sovereign societies (generally characterized by relatively small homogenous populations with their own “positive, self-affirming narrative[s]“) networked together along “lines of cultural contiguity:…language[s], customs, legal systems, religions and other significant values.” Hence, the “Anglosphere,” in which Britons and Americans and Canadians and Australians share common discourses and patterns of political action and reflection, to say nothing of common investments, agendas and legal regimes. In the future, perhaps we will the emergence of the “Hispanosphere” (Spain and Latin America), the “Francosphere,” the “Lusosphere” (Brazil, Portugal, and the former Portugese states of Africa) and so forth. While Bennett always lists language along with other factors, it is clear that in a socio-economic world which he primarily understands as defined by one’s mastery of communication and network-construction, unity of language is the primary fautline along which the new network commonwealths will arise and take institutional form. As he puts it: “Just as the ethnic nation was the raw material from which the classical nation-state was built, so the network civilization is the raw material from which the Network Commonwealth is being built.”
It is interesting to hypothesize about the similarities between Bennett and Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Obviously both are willing to suggest there are cultural identities which underpin societies, and that said identities are both enduring and useful (perhaps even essential) for social cohesion and motivation; in that sense they are both “conservatives.” But in some ways Bennett thinks through these questions much better than Huntington did. For example, one of the internal incoherencies of Huntington’s argument was that he posited the West’s socio-economic power as a factor driving other civilizations to “rally around” those religious or cultural markers which hadn’t yet been “colonized” by Western modernity, thus exacerbating latent civilizational conflicts. Yet at the same time he supposed that modern forms of social and economic organization were themselves threatening the traditional sources of Western civilization (Judeo-Christian values, etc.), thus creating a rallying effect in the West as well. In short, he wasn’t clear on what “modernity” is: is it the West, or is it some historical wave that is affecting the West as well as the rest? Bennett, to his credit, isn’t at all incoherent on this point; like the Hegelian dialectic, he sees the power of crude ethnicity as having been historically superceded by the inexorable rise of technologically and economically-aided mobility, hence bringing to the fore the only cultural factors still available for cohesive identity formation: mores and beliefs (mostly, but only very generally, religious ones), and especially language.
Given my interest in Johann Gottfried Herder, and what he has to teach us about linguistic community, I find myself drawn to his analysis; I truly believe that “nationality”–peoplehood–is a far more ancient concept than the dominant Ernest Gellner-Benedict Anderson theory would have us believe (I find the arguments of Adrian Hastings much more believeable), and I think that the communicative, expressive, linguistic element of nationhood is something that will, and should, find some new yet continuing form in our future, even if it is “postnational” (whatever that may mean). Of course, one can agree with all this without embracing (as Herder did, and as I do, to a limited extent) the sort of communitarianism which grants moral or theological significance to the distinct hermeneutics of specific linguistic identities. Bennett has nothing whatsoever to say about the philosophy of language itself; he does not posit any definitive relationship between between historical mores, linguistic practice and the instituionalization of networks, and hence he provides us with little guidance in regards to the politics of multilingual societies. Still, it’s not too difficult to tease out his opinions on such social entities, by simply looking at his opinion of the EU, and whether it amounts to such a true “network.” He says no:
“The inherent problems in defining a ‘common European culture’ that includes all Union member-states but excludes the Americas and Australasia make the idea of a wider European state or a ‘European Network Commonwealth’ highly problematic. What is more likely to emerge over time is a European Union structure that enables its member-states to develop Network Commonwealth ties with their non-European civilizational partners. The most likely arrangement–to over simplify brutally–is a “variable geometry” Europe with a tight federation of Rhenish states (grouped around the Franco-German core) much more loosely linked with the four historically ‘exceptionalist’ areas: the British Isles, Iberia, Scandanavia and east-central Europe….[in particular] Spain, like Britain, will eventually have to decide to what extent its European ties can be permitted to limit its ability to collaborate with its overseas linguistic compariots.”
To those who reject the very idea of cultural identity being necessary to the political realization of a demos, or who question the relevance of the demos itself, all this is nonsense: the EU will work exactly to the degree to which institutional structures can be made to function, and European leaders can learn to accept the pointlessness of traditional sovereign thinking. I would suggest, however, that the continuing frustration over European accommodation (or lack thereof) of their Muslim population should be taken as a suggestion that human beings cannot re-orient their historically, religiously and linguistically developed and embedded social spaces–that is, their national situatedness–at a whim. This is not to apologize or turn away from manifest injustice, but to merely to suggest that perhaps certain long-standing responses to injustice and need–for example, the formation of bounded societies of common concern, within which common identities grounded moral arguments for just treatment and equal opportunity–might not be exhausted yet. In any case, Bennett’s suggests a future for Europe: not a strictly multilingual union, but a federation of states which are overlapped by various more or less unilingual commonwealth associations; Europe would be a collection of some number of “homelands,” as it were (perhaps three or four, perhaps more), connected to disparate civilizational networks. Forget whether you find this likely. I wonder: is it appealing? And if not, why?