Note on Nationalism

Viewed as the quintessentialization of hierarchy & separation, the State can replicate itself on any level of experience – from the individual psyche to the laws of nations. And yet society can exist in theory without the State – & did so in fact for nearly a million years, 99% of the time span of the human species, thanks to the persistence of customs & institutions – and mythemes – that appear to have been designed for just this purpose, i.e. the suppression of the State & realization of the Social. War itself can be one of these institutions of “Society against the State”, since (in its “primitive” form) it acts to disperse power & wealth rather than concentrate it. On another level we might say that shamanism also tends toward centrifugality of power in its emphasis on direct experience rather than mere symbolization (i.e. the shaman must “really” heal the patient, the medium must “really” be possessed, otherwise their prestige evaporates: – in some tribes shamanic failure was punishable by exile or death). The proto-State then must emerge in the moment of breakdown of centrifugal force in war & religion. Changes in economic structure appear to follow upon this breakdown rather than cause it. [Note: The “breakdown” itself may have had economic causes but we cannot perceive them – certainly overpopulation and climatic change are inadequate “explanations”!] For instance, the replacement of hunting/gathering by agriculture failed to produce the proto-State. We cannot even blame the State on specialization of labor, since we are perfectly capable of imagining (with Fourier) a State-less Society based on fairly complex economics. The State seems almost sui generis – its birth is shrouded in a certain mystery. Something went wrong somewhere – the old myths (based on reciprocity & redistribution) collapsed before the power of a new “story” based on separation & accumulation. The precise instant is lost, although the true State lurches into archaeological view sometime around the 4th to 3rd millennium in Sumer & Egypt. In both cases the realms of war & religion seem to have coalesced to produce figurative & literal pyramid-structures impossible to conceive without tribute & slavery. The centrifugality of the social is gradually supplanted by the centripetality of power & wealth till a crisis point is reached in the catastrophic emergence of a “priest-king” & a nascent bureaucracy – the infallible signs of the true State.

The essence of the State is found in symbolization as mediation, & in mediation as alienation. These abstractions denote a brutal reality: – The appearance of History's Bootheel. Separation & expropriation must be accomplished simultaneously on both the symbolic & actual plane. Symbols must be made to do the “work” of accumulation – the State cannot expend its energy in re-creating itself in every moment. Writing for instance technologizes symbolization to the point where power can “act at a distance” – hence the “magic” of writing, its Hermetic origin – but writing itself may have been invented in order to implement an even more basic form of symbolization – i.e. money.

Let's examine the hypothesis that the State is impossible without money as symbolic exchange. Even the most primitive king (as opposed to “elder” or “chieftain”) can only be defined by the creation of scarcity & the accumulation of wealth – & this double process can only be reproduced in symbolization. Generally this means that the king is somehow “sacred” & thus in himself (or herself) symbolizes the very motion of energy in or between surplus & scarcity. But this motion must be impeded if the energy-transfer can only take crude material form (actual cows or jars of wheat etc.). The essential exchange of protection-for-wealth that defines the true State must be symbolized in order to transcend what might be called the inherent egalitarianism of the material, its recalcitrance, its natural resistance to accumulation. “Protection” moreover has no overt material base, whereas wealth does – hence the State will be at a disadvantage in the exchange unless it can present its power in symbolic (non-material) form – as nothing for something.

If however the State remains impossible without money (even in its most unexpected or exotic or primitive form), money seems to be quite possible without the State. Our best evidence for this comes not only from the Past but also – so to speak – from the Future.

In the past we can discern money in the symbolic exchange & social construction of the sacrifice. When the tribe grows beyond the point where it can re-create itself in the sharing of a sacrificial animal, for instance, we might surmise that one's “due share” could be symbolized by some token. Once the “spiritual content” of these tokens is transferred to an economic sphere outside the sacrifice (as for example in the Lydian temple-coins of the 7th century BC) the existence of the tokens would then facilitate the “creation of scarcity” by symbolizing the accumulation of wealth. Thus money would precede the State. If we wish to push the origin of money even farther back into the past, we could examine the mysterious clay tokens that appeared in the Neolithic “Near East” around the 7th millennium BC, apparently as counters for commodities. Real goods that are present only in symbolic form already express the possibility of scarcity – & in fact these clay counters almost certainly stand for debt. When the symbolic counters themselves are then symbolized by writing – a concept that appears at a very precise moment datable to about 3100 BC in the city of Uruk – we can speak not only of money but of banking: the centralization of debt at the religio-political focus of power, the Temple. Thus, to put it crudely, money exists for 4000 years before it mutates into a form that makes possible the emergence of the true State.

If we look to the future – i.e. to the “logic” of the present – we can see even more clearly that money exists beyond the State. In a situation where money is “free” to move across borders in defiance of all political economy, as in “neo-liberal” free-market internationalism, the State can find itself abandoned by money, & re-defined as a zone of scarcity rather than wealth. The State remains by definition mired in production, while money attains the transcendence of pure symbolization. In the last five years money has achieved almost absolute lift-off, since more than 90% of all money now refers to nothing in the sphere of production, not even to the dirty outmoded symbolic tokens called “cash” – although the entire productive world remains utterly in the power of money, such that scarcely a tomato can be grown & eaten without the mediation of symbolic exchange.

Paracelsus once told a petty German king, “Your Majesty is the true alchemist, not me (a mere puffer)! Your Majesty has only to empower a bank with a monopoly to coin money, and then borrow it. Thus you will create something out of nothing, a far more puissant act than making lead into gold!” The joke here is that the king was not the real alchemist. The locus of the magical act lay in the bank not the court. When all thrones in the world were hopelessly in debt to their own self-created central banks, the focus of power shifted. When governments resign their ancient role of protection, money breaks free at last – governments can now provide only nothing for nothing – their power is shattered. Their power has migrated into the alchemical sphere of pure symbolization.

Thus money & the State have never – at any point – been exactly identical, or even necessarily in alliance. Like the paradoxical relation of money & religion, money & the State are sometimes in conspiracy, sometimes in competition, occasionally even at war. God & Moloch, Mammon & Moloch – the intricacies of their cosmic dance might be revealed in the legend of the Templars – or the IMF! Money & the State (& religion) do not possess the simple paradoxicality of the ancient riddle about chicken & egg, but a far more complex relation; the question about cause & effect is the wrong question.

Money, the State, & religion: – all are powers of oppression, but not the same power of oppression. In fact, when deployed against each other, they can act as powers of liberation. Money “buys freedom” for example; the populist State can suppress the banks, thus freeing its citizens from “money-power”; and religion has been known to deploy its “higher morality” against both economic & political injustice.

Moreover, the State does not appear all at once in its “absolute” form. If “primitive” societies possess institutions which successfully prevent the emergence of the State, nevertheless the emergence of the State cannot erase these institutions all at once. The “early” State must still co-exist with “customs & rights” that enable Society to resist its power. In ancient Ireland for example the kingship had to depend on (and often contend with) semi-independent warrior bands, the fianna, whose lives were devoted to sources of power (raiding) and wealth (hunting) that remained essentially outside the control of the State. The anthropology of “Society against the State” can be extended to a sociology of historical State systems *such as “feudalism”) where some potent institutions & mythemes work against the total accumulation of power – usually at the cost of violence. Moreover, as Karl Polyani noted, money is also held in check in “pre-modern” cultures, not just in “primitive” societies (where money simply fails to appear), but also in quite complex State systems. “Classical civilizations” such as Mesopotamia, Greece, Mesoamerica, Egypt & even Rome retained structures of redistribution of wealth to some extent – if only as panem et circenses; no one could have conceived of a “free” market in such circumstance, since its obvious inhumanity would have violated every surviving principle of reciprocity – not to mention religious law. It was left to our glorious modern era to conceive of the State as absolute power, & money as “free” of all social restraint. The result might be called the Capital State: the power of money wedded to the power of war. Ultimately, once the struggle against Communism was won, it would be logical to expect a last & final struggle between Capital & the State for power pure & supreme. Instead the Molochian State appears to know that it was already secretly beaten long ago (all thrones hopelessly in debt…) & has capitulated without a whimper to the triumph of Mammon. With a few exceptions the nations are now falling all over themselves in their eagerness to “privatize” everything from health to prisons to air & water to consciousness itself. “Protection” – the only real excuse for the State's existence – evaporates in every sphere of government's influence, from tariffs to “human rights”. The State seems somehow to believe it can renounce not only its vestigial power over money but even its basic functions, & yet survive as an elected occupying army! Even the US, which boasts of itself as the last & final “superpower”, found itself in the very moment of its apocalyptic victory reduced to a mercenary force at the bidding of international Capital – blustering bush-league bully boasting of its crusade to overthrow a “Hitler” of the Middle East, but capable only of serving the interests of oil cartels & banks. National borders must survive so that political hirelings can divert taxes to “corporate welfare”; & so that huge profits can be made on arbitrage & currency exchange; & so that labor can be disciplined by “migratory” capital. Otherwise the State retains no real function – everything else is empty ceremony, & the sheer terrorism of the “war on crime” (i.e. the State's post-Spectacular war on its own poor and different). Thatcher & Reagan foretold with true prescience what government should & would do once it had fulfilled its last historical goal – the overthrow of the Evil Empire. Government would voluntarily dismantle itself (at the “people's” bidding of course) & gracefully submit to the real Hegelian absolute: – money.

Of course to speak of the “end of History” when there has been no ending (for example) of writing – nor for that matter of material production – is merely a form of insanity – perhaps even a terminal form! Like religion, the State has simply failed to “go away” – in fact, in a bizarre extension of the thesis of “Society against the State”, we can even re-imagine the State as in institutional type of “custom & right” which Society can wield (paradoxically) against an even more “final” shape of power – that of “pure Capitalism”. This is an uncomfortable thought for a good anarchist; we've always tended to view the State as the enemy, & capitalism as one of its aspects or “accidents”. The ideal opposite of the anarch is the monarch. [In fact there were some amusing & futile attempts in fin-de-siècle France to forge links between anarchism & monarchism against the common enemy, the fading illusion of “democracy” – & the emerging reality of Capitalism.] In this sense we may have been out-thought by syndicalism & by “council-communism”, which at least developed more mature economic critiques of power. Like the left in general however anarchism collapsed in 1989 (a growing North-american movement for example suddenly imploded) in all likelihood because at that moment our enemy the State also secretly collapsed. In order to move into the gap left by the defeat of Communism we needed a critique of Capitalism as the single power in a unified world. Our careful & sophisticated critique of a world divided into two forms of State/economic power was rendered suddenly irrelevant. In an attempt to rectify this lack, I believe we need a new theory of “nationalism” as well as a new theory of Capitalism (and indeed a new theory of religion as well). So far the only interesting model for this is the EZLN in Mexico – (it's gratifying to see Zapatista slogans scrawled all over Dublin!) – & it would be worth analyzing their theory-&-praxis for inspiration. The EZLN is the first revolutionary force to define itself in opposition to “global neo-liberalism”; it has done so without aid or influence from the “Internationale” because it appeared in the very same moment that “Moscow” disappeared. It has received the support of the remnants of Liberation Theology as well as the secret councils of Mayan shamans & traditional elders. In the Native-american sense of the word it is a “nationalist” movement, & yet it derives its political inspiration from Zapata, Villa, & Flores Magon (i.e., two agrarian anarcho-syndicalists & one anarcho-communist). It is concerned with “empirical freedoms” rather than purist ideology. [As Qaddafi says, “In need, freedom remains latent”.] No wonder the NYTimes called Chiapas the first “post-modern” revolution; in fact, it is the first revolution of the 21st century.

James Connolly, one of the founders of the IWW, developed in Ireland a theory that socialism & nationalism were parts of one & the same cause – & for this theory he suffered martyrdom in 1916. From one point of view Connolly's theory might lead toward “National Socialism” on the Right – but from another point of view it leads to “third wold nationalism” on the Left. Now that both these movements are dead it is possible to see more clearly how Connolly's theory also fits with anarchist & syndicalist ideas of his own period, such as the left volkism of Gustav Landauer or the “General Strike” of Sorel. These ideas in turn can be traced back to Proudhon's writings on mutualism & “anarcho-federalism”. [The quarrel between Marx & Proudhon was for more unfortunate for history than Marx's much noisier & more famous quarrel with Bakunin.] Inasmuch as we might propose a “neo-proudhonian” interpretation of the Zapatista uprising, therefore, Connolly's ideas may take on a new relevance for us [and thus perhaps it's not surprising if the EZLN sparks a response from the Irish left!]. Nationalism today is headed for a collision with Capitalism, for the simple reason that the nation per se has been redefined by Capital as a zone of depletion. In other words, the nation can either capitulate to Capitalism or else resist it – no third way, no “neutrality” remains possible. The question facing the nation as zone of resistance is whether to launch its revolt from the Right (as “hegemonic particularity”) or from the left (as “non-hegemonic particularity”). Not all nations are zones of resistance, & not all zones of resistance are nations. But wherever the two coincide to some extent the choice becomes not only an ethical but also a political process.

During the American Civil War the anarchist Lysander Spooner refused to support either side – the South because it was guilty of chattel-slavery, the North because it was guilty of wage-slavery – & moreover because it denied the right to secede, and obvious sine qua non of any genuinely free federation. In this sense of the term, nationalism must always be opposed because it is hegemonic – & secession must always be supported inasmuch as it is anti-hegemonic. That is, it can only be supported to the extent that it does not seek power at the expense of others' misery. No State can ever achieve this ideal – but some “national struggles” can be considered objectively revolutionary provided they meet basic minimal requirements – i.e. that they be both non-hegemonic & anti-Capitalist. In the “New World” such movements might perhaps include the Hawaiian secession movement, Puerto Rican independence, maximum autonomy for Native-american “nations”, the EZLN, & at least in theory the bioregionalist movement in the US – and it would probably exclude (with some regrets) such movements as Quebec nationalism, & the militia movement in the US. In Eastern Europe we might see potential in such states as Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, the Ukraine – but not in Serbia nor in Russia. In the “Mid-East” one cannot help supporting Chechnya & the Kurds. In Western Europe the EU must be opposed, & the smaller nations most likely to be crushed by the weight of Eurotrash & Eurodollars should be encouraged to stay out of the Union or to oppose it from within. This includes the Atlantic littoral from Morocco (where Berber resistance & Saharan independence have our sympathy) to Ireland, Denmark, perhaps, Scandinavia, the Baltics, & Finland. Celtic secessionism should be encouraged in Scotland, Wales, Brittany, & Man; this would add a strong socialist & green tint to any possible coalition of small Atlantic States. In Northern Ireland the best possible solution to the “Troubles” might be an independent Ulster based on socialist anti-sectarian solidarity – a dream perhaps but far more interesting than “Peace” at any price – & a free revolutionary Ulster would no doubt release an unbelievable burst of energy into the anti-Capitalist movement – despite its size Ulster would emerge as a leader of any such movement – it would possess tremendous moral prestige.

Since we're indulging in dreams let's imagine that an anti-Communist/anti-Capitalist movement emerges in E. Europe, & allies itself with new movements within Islam, no longer “fundamentalist” & hegemonistic but definitely anti-Capitalist & opposed to “One World” culture. In turn an alliance is made with the anti-capitalist anti-“Europe” states of the Atlantic littoral – & simultaneously within all these countries revolutionary forces are at work for social & economic justice, environmental activism, anti-hegemonic solidarity, & “revolutionary difference”. NGOs & religious groups lend their logistical support to the struggle. Meanwhile we can imagine Capitalism in crisis for any of a myriad reasons, from bank-collapse to environmental catastrophe. Suddenly the radical populist critique of “neo-liberalism” begins to cohere for millions of workers, farmers, tribal peoples, x-class drop-outs & artists, heretics, & even “petit-bourgeois” shopkeepers & professionals…

…“After the Revolution” of course all nationalist forms would have to be carefully reconsidered. The goal of “neo-Proudhonian federalism” would be the recognition of freedom at every point of organization in the rhizome, no matter how small – even to a single individual, or any tiny group of “secessionists”. No doubt these freedoms would have to be ensured through constant struggle against the “natural” tendencies to greed & power-hunger inherent within every individual & every collectivity. But that's a matter for the future. In the present we are faced with the monumental task of constructing an anti-Capitalist resistance movement out of the shattered remnants of radicalism, some glue, some tissue paper, & some hot rhetoric. We can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring politics. This does not mean I'm about to ruin a perfect anarchist record & vote for the first time – since in my country voting means nothing & gains one nothing, not even $5 or a free drink (as in the old days of Tammany Hall). I mean politics in the Clauswitzian sense. And war makes for strange bedfellows – even for unexpected comrades & allies. I'd like to believe that revolution could be a non-violent “war for peace” – but like a good scout, one should be prepared.

Dublin, Sept. 23, 1996