Shivani maintains that under the force and logic of neoliberalism, the state no longer exists in the form that we are accustomed to viewing it. Like everything else in the age of neoliberalism, the state is being made over in the image of the market. He maintains that “a new entity is being created, which is not the state as we have known it, but an existence that incorporates potentially all the states in the world and is something that exceeds their sum.” Accordingly, “the state has become the market, the market has become the state, and therefore both have ceased to exist in the form we have classically understood them.”
If this were true, what would it imply for political action? How would it be possible for the people to take control of, or even influence, a political process with such a hazy existence? The implication is that the people are powerless.
I submit, however, that this description of a nebulous entity that is neither state nor market, but somehow both at once, is not consistent with the empirical reality of the political dynamics of the modern world-system. Nation-states were the principal actors in the creation of the modern world-system, and they continue to be the principal actors. International organizations of various kinds are playing an increasingly important role, reflecting an increasing global consciousness of the need for cooperation among nations and peoples, but these organizations have been created and are sustained by nation-states, which sometimes seek to work through international organizations in the pursuit of nationalist goals. And transnational corporations are increasingly powerful, but when they act politically, they do so primarily through states, whose representatives they control.
From the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, Western European nation-states were forged by an alliance between monarchs and the emerging merchant class, which overcame the decentralized power of the feudal lords and consolidated centralized economic and political power through conquest of the empires and societies of America (see “The modern nation-state” 8/14/2013). At the end of the eighteenth century, the bourgeois revolution cast aside the kings and queens, and it established representative democracy, which is a political system with the appearance of rule by the people, but in reality is a political system that enables control of the state by the capitalist class. The phenomenon of states acting, both domestically and internationally, in the interests of the capitalist class, but pretending to respond to the people, continues to our time. The modern nation-state, for more than 200 years, represents the interests of the capitalist class, governed by ethically compromised political figures who are adept at pretending to promote the needs of the nation and the people as they represent the interests of the capitalist class, on whose support they depend for political survival.
Following World War II, seeking to protect its recently attained global hegemony, the United States played a leading role in establishing the United Nations. With the support of its principal allies, it established structures in the new international organization that ensured control by the United States and the nation-states that were allied with it. As colonialism came to an end, the newly independent nations became member states of the United Nations, constituting an overwhelming majority of states, and representing the great majority of humanity. But their capacity to influence the United Nations is limited by its undemocratic structures. The democratic reform of the United Nations has been a persistent demand of the nation-states of the Third World, which they express through organizations that they have formed among themselves.
In the post-World War II era, the United States also established a number of regional defense alliances, such as NATO. And it established the Organization of American States, culminating more than sixty years of seeking to institutionalize the participation of Latin American and Caribbean nation-states in the US project of neocolonial domination and economic and financial penetration. The United States no longer has absolute control of these organizations, and it is compelled to act to some extent multilaterally. But this is a consequence of the decline of the United States from hegemony, and not a decline in the role of nation-states as actors in the world-system.
The nation-states of the Third World have formed their own associations of states, recognizing their common interests rooted in their common experience of colonialism and neocolonialism. These organizations are based on the understanding that through cooperation they will be able to more effectively attain their interests as nation-states. They include the Group of 77 and the Non-Aligned Movement, which have in recent years made more evident the contrast of interests between the nation-states of the Third World and those of the North.
In the history of the world-system, states have always been constrained by the conduct of other states, by their relative amount of power in the world-system, by the prevailing economic structures, and by other factors. A constant competition among states was the norm, with some winning and some losing. But states, nearly always under the control of the national bourgeoisie and its allies that formed an elite, have been and are the principal actors in the world-system.
In the process of change that has occurred in Latin America during the last twenty years, the peoples in movement were for the most part not hindered by the confusion that states as conventionally understood no longer exist. Out of the popular movements came new political parties, which consciously sought to take control of states. In those nations in which the movements took control of the states, or at least partial or shared control, they changed the behavior of the states, both domestically and internationally. In the process, they improved the conditions in which the people live, and they established new patterns of cooperation among nation-states.
The last twenty years in Latin America have demonstrated that states continue to be principal actors in national and international affairs. And they have shown that, when the people take power from the elite, the way that states act can be changed. This occurs when the people, guided by charismatic leaders, arrive to understand that they have the right and the capacity to take control of states and to redirect them in accordance with universal human values.
We should not be confused. States exist, and they are the principal actors in the world-system. The great majority of states in the world-system are controlled by the national bourgeoisies. If there is representative democracy, control by the bourgeoisie is hidden, and there is a great pretense of democracy and responding to the will of the people. But control of states by an elite through a process that pretends to be democratic is not the only viable option for humanity, because there also have emerged states that are, or have been for a time, under the control of delegates of the people. Such states act differently in the world-system, and when they do, they are punished by the powerful states. They thus confront many obstacles, but often they persist. Certainly, the more of them that emerge, the greater the possibility that they will prevail in the establishment of an alternative and more just, democratic and sustainable world-system.
We intellectuals of the North have the duty to understand and to explain to our people the whole of the modern human story, as one that includes, in the past and in the present, states that act in accordance with the needs and interests of the people, having become this way as a result of the advanced understanding, organization, commitment and courage of the people. It is a story that could inspire our people and help them to overcome their confusion and cynicism. Who will teach it to them, if not us?
The state continues to exist. The key questions are: Who will control states in the future, the capitalist class or delegates of the people? Can humanity avoid chaos or extinction if most states continue to be controlled by the capitalist class, which during the last thirty-five years has demonstrated its indifference to the well-being of humanity, the clamor of the people, and the needs of nature?
Key words: nation-state, neoliberal, Shivani