In Pursuit Of Post-National Politics

Effectively addressing planetary problems requires working through intermediaries like nation-states and corporations, not simply bypassing them.

Marc-Aurèle Palla

Craig Calhoun is the university professor of social sciences at Arizona State University and former director of the London School of Economics.

He recently spoke with Nils Gilman, the vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute and deputy editor of Noema Magazine, and Jonathan S. Blake, a 2020-21 Berggruen Institute fellow, about how to build governance institutions in the age of planetary problems.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Blake: Several years ago, you argued that it was premature or even dangerous to pursue a post-national politics. But climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic seem like quintessentially post-national problems, and now there are crises roiling national politics around the world. Do you still think it’s not the right time for post-national politics?

Calhoun: Despite the current displays of bad nationalism, I’ve long contended that nationalism is not always bad. In the first place, national solidarity has underpinned many progressive changes, such as efforts to redistribute wealth or achieve social security. Second, we don’t have the option to dictate that we just be post-national. The effort to write off the nation-state, which I’ve identified with certain kinds of liberal cosmopolitanism, in effect surrenders the possibility of progressive nationalism to other balefully attractive forms of nationalism. 

This does not mean that it is not also crucial to be global, only that any effective global politics has to include nation-states, not simply proceed directly from individuals to the global whole. Part of my worry about liberal cosmopolitanism is that it tends to have a robust notion of the autonomous person, but it lacks a differentiated account of the role of intermediaries, including nation-states and corporations. The different kinds of powerful and significant organizations, and sometimes solidarities at these intermediate scales, are very important. The way in which we are global in response to the pandemic or climate change needs to include and work through these, not simply try to bypass them.

“The planetary is always simultaneously local.”

Blake: To what extent do these intermediaries have to be the nation-states, particularly given that plenty of nation-states out there don’t have a nation? Could these solidarities be formed either at lower levels — a subnational regional or municipal level — or above, like an international region? Could these alternative units serve as effective intermediaries toward global cooperation?

Calhoun: The nation-hyphen-state is an ideological construct, based on what some 19th-century European thinkers thought should be an identity between nations and states. But often there is not a perfect match between nation and state: sometimes there’s no real nation; sometimes there’s a multiplicity of nations within a single state; sometimes nations cross the borders of states. 

Because this ideological construct called the nation-state isn’t real, we need a reflexive, critical and somewhat fluid approach. I’ve used the notion of family resemblances from Ludwig Wittgenstein to say that what holds different nations together is a mixture, with various degrees of fluidity, of attachment to territory, culture, language, religion and so forth — none of which is the “essential” component of a nation. 

I would want any continued recognition of nation-states to be attentive to both the problems of understanding nations as such, and the problems of attaching nation to state. For example, we need an immigration politics that includes some path to naturalization and assimilation. One of the worst progressive moves of recent years has been to denigrate the concept of assimilation in a spirit of an identity politics that says that everyone has to retain their original identity, and that all calls to assimilate are simply majoritarian powerplays. We need to continually reconfigure solidarity so that the nation can form a unit of solidarity in relation to the state.

But just because nation-states are problematic doesn’t mean we can simply ignore them. We need to work with them and through them to achieve better futures, rather than engaging in wishful thinking about how they should just go away because of their problems.

But you’re right to ask about other scales above and below the nation-state. States don’t have to be absolute sovereigns; there can be various kinds of shared sovereignties. Consider the case of the European Union, which is an example of a supranational unit, a federal project. As with any such governing unit at any scale, one should directly ask what that unit should be trying to achieve. The European Union, unfortunately, had problems built into it from the start: It was structured in a way that created more advantages and cross-border mobility for capital than for labor or other groups.

To address planetary challenges, we likely do need supranational organizations. That may or may not mean the creation of new polities. They might be treaty organizations such as the World Trade Organization or the World Health Organization. We also certainly need subnational or nonnational units: municipalities, regions and so forth. (I say nonnational because I don’t think these are all contained within nation-states.) We need multiple scales of constitution-making and solidarity, state-like things and nation-like things. And there will be challenges relating them to each other.

“One of the worst progressive moves of recent years has been to denigrate the concept of assimilation in a spirit of an identity politics that says that everyone has to retain their original identity, and that all calls to assimilate are simply majoritarian powerplays.”

Gilman: You note that one of the things that nation-states have done well is to leverage solidarities to support redistribution. The historic construction of modern welfare states is a paramount example of that. The flip side is that we haven’t seen effective redistributive mechanisms at the global scale: Foreign aid has always been very small. And even at municipal levels, we rarely see much economic redistribution. So it does appear that economic matters really are best governed at the scale of the nation-state.

But what about other governance functions? Is it possible to classify different subjects of governance according to the optimal scale that they would want to be governed at? In other words, based on a technical assessment of who is affected and what needs to be done, we can say that certain topics should be governed subnationally (either regionally or municipally), nationally and supranationally.

To put this in general terms: Can a functionalist assessment of governance requirements provide a clue as to where in a multilevel governance system decision rights ought to be located?

Calhoun: I think that “clue” is a good word. Hard and fast identification? Probably not. 

We can approach this in two ways. One approach would be to follow a rule of subsidiarity, which says things that can be managed locally should be, and that you should only escalate the scale if it is more efficient or there some other kind of gain. Another approach would be to say that whoever is affected needs to be part of the decision-making process. This is the approach of, say, David Held, the late political scientist.

I’m not sure that we can identify the optimal scale in the abstract and apply it everywhere, uniformly. Different historically, geographically and economically specific cases will have different answers. Understanding that nation-states have come together in a patchwork fashion, we should be attentive to historical specifics, respectful of traditions and opportunistic about what can be made to work at any given point.

This is true not just because of the particularities of specific cases, but also because “the” nation-state itself isn’t a specific scalar level. When we speak of nation-states like Germany, the United States and China, we know (or think we know) what that nation-state is. But that image of the highly integrated, highly functional nation-state doesn’t apply to much of Africa or various parts of Eurasia, where the state is much less well established as a functional entity. 

In every case, you’d have to ask about the efficacy of the units. Even if these units agree to share decision rights on transnational topics such as managing refugee flows, are they capable of honoring these agreements? We have to recognize the asymmetry of how borders work, who can maintain them and who can’t, and how, and why. Simply imagining no borders won’t do it. But neither will imagining that every nation-state has the same governance capacity.

So I agree with the notion that there are different scales at which different things are well-governed. But I am skeptical that we can say in the abstract what the optimal scale is without attending to particular political economies.

“Understanding that nation-states have come together in a patchwork fashion, we should be attentive to historical specifics, respectful of traditions and opportunistic about what can be made to work at any given point.”

Blake: When thinking about subsidiarity, most people think about the first part of the claim, which is that governance should take place as low down on the scale of governing institutions as possible. But we’re just as interested in the second part of the claim, which is about seeking the right level for an adequate resolution of the issue. In an age of planetary challenges, doesn’t the logic of subsidiarity dictate the need for certain processes and functions to be governed at a higher level than they currently are — at a planetary level?

Calhoun: I agree that we must govern certain things at a larger scale. But it is also important to build strong mechanisms for participation and understanding from local scales. If you just say we need a “global management authority” and don’t think about the intermediate scales by which people have relations to it, that’s a problem. 

I want to keep making my Montesquieuian and Tocquevillian argument for the intermediate scale: Even the planetary scale depends in some part on legitimacy, participation, acceptance and recognition of problems that come from these intermediate scales. Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody participates in making every decision; you could have a technocratic planetary management linked to a more or less democratic governance structure, with some mechanism of democratic participation. But when you centralize, be sure that you have also created mechanisms for decentralized discourse in relation to the center.

“Even the planetary scale depends in some part on legitimacy, participation, acceptance and recognition of problems that come from intermediate scales.”

Gilman: This brings us back to the European Union. One of its problems is an inability to create mechanisms at lower levels that provide a practical way for people to exercise their voice (in the Albert Hirschman sense) in the EU decision-making process, and to legitimate the decisions being made at that level. What’s your diagnosis of what the EU got wrong, and what lessons we can draw from that experience for thinking about supranational institutional design?

Calhoun: Nation-states have enough legitimacy problems, but the EU has more. The founding problem was that it grew out of the common market. Yes, it was launched partly to secure peace. But it was designed first and foremost to facilitate capitalist economic growth. The idea of organized capitalism and the welfare state era of the postwar boom years was based on a kind of compromise between capital and democracy. The issue, which is bigger than the EU, is how to separate economic decision-making from political decision-making or social organization.

A second issue for the EU is that there’s no structure through which the EU is connected to localities and people that’s distinct from the nation-states they belong to. This is the democratic deficit: a lack of the legitimacy-conferring structures of belonging. There are a variety of things that organize civic life: the military, sports, education and so on. You may never vote, you may not be very active in a formal democracy, and yet you still have some modes of participation that foster a sense of belonging. 

In this regard, the EU is deeply impoverished. Except for a certain professional elite, hardly any Europeans think of themselves as citizens of Europe. Everybody thinks they’re a citizen of their nation-state. Everybody watches the news in their national language. They debate national politics, but they rarely debate EU politics. This absence of any real citizenship, not just in terms of self-understanding, but in terms of coming together for collective debate, presents a serious legitimacy problem.

A third issue for the EU is that there’s not just a democratic deficit, there’s also what might be called a republican deficit: Its constitutional framework is a mess, the bureaucracy is extremely cumbersome and its formal rules and procedures don’t work very well. Even Europeans who think the EU is a good idea feel frustration with the actual decision-making process and the cumbersome bureaucracy in Brussels.

“The absence of any real citizenship, not just in terms of self-understanding, but in terms of coming together for collective debate, presents a serious legitimacy problem.”

Blake: Outside of Europe, it seems that states are moving away from supranationalism: China and Russia are particularly strong believers in absolute national sovereignty. Although this makes it seem at the moment as if the best we can do is hope for cooperation through the multilateral system, the multilateral system seems incapable of confronting our most dire challenges: consider the World Health Organization’s failed response to COVID or rising carbon emissions. What can we do?

Calhoun: There’s no denying that things aren’t going so well with our global governance institutions. We have to reckon with a kind of downshifting. This is a period of disorganization, which is why simply saying “post-national” is either pernicious or beside the point. A post-national vision built out of the United Nations, with every nation having one vote, is nonsense. What matters are the great powers. My own guess is that either we find a balance of power and good mechanisms for cooperation among the eight or 10 great powers, or else it’s war.

On the other hand, there are also great corporations and other interests that are not organized neatly along national lines. Most of these great corporations really want there to be a power-sharing agreement among the great powers so that they have predictability to make their money. While such corporations disrupt the work of nation-states in many ways — undercutting their ability to collect taxes, for example — they also really depend on them and wouldn’t want to see them go away. Similarly, some CEOs like to talk ideologically about the inefficiencies of state bureaucracies, but a world with no states would be pretty scary for them. 

And so, I’m going to hope that corporations push for some kind of new multilateral balance of power to get worked out. With that said, my hopes are chastened by the fact that multilateralism does not have a great history of success, instead tending to be a holding pattern before one or another major player gets ambitious.

“A post-national vision built out of the United Nations, with every nation having one vote, is nonsense.”

Blake: What we’re identifying as planetary problems are exactly these things that are not between nations, because they’re not between humans: atmospheric carbon, the accumulation of ocean plastics, the flow of microbes, the loss of habitats and biodiversity. With planetary problems, there’s no human being on the other side that you can reason with, bargain with or coerce. You can’t sign a binding agreement with a gas or threaten a virus. 

To what extent is a multilateral system that, by definition, mediates relations between human polities even capable of dealing with problems that are not human? Put another way, do we need to imagine a planetary politics that exceeds any individual humans or any individual nations, a post-anthropocentric politics? Or is this just complete crazy talk?

Calhoun: Crazy talk! But this is a long process of building a world together, of shared life — the politeia that Aristotle was talking about. We have been building that in ways that simply don’t have direct collective human choices. It’s not just with the last few years of artificial intelligence — we’ve been building workflows into socio-technical systems that proceed more or less autonomously. This continues as we move from the Hobbesian, liberal and social democratic states to AI-based infrastructures.

We’ve had an illusion of much greater human control than actually exists. On the one hand, we’ve constructed our politics as though our political choices could control more than is possible, which is extreme hubris. On the other hand, we have an excessive modesty: “Oh, well, you can’t do anything about the economy.” Both these positions are wrong, because what we have is some level of influence that doesn’t amount to total control in each case. And that goes for climate and pandemics and everything else, too.

The intuition you’re expressing about the non-human is right, but it’s been developing for longer than just the recent era, even if it’s hitting a new crisis point now. I agree that the pandemic and climate change seem quintessentially global, that the problems of planetary health have to be thought out in planetary terms. But the planetary is always simultaneously local: climate change is a planetary problem, but it’s also about what happens to Lake Baikal. Likewise, the pandemic is global, but it’s distributed in terms of both outbreaks and vaccines. 

The unequal geography of all of this, the very place-specific features of it, are crucial to understanding the planetary. Being able to think place-specifically and globally at the same time is essential to being able to take hold of these sorts of problems.