Are the majority of contemporary conflicts within and among nation-states actors indeed modern? This question would have most certainly been in your mind if you were at the Jan Karski Foundation and had heard Mr. Eugeniusz Smolar’s account of the history of international relations since the end of World War I, and if you had stuck with the Humanity in Action Fellows that same afternoon and heard Mr. Konstanty Gebert convincingly discuss about diversity as if it were not a modern concept. You are not alone; I am perplexed as well.
Some events of Tuesday (June 4, 2013) did indeed stir a reaction, and after quite some thought, I’m in desperate need to react and can’t help thirsting for relief. The words of Mr. Smolar and Mr. Gebert served as a well from which to draw the first drops of thought on the topic of nation-states and societies.
A first thought was on how nation-state actors work for democratic ideals in a constrained system. Mr. Eugeniusz Smolar’s provided a first comment on this: “We [nation-state actors] all know what needs to be done but we don’t know how to win the next elections.” His thoughts provoked an immediate philosophical response concerning on the premise of political progress in this so-called system of nation-state actors.
|Mr. Konstanty Gebert speaks with the Humanity In Action Fellows
Photo by Sarah Deal
Mr. Konstanty Gebert further elucidated these thoughts by distinguishing between the utterly ubiquitous idea of nation-states as opposed to a more antiquated, yet perhaps more civilized idea of a society. For Mr. Gebert, this took form in the statement: “Don’t scare me with nations; I want to live in societies.” Distinguishing these concepts opened up a new dialogue concerning the false narrative of the eternal primacy of nation-states.
The discrepancies that exist between the individual goodwill and the political will of nation-states actors, the disillusionments of the concept of sovereignty of nation-states and the inner contradictions of the so-called exportation of liberal democracy (for instance the inconsistence of international community response to the cases of Libya and Syria), makes the modern aspirations of the international community questionable. If the want for diversity (a unique case, as argued by Mr. Gebert, happening within the generally homogenous Poland) is indeed as ancient as the human history is; if some or most of older civilizations coexisted and promoted uniqueness of thoughts and lifestyles; if indeed these accounts were as described without the lens of modern authorities of nation-state actors and international communities bodies, then we the people of these contemporary times need to revisit our old past and for a moment curb our hyper-enthusiasm for these notions of hegemony of nation-states and necessity of liberal democracy, and learn a lesson or two from these ancient wisdoms.
The two speakers, Mr. Smolar and Mr. Gebert, separately (as I attempt to synthesize their messages here) affirmed that promotion of the notions of sovereign nation-states could be counterproductive to the humanity’s goal of global peace, collaboration and coexistence. This is because the concept of nation-states in virtue of its practical manifestation demands an exclusive basis, a mythologized heritage/history and hence serves as a cause of national conflict and international strive since the concept itself alienates humanity from its common and universal history and essence.
Mr. Smolar asserted that “States [are] the coldest beast” while Mr. Gebert reiterated, “Consistency of thinking is not a quality of government [nation-states].” Philosopher Slavoj Žižek also aptly echoes the contradictions embedded in the ideology of liberal democracy in his idea about “culturalization of politics.”
“[…] The ultimate source of barbarism is culture itself, one’s direct identification with a particular culture, which renders one intolerant towards other cultures…. Whatever else one can accuse liberal multiculturalism of, one should at least admit that it is profoundly anti-“essentialist”: it is its barbarian Other which is perceived as essentialist and thereby false. Liberalism itself thus privileges a certain culture: the modern Western one. As to freedom of choice, liberalism is also marked by a strong bias. It is intolerant when individuals of other cultures are not given freedom of choice… The liberal idea of a “free choice” thus always gets caught in a deadlock.” (Žižek, Slavoj (2008-07-22). Violence).
Living in societies, rather than under umbrellas of different nation-states, destabilizes the exclusionary myths upon which our nations are founded. As Mr. Gebert stated, geographic identity mattered more than linguistic and cultural identities among the ancient civilizations he discussed about. Societies of that time encouraged richness and diversity of cultures within their societal spaces.
The need to categorize a different culture as a threat to ones culture (discrimination of immigrants) is not only modern but also grounded on an irrational fear and on a narrow view that ones culture is a unique (often times superior) player in the global “social Darwinism” and not admissive of enhancements and influences from other cultures. The shortsighted desire for a certain group of people (e.g. of “homogenous” origin) to aspire for unity and security under a common identity of nation-state belies their fear to relate and identify with the global humanity.
One has to ask, finally, how can humanity correct the inadequacies in the notions of nation-states’ sovereignties? Perhaps it is the task of humanitarianisms to rediscover the old though currently neglected idea of what societies used to mean. And through the efforts of advocating for it (the ancient idea of society), we can hope to put it in practice and hence mitigate or completely counter xenophobia and other irrational and fascist bases against multiculturalism and coexistence. Does it make sense to continue nourishing the notion of nation-states and the sibling notion of liberal democracy that’s attached to it, or should we follow the suggestion of Mr. Gebert and overhaul the whole system by initiating a journey back to our past, “back to the civilized roots of antiquity?” Let’s remember the wise caveat offered by Leo Tolstoy: “The men of our time do not pretend to hate oppression, inequality, the division of men, and all kinds of cruelty, not only toward men, but also toward animals, – they actually do hate all this, but they do not know how to destroy it all, and they have not the courage to part with what maintains all this and seems to them to be indispensable.” And that “The government [Nation-States] has by its essence always been a justice-impairing force.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You). Societies or Nation-States; from whence comes the hope, the everlasting security, for minority groups?