*Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

The nation-state is the only game in town; and, since we only have a conception of finite games, this game has winners and losers.  (As an aside, it is not accidental that the United Stats, which embodies the idea of the nation-state as well as any other country, remains incapable of comprehending games that are not finite.  ‘Finite’ and ‘infinite’ games, as James Carse has deployed those terms, go well beyond games as those are ordinarily understood, but for our purposes the literal examples of games [as in sports] will suffice beautifully.  American games, among them basketball, football, and baseball, cannot countenance the possibility of a draw:  a draw is not an acceptable ‘result’, and if the score is tied at the end of regulation play, the games goes into over-time, and if necessary into double and triple over-time.  Cricket offers the greatest contrast:  Americans are among those who are gravely puzzled by a game that, in its ideal version, could last five days and end, as was more often the case than not, in a draw.  Cricket in its classic test match version has long seemed to be a game where the killer instinct could not be exercised.)  In this scenario of finite games, a nation-state advances at the cost of another nation-state.  These nation-states [or, in the awkward grammatical version, nations-state] exist in a highly hierarchical relationship to each other, an idea equally to be encountered in the very apotheosis of the nation-state, namely the United Nations (where, as is transparent, the General Assembly that in principle deems all nations to be equal is wholly subservient to the wholly undemocratic organ known as the Security Council).

Well-meaning people like to speak of win-win situations, and hope for such outcomes, but the relentless logic of the nation-state permits no easy consolations.  One modern narrative, about the renewed ascendancy of China and India, shows as clearly as anything else how modern political discourse has succumbed entirely to the zero-sum politics of our times.  A prolific literature, which we can see multiplying before our eyes, adverts to various aspects of the race between the two countries.  The only points of comparison seem to revolve around the number of new cell phone connections, the amount of foreign exchange reserves, the share of each country in world exports, the growth of domestic product, the growth of the automobile culture, rapidly expanding consumer markets, and the like.  To be sure, such discussions are leavened by apparently more sophisticated considerations, such as whether India is, in comparison with China, disadvantaged by restraints on growth placed by adherence, however nominal, to democratic freedoms, or whether China’s one-child policy will work to its detriment as its population ages at a much faster rate than is the case in India.  Those interested in geopolitical considerations have taken this narrative further, comparing and contrasting the growing reach of India and especially China throughout Africa.  If the Chinese are tapping the mineral wealth of Africa at an astronomical rate, Indian telecommunications giants such as Airtel have also made spectacular inroads.

In these comparisons between India and China, the illustration I have taken (and discussed as a particular kind of modernist discourse in an article published two year ago), any reference to the fact that India and China long enjoyed civilizational ties before they knew each other as nation-states is dismissed as nostalgia or soft-headed romanticism.  The hostility to civilizational discourses in Marxism is well known, but postcolonial scholars have held a similarly corrosive view of civilizational languages and have not permitted civilizational frameworks to shape their arguments.  Tagore’s views, expressed in his manifesto on nationalism in 1917, are instructive in this regard.  He was obviously not unaware of the oppression wrought in the name of civilization, and nearly everyone with a modicum of awareness of colonial histories recognizes that the idea of ‘civilizing mission’ served to keep some people in a state of submission.  Nevertheless, Tagore also understood that ‘civilization’ offered the only countervailing force to the nation-state. The ‘Nation of the West’ was Tagore’s quaint if brilliant term to convey the idea that every nation, not merely those in Western Europe, will be made in the image of the nation-state as it emerged in the West: civilizations vary immensely, but the nation-state demands homogeneity not only within but in its very form.  Modern civilization is a strange thing, Gandhi opined in ‘Hind Swaraj’, but stranger still was the nation-state.  Civilizations are less insistent on homogeneity and more accommodating, in various ways, to ideas of plurality, diversity, and difference.

The civilizational framework may be important as it furnishes cues on how to think about such notions as ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘citizenship’, and the ‘commons’.  The best of liberal discourse on citizenship seems positively anemic, operating, even after policy prescriptions are given full consideration, at a level of abstraction which says little about how, say, workers inhabit the condition of dwellers at home, in the workplace, and in the myriad pubic spheres of the nation.  The discourse of cosmopolitanism – “citizen of the earth”, to return to the term’s Greek roots – may be afflicted with similar problems, judging from the literature on ‘world cities’ that has been generated in recent years.  It may be argued that the idea of ‘world cities’ should be warmly embraced, if for no other reason that it shows a way out of the iron grip of the nation-state.  What new hierarchies, we may then ask, are established?  How does the present conception of world cities differ substantively from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century web of cities criss-crossed by imperialist and nationalist elites alike?  Do contemporary notions of citizenship offer a more expansive conception of hospitality and mode for thinking about, in Appiah’s phrase, ‘ethics in a world of strangers’?

See also related posts:

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

*Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

*Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

*The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

7 thoughts on “*Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

  1. ‘Nevertheless, Tagore also understood that ‘civilization’ offered the only countervailing force to the nation-state.’

    This caught my eye.
    I’m not sure about ‘infinite games’- why not simply say meta-games or explicitly mention mechanism design? On the other hand, we Indians have a long tradition of using Game Theory to fuck ourselves up big time. Indeed, in the Mahabharata, King Yuddhishtra , the incarnation of Dharma, overcomes his ‘Vishada’ (depression- just as in the Gita, Arjuna overcomes his Vishada with Lord Krishna’s help) by learning probability based Game Theory (vide http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-everybody-is-wrong-about-bhagvad.html) but, as in the Chandogya Upanishad when the Samans learn the Politically Correct theory of their Veda, the result is hilariously horrible.
    Romer’s Charter Cities (‘World Cities’), I agree, are utterly risible vide- http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/2009/11/romer-demolished-in-day.html and Economists who did increasing returns (this would make them at least proto-‘Civilizational’, in your terminology- rather than punitively Marxist or Marginalist) back in the 70’s and 80’s almost always ended up touting a panacea their own work ought to have warned them against.
    Perhaps there is a wider failure here than we are prepared to recognize…
    The fact is countervailing powers to the Nation-State have always existed, it was just that the First World War, operating on Railway Time Tables, really screwed things up. Proust’s Guermantes were supposed to be one sort of countervailing power- owning castles in the enemy country and intermarrying within a Pan European Almanach de Gotha- but they failed to justify their existence when the crunch came. The Socialists, like Bethman-Hollweg, screwed up even worse- though I suppose one could make a case for ‘the labor aristocracy’ taking the military industrial state as vehicle to class power or something like that.
    The Second World War and, later, the Ideological War, froze things up in a manner which seemed to follow from the logic of the Nation-State but which actually arose in an incredibly silly manner. This, then, was the pre-fabricated mold into which the molten lava of the Post Colonial State was poured. An aberration, simply- nothing to do with the logic of history or the nature of industrial capitalism.
    Tagore’s sanity, it seems to me, arose from the fact that he was an actual landlord- he noticed that the rising ‘kulaks’ were more vicious in their methods than his own henchmen. Moreover, big landlords had an incentive to put down communal strife. Mahararajas had an incentive not to fuck up their own capital cities. These weren’t particularly intelligent people by any means but ‘incentive compatibility’ obtained.
    As for, the ‘more expansive conception of hospitality and thinking’ you call for- yeah, that would be great, except…urm… could it please link up with McMansions for my idiot kids in some way? And don’t say they have to go to Iraqistan to fight them towel-heads. That’s a deal breaker.
    Still the question remains. What are people like us supposed to do with our idiot kids- Subaltern Studies seemed safe because it would take them decades to figure out that Subaltern meant ‘Poor people’- and now you’re taking a hatchet to Post Colonial whining- what is left? Please don’t say Queer Theory and Leela Gandhian xenophilia. After all, at some point, grandchildren would be nice.


    • Hello Vivek, The games to which I refer have no relationship to Game Theory; in fact, ‘infinite games’ are the very antithesis of
      any economistic conception. ‘Mechanism design’ already takes us to a bureaucratic, managerial, and ‘operations
      research’ view of the world, the last thing I have in mind. Your humor and insights are appreciated but a response
      to everything would require several long posts, so I’ll take a pass, at least for the present. Vinay


  2. I must admit I still haven’t got over an adolescent crush on Game theory- though Prof. Binmore did very kindly explain to me it wasn’t actually about hide & seek.

    Still, Appiah’s ‘the honor code’ is very funny. Perhaps it’s a case of Bryanston casting a long shadow. Or maybe it’s an American thing- I wouldn’t understand.


  3. It’s interesting that you juxtapose civilizations with nation-states and suggest that the former is more accommodating to “ideas of plurality, diversity, and difference.” While there’s something compelling about that, I’m extremely skeptical of a civilizational framework, considering that civilizations don’t have innocuous borders either, at least not historically. So I want to ask you: 1. What’d a civilizational map of the world look like from your perspective? Who and what’d you think of as civilizations in the world? What distinguishes different civilizations? 2. Is there a difference between “civilization” and “culture” in your use of the term?


  4. I agree about “civilization” being important for India to contrast with nation state. Am worried about extending it worldwide though. You have referred to problems of “western civilization” and how it has been oppressive. What about those who never have been allowed to think of themselves as “civilization” such as Africans? Even in Indian civilization there have been some Indians such as tribal people who have been excluded from civilizational idea of India. My humble thoughts.


    • As you write, the idea of ‘civilization’ has also been used to create hierarchies and suppress people. After all, as we all know, the Europeans claimed they were on a civilizing mission in Asia and Africa. But no one word such as ‘civilization’ has a singular history. The word civilization has other histories, and those histories suggest the idea of civilization is much deeper and is far more accommodating of “difference” than the idea of the nation-state. But I also agree with you that in India the history of civilization was deployed to create hierarchies between caste society and the adivasis, just as I would agree that the treatment of adivasis in India is deplorable.


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