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’?
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