Monday, May 27, 2019

Too Big to Succeed?

Our classical conceptions of how to think about politics originally took shape in a very different kind of world, the world of small urban communities, in which face-to-face interaction in the polis facilitated the deliberation and debate characteristic of what came to be called politics. It is historically indisputable that size set (and continues to set) real limits to certain types of political participation.  It is a commonplace observation that, while in the ancient Mediterranean world of small city-states the greatest thing one could be was a citizen entitled to participate in community discussion and debate,  citizenship as an active way of life (as opposed to what it has since so often degenerated into – just a passive possession of rights and privileges) functionally deteriorated as small city-states were absorbed into enormous empires. Discussion and debate  diminished, and people lost the sense that they could accomplish anything through political participation. As Sheldon Wolin noted way back in 1960, the corresponding questions raised by political thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau were "How far could the boundaries of political space be extended, how much dilution by numbers could the notion of citizen-participant withstand, how minor need be the 'public' aspect of decisions before the political association cased to be political?" [Politics and Vision, p. 70].

Just as the ancient Mediterranean city-state set spatial limits to the possibility of a certain sort of direct democracy, it seems that the same can be said for the modern nation-state with regard to representative democracy. The European Union may hobble on, but it can never completely repair its "democratic deficit," because the degree of real representative government and social democracy made possible by the modern nation-state cannot be replicated by imperial Brussels anymore than the direct democracy of Athens could be replicated by imperial Rome.

The widespread "populist" dissatisfaction with the European Union is easy to understand, but such dissatisfaction is evident within individual nation-states as well, as globalized elites have increasingly severed their national bonds of solidarity with their less well-off fellow-citizens. Not just artificial entities like the EU, but more importantly the various national governing cultural and economic elites (and thus the traditional political parties) have been visibly failing their fellow-citizens, with increasingly catastrophic consequences, among them the discrediting not just of the political class but, more seriously, of essential democratic and constitutional norms.

The modern nation-state, by itself, is, of course, no automatic guarantor of democratic governance and effective social solidarity. But it alone in the modern world can provide the framework for the social solidarity necessary to create a community of citizens who are more than passive consumers and claimants to entitlements. The modern nation-state, as such, is likewise no guarantor against nationalism's more problematic manifestations, some of which we see increasingly on the rise. If the history of the 20th century has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that. But the cultural bonding that makes a nation remains essential for effective citizenship and social solidarity. It has been the breakdown of those bonds that has contributed so very visibly to the failure to produce positive and productive results in the lives of so many citizens, and it is precisely this breakdown and failure which further push people to pervert national solidarity in darker directions.

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