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Beyond maps, beyond nations

Old map of the world

Normn B Leventhal under a Creative Commons Licence

The state of the world today is inextricably linked to its nation-states. We live in times of extreme wealth and poverty, gross privilege and inequality, enduring forms of discrimination and political and financial manipulation. Many are subjected to poverty, hunger, injustice and violence simply because it is profitable for a few. This status quo is never justified (even by the most regressive voices) within nation-states, yet it is accepted at a global level. Why should all humanity and conscience weaken at the national border controls?

People learn to have concentric circles of affiliation and empathy that become weaker as they widen outwards (from self, family and community to region, nation and beyond). This is neither natural nor inevitable, though much ink and ideology goes into making it seem so; global instances of solidarity, struggle and resistance show us it is possible to conceive of identity as trans-national.

When people are assigned into units called nation-states as their primary identity, it is the latitude or longitude of their birth that determines their life chances. And this nation-statist paradigm actively inculcates indifference, apathy or hostility against those who are different. The contemporary regimes of border-control restrict the movement of people across borders while facilitating the unrestricted movement of capital globally. While the entire basis of ‘free markets’ rests upon the theoretical premise of free (and equilibrating) movement of factors of production (labour and capital), it is capital that is free to move, not labour.

And while every aspect of human life continues to be commodified, commercialized and monetized by the capitalist juggernaut, the spread of democracy or technology will not automatically create an internationalist conscience.

Democracy within nation-states is the government of the people, by the people, for the people. But which people? The citizens of a nation-state. The logic of democratic arithmetic requires governments typically to care about the welfare of the majority within their national borders. The very structure of the system militates against unself-serving global concern, concern for the domestic minority, or for those who are disenfranchised.

Similarly, look at technology. There is a global colossus of knowledge and communication, ranging from the CIA Factbook to the ubiquitous Facebook. But the general trend in ordinary people’s use of technology has been to personalize their perception of reality (through personalized maps, news feed and social networks) and limit their ability to encounter newness.

The existing political, economic and technological systems work for, and benefit from, classifying people into nation-states in a way that systematically limits their geographical imagination and ability to empathize with distant others.

But the problems of humanity remain inescapably international: global production chains of commodities transfer value from poor to rich; waste and want are intertwined in the consumerist ideology that continually ensures that the haves waste and the have-nots want; pollution, climate change, terrorism, piracy, corruption, tax evasion and trafficking don’t adhere to national borders. So mere inter-national (between nations) solutions will not suffice. What we need is a renewed internationalism (beyond nations) that engenders a cosmopolitan subjectivity. In other words: we belong to the world, the world belongs to us. Humanity is our concern – the cosmopolis, our globe, our planet. I am because you are. ‘We’ should be the preferred pronoun of political debates. Recall Gandhi’s Talisman: our actions should be judged by their impact on the poorest and weakest on this planet.

A cosmopolitan subjectivity needs to be consciously anti-imperial, compromising both imperialism and sovereignty. Sovereignty needs to be decoupled from states so that it resides in humanity. Internationalist ethics require us to consider ways in which rights need not derive only from citizenship. Nation-states have, for too long, enforced power, dehumanized people and normalized prejudice to the extent that the violence inflicted by the nation-state (for example, in the 20th century) is unparalleled in the history of the world.

The ethical and political premise of our shared humanity is crucial to such an internationalism. Appealing simply to the economic self-interest of certain constituencies for getting greater co-ordination between nations, without challenging nation-statism, is ultimately inadequate. One must make the case for internationalism on more than just an economic ground. Action prompted by thinking about others only when it serves our own interests will never be truly internationalist in the long run, and may have an imperialist bias. Further, it will be hostage to changing circumstances and fluctuating economic interests.

An international solidarity is an ethical commitment to the fundamental and inalienable rights of others to be as free as oneself, notwithstanding their global location. A worthy internationalism comes from thinking beyond the nation, even if from within nations; a consciousness of struggle and resistance against injustice, inequality, poverty, oppression and indignity that unites as fellow human beings people who may have been forced by history into divided lands, but who can, with conscience and conscious striving, always imagine otherwise.

The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI's 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.