As the world fretted over the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani by United States drones in Iraq and the possibility of World War III breaking out, an important anniversary passed almost unnoticed. A hundred years ago, the League of Nations was created – the first supranational organisation made up of nation-states tasked with maintaining peace.
It is perhaps quite ironic that this anniversary was marked by the extrajudicial killing of an Iranian man by US forces in a third sovereign country – Iraq. The US is an empire with military bases around the world; its main ally, Israel is a European settler colony planted in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world by the British and now protected by the US. Iran is a regional power which commands proxy forces in countries including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen. Both the US and Iran reach beyond their borders, disregarding the sovereignty of nation-states and doing as they please, without regard to the will of these nations or their best interests.
No major power is staying where the postcolonial fictive frontiers tell them to be. Saudi Arabia is in Yemen, France is in Mali, Russia is in Syria, Kenya is in Somalia, Iran is in Iraq and the US is all over the world. What is the point of all these borders that President Donald Trump wants to turn into formidable walls? How come global corporations and US fighter jets cross any border they want, but people must risk their lives to reach a place where they would like to live? One hundred years after the creation of the League of Nations, we should look back and wonder what happened to nation-states, sovereignty and the world of post-colonial borders that various colonial agreements drew back then.
The weakness of the nation-state and lack of respect for sovereignty is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, I would argue that by the time Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations in 1776, wealth was already not national and the condition of coloniality had made the very idea of a nation-state a mere bookkeeping necessity upon which national languages, national cultures, and national polities were superimposed. The idea of “the West” then became a civilisational category to separate the presumed centres of capitalist modernity from its colonial peripheries, which came to be seen as “the Rest”. The ideological manufacturing of Islamic, Chinese, or Indian civilisations were all Orientalist projects to corroborate the centrality of “the Western civilisation” as an ideological cornerstone of the Eurocentric world order.
But what we are experiencing today is no longer predicated on the grand narratives of European linear modernity or the global triumph of the condition of coloniality, terms and conditions through which we had understood much of our current history. The habitual Weberian conceptualisation of the “state” as an entity with a monopoly over violence which requires a certain degree of moral legitimacy is no longer operative. Nations have little to no trust in their states – states use, abuse and brutalise their own and other nations on their way to chitchat at the country club called “the United Nations”, the successor of the League of Nations.
In other words, we see illegitimate states wielding absolute and brutal power over their own nations and nations abroad without regard to the old imaginary boundaries that the Eurocentric order drew around nation-states. What are the consequences of the collapse of the very idea of the “nation-state”, when states have no or little claim to a national basis for their sovereignty? From the works of Georges Sorel to Max Weber to Walter Benjamin to Frantz Fanon to Giorgio Agamben we have understood violence in politically or philosophically placated terms. From cutthroat ISIL fighters to the US military’s categorical disregard for civilian casualties under Trump’s presidency, the nature of violence has now drastically altered in physically more pure and naked forms.
As ruling states become killing machines targeting nations, this pure violence is unleashed onto a bare life, a life shorn of its biographical dignity, stripped of civic protections and dispossessed of its rights. Whether at airports or refugee camps, at malls or sweatshops or lately at consulates, the vicious state, its surveillance arm and capitalist drive are mercilessly robbing life of its sanctity and liberty. The vicious, brutal butchering of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi security officers at the Istanbul consulate is the most vivid case of the naked body of citizens at the disposal of their ruling states. Both naked violence and bare life are subjects of the total state, its epitome I see in the outfit that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIL is an entirely modern state – that it is crossing the colonial boundaries does not mean it is a caliphate. Instead, it is a perfect picture of a total state predicated on pure violence targeting naked lives.
ISIL as both historical genealogy and theoretical prototype exposes the pure violence and naked life and total and totalising nature at the root of all states. It is emblematic of our political truth today – a nation-less state in and of itself dismantling the very idea of the nation-state. Whether it is the militarised police in Brazil killing protesters with impunity, the militia-like army of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad massacring hundreds of thousands of civilians, the merciless security forces in the Philippines who are judge, jury and executioner of all suspected drug offenders, or the mass surveillance regime of the United Kingdom that reaches far into the most intimate details of private and family life, the intelligence agencies in the US, Israel and Iran running foreign assassination programmes, ISIL appears as the doppelganger of all states, and their true nature.
ISIL was born under specific historical circumstances, by the combined forces of the US invasion and occupation and subsequent de-Baathification of the Iraqi state, and al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations against his bloody rule in Syria. ISIL was and remains the bete noire of all the states around the globe that wish to defeat it (the US in particular), and yet ISIL is their alter ego. With its rise, ISIL declared the formal end of the nation-state by demonstrating how all states were in their essence a hidden ISIL, a total state without legitimate claim to any national sovereignty.
Today the fate of nations is completely decoupled from the vagaries of the states that lay false claims on them. The case of Palestine, in which a European garrison state with no native nation rules over a native nation lacking a state is the most vivid example of the total and final severance between nations and states. All other ruling states from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to the other are similar to Israel, ruling over nations that are as violated as the Palestinians. The brutal struggle for existence has now totally preoccupied states and left nations to navigate the contours of their sovereignty for themselves.
Throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, revolutions have never been for and have never resulted in any meaningful, legitimate, and enduring postcolonial states. All these revolutions have done is produce one calamitous state after another. But at the same time, these revolutions have also sharpened the democratic impulses of the nations that have launched them. The accumulated historical memories of these nations have taught them never to trust or even to expect anything remotely resembling a representative democratic state. All these states stage a ludicrous spectacle they call elections, then agitate the basest populist, nativist, or xenophobic fears and fantasies of the mobs they control and call the result democracy. The final and complete abandoning of the delusion of state representation will liberate nations from any false presumptions and help them reclaim their sovereignty for themselves.