Steve Martinot
San Francisco State University, U.S.A.
Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Nation-state as a Structure

What we consider the nation-state today is a constitutional government characterized by representative democracy, with separated powers (executive, legislative, and judicial) acting in concert through as ystem of checks and balances. Nevertheless, it functions as a strong centralized mode of governance.  Ideologically, it proclaims itself dedicated to the preservation of certain civil right, while practically its central focus is the maintenance of the rights of private property. In EuroAmerican society, it has provided the ground for a massive economic development of capitalism, the critical form of which, both at its 16th century inception and today, is the corporation.

The modern nation-state emerged in two stages. The first period (from 1500 to the mid-18th century) saw the consolidation of trans-oceanic governance opened by the conquest of the Americas. Certain European monarchies constructed strong central administrative apparatuses to insure the development of a nascent capitalism. The privatization of communal land in Europe and the arrival of metals from America permitted the monetization of local and trans-Atlantic markets. Its first labor force was enslaved indigenous and African peoples in the colonies, and indentured and enslaved European labor in Europe. The first stages of capitalism depended on a strong state to grant monopoly control over commerce and land, and to guarantee the existence and obedience of a labor force. These monarchies initiated the development national identities. Only later, with the further development and monetization of markets, was European labor transformed from indenture to wage labor. Both wage labor and capitalist competition, which depended on broad monetized markets, were luxuries that capitalism could not afford during the first centuries of its development.

The second stage was marked by the shift from monarchical sovereignty to civil governance through constitutional structures. Sovereignty was shifted to "the people," generally accompanied by a form of elected representationism. The result was a racialized state based on a white franchise in both Europe and its colonies, and a messianic white supremacy imposed on the rest of the world through colonization. The nation-state's rhetorical proclamation of a democratic ethos was betrayed at birth by reducing democracy to formal representation.

While at first, the nation-state's "republican" form of elected representation could claim legitimacy as democratic, since the electorate was homogeneous, being composed only of white male property owners. It was its homogeneity that made it possible for a single elected representative to represent a district. But rapidly, during the 19th century, in the US, economic development, immigration and urbanization produced districts with conflicting and contradictory class, cultural, and community interests. A single delegate could no longer represent its complexity. In other words, under a single-delegate district system, a representative could no longer represent. As a result, representational bodies (state and federal legislatures) became independent of constituencies, and individual representatives went to the highest bidder. Representatives only pretend now to connect to constituencies through party politics. This system is more properly called "representationism." It is an important element of how the nation-state functions as the instrument of civil administration and ideological authority.

The inherent contradiction in representationism was demonstrated by the political violence that has always accompanied it. When, in the 19th century, Latin America countries sought to imitate the US Constitution, there was immediate strife and civil conflict. Internal class interests, party identities, and cultural formations came into conflict that the representationist structure not only could not reconcile, but fed. The Civil War in the US is another example.  Blamed on regional difference, the Civil War was actually an expression of the inability of the nation-state to represent even differences in elite economic interest within capitalism. After the Civil War, the US resolved the problem through the evolution of a two-party system with increasing degrees of legislative autonomy, and by granting personhood to corporations. Legislatures became responsible to corporate interests, as a new form of constituent homogeneity. Corporations took on the mantle of citizens, and real humans became increasingly irrelevant as voting ciphers.

If capitalism was originally jump-started by colonialism on the backs of unpaid indigenous and African labor in the Americas, and through state chartered monopolistic corporations, it was transformed by the shift to republican representationism into its present competitive corporate and wage labor form. The representationist nation-state provided the ideological legitimacy for capitalist depredations through the invention of national identity and national destiny. The corporation was the form by which a strong "republican" state and the capitalist economy constituted each other. And national destiny (its modern incarnation being "national security"), which depends on the domination of others, imposed a cultural inferiorization on others in order to legitimize and "naturalize" EuroAmerican self-superiorization.

In sum, in the globalized hegemonic "democracy" trumpeted by the US today, democracy has been reduced to the rhetoric of electoral campaign and the vote, as political spectacle. In the absence of any sense of real legislative representation, the executive remains free in practice of the "checks and balances" provided by modernist theory. Instead, it takes its policy direction from economic interests.  The judiciary's role was to grant perpetual life and personhood to corporations as proper political agents, completing the "republican" nation-state's direct extension of its monarchical antecedents: institutional sovereignty, corporate economic development, and a homogeneity of constituency.

Insofar as the nation-state is a racialized, representationist, corporate state with a sense of national destiny, it depends on its ability to dominate, and must dominate other societies in order to provide itself with each of these characteristics. It is this confluence of internal structure and external domination that Anibal Quijano has called the "coloniality of power." For post-colonial nations struggling for their independence, the adoption of the nation-state form to organize that independence, in the absence of a national sense of colonial power or a colonial sense of national destiny, would have tragic consequences.

The role of the nation-state in contemporary coloniality

Let us look briefly at how the application of the modernist nation-state works itself out in the post-colonial situation.

Because the nation-state requires a degree of homogeneity for itself, to transcend the class conflicts of the capitalism integral to its structure, the abstract notions of individual rights, liberties, and representative democracy depend on structures of racialization. When Latin American countries emulate the nation-state, they are reaching for a political form that is structured on the basis of a colonialism not available to them. Three things happen. They turn inward, substituting increased racialization for coloniality; second, they undergo an impotence owing to the incommensurability between representationism and democracy, which effects itself as a hiatus between economics and politics; and third, they thus open themselves to continued economic control by foreign corporations.

Coloniality is a requirement for the symbiosis of capitalism and a strong civil government. In its absence, in turning inward, a post-colonial nation must enhance or invent a racialization of its own people, as a form of internal colonialism. This is even happening in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a reflection of the nation-state's eurocentric heritage, an endless denigration of all things indigenous, as obstructive of its own modernist self-universalization as self-legitimizing nation-state. Those who accept the nation-state idea must accept that self-universalization as a political form, which in turn produces a failure to deracialize or decolonize. For Latin America, archaic identities were fractured by conquest and alien colonial boundaries, and their subsequent "national" identity, inherited from a process that was not their own, only ensconced them in the identifications produced for them by coloniality.

On top of this, the post-colonial nation gets caught in the economic contradictions of the nation-state.  For the nation-state, sovereignty resides in a civil government dedicated to the regulation and governance of property and the guarantee of property rights as its central ethos. The separation of powers, in the context of the impossibility of representation, creates a separation between the government's linkage to economic matters, and its ability to express its people's demands for independence. Representationism separates the legislature from its independentist constituency, leaving the legislature open to the highest bidder -- that is, EuroAmerican corporations and financial institutions. The prioritization of property provides whatever juridical rationale foreign capital needs to dominate the rhetorically independent economy, while preventing the independentist leadership (executive) from offering significant resistance. The separation of powers in the post-colony creates a separation between the political (the interests of a constituency) and the economic (the interests of property), which allows EuroAmerican capital to establish itself at the core of the post-colony's

economic life, and thus its political life. It gain s control of the economy under the guise and mantle of supporting independence; and the representationist structure of the nation-state leaves it helpless to defend itself against that. It cannot contest foreign economic domination because the institutionalization of its "independence" as a nation-state requires its prioritization of property and the regulation of property and wealth as its primary function. Independence remains formal rather than real.

In sum, the nation-state, as a constituent of the coloniality of power, creates a structural complicity with the coloniality the post-colony sought to escape. That is, it is the representationist system that prevents people from availing themselves of alternative ideas or alternate political cultures implicit in the development of national liberation movements (such as ending the category of property in land, or proportional representation, or direct democracy, or the democratization of production). Instead, they find themselves ensconced in a structure that imposes white racialized patriarchal capitalist power.  It should be pointed out that a continual criticism of national liberation movements has been that nationalism is a reactionary rather than a revolutionary ideology. But this criticism may be misplaced.

It would be more realistic to say that "nationalism," around which many revolutionas have been successfully organized, only becomes a reactionary force when it leads to the formation of a nation-state. The fault would be structural rather than political, in the wake of using the concept of nationalism to unite people in common cause. It is in this domain that the Cuban instance is so important.

The Cuban state

In Cuba, the political structure is divided into three domains of governance, but not as a separation of powers in the modernist sense. Its elements are in fact incommensurable with the nation-state's division into branches. In Cuba, the three domains are 1) a multi-level system of elected assemblies in which systems of meetings (consultas) or constituent assemblies have replaced the role of political parties, 2) the mass organizations, and 3) the ministries.

The ministries are organs of centralization for the purpose of coordinating the procurement and distribution of goods and productive factors (as well as handle security). They manage the governance of things for economic and infrastructural development (critical in times of shortage and difficult international trade). The mass organizations organize and represent groups with common interests (such as labor, women, students, etc.). That is, they represent their groups' special interests with respect to the ministries and the assemblies. They facilitate discussion (consultas) on political or institutional issues at the local and national levels, and make proposals for changes in policy. They thus constitute the matrix for dialogue among people locally, between constituencies and elected delegates at all assembly levels, and for a sense of responsibility of each domain toward the others. The emphasis on broad popular dialogue among the people has become a cultural aspect and factor in Cuban political life. It marks its most fundamental difference with the US system and the nation-state in general. It is the foundation on which the Cuban system is approaching a form of direct democracy.

In Cuba, the consultative process has sometimes taken years, with thousands of meetings (as was the case with the revision of the legal code in the early 70s; it took 7 years, involving 33,000 meetings and discussions among the people, before a new code was constituted). Consultation is essentially a dialogic process, both among people, and between the three elements of governance.

The assemblies are the main policy-making bodies. People are elected delegates to the assemblies from each constituency by secret ballot. There are no electoral parties. Delegates do not run campaigns in which to make promises about the future; rather, they are elected on the basis of their participation in the past -- in the consultas, the mass organization s, and the general dialogic life of the constituencies.

The local assemblies have the responsibility for administration at the local level. They coordinate production in their districts, administer the court system (whose description would take us too far afield here), and adjudicate political disputes. In effect, executive, legislative, and judicial powers are lumped together to the assemblies. Instead of a separation of these powers, the assemblies represent their democratization. What accounts for Cuba's success in doing so is the fact that adminsitration and legislation in Cuba can concern itself with people, while in a capitalist society, these powers have to concern themselves primarily with property and property interests.

The participation of the mass organizations in the structure of governance is the main innovation in Cuba's political structure. The mass organizations include organizations of women, students, labor, small farmers, professionals, neighborhoods, etc. (The actual organizations are the Cuban Federation of Women, various university and high school student associations, the Cuban Labor Confederation, the National Association of Small Farmers, and the Committees for Defense of the Revolution; others are formed as groups arise that need them.) These organizations are independent of the government, and make their own policy.

The striking aspect of this domain of Cuban politics is that these organizations represent within Cuban society the various movements of exploited or dispossessed people under capitalism (unions, women's movements, student movements, etc.). Each mass organization represents a traditional form of resistance to hierarchical control (patriarchy, elite academic training, class exploitation, latifundia, and colonialist segregation and social domination of the colonized). While, under capitalism, the movements the oppressed have to organize to express their needs and interests remain marginalized, this is inverted in Cuba; these movements are brought into the center of governance. In representing a consciousness of the past, they stand as resistance to the resurgence of that past. They constitute a consciousness of the persistence of oppression in the world, in ways that the ministries (which concern themselves with present reality) and the delegate assemblies (which have a future oriented responsibility toward necessary policy changes as Cuba develops) do not (and should not).

The responsibilities of the mass organizations is first of all to represent the interests of their membership in the different levels of assemblies, in which they have delegates. Thus, they embody the real economic, political, social, and cultural interests in Cuban society. In addition, they administer the machinery of delegate election. And they organize the meetings, consultas, and dialogues between delegates and constituencies, and between constituencies and delegate assemblies.

The struggle to maintain and build the mass organizations has been one of the central processes in the evolution of the Cuban state. During the period of excessive centralization (1960s and 1970s), they almost went out of existence. It was the experience of their demise that led the Cuban leadership to realize the need to decentralize. The continual process of decentralization of administration and decision-making (adding intermediary levels of assembly, for instance) marks a second important difference with the US and the nation-state system.

There is a cyclic structure discernible in the interrelations between the ministries, the assemblies, and the mass organizations. The ministries act in a top down fashion, a centralization that is present-oriented economically and future-oriented politically; the delegate assemblies act in a bottom up fashion, with juridical decision-making power that is future-oriented politically and present-oriented organizationally; and the mass organizations mediate between the two on the basis of socio-cultural and political interests that are present-oriented politically and past-oriented (as mass politics) organizationally.

What appears as executive power in the nation-state is split between the ministries and the mass organizations; the nation-state's legislative functions are split between the delegate assemblies and the mass organizations; and the judicial power is split between the delegate assemblies and the ministries (the ministries administer the courts, the legal system, and education at the national level). In other words, what is constituted as an institutionality of power in the nation-state appears as a mediation between domains of governance in Cuba. And conversely, these domains of governance are defined along conceptual lines that are incommensurable with the categories of the nation-state. In the place Of the hegemonic and distanced power given representationism in the nation-state, Cuba has substituted a structure of responsibility, in the sense of combining responsiveness and ethics.

The categories of the nation-state have been rendered mediatory, ephemeral, and disseminated socially in the Cuban state. And what is marginalized in the nation-state (mass movements, organization of social and human welfare, and popular direct participation in political affairs unmediated by party organization) has been placed at the center of Cuban state operations.

In a word, the Cuban state inverts the governmental categories of the nation-state. The mass organizations invert the marginalization of the social movements in capitalist society, taking their place at the center, an inversion of center and periphery . The assemblies invert the process of representation in the nation-state. In nation-state representationism, the election of representatives occurs first, and political discussion then occurs among representatives; in Cuba, debate and discussion occurs first, at the level of constituent meetings, consultas, neighborhood and enterprise assemblies, and in the mass organizations, and delegates are then elected to represent what had occurred in those meetings.  Contested issues in the assemblies are remanded to the constituencies for discussion, organized by people themselves or by the mass organizations.

It is because political discussion is carried on as the future action of representatives in legislatures that political parties are necessary in the nation-state, to embody the projection of discussion into the future.  In Cuba, parties are not necessary because debate and discussion is already collective at the constituent level. In the nation-state, political parties mediate between constituencies and legislatures. In the Cuban state, the inverse relation of the assemblies to the constituencies is mediated by the mass organizations.

There is one single party in Cuba, the Cuban Communist Party; but it is not an electoral nor governing party. It is barred by law from accounting for more than 10% of all delegates elected to all assemblies.  Instead, it operates as a moral leadership for the society as a whole, participating in the consultative processes in constituent meetings, and acting as a source of organization and ideas. Though a party heavy-handedness is always possible in such consultations, its operations have been decentralized in practice, and open to criticism by the assemblies. Thus, it inverts the ethic of obeisence to expertise that accompanies the market commodification of all things human in the nation-state.

Finally, the ministries, insofar as they coordinate supply and demand, as well as economic development, represent an open, concrete responsibility toward the economy and social welfare, where those administrative links in the nation-state between the corporations and the executive branch of government remain hidden and ephemeral. That is, the ministries invert the anarchy of capitalist production as a centralization and coordination of economic development. They have the responsibility for equalizing employment opportunity and the distribution of material resources to the constituencies.  The ministries thus constitute a division of labor at the level of management rather than of labor. In the corporate structure of the nation-state, management acts as unified body (boards of directors), governing a division of labor in production. In the Cuban system, workers act as collectives through their factory and enterprise assemblies, while the ministries constitute a division of managerial labor, inverting the relation between collectivity and the division of labor.

It is through this multiple structure of inversion that the Cuban state represents a clear alternative to the nation-state. It is thus that the Cuban revolution, and the Cuban experiment in revolutionary society, has been able to escape the pitfalls that beset other post-colonial societies and maintain their sovereignty. Cuba considers itself a nation, and it has a state. But its nationalism has maintained its revolutionary character precisely because it rejected the nation-state form, enabling it to preserve its sovereignty.


A Note on Race and Racism

With respect to the racialization that constitutes the nation-state, the Cuban state has unfortunately acted in an ambiguous and sometimes contradictory fashion. During the early years of the revolution, discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed in principle, and fought conscientiously by the revolutionary leadership. Social clubs, social facilities, and educational or health institutions that discriminated racially were fairly rapidly closed or taken over by the government and run on a non-discriminatory basis. All employment, government participation, education, health care, and housing has been opened to all, without discrimination. But politically, in the wake of these actions (which were by and large successful), the Cuban government took the stand that if racial discrimination had been eliminated, then race ceased to be a factor, and was not something that needed to be spoken about or addressed politically any more. No specific laws addressing racial discrimination were passed, and organizations based on race, such as a number of black "societies" that had grown up during the pre-revolutionary period, were discouraged or even closed down. What the absence of discussion on racism and white supremacy assumed was that if race were not spoken of, it would disappear. But that simply allowed the structures of racialization in pre-revolutionary Cuba, the cultural matrix of white supremacy inculcated by colonialism, to persist intact. The government's refusal to include racialization and white supremacy as political issues is the one exception to the emphasis of discussion, dialogue, and consultation that has emerged as the center of Cuban political life. It is a policy that has begun to change, and to be reversed since the early 1980s. But the fact that the revolutionary leadership could make this omission testifies to the depth in EuroAmerican culture and its colonies the structures of white supremacy lie. And when the Cuban economy had to shift to tourism for economic growth, the racism inherent in the dormant structures of racialization re-emerged in new and old forms of white supremacy. The Cuban government is now struggling with this problem on a number of fronts, which would be too complicated to go into in this paper.

Some references:

Isaac Saney; Cuba: a Revolution in Motion

Peter Roman; People's Power: Cuba's Experiment with Representative Government

Max Azicri; Cuba: Politics, Economics and Society

Alejandro de la Fuente; A Nation For All

Anibal Quijano; The Nation-State, Citizenship, and Democracy