The Crisis of the Nation-State in the Age of Globalization

In this article our attention turns to a second seminal Habermasian (2001) reflection on “The post-national constellation and the future of democracy.” One thing is certain: in the 1970s and 1980s something new and threatening to human solidarity and the cosmopolitan dream was wresting itself free of service to the common good and undermining the “principle of oneness.” To be sure, since around 1500 disparate parts of the globe had been gradually incorporated into what Immanuel Wallerstein (“The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system” [2000]) dubbed the world capitalist system. Thinkers like Wallerstein see present developments in the international global economic system as continuous with earlier impulses, but globalization in the late 20th and early 21t centuries intensifies the movement of capital—partly because of the arrival of the World-wide Web—and integrates national economies so radically that we are compelled to find new language to speak of the global era.

The eminent British historian, Eric Hobsbawm (“The world unified” [ 2000]), thinks that this process of “drawing together all parts of the globe into a single world” (p. 55) began seriously in the mid-19th century. Karl Marx, after all, observed that the bourgeoisie of his day rapidly improved “all instruments of production, by immensely facilitated means of communication,” drawing even the most barbarous nations into civilization” (cited, Hobsbawm, p. 52). Contemporary economic globalization draws all economies, willy-nilly, into a single, interdependent, global economic systems of winners– and losers.

This interdependent globe is radically unequal

Here’s the rub. The interdependent globe, which lays the groundwork for a cosmopolitan world order, is radically unequal and utterly tense under the self-proclaimed rule of the US hegemon. Habermas (2001) states: “The widening gap in living standards between the North and the impoverished, chaotic, and self-destructive regions of the South, or the looming cultural conflicts between a secularized West and a fundamentalist Islamic world, or the socioeconomic traditions of the Far East, are political challenges—to say nothing of the warning signals from the relentlessly ticking ecological clock; the balkanization of regions collapsing into civil wars and ethnic conflicts, and so on” (p. 60). Not only this: under the conditions of globalized economic production nation-states lose their sovereignty in decision-making pertaining to the collective needs of the citizenry (this is noticeably the case for Canada’s foreign policy). “Today, developments summarized under the term ‘globalization’ have put this entire constellation into question” (ibid.). Twenty years down the road, from 1991 to 2021, the US’s reckless exercise of hegemony has reached boiling point in the current Russia-Ukraine war. The globalized order – where a sanction slapped on one country, reverberates thousands of miles away in this country’s trading partners –appears to be entering a new cold war era, and a new division of East and West. In a word, a new bipolarity on the global chessboard (see the excellent discussion of bipolarity and the new form of East/West relations by Zhao Huasheng, “The pendulum of history: thirty years after the Soviet Union, Russia in Global Affairs, No. 1, January-March 2022).

Wildly out-of-sync world

The global political ordering of nation-states is wildly out-of-sync with the globalized economy. From a social evolutionary learning perspective, the capitalist economic form has created a “learning crisis” of supreme proportions. That is, a new, emancipatory cosmopolitan “structure of consciousness” is hemmed in and constrained by the self-interest of a de-regulated capitalism. As Gramsci once said, the old world won’t leave and the new one is too frightened to come. And this, in turn, means that millions upon millions of people are distressed and bitter that they are coerced into living impoverished lives.

People look around at their own country (or nation-state) and, as Habermas suggests, their “democratic self-confidence is shaken; a confidence that is necessary if conflicts are to be perceived as challenges, as problems awaiting a political solution” (p. 61). Transformative learning (procedures and outcomes) arise once suffering people become emotionally and cognitively detached from taken-for-granted assumptions to move beyond where they presently stand. The major issue here, then, in Habermas’ words: “For if state sovereignty is no longer conceived as indivisible but shared with international agencies; if states no longer have control over their national territories; and if territorial and political boundaries are increasingly permeable, the core principles of democratic liberty—that is self-governance, the demos, consent, representation, and popular sovereignty—are made distinctly problematic” (p. 61).

Habermas realizes that cosmopolitan pilgrims may gaze across the river where the new order resides and have “alarmist feelings of enlightened helplessness widely observed in the political arena today. There is a crippling sense of forced adaptation (or submission) to the pressure to shore up purely local positional advantages. It is a perception that deprives political controversies of their last  bit of substance. The much-lamented ‘Americanization’ of electoral campaigns reflects a situation so troubled that it seems to rule out any comprehensive overview” (ibid.). Twenty years later, the world of politics is even more disordered and dangerous than when Habermas penned this essay. He states forthrightly that what interests him and many others whether we can find the  ‘appropriate forms’ for the democratic process to take us beyond the nation-state: “What interests me is the desirability, and, under present circumstances, the possibility of a renewed ‘closure’ of this global society. What would a political response to the post-national constellation look like?” (ibid.).

Perhaps Mikhail Gorbachev in his book, Perestroika. New thinking for our country and the world, identified the key postulates of this constellation: stopping confrontation and dividing world into blocs; rejecting military solutions to conflicts; building international relations on the basis of the balance of interests and mutual benefit rather than balance of power. But at this perilous “turning point” in world history the US hegemon has turned away from working cooperatively with others to instantiate these postulates (see Fyodor Lukyanov, “Old thinking for our country and the world,” Russia in Global Affairs, No. 1, January-March 2022).

Globalization is like an overflowing river

Globalization is like an overflowing river, washing away all borders, boundaries, checkpoints. Habermas raises the big question of: “Which aspects of globalization could potentially degrade the capacity for democratic self-steering within a national society?” (p. 67). Ever the philosopher, Habermas wants to know how globalization affects (a) the security of the rule of law and the effectiveness of the administrative state, (b) the sovereignty of the territorial state, (c) collective identity, and (d) the democratic legitimacy of the nation-state?” (p. 68). For me, the deep learning process that is required of humankind has to do with the widely articulated critical insight by many social movements: “Ecological degradation and unreliable high-tech facilities have generated new kinds of risks that do not respect national borders” (ibid.).

Chernobyl, forest depletion, ice melting, the ozone hole, acid rain, nuclear threats, virulent viruses such as Coronavirus-19 — and profligate western consumption patterns – are implicated in both exploitation of workers and the use of toxic materials to produce goods. The documentary film, Blue, presents vivid and arresting images of Indonesian fishermen cutting nets adrift in their waters and people in Australia discovering them (and often entangled turtles and seals) on their own shores. In Pope Francis’s words (Laudato Si: On care for our common home [2015]), “we share a common home.” Kant’s ideal of respecting the rights of people and vulnerable non-human life forms cannot remain on the moral sidelines.

Habermas also points out that under Neo-liberal conditions—corporations pressure the state to lower their tax rates so they can compete in a fiercely frenzied global environment. Cutbacks were the order of the day in the 1990s, and these cuts to the public sector continue into the jittery present. “Taxation at the highest income brackets, capital gains taxes, and corporate taxes have fallen to such a low level in the OECD countries that the proportion of total tax revenues derived from corporate profits has drastically fallen since the end of the 1990s” (p. 69). When tax revenues decrease, governments lose the capacity (and political will) to hire more nurses, health-care workers and teachers (and those who assist them) in ever increasing anxiety-ridden schools. GDP statistics soar; the degradation of everyday life and insecurity intensifies. Even in the capital region of Canada, Ottawa city councillors squabble over where there spaces in the early morning hours for homeless men and women to stay warm.

Thus, the old Westphalian idea that the “world of states consists of nation-states regarded as independent actors within an anarchic environment, who make more or less rational decisions in pursuit of the preservation of their own power” (ibid) has proved inadequate for our changed time. The imagined Westphalian idea of harmony between the nation-state’s political leadership and citizen’s needs met has been uncoupled. Habermas comments: “In an increasingly economically, culturally, and ecologically interconnected world, it is increasingly rare that the legitimate decision made by states harmonize with the interests of the persons and areas potentially affected by these decisions in the state’s social and territorial surroundings” (p. 70). I remain doubtful that an aggressive military bloc like NATO, and multi-national organizations like NAFTA or ASEAN compensate for “lost capacities” of the nation-state.

People prefer a settled and predictable existence

People prefer a settled and predictable existence. As a Jamaican school principal once told me, you talk of all this liberation stuff. My main worry each morning is getting the gangs to stop shooting while the children are travelling to school. Life in the Neo-liberal disorder is precarious and unpredictable. Recent wars in the Middle East have sent millions of refugees pouring into European countries. Perpetual peace, Kant taught us, requires the display of hospitality to strangers. But the unsettling of work and cultural life can create the reverse: “hatred and violence against foreigners, against other faiths and races …” (p. 72).

Queasy and anxious citizens can find empty solace in blaming others; right-wing parties and neo-fascist movements want immigrants to stay away; some countries build walls to keep us from taking the perspective of the other. Habermas thinks, however, that our globalized, interdependent world is moving hesitantly towards a multicultural and multifaith mutual existence. “For nation-states with their own national histories, a politics that seeks the coexistence of different ethnic communities, language groups, religious faiths, etc. under equal rights naturally entails a process as precarious as it is painful” (p. 74). It is precarious: since the beginning of Russia’s military operation into Ukraine on February 24th, an insane barrage of hateful lies and vulgar demonization has been heaped on Vladimar Putin and Russian people. It almost seems as if the West is banishing Russians from our common humanity.

Habermas raises several important questions pertaining to the nation-state’s ability to exercise domestic policies that are perceived to be fair for all. He observes that: “Under the pressure of globalizing markets, national governments readily lose their capacity to influence economic cycles (p. 77). I believe this strongly. Thus: “The interplay between social and economic policies on the one side, and between economic policy on the other, demonstrates how little room remains for the effective exercise of legitimized domestic policy” (p. 78). Habermas carries little doubt that a “transnational liberalism”—with “increasingly globalized markets have worked to the disadvantage of the state’s autonomy and its capacity for economic interventions” (ibid.). Money replaces power; power can be democratized and money cannot. It now rules and Wolfgang Streeck, author of How will capitalism end? (2017), shows how globalized capitalism succeeded in turning citizens into customers.

Entry into the consumer paradise

The Neo-liberal imaginary offers us a consumer paradise replete with endless exquisite goods to consume. Many are called; few can ever enter the gilded doors of this paradise. Although Streeck and Habermas disagree regarding the fate of the EU, they both believe that: “As markets drive out politics, the nation-state increasingly loses its capacities to raise taxes and stimulate growth, and with them the ability to secure the essential foundation of its own legitimacy” (p. 79). And:
“Despite all this, national governments, terrified of the implicit threat of capital flight, have let themselves be dragged into a cost-cutting deregulatory frenzy, generating obscene profits and drastic income disparities, rising unemployment, and the social marginalization of a growing population of the poor” (ibid.).

Habermas leaves us with a plateful of bitter fruit. “This (not exactly encouraging) diagnosis had led politicians to scrap social programs, and has driven voters to apathy or protest. The broad renunciation of the power of politics to shape social relations, and the readiness to abandon normative points of view to shape social relations, and the readiness to abandon normative points of view in favor of adaptations to supposedly unavoidable systemic imperatives, now dominate the political arenas of the Western world” (p. 79). The state, so it appears, can no longer protect its citizens. Fundamentally, this means that the state will not make policy behind Rawls’ curtain of fairness (the policy must not make the rich richer, and the poor poorer).

To conclude, Habermas raises a sharp question regarding the disintegrative effects of globalization on the lifeworld. Arguing somewhat along the lines of Ulrich Beck’s notion of “reflexive modernization” (we have many choices as individuals and are forced to plan our own pathways), Habermas states that a “strongly integrated lifeworld releases individuals into the ambivalence of expanded options” (p. 83). Once the lifeworld is less strongly integrated, Habermas notes that individuals become more isolated and less dependent on others. They are forced, as it were, to take “a strategic-rational view of his own interests” (ibid.). The danger here, however, is that the “’individualization’ of life projects conceals a sort of compulsory mobility that is hard to reconcile with durable bonds; the ‘pluralization’ of life forms also reflects the danger of a fragmented society and the loss of cohesion” (p. 87).


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.