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The Myth of National Self Determination

Recent events in Catalonia demand a restatement of a basic socialist principle.

The word ‘we’ is one of the most powerful words, all the more so because its use often passes invisibly. Every time we speak of a ‘we’ we are also creating a ‘them’, an other, we are identifying ourselves as a group and placing others outside it. ‘We’ could be the people that live in our neighbourhood, it could be those with whom we share a common language or accent, or it could be those that go to the same clubs, pubs or places of worship as us. In daily life we can easily think of ourselves as belonging to a variety of different overlapping communities. But which of these groups is the most important? With whom are you most loyal? To which people do you belong? 

Many people will see their national identity as being the most fundamental. After all we have to identify ourselves as a member of a particular nation state when we go abroad, when claiming benefits or applying for a job. What nation we belong to determines what rights and privileges we have, if we find ourselves in a nation other than our own we may find our rights restricted or denied. Our nationality can often form an important element in how we act with the world and how we are placed within it, it can often seem to be as natural and integral a part of us as our gender or hair colour.

A people with a shared culture, language and history, who live in the same place over time naturally develop a strong sense of belonging together. This sense of belonging together and of being tied to a certain geographical place is what constitutes nationhood. A nation is a group of people that has a history of doing things together in a certain geographical area. And just as an individual has a right to choose and to freely express their will so too do peoples who form nations have the right to self determination.

Or at least that is how the myth goes. However, does it really make sense to think of a nation as a homogeneous 'people' sharing the same interest and expressing its ‘will’ in the same way as an individual?

Behind the supposed unity of a national identity we will find a whole manner of divisions, class distinctions and unequal power relations. In nation-states based on capitalist property relations, which is all of them, there is a fundamental divide between owners of capital – the factories, land, raw materials, means of transportation – and sellers of labour-power. The vast wealth of the minority, the class of capital owners, comes from the labour of the majority, the sellers of labour-power – the working class. Market competition compels the capitalist to seek to extract the maximum from the worker. The need to preserve and improve their living conditions drives the worker to resist. This sets up irreconcilable class struggle at the centre of society. To think of a nation as a homogeneous block with all members sharing the same interest is to ignore the real conflicts that arise from the unequal economic power relations that exist within all nation-states.

Nations can be thought of as imagined communities. The majority of the population will never meet or know each other yet in their minds they imagine each other as being and belonging together. These imaginings will be both semi-mythical and semi-factual in nature. The historical stories told for the purpose of nation building are always ones that have been sanitized and moralized, glossing over all the splits, conflicts and discontinuities that occur within and between the populations that have lived in the same space over time. History taught in a truthful and unpolished way does not have the effect of national building – the history of any one particular area is as fractured as any other.

The nation-state is now the fundamental unit through which political affairs are conducted but despite its seeming antiquity it is a relatively modern invention. The origin of the modern nation-state is tied to the development of capitalism and the demise of monarchical regimes, feudal city-states and principalities. The nation-state came to the fore because it was the form of organisation that most suited the operations of the emerging capitalist class.

If our aim is to bring about a classless society of equals then our attention should be on the real antagonistic relation between the classes not the fake illusions put forward by nationalists. We have to find and create new forms of egalitarian organisation that can supersede the nation-state and capitalism, not help the local capitalist class in the creation of new and ever smaller states.