Steve MartinotSan Francisco State University, U.S.A.
The Nation-state as a Structure
What we consider the nation-state today is a constitutional government characterized by representativedemocracy, with separated powers (executive, legislative, and judicial) acting in concert through asystem 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 itscentral focus is the maintenance of the rights of private property. In EuroAmerican society, it hasprovided 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. CertainEuropean monarchies constructed strong central administrative apparatuses to insure the developmentof a nascent capitalism. The privatization of communal land in Europe and the arrival of metals fromAmerica permitted the monetization of local and trans-Atlantic markets. Its first labor force wasenslaved indigenous and African peoples in the colonies, and indentured and enslaved European laborin Europe. The first stages of capitalism depended on a strong state to grant monopoly control overcommerce and land, and to guarantee the existence and obedience of a labor force. These monarchiesinitiated the development national identities. Only later, with the further development and monetizationof markets, was European labor transformed from indenture to wage labor. Both wage labor andcapitalist competition, which depended on broad monetized markets, were luxuries that capitalismcould not afford during the first centuries of its development.
The second stage was marked by the shift from monarchical sovereignty to civil governance throughconstitutional structures. Sovereignty was shifted to "the people," generally accompanied by a form ofelected representationism. The result was a racialized state based on a white franchise in both Europeand its colonies, and a messianic white supremacy imposed on the rest of the world throughcolonization. The nation-state's rhetorical proclamation of a democratic ethos was betrayed at birth byreducing democracy to formal representation.
While at first, the nation-state's "republican" form of elected representation could claim legitimacy asdemocratic, since the electorate was homogeneous, being composed only of white male propertyowners. It was its homogeneity that made it possible for a single elected representative to represent adistrict. But rapidly, during the 19th century, in the US, economic development, immigration andurbanization produced districts with conflicting and contradictory class, cultural, and communityinterests. A single delegate could no longer represent its complexity. In other words, under a singledelegatedistrict system, a representative could no longer represent. As a result, representational bodies(state and federal legislatures) became independent of constituencies, and individual representativeswent to the highest bidder. Representatives only pretend now to connect to constituencies through partypolitics. This system is more properly called "representationism." It is an important element of how thenation-state functions as the instrument of civil administration and ideological authority.
The inherent contradiction in representationism was demonstrated by the political violence that hasalways accompanied it. When, in the 19th century, Latin America countries sought to imitate the USConstitution, there was immediate strife and civil conflict. Internal class interests, party identities, andcultural 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 wasactually an expression of the inability of the nation-state to represent even differences in elite economicinterest within capitalism. After the Civil War, the US resolved the problem through the evolution of atwo-party system with increasing degrees of legislative autonomy, and by granting personhood tocorporations. Legislatures became responsible to corporate interests, as a new form of constituenthomogeneity. Corporations took on the mantle of citizens, and real humans became increasinglyirrelevant as voting ciphers.
If capitalism was originally jump-started by colonialism on the backs of unpaid indigenous and Africanlabor in the Americas, and through state chartered monopolistic corporations, it was transformed by theshift to republican representationism into its present competitive corporate and wage labor form. Therepresentationist nation-state provided the ideological legitimacy for capitalist depredations through theinvention 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 modernincarnation being "national security"), which depends on the domination of others, imposed a culturalinferiorization 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 beenreduced to the rhetoric of electoral campaign and the vote, as political spectacle. In the absence of anysense of real legislative representation, the executive remains free in practice of the "checks andbalances" 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 politicalagents, 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 nationaldestiny, it depends on its ability to dominate, and must dominate other societies in order to provideitself with each of these characteristics. It is this confluence of internal structure and externaldomination that Anibal Quijano has called the "coloniality of power." For post-colonial nationsstruggling for their independence, the adoption of the nation-state form to organize that independence,in the absence of an national sense of colonial power or a colonial sense of national destiny, wouldhave 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 postcolonialsituation.
Because the nation-state requires a degree of homogeneity for itself, to transcend the class conflicts ofthe capitalism integral to its structure, the abstract notions of individual rights, liberties, andrepresentative democracy depend on structures of racialization. When Latin American countriesemulate the nation-state, they are reaching for a political form that is structured on the basis of acolonialism not available to them. Three things happen. They turn inward, substituting increasedracialization for coloniality; second, they undergo a impotence owing to the incommensurabilitybetween representationism and democracy, which effects itself as a hiatus between economics andpolitics; 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 itsabsence, in turning inward, a post-colonial nation must enhance or invent a racialization of its ownpeople, as a form of internal colonialism. This is even happening in post-apartheid South Africa. It is areflection of the nation-state's eurocentric heritage, an endless denigration of all things indigenous, asobstructive of its own modernist self-universalization as self-legitimizing nation-state. Those whoaccept the nation-state idea must accept that self-universalization as a political form, which in turnproduces a failure to deracialize or decolonize. For Latin America, archaic identities were fractured byconquest and alien colonial boundaries, and their subsequent "national" identity, inherited from aprocess that was not their own, only ensconced them in the identifications produced for them bycoloniality.
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 andgovernance of property and the guarantee of property rights as its central ethos. The separation ofpowers, in the context of the impossibility of representation, creates a separation between thegovernment's linkage to economic matters, and its ability to express its people's demands forindependence. Representationism separates the legislature from its independentist constituency, leavingthe legislature open to the highest bidder -- that is, EuroAmerican corporations and financialinstitutions. The prioritization of property provides whatever juridical rationale foreign capital needs todominate the rhetorically independent economy, while preventing the independentist leadership(executive) from offering significant resistance. The separation of powers in the post-colony creates aseparation between the political (the interests of a constituency) and the economic (the interests ofproperty), which allows EuroAmerican capital to establish itself at the core of the post-colony'seconomic life, and thus its political life. It gains control of the economy under the guise and mantle ofsupporting independence; and the representationist structure of the nation-state leaves it helpless todefend itself against that. It cannot contest foreign economic domination because theinstitutionalization of its "independence" as a nation-state requires its prioritization of property and theregulation of property and wealth as its primary function. Independence remains formal rather thanreal.
In sum, the nation-state, as a constituent of the coloniality of power, creates a structural complicity withthe coloniality the post-colony sought to escape. That is, it is the representationist system that preventspeople from availing themselves of alternative ideas or alternate political cultures implicit in thedevelopment of national liberation movements (such as ending the category of property in land, orproportional representation, or direct democracy, or the democratization of production). Instead, theyfind 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 thatnationalism 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 beensuccessfully organized, only becomes a reactionary force when it leads to the formation of a nationstate.
The fault would be structural rather than political, in the wake of using the concept of nationalismto 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 ofpowers in the modernist sense. Its elements are in fact incommensurable with the nation-state's divisioninto branches. In Cuba, the three domains are 1) a multi-level system of elected assemblies in whichsystems 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 anddistribution of goods and productive factors (as well as handle security). They manage the governanceof things for economic and infrastructural development (critical in times of shortage and difficultinternational 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 respectto the ministries and the assemblies. They facilitate discussion (consultas) on political or institutionalissues at the local and national levels, and make proposals for changes in policy. They thus constitutethe matrix for dialogue among people locally, between constituencies and elected delegates at allassembly levels, and for a sense of responsibility of each domain toward the others. The emphasis onbroad popular dialogue among the people has become a cultural aspect and factor in Cuban politicallife. It marks its most fundamental difference with the US system and the nation-state in general. It isthe 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 thecase with the revision of the legal code in the early 70s; it took 7 years, involving 33,000 meetings anddiscussions among the people, before a new code was constituted). Consultation is essentially adialogic 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 fromeach constituency by secret ballot. There are no electoral parties. Delegates do not run campaigns inwhich to make promises about the future; rather, they are elected on the basis of their participation inthe past -- in the consultas, the mass organizations, and the general dialogic life of the constituencies.The local assemblies have the responsibility for administration at the local level. They coordinateproduction in their districts, administer the court system (whose description would take us too far afieldhere), and adjudicate political disputes. In effect, executive, legislative, and judicial powers are lumpedtogether to the assemblies. Instead of a separation of these powers, the assemblies represent theirdemocratization. What accounts for Cuba's success in doing so is the fact that adminsitration andlegislation in Cuba can concern itself with people, while in a capitalist society, these powers have toconcern themselves primarily with property and property interests.
The participation of the mass organizations in the structure of governance is the main innovation inCuba's political structure. The mass organizations include organizations of women, students, labor,small farmers, professionals, neighborhoods, etc. (The actual organizations are the Cuban Federation ofWomen, various university and high school student associations, the Cuban Labor Confederation, theNational Association of Small Farmers, and the Committees for Defense of the Revolution; others areformed as groups arise that need them.) These organizations are independent of the government, andmake their own policy.
The striking aspect of this domain of Cuban politics is that these organizations represent within Cubansociety the varous movements of exploited or dispossessed people under capitalism (unions, women'smovements, student movements, etc.). Each mass organization represents a traditional form ofresistance to hierarchical control (patriarchy, elite academic training, class exploitation, latifundia, andcolonialist segregation and social domination of the colonized). While, under capitalism, themovements 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 aconsciousness of the past, they stand as resistance to the resurgence of that past. They constitute aconsciousness of the persistence of oppression in the world, in ways that the ministries (which concernthemselves with present reality) and the delegate assemblies (which have a future orientedresponsibility 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 theirmembership in the different levels of assemblies, in which they have delegates. Thus, they embody thereal economic, political, social, and cultural interests in Cuban society. In addition, they administer themachinery of delegate election. And they organize the meetings, consultas, and dialogues betweendelegates 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 theevolution of the Cuban state. During the period of excessive centralization (1960s and 1970s), theyalmost went out of existence. It was the experience of their demise that led the Cuban leadership torealize the need to decentralize. The continual process of decentralization of administration anddecision-making (adding intermediary levels of assembly, for instance) marks a second importantdifference with the US and the nation-state system.
There is a cyclic structure discernible in the interrelations between the ministries, the assemblies, andthe mass organizations. The ministries act in a top down fashion, a centralization that is presentorientedeconomically and future-oriented politically; the delegate assemblies act in a bottom upfashion, with juridical decision-making power that is future-oriented politically and present-orientedorganizationally; and the mass organizations mediate between the two on the basis of socio-cultural andpolitical 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 massorganizations; the nation-state's legislative functions are split between the delegate assemblies and themass 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 otherwords, what is constituted as an institutionality of power in the nation-state appears as a mediationbetween domains of governance in Cuba. And conversely, these domains of governance are definedalong conceptual lines that are incommensurable with the categories of the nation-state. In the place ofthe hegemonic and distanced power given representationism in the nation-state, Cuba has substituted astructure of responsibility, in the sense of combining responsiveness and ethics.
The categories of the nation-state have been rendered mediatory, ephemeral, and disseminated sociallyin the Cuban state. And what is marginalized in the nation-state (mass movements, organization ofsocial and human welfare, and popular direct participation in political affairs unmediated by partyorganization) 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 massorganizations invert the marginalization of the social movements in capitalist society, taking their placeat the center, an inversion of center and periphery. The assemblies invert the process of representationin the nation-state. In nation-state representationism, the election of representatives occurs first, andpolitical discussion then occurs among representatives; in Cuba, debate and discussion occurs first, atthe level of constituent meetings, consultas, neighborhood and enterprise assemblies, and in the massorganizations, 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 bypeople themselves or by the mass organizations.
It is because political discussion is carried on as the future action of representatives in legislatures thatpolitical 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 constituentlevel. In the nation-state, political parties mediate between constituencies and legislatures. In the Cubanstate, 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 governingparty. 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 consultativeprocesses in constituent meetings, and acting as a source of organization and ideas. Though a partyheavy-handedness is always possible in such consultations, its operations have been decentralized inpractice, and open to criticism by the assemblies. Thus, it inverts the ethic of obeisence to expertise thataccompanies the market commodification of all things human in the nation-state.
Finally, the ministries, insofar as they coordinate supply and demand, as well as economicdevelopment, represent an open, concrete responsibility toward the economy and social welfare, wherethose administrative links in the nation-state between the corporations and the executive branch ofgovernment remain hidden and ephemeral. That is, the ministries invert the anarchy of capitalistproduction as a centralization and coordination of economic development. They have the responsibilityfor 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 thecorporate 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 throughtheir 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 thenation-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 theirsovereignty. Cuba considers itself a nation, and it has a state. But its nationalism has maintained itsrevolutionary character precisely because it rejected the nation-state form, enabling it to preserve itssovereignty.
A Note on Race and Racism
With respect to the racialization that constitutes the nation-state, the Cuban state has unfortunatelyacted 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 therevolutionary leadership. Social clubs, social facilities, and educational or health institutions thatdiscriminated racially were fairly rapidly closed or taken over by the government and run on a nondiscriminatorybasis. All employment, government participation, education, health care, and housinghas been opened to all, without discrimination. But politically, in the wake of these actions (which wereby and large successful), the Cuban government took the stand that if racial discrimination had beeneliminated, then race ceased to be a factor, and was not something that needed to be spoken about oraddressed politically any more. No specific laws addressing racial discrimination were passed, andorganizations based on race, such as a number of black "societies" that had grown up during the prerevolutionaryperiod, were discouraged or even closed down. What the absence of discussion on racismand white supremacy assumed was that if race were not spoken of, it would disappear. But that simplyallowed the structures of racialization in pre-revolutionary Cuba, the cultural matrix of whitesupremacy inculcated by colonialism, to persist intact. The government's refusal to include racializationand 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 tochange, and to be reversed since the early 1980s. But the fact that the revolutionary leadership couldmake this omission testifies to the depth in EuroAmerican culture and its colonies the structures ofwhite supremacy lie. And when the Cuban economy had to shift to tourism for economic growth, theracism inherent in the dormant structures of racialization re-emerged in new and old forms of whitesupremacy. The Cuban government is now struggling with this problem on a number of fronts, whichwould be too complicated to go into in this paper.
Some references:Isaac Saney; Cuba: a Revolution in MotionPeter Roman; People's Power: Cuba's Experiment with Representative GovernmentMax Azicri; Cuba: Politics, Economics and SocietyAlejandro de la Fuente; A Nation For AllAnibal Quijano; The Nation-State, Citizenship, and Democracy