San 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 representative
democracy, with separated powers (executive, legislative, and judicial) acting in concert through a
system 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 singledelegate
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 an 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 postcolonial
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 a 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
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 gains 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
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 nationstate.
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 organizations, 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 varous 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 presentoriented
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)
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
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 nondiscriminatory
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 prerevolutionary
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.
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