The hyphenated term ‘nation-state’ reflects a linking of two historically related but separable social phenomena. The term ‘nation’ refers to an interconnected population that has a sense of their common unity. A nation exists both objectively in its compatriots’ interdependence and subjectively in the consciousness they share. The term ‘state’, on the other hand, refers to the political institutions that rule over the population of a certain territory or country where the members of one (or more) nation might live. The people are the nation; the political institutions are the state.
Historically, the rise of bourgeois society saw the linking of nation and state to the extent that in many minds the nation-state came to be thought of as a single (although complex) entity. To be a Canadian, for example, was thought of at once as being a citizen of a state and a member of a people. The resulting identification with such a nation-state as a single entity became an important source of identity. Who one was came in no small measure from the people with whom one shared a culture and a history. And in so far as the nation became linked to a state, subjection to its rule also became a part of one’s identity. Thus, one’s identity as a Canadian meant at one and the same time to be in a nation and under a state. Thus did the nation-state become an essential element in modern personal identities.
Nevertheless, a nation has its own interests and a state also has its own, often different, interests. It was the convergence of these two sets of interests that lent credibility to their conflation into a single entity called the nation-state. What I want to suggest is that in the present historical stage of capitalism known as globalization, the interests of nations and those of states are diverging and thus the two parts of this hyphenated term are becoming detached. Not only are they moving in different directions, but also globalized states are often pitted against the nations over which they rule. We will want to explore the possible implications of this for the social struggles of this era. But first, we need to look more closely at how a nation is constituted and its relation to the state that rules over it.