I’ve been working on a book about marriage lately (links to draft chapters here) and it gave me the idea for an imperfect but somewhat useful marital metaphor for the world’s nation-states. See the related Nation as family page.
Imagine a prosperous but diverse trading city, in which people of many cultures mingle, resulting in a rather weak sense of community. A good deal of sex takes place, much of it in the context of marriages, which are arranged and managed quite differently by the different cultural groups that mingle in the city. It is widely noticed, however, that in spite of these variations, marriage tends to make people a bit more productive and a bit happier, and especially, that it provides a kind of private social insurance, with spouses serving as first responders for each other in emergencies, and providing income support during unemployment spells. Also, marriage is good for the rearing of the young. A paternalistic regime comes to power and takes these conclusions to extremes by setting a target of universal marriage and pursuing it with a kind of blind, bludgeoning determination. It adopts the slogan “marriage is a buddy system for life,” and determines that everyone must have a “buddy.” Mate choice is regarded as desirable in principle and occasionally even eloquently extolled by the regime’s leaders, but the bureaucrats are given orders to register certain numbers of marriages and end up doing it in slapdash fashion just to fill their quotas, first registering cohabiting couples as married, then roommates, and finally neighbors. Children are matched to “parental” homes in the same brusque manner, and soon the whole population of the city has been sorted officially into “families,” though not all of them know about it at first. A raft of new “family values” laws impose basic norms of familial togetherness, from cohabitation and mutual financial support to birthday presents and family pictures. In some cases, citizens are physically forced to leave their homes and enter those of new “spouses” whom they’ve barely met. More often, though, noncompliant citizens are merely denied access to government-issued documents which are now required for purchasing goods and services from formal sector businesses. Hunger soon reduces noncompliance to a minimum.
Superficially, a new familial order has been established. And a surprising number of the new shotgun marriages turn out well. With a little adaptation and give-and-take, couples find a pleasant modus vivendi, and are glad that the government solved the dating game problems for them. Of course, since couples who praise the regime’s policy sometimes get preferences for better jobs, housing, and other perks in the state-influenced sectors of the economy, these reports of marital happiness may not all be sincere. Such mutually happy couples do not seem, in any case, to be a majority, yet pretty good evidence emerges that in most of the shotgun marriages, at least one spouse is fairly happy with the arrangement, since the new laws have allowed some people, by chance, to “marry up” with people who would have been “out of their league” before. Perhaps the most common adaptation to the new laws is a kind of marital tokenism, where spouses do the bare minimum to comply with the laws, and generally lead parallel lives and ignore each other. In the worst cases, some couples descend rapidly into vicious feuds over assets that end in violence and even murder, which sometimes occurs right out in the public street in broad daylight. Such incidents create an outcry, and the regime reluctantly allows partial separation and divorce on an irregular and discretionary basis when it can’t find feasible ways to force people to stay together. There is no doubt that venerable old familial customs, birthdays and wedding rings and family vacations, etc., are regarded with some cynicism now that they are state-coerced. Still, the old family vacation spots are busier than they used to be.
It is soon noticed that the new marriage policy has led to a revival of male headship within the household. The regime didn’t plan this. If anything, it had a preference for gender equality. But it soon claims the new trend as a victory. Its story is that people are “revealing a preference” for traditional gender roles, and soon male headship is incorporated into its pro-family propaganda. What gives this plausibility is that relatively few wives in the newly-traditionalist marriages speak out publicly against their new, more subordinate role. On the contrary, when asked, they usually express confidence in their husbands’ headship. Later, when the regime starts promoting male headship, wives start echoing the regime’s own rhetoric on the subject. Yet many people begin to hear through private channels, and some investigations by foreign journalists and academics seem to confirm, another explanation of wives’ apparent contentment, namely, intimidation. The regime insists on marital togetherness and permanence, and is pretty scrupulous about respecting marital privacy, so, with women’s exit option taken away, and with little recourse against domestic violence, the brute fact of men’s superior physical strength shaped power dynamics within marriages. Wives don’t dare to badmouth their husbands in public. Not that all these wives are being beaten. Often mere threats suffice to keep wives in line. That said, no one doubts that wife-beating has made a comeback, and the regime tries to counter-act this sinister trend with even more propaganda about marital love and harmony. Anyway, the view that male headship reflects intimidation rather than “revealed preference” never manages to become mainstream, simply because it is now politically incorrect to treat married couples as separate individuals with diverging interests. That violates the principle of family togetherness.
As time passes, the regime has quite a few successes to boast of. To start with, marriage as social insurance is working for a lot of people. Since spouses are co-owners of each other’s assets, they each have a little extra income during times of illness or unemployment. Overall, there is less crime and poverty on the streets, because spouses police and support each other. On the other hand, some families experience impoverishment, which the regime blames on “exploitation” by wealthier families, but which on closer examination seems to reflect a prisoner’s dilemma situation in which each spouse is trying to sponge off the other. Why work, when you can go out and spend your spouse’s income instead? Some countries seem to be in a race to sell off assets and spend the money before the other does. Whether the city’s lack of community has been mitigated is difficult to say. There is certainly less diversity in family arrangements, and probably less cultural diversity generally, due to the comparative conformism of the family model the state has imposed on society. Prostitution has plunged as prostitutes have been married off, but a kind of underground economy has appeared, not so much in sex per se, as in romance, in trysts and liaisons and love letters and serenades, in roses smuggled into girls’ rooms by night, that sort of thing. There is a lot of nostalgia for the past. In particular, family life used to have a poetic charm and fascination, and a moral substance, which it has not completely lost, but which now seems rare and less spontaneous.
And there has been a sharp rise in equality, driven in large part by whether families work well or are dysfunctional. The older families, the families that date to the years before the new regime, tend to be the most flourishing and successful. They have the happiest home lives, which spills over into greater productivity in all walks of life. A few old families and many of the new families are trapped in bitter quarrels and feuds that they now can’t escape from. They fall into low productivity, poverty, and long-term welfare dependency, with intermittent domestic violence. Public opinion pities them, but mutters sotto voce that it’s their own fault.
Time to decode the metaphor. For families, read nation-states. For male headship, reading authoritarianism and totalitarianism. For domestic violence, read civil war and ethnic cleansing, as in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan. For birthday presents and family pictures, read flags, national anthems, etc. For family vacation spots, read the Olympics, the World Cup, etc. For divorces, read Czechoslovakia, Malaysia/Singapore, Kosovo, the Soviet Union. For token marriages, read countries like Canada and Belgium that lack a unified national identity. For lucky spouses who got married up, read southern Italy vis-à-vis northern Italy, or Congo vis-à-vis resource-rich Katanga, or Iraq via Iraqi Kurdistan. For the regime, read Woodrow Wilson, 1918, the Fourteen Points, the doctrine of national self-determination, the UN, and generally the whole contemporary world order that partitions the world into sovereign nation-states.
Before 1914, most of the world was not organized into nation-states. Where national identity definitely existed, e.g., among the British, French, Germans, Americans, Japanese, etc., it was organic, deeply rooted in history. These were nations united by some of the following: language, race, religion, historical memory, legal customs, co-citizenship in an established polity, literature, cuisine, philosophical and other ideas. The mix varied but the basis for unity was substantial. Each of these nations had a good deal to love and take pride in collectively, and they did love and take pride in it collectively. They were like couples in a more-or-less happy marriage, together because they wanted to be, even if it is a valid objection to the metaphor, that marriages are consensual in a way that nations aren’t, even in the best of cases. But it was probably true of most English, that they felt English and wanted to be English; of Americans, that they felt American and wanted to be American; of most Germans, that they felt German and wanted to be German, etc. That still is true, probably, of the countries of which it was true in 1914.
When Wilson and his successors imposed nation-state organization on the whole world– to be sure, not entirely by force, not without some buy-in from those being reorganized, but the persistent American ideological bias was a crucial factor in the geopolitical reinvention of the world– they imposed a model that often didn’t fit very well. Wilson at any rate, and I think most of his American successors as well, were impelled to act this way in large part because of their ideas about political legitimacy. Wilson would not even negotiated with Austria-Hungary; he would not uphold empires. For that matter, even the British, Dutch, French, and other European imperialists found themselves in a rather embarrassing position, since by 1914, they were democrats at home, and believed in democratic principles, which their imperialism violated. Nationalism had some influence among colonial subjects of these empires, too, of course– how could it not, since many of the local elites were European-educated?– but so did other ideas, and anyway, the empires weren’t typically overthrown by revolutions from below. More often than not, the transition out of colonialism was initiated as much by the colonizer as the colonized, and was often hasty and slapdash. The adulation of “democracy” in the 20th century implicitly carried with it a program of reorganizing the world into nation-states, for rule of the people requires a people. It was axiomatic that each geographical area onto which the accidents of realpolitik and imperial exhaustion had deposited sovereignty ought to be a democracy. Tanzania ought to be a democracy. Rhodesia ought to be a democracy. Congo ought to be a democracy. Wilson thought he was “making the world safe for democracy,” but he ushered in a new age of authoritarianism, because democracy depends on a certain solidarity among the people, and that doesn’t magically arise when a people gets lumped together into a nation.
National identity has its good and bad sides. People have many identities: I am American, but also professor, Christian, Orthodox, Californian (at present), free-market conservative, Republican (sort of), Harvard grad, GMU grad, Notre Dame grad, English speaker, lover of Dostoyevsky, writer, musician, economist, lover of the outdoors. There is no particular reason why I should prioritize being American over my other identities, nor why Americans should form a polity rather than Californians or English speakers or Christian. Indeed, I regard my Christian identity as by far the most important, and my membership in the Body of Christ as far more real and important than my American nationality. In principle, I could be American by nationality, but not loyal to the American republic, or loyal to the American republic without being American by nationality. I happen to regard the American polity as a pretty good arrangement of things, and am not inclined to break it up, or secede from it, or subordinate it comprehensively to a larger polity; but not all national polities work so well as the American republic, and many people in this world might have good reasons to want their nations broken up, or subordinated to some larger polity, or to secede from a polity, or emigrate from it. The point is, you can’t take for granted that it’s there, or that it has some constant meaning over the surface of the earth. The peoples of some countries don’t feel patriotic love for the entity that the geopolitical order has assigned them to as subjects. The rulers of those countries may wish that they did feel patriotic loyalty, and perhaps it would be a good thing if they did. Even if that is the case, it does not follow that it would be the best thing. If people could love one thing more, should it be their country? Or mankind? Or their families, cities, churches or other religious communities, ethnolinguistic groups, civilizations, continents?
The regime in the parable ought simply to allow the faux, forced marriages to be dissolved. The geopolitical order shouldn’t dissolve all nation-states, probably not even the dysfunctional ones. Here the analogy is inexact. Rather, it should seek to open the world’s borders to immigration. Organically strong nation-states would still retain their identities. Dysfunctional nation-states would still be on the map, but people wouldn’t be chained into them, and they would be opened up to many new and salutary influences.