For most of the around 150.000 years of existence of our animal species, until approximately 11.000 years ago, humans were organized in egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then with the Neolithic Revolution, property rights emerged and unequal societies developed, although the primitive agricultural techniques were not more productive than ancestral practices. For most of the next eleven centuries, living standards were quite homogeneous and stagnant around the world, until there was a phase transition starting in Britain with the Industrial Revolution, that saw productivity dramatically and heterogeneously increase (this narrative will sound familiar to any reader of Samuel Bowles and CORE’s The Economy).
Just before the era of the Industrial Revolution, there was a rich diversity of political organizational forms. Five hundred years ago, the Italian Peninsula was home to hundreds of sovereign entitites, but along with city-states, there were also leagues of cities, empires and hybrid alliances. Democratic forms with varying territorial structures, based on elections or sortition, had been tried in many jurisdictions, from classical Athens, to Venice, to India and Africa. Then, together with the expansion of capitalism, this economic system found an almost perfect complement in the nation-state, which provided allegiance to the provision of public goods (waging war, speaking national languages) and coercive systems that facilitated the expansion of markets and the protection of property rights, as we know from Ernest Gellner.
The nation-state, like the Neolithic Revolution some centuries earlier, emerged not because it was more efficient, but because it complemented well the objectives of elites. The fragmentation of empires and the end of colonialism was used (sometimes by elites coming from Europe, as in the American continent) to export the nation-state formula all over the world. There were roads that could have been taken (there were failed attempts or projects) but were not, like large federal structures in Central and South America or Africa or Israel/Palestine. Large federations only succeeded, however, in North America and the Indian subcontinent (perhaps we can add Australia and Brazil).
After the tragedies of the two World Wars, both born in Europe, there have been projects to create political organizations that went beyond the nation-state formula. The most successful one is the European Union. Its gradual evolution towards a federation is, according to the Spanish writer Javier Cercas in Le Grand Continent, the only reasonable utopia of our times.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were probably too optimistic that globalization would make nationalism obsolete and that the march towards federalism would be fast and unproblematic. The global financial crisis and the imbalances created by globalization and technological change have made things much more difficult, and have probably facilitated the emergence of dangerous ultra national-populists that today threaten democracy.
The European utopia is already true in part, however, because of a combination of collective action, evolutionary forces and leadership. These days, we celebrate the life and achievements of one of the greatest European leaders, Jacques Delors. He pushed the ideal of the European federation through practical steps like the Single Market, the Erasmus Program or the Cohesion Funds. In the obituaries that have been written these days, some have opposed the practical and step by step federalism of Delors to the ideological federalism of Altiero Spinelli, the Italian politician that co-wrote the Ventotene Manifesto. True, Delors was not a dogmatic federalist, and Spinelli was not a man of government. But the two of them complement each other very well, and we need the memory of both to fight the sovereignist national-populism of our days, with practical feasible proposals and with an emotional narrative that can galvanize the public opinion.
“A federation of nation states” was a proposal of Delors that has been interpreted by some as an oxymoron. I interpret it as a way to make it easier to digest that the world of nation states has to evolve, that it is already evolving, at least in Europe, towards a world where currencies, parliaments and armies can be shared, and borders can disappear. Other quotes of Delors clarify that he was not at all far away from Spinelli. He also said that "Politicians who attack the dream of a federal Europe are racist bigots intent on undermining the Continent's freedom and peace", and that "Federalism is a guideline, not a pornographic word, you can speak it out loud...We have been focusing too much on a country that has said no, no, no!"
We can call them states, but if things go well, they will be very different from the all powerful nation-states that still prevail in the indoctrination and imagination of many people. They will be at some point States In Name Only (SINO), like Brexit will become Brexit in Name Only (BINO) because the UK will progressively get closer again to the Single Market and the Customs Union. And like the two state solution in Israel/Palestine will only be functional if the two “states” share several key collective goods, and cooperate in the creation of a polity with equal individual rights instead of transforming the current disfunctional wall into an internationallly recognized frontier (like modern both Jewish and Palestinian pacifists defend).
We need to move from an either/or mentality to a both/and mentality, as argued by the Jewish Scholar Noam Pianko in “Zionism. The Roads Not Taken” (Indiana University Press, 2010). We need to celebrate BOTH the memory of Jacques Delors AND of Altiero Spinelli.