“The [nation-state] project of establishing single, unidimensional boundaries for human societies was a deeply flawed project” (Cerny, 2010: 44). To what extent is Cerny right to claim that the nation-state project has always been beset by structural contradictions?

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The nation-State as such is an unattainable goal: However favourable the circumstances may be it remains flawed. Not only the problematic natures of the ‘nation’ and the ‘state’ have contributed to this: This essay will argue that the main antagonism, which renders the nation-State project precarious, lies within its relationship to Capitalism. By noting the conceptual differences that make their co-existence troublesome, this essay will attempt to show how this antagonism can manifest itself. In the course of this analysis we will try to uncover how this antagonism has, in its displacement, caused Fascism and specifically National-Socialism and how it emerges in contemporary politics. 


The nation-State is a matter of much contention – nationalism in its exclusive nature is often thought to be a major cause of conflicts and the state has always had problems facing its legitimacy. The project of the nation-State is ultimately a response to the crisis of legitimacy the absolutist state faced with the emergence of modernity: Subjects turned into citizens. By situating the sovereignty in the hands of its people, it embodies both the exclusive and the inclusive. Exclusive, because the nation can only exist by defining an outside, inclusive, as it asserts the equality of its citizens (Anderson, 2006, p.6f.). Its emancipatory potential lies within its inclusiveness and the “emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state” (Anderson, 2006, p.7). This potential is what generates its antagonistic relationship with Capitalism. The thrust of capitalism towards inequality is inevitable, “as a historical system it requires constant inequality” (Balibar & Wallerstein, 1991, p.84). This however, did not hinder their co-existence, indeed as Anderson (2006) explains: “[The nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” (p.7). This essay will examine the antagonistic relationship between the nation-State and capitalism and show how nation and capital co-exist as two sides of the same coin and “nation” can thus never fulfil its emancipatory potential.

Two Projects of Modernity

It is no accident that the rise of the nation-State and capitalism coincided; Cerny (2011) argues that the nation-State could only achieve its contemporary form because of the emergence of the “Second Industrial Revolution” (p.44f.) and as such the modern state is dependent on Capitalism and vice versa. Žižek (2008) describes this process as follows:

„nation“ designates at one and the same time the instance by means of reference to which traditional „organic“ links are dissolved and the „remainder of the pre-modern in modernity“ […]. „Nation“ is a pre-modern leftover which functions as an inner condition of modernity itself, as an inherent impetus of its progress. (p.20)

At the same time, however, Capitalism as a system built on the accumulation of capital, is dependent on commodification. The goods brought into existence in this way are then traded in a world market – hence Capital by definition defies one of the main characteristics of the nation-State: Capitalism seeks to de-territorialise, whereas the nation-State is dependent on a clear demarcation of what does and what does not belong to it. (Balibar & Wallerstein, 1991, p.31)

Yet this antagonism does all but weaken the nation-state, it even presents itself as a hypostasis that is necessary for nationalist ideology to exist: The creation of a myth of origins that serves to spawn a struggle for national liberation, the emancipatory potential of the nation, comes into being only through the oppression of a people. In this process nationalism creates its own past – it inscribes into the past the existence of the nation before it came to be oppressed – “the past is trans-coded as Nation that already existed and to which we are supposed to return through a liberation struggle.” (Žižek, 2008, p.214) Accordingly the threat of globalised capitalism serves to strengthen nationalist ideology – an occurrence that can easily be verified, as all over Europe right-wing parties revive the struggle for nationhood. We can thus conclude that peoplehood is at the same time established thanks to and against the capitalist world-economy.

This account establishes properly the emancipatory potential that the notion of the nation as a community possesses. Nationalist movements have generally presented themselves as populist and hence sought to make possible political activity of the lower and middle classes (Nairn quoted in Anderson, 2006, p.48). As Poulantzas (1980) noted it establishes its citizens as both formally free and united in the existence of the state (p.95). This emancipation of its citizens, however, remains particular: it is only the nation’s members who are guaranteed those rights and who is and who is not a citizen ultimately remains an arbitrary distinction. Here we can observe another antagonism of capitalism and the nation – whereas the nation is exclusive in its nature, capitalism, as a system of expansion and trade, asserts universal rights to every human being, qua the right to sell their labour.

These antagonisms open great possibilities for those willing to exploit them – nationalist movements gain momentum by rhetorically evoking the emancipatory potential, free trade advocates gain strength by conjuring up the exclusive particularity of the nation. There is, however, a third way to convert this thrust into political gain: Fascism, instead of rejecting either side of the equation, displaces the conflict by projecting the threat onto a specific group of people – either within or outside the nation. This displacement found its most potent outlet in the German National Socialist movement. By displacing this conflict they were able to effectively nationalise their capital and by doing so build a more homogeneous nation (Rodrik, 2011, p.46). This displacement was mainly achieved by arousing a nationalistic mood within the working classes – Nazi propaganda appealed to them mainly through “a dense cloud of propaganda […], largely of a radical, pseudo-socialist colour” – and aligning party interests with the interests of land-owners and the industrial complex (Pascal quoted in Sohn-Rethel, 1978, p.67). This seemingly impossible operation was made viable by appealing to widespread anti-Semitic beliefs within the population. The real threat to the nation, capital, was at the same time protected from and by the very antagonistic force of the “nation”[1]. The consequences are well-known: As the German nation strove to be more self-sufficient and unite Germany’s people it rapidly turned to an expansionist policy through which it sought to gain full independence from international trade and ensure the superiority of the German nation over other nations and peoples. The denationalisation of the Jews served both to create terror within the population, by effectively stating that every citizen can at any time be made a non-citizen and hence lose all rights asserted to him, and to actualise the very notion of the nation – to create a homogeneous people.[2] Milner argues, that it was this homogenisation of Europe, the very success of the genocide of the Jews, which enabled the European nations to reconcile their differences after the end of the Nazi rule and therefore led to the development of a democratic and peaceful Europe (Milner in Rancière, 2006, p.9).

We can clearly observe an iteration of this antagonism today – with the growing importance of finance capital, and its unlimited movement, many argue that “the decline of nation-states is in a profound sense the full realization of the relationship between the state and capital.” (Negri & Hardt, 2001, p.236) Others state that, even though capitals movement is increasingly unlimited, “the new division of powers between international capitalism and nation-States tends more towards reinforcing states than toward weakening them.” (Rancière, 2006, p.82)

How are we to reconcile these positions? It is true that the nation-state has had to surrender much of its sovereignty in economic domains to supranational bodies, interdependencies between nations and the dependency on foreign investment have increased. However, as the financial crisis has shown, capitalism is very much dependent on the nation-state system. It can be said then that role of the nation-state has changed: Instead of directly intervening within the process of capitalist accumulation it now functions as a filter, regulating to discipline their populations. (Negri & Hardt, 2001, p.310) Furthermore, the rise of nationalism within Europe, which asserts superiority not only to the nation, but also to those who mirror its values, has led to a focus on endogamy: “a democrat loves only another democrat. For the others, incomers from zones of famine and killing, the first order of business is papers, borders, detention camps, police surveillance, denial of family reunion. One must be „integrated“.” (Badiou, 2011, p.7) This development can be clearly identified in the ongoing integration of Europe’s right-wing parties. I argue that this antagonistic relationship prohibits the “nation” from ever achieving its emancipatory potential. Its very co-existence with capital renders impossible the actualisation of equality within the nation– on the other hand the existence of the nation renders impossible the realisation of the universality capitalism is founded on.


The structural problems the nation-state has to face are its very conditions, capitalism does not weaken the nation-state, instead it undermines its emancipatory potential – the realisation of the ideal nation-state is thus made impossible and what remains is a filter, disciplining its population. As such, the nation serves to make possible the capitalist mode of production and simultaneously limit it.


Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities. London: Verso

Badiou, A. (2011). The Democratic Emblem. In: Agamben et al. Democracy in what State? New York: Columbia University Press, pp.6-15

Balibar, E. & Wallerstein, I. (1991). Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London: Verso

Cerny, P. (2010). Space, Territory, and Functional Differentiation. In: Cerny, P. (2010). Rethinking world politics a theory of transnational neopluralism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.40-64

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2001). Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Marcuse, H. (2002). One-dimensional Man. London: Routledge

Poulantzas, N. (1980). State, Power, Socialism. London: Verso

Rancière, J. (2009). Hatred of Democracy. London: Verso

Rodrik, D. (2011). The Globalization Paradox. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978). Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism. London: CSE Books

Therborn, G. (2008). What does the ruling class do when it rules? London: Verso

Žižek, S. (2008). For they know not what they do. London: Verso

[1] Remember Therborn’s (2008) hypothesis that “In the era of industrial monopoly capitalism, with its large proletariat, it is quite clearly impossible to ensure that the ruled will accept and contribute to a regime of direct, institutionalized capitalist representation.” (p.186)

[2] For Marcuse (2002) this is a logical consequence: „The drive for more „living space“ operates not only in international aggressiveness but also within the nation.“ (p.248)