On liberal nationalism

Connecting liberalism, nationalism and realism

Let’s start with an axiom: all individuals are free, and from this freedom, they possess certain inalienable rights. They possess these rights and freedoms at all times, but in a state of nature, their ability to enjoy the freedom and exercise the rights is circumscribed by their individual power. In Indian philosophy, the state of nature is termed as matsya nyaya, or the law of the fishes, a condition under which the stronger fish eats the weaker fish. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, describes this as the time when “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man (bellum omnium contra omnes).” Life, therefore, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To better enjoy their rights and freedoms, individuals trade-off a part of their freedom for the security offered by a state. Hence Kautilya writes

People suffering from anarchy as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of a large fish swallowing a small one (matsyanyayabhibhutah prajah), first elected Manu, the Vaivasvata, to be their king; and allotted one-sixth of the grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Fed by this payment, kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects (yogakshemavah), and of being answerable for the sins of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishments and taxes has been violated.[Arthashastra I:13]

In Western philosophy, this trade-off forms the basis of social contract theories. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that individuals cede all their rights in return for protection to a sovereign who is himself above the law. John Locke, writing after Hobbes, is more moderate: in his view, individuals surrender only some of their rights to a government that rules by the consent of the governed.

This trade-off forms the basis of modern liberal democratic states. The exact implementation differs from state to state, and depends on a number of factors. But most often, the social contract is codified in a constitution. Constitutions are not, and do not have to be either perfect or immutable. To varying degrees, they affirm the rights of the individual and offer an enlightened method to settle the differences between the interests of individuals. In sharp contrast to Hobbes’ Leviathan, modern constitutions also, to varying degrees, make the government itself subject to the rule of law.

The upshot is that the state is necessary for the practical enjoyment of individual rights and freedoms. The survival and security of the state—often termed “the national interest”—is directly connected to the ability of citizens to enjoy their freedom. Put in another way, the “national interest” is the well-being and development of all its citizens.

If we adopt this people-centric definition of the national interest, how should one regard territory? Is territorial integrity uncompromisable? Not quite. To the extent territory is necessary for the well-being and development of all citizens, holding the territory is in the national interest. Where territorial compromises enhance the well-being of citizens, they are in the national interest. In the state-centric formulation, the objective question is whether acquiring, keeping or parting with a particular piece of land enhances the survival and security of the state, or not.

While the establishment of a state allows individuals to enjoy their rights—abridged as they are—the relationship between states remains in the world of matsya nyaya or anarchy. To an extent, the development of international law and institutions like the United Nations allow states to pursue ‘rules-based’ relations. But the ultimate arbiter of international relations is power. It follows that to protect its national interests—whether expressed in the people-centric or state-centric terms—states have to maximise their power relative to others. This results in an international balance-of-power, which can be stable or unstable depending on the power dynamics obtaining at a particular moment in time. The objective of the state then, is to maximise its own power to ensure that the international balance-of-power is in its favour.

This is how liberalism, nationalism and realism are connected with each other. Liberalism (or libertarianism, in its American usage) is concerned about individual freedom. To enjoy freedom in practice, the individual gives up some of it to the state. The state, a nation-state in India’s case, exists to ensure the rights, freedoms and well-being (yogakshema) of its people. So ensuring the survival and security of the Indian state—by maximising its relative power internationally—is wholly consistent with allowing its citizens to live in freedom.

28 thoughts on “On liberal nationalism”

  1. Interesting article. Some things are not quite clear, but anyway, let’s look at some consequences.

    Consider the case where British occupied India. Let’s look at sometime around 1900. What’s the duty of British state/Indian state?

    a) Indian state: There’s no “state” worth it’s name. And they are certainly not “liberal democracies”. So duty of Indian citizens should be to demand their “inalienable rights”. Ergo, fight for swaraj/independece etc. Which is what Indians did. All ok so far.

    b) What’s duty of British state? Well…theory says: states should maximize power. So British state should have carried out repression.But what are the limits of repression?

    Well one position (which I think is principled) is that repression is not valid where the rights of the “Indian people” are being violated. So British should have given relative autonomy. But how does this square with maximizing power of British state? Also, this is the dream world…no state would voluntarily give up power.

    Another position is (which has the merit of having actually happenned) is that British state maximizes its power and repression is as bad as they can get away with. Note that this theory says that not only is this ok, it is the duty of the state.

    Now, we go somewhat outside the theory and look at the duty of a British citizen. Should he support his state in repression? Or should he raise his voice against colonialism? Note that the theory says nothing about private citizens, but since we all make decisions ourselves, this is important.

  2. Anand,

    The derivation here is for liberal democracies: a state constructed on the basis on equality of all its citizens. The conditions in India during the British colonial era do not meet this condition. Indians in British presidencies and the princely states were called “subjects”, not citizens.

  3. Nitin,

    In replying to Anand, are you suggesting that when all countries in the world are liberal democracies, a sort of steady-state would be reached; where no state will try to expand its power ?

    This looks quite similar to The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention (which went bust).

  4. Talking about freedom, I quote Professor Andrew Reeve here: (link)

    Ed: This comment has been edited. Please avoid cutting-and-pasting long articles from elsewhere. If necessary a link will suffice, but to be useful please state an argument.

  5. How do you apply this argument to J&K for these two questions:

    1. Is the well-being of citizens of India enhanced or reduced by holding on to J&K?
    2. Does holding on to J&K (or parting with) enhance the survival & security of India?

  6. Anonymous Coward,

    In replying to Anand, are you suggesting that when all countries in the world are liberal democracies, a sort of steady-state would be reached; where no state will try to expand its power ?

    Quite the contrary. The realist argument is that states will act to expand their power regardless of their internal condition. The “steady state” is reached when there is a stable balance of power.

    My argument is that liberal democracies must expand their power in order to protect the freedom and well being of their citizens.

  7. Regarding secessionism, I’ve recently come across this paper The relevant part of the abstract is as follows :

    Secessionist movements present themselves to the global public as analogues of colonial liberation movements: long-established identities are denied rights of self-determination by quasi-imperial authorities. Self-determination is presented as the solution to the challenge of peaceful coexistence between distinct peoples. In this paper, we will argue that the discourse of secessionist movements cannot be taken at face value

  8. The paper also says:

    “There can be no rational argument for imagined communities as groups larger than 10000 people do not have genuine social interaction.”

    Thus, Anderson’s thrust is the post westphalian world where nationalism as a concept is logically and empirically challengeable, even if you don’t agree that nationalism is a concept riddled with holes.

  9. Nitin, nice article. Is there a way we can characterize the amount of freedom given up by members of the state on the size and variation of its members.

    The way I understand it simply, we draw a us vs them circle where we try to maximize the happiness/freedom of the people within the circle while increasing the power w.r.t. to others outside the circle. Do you think the balance between the aforementioned freedom and power is actively achieved or is it something which is passively reached?

  10. Wonderfully argued.

    The line of ‘reasoning’ by some pundits (not kashmiri, surely) and ‘intellectuals’ that the secessionist demands against the Indian state (such as that in the Kashmir Valley) is akin to the India’s own freedom struggle against the Brits is a non sequitor. The argument is mischievous and detrimental to national interest on multiple levels. It doesn’t hold any water as Indians weren’t free or equal under the Raj as the kashmiris are now, in the Indian union.

  11. Does an individual or a group of individuals retain the right to renegotiate the social contract? In particular, if the constitution that embodied the social contract were to undergo a metamorphosis — for example, into a socialist republic from a free republic — is secession a legitimate demand? As I have stated elsewhere in this blog, a dynamic constitution must have explicit provisions for secession.

    International relations is a thorny issue in liberalism/libertarianism. There is no easy solution here, short of a withered and wizened state everywhere. It’s not realistic to expect minimal states, I suppose, as the making of the American constitution showed [cf. Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. 2002].

    Having said that, a liberal can allow the state to acquire overwhelming power under the guise of national security, only at the peril of their individual security. Lord Acton was, and is, right: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

  12. Dick,

    Do you think the balance between the aforementioned freedom and power is actively achieved or is it something which is passively reached?

    I liked the way you put it in simple terms. Indeed, it is about maximising happiness within the circle, and projecting power (to secure that happiness) outside.

    As for the balance, the realist way of looking at it would be in relative terms. In other words, relative to the status quo, would an increase in power projection bring about an increase in happiness? The answer is not uniformly yes, initiatives like SALT, START, ABM etc would suggest.

  13. RF,

    Does an individual or a group of individuals retain the right to renegotiate the social contract?

    If you mean whether an individual/group should have a right to renegotiate the social contract, I think the answer is yes, they should. And the procedure for this should be in the constitution, as it is, in many cases.

    Since the contract is social, it is implicit in the contract that the individual agrees on certain rules concerning renegotiation. I think that democracy is a good rule for changing social contracts because you get most people on board. I will acknowledge that such a rule is illiberal in the strict sense.

    In particular, if the constitution that embodied the social contract were to undergo a metamorphosis โ€” for example, into a socialist republic from a free republic โ€” is secession a legitimate demand?

    I think not, for the test for “legitimacy” is whether or not the changes are made according to the procedures enshrined in the constitution itself. If they are, they are legitimate. If they are not, they are illegitimate.

    So what if an individual or a group disagrees with a legitimate change? Two scenarios: first, where their basic rights are violated by the change, the individual has the right to defend himself. But such a change would be “illegitimate” in the first place, and should be challengeable where there is an independent judiciary. Second, where their basic rights are not violated: well, in which case, the premise of the social contract is that you put up with it. Or emigrate, perhaps.

    In practice, this becomes a question of what are “basic rights” and whether or not they have been violated.

  14. Nitin wrote:
    The derivation here is for liberal democracies
    How much deviation from a “liberal democracy” is allowed? Does this theory say anything meaningful about relations with China or Iran or Myanmar or Saudis or Pakistan? Would Russia be a “liberal democracy”?

  15. Anand,

    Your first question, and my answer to it, was about the internal condition of states.

    Your second question (comment #19) is about the relationship between states. I think post itself, and my reply to Anonymous Coward (comment #7) is sufficiently clear. So it is very meaningful about relations with other countries—whether they are liberal democracies or otherwise.

    See Dick Rouge’s comment #13, if you want it explained in very simple terms.

  16. Nitin, (#20)
    I don’t think there’s any substantive difference in my two comments. Let’s put aside the India/Britain case for the moment and look at the simple picture which Dick (#13) proposed.

    Let there be states, A, B, C etc. A is a liberal democracy, B is a totalitarian state, which might be so weak that it’s dependent upon A and others.

    Then, according to you/Dick (paraphrasing #17)
    A should maximise happiness within A, and project power (to secure that happiness) outside A.

    So, for A then, there should be no concern whatsoever with the rights/conditions of citizens of B. That’s B’s business. In fact, it’s quite consistent with the theory for A to subjugate B in whatever way it can. Same case holds for C, D etc.

    This seems to me to be a recipe for carving up the “Third” world into colonies (if it turns out that colonies are sustainable).

    Now, suppose you are a citizen of A. This theory says nothing about private citizens. But we should ask what should a private citizen do? Should he support his state in subjugation of B?

  17. @Anand

    Now, suppose you are a citizen of A. This theory says nothing about private citizens. But we should ask what should a private citizen do? Should he support his state in subjugation of B?

    Why not? Because if the situation is the other way round, according to this theory, the private citizens of the Liberal Democratic Republic of A will be subjugated by the Totalitarian State of B.

  18. Udayan,
    I’m not exactly sure about what you mean by “the other way round”. B is very weak, it can hardly subjugate citizens of A. If you clarify what you mean, I can reply.

    Let’s continue this situation further. The only way citizens of B can improve their lot is to struggle against A – since B is so weak that A is dominating (subjugating, colonizing, occupying, whatever you want to call it) B.

    So citizens of B should either carry out resistance, violent or non-violent, against A (either in the territory of B itself or in A) depending on what they feel is most effective. A recipe of mass international terrorism can hardly be more explicit.

    If the above analysis is correct, the only way you could escape this calamity is through private citizens of A’s empathy, solidarity, resistance against their own state’s criminal actions, supporting the legitimate (non-terroristic) actions of B’s citizens.

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