On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future


From Scotland to Cataluña: Specters of Continuing Ethnonational Unraveling (November 8, 2014)

National borders seem acutely uneasy these days, at least in and around Europe. Following the very intense September 18, 2014 Independence Vote that nearly ended 307-year old union of the Scottish and English states (about which I have written quite a bit here), will on November 9 be an independence vote on the status of Catalonian desires to separate from Spain (for an excellent analysis of the current situation of the Catalonian independence moment, support for which has ballooned due to a very popular Spanish government, see Nick Rider’s BBC essay; see also the BBC’s excellent profile on Catalonia [more properly, Cataluña).

Whereas the Scottish Independence vote was an actual vote with the highest stakes for any state (actual separation), the November 9 vote has essentially been reduced to an opinion poll. As Rider reports, Artur Mas, the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia (Generalidad de Cataluña), had in 2012 moved for a referendum vote on independence for Catalonia and was met with resistance from Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, whose government argued any such referendum was unconstitutional according to Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which preserved much regional autonomy but (Rajoy’s government held) prevented any one region from voting for separation (see the constitution in official English translation here, and see also this excellent Wikipedia article). Mas, galvanized both by independent movements and by the Rajoy government’s unpopularity, moved for a non-binding “consultation” on November 9, 2014.

While the November 9 “consultation” clearly has no constitutional weight, it is striking to see an independence movement within Western Europe that, like Scotland, is predicated upon a region’s self-perception as ethnically and historically separate from a central government. As I have written of elsewhere in terms of the vote held to move Crimea (like Catalonia a semi-autonomous region) out of the Ukranian state and into the Russian state (and in the context of related separatism in Eastern Ukraine),  as well as in the context of the extraordinary political chaos unleashed by ISIS’s violent efforts to carve out a new Islamic state (indeed, a caliphate) in the Middle East, state borders seem to be acutely unstable these days. Catalonian and Scottish efforts to tie ethnonationalist separation to democratic processes is fascinating—but I wonder if notions of democracy itself will have to change radically if separatist movements start to become the norm rather than the exception.

As you can see in my earlier blog post on economic injustice and a redistribution of the meaning of democracy, I have been thinking a lot today about how currently unstable the very concept of democracy seems: I was here spurred by Rick Lymon and Alison Smale’s analysis of remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that indicate his desire to steer Hungary towards the “illiberal” democracies modeled after Russia, China, and Turkey, rather than the “liberal” democracies of the West that brought the 2008 financial crisis and thus seem ill-prepared for the economic future. The question may not be whether Scottish or Catalonian efforts are actually democratic, but rather what democracy will mean in an increasingly socially and economically divided West. In writing earlier of the odd fit within Spain of such a counter-democratic principle as inherited royal sovereignty in a modern nation-state, I mused that rule by a privileged elite is perhaps symbolically honest in a capitalist West of increasing—and increasingly entrenched, as Thomas Piketty argues in his analysis in Capital of the exponentially increasing privilege of inherited money—economic inequality. Whatever the outcome of the Catalonian “consultation,” and however the ongoing issue of Scottish independence unfolds, it seems that the ethnonationalist unraveling going on in so  much of Europe may increasingly be cited as evidence, à la Orban, that the Western neoliberal state model is self-destructing.


Economic Injustice and the Redistribution of What Counts as Democracy: Orban’s Hungary (November 8, 2014)

Reading Rick Lyman and Alison Smale’s reporting on Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban steering Hungary away from Western, European influence, and instead towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I have been fascinated by how unstable the concept of democracy has become. Orban’s arguments, which cite the financial crisis of 2008 as an indictment of “liberal democracy” and which openly look to the “illiberal democracy” of a Russia or Singapore as a better model for future development, seem to me to hint at a great fissure opening up in the world.  Arguing that the 2008 financial crisis was as epochal of a moment as the end of the Cold War, Orban seems to be striking at the America and Western Europe’s long-running—and lucrative—stranglehold on the ideological concept of democracy.

Given the massive scale of income inequality in a country like the United States (on which, see these recent analyses), it is hard not to see why Orban’s calculations about the self-defeating nature of “liberal democracy”: citing the coming “race to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful,” Orban clearly believes that “illiberal” models such as Russia’s or Turkey’s will thrive as the contradictions of “liberal” states become unmanageable.

That the United States continues to present itself as a fount of “democracy,” even as ballooning income inequality is matched by some fairly questionable modes of managing voter representation, suggests that Barkan’s Hungary may not be the only state that begins to be disillusioned by Western confidence in free-market capitalism. The notion of direct democracy in the United States becomes questionable when one looks at a number of factors, such as the disproportionate value of representation in the US Senate: as I have written of here before in the context of the counter-democratic UK entity known as the House of Lords, a citizen of the state of Wyoming, with an estimated population of 576,626, has exactly the same Senatorial representation as a citizen of California, with an estimated population of 38,332,521. But, more nefariously, who is allowed to vote in the United States seems to defy any attempt at direct representation, and seems very much a factor in the ongoing reproduction of social inequality. A disparate array of state laws limiting the rights of individuals with criminal records to vote after having served out their sentences leads to significant disenfranchisement, particularly for African Americans and other groups disproportionately represented in the criminal system: as the Sentencing Project reports, some 5.85 million citizens are currently being prevented from voting in US elections due to prior felony convictions, with a whopping 2.2 million of these being African Americans (by the way, that’s about ten times the entire population of Wyoming). And such counter-democratic procedures show no signs of abating, as seems to be clear from the rash of Voter ID laws that have developed over the past years, which many analysts attribute to efforts to limit the number of votes cast by ethnic minorities and students (see this seemingly non-partisan list of recent law from the National Conference of State Legislatures).  Wherever one falls in the debate about whether Voter ID laws are simply reasonable precautions or nefarious efforts to manipulate election results, it is hard not to imagine that figures like Orban or Putin will be able to paint their states as no less “democratic” than a United States in which state legislatures actively work to limit the number of citizens voting in their elections.

What most intrigues me about this situation in the context of this blog is the geography of the debate, which is in some respects strikingly reminiscent of Cold War divides, and yet in some respects seems to mark a new ideological terrain. Much as in the case of conflicts in Ukraine, about which I have written much in this blog,  the status of Hungary is depicted very much in Cold-War geographical terms as an Eastern or Central European entity being pulled in opposite directions, in a struggle between a Russian East and an American-European West. However, Orban’s references not just to China, but to Turkey and to Singapore indicate a much more complex divide than the outdated binary of capitalism-communism—and all of these states can be marked as state success stories that do not base themselves in neoliberal doctrines. With increasing questions about the fairness both of the economic system in the United States (see this NPR chart on patterns of income inequality among average households, as well as this PBS comparative analysis of US income distribution on a global scale, and also Estelle Someillier and Mark Price’s EPI analysis of US income inequality) and the ways in which citizens’ votes are linked to governmental representation, it is hard not to think that there will be many more prime ministers using what appears to be both social and economic injustice in the most prominent capitalist state as an impetus to look to other areas for the future of what will count as democratic management of territories and populations.


The Power of Place and Population: the House of Lords and the Modern State (November 2, 2014)

While Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom see it as merely political posturing, (minority) Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s call to disband the House of Lords and replace it with a senate whose membership would be tied to regional representation definitely raised my eyebrows this morning.  First and foremost, it amazes me that a modern democracy could currently contain a body in which the preponderance of its membership is either due to inheritance (the limit of such inherited life peers is currently set at 92) or due to the arbitrary selection by either the monarch or the House of Lords Appointment Commission; finally, there are also 26 Lords Spiritual who are there due to positions within the Church of England (see this helpful Wikipedia article on the chamber’s make-up). While the actual power of the House of Lords was severely restricted by the Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949, it remains a functional part of a bicameral legislature, and thus clearly has tremendous symbolic power along with its limited legislative might. It has always been striking to me that an institution that bears within it modes of class elitism that stem back to the medieval era could continue to affect the workings of a modern state—but, then again, I as an American am continuously stupefied at the persistence of the British, or indeed any monarchy, into today’s age. If Miliband’s plans are indeed serious, then the May elections would seem to have truly massive stakes—a significant degree of modernization.

What particularly interests me in terms of this blog is the manner in which, as Danny Hakim’s analysis observes, Miliband envisions a legislative body analogous to the United States Senate as the replacement for the House of Lords. Clearly, Miliband wants to respond to the deep sense of geographic injustice throughout the United Kingdom that was a significant part of the debate about Scottish Independence: many feel that the London-centered Southeastern region of England has a massively disproportionate amount of power in the modern United Kingdom. The United Kingdom’s House of Commons, like the United States House of Representatives, links power both with region and with population (see this Wikipedia article for current constituencies, which include population figures, as well as this general article), and so it bears within it numerical biases based on concentrated areas of population. One of the key complaints about those seeking Scottish Independence (a subject about which I have written here quite a bit) was that, however much Scottish interests, conceived as a regional voice, tended towards progressive policies, the neoliberal tendencies throughout the rest of the England-dominated parliament steered all in an opposite direction—thereby creating a sense of a regional voice being rendered politically impotent.

The United States Senate is fascinating to consider in this story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the United States Senate only became a body whose membership was directly elected in 1913, with the Seventeenth Amendment replacing the former appointment of members by state legislatures. Thus, if democracy is best measured by direct election, then the United States marks one stage of the United States becoming more democratic (6 years and two amendments before women were able to vote, by the way).

More critically for me, the United States Senate exists as a key compromise enabling United States dominance, according to which territory overrides population: no matter what the population or physical size of a state, each United States state gets two Senators. While many Americans are often frustrated by the fact that lightly populated states have a disproportionate influence in the Senate (the 2013 US Census Bureau population estimate for Wyoming, for example, is 562,658, and yet it has the same legislative representation in the Senate as California, with its population of 38,332,521; see this), this uneven arrangement is absolutely essential to United States history: territories were only brought into the United States with the understanding that their sparse populations would be compensated for by equal relationship within the Senate. To put it crudely, geography and population are balanced in the United States, with the idea that every vote is numerically equal being essentially alien to the system.

I will be very keen to follow the development of this debate about the House of Lords. I very much hope that it will attract the kind of intense attention that came with the debate about Scottish Independence. In some ways, I think it touches at a very fundamental question about modern states. Western states often bandy about rather vague notions of democratic exceptionalism to other regions of the planet, claiming that freedom and democracy are unquestionably central to Western states—even as such counter-democratic traditions as inherited peerships in the United Kingdom or such representative disparities born of historical pragmatism that constitute the United States Senate exist (and this is not even to mention the profound inequities about who is eligible for voting in the United States). The American media often pays strangely disproportionate attention to the royal family in the United Kingdom; I hope very much that some of that curiosity causes us to follow this story about the House of Lords and its rather fundamental debate about balancing population and region in a modern state.