Is the nation state the best we got?

What lessons can we draw from 1960s and 1970s anticolonialism and pan-Africanism to rethink the nation state today?

Image credit Adrian Jenkins via Flickr (CC).

With the re-emergence of global right-wing nationalism, predatory racialized capitalism, and the realities of what Kwame Nkrumah termed “neocolonialism,” a strong state is often presented on the left as a remedy. The state is seductive.

In development terms, a weak state makes it vulnerable to foreign influence, structural adjustment, lack of public expenditures, and foreign capture, all of which limit sovereignty and development. A strong state, on the other hand, is thought better able to centralize resources and citizens to protect economic interests yet is often is criticized as monopolizing violence undemocratically and is responsible for repression, elitism, and reproducing what some term coloniality. The state and development are simultaneously necessary and something to be avoided, or at best decentralized and democratized.

What would an alternative to the nation state and national development look like and what might this mean for contemporary social movements? Here, we can draw on lessons from African anticolonialism and visions of pan-Africanist futures in the 1960s and 1970s. Western concepts about what such new states would look like, who they would represent, and what policies they would adopt, were challenged by these movements. The paradox is that these projects were nonetheless translated and configured through the state and mainstream development discourses —both liberalism and Marxism—reproducing state violence, while struggling to enact alternatives.

A recent special issue of the journal Interventions—to which I contributed—tries to think through this contradiction with Frantz Fanon’s ideas about national consciousness in postcolonial contexts, Ghana and Algeria included. Fanon demands that we think through how “national consciousness, which is not nationalism, is alone capable of giving us an international dimension.” Taking Fanon with decolonial studies generally, it is important to reframe the question to consider the novel ways anticolonial movements succeeded, and sometimes failed, to rethink the nation state and national development.

In the case of Nkrumah’s Ghana, of which historian Jeffrey Ahlman has written about in Africa is a Country, nationalism or socialist development is not a sufficient analytic. Nkrumah advocated for a mixed-planning, one party state utilizing institutions and development models as a means to an end. In taking seriously his writings, policies, and tensions, it becomes clear that he justified his economic and political policies in Africentric terms—centered on African experience and struggle—highlighted in the theory of consciencism. He believed in organizing the nation as a resource in the struggle for pan-Africanism against (neo)colonialism, which would ultimately allow for the freedom to develop without external coercion.

I think it is appropriate to think through Nkrumah as a decolonial theorist, whose nationalism and development was internationalist in scope and not narrowly Westphalian, appropriating theories and policies toward an unspecified decolonial end. It was a vision filled with tensions and ambiguities. But it still resonates today.

In 2018, leading pan-Africanists, trade unionists, and activists gathered in Accra to remember Nkrumah and discuss strategies for implementing pan-African unity in the 21st century. One of the principle conclusions was that pan-African socialism is “the only strategy” to centralize institutions, resources and people to successfully achieve decolonization, development and unity.

Ghana was not exceptional, whether it is Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambian Humanism, or Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa, attempts were made to escape the seductive traps of western models, respond to the legacies of slavery/colonialism, local political-economies and the realities of the Cold War, while falling victim to them. It is this same haunting contradiction—of the almost necessity and pitfalls of the nation state—which puzzled Fanon and inspired Nkrumah among countless others.

Taking these experiences seriously and applying them to the present means looking beyond the state to see the strategies of creative survival, networks of social movements, innovative forms of direct participation, solidarities and expressions of a decolonial democracy. Current alternatives are not coming from elites, but from streets, homes, online spaces, workplaces, student bodies and decolonial movements—what might be termed democracy from below. Ideas can be found not just in resistance to acts of environmental degradation or human rights abuses, or in the linking of local activisms to national and international politics, but also in poetry, literary figures, artists, and musicians. How can these non-elitist visions, born in the immediacy of struggle and experience, be translated into re-thinking the state and development? I do not have any answers, but I am listening.

Further Reading