December 30, 2005
Chomsky on Nation States

Chomsky's view of the nation-state system (from this recent interview) is pretty interesting.

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Can you talk a little bit about imposing the nation-state system with violence and war?

Murderous savagery. I mean, the European history is an example. Take a look at the populations of Europe, very diverse. There are a lot of concerns now about what are called endangered languages, indigenous languages disappearing. And it's serious. But probably the greatest loss of languages in the last century is right inside Europe. I mean, what we call Italian, most Italians didn't speak, had to learn a second language if you learned the real one. Same with Germany, same with France, a little bit further back. And that's a reflection of the diversity of cultures and so on, which you find almost everywhere in the world. I mean, you don't find it in the United States, but there's a simple reason for that. The English colonist just wiped everybody out. Okay, you don't get diversity. You have what amounts to genocide, okay: no diversity. But in societies where you didn't have mass extermination, there are complex regional, local identities and associations which you just can't draw lines around it. So to impose that nation-state system did lead to centuries of murderous violence.

In fact, it was that murderous violence that gave Europe it's comparative advantage. Europe had developed a culture of savagery which was unknown in the rest of the world. When the Europeans then started expanding, they weren't really winning wars on the base of their military superiority, but on the base of savagery, which others didn't know how to face. In fact, if you look at military historians, they point out, British ones, main ones, they said well, for the rest of the world war was a sport, for Europe it was a science. And yes, they conquered much of the world, and attempted to impose a nation-state system on it. And you take a look at most of the horrible wars today, they are the results of the drawing of colonial boundaries in an effort to impose the nation-state system. It has almost nothing to do with people's interests and associations and commitments.

Actually Europe itself is beginning to recognize this, and it's moving towards a kind of devolution. So in Spain, for example, Catalonia, a vast country, and pretty soon others are going to have a fair degree of autonomy, with their own languages and some degree of local control. In Wales and Scotland there's a degree of devolution in the languages. Not in Scotland, but in Wales the language is pretty much recovered. It's a very unnatural system.

In fact the natural system, though nobody likes to hear, is the Ottoman Empire. I mean, the Ottoman Empire was corrupt and brutal, and nobody wants to restore that, but they more or less left people alone. So if you are in the Greek part of the city the Greeks run it, and if you are in the Armenian part the Armenians run it. You don't have to travel pass two border posts when you go from Istanbul to Cairo to Baghdad. It was just a loose, complex, regional system with a rather high level of local control, and for most of the world that's exactly what makes sense. To impose a nation-state system on that, it's going to cause plenty of violence and savagery, and did.

There is a huge amount of historical evidence for it. In fact, the United States itself is an example. There was a nation-state system imposed, a pretty homogenous one, but it was imposed by eliminating an enormous diversity of rather highly developed societies. I mean, it was pretended they were hunter-gatherers wondering around the woods, but we know that that wasn't true. And [by] conquering half of Mexico, and settling it with the European colonists. Yeah, that way you can impose a nation-state, but we don't call it violence because we did it, you know. But take a look at the victims, they have a different picture.

posted by dru in excerpt