The dismantling of European colonialism in Asia and Africa seven decades ago and then the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late eighties led to the formation of many new independent nation states. From a mere 51 countries in 1945 the membership of the United Nations has grown to 195 currently.
The path to independence for many of these new nations was not easy and achieved only after enormous suffering and sacrifices – involving both peaceful and violent struggles. Today, the Right to Self-Determination of nations is a well-established principle in modern international law.
Despite all this history, the unfortunate fact remains that even today many genuine movements for independence or separation do not get international recognition or support so easily. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that the dominant ethnic or cultural groups of existing nation states refuse to address grievances of the suppressed communities, often leading to prolonged conflict without resolution. Yielding territory of any kind, in particular, has been hyped up into an emotional issue and seen as nothing less than treason, making peaceful settlement difficult.
Secondly, the so-called international community, which essentially consists of big, nuclear-armed countries, supports the Right to Self Determination of different sub-national groups only selectively and usually based on their own individual interests. For example, while Kosovo and South Sudan have managed to gain independence with the support of global powers, this privilege has been denied to much older freedom struggles of Palestine, Kashmir or Tamil Eelam – for purely reasons of geo-politics.
A third and often overlooked reason for the deliberate global indifference to national independence struggles in our times is the rapidly changing nature of the world economy, especially the phenomenon of globalization whereby large corporations have become more powerful than most existing countries.
Let me be more specific in what I mean by giving the example of Apple Inc., the laptop and iPhone maker, which became the world’s first company to record a market capitalization of $1 trillion, and subsequently passed the $1.3 trillion threshold in Dec. 2019.[i]
To put that figure in perspective, only 14 countries in the world have annual GDP figures greater than Apple’s market cap, which is just below the $1.4 trillion GDPs each for Australia and Spain. The nations with GDP figures immediately below $1.3 trillion are Mexico, Indonesia, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Switzerland.[ii]
In terms of revenues of corporations, a survey by the magazine Business Insider in 2018 found some very interesting results by comparing the annual turnover of 25 top US corporations to the GDP of entire countries around the world [iii]. Here are some results:
- Amazon’s revenue exceeded Kuwait’s GDP
- Apple’s revenues in 2017 were higher than Portugal’s GDP
- Volkswagen’s revenues are greater than the GDP of Chile
- Walmart’s revenues exceed Belgium’s GDP
The simple fact that is staring us in our face for quite some time now is that the giant corporations of the world are on par with or more powerful than many countries in terms of economic clout and even political clout in many parts of the world. The management systems they run are often as much or even more efficient than that of any state apparatus. What they lack in order to declare themselves nation-states and join the United Nations are essentially a national flag or an anthem, which any advertising agency can produce for them in a few days!
As for the want of an army – let me say that if Microsoft or Facebook sets up an office in New Delhi to recruit well paid soldiers willing to die defending their intellectual property, I think half the Indian army will switch loyalties. Let us not forget that a bulk of the soldiers the old East India Company and the British Raj used to control the Indian sub-continent historically were from within India itself. So it is not very strange to imagine a giant corporation forming its own army in the future for that is how it was in the not-so-distant past. (The United States has deployed, over the last two decades, thousands of ‘soldiers’, in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are essentially mercenaries employed by private security companies).
For big corporate investors today nations, cultures or even people are not important at all and it is only ‘markets’ of different kinds that matter. From their point of view it will be better if all these diverse ‘markets’ are integrated and consolidated with common rules and governance mechanisms. Most of them are not interested in issues like human rights or democracy and their only criteria for supporting or opposing anything is the concept of ‘ease of doing business’ i.e. how much profits they can generate and how quickly.
Those fighting for national independence, whether they like it or not, have to take this reality of the power of global capital and the long term implications of corporate power into account in order to have a successful strategy. One such implication is the fact that the role of land and territory in national economies has been replaced by other forms of capital. Consequently, they are not the essential ingredients of the nation, that they were even half a century ago and there are other ways in which a nation can be conceived.
Can there be a nation without land or territory? I do not think so, for ultimately populations need to live on firm ground somewhere and ownership of property in the form of land is an essential part of what a nation is all about. However, it is my contention that in our times land and territory are no longer the most important part of becoming or being a nation. The central position of land in national economies has been taken over for quite some time by capital in the form of finance, technology and human resources.
Another result of the growing power of corporations is that the state machinery of many nations now is being taken over by them, through outsourcing of government responsibilities in areas ranging from security and policing to education and health. The organization of the state has been superseded for quite some time now by other far more sophisticated mechanisms that corporations possess, especially in an age where information technology and data driven decision making dominates.
Yet another important implication of corporate power is that, operating as they do across national boundaries, they have made all the nations of the world ‘interdependent’ and not even the biggest superpower is truly ‘independent’ today. While old-style nation-states are not about to disappear anytime very soon they are a much weakened entity shorn of genuine sovereignty or independence of decision-making.
What all this means is that when one asks for ‘separation’ from an existing nation-state framework it should be remembered that one is automatically becoming part of some other framework globally. While many liberation movements are very clear about what they are breaking away from, they need to think harder about what they are uniting with after the break-up.
Understanding this would help liberation movements to achieve greater clarity on the specific political, economic and administrative arrangements, both domestic and international, that are involved in achieving their aim of breaking free from an exploitative and oppressive arrangement under an existing nation-state.
In the specific context of South Asia for example, if you are demanding an independent Tamil Eelam, you have to also implicitly or explicitly declare what is the new framework that you are moving towards. To put it bluntly who are the new friends you want to be with and what kind of arrangements are you making to ensure these friends will not let you down in any way? And remember here we are not talking about just countries out there to choose from but global corporations also!
To sum up, while the formation of new land and territory-centric nations has become difficult the possibilities of creating new forms of the modern nation are also increasing. To explore this option however national liberation movements will have to give up their exclusive obsession with land and focus more on finance, technology and human resources – which are the three most important forms of capital in our times.
And in all this the most critical factor is still human skills and capabilities. Nations do not become free merely because they control a lot of land but because they have many people who have both the courage and ability to be free.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health activist based in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org