Monday, December 12, 2011

Who votes in Super-Cannes?

In J.G. Ballard's 2001 novel Super-Cannes, the bourgeois residents of a corporate gated community in the south of France develop their own outlaw therapy to exercise their animal natures: ties off, truncheons in hand, they set out on night prowls of the city looking for immigrants to beat.

When I read the novel in 2002, I found the premise somewhat implausible. Perhaps because the protagonists, mostly manicured pan-European technocrats (from the good old days of the "New Economy") who I imagined all looking like Michel Foucault with an M.B.A., seemed so intrinsically modern, socialized to the point of metro-emasculation.

That was before Europe started falling apart, and the slacker sovereignty of the South collided with the post-Panzer dictates of Merkozy.

Thursday night the French Senate voted 173-166, after an inflammatory debate, to give foreigners the right to vote in local elections. An exceptionally progressive move from the same legislature that a year earlier adopted the "Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space"—and one likely to provoke tribal responses even stronger than those articulated during the debate.

The French debates about whether people who would like to wear burqas to the polls should be able to vote for mayor are part of a pattern visible all over the world (or at least the West) of cultural struggles to come to terms with the long slow death of national sovereignty. It includes things as ridiculous as the Oklahoma referendum to ban Shariah law and things as serious as the current debates on whether Sarkel can employ the current crisis to persuade weaker European countries to bargain away enough of their sovereignty in new treaty negotiations that both creditor and debtor nations can be governed under a common monetary and fiscal policy mandate from Brussels.

It's so easy to accept the inevitability of world government in the techno-utopian future, when we have magically solved the problem of all resource constraints. When you tell people it involves being governed in part by the tribal other of today, the response is feral, primitively territorial. It's insight, not accident, that underlies the persistent idea in science fictional utopias that healthy world governments only occur after planet-scorching wars and subsequent dark ages.

The post-Westphalian age is emerging before our eyes, geopolitical cousin of network culture, manifesting itself in both failed states and imminent super-states, like the EU and the NAFTA zone. Capital, and the need to rationally manage limited resources, will continue to compel the march towards the elimination of economic borders. But the idea of national identity will fight it every step of the way.

As Eric Hobsbawm has effectively argued, the idea of nationality is largely a fiction preceded by—and created by—the state. The current languages of the European nations did not really exist until the current states were created. And in the age of network culture ascendant, the imagined community (and linguistic coherency) of the nation state will have increasingly powerful competition in the form of the plethora of virtual communities more authentically tailored to each individual. But that doesn't mean the idea of national identity, a variation of the socially constructed concept of race, will die easily.

Demographics will compel a reversal of current immigration hysteria. In twenty years or so, declining population growth rates in Europe and North America, combined with ever-longer-living populations of old people, will have us all competing to attract younger immigrants from the South and the East to fuel the dynamism of our societies. As borders blur, will that ultimate socially constructed national identity—the idea of the American—persist?

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