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Shapes of Contempt

a meditation on anarchism and boundaries

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boundaries and the evolution of the nation-state

Historians usually agree that the nation-state as we define it is no more than three or four centuries old.  The Treaty of Westphalia (actually a collection of related treaties), signed at the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, is often identified as the ‘birth certificate’ of the modern state.  It spelled out the meaning of sovereignty as an exclusive power over lands and peoples within boundaries recognized and respected by other sovereigns.  The key word is exclusive: other powers were not to have any jurisdiction or authority within those boundaries.  This usually meant the papacy, but the treaties extended the idea to all external powers.  The sovereignty of all states was to be considered equal, regardless of size; all were to refrain from intervention in other states; and each state was to determine its own laws and form of government.[i]  These principles are clearly explained, and defended, by Harvard philosopher John Rawls in The Law of Peoples (1999).[ii]  Rawls is solidly within the classical liberal tradition, building on John Stuart Mill and standard definitions of human rights and justice.  Thomas Hobbes, writing about the same time as Westphalia (though in a different context, that of the English civil war) helped to crystallize the modern state with his widely accepted definition of sovereignty, although he was somewhat dismayed to note that

kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another, that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns, upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbours: which is a posture of war.[iii]

The new technologies growing out of the Scientific Revolution of the late seventeenth century were instrumental in congealing the modern state.  The printing press already existed, but after Westphalia it provided the propaganda and educational materials needed to persuade people – whose allegiance heretofore had been to their rulers, not their countries – of the advantages of state sovereignty.  Later, advances in communications and transportation made it easier to control the people and resources contained by the borders.[iv]

The question of national allegiance may seem like a side issue here, but in fact it is crucial: allegiance in the modern, Western sense of the word demands that we are loyal or obedient to an authority which is very definitely contained within precise boundaries.  If, say, I am living in the fourteenth century and have sworn allegiance to the king of England, it matters very little what “England” is, or whether its boundaries change over time.  The Westphalian revolution required that the sovereign to whom I owe allegiance be equated with the State; indeed, “England” was sometimes used poetically in the centuries just before and after Westphalia as a metonymy for “the monarch.”  The philosophers, with the exception of Josiah Royce, have largely ignored this question of loyalty or allegiance.  It would be acceptable to an anarchist to define loyalty as “the identification of one’s own interest with that of a group,”[v] but the modern nation-state requires us to be loyal to an abstraction, a personification of the human group as a concrete entity with defined geographic boundaries.  If we are loyal to an abstraction, what that really means is that we are loyal and obedient to the dictates of whatever person or group governs that abstraction, in the mistaken belief (mistaken, but insisted upon by those governors) that these rulers are the abstraction in question.  As anarchists we can certainly be loyal to other people, to groups, to society as a whole, without surrendering our autonomy to them.  But we certainly do surrender that autonomy to an abstraction like the State (or the Church, or the Army, or even the local sports team) when we accept the notion that it is more than the sum of its parts. And what could be more servile than to concede an abstraction’s right to draw boundary lines across the planet, separating us arbitrarily from other human beings?

The United States pioneered the idea of the straight-line geometric border, based on surveying techniques that (bizarrely, if you think about it) use magnetism and the position of stars rather than the actual lay of the land or ethnic considerations.  The habit was formed even before the Revolution, when the proprietors of Maryland and Pennsylvania hired the astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to discover the exact boundary between their colonies.  The Land Ordinance of 1785 spelled out a method for surveying the Northwest Territory, “pay[ing] the utmost attention to the variation of the magnetic needle,” starting at what is now the state line between Ohio and Pennsylvania:

The first line, running north and south as aforesaid, shall begin on the river Ohio, at a point that shall be found to be due north from the western termination of a line, which has been run as the southern boundary of the state of Pennsylvania [that is, the Mason-Dixon line]; and the first line, running east and west, shall begin at the same point, and shall extend throughout the whole territory.

The Ordinance goes on to define what came to be known as the township-and-range system, eventually extending all the way to the Pacific, laying down a precise grid all across the United States, ignoring the natural terrain and, more to the point, the claims of the people who already lived there.  Even today’s Indian reservations are defined by straight geometric lines.

Europe was not slow to pick up on the idea.  Baron Haussmann’s destruction of medieval Paris neighborhoods to create today’s beautiful rectilinear boulevards is well known.  Mark Twain, on his first visit, quickly figured out the reason:

But they will build no more barricades, they will break no more soldiers' heads with paving-stones. Louis Napoleon has taken care of all that. He is annihilating the crooked streets and building in their stead noble boulevards as straight as an arrow - avenues which a cannon ball could traverse from end to end without meeting an obstruction more irresistible than the flesh and bones of men - boulevards whose stately edifices will never afford refuges and plotting places for starving, discontented revolution breeders. Five of these great thoroughfares radiate from one ample centre - a centre which is exceedingly well adapted to the accommodation of heavy artillery. The mobs used to riot there, but they must seek another rallying-place in future.[vi]

When the European imperial powers decided to clarify their competing African claims at Berlin in 1884, a similar template was imposed on that continent.  New and exact boundaries were drawn, entirely ignoring ethnic and geographic realities, and most of those boundaries persist today: one of the most fundamental causes of Africa’s sorrows.  Needless to say, there were no Africans at the Berlin congress.  One example will suffice: Nigeria, a highly artificial construct whose very name is not even African, one of the most corrupt nations on Earth.  Some 250 ethnic groups, many of them hostile to one another, were thrown together in 1914 into a single polity kept more or less orderly only by British military might.  Nigeria has three very large nationalities (Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba), each of which could probably thrive as independent states; indeed the Igbo tried just that in 1967, resulting in the genocidal Biafran war.  Another half-dozen groups are more populous than many European countries.  But the international community as well as the African Union itself is committed, almost unthinkingly, to the maintenance of borders established long ago by non-Africans who most certainly did not have indigenous interests at heart.  The rationale is that any change now would only generate rival claims and violence.  Possibly true; but is the current status any better?

The first World War presents us with a paradigmatic border puzzler.  Its causes were of course multiple, but at the core of the European balance of power envisioned by Metternich was the perpetuation of boundaries that made sense politically or dynastically but emphatically not ethnically.  The German empire had been cobbled together out of many small states that often had little in common other than language, but it provided a counterbalance to France; the border between the two had been in contention since the Treaty of Verdun in 814 and was hopelessly interwoven with people who had French surnames but spoke German, and vice-versa.  The Austro-Hungarian monarchy was a huge collection of ethnic minorities, unwillingly amalgamated over the centuries by judicious Habsburg marriages and the snapping up of bits and pieces of the Ottoman empire as it disintegrated.  Russia held its numerous minorities in check only by a forcible policy of Russification – a policy continued by the Soviets, and which spectacularly backfired in 1990.  Poland, a proud nation with a long history, did not exist any more when the war began, having been divided up by its neighbors in 1795.  And so on.  Woodrow Wilson and his team at Versailles did their best to draw the boundaries of the new states along ethnic lines, but later admitted failure, citing the extremely complicated nature of the task, through time as well as across geographic space.  They also made some horrendous mistakes that just compounded the problem, such as the creation of Yugoslavia.  Subsequent agreements have tried, with varying success, to patch these mistakes.  Take for example the 1995 Bosnian accord, which created an odd mongrel state: the ‘national’ boundary, which dates back to the Austrian annexation in 1878, was preserved. But within it we now have semi-autonomous and unstable Serb and Croat enclaves, when it would have made more sense to splice those enclaves into Serbia and Croatia.

The Versailles treaty was hotly contested in the US Senate, and in the end rejected, though for reasons that had nothing to do with boundaries.  Elihu Root, a former secretary of state and now a senator, spotted a critical issue: would the new League of Nations ossify the borders it was creating?  Root objected to the proposed Article X, which obligated members “to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the league." Such a commitment, he suggested, would

preserve for all time unchanged the distribution of power and territory made in accordance with the views and exigencies of the Allies in this present juncture of affairs. It would necessarily be futile. It would be what was attempted by the Peace of Westphalia at the close of the Thirty Years' War, at the Congress of Vienna at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, by the Congress of Berlin in 1878. It would not only be futile; it would be mischievous. Change and growth are the law of life, and no generation can impose its will in regard to the growth of nations and the distribution of power upon succeeding generations.[vii]

He went on to give examples of the unsettled condition of ethnic nationalities in Europe, and suggested a time limit on the guarantee.  Though the idea was ignored by the diplomats, and though a specific time limit would simply have re-cast the problem in a different mold, it does indicate that at least some politicians were taking what might now be called a post-Westphalian view of boundaries. 

In recent decades some philosophers and politicians on the left have begun to look at the Westphalian system as obsolete, or at least threadbare.  It was obvious from the beginning that the principle of sovereignty fostered rivalry and enmity among states, rather than harmony and mutual respect.  Wars continued unabated, and interventions have even increased – since World War II, often without any legal sanction or declaration of war.  The United Nations – which, admittedly, has done some good in the world – accords one vote to each member state.  It represents governments, not people, a flaw that will no doubt prove fatal eventually.  In Europe, signatories to the Schengen agreement have made borders irrelevant.  You can still see them on the map, but in the real world they are marked only by abandoned customs booths, and those are gradually being demolished, or better yet, vandalized.  Globalization fueled by capitalism has made corporations more powerful than sovereign states, and Marxism has always (at least in theory) opposed the Westphalian system.  Marx argued that since the main purpose of the nation-state is to protect the interests of the ruling class, the abolition of classes would render the state superfluous. 

The rise of Green political parties and of devolutionary projects in Europe has accelerated the changing perception of states and boundaries.  Joschka Fischer, the German Green politician, has called for the dismantling of sovereign institutions as Europe gropes toward a post-Westphalian order.  Though Fischer turned his back on the Greens’ anarchist roots long ago, the fact that he reached the pinnacle of German politics as foreign minister (1998-2005) is perhaps an early sign of a tectonic shift. 

And that brings us back to anarchism: always opposed to the nation-state on principle, it has never really examined the nature of the boundaries that contain the nation-state, nor formulated a coherent response to the concept.

View notes


  • [i] This interpretation has been questioned by some revisionist historians, who point out that the word ‘sovereignty’ does not occur in the treaties, and that the Holy Roman Empire still retained some judicial sovereignty over its constituent states.

  • [ii] John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

  • [iii] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Classics, 1909-1914), , XIII:12.

  • [iv] Martin van Creveld, quoted in The Brussels Journal in May 2006, at

  • [v] Herbert Aaron Bloch, The Concept of Our Changing Loyalties (New York, 1944), 36.

  • [vi] Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, XVI.

  • [vii] Letter from Hon. Elihu Root to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, March 29, 1919, in Senate Document 41, 66th Congress, 1st session (1919).