The Nation and the Hollow State Imaginary of the Nation-State;

Reality of Grass roots Governance

Helen Delfeld, December 2009


  • nation state
  • governance
  • State
  • legitimacy

Much attention has been paid to national governance, while comparatively little time has been spent examining alternative governance. In fact, we have so calibrated our study of the political world to mean nation-state-based politics that even the work that is done on sub-national govern-ance is more often than not trying to solve a national puzzle. The centralised bureaucratised na-tion-state does provide certain competitive advantages, including efficient taxation and a willing-ness on the part of citizens to sacrifice themselves for the good of the State. (Smith, 2000) There is, however, a considerable cost to be paid for this economic and social advantage. The process of forging a nation-state means a great deal of violence to the identities of those who do not fit the national ideal. When the nation-state was first forming, somewhere around the time of print-capitalism (Gellner 1983) or certain cultures of circulation (Anderson, 1991), few coherent objec-tions could be made or heard about this process. This is no longer the case. Since, widespread participation in a human rights discourse has made the marginalisation or elimination of minority identities both visible and problematic. This makes many continuing nationalising efforts ethi-cally questionable, at best, since nationalising people involves changing the way they think about themselves, or worse.

Beyond the questionable morality of nationalising, it may be less practical as well. In many ways the competitive pressures that originally produced the nation-state have shifted over time, while many post-colonial States face challenges distinct from those that define the Westphalian ideal. For example, while the immense pressure to build expensive militaries for self-defence (and thus the need for efficient, even quasi-voluntary taxation) still exists, many national States are spend-ing less and less of their money on defence. The new pressures, as Saskia Sassen (1998), Balakrishnan Rajagopal (2000), Joseph Stiglitz (2003), and others indicate, are increasingly eco-nomic, particularly in the post-colonial world. So while the nation-state has a role in regulating and insuring these practices, it can be a radically different role, which creates a very different re-lationship with borders than a hardened military defensiveness, and very different expectations from its citizenry.

Oscar Evangelista (2002), one of the several scholars concerned with the historical problems and circumstances that produced the modern Philippine State, has lately been working on the failure of nationalism in the Philippines, which includes my research area. The implicit presupposition made in his work is that “natural” governance at this point in history is national, and anything else poses a problem to be solved. Evangelista is asking, in essence, what is it about the Philip-pines that holds it back from national governance? What produces this “backward” State of gov-ernance? Again, conventional assumptions revolve around the State, while the changing nature of the interactions between people and peoples, which has lead to radical changes in the nation-state itself, should lead to widespread and sophisticated rethinking of nationhood. But so far, the best thinking about nationhood has been produced almost exclusively by post-colonial scholars (Chat-terjee, 1993; Marx; 2002).

Evangelista’s presupposition is that modern governance which is “not national” is failed governance. In reducing teleological assumptions about the role of the nation in modern governance, we may more successfully analyse different systems and their varying roles in peoples’ lives. In doing so, I move from the term “sub-national governance” to “non-national governance”. The absence of a “real” nation does not, in fact, mean that the institutions and practices political scientists are used to seeing as a State in the Global North do not exist; far from it. The structures of a State are fairly ubiquitous across the globe, especially when viewed from the top down. However, viewed from the bottom up, these institutions, though visible, do not function the same way when transported from their original Global North context.

While there can be incomplete States, « failed States, » potential nations, or incipient nations that have not fully nationalised or politicised, the phenomenon in which I am interested is in places where normal political processes have stabilised to some degree in what I call a « hollow State » format. Liberal models of the State assume a contract between the governed and the governing; in the West this relationship was worked out over centuries, with security the primary defining factor. Post-colonial States, on the other hand, were for the most part « designed » and thrust on the world by the international community, presumptive borders predefined and intact. Hence, a hollow State’s first obligation is not to either define its borders against its neighbours, nor to create a nation out of its citizenry, but rather to confirm its legitimacy by prioritising relationships with the international community. Hence, a hollow State is one that is less historically dependent on internal processes and legitimation than a truly national State. Seen from the outside, from the perspective of international institutions and other nation-states, the hollow State seems whole, a defined entity that interacts, enters into contracts, and maintains obligations in the international sphere. From the perspective of the citizenry, however, there seems to be little of substance. Considering the relatively modest resources that many newly-emerging nation-states have to devote to nation-building enterprises, and the innumerable hurdles to effective nation-building that they face, identifiers that would reinforce the imaginary of the State to its populace are like the wind: motion and no substance. Meanwhile, the hollow State’s attentions and resource allocation are primarily directed outwardly, in the form of debt payments, defence spending, trade agreements, the luring of international investment, income from exports, and more.

The Philippines for the most part falls into this category. It is a case of an entity that has never successfully formed a nation, and may never do so, without a significant change in political and social situation. This is hardly the fault of the citizens, as it is hard to think of a polity in which the citizenry is more engaged in communicative action. Deep grass roots empowerment, which led to the People Power Revolution that overthrew Marcos, has in reality done little to stem corruption or compromise the position of the elites. But it continues to enliven Philippine politics.

Historically, before colonisation by the Spanish, the centre of government was the barangay (or balangay), and for many purposes the local community of usually just a few hundred to a few thousand people still is the political core. This has helped to keep politics and political identity quite local, in many ways foiling attempts to create a national identity. Aware of this, both the Spanish and American colonial governments, as well as various post-colonial leaders lured would-be Filipino/as into relocation, or forcibly relocated them, or had their children put into imperial-language schools, or boarding schools, or drafted them into labour forces; all in the hope of creating a more “natural” national governance unit. Nothing has worked particularly well. Granted, there have been a few signs of success: Tagalog is more widely spoken than it was twenty years ago, English less widely, but there are strong resistance movements from the other major language groups. In another potential gain for nationalism, most high-level professionals are indeed trained at the University of the Philippines, the University of Santo Thomas, or the Ateneo, all Manila-based institutions, but these professionals may well return to their home provinces and work for local autonomy, not unification. Benedict Anderson (1991) theorised that nationalism originated through circuits of education; it may well be that there is a different dynamic at work now.

There are many factors that make national formation an uphill battle in the Philippines. Although the land mass of the archipelago is relatively small, about the size of the State of Arizona, it is spread over more than 7000 mountainous islands, creating natural geographical boundaries and hindering the logistics of communication and trade. The national museum lists more than 60 indigenous languages, and many distinct ethnic groups are demanding increased autonomy. The problem was exacerbated by the way the country gained independence. Since the United States promised emancipation from the beginning of its colonial reign there was less need for an independence movement around which the population could rally, thereby establishing its own heroes and a sense of national pride. China’s defeat of imperialism was lead by Sun Yat-sen; Vietnam had Ho Chi Minh; Indonesia, Sukarno. The Philippines does have national heroes who fought American and Spanish colonial forces enshrined on their Peso bills - Aguinaldo, Mabini, Rizal – but they are heroes who failed in their hard-fought quest for independence.

These markers have not, at least in the time elapsed, produced centripetal feelings of nationalism. However, France was not built in a day, and it is possible that given more time, national feeling will take hold. But unlike the heyday of nation-state formation, there are strong countervailing trends that make it harder to nationalise. Economically successful citizens of the Philippines know English well, not Tagalog, and they work overseas. This is no circuit of imperialism as Benedict Anderson described, but a farming out of citizens to deliberately create a semi-permanent diaspora. Maintaining emotional connections to the Philippines on the part of these Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) is critical to the State government for economic, not political, purposes. The government does not need them to come home with knowledge derived from imperial centres to build up domestic economies; rather it needs them to stay away, but keep sending money. Lots of it. In fact, earnings sent home by OFW’s is the country’s number one source of foreign exchange.

Other countervailing trends such as the corrosive effects of sporadic national-level corruption scandals, the comparative effectiveness of local governance, and the persistence of relational ties (not unrelated to both the scandals and the effectiveness mentioned) have a centrifugal effect. The State has been legally devolving governance function to the local level since the time of Marcos, reflecting, not driving, the existing political reality. For example, responsibility for protecting the commercial integrity of the Philippines waters off the northern coast of Palawan from incursion by China’s commercial fishing fleet has been relegated to local authorities, who clearly do not have the resources (i.e. a navy) necessary to accomplish the task.


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The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)