Dubai or: “Die Nation ist tot”

February 5, 2007

Europe broods over its national identities, is shattered by “Europehood”, post-colonial immigration, the prospect of having Turkey into the EU. National identities all over the world are put into question by global economics, technology, & the web. In the meantime, there is a form of society emerging that does not give a damn about what it is to live outside your cherished nation-state where you as individual only count in the sense that you are a free citizen shaping public life. The preoccupations of eminent German philosopher Juergen Habermas, author of books such as “Die Postnationale Konstellation”, in which a new sense of open, multicultural and inclusive togetherness can be created at supra-national level such as Europe on the basis of a set of commonly agreed upon constitutional values (“constitutional patriotism”) are very very far away from people who thrive in places such as …Dubai (apart from the fact that it doesn’t seem to be working, see French and Dutch No-votes to the EU constitution).

Yes, globalisation does put into question the mental framework of the nation-state most of us grew up with – be it in the West or in the ex Third World where nationalism was the driver for struggle against colonialism and the building of independent states, very often in combination with socialist economic policies. This world is dead. The Nation, born during the Valmy battle with the soldier’s cry “Vive la nation”, the nation such as born from the French Revolution – a mix of individual liberation from pre-modern oppression, and structural violence, self-construction against your neighbour – well, that nation is an accident of history. We knew Empires, city-states, no-mans lands. The nation is about two centuries old, will it survive? What is the “post-national constellation” under present-day intensifying globalisation trends preparing for us?

There is an absolutely fascinating analytical piece in the Financial Times this morning by the New York based historian Faisal Devji, author of Landscapes of the Jihad, on Dubai entitled Welcome to Dubai, the society that capitalism built.

A few abstracts:

Rather than representing a failure of modernity, Dubai’s elimination of nationhood as a basis for identity portends a global future. It is the closest thing to a community organised by capitalism. Befitting a capitalist paradise, the UAE has a reputation for bad labour practices. But freed from cant about the national good, workers and management have recourse to a language beyond citizenship. It is not the greater good of the nation, but the good of the individual and of humanity at large that is invoked here. For in Dubai, even the state does not represent the collective will of its subjects but is only their arbiter.

Dubai is a technocracy, its ruling family the simulacrum of a monarchy. Having been granted their titles by the British in India, the UAE’s rulers derive their glamour from the vanished world of the Raj, while functioning like presidents of corporations. Democracy is misplaced in Dubai, being possible only in a community of citizens. To confine democracy to the small minority of Emiratis is nonsensical and to offer citizenship to the country’s majority absurd. Democracy means citizenship, citizenship means nationality and nationality means the creation of a majority. There is no ethnic, linguistic, religious or even political majority in Dubai, nor can there ever be one given its total reliance on a migrant and expatriate workforce.

I personally see many parallels between Dubai and city-state Singapore – according to the 2006 Foreign Policy/A.T. Kearny Globalization Index, the most global place on earth. Singapore is one of those small traditional free-ports who have not democratised while globalising, contrary to your average nation-state coming next in the Index’s rankings, and contrary to other Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan…

Can we say, a bit like the other German philosopher Nietzsche who declared “Gott ist tot” (“God is dead”) back in the 1880s – the “Nation is dead”? Who gives a damn about citizenship when you can go skiiing on artificial snowy slopes in the desert?

Let’s hope Devji will soon bring out abook on this matter – I generally am not fan of globalisation best-sellers (I couldn’t go beyond page 10 of Friedman’s so widely acclaimed The World is Flat – it’s the book that is flat, not the world!) – but a good book on this matter would be greatly welcome.

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