The Nation-State System | "Understanding Power," excerpt of Q&A, Noam Chomsky, published 2002

Note (kjl): The construction of the US Constitution in 1787 was led primarily by James Madison. This excerpt includes useful references to Madison’s self-described intentions for what he wanted the fundamental power structure of the new nation to be, and why. The excerpt is Noam Chomsky’s response to a comment and question at a discussion in 1989 or between 1993 and ‘96, as published in Understanding Power, cited below. This collection of transcribed question-and-answer sessions is extensively footnoted. Included below are the notes to this excerpt and a link to the collection’s webpage where the entire 499 pages of notes, more pages than the book itself, is available to all. The footnotes themselves, in my opinion, are a thing of beauty.
The Nation-State System
WOMAN: Noam, the problems you describe in the world sound almost chronic to me—systematic underdevelopment and exploitation in the Third World, proliferation of nuclear weapons, the growing environmental crisis. What means of social organization do you think would be necessary for us to overcome these things?

    Well, in my view what would ultimately be necessary would be a breakdown of the nation-state system—because I think that’s not a viable system. It’s not necessarily the natural form of human organization; in fact, it’s a European invention pretty much. The modern nation-state system basically developed in Europe since the medieval period, and it was extremely difficult for it to develop: Europe has a very bloody history, an extremely savage and bloody history, with constant massive wars and so on, and that was all part of an effort to establish the nation-state system. It has virtually no relation to the way people live, or to their associations, or anything else particularly, so it had to be established by force. And it was established by centuries of bloody warfare. That warfare ended in 1945—and the only reason it ended is because the next war was going to destroy everything. So it ended in 1945—we hope; if it didn’t, it will destroy everything.

    The nation-state system was exported to the rest of the world through European colonization. Europeans were barbarians basically, savages: very advanced technologically, and advanced in methods of warfare, but not culturally or anything else particularly. And when they spread over the rest of the world, it was like a plague—they just destroyed everything in front of them, it was kind of like Genghis Khan or something. They fought differently, they fought much more brutally, they had better technology—and they essentially wiped everything else out.92

    The American continent’s a good example. How come everybody around here has a white face, and not a red face? Well, it’s because the people with the white faces were savages, and they killed the people with red faces. When the British and other colonists came to this continent, they simply destroyed everything—and pretty much the same thing happened everywhere else in the world. You go back to about the sixteenth century and the populations of Africa and Europe were approximately comparable; a couple centuries later, the population of Europe was far higher, maybe four times as high. Why did that change? Well, you know, those were the effects of European colonization.93
    So the process of colonization was extraordinarily destructive, and it in turn imposed the European nation-state system on the world, kind of a reflection of internal European society, which of course was always extremely hierarchical and unequal and brutal. And if that system continues, I suppose it will continue to be hierarchical and unequal and brutal.
    So I think other forms of social organization have to be developed—and those forms are not too difficult to imagine. I mean, the United Nations was an attempt to do something about it, but it didn’t work, because the superpowers won’t let it work. International law is the same story. International law is a method by which you might regulate the aggressive and destructive tendencies of the nation-state—the trouble is, international law doesn’t have a police force: there are no Martians around to enforce it. So international law will only work if the powers subjected to it are willing to accept it, and the United States is not willing to accept it. If the World Court condemns us, we simply disregard it, it’s not our problem—we’re above the law, we’re a lawless state.94 And as long as the major powers in the world are lawless and violent, and are unwilling to enter into international arrangements or other kinds of mechanisms which would constrain force and violence, there’s very little hope for human survival, I would think.

    Now, my own feeling—I mean, big story—is that the reasons for all of this have to do with the way that power is concentrated inside the particular societies; that’s the source of this extreme violence in the world. Remember that every existing social system has a vast disparity of power internally. Take the United States: the United States was not founded on the principle that “the people” ought to rule—that’s freshman Civics, it’s not what happened in history. If you look back at the actual record, you’ll find that the principles of the American Founding Fathers were quite different.
    Keep in mind, all of the Founding Fathers hated democracy—Thomas Jefferson was a partial exception, but only partial. For the most part, they hated democracy. The principles of the Founding Fathers were rather nicely expressed by John Jay, the head of the Constitutional Convention and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His favorite maxim was, “The people who own the country ought to govern it”—that’s the principle on which the United States was founded.95 The major framer of the Constitution, James Madison, emphasized very clearly in the debates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that the whole system must be designed, as he put it, “to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority”—that’s the primary purpose of the government, he said.96
    Now, Madison had kind of a theory behind that, which was that the “minority of the opulent” would be elevated Enlightenment gentlemen, who would act like some kind of ancient Roman republicans of his imagination—benevolent philosophers who would use their opulence to benefit everybody in the country. But he himself quickly recognized that that was a serious delusion, and within about ten years he was bitterly denouncing what he called the “daring depravity of the times” as “the minority of the opulent” were using their power to smash everyone else in the face.

    In fact, still in the eighteenth century, Madison made some insightful comments about the interactions between state power and private power. He said, we’ve designed a system in which the “stock-jobbers” (what we would today call investors) are simply using state power for their own ends—we thought we were going to create a system which would put enlightened gentlemen in control so that they would protect everyone from the tyranny of the majority, but instead what we’ve got is gangsters in control using state power for their own benefit.97
    Well, that’s the way the system was originally designed in the United States—and over the next two centuries, that basic design hasn’t changed a lot. The “minority of the opulent,” who share a very definite class interest, still have control of the government institutions, both the parliament and the Executive, while the general population remains highly dispersed, separated, and as Madison also recommended, fragmented so that people will not be able to unite together to identify and press their interests.98 And the principle that “The people who own the country ought to govern it” continues to be the dominant feature of American politics.
    Alright, it’s not a very big secret who owns the country: you look at the “Fortune 500” every year and you figure out pretty well who owns the country. The country is basically owned by a network of conglomerates that control production and investment and banking and so on, and are tightly inter-linked and very highly concentrated—they own the country. And the principle of American democracy is that they also ought to govern it. And to a very large extent, they do. Now, whenever you have a concentration of power like that, you can be certain that the people who have the power are going to try to maximize it—and they’re going to maximize it at the expense of others, both in their own country and abroad. And that’s just an unviable system, I think.
    Let’s put international violence aside for a minute and take environmental issues, which people are finally beginning to look at. Well, it’s been obvious for centuries that capitalism is going to self-destruct: that’s just inherent in the logic of system—because to the extent that a system is capitalist, that means maximizing short-term profit and not being concerned with long-term effects. In fact, the motto of capitalism was, “private vices, public benefits”—somehow it’s gonna work out. Well, it doesn’t work out, and it’s never going to work out: if you’re maximizing short-term profits without concern for the long-term effects, you are going to destroy the environment, for one thing. I mean, you can pretend up to a certain point that the world has infinite resources and that it’s an infinite wastebasket—but at some point you’re going to run into the reality, which is that that isn’t true.
    Well, we’re running into that reality now—and it’s very profound. Take something like combustion: anything you burn, no matter what it is, is increasing the greenhouse effect—and this was known to scientists decades ago, they knew exactly what was happening.99 But in a capitalist system, you don’t care about long-term effects like that, what you have to care about is tomorrow’s profits. So the greenhouse effect has been building for years, and there’s no known technological fix on the horizon—there may not be any answer to this, it could be so serious that there’s no remedy. That’s possible, and then human beings will turn out to have been a lethal mutation, which maybe destroys a lot of life with us. Or it could be that there’s some way of fixing it, or some ameliorating way—nobody knows.
    But just keep in mind what we’re dealing with: the predictable effect of an increase in the world’s temperature through the greenhouse effect will be to raise the sea level, and if the sea level begins to rise a few feet, it’s not clear that human civilization can continue. A lot of the agricultural lands, for example, are alluvial—they’re near the seas. Industrial centers, like New York City, could be inundated. The climate is going to change, so the agricultural-producing areas of the United States could become dust-bowls. And when these changes start to be recognized, they’re going to set into motion social conflict of a sort that we can’t even imagine—I mean, if it turns out that agricultural areas in the United States are becoming unviable and that Siberia is becoming the next great agricultural producer, do you think that American planners are going to allow the Russians to use it? We’ll conquer it, even if we have to destroy the world in a nuclear war to do it. That’s the way they think, and have always thought. And those conflicts are going to be growing up all over the world—you can’t even predict what they’ll be like.
    Alright, right now we do not have the forms of internal democracy or international organization which will allow us even to begin to cope with these sorts of problems. The very concept of social planning, of rational planning for human concerns—that’s regarded as virtually subversive. And that’s the only thing that could possibly save people: rational social planning, carried out by accountable people representing the whole population rather than business elites. Democracy, in other words—that’s a concept we don’t have.

footnotes to above excerpt:

    92. On the savagery of European colonial expansion, see chapter 4 of U.P. and its footnote 72.  On the general cultural level of Western Europe at the outset of the colonial period, see for example, Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, New York: Norton, 1975. An excerpt (p. 3):

The Atlantic coast countries [of Europe] destined for overseas empire had little of Italy's artistic splendor or intellectual boldness. Spain and Portugal were deeply steeped in feudal institutions and customs. France's kings had only just won their long, debilitating contests with the kings of England and the dukes of Burgundy, and in England the Tudors had just begun to salvage what remained from the Wars of the Roses. However much may now be seen of germs and origins of modern times, the peoples of the springboard societies of western Europe knew only what they had grown up with, and that was still feudal in conception, in conduct, and in expectation. When the Europeans began their astounding voyages to dazzling "new" worlds, they could carry only the freight they possessed; the ideas and institutions with which they conquered and colonized were the same they knew at home. On a thousand frontiers Europeans used the technology of superior ships and guns to gain beachheads; then they imposed on top of indigenous societies the devices best understood by the conquerors.
    93. On the approximate populations of Europe and Africa at the start of colonization and centuries later, see for example, Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible -- Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I, New York: Harper and Row, 1979 (translation from the French 1981), p. 42 (citing population estimates for 1650 of 100 million in Africa and 100-103 million in Europe; for 1750 of 100 million in Africa and 140-144 million in Europe; for 1800 of 100 million in Africa and 187 million in Europe; for 1850 of 100 million in Africa and 266-274 million in Europe; and for 1900 of 120 million in Africa and 401-423 million in Europe. Note that Braudel himself questions the early estimates of 100 million for Africa).

    94. On U.S. dismissal of the World Court's condemnation, see chapter 3 of U.P. and its footnotes 43, 44 and 45.
    95. On John Jay's maxim, see the biography by Frank Monaghan, John Jay: Defender of Liberty, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935, p. 323.
    96. For James Madison's statements, see Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 1787 ("Yates's Minutes"), Philadelphia: Lippincott, 2nd edition, 1836 (reprinted in facsimile 1937). Madison argued (p. 450):

In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The Senate, therefore, ought to be this body.

    Similarly, Madison declared ("James Madison: Note to his Speech on the Right of Suffrage," in Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966, Vol. III, p. 452):

An obvious and permanent division of every people is into owners of the Soil, and the other inhabitants. In a certain sense, the Country may be said to belong to the former. . . . Whatever may be the rights of others derived from their birth in the Country, from their interest in the high ways & other parcels left open for common use as well, as in the national Edifices and monuments; from their share in the public defence, and from their concurrent support of the Govt., it would seem unreasonable to extend the right so far as to give them when become the majority, a power of Legislation over the landed property without the consent of the proprietors.
    In a June 1787 speech, perhaps influenced by Shays's rebellion a 1786-87 armed rebellion by debt-ridden Massachusetts farmers that was suppressed by force – Madison gave the following warning (Richard Matthews, If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995, p. 80):

In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we shd. not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, & secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the laws of equal suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in this Country, but symptoms of a levelling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in a certain quarters [sic] to give warning of the future danger.
Madison elaborated further on this fear in 1829, commenting (p. 210):

That proportion being without property, or the hope of acquiring it, cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with its rights, to be safe depositories of power over them.
    The most careful scholarly analysis concludes (Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism: The Madisonian Framework and its Legacy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 66):

In 1787 the importance of the rights of persons and the right to participate in the making of the laws were assumptions in the back of Madison's mind. The protection of property was the object he held steadily before him as he worked on the Constitution. This focus cast "the people," the future majority, in the role of a problem to be contained, and tipped the balance among the competing values he sought to implement.
The author notes that the same conception was accepted as a matter of course by almost all of the Framers, James Wilson being "the only one who declared that property was not the object of government" and "gave priority to what was seen by his colleagues as the major threat to property: the political liberty of the people" (p. 96). Chomsky adds that Thomas Jefferson took a similar position, but he had no direct role in these deliberations.
    See also, Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, New York: Norton, 1969, pp. 513-514 ("The Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period," delivering power to a "better sort" of people and excluding "those who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political power"); Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995, p. 245 (the author, who strongly affirms Madison's dedication to popular rule, nevertheless concurs with Gordon Wood's assessment of the Constitutional design, quoted above).

    97. On Madison's original assumptions and his subsequent recognition of their
delusional nature, see for example, Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism: The Madisonian Framework and its Legacy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 42-51; Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995, p. 203; Richard Matthews, If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995, pp. 184, 189 n.32; Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977, Vol. 10, p. 213 (Madison's language about the "enlightened Statesman, or the benevolent philosopher," was from a 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson).
    These scholars recount Madison's hope that it would be the "enlightened Statesman" and "benevolent philosopher" who would share in the exercise of power in the political system he designed. Ideally "pure and noble," these "men of intelligence, patriotism, property and independent circumstances" would be a "chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interests of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations." They would thus "refine" and "enlarge" the "public views," guarding the public interest against the "mischiefs" of democratic majorities.
    Madison soon learned differently, and by 1792 he warned that the Hamiltonian developmental capitalist state would be a government "substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty," leading to "a real domination of the few under an apparent liberty of the many." As Madison put it in a letter to Jefferson (Nedelsky, pp. 44-45):

[M]y imagination will not attempt to set bounds to the daring depravity of the times. The stock-jobbers will become the pretorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses and overawing it by its clamours and combinations.
    98. For Madison's recommendation that the population should always remain fragmented, see his famous Federalist Paper No. 10, first published in 1788. An excerpt:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. . . . To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of [a majoritarian] faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. . . . By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. . . . Extend the sphere [of the society] and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other. . . .
    The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it.
    99. On scientists' warnings about the greenhouse effect in the early 1970s, see for example footnote 46 of chapter 2 of U.P.

Above excerpt from “Chapter Eight: Popular Struggle.”
Chomsky, Noam, et al. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. The New Press, New York, 2002, pp. 313-317.

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Complete explanatory footnotes: