The spectacular appearance of the brand new nation might seem off- script or even plain ironic to those familiar with the story of globalisation – like a late-twentieth-century shorthand for the unhindered movement of capital, labor, goods, and people – and the opening up of the world. Weren’t we once told that the nation-state had been made “obsolete,” a superfluous political artefact in the age of globalisation? And that the nation-state was standing on “its last legs,” faced as it was with “crisis” and potential demise?
Recall how the euphoric triumph in the 1990s of liberalism at the “end of history” had ushered in the seemingly unstoppable force of globalisation and in the process brought world areas previously closed to global capital into the fold of free markets. The global nature of this capitalist transformation was produced in the language of accelerated mobility – of flows, movement, inter- connections, fluidity, networks, transnationalism, deterritorialisation, and cosmopolitanism – and the infrastructures of cheaper air travel, ever-new media technologies, new modes of consumption, and digital connectivity. In this moment of interconnectedness, the bounded en- closure of the nation-state increasingly stood out as an anomaly.
The world in motion was moving toward denationalisation in search of a postnational world order, and whatever was left of the nation-state was the mere skin or the cracked casing of its former self, a vestige of an earlier age that was surplus to the age of unbridled capitalism.
But there’s a twist and then a turn in this story. Defying all predictions, the nation-form was refusing to disappear, even going in the exact opposite direction of the one that proponents of globalisation would have had us believe it would go. The moment the nation-state was being written out of the script of world politics was also the moment it was preparing to make a spectacular, highly choreographed comeback.
Simply put, the very thing that was supposed to have been effaced in the borderless, flat world of free markets was morphing into a lucrative resource in the capitalist transformation of the old third world. The nation-form was ready to make a fresh debut in the circuits of global economy, having been decked out in the new garb of an “attractive investment destination” and its cracked skin or casing having been tailored into a distinct corporate brand.
It wasn’t just India, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, or South Africa creating unique brand identities – the nation brands were everywhere. From Cool Japan; Creative Korea; Amazing Thailand; Wonderful Indonesia; Malaysia: Truly Asia; Russia: The Whole World Within; Azerbaijan: Land of Magical Colours; Australia Unlimited; 100% Pure: New Zealand; Brand Kenya: Make it Here; Remarkable Rwanda; Ghana: Uniquely Welcoming; and Turkey: Discover the Potential, to Miraculous China and Commercial Yiwu, the list is endless – and growing.
The second turn in the life of the nation-state is still unfolding. It is this: the age of globalisation is said to be on retreat. The structures of globalisation built on neoliberal economic interdependence appear to have reached their expiration date.
Once celebrated as the harbinger of the world of flows sans barrier, globalisation is now the object of political backlash in Europe and America. The ongoing nationalist challenge to borderless territories and free-trade blocks that enable the easy flow of capital and labor is a case in point. The double pressure of widening social inequality and northward immigration has created ground for populist measures to reclaim the nation-state and to erect a variety of barriers.
But what if we posit that the folding up of globalisation does not mean a collapse of capitalism as such? That the popular move toward neonationalism, or nation-first politics, does not weaken but instead strengthens the nation-state as a dominant player in global capital? And what if we suggest that the twenty-first-century nation-state is not a mere rerun of the original that unfolded in previous centuries but has undergone an altogether new makeover in the age of capital?
Put differently, we need to revert to an old (and overmined) question: What is a nation? Or more concretely, what kind of nation-form is emerging from the embers of late-twentieth-century globalisation, which saw the implosion of millennial capitalism amid volatile boom and busts, the return of identity politics, and the attendant dramatic flux rearranging the liberal world order?
I propose that the brand new nation – recrafted and repackaged as a branded enclosure for capital in the twenty-first century – has emerged from within the structures of unbridled free markets and centralised state governance and of the spectacular imagination of utopian dreamworlds in capitalist design.
This form emerged from an ongoing historical shift – the capitalist transformation of the nation-state wherein the logic of capital is the glue holding the nation and state together. The nation in this scheme is imagined as a vast enclosure of production, its territory a reserve of untapped natural resources, its population potential producers/consumers of goods and services, and its cultural essence a unique nation brand that distinguishes it from other investment destinations.
All of these can be capitalised (transformed) into income-generating assets. The state is the authority that manages the income-generating capacity of the national enclosure and holds the power to visualise, brand, legislate, and spatially rearrange the national enclosure as a market-ready investment destination.
The process of capitalisation – the packaging of the nation and its identity by the state as an exclusive commercial brand – is what binds the nation to the state. This process unfolds along a visual reterritorialisation of the national enclosure as a distinct economic zone and as a unified cultural-political identity.
The transformative work of the branding project lies not just in selling the nation to potential investors but also in the consecration of a particular form of state sovereignty – the visual power to celebrate the revitalised homeland and to see and show the national territory and its population as valuable factors of production available to global capital.
The critical point in the making of the visual territory of nation brands is this: to be featured in the visual frame of the nation brand and to be shown (or shown off) to the world is to be affirmed as an organic part of the nation. The questions of economy, politics, and publicity remain deeply entangled in this visual reterritorialisation.
Who are the chosen people who inhabit the visual surface of the nation brand? Which cultural practices and ideas are left out of the frame, concealed from the eyes of the world? Who owns the nation and its natural and cultural possessions, and who has the power to capitalise these possessions?
The visual frame of the nation brand is a form of public recognition of the nation’s cultural essence, the unique difference that acquires legitimacy precisely by being chosen for illumination by the state. Put differently, the state asserts its power by claiming proprietary control over the material and cultural possessions of the nation and, more importantly, the power to market them. The brand new nation reveals the close kinship between identity economy and identity politics and between publicity and populism at the heart of the ongoing rearrangement of the liberal political order.
I do not mean to suggest that capitalisation of the nation is a smooth, uncontested operation. In fact, it opens space for political contestations, albeit of a specific kind. Witness here a field of politics that emerges through the brand – a volatile enactment of (neo)liberal statecraft and illiberal nationalism that feeds off of and further authenticates populist notions of an organic nation and the blood-and-soil purity of its inhabitants.
The brand boosts the populist entanglements between corporeal and affective matters as a solution to economic problems faced by the people even as it generates extraeconomic reification of hypernationalist pride. What aggravates political volatility is the populist competitiveness between the state and its opponents – inasmuch as the state seeks legitimacy as an efficient brand manager of the nation and its opponents accuse it of not having performed that function well enough, of having failed the people. The economic success of the brand is what potentially enables extraeconomic agendas to be implemented.
That the brand itself is inherently unstable, forever shaped by the excess of meaning it produces and even by counterfeit versions, means that such politics is almost always vulnerable to contingency. Nevertheless, the logic of the brand has by now filtered through the structures of power and governance – the nation is not just branded but actually turned into a territorial container of branded regions, provinces, and cities that compete to attract investments.
Termed competitive federalism, this form of governance lives off a system of constant auditing and rankings that rewards and humiliates regions on the ease-of-doing-business criterion and the size of capital flows to boost economic growth. The capitalisation of the nation brand is the magical formula that promises to unleash the authentic national spirit and, in the case of the old third world, even cleanse the shame of colonial subjugation that has long defined its place in the world. In short, to be discovered as an attractive investment destination in the world economy is to be affirmed as a proper nation in the early-twenty-first-century world order.
Excerpted with permission from Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India, Ravinder Kaur, HarperBusiness.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.