The Elephant is the Room, pt 1
The origins of borders, passports, and the nation state
“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.” ― Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century
Never has Proudhon’s description rang truer than today. Proudhon couldn’t have imagined the extraordinary extent by which modern technology and capitalism has enabled an unprecedented amount of control and surveillance over our lives (aka surveillance capitalism). How did we get here and is there a way out of here, is the subject of this series of posts.
The Ubiquity of the Nation State
The nation state is to contemporary humans what the sea is to fish: It's hard to imagine life outside it. There are few places and circumstances in the world where contemporary humans can feel how it is to live outside the nation state. Remote wilderness (deserts, jungles, deep caves, etc.), the polar regions, and the open sea ― barring outer space ― are some of the few places available on earth where we can recover the feeling of what it means to be free and far from any probable intervention of the nation state. Yet the nation state and its borders are a relatively modern invention, usually traced to the Peace of Westphalia treaties in 1648, with passports as we use and understand them today only making their appearance in the 20th century.
Borders and Passports
Modern passports for individuals were only instituted in 1920in the aftermath of the First World War. Before 1920, especially if you were an individual instead of a merchant carrying goods, other than for some notable exceptions, if you wanted to go somewhere, provided you were not a slave, you just went. That doesn’t mean such journeys were without risk or that you would be granted entrance wherever you went. Territories between city states that were not farmlands or hunting grounds were often the home of brigands who would often rob travelers, and earlier versions of the passport were literally papers that would grant you safe passage and permission to enter through the city gates.
Primitive borders started making their appearance after segments of humanity became sedentary and needed to delineate and protect their farmlands. In fact, the invention of geometry in Egypt is attributed to the need “to preserve the layout and ownership of farmland, which was flooded annually by the Nile river”. However, even when the purpose was not specifically to protect farmland or cities, such borders were defensive rather than political in nature, in that they were not mutually acknowledged through signed treaty by all relevant parties, let alone a global organization like the United Nations, but simply recognized by the people that enforced them. The Qin Empire that built the Great Wall of China and the Roman Empire that built Hadrian’s Wall, did not reach any agreement with the tribes of the Eurasian Steppe or of Caledonia respectively before proceeding to build, but these constructions simply became de facto borders by the unilateral action of those who built them. As a result borders changed frequently, like the following map of borders in Europe between 1000 to 2000 demonstrates.
According to one geographer, the first boundary delimited by treaty occurred in 843 CE, “when Charlemagne’s three grandsons divided their grandfather’s empire; however, no clear demarcation on the ground was made”. Until the fateful year of 1648, the only border that was jointly agreed, written into a signed charter, and marked on the ground was between the people of Andorra and France dating back to September 8, 1278. However, the generally agreed date for the invention of borders occurs with the treaties that usher the modern age and bring about the Peace of Westphalia at 1648.
It is important to note that before those treaties, allegiances played a larger role than position in contiguous territory:
The feudal system was based on much more fluid relations between power and territory than in the first empires, because the vassal’s observance of hierarchical subordination to his lord was by far more important than control of any territory. The vassal was subject to several authorities, whose territories sometimes overlapped or were physically distant.
The Peace of Westphalia & its Consequences
The Peace of Westphalia came after the Thirty Years' War which was “one of the most destructive wars in European history, it caused an estimated 4.5 to 8 million deaths, while some areas of Germany experienced population declines of over 50%”. During that war the different parties would often not maintain sufficiently large standing armies, so they would often hire professional mercenaries. When for some reason or another they were unable to pay them or whatever lands they could bestow could not translate into immediate sustenance or enough liquidity for the mercenaries, the mercenaries would simply pillage and plunder to make up for the difference. After 30 years of bloody warfare the warring parties came together to negotiate peace treaties and establish a new order.
The new order that was established was based
…on the principle cuius regio eius religio, which recognized the prince’s right to impose his religion on his subjects, that is, the right to exercise his supreme and exclusive authority (political, fiscal, judicial, and military [aka the principle of sovereignty]) within a given geographical area, without interference of other states.
This is what enabled what we now call the monopoly of violence which the sociologist Max Weber made it one of the defining characteristics of the state:
Weber describes the state as any organization that succeeds in holding the exclusive right to use, threaten, or authorize physical force against residents of its territory. Such a monopoly, according to Weber, must occur via a process of legitimation.
We will talk about the importance of processes of legitimation later. Needless to say once the treaties were signed it became crucial to delineate that territory in which the monopoly of violence could be exercised.
From a geographical point of view, the first corollary of the principle of sovereignty was an urgent need to establish clear dividing lines among princely territories, which set off a race for borders aiming at extending them and, at the same time, homogenizing the peoples within them. The subjects of the same prince had to be able to recognize each other, understand each other, and obey the same distinctive characteristics and the same laws. In short, they had to become—even if the word only appeared much later—a nation.
This technocratic requirement, though it made possible the development of domestic capitalist markets for European nations, had catastrophic future consequences the effects of which we’re still experiencing today. For example, notice how it relates to the war in Ukraine via this brilliant thread by Kamil Galeev:
A key insight from this thread is the realization that diversity is our natural state:
To demonstrate this, Galeev uses a linguistic map of Anatolia in 1910:
The Ottoman Empire exhibited a lack of willingness to homogenize everyone living within its borders which led to its lands being incredibly diverse. However, once the requirements of Westphalian style nationalism were applied, the entire region turned into chaos prompting ethnic cleansing and the traumatic uprooting and displacement of millions of people:
This is why he issues us a warning:
End of Part 1. In future parts of this series we’ll continue listing some additional consequences of the nation state as conceptualized after the Peace of Westphalia, critically consider its limitations, and try to envision alternatives that can generate a better future for us all.
Numinous Quest is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber and help me transition to a full-time writer.
William Gordon East, in his The Geography behind History: How Physical Environment Affects Historical Events, New York: Norton, 1967.
From What is a Border? by Manlio Graziano, p. 13, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.
From The Oldest, The Longest, The Weirdest: A Brief History of Land Borders, Literary Hub.
From What is a Border? by Manlio Graziano, p. 14, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.
From What is a Border? by Manlio Graziano, p. 15, content in square brackets mine, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.
From What is a Border? by Manlio Graziano, p. 16, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.
“Because capitalism demands constant growth in order to survive, the need to expand the market beyond national borders soon collided with the symmetrical need to defend the national market’s borders…According to the “inventor” of geopolitics, Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), the state is a living species, which therefore requires its own living space (Lebensraum); only those who are able to conquer such space will be successful in the ruthless struggle for political survival. It is no coincidence that, as Ernest Gellner puts it, “the most violent phase of nationalism is that which accompanies early industrialism, and the diffusion of industrialism.” From Napoleon to Yalta, nation-states fought almost continuously to extend their boundaries, dragging the rest of the world into their wars—and into the deadly illusion that the invention of the nation is the ticket to well-being.” from What is a Border? by Manlio Graziano, p. 16, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.
From the next tweet by Kamil Galeev on that thread. That, of course, did not mean that the different religious minorities within the Ottoman Empire had equal rights. For example, “The Ottoman judicial system institutionalized a number of biases against non-Muslims, such as barring non-Muslims from testifying as witnesses against Muslims” from Wikipedia’s entry on Ottoman Law. However it is worth noting that “The jurisdictional complexity of the Ottoman Empire was aimed to permit the integration of culturally and religiously different groups” (quote comes from the same article on Ottoman Law in Wikipedia). That being said, practices like the recruitment of Janissaries, the “system of child levy, by which Albanians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Croats, Greeks, and Serbs were taken, levied, subjected to circumcision and conversion to Islam, and incorporated into the Ottoman army” would be seen as extraordinarily unethical and cruel judged by contemporary sensibilities and hardly an example of tolerance towards minorities.
Including my grandparents that were Greeks that lived in Asia Minor but were forced to emigrate to mainland Greece with the exchange of populations in 1922. This was not an orderly process and included countless casualties. Among them, my grandfather’s father from my father’s side, forcibly taken and separated from his family in Ayvalik and executed by Turkish soldiers, as well as four siblings of my grandfather’s (from my mother’s side) that Turkish soldiers executed with bayonets and threw into the sea in front of my great grandmother during the evacuation of Smyrna.