An article commissioned by Islam Hoy
Once when a child, my father took me to a small town in Northern Ireland to a point in the road where two different types of tarmac met. He stood me with one foot on one type of tarmac and one foot on the other and said, “Now you are standing both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, in two countries at the same time.” Those were innocent times long before the ‘troubles’ and long long before the entire debacle around whether the UK could leave the European Union and how it could achieve that, in which the Northern Irish border and the famous ‘backstop’ play a central role.
So perhaps it is appropriate to ask here ‘What is a border?’ and, since the answer will be ‘It is a line demarcating where two nations meet’, then the question ‘What is a nation?’ From that we can then interrogate the issue here, ‘What is a supernational body like the EU and why would a nation like the UK want to leave it?’
To answer the question ‘what is a nation?’, and particularly ‘what is a nation-state?’, we probably need to go back to the beginning, which is often the best place to start, although in this case we must limit ourselves and start in classical times. Our questions are ‘political’ questions, and that word, which derives from polis whose plural is poleis – city or city-state, sends us back to the ancient Greeks. It is easy to overemphasise the democratic credentials of the Greeks, as more and more populists, such as Britain’s strongly pro-Brexit prime minister Boris Johnson, are wont to do.1 But painting with very broad brush strokes, the poleis, of which there were approximately 1500 scattered over a vast area often far from Greece proper,2 formed a loose confederation of more-or-less independent and autonomous polities (also from polis), in which it was assumed that free men (not women, foreigners or slaves) had a say in the direction of public affairs. Out of this milieu arose the idea of a written constitution – Aristotle wrote a number of them, particularly for Athens. One of the key political works was Plato’s Politeia (The Republic), a name also derived from polis.
The Greeks were superseded by another force, the Roman Republic, which rather than adopting the idea of the free citizen having a direct voice, tried to balance the interests of a wide variety of voices and groups of people through a complex of bodies and gatherings and their various representatives, with office-holders who were time limited, often to a year or two in office.3 For a variety of reasons too complicated to enter into here, the Republic was later seized by ambitious men and became the Roman Empire.4 Clearly these are not merely theoretical and philosophical issues since everyone cites the Greeks when talking about governance and democracy, and a certain Republic straddles the world today as the major hegemon of our time, and it could well be that an aspect of our Brexit story is that it is a wrecking sortie by operatives on behalf of the US. Knut Hamsun said, “Nothing comes from a single cause, but from many”5, so we must expect that a number of threads are necessary to weave this fabric, or rather a number of actors and factors are necessary to tear it to shreds.
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, Europe would go through its own unique history with various permutations of monarchies and what we call feudalism and with the Roman Catholic Church to some extent continuing the legacy of the Empire by other means. By the way, ‘Europa’ is a semitic name almost identical to the Arabic ghurouba both meaning ‘the West’ or the ‘setting of the sun’ – named after a princess abducted by Zeus from the Hamitic peoples in Lebanon who are ancestors to the Phoenicians of Carthage the descendants of her brother Phoenix. Her other brother Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, is claimed by the Greeks as the one who taught them how to write, the alphabet being the alpha-beta derived from the old Semitic abjad or alif, b?’, j?m, d?l.
Europe has, however, another genesis of its self-identification. With its access to pilgrimage to Jerusalem severely limited by the Crusades and subsequent confrontations with the Muslims, European Christians set up another locus of pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela where they converged from all over the continent giving rise to the idea not only of a distinct type of European Christendom but also the idea of Europe per se, which is by definition NOT-Islam. That gives us an insight into the otherwise inexplicable and quite irrational anti-Muslim rhetoric of the media and political class today.
By a series of events, misnamed the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, all of which are nakedly propagandist nomenclature, Europe gave birth to the modern idea of the nation and then to the nation-state. The former has a variety of definitions often involving an ethnic/linguistic component which has almost always meant that the nation-state would be a genocidal venture – witness La Vendée during the French Revolution and the attempt to liquidate its pe0ple,6 the breakup of the Osmanl? polity in the Balkans with all parties to it reaching out to form nation-states and liquidating those who didn’t fit in,7 modern Israel which is not an anomalous exception but a demonstration of our thesis, the Chinese state’s attempt to extirpate the Uighurs, the Rohingya, Indian activities in Kashmir and so on.
The nation-state was genocidal internally and constantly at war externally, leading to the two terrible world wars of the twentieth century, which have also been described as a single European civil war. The political rationale for the European Union is that we simply cannot have European nation-states ever again at each others’ throats. The UK undermining that by Brexiting causes deep anxiety in Europe. Conversely the UK’s absorption into a European superstate causes, perhaps understandably, greater anxiety in the island nation.
But a lament about the modern world is neither interesting nor useful. Where things become interesting is when one begins to look at property and money, in this case taxes. Arguably among the purposes of governance is to redress the imbalance between the people of property and the poor, and it has historically done that by taking taxes from the former and giving to the latter, since the former have more than they need and the latter do not have what they need. Another duty of governance is to regulate the market and ensure that it is a level playing field, so to speak, and that it is free of unjust and usurious transactions (the same thing), in order also that the needy can earn what they need along with everyone else. These two matters are intimately connected.
Retracing our steps, we see that the rise of the nation-state in Europe was also a part of the rise of the propertied class, who were a kind of ‘middle class’ between old landed-property and the masses. This middle class proclaimed the rights of ‘the people’ but really was only out after its own ends,8 which when it achieved them it ditched the masses of the ordinary people and left them to their poverty. The twentieth century is then the playing out of the contest between these various interests, the old landed groups, the new propertied class who are inextricably tied to usury and banking, and the masses of ordinary people. For a brief period, the state to some extent trapped ‘finance’ and ‘property’ within national boundaries and taxed them, from the proceeds of which it erected our modern welfare states. But finance had strategies to escape this to-them onerous taxation, and it invented globalisation, particularly the so-called Big Bang, which was the deregulation of financial markets effected by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, deregulation meaning that governance gave up one more of its primary functions i.e. to regulate the market and keep it free of injustice and usury. Add to that the Internet, which for the masses means free pornography, Wikipedia and social media, but for the élite means the ability for digital impulses, that we in our delusional psychosis called capitalism think of as money, to move rapidly around global networks beyond the reach of any national government or police. Add to that off-shore banking which enabled corporations and the super-wealthy to escape taxation entirely and to leave the rest to pay steadily increasing taxes on their diminishing incomes in order to maintain a state structure that was ballooning out of all proportion.9
In all of this, the d-UK (dis-United Kingdom, or possibly dysfunctional United Kingdom) was redesigned as a major pivot of off-shore banking10 and, after a number of high-profile actions to impose limits on corporate capitalist bodies by the EU, and with it set to legislate in 2020 that all off-shore accounts be declared, Brexit has been designed by global capital for a number of intermeshing purposes, first and foremost to escape European taxation and regulation and to deal a blow to the European order that dares to tax and regulate them.
A part of that strategy is the UK acting as ‘disaster-capitalism’s suicide bomber in the heart of Europe’. In other words, the target is dual: both the UK and Europe. Naomi Klein11 makes the compelling case that disaster capitalism is poised both to take advantage of natural catastrophes and other such occurrences to advance aims it could not achieve by ordinary means as well as to create havoc to that end, on the theory that destruction is itself a kind of creative act and that a new order will spontaneously arise out of the destruction of the old and if not can be helped and guided to the sought-after ends. Thus, in this scenario, the UK’s political class are witting or un-witting accomplices both to the destruction of the UK – Scotland and Northern Ireland may well break away from the Union, and England descend into anarchic civil strife between classes and races – and to the destruction of the ‘European idea’, for, as the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other hardliners realise, the UK’s 67.5 million population is a substantial market for European firms and its loss will be a major blow to Europe, as will the loss of its contributions which comprise a substantial part of the EU budget. However, as Iraq and numerous other examples have shown, disaster capitalism is simply disastrous and has no creativity upside at all. No new order arises spontaneously from its destructiveness.
So my questions are: who will question the need for the controlling income-taxing state as we know it, and instead assert the very real need for governance to limit, regulate and tax finance and property? Who will question the need for the state’s multiplying taxes on income earners and demands for funds and its mega-projects? There are many who will engage in the melee of democratic politics in order to gain their share of the cake. There are many who will complain bitterly about their own taxation and rejoice if it is reduced and weep if it is increased, but who will question the need for income taxes and value-added taxes at all? Both these taxes are forbidden by the shar?‘ah of Islam. Under Muslim governance, it is wealth and property that are taxed, both for Muslims, for whom the only tax is zak?h which may not be used for state purposes, and for non-Muslims, who instead of zak?h pay a comparable tax on land and a poll-tax.
As to the jingoistic and xenophobic themes in the populace at large and in the Brexit campaign, just as in the 18th and 19th centuries the rising propertied class used the cry ‘the people!’ to advance their own ends, today they use people’s understandable disenchantment with the weaponised immigrants and refugees12 destabilising their own societies to those same ends.
But it is done. The endless tussle ended. The UK is even more disunited and dysfunctional than ever. The divisions exposed by Brexit are more pronounced and bitter. But one has to live with that as the new reality.
So what to do? We have a hint in the story of the polis and its part in the rise of the nation-state. The Muslims translated polis as madina. The madina was always comprised of a plethora or ethnicities, and was multi-confessional except in the Madina al-Munawwara of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, which along with Makka has the status of a ?aram sanctuary permitted only to Muslims. The entire trajectory of nationhood from the Greeks, the Romans and the ‘modern’ era has reached an end and is descending into mayhem, with thinking people seeing that the short-lived experiment with endlessly manipulable democracy is over, and that the future will increasingly see autocracies and various anarchic crazies. It is time for us to grasp the outward, the inward and the hidden of this matter,13 and to look to the Madinan order as a new beginning for mankind after the dark ages of modernity. The Madinan order is scalable. It can exist in a group of three, thirty, a thousand, a million, or a billion, in the cities or in the country, in the West as much as the East. It is neither autocratic nor subject to the manipulation that democracies are, but based both on command and consultation at every level of the society.14 It does not depend on seizure of the state nor the imposition of taxes on the masses in their incomes and on their trade. It is a brotherhood and sisterhood that effortlessly crosses every border.
2 Mogens Herman Hansen and Thomas Heine Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis.
3 Adam Ferguson, The History of the Roman Republic.
4 Ian Dallas treats the later Roman emperors in his The Engines of the Broken World.
5 Knut Hamsun, The Growth of the Soil. Chapter 30. Translated by W. W. Worster, available as an e-text from http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/h/h23g/h23g.html
6 Ian Dallas, The Time of the Bedouin.
8 Harold Laski, The Rise of European Liberalism.
9 A brilliant overview of many of these themes is in this article by Rana Dasgupta: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/apr/05/demise-of-the-nation-state-rana-dasgupta
10 Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands.
11 In her impeccably researched The Shock Doctrine and in a lesser-known article ‘Baghdad year zero – Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neocon utopia’ https://harpers.org/archive/2004/09/baghdad-year-zero/
12 Weapons of Mass Migration – Kelly M. Greenhill. The author demonstrates how external actors, often other states, weaponise refugees and target them at competitor states to cause them damage.
13 Ian Dallas, The Entire City
14 Aisha Bewley, Democratic Tyranny and the Islamic Paradigm.