Balkanize Now

By Crispin Sartwell

As we attempt to cobble Afghanistan back together into a single nation, negotiating between Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazaras, it's worth asking why.

Afghanistan was artificially defined by the British in the late nineteenth century. There is no reason why it ought to be a united country. Let it fall apart into tribal fiefs, I say.

In fact, most of the nations of the world ought to disintegrate. Everyone should have their own country. Free the Basques, the Palestinians, the Kurds, the Irish Catholics, me. I'd like to see Texas secede from the Union, after which we could establish cordial trade relations. Cut loose the Nation of Islam. Create a homeland in Wisconsin for lesbian separatists.

What the world needs now is a big old dose of Balkanization. I'm talking about real progress: a return to tribalism, ethnicity, race, eccentric little religions that worship the Great God Yottle: the omnipotent, omnipresent hunk of bronze. No nation should be larger than, say, Andorra.

Actually, I'm pretty serious about this. The modern nation state is not the only possible form of human organization. And it has an abysmal historical record of war, imperialism, oppression, and genocide.

The leaders of the world and the media speak as though it is self-evident that the organization of the planet into large nations is desirable. But most areas of the world for most of human history have not been organized into nations. The family, the tribe, the city-state, and so on, have given good service. And though they've had their problems, you can't blame them for world wars or systematic holocausts. Those possibilities emerge with centralized state power.

Surely the mega-economies and megastates of the current era are not more efficient, less brutal, less exploitative or, all in all, more desirable than various smaller-scale alternatives. The disintegration of Afghanistan into a conflict of brutal warlords was the result of the continual intervention of the nations of the surrounding area, especially Russia, and of the world, including us.

There is a moment for consolidation and a moment for disintegration, and after a twentieth century devoted to the megastate and overflowing with blood, disintegration is an idea whose time has come again.

The Balkans themselves were swept through the century by various powers attempting to impose on them an artificial unity, from Stalin, to Tito, to Milosevic. Balkanization must be looking pretty good at this point.

Intolerance is of course a deep problem in human history, and one that we're nowhere close to solving. But combine intolerance with a huge military machine and a huge apparatus for gathering revenue and you have the nightmares that characterize the history of the twentieth century.

Europe, which moved to a single currency on January 1st, seems eager to tear up the incredible panoply of diverse cultures it has achieved and merge into a single economy and thence into a single state governed by the, um, almighty Euro. Or we should say that some of the leaders of the nations are eager: various local communities and constituencies are considerably less enthusiastic.

That the American colonies united allowed us to gain our independence from Britain, but it also allowed us to overrun the native peoples of the continent at an incalculable human loss. And native peoples of the world - in Australia, in southern Africa, in South America, in Japan - have been systematically destroyed by the nation-state.

Russia would rather reduce Chechnya to rubble and kill everybody than allow the formation of an independent Islamic region.

China cannot tolerate the beautiful, ancient, and profound culture of Tibet, and is bent on its destruction, to the great loss of everyone who lives on the planet..

We can talk about global economy and global polity all we like; we can repeat like a mantra that "the world is getting smaller." That is merely code for cultural annihilation, for the idea that our culture of corporate logos and pop princesses should be all there is, ever again.

If the world gets any smaller than it is already, I'm going to drop it into my pocket with the rest of my marbles and go home.


Crispin Sartwell ( teaches pohilosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.