Monday, August 08, 2016

Can There be a "Nation" without a "Constitution?"

Caution, I pretty much blew this one off without critical scrutiny or even rereading.  Hope it makes some sense.  I will, at a minimum, certify that I was t least stone sober, except for caffiene.

I suppose the kewl kids would sneer at my innocence but hey, the kewl kids don't read me anyway.  So,  for all the non-kewl out there somewhere, a question: can there be a nation without a constitution?  

Allow me to explain.  I was reading something the other night that mentioned a nation that "did not have a constitution."  In context, I think I understood what the author meant.  He was writing about 19C Century European revolutionaries who carried round pieces of paper with the words "human rights" in bold letters.  The kind of thing a public spirited citizen might wave at a Trump rally.

But is this definition sufficient, or even necessary?  We all know (of) nations whose "piece of paper" are a form of light entertainment (if in bad taste), having little or nothing to do with how the nation is governed.  Perhaps more tellingly, we Americans have grown up making uneasy jokes about Britain as a nation where they don't write their constitution down--a nation without a piece of paper, but still with a constitution.  

We have never felt clear about just exactly this can mean, but for purposes of comparison,  consider this example: must a language have a grammar?   On first thought, we can all remember grammar books, just as we might remember Miss Gooch (Sister Gooch?) with her ruler in the seventh grade, beating the rules into our impervious little skulls.  So, yes.  Language, grammar book, grammar.  Think a little harder, though, and we notice something important.  Languages have grammar long before there are language books.  AS grammar is a set of conventions that define the language.  The language is what the grammar is.  The written grammar--ah, that most often comes later.  Or perhaps, not at all.

So, a grammar tells us how the language is constituted, written or otherwise. And can't we now apply the same point to the nation?  The nation must be constituted somehow--else it wouldn't be a nation.  Am I right, or am I right?  And aren't there plenty of "constituted" nations that (like the Brits) do not have a "written constitution," but who are still nations (in the sense that they are "constituted") anyway?  Isn't it true that they have to have some sort of "constitution" (written or not)--else they wouldn't be nations at all?

I can think of at least one reason why it is so easy to miss this point.  That is: we tend to think of both "language" and "constitution" as imposed from the top, by some authority. Think the French Academy.  Or, sure, think the Supreme Court.  But both languages and "constitutions" can bubble up from below.  Matter of fact, as a half-relevant aside, I think this helps explain why Noam Chomsky the student of linguistics is also a professed anarchist.  He certainly understands that languages can bubble up from below.  And he seems to think something the same about the larger social framework.

I can think of another objection, perhaps more important, though I don't quite know how to deal with it.  That is: when those 19C hotheads talked about "constitution" and "rights," they meant, specifically, some sort of framework that would impose imitations on "the government"--that would allow a kind of "private" space where the king's writ did not run.  And their belief was you weren't going to get this kind of protection without a piece of paper  If that is the point, then I guess it is at least coherent, even attractive.  But you are still left with the question of how you define the "nation" aside which those protections operate.  

Quick final note: I blur the distinction between "nation" and "state."  Maybe I'll deal that one later.


Ebenezer Scrooge said...

It depends on what you mean by "nation." (I think I know what you mean by "constitution.")

Your basic thug-ocracy does not have a constitution, in your sense. It is only bound together by the henchmen's allegiance to their warlord, and the henchmen's power to command collective fear. There is no legitimacy whatsoever, apart from whatever it is that makes a henchman a henchman: usually threats and bribes. And if you're not a henchman, all there is is fear. Apart from this, the only constitution of such places is the warlord's health and desire. Constitutions--be they written or unwritten--legitimate. No legitimacy; no constitution.

This obviously describes some godforsaken hellholes on this planet today. (I think we can agree that meaningless written constitutions do not count.) It also, if you believe Jacob Burckhardt, described many Italian Renaissance cities, ruled by families who amused themselves by poisoning each other. The families may have had an internal constitution of sorts (families often do), but they were otherwise thugs, with no legitimacy as we would understand it today.

Buce said...

I think this may be something was struggling with when I admitted I hadn't distinguished 'nation' from' state. One again, I recognize that this i s another of the many topics on which I am unencumbered by real knowledge, but some thoughts.s

Anyway--as I wrote I wondered what I would do with the "polity" that is Tony Soprano? Is he part of a "nation"? Or is, he, perhaps, just sucking lifeblood out of a population which may or may not have identity? Saddam Husein, same question. Come to think of it, I suppose it is true that most "states" through history have existed for no worthier purpose. IN the ease, perhaps the thing to say is that the "nation" defines itself, if as and when it doe, by way of its opposition to the parasite in chief (example, 19C Europeans virus "the crown," however defined).

Slightly closer to your tone, I guess a lot of "polities" (weasel world) present the spectacle of elites scratching and clawing at a each other while the masses gape in astonishment. I think that was Syme's point about the Roman Republic--at least, what I took away from it.

A serious political theorist would chuckle indulgently and set me straight. Or not bother to set me straight.