The nation-state such as we know it now is a modern institution, its origins roughly traceable to the periods of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. Politics and state-craft mean something now which they did not mean in more traditional societies. Earlier on, in the 13th century, one sees a very different organization of political institutions, for example in France. In 13th century France, one does not see a whole and unified nation so much as a body of local regions governed by local jurisdictions with common boundaries. These jurisdictions may have been further unified under a higher, more universal jurisdiction, such as that of the king, but in a concrete sense the principle of subsidiarity manifested itself inasmuch as political activity occurred first and foremost in the context of the local jurisdictions.
To the modern political theorist, this system appears disorganized, chaotic, and inefficient. Overlapping jurisdictions seems to give rise to the possibility of conflict; a lack of unitary governance and well-defined governance across the nation seems to give rise to procedural inefficiency and a lack of cooperation. In the 14th and subsequent centuries, indeed, what might be thought to be dissatisfaction with this chaotic and inefficient system gave rise to the birth of the nation-state, a unitary and far-reaching institution with universal jurisdiction and well-defined boundaries, within which it could exercise total control. Such a system was bound to be more unified and efficient; any political plan or strategy could be executed quickly and without delay by officers and managers deputized by the governing powers. Such a system appears, prima facie, much more integrated and well-ordered than the multiplicity of jurisdictions which characterizes, say, 13th century France under Louis IX.
The nation-state works on the model of a machine: a well-ordered system that operates automatically, when the right wheels are set in motion, and the parts are properly weighted and balanced against each other. Whether we are speaking of a monarchical nation-state or a democratic nation-state, this principle is the same: the state is a machine that manipulates bodies. At first blush, a monarchic state may seem to be something external to the bodies (the citizens) which it manages, while a democracy includes them as its parts; thus the common image of democracy as giving political power to the people. This may also be the image that characterizes Hobbesian versus Lockean political regimes: the Hobbesian Leviathan is something apparently transcendent, looming over the people, whereas Lockean democracy seems to reside in them. But this contrast of images is almost irrelevant to the very working of the nation state: even in a representative democracy, the neutral machine becomes inhabited by politicians who, though supposedly chosen by the people, effectively amass into a machine that manages bodies from on high, like Leviathan. The workings of the nation-state-machine are thus more or less independent of the difference between monarchy and democracy. A monarchy may be just as all-encompassing and efficient as a democratic state.
Thus, what characterizes the nation-state as such its is mechanical and totalizing efficiency, its capacity to bring all subjects under the umbrella of a single, unitary system, with pre-defined policies and programs to be imposed universally and univocally upon all, in all places and circumstances within the nation. As such, it appears integrated, well-ordered, a complete whole with universal causal power.
But this is almost all an illusion, based upon a fatal misunderstanding of the metaphysics of universal causality in creatures, and a misunderstanding of the metaphysics of wholes and parts and the order amongst them.
William Cavanaugh has an excellent article detailing how the nation state arose, not out of a concern for the true unity of societies around common goods, but out of a concern for a false unity ordered to the private goods of very specific classes of individuals, usually those who happened to have more power and money. But at a couple of points, he describes this nation-state as "integrated" in contrast to the earlier medieval "system" (hardly a system). I want to point out that, for the very reasons Cavanaugh gives for the rise of the nation-state, any appearance of "integration" in the nation-state is in fact an illusion. But as Cavanaugh essentially makes this point in a historical way - the nation-state did not arise out of concern for building real societies but for manipulative ease for private ends - I want to make this point metaphysically:
True integration presupposes a right metaphysics of wholes and parts, and a right understanding of teleology in the context of wholes and parts; and as a consequence, a right understanding of causality in the same context. The metaphysical doctrine of the common good, summarized by Aristotle at the end of Book 12 of the Metaphysics, sums up all of these things at once. According to this doctrine, the common good relates to the private goods in a way that is analogous to a whole and its parts; in fact, the common good is a good of some whole, while the private goods are the goods of its parts. But there is a crucial distinction to be made: the common good does not relate to the whole (whose good it is) in the way that a private good relates to the part (whose good it is). For example, a private good such as a meal relates to its consumer and only to its consumer in a simple one-to-one correspondence. There is nothing complicated about a meal; for every meal, there is one consumer at a time, in only one respect. But the common good is different: for the common good, there are many beneficiaries, at many times and in many respects. What is received is received in the mode of the receiver; but what is received might only be able to be received in a certain mode or number of modes. Food as such can only be received by one receiver, in the mode of one who eats. But a common good can be received by many, and in many modes.
In other words, it is crucial not to confuse the kinds of unity or wholeness that characterize common and private goods. Common goods have a unity and wholeness that is equivocal, not univocal; a common good does not apply to its beneficiaries in all the same respects, but adapts itself to them according to their very multiplicity in time, place, and circumstance. A private good can only be applied once and in one way, in one circumstance.
It is also crucial not to confuse the unity or wholeness that characterizes a common good with that unity or wholeness that characterizes universal concepts, such as a genus or a species, i.e. an abstraction. The common good is not an abstraction; it is something that is itself one in number, a real being, and moreover it is enjoyed by its beneficiaries according to their very concrete and multiple modes of being. It is common in a concrete sense, because as a good it embraces all things in their very diversity. A genus or species that is abstracted is not common or universal in this sense; it is common only in that it belongs univocally to many, not because it embraces that many as such, within itself. The concept of animal does not actually embrace men, dogs, cats, fish, beetles; it embraces only sensitive living being, because it is no more than an abstraction. But the common good is not an abstraction; it is a real thing, and it is common because it can be enjoyed by many men, even perhaps dogs, cats, fish, beetles - and even plants and rocks, in an ultimate sense. What is most common is somehow good for all; whereas a common genus has no real effect on any multitude, but only on the mind that conceives it, or on the artifacts of a common nature that are produced by that mind.
The common good is a universal cause. It is a universal final cause. It extends its reach to the multitude, but not by abstracting from their inner diversity, as a genus or species, but by touching them in their very diversity. Causes are concrete beings that operate on concrete effects; abstractions do not do this except through the mediation of the practical intellect. And it is the common good, not any common species, that is the first principle of morality and politics. Morality derives its operation from its telos, which is ultimately one for all - and the all consists in many persons in many circumstances. The art of politics, i.e. the direction of all to their common good, consists somehow in unifying men, bringing them together, binding societies together, in common pursuit of this telos. The wielder of the art of politics is himself also a kind of universal cause - an agent, not a telos. His operation is to direct the many, as many and diverse, to the One.
Accordingly, here are the two corruptions of totalitarian politics, which is that practiced by the nation state: 1) The political art does not therefore consist in making them all the same. That would be to confuse the universal final cause with the universal or abstract concept, the genus or species. To the extent that this is done, the political art falls into totalitarianism. This is to confuse the types of unity or wholeness that characterize universal causes and universal concepts. 2) The political art does not direct the many to what can only be the private good of an individual or group of individuals. That would be to confuse the types of unity or wholeness that characterize common goods and private goods. I claim that the nation-state which I described above is a perverse institution, because to a large degree it is characterized by precisely these two mistakes.
1) The nation-state is an institution within which political plans are pre-conceived in an abstract form and imposed a priori upon an existing multitude of real persons in an incalculable multiplicity of concrete circumstances. This multiplicity is all the more multiplicitous due to the sheer scale of most nation-states, which cover enormous swaths of land, and span enormous diversities of cultures and traditions that are conditioned by the circumstances of the people in those places. From the outset, such a system is totalitarian, since it pays no regard to existing order, tradition, and custom, the characteristics of existing peoples, and instead seeks to impose upon them unitary solutions conceived in the abstract. This is to confuse common species with common goods. The unity of a society around the common good is not identical to its specific unity as a group. Moreover, it is injurious to the common good, which is communicable to the diverse, to eliminate legitimate diversity which arises from real and concrete orders and circumstances.
2) The nation-state is an institution that favors the private goods of the men who wield it. It favors the private good of the powerful, at the expense of the private goods of those over whom they rule - and consequently, at the expense of the common good of all. The common good depends, in large measure, on private goods; but it depends on them insofar as it consists largely in the ordering and harmonization among them. The neglect of this order, by reason of the prioritization of one set of goods at the expense of all others, is de facto a neglect of the common good. It is also the very incarnation of tyranny, which is defined as rule for the sake of private rather than common goods. The mechanical model which I described above works well, as a machine - the problem is that it is inherently and structurally neutral with respect to the very ends for which it works well. The ends come and go; it is in itself no more than a neutral means for any and all ends that might be conceived by the individuals who operate it.
I claim further that this system of the nation-state is anything but integrated, in a true sense, for it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the natures of the relevant kinds of wholes and parts. Integration connotes the right order of parts within a given whole; something is disintegrated when its parts are isolated from their context within the whole, and thus from each other - disintegration is the destruction of relations. Relations are context-based; individuals relate to each other according to the concrete modes of being and living which they inhabit. They relate by sharing common goods, and to this extent they are like each other; but they share those goods from different circumstances, different places and times, different points of view, different spheres of subjectivity, etc. If all shared exactly the same circumstances, points of view, personalities, etc., there would be no need for community - no need for mutual support, for learning, for friendship. Each individual would be completely autonomous and thus self-sufficient, having nothing new to offer to his others, having nothing to receive from his others. But in fact this is not the case and can never be the case. Persons are constituted to need each other, because they are not self-sufficient; they are conditioned by infinitesimally distinct circumstances, in an infinity of ways. Consequently, they are perfected by entering into relations, into communities; they flourish as social beings, not as autonomous individuals. Accordingly, to the degree that sameness is imposed upon the multiplicity of individuals, society disintegrates. To the degree that circumstances are neutralized and subjected to pre-conceived systems of uniformity, relations fall apart. Of course, this can never work in a final sense; the only way that the totalitarian project could conceivably work is if it rid all people of diverse circumstances - of which there are infinity. People will always feel the need for society, because that is in their natures; to impose uniform political solutions upon them, without regard for the differing circumstances in which they flourish socially and relationally, is thus to do them a grave injustice - and it is to cause disintegration, under the mask of uniformity.
Likewise, to the degree that the system of the nation-state favors the goods of those who hold institutional power, once again - perhaps in a more obvious way - it causes disintegration. Integration is caused by the many entering into community by enjoying the common good, according to their multiple capacities and circumstances. But to prioritize the private good of any person or persons over the common good is an act of tyranny which suppresses the ability of the people to enjoy the common good. This to sever those goods from each other which relate as parts and whole: it is to disintegrate the whole. As I have mentioned, the common good consists largely in the good of order among the private goods, for the sake of an external common good. Order requires that all parts receive their due, that they not be isolated from each other or from their proper place in the whole. That private goods of so many are not accorded them, on account of the private goods of the ruling classes, is an act of injustice, robbing the whole of some of its parts, and thus causing it to disintegrate.
Thus, it is important not to be deceived by the bureaucratic efficiency and completeness of the modern nation-state. To the degree that it engages in an act of tyranny and totalitarianism, by privileging the private good of some over the common of the many and imposing uniform solutions upon a multitude that is not disposed for it, it is responsible for a grave society-wide injustice. As such, it must be resisted - peacefully, if possible, without needless revolution, and only as far as benefits the common good. Above all, for the common good, the nation-state should be converted. That is, after all, the purpose of all moral and political action.