“It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of Castle Mount, for mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.” – Franz Kafka, ‘The Castle’
The literary potential of such an image – an enormous castle, concealed in the mist but somehow palpable and looming – conveys the features of a fairy-tale world. Yet, the Castle is tangible and conceptual at one time. It sticks to modernity as a symbol of power, of a centralised and radiating power which invisibly frames all human activity falling within its range.
The same poetics applies to the concept of State. As Hobbes before him, Kafka would find it ideal to depict the State as an invisible yet omnipresent device to orchestrate collective action, the same way he imagined the gloomy landscape of Castle Mount. This is by no means mere conceptual thinking. In fact all features of everyday life, starting from branded coffee and toothpaste of one’s ordinary mornings, are somehow affected by policies or institutions of the State during their production/distribution process. This omnipresence manifests itself in myriads of details which constitute altogether the universality of the State as a concept, as far from the many contingent attempts of state building in modern history.
Nonetheless, as it seems almost needless to say, the universal concept of the State was conceived and put into practice by actual people: it adopts human (animal) instincts. The instinct of territoriality is its core. Before the 2nd World War, the West conceived the State as the sole and uncontested protagonist of world politics; a rhetoric of borders dominated the international scene. As packs of wolves, States engaged both in defending and expanding their borders, through colonies until the beginning of the 20th century, then through world conflicts. This was brought to an end by the rise of liberal institutions and increasing interconnectedness during the Cold War and beyond; the human instinct of cooperation seemed to take over that of conflict, at least in the rhetorical discourse of Western powers. Yet, conflict-soothing cooperation policies of the Western liberal order have had significant repercussions on political stability in the West and elsewhere.
The contrasting phenomena of populism and global terrorism fit in this exact framework. They can be viewed as interconnected, even mutually caused forces. The de-territorialising process of globalisation hit the State at its core; it exposed national borders as something obsolete, irrelevant, and damaging the world interest. The transnational expansion of enterprises, institutions and moral values, backed by general norms of behaviour (such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights) profoundly changed world politics, benefitting some more than others. The language of Euroscepticism reveals itself ultimately as a defence strategy employed by the rotting structure of the Castle-State: the revenge of territoriality comes out of the mist in narratives such as the “invasion” of migrants, in walls-building policies and the reassertion of the nation-state as the still dominant core of political relations. In this view, the territorial/cultural threat to European nation-states comes from liberal institutions and policies, namely the European Union, the adoption of the Euro and the hospitality of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. The extent to which this corresponds to reality is not relevant. Concerning matters of public opinion, political content needs to be captivating more than it needs to be true.
On the other hand, terrorist movements of the 21st century (or the broader post-9/11 concept of global terrorism) have gained enough momentum to be regarded as a truly global attack strategy against status-quo cultural hegemony. By leveraging distorted and oversimplified versions of commonly held cultural and religious sentiments, some of these organisations managed to penetrate the territorial Castle-State by striking it from the inside. Many of the terrorist attacks which have lately been happening worldwide were organised and carried out by citizens of the same sovereign State they attacked.
Yet, even as 21st century terrorism seems to have both personal and overarching non-territorial features, a certain degree of territoriality is detectable in some cases. Unlike al-Qaeda, for example, the Islamic State roots its ideology on a physical space, namely Iraq and the Bilad al-Sham (administered successively by the Rashidun, Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate until the 10th century AD) as the core from which to spread its message to the whole world; unlike al-Qaeda, it engaged consistently in what could be defined lebensraum policies of territorial expansion, mainly from the seizure of Raqqa in 2014 onwards (detailed timeline of the rise and fall of the IS empire here). Recent achievements of Kurdish and Iraqi armed forces (along with international aids) undoubtedly inflicted a major blow to the Islamic State’s influence in the Middle East, but they did not cause its final demise; even after it has been driven out of its major territorial strongholds, the Islamic State is still able to impact the world by means of its transnational ideology.
The situation of current geopolitics would suggest that, in spite of globalisation and the evanescence of borders, the territorial Castle-State is still far from disappearing. So are the phenomena of populism and terrorism, which keep reinvigorating each other. Although progress has been made, it would be naive to deem the apparent IS defeat in the Middle East and the recently milder tones of the European right (if not against migrants, at least against the EU) as a sound triumph of liberal democracy: in the absence of an effective way to reintegrate the losers of globalisation, alternative (and often violent) responses will undoubtedly continue to find their way through the cracks.