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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

States without Nations

Jacqueline Stevens

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To purchase States without Nations

Title: States without Nations
Author: Jacqueline Stevens
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 246 pages
Availability: States without Nations - US
States without Nations - UK
States without Nations - Canada
  • Citizenship for Mortals

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Our Assessment:

B+ : radical ideas, densely packed; a good foundation for (heated) debate

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       States without Nations challenges some of what are widely considered the foundations of much of contemporary society, proposing changes that many readers might well never have even seriously considered.
       In her book Stevens proposes four fundamental changes, arguing for the abolition of:

  • birthright citizenship
  • inheritance
  • marriage
  • land rights
       What might, at first glance, sound like entirely unrealistic and hardly desirable (anti-)utopian aspirations can (or at least should) not, it turns out, be dismissed out of hand. Stevens may not convince fully -- and there are practical hurdles to the implementation of these policies that seem insurmountable, at least in the shorter term -- but there are arguments and evidence here that deserve to be taken seriously.
       Much of the basis for Stevens' argument comes from her conviction that the artificial nation-state -- and much else -- is rooted in a legal framework built around male efforts to reshape reality. Specifically, she argues:
Envying the ability to reproduce children from their own bodies, men compensate by presiding over entire reproductive units, political societies they create by law.
Nationality, ethnicity, caste, clan, and, in the last several hundred years, race are the conveyances for mortal narratives, the way men assure themselves through law the feeling of security they feel is denied by autonomy. The hereditary group that uses the legal convention of fatherhood to put men into certain relations with children -- with whom they may lack a genetic relation -- is an invention designed by creatures preoccupied with fantasies about the significance of bearing children and who seek to overcome their finite lifespans.
       Many of her arguments are grounded in this, but it is not a necessary precondition for all of them; whatever the reason for current conditions, many of her criticisms remain valid even if one remains unconvinced that men are preoccupied by such fantasies, etc.
       The citizenship debate is, perhaps, the least controversial (of the arguments put forth here) because citizenship-law seems the most artificial and often arbitrary -- in the US notably due to the fact that anyone born on US soil is automatically a citizen, even if their parents are not even legal residents. But throughout her book Stevens is most concerned with hereditary 'rights' -- the idea that who one's parents are determines identity (in the widest and public sense of the word), and the unfairness of that. She finds the kinship-organizing principles of 'nationhood' (and clan, and race, etc.) faulty -- and dangerous, and argues:
     In addition to birthright citizenship being impractical, it is also illogical, unfair, and inherently unstable.
       As nations struggle with the concept -- consider just the immigration debates in countries around the world -- this is the one area in which Stevens' arguments are closest to mainstream discussion (though in taking her argument to its logical consequences she does go further than what is generally considered).
       With her proposal to abolish inheritance, Stevens moves considerably farther from the mainstream ("Inheritance is theft", is how she puts it) -- yet her argument is not especially far-fetched. Perhaps not everyone will be convinced that inheritance-laws are rooted in that: "specifically masculine anxiety about the inability to give birth", but she does have a point that it's rather peculiar that a person should be able to determine the distribution of their wealth (or, indeed, anything) after their death. She also notes that about half of Americans die intestate, i.e. without making provisions for the distribution of their estates (and as for the argument that people rely on the local rules governing apportionment of estates in cases where there is no will, a majority apparently don't know what that actually leads to).
       The practical difficulties of doing away with inheritance are immense; Stevens suggests and describes a 'Global Provisions Agency' to deal with them, but this section is the one where objections are most easily raised. As current inheritance laws -- and tax and other dodges around them -- suggest, for whatever reason (misplaced belief in maintaining control as a way of disavowing mortality, or whatever ...) people seem likely to try anything to maintain control over their accumulated wealth. While Stevens is correct that, during their lifetimes, people do not seem to do nearly as much as they could if their goal were simply to transfer their wealth to their offspring (or whomever else they want to give it to), the knowledge that it would revert to the state (or a 'GPA') would surely lead to new redistributive behavior (likely with very bizarre incentives -- to 'get the most' out of what one has before death).
       Other logistical difficulties are also great, and though Stevens admirably addresses these (what happens to the widow when the husband who owned half their house dies, etc. ), it's hard to believe the public -- any public -- could be convinced to embrace these. And the risk of cheating, whether on a personal or also state level, seems immense, too.
       Stevens' argument for the abolition of marriage is similarly contentious, yet far closer to being widely accepted. As she (and many others) have pointed out, marriage has not been an immensely successful institution (and not just because such a large percentages of marriages 'fail'), and that if the interests of society -- and specifically those of the child -- are considered the arguments for it aren't that convincing. In a no-fault divorce world (as in the US now), marriage isn't a contract that is taken particularly seriously anymore anyway -- but that seems for the best: strict marriage laws, and especially those that endow the male with strong rights, don't do all that much for family welfare but rather give rise to high rates of domestic violence in all its forms.
       Stevens wants to see marriage replaced by a framework that focuses on the interests of the child, with the relationship with the mother (almost always the birth-mother) the one everything else is built on. Interestingly, her proposals are also very legalistic, as she suggests specific types of contracts making for rights and commitments, including for other adults to be involved in the child-rearing process (forms of 'adoption').
       Finally, Stevens argues against private land rights -- an area where her proposals are also not as controversial as they might first appear: as she notes, in much of the world the state retains large amounts of -- and often all -- land rights, and even in the US eminent domain gives the government the power to seize land.
       Full of bold statements, States without Nations denounces much of the legal and social status quo and challenges readers to look at these everyday issue from a radically different perspective. Though much is not entirely convincing, it is a worthwhile experiment. Stevens presents her arguments and spells out her proposals and their consequences well and clearly -- the book reads easily and very well --, while also considering and addressing many of the objections that might be raised. A closer, slower reading, and examination of the authorities and especially facts and statistics she cites, reveals some of the weaknesses of the text -- much of the evidence isn't as clear-cut as she likes to present it --, but then this isn't a text that many are likely to read uncritically in any case.
       Part of the fun of the book is also in how it defies common ideological expectations: her truly liberal position often argues against positions (so-called) American liberals espouse, and she also goes to considerable lengths to argue for a (truly) Popperian approach to addressing these sorts of issues and questions.
       These arguments and proposals can't be dismissed out of hand, and Stevens makes a good case for why they should be considered seriously. Relevant to many of the debates of the day -- from the status of the nation-state to same-sex (and other forms of) marriage to property rights -- as well as the larger issues facing the world, and especially much of the inequality in it, Stevens' book is, at the very least, thought-provoking.
       Engagingly provocative, well worthwhile -- and deserving much closer examination. Recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 December 2009

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States without Nations: Jacqueline Stevens: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Law-related books

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About the Author:

       Jacqueline Stevens was born in 1962. She teaches at Northwestern University.

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