The Nation-State as a Legal “Cage”

Glen T. Martin

February 2022  

As long as it is armed with the ultimate sanction of exemption the sovereign power turns its law into a cage, making the exit from the cage into a fate feared, shunned and far too horrifying to be contemplated as an acceptable price of freedom, and the entry to the cage into a privilege that needs to be earned, and, once earned, cherished. The captives have every reason to view the cage as shelter (uncomfortable maybe, yet secure). This is a cage to which most would-be internees clamour to be admitted, and which those refused entry dream of as the ultimate redemption.

Zygmunt Bauman (2002, p. 225)

In his well-known book Society Under Siege, Zygmunt Bauman described the process of globalization and the pervasive condition of humanity as we entered the 21st century.  In the opening quote above, he calls the nation-state a “cage,” a cage that people long to be interned within, a cage that people want to protect, and one that people need to “earn” the right to enter if they are outside the cage.

This metaphor of the cage clearly serves to illuminate our situation as Bauman understands it.  The globalized world has become “fluid.”  It is a world in which traditional cultures and practices have broken down and in which many accepted boundaries and limitations have been transgressed.  It is a world of uncertainty, that, in Albert Camus’ words, has been “cut off from the future” (Camus 1980). 

Bauman (pp. 13-15) cites Immanuel Kant’s famous observation from Perpetual Peace (1983) that the world being spherical means that people cannot “infinitely disperse.”  We all affect one another and are more than ever a part of one another, but, in a “spherical” world, the attempt to move apart only ends up in the long run moving us closer. Since we just have one planet to live on, Bauman observes, we have the choice of either living together or destroying one another (pp. 15-16).

If we choose living together it means talking to one another rather than going to war. Our relation to one another is universal, mutual moral solidarity. Bauman cites two very different 20th century philosophers, Karl Jaspers and Emmanuel Levinas, as affirming the same thing—universal human moral solidarity—in spite of their very different philosophical approaches (p. 207).  We are all morally responsible for, and related to, one another, and a globalized world calls insistently for us to complement our universal moral solidarity with universal governance institutions that protect our solidarity as well as individual rights.

But there is one giant impediment—the cages.  Human beings still live in cages that are, as an institution, at least two centuries old, Bauman observes. These territorial, sovereign nation-state cages prevent our legal solidarity from mirroring and complementing our moral solidarity. These cages offer us recognition as legal persons in ways that internally complement the reality that we are moral persons.  But on the planetary scale, externally, there are no such protections, even though the stark choice we are facing as human beings is between living in solidarity under universal laws or destroying one another with our ever more destructive weapons. Those outside some cage, he says, are like “bared bodies” only “that can be destroyed with impunity” (p. 226). Their legal humanity is not recognized.  Hence, people everywhere struggle to get inside of some one of the cages, even if life is difficult there.

Toward the end of his book Bauman discusses the value of the “utopian imagination” in human affairs (pp. 233-34).  Human beings are capable of imagining a different and better state of affairs than what currently exists.  Historically this capability has resulted in many utopian ideas and an extensive utopian literature.  Today, our utopian imaginations tell us that this world system of sovereign “cages” is utterly out of step with both globalization and the moral solidarity of humanity.  Our ever more powerful weapons systems portend self-destruction if we cannot find a way out of this paradox by establishing a legal solidarity for humanity that mirrors our moral solidarity.

In other words, we must transcend the system of cages that is opposed both to globalization and the moral realities of our common humanity.  But how to do this?  Bauman points out that two features of traditional utopian visions are inapplicable today. Utopias, he says, always connoted both “finality” and “place” (territoriality) (p. 223).  “Topia” means place and “utopia” means “no place,” since these thinkers were offering alternatives that did not yet exist, yet classical utopian literature insisted on giving a place to their future utopias.

Similarly, these classical utopias envisioned “finality.”  They envisioned concrete arrangements that were expected to be permanent and to endure.  Utopian literature envisioned arrangements that solved human historical problems in a once and for all, definitive manner. Neither of these features are relevant today, Bauman argues, since globalization has abolished all localized places that might flourish apart from the whole and because globalization has made historical movement “liquid” (p. 22), making us realize that there is no single concrete pattern that we can expect to solve our situation permanently.

However, I have shown in Chapter 8 of One World Renaissance (2016) and in my article titled “Utopian Horizon Value Theory” (2021), the utopian dimension is intimately connected with human temporality and carries universal import irrespective of incidental features such as “finality” or “place.” Bauman is right that our utopian imaginations are fundamental to our human capacity for transcendence, that is, our capacity to solve our problems and move to higher levels of existence. He points out correctly that our fundamental problems today include globalization itself, which contradicts our outdated worldwide institutionalization of “legal cages,” in conjunction with weapons systems of immense destructive capacity. But, ultimately, he offers no solution to our misery: society is “under siege” and he appears to see no credible way out.

Bauman does not appear to be familiar with the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, although it appears to me that the Earth Constitution is tailor-made to address his assessment of our situation in the globalized 21st century. The Earth Constitution does not provide a pattern that concretely determines how people will live their lives.  It provides for vast cultural differences in the ways people live and think. However, it does provide a framework that solves the great contradiction between the legal cages and the moral solidarity of all humans by globalizing legal citizenship.

It does this not by abolishing the nation-states but only their character as absolute cages. The nations remain, but the Constitution provides a universal legal solidarity to match our human moral solidarity. Immediately as this happens, the nations are no longer territorially bound cages. They retain their own internal law-making capabilities, but legal personhood is now universal, and nations are freed from the need for obsessive protection of their respective cages.

Bauman says that in our globalized world, we have only two choices: to talk with each other or to destroy each other.  The Constitution makes the first choice possible and its success very likely. It gives us a “utopia” in the sense that it ends the horrific war-system that the world has endured ever since the system of legal cages was first devised. 

This “utopian” framework clearly transcends place as it embraces all humanity by matching up legal universality with moral universality. It also transcends the traditional utopian flaw of “finality.” The Constitution opens up a process, a way of talking with one another and making decisions non-violently that moves us into the future without dictating specific arrangements about how we should be living our lives. It protects freedom as the core of all our universal human rights. And the Constitution itself, under Article 18, is required to be reexamined regularly so that it can evolve with humanity and with conditions on planet Earth. It does not give us finality, but a workable process.

It is high time that human beings moved into the globalized 21st century and faced up to the dilemma that we either talk to each other under the laws of legal citizenship or destroy each other. It is clear that we can only effectively talk if we have institutions that allow talk to take place and democratic decisions to be made.  This cannot happen from inside the cages. Cages cannot effectively talk to one another because they have a structural incentive to protect themselves, to lie, and to militarize themselves.  The horrific war now going on in Ukraine, threatening the world once again with possible escalation to nuclear war, is certainly all the grounds we need for seeing these truths.

It is world citizens, protected and made equal by law, that can and must talk with one another and bring human beings out of the war-system of legal cages into a peace system in which law and morality mirror one another. This is why we must ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. It is our only truly functional option other than destroying one another.

Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt (2002). Society Under Siege. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Camus, Albert (1980). Neither Victims nor Executioners. Trans. Dwight McDonald. New York: Continuum.

Constitution for the Federation of Earth. On-line at and Available in paperback from Institute for Economic Democracy Press in Appomattox, VA.

Kant, Immanuel (1983).  Perpetual Peace and Other Essays. Trans. Ted Humphreys. Indianapolis: Hackett

Martin, Glen T. (2016). One World Renaissance: Holistic Planetary Transformation through a Global Social Contract. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2020). “Utopian Horizon Value Theory: A Transformative Power at the Heart of Human Futurity,” in the American International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 7, No. 1, February, 2021: