The demise of the nation-state in the 21st century

4 Jan
At the moment the nation-state seems to be the right and natural way for humans to govern themselves, and yet we know that it was a historical invention cobbled together and refined over decades and centuries initially in Europe and then elsewhere. Will the nation-state be the dominant form of large-scale governance by the end of this century? I think not. Writing in Eurozine, Robert Menasse sketches a case:
I have looked through the telescope and I have seen: nation-states will die. We now arrive at our topic: the European Union must inevitably lead to the extinction of nation-states. And rightly so. I won’t be able to convince the current political elites of this, nor the columnists of the national press and all the other high priests of national identity and the defence of national interests. Nor will I be able to convince them of the basic reasonableness of a post-national world-view. I may not be able to convince you either. Still, let me tell you: the sooner you understand and accept this fact, and arrange your life accordingly, the better for you and your children. That’s not an opinion. An opinion, as Hegel rightly said, is mine and is something I can just as well keep to myself. No, it is a fact. To be on the safe side, let me say in advance that I don’t believe that history has a goal, nor do I believe that it has a meaning. Historical processes, on the other hand, do exist; human life on this planet can only be conceived as the production of history, just as individual life is the production of biography, and only biography can fully determine who an individual is. To think historically and perspectivally is to establish meaning in the meaningless, to give form to the processes of life, rather than just to undergo them. In the world-view of the overwhelming majority of people today, the belief in the idea of the “nation”, the belief in its rational basis, the belief in the almost ontological and hence inextinguishable longing of human beings for “national identity”, has taken on an almost religious character. The tendencies and movements towards renationalization that we are currently seeing belong to the conflicts of faith and wars of religion that are erupting globally. Despite the historical experience of National Socialism and its bloody trail of death and destruction, the fact that countless people literally believed in it has not yet permanently shaken the faith in the idea of “nation”.
Nations, markets, aggressors:
The formation of nations was merely a historical step made in order to unite provinces and regions, to extend common law jurisdictions and above all to create bigger markets. However, nations have systematically proven to be aggressors, to be a reoccurring threat to peace and human rights – through the violent seizure of land and random drawing of boundaries through cultural spaces that have evolved over time, and above all through the constitution of communities able to define themselves only in terms of their difference to others. In these differences alone, in the construction of the idea of “national identity”, there lies an eternally smouldering potential for aggression, which in times of crises finds an outlet as hatred towards others and the persecution of supposed scapegoats. However dramatically one judges it, it is clear that the formation of nations cannot be the end of the story – as Victor Hugo realized in 1850: “A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form a European brotherhood, just as Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, all our provinces are merged together in France.” Victor Hugo was ridiculed back then, but the Franco-German war turned out to be not quite so funny, and when the people of Europe set upon one another in 1914, national arrogance turned into a multi-national tragedy, and Stefan Zweig wrote: “Nationalism has destroyed European civilization”.

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A New Biography Says George W. Bush Really Was the Decider – The New York Times

23 Jul

Readers of the presidential historian Jean Edward Smith’s mammoth new biography, “Bush,” will surely be cured of this political amnesia. Smith — who has written biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — is unsparing in his verdict on our 43rd president. “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush,” Smith writes in the first sentence of the preface. And then he gets harsh.

In Smith’s clipped retelling of his subject’s early years, Bush was an unaccomplished, callow son of privilege who cashed in on his family’s connections for everything from his admission to Yale to his avoidance of Vietnam. Quoting Bush’s tautological explanation of his wasted youth — “When I was young and irresponsible, I behaved young and irresponsibly” — Smith concludes, “That pretty well says it all.” Being Texas governor “was scarcely a full-time job,” and his 2000 victory in the presidential race owed as much to the ineptness of his Democratic opponent, Al Gore — who “came across as wooden and self-­important” — as it did to Bush’s “ease on the campaign trail.”

Source: A New Biography Says George W. Bush Really Was the Decider – The New York Times

On the Republican Convention, translated for liberals by Tyler Cowen and Cass Sunstein

21 Jul

Tyler Cowen:

The Straussian interpretation of the Republican Convention is the correct one, which is perhaps one reason why Peter Thiel will be speaking there. They are not saying what they are saying, in fact they are saying “the world is going to hell, and many of those amongst us have been traitorously disloyal. That is why we scream out stupidities, debase ourselves, and court attention by waving our arms in ridiculous ways. We are a small church seeking to become larger.” Is that not how many smaller churches behave? Is that not how some of the early branches of the Christian church behaved? Did they have any influence?

Cass Sunstein:

Many Democrats do not merely disagree with the Republican Party platform and with the speakers at this week’s convention. They may even struggle to understand what they are reading and hearing.

That’s a problem for Republican politicians, who hope to connect with Democratic voters, but even more for Democrats, who hope to keep the presidency and to capture the Senate. The reason is that Republicans are appealing to deep and honorable strands in American political culture, which Democrats ignore at their peril.

The best explanation comes from New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, who has produced some of the most illuminating recent work on political psychology. Haidt’s central finding is that across many cultures, human beings have embraced five distinct moral foundations: fairness, avoidance of harm, respect for authority, purity (as opposed to disgust), and loyalty. Contemporary U. S. conservatives embrace all five; liberals emphasize the first two, but care much less about the last three.

Haidt has compiled massive evidence to support these conclusions. Conservatives and liberals agree that it’s wrong to break a promise; that’s unfair. They also concur that it’s wrong to assault someone; that’s harmful. But conservatives feel far more outrage when people have acted disrespectfully toward their superiors, engaged in what they view as a disgusting act or breached a duty of loyalty. Liberals don’t like any of those things either, but to them, avoiding unfairness and harm is much more important.

The 2016 Republican Party platform and convention may well be placing a greater emphasis on authority, purity, and loyalty than at any time since the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon underlined the need to respect authority, making “law and order” a defining Republican theme. (Ronald Reagan once starred in a movie with that title.) Increasingly, Donald Trump is echoing that theme.

3quarksdaily: A Brexit State of Mind: The Vision Thing

27 Jun

For you see, I’m not expert in any of the various things that would allow me to lay claim to serious insight into the referendum that just took place in Britain. It’s just one of the things that flows through my mind these days, along with Trump, Sanders, and Hillary; territorial disputes in the South China Sea; drone warfare; and just when are we going to see self-driving vehicles on the open road? I claim no particular expertise in these matters either, but they enter my mind where I entertain them. In the one case I’m going to have to vote.

– See more at: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2016/06/a-brexit-state-of-mind-the-vision-thing.html#more

Source: 3quarksdaily: A Brexit State of Mind: The Vision Thing

Unnecessariat

31 May

A grim commentary on the current state of America.

More Crows than Eagles

I remember AIDS. I’m older than you probably think I am, and I remember what AIDS in America meant in the eighties, when William F. Buckley suggested all “carriers” be tattooed, and the Wizard of Id got in trouble in Canada (fr) for a joke in which Robbing Hood’s “Merry Men” were rounded up into quarantine camps. Mostly what I remember is the darkness- the world seemed apocalyptic. Everyone, at least in the gay men’s community, seemed to be sick, or dying, or taking care of someone else who was sick or dying, or else hurling themselves headlong into increasingly desperate and dramatic activism the like of which has hardly been seen since. I was actually watching the MacNeil/Lehrer news hour when ACT-UP broke in and nearly handcuffed Robert MacNeil to his desk. The tenor is just unreproducible; you get a taste of it in some of Sarah Schulman’s…

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Is the American Body Politic Crumbling?

5 May
The media has made a cottage industry out of analyzing the relationship between America’s crumbling infrastructure, outsourced jobs, stagnant wages, and evaporating middle class and the rise of anti-establishment presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Commentators are also tripping all over one another to expound daily on the ineffectual response of America’s political elite – characterized by either bewilderment or a dismissal of these anti-establishment candidates as minor hiccups in the otherwise smooth sailing of status-quo power arrangements. But the pundits are all missing the point: the Trump-Sanders phenomenon signals an American oligarchy on the brink of a civilization-threatening collapse.
The tragedy is that, despite what you hear on TV or read in the paper or online, this collapse was completely predictable. Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. Internal pressures and the sense of betrayal grow as desperation and despair multiply everywhere except at the top, but effective reform seems impossible because the system seems thoroughly rigged. In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends. If we are lucky, the public will mobilize behind honest leaders and effective reforms. If we are unlucky, either the establishment will continue to “respond ineffectively” until our economy collapses, or a fascist will take over and create conditions too horrific to contemplate.
Handwriting on the well:
Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate. Developed by British archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew in 1979, the following “Signs of Failing Times” have played out across time in 26 distinct societies ranging from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the collapse of the Soviet Union:
  1. Elite power and well-being increase and is manifested in displays of wealth;
  2. Elites become heavily focused on maintaining a monopoly on power inside the society; Laws become more advantageous to elites, and penalties for the larger public become more Draconian;
  3. The middle class evaporates;
  4. The “misery index” mushrooms, witnessed by increasing rates of homicide, suicide, illness, homelessness, and drug/alcohol abuse;
  5. Ecological disasters increase as short-term focus pushes ravenous exploitation of resources;
  6. There’s a resurgence of conservatism and fundamentalist religion as once golden theories are brought back to counter decay, but these are usually in a corrupted form that accelerates decline.
Prospects:
Today’s big challenge is twofold. First, we need to find a way to unite today’s many disjointed reform efforts into the coherent and effective reinvention we so desperately need. This unity will require solid science, compelling story, and positive dream. Secondly, since hierarchies are absolutely necessary for groups beyond a certain size, this time we must figure out how to create healthy hierarchical systems that effectively support the health and prosperity of the entire social, economic, and environmental system including everyone within. In short, our goal must be to figure out how to end oligarchy forever, not just create a new version of it. This is a topic I will take up in my next blog.

The Art of the Deal: The Narrow Virtue of Donald Trump

21 Apr
Scott Alexander has some interesting observations about Donald Trump that he makes by discussing Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal. Here’s his conclusion about what Trump does as a developer:
As best I can tell, the developer’s job is coordination. This often means blatant lies. The usual process goes like this: the bank would be happy to lend you the money as long as you have guaranteed renters. The renters would be happy to sign up as long as you show them a design. The architect would be happy to design the building as long as you tell them what the government’s allowing. The government would be happy to give you your permit as long as you have a construction company lined up. And the construction company would be happy to sign on with you as long as you have the money from the bank in your pocket. Or some kind of complicated multi-step catch-22 like that. The solution – or at least Trump’s solution – is to tell everybody that all the other players have agreed and the deal is completely done except for their signature. The trick is to lie to the right people in the right order, so that by the time somebody checks to see whether they’ve been conned, you actually do have the signatures you told them that you had. The whole thing sounds very stressful.
And now we get to Trump the politician:
Maybe I’m imagining things, but I feel like this explains a lot about his presidential campaign. People ask him something like “How would you fix Medicare?”, and he gives some vapid answer like “There are tremendous problems with Medicare, but I’m going to hire the best people. I know all of the best doctors and health care executives, and we’re going to cut some amazing deals and have the best Medicare in the world.” And yeah, he did say in his business tips that you should change the frame to avoid being negative to reporters. But this isn’t a negative or a gotcha question. At some point you’d expect Trump to do his homework and get some kind of Medicare plan or other. Instead he just goes off on the same few tangents. This thing about hiring the best people, for example, seems almost like an obsession in the book. But it works for him.
Trump simply has no interest in changing how things work; it’s not something he can think about:
These strategies have always worked for him before, and floating off into some intellectual ideal-system-design effort has never worked for him before. So when he says that he’s going to solve Medicare by hiring great managers and knowing all the right people, I don’t think this is some vapid way of avoiding the question. I think it’s the honest output of a mind that works very differently from mine. I’ve been designing ideal systems of government for the heck of it ever since I was old enough to realize what a government was. Trump is at serious risk of actually taking over a government, and such design still doesn’t appeal to him. The best he can do is say that other people are bad at governing, but he’s going to be good at governing, on account of his deal-making skill. I think he honestly believes this. It makes perfect sense in real estate, where some people are good businesspeople, others are bad businesspeople, and the goal is to game the system rather than change it. But in politics, it’s easy to interpret as authoritarianism – “Forget about policy issues, I’m just going to steamroll through this whole thing by being personally strong and talented.”
And so:
The world is taken as a given. It contains deals. Some people make the deals well, and they are winners. Other people make the deals poorly, and they are losers. Trump does not need more than this.

Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired – The New York Times

9 Apr

HubSpot was founded in 2006 in Cambridge, Mass., and went public in 2014. It’s one of those slick, fast-growing start-ups that are so much in the news these days, with the beanbag chairs and unlimited vacation — a corporate utopia where there is no need for work-life balance because work is life and life is work. Imagine a frat house mixed with a kindergarten mixed with Scientology, and you have an idea of what it’s like.

I joined the company in 2013 after spending 25 years in journalism and getting laid off from a top position at Newsweek. I thought working at a start-up would be great. The perks! The cool offices!

It turned out I’d joined a digital sweatshop, where people were packed into huge rooms, side by side, at long tables. Instead of hunching over sewing machines, they stared into laptops or barked into headsets, selling software.

Tech workers have no job security. You’re serving a “tour of duty” that might last a year or two, according to the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, who is the co-author of a book espousing his ideas, “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.” Companies burn you out and churn you out when someone better, or cheaper, becomes available. “Your company is not your family,” is another line from Mr. Hoffman’s book.

Source: Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired – The New York Times

The Panama Papers Could Lead to Capitalism’s Great Crisis | TIME

9 Apr

To me, this is one of the key issues at work in the U.S. presidential election. Voters know at a gut level that our system of global capitalism is working mainly for the 1 %, not the 99 %. That’s a large part of why both Sanders and Trump have done well, because they tap into that truth, albeit in different ways. The Panama Papers illuminate a key aspect of why the system isn’t working–because globalization has allowed the capital and assets of the 1 % (be they individuals or corporations) to travel freely, while those of the 99 % cannot. Globalization is supposed to be about the free movement of people, goods, and capital. But in fact, the system is set up to enable that mobility mainly for the rich (or for large corporations). The result is global tax evasion, the offshoring of labor, and an elite that flies 35,000 feet over the problems of nation states and the tax payers within them.

Where do we go from here? I think we’re heading towards a root to branch re-evaluation of how our market system works–and doesn’t work. The debate over free trade is part of that re-evaluation. The calls for a global campaign against tax evasion are, too. I think there will also be intense scrutiny about the ease with which financial capital can move around the world – we’ve already seen that with the hoopla over tax inversions, but we’ll see a lot more backlash, in new areas.

Source: The Panama Papers Could Lead to Capitalism’s Great Crisis | TIME

Keeping sea lanes open: a benefit cost analysis — Crooked Timber

8 Apr

Would a crisis in the South China Sea, presumably caused by a Chinese attempt to claim control, have such a huge adverse effect? It is routinely pointed out that the volume of trade passing through the South China Sea ($5.3 trillion on this estimate ) is very large. But the great majority of this trade (around $4 trillion) is going to or from China.[^1] Obviously, the Chinese government can control this trade in any way it chooses through domestic policies and has no interest in blocking it. The remaining $1 trillion or so of trade (about 1.5 per cent of global GDP) might, in the event of a crisis, be forced to take more circuitous routes, as happened when the Suez canal was blocked. But using the same method as was applied to Suez, it’s easy to see that the total impact would be modest.

On past experience, it seems highly unlikely that an economic analysis of this kind will have any effect on military policy discussions. Vague claims about economic interests loom large in such discussions, and attempts to pin them down to concrete realities are routinely evaded. The century beginning with World War I, and running through to the trillion-dollar quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan has seen countless demonstrations that, under modern conditions, war is almost invariably an economic disaster for all concerned. That hasn’t stopped war, and preparation for war, being considered as an essential part of a national economic strategy, and it seems unlikely to do so.

Source: Keeping sea lanes open: a benefit cost analysis — Crooked Timber

End of the End of History, Redux | n+1 | aka the Bernie Sanders Moment|

5 Apr

There the similarities end. While Bill Bradley dropped out of the primary race in 2000 after losing the first twenty primaries to Al Gore, Bernie Sanders, so far, has won eleven out of twenty-nine states over Hillary Clinton in 2016. No intra-party realignment has taken place since 2000. Sanders’s core constituencies are identical to Bradley’s: the working class, upper-middle-class mugwumps, and youth. But the disasters of the Bush administration and the inadequacies of Obama’s efforts at reform and recovery have hardened the resolve of these constituencies politically and the fragility of the economy, coupled with the persistence of income inequality, has increased their demographic weight.

Sanders’ rhetoric of “political revolution” signals to them that he is a candidate who clearly understands that democracy conducted along neoliberal lines was fatally injured in the 2008 crash. Talk of socialism is no longer taboo; systemic change, in one form or another, is imminent. The Vermont senator is reactivating sectors of the Democratic base captivated by Obama’s campaign only to be demobilized and disappointed by Obama’s record in office: within and without the party, Sanders can win over voters that Clinton, with her irrevocably tainted record of collusion with corporate interests and support from neoliberal intellectuals, never could. The narrative being presented, all but unanimously, by the professional political press is exactly wrong. It is Sanders, not Clinton, who has a higher electoral ceiling. Even if one sets the Sanders-dominated youth vote aside, the older left-tending working-class voters depressed by NAFTA and subsequent Clinton-backed trade agreements—all of which Sanders vehemently opposed—significantly outnumber the only Democratic bloc bitterly opposed to a Sanders nomination: the contented upper-middle class of which the professional political press is part, and whose interests it amplifies, albeit with diminishing effect. The assertion from the commentariat that Sanders is unviable in the general election can be reduced to the proposition that said commentariat, and the ever-shrinking proportion of voters who take its word as authoritative, would hate to vote for him—no less, but also no more.

Like Perot, who he resembles temperamentally, Sanders is wagering that he can win a rigged game; unlike the Texan businessman, however, the Senator has some experience in the matter of winning elections. His relative restraint with regards to his primary opponent should not necessarily be taken as a sign of weakness or naivete, nor should it be taken as a permanent fact: if he continues to perform above expectations, the condescension aimed at him from above will reach such a pitch as to justify counter-attacking, and he will need fresh charges to level then.

Source: End of the End of History, Redux | Online Only | n+1

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