The demise of the nation state

6 Apr

I’ve been reading about this for several years now. Rana Dasguta has an article of that title in The Guardian for April 5, 2018. Here’s some excerpts:

The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. This is why a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism is so widely in vogue. But the current appeal of machismo as political style, the wall-building and xenophobia, the mythology and race theory, the fantastical promises of national restoration – these are not cures, but symptoms of what is slowly revealing itself to all: nation states everywhere are in an advanced state of political and moral decay from which they cannot individually extricate themselves.

Why is this happening? In brief, 20th-century political structures are drowning in a 21st-century ocean of deregulated finance, autonomous technology, religious militancy and great-power rivalry. Meanwhile, the suppressed consequences of 20th-century recklessness in the once-colonised world are erupting, cracking nations into fragments and forcing populations into post-national solidarities: roving tribal militias, ethnic and religious sub-states and super-states. Finally, the old superpowers’ demolition of old ideas of international society – ideas of the “society of nations” that were essential to the way the new world order was envisioned after 1918 – has turned the nation-state system into a lawless gangland; and this is now producing a nihilistic backlash from the ones who have been most terrorised and despoiled.

Once upon a time…

The reason the nation state was able to deliver what achievements it did – and in some places they were spectacular – was that there was, for much of the 20th century, an authentic “fit” between politics, economy and information, all of which were organised at a national scale. National governments possessed actual powers to manage modern economic and ideological energies, and to turn them towards human – sometimes almost utopian – ends. But that era is over. After so many decades of globalisation, economics and information have successfully grown beyond the authority of national governments. Today, the distribution of planetary wealth and resources is largely uncontested by any political mechanism.

But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge the end of politics itself. And if we continue to think the administrative system we inherited from our ancestors allows for no innovation, we condemn ourselves to a long period of dwindling political and moral hope. Half a century has been spent building the global system on which we all now depend, and it is here to stay. Without political innovation, global capital and technology will rule us without any kind of democratic consultation, as naturally and indubitably as the rising oceans.

Can we change?

It will be objected, inevitably, that any alternative to the nation-state system is a utopian impossibility. But even the technological accomplishments of the last few decades seemed implausible before they arrived, and there are good reasons to be suspicious of those incumbent authorities who tell us that human beings are incapable of similar grandeur in the political realm. In fact, there have been many moments in history when politics was suddenly expanded to a new, previously inconceivable scale – including the creation of the nation state itself. And – as is becoming clearer every day – the real delusion is the belief that things can carry on as they are.

The first step will be ceasing to pretend that there is no alternative. So let us begin by considering the scale of the current crisis.

Dasgupta then recounts how we got here, starting with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, moving through the 19th century, to the decolonization that followed WWII, leaving us with:

There is every reason to believe that the next stage of the techno-financial revolution will be even more disastrous for national political authority. This will arise as the natural continuation of existing technological processes, which promise new, algorithmic kinds of governance to further undermine the political variety.[…] Governments controlled by outside forces and possessing only partial influence over national affairs: this has always been so in the world’s poorest countries. But in the west, it feels like a terrifying return to primitive vulnerability. The assault on political authority is not a merely “economic” or “technological” event. It is an epochal upheaval, which leaves western populations shattered and bereft. There are outbreaks of irrational rage, especially against immigrants, the appointed scapegoats for much deeper forms of national contamination. The idea of the western nation as a universal home collapses, and transnational tribal identities grow up as a refuge: white supremacists and radical Islamists alike take up arms against contamination and corruption.

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The stakes could not be higher. So it is easy to see why western governments are so desperate to prove what everyone doubts: that they are still in control. It is not merely Donald Trump’s personality that causes him to act like a sociopathic CEO. The era of globalisation has seen consistent attempts by US presidents to enhance the authority of the executive, but they are never enough. Trump’s office can never have the level of mastery over American life that Kennedy’s did, so he is obliged to fake it.

What of empires?

In the world’s poorest countries, the picture is very different. Almost all those nations emerged in the 20th century from the Eurasian empires. It has become de rigueur to despise empires, but they have been the “normal” mode of governance for much of history. The Ottoman empire, which lasted from 1300 until 1922, delivered levels of tranquillity and cultural achievement that seem incredible from the perspective of today’s fractured Middle East. The modern nation of Syria looks unlikely to last more than a century without breaking apart, and it hardly provides security or stability for its citizens.

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Empires were not democratic, but were built to be inclusive of all those who came under their rule. It is not the same with nations, which are founded on the fundamental distinction between who is in and who is out – and therefore harbour a tendency toward ethnic purification. This makes them much more unstable than empires, for that tendency can always be stoked by nativist demagogues. […] If there are so few formerly colonised countries that are now peaceful, affluent and democratic, it is not, as the west often pretends, because “bad leaders” somehow ruined otherwise perfectly functional nations. In the breakneck pace of decolonisation, nations were thrown together in months; often their alarmed populations fell immediately into violent conflict to control the new state apparatus, and the power and wealth that came with it. Many infant states were held together only by strongmen who entrusted the system to their own tribes or clans, maintained power by stoking sectarian rivalries and turned ethnic or religious differences into super-charged axes of political terror.

Such countries were generally condemned to remain what one influential commentator has called “quasi-states”. Formally equivalent to the older nations with which they now shared the stage, they were in reality very different entities, and they could not be expected to deliver comparable benefits to their citizens.

Those dictators could never have held such incoherent states together without tremendous reinforcement from outside, which was what sealed the lid on the pressure cooker. […] The west’s commitment to nation states has been self-servingly partial. For many decades, it was content to see large areas of the world suffer under terrifying parodies of well-established Western states; it cannot complain that those areas now display little loyalty to the nation-state idea. Especially since they have also borne the most traumatic consequences of climate change, a phenomenon for which they were least responsible and least equipped to withstand. The strategic calculation of new militant groups in that region is in many ways quite accurate: the transition from empire to independent nation states has been a massive and unremitting failure, and, after three generations, there needs to be a way out.

And so:

The three elements of the crisis described here will only worsen. First, the existential breakdown of rich countries during the assault on national political power by global forces. Second, the volatility of the poorest countries and regions, now that the departure of cold war-era strongmen has revealed their true fragility. And third, the illegitimacy of an “international order” that has never aspired to any kind of “society of nations” governed by the rule of law.

Since they are all rooted in transnational forces whose scale eludes the reach of any one nation’s politics, they are largely immune to well-meaning political reform within nations (though the coming years will also see many examples of such reform). So we are obliged to re-examine its ageing political foundations if we do not wish to see our global system pushed to ever more extreme forms of collapse.

This is not a small endeavour: it will take the better part of this century. We do not know yet where it will lead. All we can lay out now is a set of directions.

And so:

The first is clear: global financial regulation. Today’s great engines of wealth creation are distributed in such a way as to elude national taxation systems (94% of Apple’s cash reserves are held offshore; this $250bn is greater than the combined foreign reserves of the British government and the Bank of England), which is diminishing all nation states, materially and symbolically. […] The history of the nation state is one of perennial tax innovation, and the next such innovation is transnational: we must build systems to track transnational money flows, and to transfer a portion of them into public channels. […]

Second: global flexible democracy. As new local and transnational political currents become more powerful, the nation state’s rigid monopoly on political life is becoming increasingly unviable. Nations must be nested in a stack of other stable, democratic structures – some smaller, some larger than they – so that turmoil at the national level does not lead to total breakdown. […] Oppressed national minorities must be given a legal mechanism to appeal over the heads of their own governments […]

Third, and finally: we need to find new conceptions of citizenship. Citizenship is itself the primordial kind of injustice in the world. It functions as an extreme form of inherited property and, like other systems in which inherited privilege is overwhelmingly determinant, it arouses little allegiance in those who inherit nothing. Many countries have made efforts, through welfare and education policy, to neutralise the consequences of accidental advantages such as birth. But “accidental advantages” rule at the global level: 97% of citizenship is inherited, which means that the essential horizons of life on this planet are already determined at birth. […]

Contemporary technological systems offer models for rethinking citizenship so it can be de-linked from territory, and its advantages can be more fairly distributed. The rights and opportunities accruing to western citizenship could be claimed far away, for instance, without anyone having to travel to the west to do so. We could participate in political processes far away that nonetheless affect us: if democracy is supposed to give voters some control over their own conditions, for instance, should a US election not involve most people on earth? What would American political discourse look like, if it had to satisfy voters in Iraq or Afghanistan?

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