The future of the nation-state in the information age

Recently a couple of things have made me think more about whether nation-states will continue to be by far and away the dominant form of political organisation in the world and how technology, particularly information technology, will affect the answer to this question. One of these things was a random conversation with a colleague, while the other is the novel I’m reading at the moment, Neal Stephenson’s  The Diamond Age, which deals with some of these themes (not always in ways I agree with). This post will be my musings on the subject, hopefully corralled into some sort of coherent order.

For starters, it is important to consider  how the concepts of technology, information, and political organisation are related. Put simply, technology is vital to the existence of the modern-state. Benedict Anderson concluded that the printing press was a key factor in the development of national identities because it homogenized language over a broad geographical area, creating a unified sense of “the nation” on linguistic grounds. Charles Tilly took a type of Darwinistic approach to the idea of the creation of the modern state, explaining it as the result of war, therefore those states which were more able to wage war were the ones which survived. This theory implies the importance of technology too, not just on the battlefield but on the ability of the state to generate tax revenue through taxation, which is helped technological advances in communication and transport. Technology and the conception of the modern ideas of the nation, the state, and the nation-state are inextricably linked.

It is also undeniable that the internet and the information technology age in which we live is a massive shift in the way in which people and societies conceive of and mediate their relationship with technology. Whereas the printing press centralised identities around a certain dialect which became the national language, the internet is a decentralizing force, as it breaks down many of the geographic barriers towards communication with people all over the globe. Could this be the beginning of the end for the nation-state, as identities become fixed to concepts and ideas in cyberspace rather than geographic location and linguistic homogeneity in the physical world?

Well, Scottish enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and William Robertson saw a culture’s means of production as the key reason behind its political organisation. In a capitalist society with a division of labour and a complex web of  economic interactions a state structure was necessary and inevitable as a means of protecting property rights. The rich were seen to have more to gain from this as they had more property to protect, but everyone in society would benefit. Obviously a division of labour helps technology advance through the work of specialists  such as scientists and engineers. The bigger and more complex a society is, the greater it can utilise the division of labour, and the greater the benefits this brings can be.

To use a personal example, a month before my 9th birthday I had a bad accident involving a bike and a window where I cut my upper arm from the skin to the bone, severing muscles, nerves, and an artery. My mum kept pressure on the wound until an ambulance arrived and I was taken to the hospital, where doctors operated for five and a half hours to sew my arm back together. Without a complex society with a division of labour I would be dead. The ambulance that came to get me was a  complex vehicle containing highly specialised equipment, which needed a division of labour to make it. It ran on petrol, which had to be drilled out of the ground, shipped halfway around the world, refined, and shipped halfway around the world again. The medical staff who treated were all highly trained and specialised, and the equipment they used was also made in specialised factories. If they had to build their own homes, grow their own food, make their own clothes and so on then they wouldn’t have had the time to become doctors and nurses and gain all the knowledge necessary for those jobs. Ditto for all the people involved with designing, manufacturing, shipping, and installing all those bits of equipment like heart monitors, artificial ventilation units, microscopes, and so on which were used in the surgery. While I will admit that a bike and a window are both the products of a division of labour as well,  a similar accident could happen in other ways with natural hazards in a pre-division-of-labour society, and the victim would be dead from loss of blood before long. Even in many parts of the world today, or my own country 150 years ago, I wouldn’t put odds on someone surviving something like that. And that’s only one example. Anyone reading this blog probably knows someone alive today who wouldn’t be if we didn’t have division of labour which allowed for modern healthcare.

The reason for this segue is to emphasise my position on why I think large complex societies are desirable, so anyone who tries to argue that we should return to small agricultural communities understands the implications that go along with that. I don’t think that anarchy as a form of government can work in a large complex society so you need a formal set of rules and institutions which govern behaviour amongst people and organisations, protect rights, andensure that inequality is managed so that social tensions do not lead to violence and destruction of property. In short, you need a state. On top of that, small agricultural communities inevitably end up being absorbed by states so unless you can guarantee that the entire world shares your vision and won’t develop their own divisions of labour and state structures, such a proposal is impractical anyway. Nonetheless some people still argue this position. Now, I don’t think that states are inherently good or anything like that, but simply that the benefits of a complex society with a division of labour outweighs its costs – states are a necessary evil. Of course we can still aim to make our state fairer and better at providing for and protecting its citizens than its current model, but any idea of removing the institutions and structures which constitute a state are completely misguided and will never happen, at least in my humble opinion.

But this doesn’t mean that the specific form of states which dominates today, the nation-state, is destined to last. As I have written elsewhere on this blog I define a nation-state as a sovereign state (i.e. a political entity which exercises an absolute monopoly on legitimate violence within a clearly defined territory) which defines its legitimacy through some sense of collective cultural identity and shared historical narrative. The shift away from geographically defined identities in the internet age and the associated homogenizing of culture through shared language and experiences is seen by some as an indicator of the coming end of nation-states. I’m not so sure. I think that nationalism is still a huge part of people’s identities even when it’s not acknowledged. Take a look at people’s responses to the upcoming Olympic games and tell me that people don’t care about their nation – banal nationalism is rife in this world. If anything the exposure to the internet and social media in particular makes people more aware of their identities because they are commonly being asked to define them. What you like on Facebook, what websites you visit, what news articles you comment under, who you friend request or follow, forums you engage with, and so on all add up to make you more self-conscious about who “you” are, and most people inevitably include ethno-nationalistic elements to this. As long as nation-states exist and have standardised education  then people from the same country will spend their formative years in the presence of people from the same place and this will continue to make them feel as if they share a connection with those people. The internet might make national identities weaker in some cases but I seriously doubt it will destroy them altogether.

So as I see it the only way that something other than a nation-state will become the dominant form of political organisation globally is if small nation-states join into larger federations where sovereignty is shared – like I described in my earlier post. This is the only way I can see nationalism becoming disentangled from the legitimacy of the state. However, even if that doesn’t happen I think that the information age could have other impacts on the way nation-states themselves operate. Most nation-states are highly centralized, with political decision-making effectively in the hands of a few people whether they are democratically elected or not. One thing the decentralizing nature of the internet might do to this structure is to decentralize it as well. Previous advances in information technology have drastically changed the world. To pick a famous example, the printing press opened up an age of scientific, social and political revolution in Europe as ideas could be transmitted quickly and cheaply like never before. As I pointed out up the top there, this can be seen as one of the key causes of the creation of the modern nation-state as well.  The medium itself was the crucial aspect of this information revolution, as it will no doubt be with the internet’s impact upon our current world, which is only just being felt. I suspect that as our ways of thinking become more used to concepts of decentralized networks rather than hierarchical patterns of control, so the pressure to arrange our political organisations along these lines will also mount. Already Twitter and Facebook have been credited with driving the Arab Spring, and although the vast majority of internet political engagement is really just slacktivism it is undeniable that there is potential for a whole new way of driving political change through information technology. It would be foolish to think that the information age will not have an effect on how our societies are politically organised, but it would be equally foolish to claim that the nation-state is doomed because of this.

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2 responses to “The future of the nation-state in the information age

  • Anthony Behan (@technopolitics)

    Excellent post, and good consideration of some of the issues. I’m coming at this from a slightly different perspective – examining the extent to which state legitimacy is compromised or altered by technological change. A couple of points..Weber’s definition of the state as “a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force” reminds us of the importance of the military, and of security in the need for the state. Bobbit’s “The Shield of Achilles” argued the emergence of a Market State, replacing the old Nation State, which is an interesting nuance, both Weberian and Darwinist in equal measure. Friedman’s assertion that Kennedy’s hypothesis – that man should not ask whe his country could do for him, but what he could do for his country – was wrong on both counts (ergo that the State should have almost nothing to do with man, one way or the other!) reduced the state to a functional infrastructure with minimal relevance anyway. Friedman’s view is strongly held by US Republicans and many other state theorists.

    The extent to which identity itself is being changed by technology has a fundamentally strong bearing on the future of the state. You mention the Olympics, I’ve blogged recently (at http://www.statelegitimacy.com) on Eurovision and the European Football Championships in a similar vein. We should also consider the extent to which brands are claiming a stake in personal identity, a la Naomi Klein’s No Logo. That’s reducing the space left for personal association with a nation, conventional culture, community or even family. This in turn compromises civil society structures (the importance of which in Democratic states was emphasised in de Tocqueville). Similarly, technology allows the establishment of ad hoc networks, societies and cultures that are divorced from physical and geographic constraints. Does that collective alteration in personal identity undermine the legitimacy of the state? And does that undermining of state legitimacy in turn require a change in the nature of the state?

    Interesting themes, interesting times 🙂

  • sykik

    Excellent post! A couple of points.

    First, we need to question whether the nation-state, understood in the most basic way as one nation one state, was ever the dominant model or political organization in the world. It has been an ideal ,yes, but beyond Europe, and a few Central Asian states, there aren’t many nation-states in the world at all. The majority of the global population lives in what should be called multi-national states. Take, India, China, the United States for example. There certainly dominant national groups within these states. But the identity of the state does not overlap with these groups. So, I think the term nation-state is problematic.

    Second, most talk of the end of the nation-state, I’ll continue calling it that for now, is based on the European experience, and maybe North America, excluding Mexico. I don not think it has any relevance for the rest of the world, considering that parts of Africa and Asia are still caught up in the transition towards a modern state.

    Third, regarding technology. I agree that technology will definitely change the nature of the state. It always has. In fact, isn’t the modern state a technological entity itself, considering the instruments it applies to enforce its power? And, again your point about modern technology enforcing national self identification is very well made. We see this not only within nations but also among diaspora communities which might ‘renew’ their bonds with the homeland mainly because technology makes it (virtually) closer to them.

    Again, thank you for the brilliant post! I hope to spend some time on your blog.

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