Tag Archives: economics

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.


Sudan’s problems are bigger than Omar al-Bashir

While Syria’s civil war rolls on with another (presumably doomed) Annan peace planSudan has been rocked by a series of violent protests against the government which president Omar al-Bashir says are nothing like the Arab Spring. Western journalists say otherwise. Well, not all. Anyway as I see it the argument over whether it is or isn’t an extension of the Arab Spring is more a matter of trying to get website views than anything else. I think a more pertinent question is what hope is there for lasting change in Sudan?  Make no mistake, Bashir is not a nice fellow – there’s a reason he’s been indicted for crimes against humanity – but ousting him and establishing democratic structures won’t solve the problems which are plaguing Sudan.

The simplest narrative to explain the state of Sudan today is this: there was a civil war which led to the country losing its oil-rich southern region (now the imaginatively named South Sudan) and now it’s poor. Although the immediate threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan seems to have passed, neither state appears very stable or strong at the moment. Aside from this issue though, there is the problem that Sudan is a large multi-ethnic state dominated by one ethnic group and uneven distribution of wealth and power across different regions has fuelled ethnic tensions. The conflict in what is now South Sudan was one example of this, while another is the crisis in Darfur which is now in state of uneasy peace. Granted, a true democracy in Sudan might alleviate some of these issues but not all. Wealth will still be unevenly distributed because of the uneven distribution of resources. These resources include arable land, and as desertification spreads in the north of the country the people who had lived and farmed there have sought other places to go, and this in fact was one of the key causes of the Darfur conflict.

Although the new state of South Sudan controls most of the oilfields now, the refineries and port where this oil can be put on tankers are in Sudan and thus co-operation is needed to ensure the oil still flows. However, South Sudan plans to build a pipeline through neighbouring Kenya, meaning that Sudan could be shutout of a share of the oil revenue. So to maintain the standard of living that many Sudanese have become accustomed to another source of income may have to be found. Again, the removal of Bashir and the establishment of a democracy in Sudan might make it a more appealing place for foreign investors and aid. However, as global economic woes continue the amount of aid money available will be reduced, and foreign investment relies on something to invest in. In an economy facing regional climate change in the form of desertification, an economy which is 80% agricultural looks like a bit of a problem.

If Omar al-Bashir can be removed it will be a victory for human rights and international justice, and if Sudan can develop stable democratic structures then the country will better placed than it now is to deal with its myriad issues. Nonetheless the examples of Egypt and Libya have shown that the transition from dictatorship to democracy is never easy, and Sudan’s challenges are if anything bigger than either of those. Optimism is a good thing but its easy to get carried away. Of course, the Sudanese people have to actually get rid of Bashir first, and I doubt that there will be any appetite in the West for a Libya-style intervention in this case. And then if Bashir is ousted, what is to stop conflict flaring up again between groups looking to take over from him?

Sudan’s future looks bleak, and so does that of South Sudan. Ironically, people in both countries may have been better off in the long-term if they had stayed as one state. All hail the law of unintended consequences!


My theory on why the USSR collapsed

Ever had to deal with a government department to sort out your taxes, get a driver’s license etc? Notice how frustrating and annoying the paper-pushing process is? Now think about a whole country where everything you do goes through that process….

Exactly.

NB: Before anyone thinks I’m a crazed anarcho-capitalist or something, I’m not against the government providing social welfare, healthcare, etc. I don’t think the free market can provide those things well enough for all citizens, so dealing with government bureaucracy is a necessary evil sometimes. But a whole country like that? Yikes!


Greece is now a failing state (in my opinion)

The most common definition of a state one is likely to encounter in the social sciences is Max Weber’s one which say that a state is an entity which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. An interesting take on this which reframes it in a more day-to-day metaphor is Charles Tilly’s description of the state as a protection racket – effectively saying that citizens pay tax to be protected from external (and internal) aggressors, and if citizens fail to pay the state then the state uses its force against them in the form of criminal prosecution.  If we accept these broad definitions then a failed state is one which can no longer exercise a monopoly on violence, or to use Tilly’s idea, can no longer maintain its protection racket. A failing state is one heading towards this position.

I like both these definitions for their simplicity and for capturing the essence of the nature of states. They also tie in nicely to the idea of the social contract, which is a prominent part of political science theory discourse. I think that Tilly’s protection racket concept could be widened to encompass the idea that the violence the state protects its citizens from is not just physical but economic. Economic violence could be the effects of poor fiscal and monetary policy, or external forces such as being out-competed by other states, but the idea is that if the state cannot protect its citizens from prolonged economic hardship then it is not living up to its end of the protection racket bargain. In social contract terms, the state has broken the contract to provide for its citizens.

Watching coverage of the Greek elections today, I was struck by the shambolic state of affairs this rather important country has found itself in. It seems to me with my limited understanding of economics that the adoption of a single currency by  group of sovereign states could never work in the long-term… but I digress. I think its time to stop kidding ourselves and admit that the Greek state is failing. One obvious example of this is the rampant tax evasion in Greece, which by some estimates has cost the government a third of its potential revenue. The Greek state has not been able to enforce its protection racket by collecting its dues, and now it can’t protect the people from the economic violence being wrought on them. This is not just the specific government in power’s problem, but the actual state artifice itself. It doesn’t matter who is elected in if the underlying structure is not being honoured by everyone. Those people who are avoiding tax are not going to start paying because someone new is in charge. Other taxpayers stopping paying because of the failures of their state is also a potential problem. Of course, tax collectors could be hired or new methods of enforcement could be tried but until these measures actually start to make headway the Greek state will continue to be “failing” at least in my eyes.

How far Greece can go before total state collapse is an open and very scary question. I think it will most likely avoid that path, but it is still definitely a possibility. European leaders should quietly be making plans for this outcome because if it does happen a whole world of sh*t will follow.


Playing football with BRICS

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, BRICS is an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (why it’s not BRICSA is not exactly clear, but it helps the pun in my title) who are grouped together because they supposedly represent emerging economies which will have a significant impact on the future of the global economic landscape. Obviously such groupings are always largely arbitrary, and until recently South Africa was excluded from the group and they were known as BRIC. One commentator has joked that the addition of new states to this group will soon make it BRIIICTSS, which would really screw up that title pun I have going on there.

Between 2010 and 2018 three of the BRICS states will host the football World Cup (2010 was in South Africa, and the 2014 edition in Brazil will be followed by the 2018 one in Russia), and the 2022 World Cup will be in Qatar. While it’s not BRICS member or even a BRIIICTSS(?) member, Qatar is a rapidly developing economy of potential global importance. This post will look at what the preparation and execution of these world cups can tell us about the challenges and issues facing the engagement of the BRICS and other emerging economies with the broader global market and international community as a whole. Not all the issues I identify will be equally applicable to all BRICS or emerging economies, but they are all significant points nonetheless.

Transparency and corruption: The allegations of corruption following the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups have been widely publicised but the focus has primarily been on the place of FIFA in this, not the bidders themselves. However it takes two parties to instigate corruption and the fact that these allegations exist does not look good for Russia or Qatar if they hope to attract more investment and foreign business. Brazil, too, has been dealing with its own corruption saga surrounding the 2014 World Cup preparations. Interestingly, Qatar is  perceived to be the 22nd least corrupt country in the world, Brazil the 73rd, and Russia a lowly 143rd. South Africa had corruption allegations associated with its World Cup too, and is ranked 64th on the same index (more data on corruption and transparency is available from here).

Safety and security: The safety and security of foreign visitors at the 2010 World Cup was a major concern before it started, but did not prove to be an issue after all. Similar safety concerns have been raised about Russia and, to a lesser extent, Brazil. Only time will tell if these worries are more accurate than those about South Africa but if the BRICS and other emerging economies want to establish themselves as global leaders then they must first be able to ensure the safety and security of foreign nationals visiting their countries. Obviously the World Cup is an extreme example of this because of the sheer size of the event and the unsavoury actions of a minority of football “fans” but the fact remains that these concerns were not raised at relatively recent football World Cups held in the USA, Japan, South Korea, France or Germany.

Human rights: This one in particular applies to Qatar, where homosexuality is against the law and punishable by death. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter was one of the people who did not seem to have a problem with this (for a quick rundown on the sort of chap he is, check out this list of quotes from him) , but plenty of others are outraged at it. The controversy surrounding this issues is likely to grow even louder the closer the event becomes. Russia can also probably expect protestors to use the World Cup to highlight its human rights abuses, although these may not affect the visiting fans themselves. This issue is important to BRICS and emerging economies because if they want soft power to match their rising economic power (as Qatar clearly does) then they will presumably be expected to adopt similar human rights norms as those parts of the world which currently wield the most soft power, namely the EU and USA. However, as always with human rights, it is important to note that those states themselves do not always have the best records despite the impression they like to give.

Managing growth: As Brazil has begun construction on stadia and other infrastructure for the World Cup, up to 1.5 million families may be made homeless by these projects, an issue which ties into the appalling conditions in the flavelas, the shantytowns of Sao Paulo and Rio. This highlights a problem facing all rapidly growing economies: making sure that people don’t get left behind by the development and rising wealth. In order to stop this happening, governments need to ensure poor people are protected from the side effects of major development projects, and that cities are managed to provide the best standard of living for their citizens as economic drives rapid urbanisation.

Emerging economies and states which wish for a bigger influence in global affairs face a range of challenges. How Brazil, Russia and Qatar manage the World Cups they are hosting will reflect on them in a number of ways, and may well highlight some of these issues. South Africa’s World Cup was widely regarded as a success and I would suggest that most people’s attitudes towards South Africa improved as a result of the World Cup (although not all aspects of their culture came across positively). The next three hosts will be hoping and striving for a similar outcome. Whether that is the case remains to be seen.


Complexity and chaos in international relations theory

I haven’t blogged for a while because of stupid crap (like life) getting in the way. However now I’m back with a rambling musing on the underlying nature of the system of states and institutions which constitute international relations. My apologies if this gets a bit hard to follow but these ideas are still forming in my mind so I might not be able to articulate them brilliantly yet. Still, writing them down might help me make sense of them myself.

So the starting point of what I’m thinking about is the constituent parts of the international order, which is to say nation-states. If a nation is an ethnic group sharing a common history, language, and cultural traditions and a state (in this context) is a formal political entity exercising control and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its territory, then a nation-state is simply a state which contains a nation and represents their interest. Of course, in reality there are very few examples of culturally homogenous nation-states – maybe San Marino is an example – but in practice what seems to happen is that a state helps to reinforce a sense of nationhood amongst its citizens and the two aspects of the nation-state evolve in a complex interplay with each other.  The lure of nationalism is still immensely strong even among people who don’t think they are nationalists. Everyone identifies to some extent with the culture(s) they grew up in and this shapes how they view the world. One doesn’t have to want to conquer other countries or kill some hated foe to be a nationalist, as Michael Billig pointed out in his book “Banal Nationalism”.

National myths develop based upon how the state itself  developed, or as statehood becomes the ultimate goal for ethnic minorities in larger nation-states. The national myth of the USA, for example, is based upon the ideas of freedom and liberty, and developed both because some early colonisers were persecuted religious minorities and because the revolution which saw it secede from Britain has been framed as an attempt to break chains of bondage to the crown. Later the abolition of slavery was awkwardly integrated in, but the place of the Native Americans within the national myth has never been worked out because immigration and escape from persecution are essential parts of what it means to be America, and the Native Americans do not fit this narrative. Individual cultural groups of Native Americans like the Sioux are nations without a state, not a part of the nation-state in which they live. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world states simply fail to survive or develop, and the people that live in these areas end up effectively being excluded from economic and political activity which takes place on a global scale.

The creation of a robust idea of a nation-state is therefore a complicated and messy process decided in part by historical events and geography, and reinforced by the behaviour of itself, its citizens, and other states. I personally feel that history is a vital part of understanding international relations, perhaps because I have studied it a lot. For instance it is impossible to understand the current state of the Israel-Palestine conflict without understanding its history. At an even deeper level, the history of the nation-state as a concept and how it spread around the world are vital subjects to understanding how nation-states operate today. I won’t go into this too much here (because this post will be huge anyway) but it is important to note that it developed out of war and struggles for dominance in Europe and was exported around the world by European colonialism, coercion and influence. Interestingly Europe was also the first part of the world to really try to develop something beyond the nation-state (the EU) at an inter-state level, and the resulting clusterf*ck and rising nationalist fervour in Europe today look set to bury that little experiment. The Eurozone crisis also shows the crucial place of economics in the study of international relations. States influence economies and economies influence states and the two are effectively impossible to separate. While political science and economics may be approached quite distinctly by academics, they are really inextricably entwined in the real world. However, while these big things all influence state behaviour so can “little” things as well: the personalities of the states’ leaders, or the price of food, or even someone’s decision to stop for a sandwich.

Essentially what I’ve been gearing up to say over those last couple of paragraphs is that international relations is an extremely messy and complex subject, where a wide range of factors interact to produce the eventual outcome. This is a defining characteristic of all social sciences and social scientists often try to develop theories to simplify their explanations of these outcomes but I’m not sure that works often enough, at least in international relations (I haven’t studied other social sciences enough to really comment on them). I am willing to concede that part of my thinking on this may be the result of how my brain works – I think I naturally think inductively not deductively –  but I am confident enough in this view to say that no conventional international relations theory will ever fully explain state behaviour. There is however a theoretical  framework out there which while it may lack the ability to predict state behaviour, it can explain much of it. This is what is called either chaos theory or complexity theory, and it was developed to explain complex systems which are highly sensitive to their initial conditions. I think international relations is just such a system, and the application of chaos theory can help explain certain aspects of it. I am definitely not the first to think this: here is an article on it which looks like it could be interesting, and here is another. In fact a quick search around throws up an impressive number of articles on the subject of chaos and/or complexity in international relations. I haven’t actually read any of them though! (Although I will soon, once I have the time. I promise. Really…)

The point is that it seems like a few people are thinking the same way. It will be interesting to see if these ideas ever take hold at the heart of international relations scholarship or if they are left as the domain for the lunatic fringe. Obviously all explanations of complex systems can only focus on certain aspects and necessarily simplify or exclude certain things, and I am not deluding myself into thinking that the application of chaos theory to international relations will be some sort of final destination in the search for full understanding. However, it is interesting to consider what it can add to the debates of the discipline – for instance, a description of nation-states as strange attractors could explain why they are so resilient to external forces like globalisation and internal forces like shifting demographics. Anyway, these are just my thoughts on the subject for now. Maybe when I actually read some of those articles I will change my mind!