Tag Archives: nation-states

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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The problem with nation-states

After another study-induced hiatus I’m back with a bit of a rant about why I don’t think nation-states should be the last word in human political organisation. This is not to say that I think the end of the nation-state is close at hand – far from it in fact – but the problems I see with the nation-state model mean that I have to hope there is a way to move past it. In part this post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with a friend about my earlier post which focused on the future of the EU, and this post will further explain some of the positions I took in that one. I’m also not going to go into the history of how nation-states as a concept came into being but it does fascinate me and is probably a good place to start if you want to think more about them as cultural institutions today.

So, first things first: definition. A nation-state is, according to Mirriam-Webster: “a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; especially : a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities” – which shows how awkward it can be to define. If this definition was taking as strictly true then how many countries would actually qualify? Most you care to name have some relatively significant ethnic minority which would count them out… but that’s not actually how we conceive of the nation-state when we bandy the term about. Instead, I would suggest that a nation-state is this: 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. This definition doesn’t exclude minorities from being part of a nation-state, but what it does do is show how pretty much every state in the world defines itself. Even in  Africa, where colonialism jammed different ethnic groups together and made states out of them, the post-colonial inheritors of these states have attempted to define their legitimacy through the shared experience of the colonial yoke.

This is all well and good, but not everyone is always going to fit into the collective identity and narrative of the “nation” bit of the nation-state, and this is where the problem begins. Right at the start of the UN charter in Article I there is a clear expression of the right to self-determination of peoples – but where does this end? Can any ethnic group which self-identifies as distinct from those around it secede and claim a nation-state of its own? If so, what happens to places like Papua New Guinea, where there are about 800 languages spoken by a population of 6 million-ish? If we assume each language represents a distinct cultural group then I guess Papua New Guinea should become 841 new nation-states. PNG isn’t alone in this either, although it may be an extreme example.The good ol’ CIA has a nice list here of the ethnic makeup of the various states of the world. Interesting reading.

Furthermore, each national identity gets created as an expression of “same” and “other,” so people outside it become marginalised and excluded, not to mention possibly discriminated against. Each time a new nation-state forms and defines its national identity in a certain way then a new group will be the “other” and become excluded and marginalised. Take a look at the breakup of the former Yugoslavia to see what happens when this process gets out of control. Then there is the problem of what happens when to different nations want a state in the same place because that’s what their identity and narrative tells them to do – say hello to Israel/Palestine. The idea that a nation should have absolute sovereignty over the territory of its choosing is undeniably flawed, and yet all over the world people still fight for the independence of their own nation from another, larger one. Clearly, if states continue to gain legitimacy from nationalist identities this will go on indefinitely.

The solution as I see it is decentralised federalisation and pan-national states. Getting there won’t be easy, and certain parts of the world will probably always be organised as nation-states, but the idea that nation-states are the only valid way to politically organise large groups of people needs to be dropped to avoid the violence and suffering which comes from identity politics gone mad. After all for most of history empires, city-states, and tribal-level political units all existed and interacted at one time. National identity can continue to exist but it does not need to be the foundation on which our political units are based.


The future of the EU… and the world

I’ve been thinking about the European Union and Europe a bit recently – partly because of the obvious reasons, such as the media saturation of the Hollande/Merkel showdown and the Greek crisis, and partly because I’ve applied for a job working with the EU delegation here in New Zealand. This has led to ponder on the future of the EU and what that means for the world in general. With the Eurozone on shaky ground, little has been written about what any sort of rush for the exits will do for the wider EU as a whole (at least that I’ve seen) but to me this raises some very serious questions.

The EU can be viewed as an experiment in liberal international relations theory and the results of this experiment could influence global politics for years to come. Should the EU manage to evolve and strengthen through dealing with the current crisis then other regional unions such as ASEAN might see it as a reason to pursue closer economic and political cooperation. However if the Eurozone crisis damages the EU’s credibility and weakens its institutions then the future of regional unions as important units in international relations will presumably be less rosy. On top of this, there is the simple fact that Europe is still a major player in global affairs even in the post-colonial era. The EU is home to half a billion people and represents 20% of global GDP. Although some experts think its influence is in decline these numbers alone show that it is still a big player, while the impact of its history on the way the rest of the globe works today is undeniable.

So where does theat leave the EU today? Even if we assume that Greece exits the Eurozone in the near future and triggers the other troubled countries (Ireland, Spain etc) to do the same, would that necessarily be bad for the EU? Some say it would, some say it wouldn’t.

I would personally answer this question with a definitive “maybe”. Sure, that’s a cop-out but with no real precedent to compare to that I’m aware of this is all dangerous new territory. The EU is already considered by some to be undemocratic, and there is at least some popular support for its dissolution, but whether this would reach critical mass following a Eurozone collapse is hard to say. I think the safest thing to predict is that the EU would continue to exist but its powers would be limited to what they are today (excluding the Eurozone bit of course) and it would take a very long time for Europe to move towards closer integration again, if it ever could. While Russia at least would probably welcome this move, from a broad historical perspective it would be a rather tame and sad end to one of the first real attempts to develop a post-nation-state way of approaching global politics. On the other hand, if the EU deals with the Eurozone crisis well it could signal a way forward for states to surrender sovereignty to a higher power in order for economic and political security – which is after all the whole point of the EU anyway.

In some ways the EU’s current problem with the Eurozone shows that it is stuck in the  middle of the pull of nation-states and state sovereignty on one side, and the push to closer integration and a possible federation of Europe on the other, and the halfway point has not been a compromise that has worked. At a deeper level though I think this reflects a constant in European history – the diverging sides of the European experience as it were. There’s the Europe of the enlightenment and humanism, and the Europe of bloody conquest and rampant nationalism. Not that I’m equating nation-states with evil deeds, or saying that a post-nation-state way of governing peoples would be superior, but simply that it is mistake to think of Europe purely in one sense or the other. Although Europe has historically been progressive, it has also historically been reactionary. Another example of this duality is the fact that Europe itself was the birthplace of the modern nation-state yet it still retains some pre-nation-state entities, such as the city-state of Monaco, or San Marino, or even the Vatican.

Even if the EU comes out of the Eurozone crisis stronger, there are still a number of challenges facing it. Foremost among these is where to stop expanding – check out the GIF on this Wikipedia page to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Will Turkey become a member? Georgia? Armenia? How far can the European Union expand and still be European? As it expands eastwards it also run up against the Russia’s sphere of influence and this could be a very difficult relationship to manage, especially considering the partnership between the EU with NATO. If the EU stops admitting new member states will Europe fall back into a division like that between communist and capitalist, or Orthodox and Catholic? As well as these concerns, there is the question of the way forward for the EU – how should it develop its institutions to be more democratic? How much sovereignty are its members willing to cede, and what can be offered in return?

The rest of the world will learn lessons from how the EU handles this crucial point in its history. This isn’t Eurocentrism but simply a reflection of the fact that the EU is sailing into uncharted waters. How it navigates them will ultimately decide if anybody wants to follow in its wake.


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!