Tag Archives: politics

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.

Advertisements

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!


These are a few of my favourite names

Okay, so names are important in international politics. Different countries call geographical features different things to suit their own ends – take the Persian Arabian Islamic Gulf as an example. Then there are the disputes over the names of nations themselves, as in the case of the Republic of Macedonia, which when it was admitted to the UN had to be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia so as not to piss off Greece and Greek Macedonians. Then there are names in certain languages that get transliterated into English one way and then changed to another, like Peking/Beijing or Mumbai/Bombay, while in other cases the choice of when to accept local spellings and when not is weirdly ambiguous. I follow football and it always strikes me as odd that the team from the Bavarian city of Munich known as Bayern Munchen in German is rendered as Bayern Munich in English. Why? Shouldn’t it be Bayern Munchen or Bavaria Munich?

There is also the highly politicised argument about what to call various categories of nations based on their economies and politics. The old 1st world, 2nd world, 3rd world system lost its middle category at the end of the Cold War but is still commonly used. The “West” is a term often used to mean rich countries with a strong European influence on their politics but if that includes the North American and Australasian states then it pretty much encircles the globe so it is west of everything, including itself. The now popular term “Global South” for poorer countries is equally stupid in my opinion as I happen to live in the most southerly capital city in the world and I daresay my country is richer than say Afghanistan, Mongolia, or Haiti in the northern hemisphere, to name a few. I’d guess that Australians, and Brazilians feel the same way as well. The categories of “developed” and “developing” are too value-laden for a lot of people, as are industrialised and industrialising and unindustrialised so there isn’t really a way I know of to name these categories satisfactorily. Nonetheless I’m pretty sure there are at least some categorical differences between countries like Sudan, Congo and Somalia, and Sweden, Switzerland and Monaco.

Having established that names can be important, I think it’s also good to enjoy them for their merits. Not everything has to be a big serious issue all the time. Here’s a few of my favourites, with the reasons why I like them:

Anyone else have any favourite names? Or have I just out-geeked everyone?


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.


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.