The 21st Century is changing much about the world that humans take for granted. Among the more shocking possibilities is that it will sound the death-knell of the nation-state as the main instrument of human self-governance.
The nation state, established in the Americas and in Europe post-Napoleon, is now so firmly ingrained in our identities, customs and beliefs that many people are unable to imagine a world in which this edifice might disappear, or at least fade into insignificance – like feudalism, monarchy, the ancient imperial systems, or the priest-states and tribal lands before them.
However, certain currents are now established in the stream of history whose confluence threatens to engulf the nation as an entity. Everywhere. And it is time we discuss the possibility, rather than assume that everything will remain the same, forever.
The first of these gigantic currents is the rise and rise of transnational businesses, whose individual economic might now exceeds that of all but the largest nations. These self-governed entities – they are nearly all autocracies despite the occasional shareholder meeting – now dominate more than half the world economy and do pretty much as they choose. They buy and sell governments. They bend, break and amend the laws of nation states more or less at will. And they pay only a whisker of their fair share of taxes.
The loss of tax revenue especially is slowly strangling the government of all nation states: they no longer have funds with which to govern. They no longer have enough cash to appease the demands of their voters, if democracies, or their citizens, if autocracies (as most countries are). The national tax base is quietly withering as economic forces become more global. This attrition of the fiscal power to govern is rapidly translating into the disillusion and disgust which many citizens now feel for the politicians and governments who over-promise and constantly fail to live up to our expectations. Consequently, people are deserting political parties globally and fewer now turn up to vote. The young are wondering “What’s the point?”, when the government you elect is only a catspaw for foreign transnationals. And political parties have taken to changing their leaders regularly, in the pious hope that a new face will alter reality.
The second current is the defiance of regulation. National governments can no longer control these giant businesses as they skip adroitly between jurisdictions. One example is the chemical industry, which is quite strictly regulated in western countries and which, rather than relinquish its profitable poisoning of our planet, has fled headlong into Asia where regulation is weak and officialdom usually corrupt. National governments are now powerless to stop its emissions from returning to poison their own citizens in air, water, food and traded goods. And if national governments can no longer enforce laws to protect their citizens, then they are no longer governments, by definition.
A third reason that the nation state is in trouble is the rise of social media. Yes, social media, that font of trivia and vapid opinion, is rapidly becoming more potent as a determinant of political outcomes than the creaking ‘power centres’. Social media was closely implicated in the overthrow of oppressive regimes in Egypt and Tunisia in 2012. It helped determine the outcome of the 2010 presidential election in Colombia. Its lightning-fast reflexes (literally – it operates at light-speed) have foiled all sorts of dinosaurian government plans in countries round the world. Social media can respond with a freedom, flexibility, immediacy and agility that is simply beyond the lumbering autocrats. It is particularly susceptible to well-poisoning by fossil fuel companies and other manipulators, with their armies of bots and ‘useful idiots’. Social media has the power to build, reform and alter public consensus on a raft of issues in a way that often leaves governments stranded like the proverbial shag on a rock. Nobody would claim it is carefully thought-through, but at least it’s still fairly democratic – something not many governments nowadays can truthfully claim.
A fourth reason why governments are failing is their growing impotence. So many issues today are global in nature or context, and individual governments – even great federations of nations like the EU – are relatively powerless to control or influence them. Decisions about what to do about the atmosphere, the oceans, famines, refugee crises, the world economy etc. are being taken by global consensus and through global institutions, emasculating the decision-making powers of national governments. This contributes to the ‘revolving door’, as successive leaders are judged wanting.
The problem is a compounding one. As national government becomes less capable and more autocratic it ceases to attract quality leaders, innovators and reformers. Instead, it draws in a class of bottom-feeders, adept at every trick to gain and retain power, and who reward themselves and their pals with vast entitlements, allowances, perks and pensions. The concept of ‘public service’ lapses into oblivion as the administrative arm of government becomes politicised and subservient. This in turn accelerates the spiralling loss of credibility, power and popular support for national institutions.
A fifth reason nation states are crumbling is refugeeism. When the UNHCR was set up post-WWII it had one million people to deal with. Today 103 million are displaced by war, famine, political and religious persecution (up from 19m in 2000) – and another 250 million are seeking economic opportunity elsewhere or else are driven by fear of impending disaster as their home state totters. That’s a third of a billion humans, on the road, every year, putting all borders under growing strain.
By mid-century, with climate-induced famines striking around the world and the outbreak of resulting conflicts, the displaced population may well number hundreds of millions. Water and food crises in northern China, North India and North Africa, possibly compounding into conflicts as they have already done in the Middle East and Africa – could unleash tsunamis of terrified refugees in all directions. Populist measures like Donald Trump’s Mexican border fence or Abbott’s ‘stop the boats’ campaign are Canute-like fantasies designed to deceive the massses. Borders become porous and then meaningless in the face of such tidal population shifts. Nation states that cannot defend their borders become equally meaningless. Today’s refugee ‘crisis’ is a mere foreshock of what the combined forces of resource scarcity, eco-collapse, peak people, climate change and resulting conflict can bring.
Faced with the erosion of its wealth and power, with public disillusion and increasingly porous borders, the nation state is an entity rapidly approaching its use-by date. Something constructed on essentially 19th century Bismarckian lines is hardly up to the task of coping with a world in which everything – money, people, power, information, opinion and pollution – now flows globally.
For all their patriotic sentiments, flagwaving and anthems, nations have basically been a poor idea. Since the 1850s they’ve slaughtered around 200 million humans – mostly civilians – in their wars. More, even, than religions. And it wasn’t the people who started these wars – it was their governments (almost universally male). If we aspire to world peace in the Age of Peak People, and wish to avoid future nuclear conflicts, we first need to replace the structures that lead to war.
That nations are, at heart, killing machines is abundantly clear from the warlike behaviour of the US over the past 70 years, from the Russia/Ukraine conflict and the recent rumbling of the war drums for a conflict involving the US, China, Australia and others. Their predilection for mass murder is a purely masculine attribute. None of their wars were started by women – a substantive argument to make women leaders of everything. If humans wish to survive, that is.
As the ten megathreats [i] bear inexorably down on all humanity, the likelihood that failing national governments will take refuge in war escalates. Faced with problems they cannot solve[ii], and populations growing increasingly impatient at their incompetence, more and more leaders will fall back on the ‘Galtieri Solution’[iii] – when in doubt start a war, and the mugs will rally round the flag.
The most important thing for people to realise is that nations, individually and collectively, do not have the answers to the existential crisis now facing humanity. They are too selfish, too parochial in their thinking, too politically compromised, too argumentative, too anachronistic. They are an ugly, brutal phase in our history – not a solution to our future. They need to get out of the way. People who cling to nationalistic ideals need to grow up and face reality.
To solve a crisis of the magnitude of the one we are facing requires universal will and co-operation, not petty inter-nation squabbling on the 19th Century model. As this stand, nations represent a direct obstacle to the survival of civilization. They will be the chief cause of its downfall.
The nation state is dead. It belongs in the dustbin of history, along with monarchies, empires and other expressions of glorified greed.
Only becoming one people, on one planet, can save us.
[i] 1. Climate change and global heating, 2. Global poisoning, 3. Weapons of mass destruction, 4. Resource scarcity, 5. Food insecurity, 6. Ecological breakdown and extinction, 7. Pandemic disease, 8. Overpopulation,
9. Uncontrolled technologies, 10.Misinformation and delusion.
[ii] See https://juliancribb.blog/2022/01/04/the-end-of-politics/
[iii] General Galtieri sought to distract attention from his Argentinian regime’s economic mismanagement and brutal repression by invading the Falkland Islands.
4 thoughts on “The nation state is on the skids…”
Very original and eye-opening. Imagine the states and their benighted masses will cling on long past and go down in an orgy of slaughter and devastation, saluting their flags…. Anyway, thanks for alerting us!
Brilliant observations Mr Cribb. Obviously carefully considered observations made over some time..others have made parts of this case before, but not in such a connected fashion. Some non scientific observations!:
A lot of important historical work is currently getting published re evaluating ‘imperial’/ empire histories that sheds light on this issue. (Ottoman, Hapsburg Strauss Hungarian etc )John Keane New despotism offers more precision on definitions. Simply referring to ‘autocracies’ as inferior democracies who have not made the jump to ‘American’ democracy style wont do any more. Use of the term has subliminal implications, even if not intended. Better vocabulary required that Keane enables. Lastly there was years ago during last cold war, as you know a thing called ‘Non Aligned Movement’. That is no more the Brixc countires is nearest contemporary equivalent. Only if your suggestions appear to come from such places, or advocated from such places will they ever be taken seriously. Such is the (justified) suspicion of American ‘hegemonism’ as it is called! Even if American ultra conservatives regard such ideas as anathema. American violent nihilism may make such a project viable,once US finally loses all international credibility. When that event happens who knows?
Careful observers have described Sudan as perhaps prefiguring a future of statelessness war–or intra war- with involvement from the world providing money and arms…
Lastly Jacques Attali in: Noise ‘a political economy of music’ described years ago how music prefigures/ signals physical reformations of society because its constructions are more abstract and quickly manipulable. A case point is the arrival of what was labelled ‘world music’ 3 decades ago. it was a moment, of transition. It did not last as local traditions gave way to homogenizing American music industry fashions..
Thanks, Paul. Yes, it’s been welling up inside me for a while now. I’m a classics scholar so my view of history tends to be somewhat longer than most. As for ‘democracies’, many of those who claim the title don’t actually live up to it. The US would be one of those. At present I see the US as perilously balanced been flawed democracy and autocracy. This seems to sum it up: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/state-of-democracy-around-the-world-2023/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=
But statelessness need not involve utter disintegration of law, order and governance. If states were to fragment into micro-states, like Singapore, you can still have a high degree of order and social responsibility – but far fewer nukes!
I personally consider that as people become more engaged in global issues, and in controlling them through their economic signals (the only thing that global corporations listen to) a form of global democracy will arise – though it will not depend on ‘votes’ or global government. This is a 2 bottle of red wine conversation.
I don’t think modern music signifies all that much about the human state. It is largely a commercial venture, like publishing or movies, with new songs and genres being force-fed into the machine to make big bucks, not to advance the art. It is drive by crass commerce and therefore does not reflect social aspiration, but rather collective greed and artificial hunger for novelty. Sorry.
Thank you Julian for your wonderful articles. Unfortunately we’ll never be one people on one planet. We are racing in the opposite direction. The only thing everyone seems to believe in is continual growth – they’re all in denial that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Governments are continually talking about ramping up renewal energy, electric cars etc. as if that’s going to save us from climate change and environmental destruction. I wonder if the public actually believes that or is the reality of our situation just too devastating to face.