The state was a European invention. Initially nothing more than a convenient juridical phenomenon, it supplanted various multi-ethnic empires that stretched across much of the world and destabilised the doctrine of the divine right of monarchs to rule by arguing that their power should be justified by reference to the people.
After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (a series of treaties that protected bounded territories and created the basis for national self-determination and self-sufficiency) the new model soared to a position of unopposed supremacy. Everywhere, that is, except the Islamic world where the validity of concepts such as the separation of church and state and individual conscience could never be fully accepted.
The political phenomenon of the state also differs slightly from that of the nation – a term used to denote a community that is deemed to share common ethnicity, customs, language, origins and ancestry. This is an important distinction and one well worth exploring in the context of the modern day fusion of the nation-state. As events in the Middle East, and the standoff between China and Taiwan amply demonstrate, the distinctions between nation and state are not always clear cut. Declaring a border or building a wall is to misconstrue and neglect deeply ingrained cultural narratives. For this reason alone the two notions have never been entirely reconciled.
To make things even more complicated sovereign states exist both in law and in reality. However, a state may be recognised solely as a de jure state, recognised as being the legitimate government of a territory over which it has no actual control. During the Second World War several governments-in-exile enjoyed diplomatic relations with the Allies, in spite of the fact that their countries were under Nazi occupation. The PLO and Palestinian Authority claim that the State of Palestine is a sovereign state, a claim which has been recognised by most other states, though the territory it claims is under the de facto control of Israel.
Yet still we persist in making life more complicated than it needs to be. In today’s world, enshrined in constitutional laws, and safeguarded by mechanisms for maintaining social order, the sovereignty of the state stands supreme. It is the most dominant and effective organising unit ever conceived and used at scale. Yet the credibility of the modern state is critically endangered. We should be pleased.
Although the concept of sovereign nations has remained key to the prevailing world order for the past few centuries, the state is nothing more, or less, than a legalisation of assumed power – a means of assuring mutual non-interference between co-existing states. In fact as a legal construct it differs little from the legalisation of the holocaust, slavery, or apartheid. The state has always possessed the potential to become an architecture of suppression within its genetic material.
I draw attention to these negative uses of legalised authority for a good reason. In theory the state is a neutral entity. Just as it can never represent all that is moral and beneficial to humanity, neither can it embody all that is corrupt and malicious. Much depends on the extent to which national identity is valued and respected by citizens, and how various instruments of state are applied by its officials. Indeed the relationship between these two is pivotal.
But blind faith is folly. In the aftermath to World War II a darker and more sinister side to nationalist fervour materialised. Unfamiliar yet ruthless too. Almost by stealth, deep state architectures were fabricated by elite groups bent on exerting economic control and maintaining civic compliance. Scant attention was paid to what was happening behind closed doors by a fatigued public eager to resume normality after years of insecurity and conflict. Trust in those who had won the war was absolute. There was every reason to suppose that life would be better now.
Tentatively at first, state predation gained the upper hand. In moves calculated to bolster state and corporate authority, those in power steadily corralled and monitored citizens, depriving them of hard-won rights. A universal reflex appeal to fear became the default tool to assure obedience. Fear of another war. Fear of the unknown. Fear of losing the freedoms secured after winning two world wars. Fear of outsiders, their religious convictions and unfamiliar attire. Even fear of the immigration that had brought cultural diversity and prosperity in its wake.
Meanwhile, on the back of successive scare campaigns contrived by ingenuous representatives of a system even they could not fully comprehend, the rich became richer while the poor were cast aside as collateral damage on the path to some kind of promised nirvana, leaving the middle classes in crisis. Trickle down economics and the dogma of neoliberalism held sway. But that was yesterday.
In the recent past, state collapse, indeed the collapse of entire empires if we include the case of the Soviet Union, most often came like a thief in the night. Unobtrusive. But today we are alert to the very real prospects of failed states occurring in full view – even within the antiquated etiquette of the (so-called) free world.
In the past there have been five explanations for challenges to the sovereign power of nations. The escalation of ethnic or religious conflict; state-sanctioned corruption and cronyism; regional or guerrilla uprisings; the erosion of widely-held principles that result in civil war or coups d’état; and leadership succession or reform crises, most often in totalitarian regimes.
Today we can add a further justification. Perceived as a blend of authoritarianism – concealed by a stream of distractions deliberately aimed at stoking tribal loyalties – parochial policies and misplaced protectionism, accompanied by insurrection from those who have been side-lined (by globalisation or state despotism depending upon locale), this amounts to a rare synthesis of all five previous causes.
Intriguingly these dynamics are playing out in both North Korea and the US as I write. In North Korea the milieu for an uprising has rapidly intensified over the past few months, with dissent on the rise as information seeps in to the country, and members of the elite gaining more and more courage to speak out against the regime of Kim Jong Un. At the same time, across the Pacific ocean, the genesis of a breakdown in US sovereignty can be traced back to conditions contrived during the Cold War.
Contemporary events within both nations have only accelerated and exacerbated the inevitability of collapse. Riven by nationalistic schisms, and fuelled by retribution, the crescendo of self-implosive anger is surging out of control in two nations whose governments consider the other to be a hotbed of evil. But by directing such rabid anger at others the US, a nation famously built on immigration, has unwittingly turned on itself. The new form of nationalism scarcely goes to the trouble of denying its racist roots and exclusionary narratives. Instead, its episodes of paranoia, impetuously capricious behaviours, and an absorption with trivia, all point to an underlying psychosis that is alarming governments around the world.
Since the tragic events of 9/11 we have watched the failure of the US empire gain impetus. With the accession of Donald Trump to the office of President the US is losing control over its own identity and destiny narratives. More than at any other time in US history, ordinary citizens differ in terms of what it means to be an American. No wonder the thespians and script writers in Hollywood are jumping up and down in anguish. And at the precise juncture when Premier Xi Jinping used the World Economic Forum in Davos to declare Chinese leadership in overcoming the ravages of climate change, we saw the US retreat further from its obligations in that regard.
It must be said that we saw this coming. The signs were there for all to see as far back as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. One cannot profess to lead the free world by arbitrarily deciding what that means, from one moment to the next, in the context of pure self-interest. And so although the propaganda consistently tried to deflect our gaze to Iran and Iraq, North Korea, Russia and China, made credible by sleight of mouth assertions from the Bush dynasty and the charm offensives of Clinton and Obama, the most prominent candidate for collapse was always going to be the USA.
Nothing – short of a holy war – will delay the inevitability of that collapse. This is why the occupants of the White House are looking for pretexts to bomb Iran and confront China. Conflict is not just needed to destroy the old world order. The likes of Steve Bannon and James Mattis regard a global battlefield as vital to the restoration and maintenance of US hegemony. Viewed through their own conservative extremism, such folly is both rational and unimpeachable.
From Nixon onwards, successive administrations, burdened by the doctrine of exceptionalism – the delusion that America has a unique mission to transform the world in its own image – have allowed the country to overstretch itself militarily, economically, culturally and morally. This fantasy is the same for the US as it is for North Korea. In terms of access to resources the difference is stark. But purely in psychological terms, and use of propaganda, there is little to distinguish between the two governments now.
In the case of the US, the new social media opened a space into a world where the militarisation of police, identity politics driven by envy and dread, state censorship, massive surveillance of citizens, and ties between the industrial-military-intelligence complex, major investment banks, and large corporations, created a lie of unfathomable magnitude – a lie so outlandish it could no longer be hidden under a veil of secrecy.
Today it is so very clearly conspicuous for all to see. The deceits that were so commonly used to deny even its existence appear puerile and unacceptable to the majority of citizens. As a consequence, the flaws within the structures of states, epitomised by the decline of morality in contemporary life, and the failure of the clandestine deep state to remain aligned and adapt to new unexpected conditions, has culminated in an existential challenge: the need for us to come to terms with the complexity of what it means to be human fast enough to accommodate the needs of everyone on the planet.
In at least one sense the decline of the sovereign state and its corporatisation was inevitable. Human inventions consistently give way to others in successive waves of ingenuity. It matters not whether the innovation is cuneiform script, the microscope, farming or the state. To some extent they are all just ideas that grow, have their day, and either embed in everyday life or vanish as new inventions gain traction. Some, of course, usher in revolutions. Gutenberg’s printing press, the steam engine, electricity, coins, the alphabet, DNA engineering and the world wide web, for example. Yet these, too, are captive to an evolutionary life cycle impacted by a myriad factors we do not fully comprehend, least of all control.
Today we stand once again on the cusp of radical change. But this time heralding either a conscious evolution of our species, or the real possibility of self-inflicted extinction. If our preference is for the former it will necessitate abandoning much of the thinking that brought us to this point, possibly including that which is thought to have generally been good for us. Competitive behaviour is all very well, but the irrational fear of others, the urge to compete in every facet of life, and the compulsion to own, restrict access and protect territory that should belong to nobody and everyone, will need to be tempered by a genuine desire to work in partnership and to share resources. And if that is the case, conventional mindsets grounded in scarcity will need to shift into accepting and relishing those things that we share in abundance – including life on this planet, relationships that bring us joy, and the sheer creativity and ingenuity we bring to life.
The existential threats we face today are several and grave. To pretend otherwise is to bury our head in the sand. The mitigation of risks to humanity are behind the Agenda for Sustainable Development from the UN – with 17 goals aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all.
In terms of a time-related secular typology these risks fall generally into three categories:
- Hazards originating in the past – such as global heating – where the present manifest threat to humanity must be reduced in order for us to feel safe and secure
- Present paths that must be recalibrated and slowed down if the potential for disaster is to be averted – such as the unregulated escalation of Artificial Super Intelligence, or the imbalance between extreme poverty and extreme wealth, resulting from the means of production being solely in the hands of the wealthy
- Plausible dystopian futures arising from entrenched and unyielding belief systems. These include a global nuclear war, collapse of the food chain, or a possible pandemic, where there are still opportunities to reframe our intentions and apply alternative, more benign, ethically defensible, design principles.
I am particularly concerned about the creation of socio-economic or political conditions that ramp up the likelihood of any of these occurring – intentional or not. Once again the most visible sign to fear in that regard is fear itself. When fear is ratcheted up, as is currently the case for very different reasons, in the US, UK, South Africa, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, China, Greece, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and possibly a dozen or so other nations, every routine becomes more uncertain. People try to hold on more tightly to that which they already have, regarding the unfamiliar or untried with great suspicion. They then turn to the state to protect them. Unfortunately that only opens up the potential for the further erosion of civil rights as a justification for greater safeguards being put in place. This is the game that has been played for the past decade or more, when powerful security agencies such as the ISI, NSA and Mossad can track, and conceivably defame, injure, or even assassinate any individual, for any reason, at any time.
If we examine these risks we see that they arise from three quintessentially human traits: first the hubris, frequently bordering on arrogance, we bring to almost all of our negotiations and interactions from the personal to the universal; second the mistrust and dread we have cultivated for each other; and thirdly the institutions we constantly shape in order to apply any advantages we see arising from the first two factors.
Although most of us prefer not to dwell on the negative implications too much, possibly in order to avoid lapsing into melancholy, the probability of existential risks actuating is higher now than at any other time since the 1960s. And in each case the potential impacts for catastrophe and destruction massively overshadow the benefits we enjoy and take for granted as a “civilised” species.
But all need not be doom and gloom. Hastened by artificially intelligent sensors embedded in every object, the rapid convergence of biorobotics and nanotechnology, the shift to agroecology, and a transcendent enlightenment empowered as much by native wisdom as social media, successive phases of human advancement could utterly transform old structures, ushering in entirely new possibilities for homo sapiens. I anticipate each successive phase destabilising and warping still further the faltering sovereignty of the state and its struggle to remain relevant.
As always I hesitate to define a linear path. There are far too many factors that could circumvent the best of intentions and scuttle any predetermined course. Navigation is essential in order to find our way into the future we want.
For many years I have been charting the progress of homo sapiens with the eyes of a futurist. My timeline covers the past 500 years and projects forward into the final decades of the 21st century – an expanded now of possibilities in which several underlying evolutionary and cultural patterns palpitate as though waiting to be born.
As one would expect there are many uncertainties on this timeline – some of them are about the way we choose to interpret and (re)construct the past, rather than the ways we envisage and bring new prospects to fruition. But the novel facets of bifurcation points triggered years ago that have yet to play out, as well as the occasional vortex in which events gradually fade, or have a spectacular finale, are fascinating. Among all the ambiguity and noise I am beginning to see new sequences of patterns; arrays bringing astonishing evolutionary changes to the way we organise and govern ourselves.
In a recent article entitled Five Departures in Search of a Destination I wrote about the situation in the ancient land of greater Mesopotamia where around 600,000 Israelis have been encouraged to settle on the West Bank – territory claimed by Palestine. Successive politicians on all sides have been unable to frame this in any way other than to use the juridical device of state ownership and autonomy. By using contrived narratives, and ignoring ancient tribal kinships, this case, which has dragged on for decades, has unintentionally demonstrated one of the most primary flaws in the idea of sovereignty: the absolute futility in arguing ad infinitum that lands belong to one side to the exclusion of all others when clearly on-the-ground experiences tell a different story.
In my article I went on to critique existing policies, the impracticality of a two-state solution, and to argue for a revitalised and shared vision of what is possible.
This region is one of the acknowledged cradles of civilisation. The territories encompassing Israel and Palestine are held to be sacred by all three monotheistic religions. With the state in terminal decline it is possible to conceive of a postnational community coevolving peacefully here in Canaan. Indeed this could be the first society in the 21st century to open its hearts and minds to people of all faiths. To offer an oath of peace, inclusion and wellbeing to all those residing within its borders. For the people themselves to end hostilities by declaring themselves not Jew, nor Arab, nor Christian, but the first truly global multifaith nation.
This is not a pipe dream. One has only to look at Canada, for example, to realise that an unrestricted and inclusive approach to immigration benefits a country in so many ways, just as it did in America at the turn of the 19th century and Australia in the mid-to-late 20th century.
Commitment to inclusion and multiculturalism might appear naïve to more conservative minds. It is not. There are sound economic reasons for keeping borders porous – not least in nations where low birth rates and an aging population present awkward dilemmas in terms of the work force. We are also aware that diversity stimulates prosperity rather than undermining it. But besides such practical considerations, remaining philosophically predisposed to inclusion and openness brings other less tangible benefits. For apart from being a decades old undertaking in countries like the US, Canada and Australia, born of those countries stirring from their colonial inertia, postnational and transnational frameworks can help us understand the ongoing experiment in filling vast yet unified geographic spaces with a diversity of humankind.
This is nothing new. Postnational characteristics have been practised intermittently for centuries in many parts of the world. In most south-east Asian countries, for example, in parts of Africa, South America and across India, where communitarian societies have flourished for centuries, as well as in China, which was a culture and a language long before it became a nation, the demands of the state have often made it regressive and crude, at least in terms of societal cohesion.
There can be no doubt that we need to reimagine the nation and nationhood – to find new ways of belonging that amount to more than patriarchal compliance and the sad detritus of empire. There is no rational justification for crafting a core national identity, based upon certain values or habits, as the basis for a viable community. In fact most evidence points to the contrary.
Within a decade I would not be surprised to see rejuvenated natural, cultural and digital commons go a long way in neutralising the more authoritarian aspects of the state. That is not to say the state will become irrelevant overnight. But transformations occurring in learning, technology and governance will almost certainly alter the nature of our relationship with imposed authority of any kind. And in any case, cities are taking on many of the roles previously executed by the state.
We should also seek to energise global citizenship and the various diasporas more effectively, rather than maintaining the bureaucratic instinct that favours flags, slogans, and shared values as outmoded expressions of pride in a nation. Transnational communities, comprising self-sufficient groups with high levels of societal affiliation, could well follow.
Can we do that without falling back on time-honoured mechanisms of state governance and control? I suspect we can. But it will require a feat of imagination that eludes us at present.
For Europeans, of course, the nation-state model is likely to remain sacrosanct for years to come, never mind how ill-suited it is to an era of vanishing borders and widespread exodus. The modern state – loosely defined by a more or less coherent racial and religious group, ruled by internal laws and guarded by a national army – took shape in Europe after all. It is no surprise that Europe retreats into nationalism as its most comforting form of identity.
If I am correct, by the turn of the next century the transnational nature of the human family, reflected in empathic cooperation and reciprocity, will become a much stronger attractor than the state, formal and yet all-powerful, was ever able to achieve.
Invariably there are a number of threats to this utopian prognosis – not the least being the existential question of whether homo sapiens is wise enough to survive its own material success beyond 2050. If heating of the planet through greenhouse gas emissions continues unabated, and action to curtail this is ignored or not taken seriously, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to imagine human numbers plummeting to well under one billion inhabitants by the year 2100. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic.
The Canadian essayist John Ralston Saul refers to his country as a revolutionary reversal of the nation-state myth, where there is space for multiple identities and multiple loyalties, and for accommodating an idea of belonging which is comfortable with such contradictions. Perhaps one day we will go even further, forging a new conception of global citizenship, unshackled from the state and its craving for monocultural isolation and demarcated borders, its obsession with cohesion flowing purely from nativist fervour, and the idea of a homeland or a promised land that must be shielded from the unwarranted incursions of others at any cost.
I suspect discrete nations, whether wrapped in more or less bunting than other versions, will still be clearly identifiable. Postnational and transnational aspirations have always had less to do with tearing up visas, shredding identity cards, or opening borders to all and sundry, than thinking differently. They are about using different lenses and epistemologies to examine the challenges and precepts of an entire politics, economics and social identity.
One day perhaps, if we are wise enough to survive our own success, we will find a way to transcend state architectures of suppression in order to freely embrace cultural pluralism, multiple identities and multiple allegiances, instead. One day perhaps, hopefully not in a distant future, humanity might evolve to become a species of communities where many faiths, many histories, and many visions can peacefully co-exist.
This piece is dedicated to Edward Snowden – a vilified traitor and spy in his home country but a hero to many others around the world – John Ralston Saul, Randolph Bourne, and all those humanitarians who tell the truth regardless of the threat to reputations, careers and families.