Unbundling the nation-state

Chirico Painting

The most potent organizational form known to history, the nation-state, is fraying at the edges:  unbundling.  The recent “No” vote against independence in Scotland, analyzed correctly, showed every symptom of this unraveling.

Britain’s ruling elites panicked, and tried to bribe the Scots with offers of increased self-rule.  They betrayed a complete lack of confidence in their own legitimacy.  The Scottish public, consumed with grievance, seduced by negation, felt free to batter a political order that was defended by nobody.  The United Kingdom was preserved for now, but as a vexing question mark, a source of dissatisfaction and uncertainty, rather than as a settled political arrangement.  Separatists in Catalonia wishing to break away from Spain were encouraged, not disheartened, by the episode.

The Geopolitics of Dis-integration

The curious notion that all the land in the world, and every human being treading on it, must be assigned to some responsible national government, probably goes back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  But the modern nation-state is an artifact of the industrial age:  it grinds on like an enormous factory floor, top-down, centralizing, standardizing, bureaucratic in form yet utopian in ambition.  Leviathan – government as horror movie monster – was born of structural and geopolitical pressures.  Administered by progressive elites, the monster became the nation.

The tide of history now runs in the opposite direction.

Geopolitical imperatives turned at the end of the Cold War.  West Germany absorbed the German Democratic Republic in 1990.  The following year, polarities reversed.  The Soviet Union fragmented into 15 separate “states,” most of them dysfunctional from the start.  Yugoslavia began a violent disintegration into a patchwork of statelets.  In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into its component parts.  Scotland and Catalonia, Flanders and Northern Italy, have since seen the rise of powerful political parties that clamor for secession from the center.  Belgium, a fictional country, could at any moment follow the Czechoslovak example.

The leap of faith that was the “Arab spring” shattered Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen along ethnic or sectarian lines.  Jordan and Bahrain teeter on the edge.  In Lebanon – like Belgium, a country of convenience – every valley flies its own flag.  Sub-Saharan “failed states” have been carved up among rival warlords and ethnic groups.  Even China, the very model of a nation-state growing in power, appears more concerned with questions of legitimacy and internal cohesion than with throwing its weight around in the world.  The current trouble in Honk Kong is small potatoes to China’s rulers:  the specter that haunts them is dismemberment, the memory of the “warring states.”

For at least a generation, geopolitical stresses have been pulling nations apart.  The reasons are obscure.  I would guess that, from above, imperial concepts like “Europe” and “the caliphate” bled the nation-state of legitimacy without acquiring any political punch of their own.  From below, regions like Scotland undermined the ideal of the nation without providing an alternative:  the universal demand seems to be “we want out.”  Other geopolitical factors, I don’t doubt, are also in play.

The Structural Destiny of Unbundling

The historian understands that every era is bounded by certain structural limitations.  Leonardo designed flying machines but could never be an aviator, any more than Picasso could paint the Sistine ceiling or Genghis Khan could conquer America.  It is in this historical sense that one can speak of structure as destiny.

Industrial organization shaped the structural destiny of the last century.  Institutions became steeply hierarchical.  Elites strove to control the masses in the hope of leading them to some promised land.  Nation-states either organized on a near-military basis or were bullied by those who had done so.  Strong central governments thus seemed like a patriotic necessity.  The top-down model, so successful for industry, mesmerized politicians and bureaucrats.  It was believed to be guided by data and “science.”

If Bismarck was the godfather of the modern nation-state, its patron saint might have been Frederick Winslow Taylor, author of The Principles of Scientific Management.  Taylor advised managers to choreograph every movement of each factory worker.  Henry Ford was an admirer.  So was Lenin.

That historical moment ended with the new millennium.  The development of digital platforms made possible a new mode of organization:  the network.  It was immediately embraced by the public.  While the elites remained ensconced in bureaucratic institutions, a networked public tramped into these precincts of authority and felt free to muddy the carpets, break the crockery, mock mistakes of fact, rant at failures of policy, and condemn the entire institutional framework as a conspiracy of the few against the many.  The structural destiny of the digital age – bottom-up, egalitarian, anarchistic – resembled a bipolar leap away from the past.

From the commanding heights of the information sphere, the public can perceive the repeated failure of national governments, as well as the confusion and panic of the elites.  The effect has been revolutionary.  In Cairo and Madrid and Caracas and Kiev, the public has threatened or toppled the institutions of the old regime.

This global uprising of the networked public – analyzed, I’m obliged to note, in my new book – has begun to carve up the limbs and sinews of the modern nation-state.  The forces at play are structural, world-historical, and scarcely touched by patriotic or ideological concerns.  In a very real sense, Europe’s regional independence movements stand in the same relation to their central governments as did the indignados of Spain or the Tea Party in the US.  They detest and distrust national elites and ruling institutions, more than they fear the nation-state as such, or love their native soil.  Their energies are mobilized against the political status quo:  they want out.  But that is true of the larger public in their countries.

Labels of long pedigree have lost meaning here.  Two of the secessionist parties (in Scotland and Catalonia) are center-left, as we used to measure such things, while the other two (in Flanders and Northern Italy) are center-right.  All have in common a politics of pure negation.

An Arab public on the move has repeatedly collided with brittle top-down regimes, bringing about what one writer called “the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down.”  In Syria and Libya and Iraq, where predatory governments had swallowed the nation-state whole, the mortal weakening of the one has induced the collapse of the other.  Governments in the region lack legitimacy, or even a notion of what legitimacy means.  A frustrated public can erupt in protest at any moment, mobilized by hostility toward the structures of power.

The unraveling of the Arab nation-state, I want to suggest, has only just begun.

Yet the pattern is global.  Everywhere, the bloated modern state has ingested national sovereignty.  The world of 2014 consists of a mosaic – not of nations, in truth, but of governments that claim to embody nations.  When a government fails and unravels, and is seen to fail and unravel, on center stage, by a public in command of the information sphere, old assumptions about nationhood are placed in doubt.  If government unbundles, how can the nation stay whole?  The fate of Syria and Libya and Iraq argues that it can’t.

That government is unbundling should be beyond dispute:  even our trillion-dollar Federal government has been compelled to play in this disappearing act.  Parcel post service has unbundled to Fed-Ex, for example.  Security for State and Defense Departments has unbundled to private contractors like Blackwater.  Other examples probably fall under the rubric of “civilizational chaos.”  National borders keep nobody out or in.  Between legal immigrants and illegal trespassers, distinctions are problematic.  Citizenship itself, the badge of belonging, is now a commodity negotiated with a brain-dead bureaucracy rather than a semi-religious commitment.

A fourth of all Americans, and a third of the millennial generation, support the proposition that their state should secede from the US.  This speaks less to nostalgia for the Old Confederacy than to a new contempt for the failures of national government.

The Dialectics of Chaos

Marxist tradition maintained that, in the bourgeois era, “all that is solid melts into air,” including eventually the nation-state.  The phrase “withering away of the state” was Engel’s.  The concept received Lenin’s attention in The State and Revolution, but always hovered on the margins of Marxist political theory:  revolution came first, dictatorship second, while utopia was maybe for the great-grandchildren.  Still, the fact remains that somewhere within this ideological Pandora’s box – an industrial-era vision if ever there was one – we come across a prediction of the nation’s demise.

History, according to Marx, rode on the class struggle, and the great engine of the class struggle was contradiction or dialectics.  New forms of production engendered new social groups that collided with, and in time displaced, the old forms and their keepers.  The process was binary.  One class rose against another until, at the end of history, after revolution and dictatorship, only a single universal class remained.  Then utopia would arrive.  Absent the class struggle, human relations would be free of contradiction.  Without contradiction, there would be no need for the repressive machinery of the state:  like a dead tree, the nation-state would topple and disintegrate of its own accord.

As an intellectual exercise, it is possible to squeeze the political landscape of 2014 into this scheme.  Two groups, arrayed in radically different forms of organization, today collide everywhere:  the networked public and elites in top-down institutions.  They are inescapably hostile to each other.  The perturbing agent has been a change in technology and in control over information and communication, if not of the means of production.   If the triumph of new forms has been dialectically predetermined, then the public owns the future.  Hierarchical government must evolve into networked government – and networked government could unbundle itself out of existence.

Reality, however, has a way of breaking out of the creaky prison of Marxist teleology, and that is plainly the case here.  The public may be in revolt, but it isn’t a class.  It has no consciousness, no ideology, “no intention of governing” and “no capacity for exercising power.”  The public, in Walter Lippmann’s words, “is not a fixed body of individuals” but “merely those persons who are interested in an affair” to the extent of engaging in political action.  They can spring from the left or from the right.  They can be Occupiers or Tea Partiers.  Their abiding principle is a ferocious egalitarianism, and their driving impulse is a repugnance to the established order so profound that it borders on nihilism.

The elites running the old institutions are also not a class in the Marxian sense – and they aren’t much of a ruling class in any sense.  They feel legitimacy and authority bleeding out of a thousand failures, and they are rightly afraid.  Like the public, the elites lack a defining ideology or character.  They can be constitutionalists or despots, technocrats or murderous thugs.  All share a touching faith in miracles worked by top-down applications of political power, and a desperate hope that the world’s information, now spiraling out of control, will slow down enough to allow the lumbering hierarchies to catch up.

The struggle between the public and the elites isn’t binary but complex.  Hierarchy was never about the means of production:  it’s in our DNA.  Network can be fast and furious in orchestrating protests, but it can dissipate in an instant.  The public can overthrow, but never rule.  The institutions continue visibly to fail, but seem unable to change.  The structural destiny of our age is anti-authority, but that might be reversed in the next turn of the historical screw.  Nothing is certain or fated.

So the state isn’t predestined to wither away.  It may not even unbundle in the manner I have described.  If a deeper predictive principle can be extracted from the muddle of events, it is this:  so long as our moment lasts, the modern state, gluttonous Leviathan, will either disgorge ever more bits of the nation, or continue to sicken and fail.  It may be forced to do both.  Chaos could trump power:  it’s happened before.  We who inhabit quiet lands already can hear, not too far from home, the crack and rumble of that storm in which civilizations are broken.

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2 Responses to Unbundling the nation-state

  1. Pingback: Unbundling the nation-state | Official site of DJ Michael Heath

  2. mike richards says:

    Excellent article. Much food for thought. This I must distribute – thank you. Seems that Isis is already filling the void of the disappearance of the central authority. Does Isis presage a new worldwide phenomenon of battling subnational groups? Again, thanks very much.

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