The Death of the Nation-State

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People have a tendency to think that the structures they see around them are how things have always been. Families have always been a man and a woman with children, and any deviation from this is therefore wrong. Postmodern avant-garde art is the end of art, what art will hereafter always be. The nation-state is the dominant political structure, so we think that’s how people are properly governed. We even make the mistake of thinking that the United States is a nation, simply because most countries are currently nation-states.

All of this is utter nonsense.

People started off living in small tribes of about 150 people. There wasn’t really much of a difference between family and tribe, as pretty much everyone in the tribe was related to you. The tribe itself held certain territory, and held it against other tribes. Individuals would of course have their own habitations, but much of what was done was done with the tribe, from eating to hunting and gathering to mate selection. That’s the social environment in which we evolved, with families being extended families, and everyone in one’s society being related to you — including the chief. There were certainly hierarchies — and especially divisions between men and women — but there was a degree of fluidity in those hierarchies. People tried not to stand out too much. Whatever you made was for yourself and your family, and nobody really over-produced. People lived marginal lives, barely getting by.

With the advent of farming, a different social structure emerged. Farming meant producing more than you needed. You had to just to have enough to plant next year. The production of more than you need means the emergence of trade as well. It also means individual farmers holding and controlling a parcel of land rather than tribes doing so. Or, rather, larger tribes were able to emerge as roving bands of thieves preying on these new farmers came to realize that if they offered the farmers protection for a cut, they could live much easier lives. Some gangs offered protection from other gangs, and all you had to do was give them a cut of your produce. Much better than having all your stuff taken, your wife and daughters raped and taken away, and you and your sons getting killed.

The gangs took on a number of forms, but in the end it was mostly kings and a hierarchy of nobles who ended up taking over. The king and nobles fancied themselves better than those they ruled, and thus dubbed themselves aristocrats (from aristos, meaning “best”). Of course, the rulers were hardly the best — they were descended from murders and thieves, after all — and they rarely made any actual effort to improve their stock (think Hapsburgs). The king ruled the kingdom, which was broken up into lands ruled by nobles, which were farmed by serfs. There were a number of variations on this theme around the world, but that’s what it mostly boiled down to in most places in the world at one time or anther.

Every so often there would be an experiment in democracy — Athens and many of the ancient Greek city-states are the most famous — or in republicanism, as the Roman Republic, but the overwhelming majority of the time after agriculture emerged, it was kings and emperors who ruled. Thus, an elite ruling class was established.

Both democracy and republicanism were solutions to the overproduction of elites — but so, too, are revolutions. Most revolutions have, historically, made things worse (the U.S. revolution was unique in this respect), and it’s in no small part because revolutions are led by elites for elites to take over from other elites. The French Revolution is the model of this: Monarchy overthrown by the Terror, with France ending up with an Emperor. See, too, the Russian Revolution; Tsar overthrown, only to be ruled by a dictatorship. In each case, it was elites trying to take over, using the excuse that they were supporting the downtrodden — the same downtrodden whose necks they would firmly place their boot on when they took over.

In places that avoided the re-installation of serfdom by different elites, we had the emergence of the nation-state. Nations are places with a common culture. France is a nation; so, too, Germany. And Italy and Greece and Japan and so on. The organizing principles of the nation-state are a common culture and a central republican government. The United States was intended to be a unity of states — the states would be the “central republican governments,” with the federal government keeping the states living peacefully with each other. In a real sense, the United States was a post-national government even as national governments were rising around the world.

The rise of the nation-state also gave rise to something completely new in the world: immigration restrictions. If there is a “unified nation,” meaning a country with a unified culture, then people coming into that culture would be disruptive to that culture. Germans would make France less French. Immigration restrictions around the world had everything to do with race and culture, in order to preserve national unity. In the United States, even though there was no real cultural unity, there were attempts to follow those patterns overseas and restrict people based on race and culture. Since nationality made no sense, elites had to rely on theories of eugenics, racial superiority, and exclusionary economic policies. These ideas were then transported to Europe, where they combined with the idea of the nation to create racist national socialism.

Another aspect of the nation-state was the emergence of increasingly individualized property rights. People had many more property rights under the political configuration of the state than they did under serfdom, but in the end the state was still the true owner of all the property within its borders. The stronger central governments have become, the truer this was from a purely practical point of view. From the point of view of the existence of the state as such, opponents of the libertarian point of view that taxes are theft are right, since all the property is really owned by the government, meaning the government can do with its property as it wishes.

From this perspective, if one truly wanted a situation where taxation was in fact theft, we would have to have a completely different kind of governance structure. We would have to move more toward a post-national system. The same is true regarding immigration. Those of us who favor a return to the free movement of people will have to push for developing post-national forms of governance.

The E.U. is actually one such form of post-national governance. It’s not perfect, but neither was the U.S. experiment in post-national governance. In the case of the U.S., we seem to be very much regressing toward a kind a of governance which we never had: nationalism. That being the case, one could in fact make a case for the U.S. entering into some kind of post-national governance form with other countries — two that immediately come to mind would be a North American union involving Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean and Central American nations; or an Anglo union involving English-speaking countries like Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the anglophone African countries, and the small anglophone island countries around the world.

The second would be easy enough to argue for most people; the first would require the legalization of drugs followed by a concerted effort to eliminate as much corruption in the Latin American countries as possible. Naturally, drug legalization would eliminate almost all of the reasons for corruption in those countries as well as the U.S. A North American Union would, like the E.U., allow for the free movement of people within the union, though it could also, like with the E.U., restrict immigration from non-union countries even more. While it would be ideal to reduce immigration restrictions overall, sometimes you have to take your wins where you can — you don’t give up a major increase in freedom simply because you can’t get your perfect outcome right away.

A North American Union (NAU) of this sort would create a huge economic boost as goods and people were freer to move. There would be a huge increase in human capital in the U.S. and Canada, and a huge increase in financial capital in the Latin American members, with each driving a great deal more economic growth.

While it’s likely that the U.S. dollar would be the NAU version of the Euro, the fact that other countries had a say in the value of the currency would likely stabilize the dollar a great deal. If we cannot get rid of the Federal Reserve, we could at least have a situation where others prevent the U.S. government from acting selfishly and creating a currency crisis.

In the United States, I would be willing to bet that many states would start demanding more autonomy under such a union. The emergence of an overarching governance body would necessarily weaken the federal government — this would of course be a feature, not a bug, of such a system — and that could result in somewhat stronger local governments. This would allow for more experiments in living, more experiments in democracy, more experiments in economics. If we could get a true power law distribution of power, we would have a form of governance that increasingly grew to be more like the rest of nature itself — and, being more natural, more natural to live in.

Whatever the details, the post-national form of governance seems the most natural structure for an increasingly global society. There will be a variety of such post-national forms of governance emerging over the years — of that one can be certain. The emerging nationalism in the U.S. and even in Europe are actually indications that this process is now underway. Every time there is a big change in socio-economic-politico-cultural structures, people react by seeking older ways of living, or at best trying to hold on to what we have. The world becomes unstable right before there is a phase shift to something new, something more complex. It’s a feature of the natural world. We’re getting ready to experience a big change, and I’m afraid things will get worse for a while before it gets better. It may even seem, for a while, that reactionary forces, illiberal forces on the left and right, and so on are certain to win. But they won’t.

The world is complexifying as we speak. We cannot stop it. Nor should we want it to stop. The last time this happened, economic growth went exponential, and we are even now still reaping the benefits in the elimination of abject poverty around the world. Who knows how much more beautiful the world could yet become.

Written by

I am the author of “Diaphysics” and “Hear the Screams of the Butterfly,” and a consultant, poet, playwright, and interdisciplinary scholar.

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