The End of the Nation-State
Mankind has, so far, gone through three main stages of political organization since Day One, say 200,000 years ago, when anatomically modern men started appearing. We can call them Tribes, Kingdoms, and Nation-States.
Karl Marx had a lot of things wrong, especially his moral philosophy. But one of the acute observations he made was that the means of production are perhaps the most important determinant of how a society is structured. Based on that, so far in history, only two really important things have happened: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Everything else is just a footnote.
Let’s see how these things relate.
The Agricultural Revolution and the End of Tribes
In prehistoric times, the largest political/economic group was the tribe. In that man is a social creature, it was natural enough to be loyal to the tribe. It made sense. Almost everyone in the tribe was genetically related, and the group was essential for mutual survival in the wilderness. That made them the totality of people that counted in a person’s life — except for “others” from alien tribes, who were in competition for scarce resources and might want to kill you for good measure.
Tribes tend to be natural meritocracies, with the smartest and the strongest assuming leadership. But they’re also natural democracies, small enough that everyone can have a say on important issues. Tribes are small enough that everybody knows everyone else, and knows what their weak and strong points are. Everyone falls into a niche of marginal advantage, doing what they do best, simply because that’s necessary to survive. Bad actors are ostracized or fail to wake up, in a pool of their own blood, some morning. Tribes are socially constraining but, considering the many faults of human nature, a natural and useful form of organization in a society with primitive technology.
As people built their pool of capital and technology over many generations, however, populations grew. At the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, all over the world, there was a population explosion. People started living in towns and relying on agriculture as opposed to hunting and gathering. Large groups of people living together formed hierarchies, with a king of some description on top of the heap.
Those who adapted to the new agricultural technology and the new political structure accumulated the excess resources necessary for waging extended warfare against tribes still living at a subsistence level. The more evolved societies had the numbers and the weapons to completely triumph over the laggards. If you wanted to stay tribal, you’d better live in the middle of nowhere, someplace devoid of the resources others might want. Otherwise it was a sure thing that a nearby kingdom would enslave you and steal your property.
The Industrial Revolution and the End of Kingdoms
From around 12,000 B.C. to roughly the mid-1600s, the world’s cultures were organized under strong men, ranging from petty lords to kings, pharaohs, or emperors.
It’s odd, to me at least, how much the human animal seems to like the idea of monarchy. It’s mythologized, especially in a medieval context, as a system with noble kings, fair princesses, and brave knights riding out of castles on a hill to right injustices. As my friend Rick Maybury likes to point out, quite accurately, the reality differs quite a bit from the myth. The king is rarely more than a successful thug, a Tony Soprano at best, or perhaps a little Stalin. The princess was an unbathed hag in a chastity belt, the knight a hired killer, and the shining castle on the hill the headquarters of a concentration camp, with plenty of dungeons for the politically incorrect.
With kingdoms, loyalties weren’t so much to the “country”— a nebulous and arbitrary concept — but to the ruler. You were the subject of a king, first and foremost. Your linguistic, ethnic, religious, and other affiliations were secondary. It’s strange how, when people think of the kingdom period of history, they think only in terms of what the ruling classes did and had. Even though, if you were born then, the chances were 98% you’d be a simple peasant who owned nothing, knew nothing beyond what his betters told him, and sent most of his surplus production to his rulers. But, again, the gradual accumulation of capital and knowledge made the next step possible: the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution and the End of the Nation-State
As the means of production changed, with the substitution of machines for muscle, the amount of wealth took a huge leap forward. The average man still might not have had much, but the possibility to do something other than beat the earth with a stick for his whole life opened up, largely as a result of the Renaissance.
Then the game changed totally with the American and French Revolutions. People no longer felt they were owned by some ruler; instead they now gave their loyalty to a new institution, the nation-state. Some innate atavism, probably dating back to before humans branched from the chimpanzees about 3 million years ago, seems to dictate the Naked Ape to give his loyalty to something bigger than himself. Which has delivered us to today’s prevailing norm, the nation-state, a group of people who tend to share language, religion, and ethnicity. The idea of the nation-state is especially effective when it’s organized as a “democracy,” where the average person is given the illusion he has some measure of control over where the leviathan is headed.
On the plus side, by the end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution had provided the common man with the personal freedom, as well as the capital and technology, to improve things at a rapidly accelerating pace.
What caused the sea change?
I’ll speculate it was largely due to an intellectual factor, the invention of the printing press; and a physical factor, the widespread use of gunpowder. The printing press destroyed the monopoly the elites had on knowledge; the average man could now see that they were no smarter or “better” than he was. If he was going to fight them (conflict is, after all, what politics is all about), it didn’t have to be just because he was told to, but because he was motivated by an idea. And now, with gunpowder, he was on an equal footing with the ruler’s knights and professional soldiers.
Right now I believe we’re at the cusp of another change, at least as important as the ones that took place around 12,000 years ago and several hundred years ago. Even though things are starting to look truly grim for the individual, with collapsing economic structures and increasingly virulent governments, I suspect help is on the way from historical evolution. Just as the agricultural revolution put an end to tribalism and the industrial revolution killed the kingdom, I think we’re heading for another multipronged revolution that’s going to make the nation-state an anachronism. It won’t happen next month, or next year. But I’ll bet the pattern will start becoming clear within the lifetime of many now reading this.
What pattern am I talking about? Once again, a reference to the evil genius Karl Marx, with his concept of the “withering away of the State.” By the end of this century, I suspect the US and most other nation-states will have, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist.
The Problem with the State — And Your Nation-State
Of course, while I suspect that many of you are sympathetic to that sentiment, you also think the concept is too far out, and that I’m guilty of wishful thinking. People believe the state is necessary and— generally — good. They never even question whether the institution is permanent.
My view is that the institution of the state itself is a bad thing. It’s not a question of getting the right people into the government; the institution itself is hopelessly flawed and necessarily corrupts the people that compose it, as well as the people it rules. This statement invariably shocks people, who believe that government is both a necessary and permanent part of the cosmic firmament.
The problem is that government is based on coercion, and it is, at a minimum, suboptimal to base a social structure on institutionalized coercion. Let me urge you to read the Tannehills’ superb The Market for Liberty, which is available for free, download here.
One of the huge changes brought by the printing press and advanced exponentially by the Internet is that people are able to readily pursue different interests and points of view. As a result, they have less and less in common: living within the same political borders is no longer enough to make them countrymen. That’s a big change from pre-agricultural times when members of the same tribe had quite a bit — almost everything — in common. But this has been increasingly diluted in the times of the kingdom and the nation-state. If you’re honest, you may find you have very little in common with most of your countrymen besides superficialities and trivialities.
Ponder that point for a minute. What do you have in common with your fellow countrymen? A mode of living, (perhaps) a common language, possibly some shared experiences and myths, and a common ruler. But very little of any real meaning or importance. To start with, they’re more likely to be an active danger to you than the citizens of a presumed “enemy” country, say, like Iran. If you earn a good living, certainly if you own a business and have assets, your fellow Americans are the ones who actually present the clear and present danger. The average American (about 50% of them now) pays no income tax. Even if he’s not actually a direct or indirect employee of the government, he’s a net recipient of its largesse, which is to say your wealth, through Social Security and other welfare programs.
Over the years, I’ve found I have much more in common with people of my own social or economic station or occupation in France, Argentina, or Hong Kong, than with an American union worker in Detroit or a resident of the LA barrios. I suspect many of you would agree with that observation. What’s actually important in relationships is shared values, principles, interests, and philosophy. Geographical proximity, and a common nationality, is meaningless — no more than an accident of birth. I have much more loyalty to a friend in the Congo—although we’re different colors, have different cultures, different native languages, and different life experiences — than I do to the Americans who live down the highway in the trailer park. I see the world the same way my Congolese friend does; he’s an asset to my life. I’m necessarily at odds with many of “my fellow Americans”; they’re an active and growing liability.
Some might read this and find a disturbing lack of loyalty to the state. It sounds seditious. Professional jingoists like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, or almost anyone around the Washington Beltway go white with rage when they hear talk like this. The fact is that loyalty to a state, just because you happen to have been born in its bailiwick, is simply stupid.
As far as I can tell, there are only two federal crimes specified in the US Constitution: counterfeiting and treason. That’s a far cry from today’s world, where almost every real and imagined crime has been federalized, underscoring that the whole document is a meaningless dead letter, little more than a historical artifact. Even so, that also confirms that the Constitution was quite imperfect, even in its original form. Counterfeiting is simple fraud. Why should it be singled out especially as a crime? (Okay, that opens up a whole new can of worms… but not one I’ll go into here.) Treason is usually defined as an attempt to overthrow a government or withdraw loyalty from a sovereign. A rather odd proviso to have when the framers of the Constitution had done just that only a few years before, one would think.
The way I see it, Thomas Paine had it right when he said: “My country is wherever liberty lives.”
But where does liberty live today? Actually, it no longer has a home. It’s become a true refugee since America, which was an excellent idea that grew roots in a country of that name, degenerated into the United States. Which is just another unfortunate nation-state. And it’s on the slippery slope.
Reprinted from International Man.