The relatively recent development of nation-states has become so entrenched in the human way of operating that it’s difficult to imagine life organized any other fashion. Would we be better off without them? Are they mostly war machines in waiting? Not easy to say. The human capacity to
find create strife rivals our ability to for noble inventions, regardless of how we’re organized.
In the outstanding New Scientist piece “End of Nations: Is There an Alternative to Countries?” Debora MacKenzie traces the development of national identity, which was necessitated by the arrival of the Industrial Age, wondering if mass violence and ethnic divisions within states would be far tougher to provoke if borders were fuzzier and there were no nationalistic “imagined communities.”
It’s a debatable point since, as the writer reminds, human violence has declined to all-time lows under the nation-state arrangement, with large-scale warfare absent from the global stage for seven decades. Then again, I write this with the U.S. nuclear codes and massive non-nuke arsenal in the possession of a President who appears to be a sociopath with a hair-trigger temper and his white nationalist Chief Strategist. Their goal is to turn Americans on one another and against the world.
The problem is, without centrally controlled and competing collectives it would probably be awfully difficult to quickly scale up really useful things (e.g., disease control and eradication) or provide security. MacKenzie acknowledges this point, but she also warns that such arrangements may be untenable as we progress, unable to deal with certain vital issues like climate change, and collapse of these systems may be inevitable.
Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none.
Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them.
And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new state in the Middle East. Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way.
Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it.
Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.
How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?•
Tags: Debora MacKenzie