Saturday, September 22, 2012

States and Nations: What comes next

We humans haven’t always lived in nations-states. That’s an obvious one, I know, but it's observation that for me begs the question of what comes next? We've gone from living in family bands to tribes and clans to chieftainships and eventually bureaucratized states, so is there some new type of social organization waiting to emerge in the future? One that might be as difficult for us to fathom as the British Empire was for Pacific islanders in the 1700s, or as any modern state would be for mammoth-hunting Europeans around the end of the last ice age?

Maybe a world-state largely run by expert systems? Or how about a technologically empowered reversion to earlier, more human-scale forms of government. Tribes with legally binding customs in the age of cyberspace, or high-tech direct-democracy city-states in a globalized world?

Another obvious observation: Nation-states and their predecessors were made possible by different technology packages. Bands and tribes were primarily paleo- and neolithic tech-level nomadic hunter-gatherers. Village-based chieftainships arose along with farming and animal husbandry, and bureaucratic nation-states (for the most part) were a response to the enormous populations, complex infrastructure growth, and mass-mobilization military needs of the industrial age. So in a time of maturing information technologies and blossoming bio- and nanotech, is a form of social organization and governance developed during the transition from farming to a manufacturing really a good fit for us?

Looking back, the past century is certainly littered with the detritus and mass graves left behind by nation-states behaving badly. Some, like Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan, and Maoist China, became vehicles for horrific ideologies that killed tens of millions in episodes that stagger the mind and wrench at the heart. Even the more benign liberal and socialist democracies have had plenty of ugly moments, both while fighting totalitarian states and in dealing with their own ethnic and religious minorities.

Before we go on, I want to say that I’m fan of the nation-state model, despite its many shortcomings and associated ugliness. Why? Because the moderate states have created mass economic prosperity on a scale never seen before in human existence. They’ve granted unprecedented political freedom to a members of species that used to publicly torture and then execute dissidents in places as diverse as medieval Europe, imperial China, tribal North America, and Aztec Mesoamerica. Moreover, in North America and much of Europe the citizenry has struggled with itself to improve the treatment of minorities of all stripes, both at the hands of the state and their fellow citizens in daily life. It’s often been a rocky process, but it’s one that has steadily expanded the circle of rational adults who are granted the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, who live free from the fear of organized paralegal violence like lynchings, and who can find redress for wrongs in the courts and legislatures.

With all that said, if there is a next step in the evolution of human social organizations I’m hoping it’s one that builds up on the expansion of liberty and prosperity made possible by the dispassionate rule of law in modern states. Of course the future is not always a nice place, and it’s also possible that our nation-states might not last too much longer as technology continues to put more destructive power in the hands of individuals, from lone gunmen who can kill dozens to terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. We live in states that have a very short track record as far as survivability, and which depend on ten-thousand mile supply chains these days for the manufactured goods that make life possible as well as the farm machinery and petroleum products required for the industrial-scale agriculture that feeds us.

So I’m going to be looking up as well as down in the next article. I'll float models of increased social complexity as well as simplified ones that look like updated forms of earlier social organizations. And I’ll be taking a look at technology. How might new forms of tech change both governance and society?

Lastly, there will be the question of choice. What kind of alternate societies would people like to live in? While brute necessity might force us to revert to simple forms of living, the ideals and the dreams of reformists, futurists, clergy, and natural philosophers, during the 1700s, 1800s, and the past century shape how we live today. Our aspirations and those of our children for a better tomorrow will hopefully play a similar role in shaping what comes next.

Next up: What is Cyberdemocracy? 

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