Thursday, July 04, 2013

States and nations 3.0: Mega states Part 1

Once a part of the Post-World War II political landscape, the idea of a global state has largely vanished from serious discussions in politics and science fiction over the past few decades. Still, the overall long-term trend for the past 8,000 years has been towards larger and more complex human societies and governance structures.

So what kind of crises could drive the emergence of global or continental successors to the nation-state in the next century or two, and what might those new polities look like? Would they be akin to empires, or something wholly new? The emergence of new types of societies and styles of governance in the past has typically taken place when new technologies and organizational types allowed one group to conquer and absorb their neighbors. Or as a response to technology-driven social turmoil and infrastructure demands that markets and previous forms of government failed to address.

A crisis severe enough to see a transfer of political power from multiple nation-stats to a continental or global entity would either have to be earthshaking in nature or be subtle and gradual.


The nation-state is the new tribe. It's the level of organization that much of humanity identifies with - often because it's associated with durable ethnic and cultural identity issues. Low voter participation in European Parliamentary elections and the traditional reluctance of European voters to surrender national sovereignty to the EU during popular referendum votes is a case in point. At the same time,the EU appears to enjoy its strongest support in those European nations that suffered the worst violence World War II.

Shapes and Forms 

There are several forms that large post-nation state polities could take.

Transnational soft power organizationsAt present the the Internet is largely run by a series of non-profit corporations that have for the most part managed to stay out of the limelight. They work by having open world-wide memberships of individuals and organizations, and are governed by small boards. They also handle an array of fairly specific technical issues and have been adept avoiding major political controversies when possible.

In part they've managed to retain their independence and sidestep politicization because of the sheer complexity of TPC/IP issues - the stack of standards and protocols that allow computers to talk with one another through the Internet. The Internet is important enough that one one wants to break it (so far), and it's so Byzantine that the current world political order hasn't had the courage to mess with it. Of course it's also helped that these committees were in place well before the Internet was on anyone's mind outside a very limited slice of American academia.

Future infrastructural or regulatory issues might see the rise of similar committee-steered, open organizations that could overlap with the political realm. Particularly if they address complex issues with severe consequences that nation-states prove to be unable to grapple with in our globalized world. Given enough time and a gradual, creeping authority over highly technical areas that have an growing impact on economies and daily life, such non-profits and NGO entities might evolved into major centers of soft power or a transnational network of independent and highly specialized governance institutions whose competence with arcane but critical issues gives them a narrow but deep sway.

Among such issues are:

Transnational banking and the shadow economy. During past few decades of vast sums of wealth have been transferred into the off-shore banking sector. The figures appear to be in the trillions of dollars, and ranges up US$21 trillion according to some estimates. This tax avoidance has contributed significantly to US and European national debts, as well as being used for money laundering by terrorist organizations and organized crime. Additionally that wealth also appears to be largely stagnant, with little of it finding its way into investment. In other words it's a significant drag on the global economy.

If nation-state are unable to stanch the outflow individually they may find it necessary to establish an organization to combat or regulate this sector of the world's economy. Particularly if at some point off-shore banking contributes to a global economic-collapse or depression, just as unregulated banks did with national economies during 1880s and early 1900s, and deregulated ones did in 2008 in the US, Iceland, and Ireland. Or conversely, the off-shore banks themselves may end up demanding a regulatory body at some point if a bank within that loose network defaults due to internal corruption and causes significant damage to its peers. That, or if they suffer major, persistent losses due to cybercrime. It's an often forgotten fact here in the US that major corporations during the late 1800s were some of the loudest proponents of setting up federal regulatory agencies. That advocacy took place after a series of lethal incidents involving shoddy manufactured goods and spoiled processed foods tarnished the image of American products in the all-important markets of Europe at the height of European wealth and global power. Shades of toxic Chinese drywall and poisonous pet food anyone?

Biological, nano-tech, and cyber-weapons. Technology continues to place greater and greater amounts of destructive power in the hands of individuals, small organizations, and even small nation-states that have traditionally lacked the expertise for home-grown weapons of mass destruction. Readers of this blog will no doubt be well acquainted ad nauseum at this point with issues ranging from Iran's ongoing assault on the US banking sector, to the destructive spread of biological and microbot weapons of mass destruction in an age of 3D printers and desktop gene sequencers and compilers. Should the worst come to pass, today's international black market for nuclear weapons material and knowledge may end up looking like a crude and clumsy precursor to tomorrow's ultra-efficient online trade of software designs for basement-manufactured WMDs. Both the League of Nations and UN were set up to prevent more wars between nation-states in the aftermath or closing phases of catastrophic wars that killed tens of millions. A wave of mass casualties from the use of cheap, near future weapons of mass destruction could provide the impetus for a transnational organization that targets non-state actors as well as states that hold such weapons.

Climate change: Our Earth is heating up. Glaciers are retreating and global temperatures continue to climb. Oceans are acidifying as they absorb a portion of an atmospheric carbon load not seen in over three million years; they're also rising due to both thermal expansion and melting polar ice. The overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence is that human industry and power generation are the primary drivers. While most of the current climate change models do not indicate a level of alteration that will threaten human existence or pose a direct threat to technological civilization, there remains the potential for much economic chaos and human displacement. Extreme weather events look set to continue growing more common, and the coastlines where nearly half of humanity lives are also likely to be subject to increasing levels of inundation. It's an issue that nation-states have lacked the effective will to address. It's also one that shows no sign of being tamed as developing nations continue to industrialize and many first world countries shift from nuclear to coal and other hydrocarbon fuel sources. As future generations deal with the escalating effects over the course of this century, transnational organization that either regulate greenhouse emissions or work to capture them are one potential solution.

Orbital issues: For decades space has been an area of intense international cooperation covered by one-off voluntary agreements and partnerships between nations, as well as an array of international treaties. This could intensify with the construction of habitats and asteroid mining stations in Earth orbit, as well as helium extraction facilities on the moon. One of the most pressing issues to deal with are the clouds of orbiting debris and dead satellites that pose a threat to inhabited structures. It's entirely possible that the future inhabitants of an Earth - Moon orbital halo could find their lives shaped more by a regulatory agency set up to ensure the safety of this volume of space than by terrestrial governments. As time goes by, that entity would be in a position to evolve into a confederacy of habitats or a kind of meta-state.

Networks and Diffusion 

One of the more interesting mid-range scenarios for me is one in which nation-states have largely atrophied and political power is primarily split between local and global entities. Major wars between nation-states that kill more people than car crashes (or epidemics prior to automobiles) have become increasing rare since World War II, and crime rates within most developed nations are so low as to be unlike anything seen before in history or pre-history. In large part this is because much of humanity now lives in nation-states and urban environments with professional police forces, as well as a web of international trade treaties and global markets that have ensured that nations no longer have to go to war to secure access to critical resources.

It might not feel like it looking at the news sometimes, but our species has hit a nadir of violence.

If the trend that brought us here continues, even as critical regulatory and major infrastructure issues increasingly grow beyond the practical comprehension of politicians, it's possible that a loose network of technocratic international agencies could end up handling important international issues of global trade, communications, space, and transnational terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. At the same time 3D printing and localized urban and home food production could undermine the economic interdependence that bureaucratized nation-states were created to manage. Our future could be one of planetary networks and local or regional cyberdemocracies.

Next up in States and Nations: Megastates Part 2
  • Continental confederacies
  • Global states and the software-driven erosion of cultural blocks
  • Empires redux 
  • Trans- and post-human mega collectives 

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