Wednesday, July 31, 2013

States and nations 3.0: Mega states part 2

The modern nation-state emerged mostly in response to the upheavals and infrastructure demands of new industrial technologies. In the US, the process of political consolidation began during the Civil War to meet the needs of waging war on a massive scale. It continued on in the conflict's aftermath, during a thirteen-year attempt to end abuses of minorities by determinedly racist state and local governments. Almost a generation later, the turmoil of the industrial economy led to the creation of a layer of federal agencies to deal with currency instability, industrial regulation, bank collapses, consumer protection, and labor issues. Even more dramatic consolidations took place in the loose association of states that became Germany during the 1870s, and in feudal Meji Japan at the same time. Both were driven in part by ambitions to modernize and embrace the industrial economy, and both took notes from Britain's almost century-long industrial transformation.

Previously, we talked about transnational soft power organizations, like those that run the Internet, as well as global issues that could see the formation of similar groups who grow into powerful actors on the international stage. There are also other more politicized and centralized forms that future global or continental organizations might take.

Regional Confederacies

For close to half of its existence, the United States was referred to in the plural. The United States are negotiating a treaty with Great Britain. The United States have launched an expedition to combat the Barbary corsairs, and so on. There's a reason for this. The future nation spent its first decade as a loose confederacy of sovereign (and often quarrelsome) states, several of which predated the existence of the Union by a century, as largely self-governing British colonies. The maintenance of formal ties between the newly independent states in the late 1700s was driven in part by a desire to smooth the functioning of commerce, and also strongly motivated by worries of European military adventurism.

Fear of potential conflicts in a reordered near future world could provide a similar source of motivation for otherwise reluctant and independent states to band together. Conversely  a desire to avoid repeating devastating wars that have just come to an end has also served as a drive. Preventing a replay of the costly and tragic mistakes of the 20th century's first half was a major motivator behind the founding of the European Union, and its earlier economic- and coal-focused post-war predecessors. Another World War or the threat of one could bring about the creation of similarly large confederations and preventative pacts.

Imagine a Southeast Asian or Pacific version of the EU, created as cooperative defense and economic endeavor to offset heavy handed behavior by China in twenty years from now. Or as a response to a modernizing and outward-looking India in a couple of decades. Or one in South and Central America established rightly or wrongly in response to a perceived threat from the United States. Another possibility is a Pan-Arabic confederacy founded by activists and grimly determined politicians in the aftermath of a destructive internecine Islamic civil war.

Then there are the potentially disruptive issues discussed in the previous States and Nations article: the unregulated shadow banking economy, climate change effects, and high tech terrorism using cheap and easily copied weapons of mass destruction. These could serve as painful reasons for the creation of future confederacies or other tightly integrated pacts in which nation-states relinquish varying degrees of sovereignty.

Bio and Nanotech Unions 

Altering what it means to be human by creating individuals with enhanced physical and mental capabilities could prove to be hugely divisive. Artificial intelligences might have a similar effect, disrupting or radically altering economies and cultures.

Social and economic chaos created by the adoption of bio and nanotechnologies might also serve to drive the founding of continental or regional unions of states, further out in the future.  Likewise, the effects of nanotechnology could be so potentially destructive that many nations may want to outlaw the technology before it takes hold. Others might embrace both its risks and its transformative possibilities. Even a successful and peaceful transition to a nanotech economy and society by one nation may prove to be too frightening or disturbing for other cultures to tolerate - necessitating a banding together of like minded nations on the pro and anti sides of the issue. Or, nations that make the jump to the new technologies could find their societies and economies, and possibly even citizens so reconfigured that they require an intense degree of across the board cooperation to survive in a world of frightened baseline humans. Conversely, it could be unmodified humanity whose nation-states must mesh together to survive as an island of normality, or to compete with small clusters of transhuman states who live among them.

In a peaceful world, post- or transhuman collectives might organize geographically on the basis of shared goals and hopes for the future. On a more troubled Earth, the future could see the emergence of power blocks like NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and whose roots lay in ideologies created by the chaos of industrial technological transitions. Of course, with transfigured human beings, new means of interpersonal communications such as the ability to share memories or mind states may render any traditional notion of political collectives entirely irrelevant.

A Global Identity

Many of the issues outlined above could also help bring about the creation of a single global state. The UN was founded by the wartime Allies to help prevent future World Wars and to win the ongoing conflict against the Axis powers. Another such massive and destructive global conflict, or world-altering bio-nano issues, or a sufficiently large and daunting challenge, like dealing with an incipient super volcano eruption and its threat of a multi-year volcanic winter, could provide an even more ambitious impetus towards global collectivism.

Still, at this point in history it feels unlikely that even events on this kind of scale by themselves would lead to a replacement of our current states. As mentioned earlier in this series, the nation-state is the new tribe. Throughout much of the world it's the polity that most individuals accept as a major component of their identity. Which isn't surprising, as many present day nation-states emerged in regions of shared language, culture, and ethnicity. Conversely, many failed states and several of the nations plagued by ongoing internal strife were created as forced amalgamations of disparate peoples by the European imperial powers.

Any future global state would likely be in part the product of a dissolution or weakening of current national identities. There are a couple of factors that could bring this about.

More globalization: You can now find Starbucks across the world, from Vienna to Shanghai. That's a state of affairs that's been around for a little less than a generation. A hundred years down the road, assuming the current trend of homogenization continues, national identities may well erode to be a good deal more porous, as the universal presence of the same companies and goods sinks in. Tomorrow's middleclass cell-phone wielding, anime-watching children who grow up on the internet may feel they've got more in common with one another, even though they live in places as diverse as Austin, Bangkok, Guangzhou, and São Paulo than they do with the working classes of their own nations. In part, that might stem from all of those places having become increasingly similar, but also from transnational online subcultures that they've participated in from a young age.

The language barrier falls: Right now the Internet is a largely opaque collection of lingual blocks. Data frequency mapping of emails and messaging on the net produces distribution maps that look familiar to most linguists, with the vast majority of communications taking place between people who share the same native language.

The Internet, in a practical sense, is not all that international. Or at least not near as international as it could be. Technology may well change that. As translation software continues to improve, it's possible that people may be able to interact in real time by text and possibly even by voice, without the fear of their words coming across as crude or inadvertently hilarious. Such a new era of communications might well see the creation of websites with a global audience, providing new venues of interaction. It could also enable the rise of truly international sub-cultures. Consider a world in which North and South American, Chinese, European, Japanese, and Russian goth teenagers can all interact without a language barrier. Should future global political movements emerge, they might also be international in this environment in a way that their 19th century forebearers (labor, radicalism, abolitionism, anarchism, Post-Enlightenment liberalism, socialism) could have only dreamed of.

An even more global economy: If the current trend of an ever-more integrated and interactive global economy continues, the sheer volume of required on-line and even face-to-face communications could contribute to the erosion of national identities. Especially in a world in which global economic issues dwarf those of nations and regions.

While a corrosion or disappearance of national identities might be difficult to imagine, it should be kept in mind that they are relatively new creations. For much of the past two thousand years most humans have either identified themselves by tribal or clan associations, or the region in which they lived. Long-range travel was infrequent enough, and dialects strong enough, that even in the princedoms and city states that would one day become Germany and Italy, people could have a hard time making themselves understood outside their native region, talking to others who spoke what was nominally the same language. Getting information across often involved either Latin or the courtly version of German or Italian, or a traders dialect. While they often saw themselves as the subject of a king or other ruler, kings and kingdoms came and went as wars played out, and most viewed themselves first and foremost as the inhabitant of a particular town or portion of the countryside. A similar dynamic held true throughout much of the rest of the settled, agrarian world. That would not change until a gradual combination improved roads and canals, large national armies, printing presses, increased literacy, and above all increased frequency of travel helped bind together people who already shared confederacies of related dialects, religions, and other cultural traditions. A similar process could play out sometime in the future with either a global polity in a heavily globalized world, or with the species itself.

Next up: Global Empire


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