The release of 251,287 US State Department documents starting yesterday and ranging from the secret to the embarrassing was the coup de grace of the modern nation-state. Well . . . not exactly . . . not yet . . . it’s only a way-station . . . but Julian Assange’s peccadillo will make its way into the history books as one of the notable events when the fate of the nation-state is finally described.
Newspapers have been prying into state secrets ever since they were invented. And then, for those old enough to remember, we had the release of secret documents about the Vietnam War in 1971 (the “Pentagon Papers”) by Daniel Ellsberg. On that occasion the US government tried to prosecute him and jail him for many years but public opinion, and the newspapers and court judges, were on his side. Finally the US government — rather laughably — “lost” the wire-tap evidence against Ellsberg and he lived happily ever after. Indeed, he’s still with us, aged 79 — hopefully hale and hearty. No doubt similar attempts will be made to incarcerate Julian Assange in the present case.
But why the death of the nation-state? The answer is very simple. The world has become too complex for any nation-state to understand. Real-world information can’t get to the top of the political pyramid quickly enough and accurately enough for a modern government to respond in the way that they ought to. Built like an army — indeed, its origin owing much to the structure of armies during the 19th century — the top-down pyramidal control by the nation-state, passing down through many ranks, is failing. The sort of secret diplomacy which came to the fore with the nascent nation-state during the Middle Ages has now largely gone for good. Nation-states are leaking like colanders. There is only one remaining nation-state — North Korea — which is still largely impenetrable to prying eyes.
We’ll always need governance, of course. Basic justice and basic protection against violence (whether local or from afar) still needs to be maintained, but many other control functions that nation-states (particularly their civil services) have assumed in the course of the industrial revolution are now melting away. Nation-states, like all power institutions before them (organized religions), will take a long time to die because substantial proportions of their populations have a direct financial interest (jobs or perks) that they should continue as long as possible.
Nevertheless, although nation-states may have been ‘fit for purpose’ in the days of large and affordable armies, as they were for the first half of the 20th century, they are now being overtaken by all sorts of laterally organized, trans-national specializations such as innovations, businesses, science research, interest groups, personal activities, cultural fashions and even, so help us, criminal gangs. Increasingly, these are taking their own decisions (including, importantly, economic ones) and have their own methods of influencing public opinion — which, of course, the Internet is now accelerating.
Paradoxically, even though nation-states had almost completely extinguished Common Law and Mercantile Law in the last century with untold volumes of Statutory Law (including attempts at International Law), even their civil services are increasingly unable to understand or fairly apply the laws that they themselves have formulated (given half a nod and wink by the politicians whom they largely manipulate). Or, as often happens, their laws have counter-intuitive effects. Thankfully, however, just enough of the former laws, tested and honed over millennia, survive. When, for example, two large businesses are in dispute they are still turning to New York Common Law or London Equity courts to resolve matters. The recently formulated World Trade Organization (although making heavy weather of it at present!) is actually a revival of Medieval Mercantile Law (the important principle here being that there is no top-down authority involved but lateral arrangements between parties).
I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that this morning’s thoughts were prompted by the financial fiasco that’s been going on in Brussels over the week-end and the interim solution — the printing of yet more money, albeit heavily disguised with verbal garbage in order to mystify the punters. And then there’s the fiasco that’s still going on in America where, unless unemployment magically diminishes in the near future, Ben Bernanke threatens to release yet more money by all sorts of clever methods. The day of the wheelbarrow being taken to the supermarket is not all that far off.
The above is by Keith Hudson. I am happy to report that his book “A Species in the Making” will hit the stores soon.