The End of the Nation-State

One of the Big Stories of the last century was globalization ? the rise of plodding great dinosaur-like institutions promoting the interests of the Fortune 500. Of course, merger-mania continues to capture headlines, creating ever-larger multinational firms, centralizing information and money ? and hence power ? in the hands of a few old White guys. This is Goliath, and Goliath at a scale above the State. On David's side of the battle for our hearts and souls, we have the Internet, the weapon of Everyman. The Internet is the newfound instrument of the little people, bringing us all within a few clicks of each other (the so-called "small world" phenomenon). It is no accident that the first to flock to this medium were minorities of all kinds ? poodle-lovers, UFO-watchers and other fringe-dwellers. Here, through this network, they found a way to broadcast their message across the world at virtually no cost through an avenue not controlled by Walmart or Banque Credit Suisse.

What is getting squeezed out in this picture is the institution in the middle, the nation-state. It is easy for the media to focus on the President as he waves to them while boarding Air Force One ? indeed, they fawn on these "photo-ops." The existence of standardized channels, like the press advisor, for disseminating "important messages" makes their job easy. Thus, the media haven't noticed that the institution the President represents is increasingly irrelevant to the course of events. Why? Let's look at the sources of State power, and how they are being eroded.

First, money is no longer tied to any material token (see Thomas Petzinger, Jr., this Forum). Once the link to cowrie shells or gold bullion is severed, the exchange of value becomes a matter of trust. And this trust is increasingly being placed in computers ? the Internet again. Greenspan can control greenbacks, but not e-money. Any zit-faced teenager can become an instant millionaire by flipping a digit on a strategic computer account. This is digital democratization, of a sort. So one of the vital sources of centralized governmental power ? control over the money supply ? is increasingly no longer in the hands of the State.

What about the distribution of wealth? It used to be that those close to the political decision-making machinery could write the rules for moneymaking and thus guarantee themselves advantages: policies informed incentives. But the globalization of capital markets has reversed that causal ordering: money now flows as if national boundaries were invisible, slipping right'round local rules and regulations. The policy-makers are always a step behind. So the State no longer finds it easy to ply favorites with favors.

The ultimate source of control, of course, is access to information. What you don't know you can't act on. Governments have long recognized how important this is. Can States nowadays control public opinion? Are the media operated by people the State can coopt? Well, sometimes. But the Fall of the Wall suggests control is never perfect. So you can tell some of the people what to do some of the time, but not whole populations what to think for very long. It just costs too much. And (as Phil Leggiere points out elsewhere in this Forum), the Internet is now a powerful means for protest against State interests. No wonder States are trying hard to control this organically-grown monster.

States of course use various means to attract allegiance beside the media. For example, they stir up patriotism by the tried-and-true method of demonizing outsiders. However, of late, it has become harder to direct aggression "outside," as made obvious by the proliferation of aggressive conflicts along ethnic lines within States (Jaron Lanier's non-Clausewitzian wars, in this Forum). The other possibility, of course, is that some splinter group will get hold of ? or make ? a nuclear warhead, and hold a government ransom. So the ability to incite war ? another source of State power ? seems to be coming from other quarters. This constitutes additional evidence of the soon-to-be demise of States.

What people really care about, the social psychologists tell us, is the group they identify with. You don't identify with Uncle Sam (a clever anthropomorphizing gimmick that only works during war); you identify with Uncle Fred and the other kin who share your name. So it's difficult for people to identify with a country. It's too big ? just a jerry-rigged bit of color on a map in many cases. How can you care when your vote has no influence over outcomes? "Representative" government is farcical when a population is counted in millions. Of course, if you're rich, you can buy influence, but the ante is always being upped as some other special interest vies for control over your Man in Washington. Besides, those guys always logroll anyway. When your self-concept, wealth and well-being derive from participation in other kinds of community, the State becomes an anachronism.

The result of all this will not be the arrival of the Libertarian heaven, a State-less society. It is just that mid-level governance will be replaced by larger- and smaller-scale institutions. We won't have monolithic Big Brother looking over our shoulders in the next century. Instead, we will become a network of tightly linked individuals, empowered by technologies for maintaining personal relationships across space and time. We will all choose to be cyborgs (Rodney A. Brooks), with implants that permanently jack us into the global brain (Ivan Amato), because of the power we derive from our environmentally augmented intelligence (Andy Clark, with apologies to Edwin Hutchins and Merlin Donald). We will all come to live in what Manuel Castells calls a Network Society, and begin, literally, to "think globally and act locally."