Before and after the nation state
I’ve been thinking about the connections between the rise of Bitcoin and the unraveling of the EU (Brexit), Spain (Catalan), the Middle East and presumably more countries and regions to come (what Juan Enriquez calls “Untied States” in his book of that name).
This is exactly what was predicted by the early Wired founders, who extrapolated from the rise of the web to the “end of the nation-state”. Although that may be going a bit too far, it is worth noting that the nation-state, far from being the Natural State of Man, is actually a relatively recent invention. “Most theories see the nation state as a 19th-century European phenomenon, facilitated by developments such as state-mandated education, mass literacy and mass media”, according to Wikipedia.
Before the 19th-century, regions were defined by language, religion, ethnicity and the reach of protecting rulers, from kings and sultans to tribal chiefs. So for all but a tiny blip in humanity’s existence ( less than 200 years of our 2 million years on this planet and 6,000 years of civilization) we weren’t ruled by nation-states, and odds are that at some point in the future we won’t be either.
That’s not a tragedy, it’s just a search for the best granularity of society. In early times, that was the “Dunbar number” of people you could know well — villages of around 150. Then, as we were able to travel on horseback, it became the distance you could travel in a day, with tribal territories of tens of miles. Then, as trade extended influence in the form of languages and religions, it became larger, even encompassing empires.
But the notion of national borders and citizenship, defined by laws not ethnicity or tribal, language, religious or cultural affiliation, is both new and fragile. Indeed, it’s looking as temporary as the systems that came before it. As we increasingly live our lives online, unconstrained by those borders and citizenship, we’re starting to define new atomic units of social granularity, and they are both bigger and smaller than the nation state — from the global sects of Islam to the globally distributed alt-right. You can work for a multinational, speak English at work, then come home and speak Hindi to your family in your home in Zurich.
Civilization, like any other complex system, is hard to put into neat boxes. We all live in many dimensions, from our geography to our relationships, interest and affiliations. So any attempt to reduce this complexity to a single dimension, like the nation state, is going to eventually run into blurry boundaries, even to extent of erasing them.
In science, we try to understand and predict complex systems with “levels of abstraction”. Whatever the universe is ruled by, we first abstract it with mathematics. We then abstract that with “physics”, which is measurable. Then we simplify physics with “chemistry”, which is a useful approximation of systems of physical interactions. Then we describe systems of chemistry in living things as “biology”. We describe systems of biology as “ecology”. Or in the case of humans, “psychology”, “sociology” and even “politics” and “economics”.
Each of those is a level of abstraction above the one before it. Each is useful as a tool, but all are wrong, in the sense of blind men describing an elephant.
So rather than mourn the decline of the nation state, consider this period a search for a new level of abstraction to help us understand ourselves. Perhaps we will go back to something more tribal, or perhaps we will invent new systems (blockchain?) on which to run the affairs of man that are not controlled by national institutions. We are large and contain multitudes — perhaps too many to define with 19th century lines on a map.
For even more on this topic, I recommend this smart and well-researched article in Aeon by Jamie Bartlett from the London thinktank Demos, which makes the case for city-states coming after nation-states. See also Benjamin Barber’s fantastic book, “If Mayors Ran The World”