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Technology and the nation-state: governing social complexity

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The emergence of the nation-state as the central unit of political decision making was the result of a series of technological advances. With the rise of 'information technology' - and new methods of analysing social complexity - its methods of operation may now be radically decentralised. 

Dylan Hewitt-Page
29 May 2013

While the way in which individual political units make decisions often dominates popular discussion on the subject of the development of political organisation, the nature of how the individual political units themselves are defined is also a rich subject area. Throughout history there have been empires, city-states, tribal groups, and more, often all interacting with each other at one time. Now, the nation-state is almost ubiquitous. How this came to be is inextricably linked to technological advances. Even in the eighteenth century the connection between states and technology was recognised by thinkers such as Adam Smith, and more recently writers like Benedict Anderson have noted the connection between the rise of printing press and the origins of nationalism. Advances in communication and transport infrastructure, for example, allow the governments in states to generate greater tax revenue, with efficient tax collecting systems leading to a more efficient state. The industrial revolution gave rise to technologies that facilitated European colonialism on a larger scale than ever before, and the rise of twentieth century nationalism in what came to be called the third world was a direct result of these processes. 

If the evolution of technology has facilitated changes in the political and social structures in which we all live in the past there is no reason to assume that further advances in technology won't drive further changes in political and structures in the present and future. The rise of the internet, and mobile internet devices like smartphones in particular, is a massive shift in the way technology impacts on human lives and social interaction. This inevitably leads to the question of how this advance in technology will impact our political and social organisation. It is commonplace to hear speculation about the decline or demise of the nation-state, but I am not so sure that this is going to happen. A change in the way the nation-state operates is indeed likely but such a change is not necessarily going to indicate a weakening or end to the nation-state. It is also important to note that some of the reasons which have been proposed for this hypothesised future decline are not based on technological advances but on other observed trends on a global scale, such as the rise of regional organisations like the European Union, or transnational corporations, some which seem to have more power than many countries.

As has been acknowledged throughout this series, the concepts of the nation and the state are treated as if they are inseparable. The idea that nations should govern themselves is enshrined in the charter of the United Nations. One of the purposes of the UN is listed as being: “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” Even the name of the organisation conflates the nation and the state. Likewise, we talk of international relations when interstate relations would be more accurate in most cases. Regardless of this widespread merging, however, there is no fundamental reason why the political functions of a state have to be entwined with cultural identities. Nor is the nation-state necessarily the best way of governing peoples. However, thanks to a historical chain culminating in the establishment of the UN and the fall of the Soviet Union the idea that the legitimacy of a state is based on its connection to the historical narrative of a certain group of people who claim connection to a certain piece of land has become widely accepted.

Under closer inspection the very idea of a nation-state is in many ways a myth, albeit a convenient and pervasive one. Very few, if any, states actually govern one ethnic or cultural group, let alone are the sole state that governs all members of that group. Mythology, though, is a key component of the nation-state. The idea that the nation exists as a fixed entity with a shared past tied to a territory is used to justify why the state that rules that territory exists as it does. Legitimacy comes from the claim that the state represents the people of that land in some way (and not necessarily the indigenous people of the land. The national myth can be that people came to that land to escape persecution and seek liberty and opportunities, for instance. The key point of this idea is that the abstract state and the abstract nation are tied to very real physical space. Without the mythology of a nation behind it the reason for any one state to govern any one piece of land seems arbitrary, a historical accident. If the state's existence is seen as arbitrary by its citizens then it would appear to be easier to question its legitimacy in governing those citizens.

One way in which the rise of information technology may change the nation-state is by eroding national identities. As the global population becomes increasingly connected, cultures tend to drift towards a homogenised and Americanised point. English becomes ever more common as a language, people everywhere receive their news and other media content from a select range of sources, and the differences that years of geographic separation created melt away. Just as the rise of the printing press led to a homogenisation of local dialects and identities into larger national languages and identities, so the rise of the internet as a new way of disseminating the written and spoken word is eroding national languages and identities. However there are factors which limit this process. For instance, although English is commonly used it's still not most  people's first language. This speaks to a deeper truth – that for all its novelty and pervasiveness the internet is still only one aspect of people's experience of the world and only one aspect of the process of culturalisation through which people develop their sense of identity. Children will still grow up in households where their parents speak their local language in their local accents and attend schools where they will develop their understanding of the world in the context of a group of people also from the same geographic location. Their close friends will almost exclusively be people they have met physically, not just on the internet.  The processes which influence the production of subjectivity will continue to be tied to physical location. The internet might weaken the influence of some of these factors but there is no way it can remove them completely. 

Advances in technology may not only weaken the national identities of nation-states but also the state structures themselves. States have evolved through a long historical process to reach their contemporary forms. When populations live in small, relatively isolated communities with simple economies there is no need for formalised governance structures. Unspoken codes of conduct or a hereditary leader's word are sufficient to arbitrate disputes and protect persons and property. Once groups of people reach a certain size and the interactions between them become inevitably more complex then it is necessary to formalise the rules that control society into laws. To illustrate this example, imagine you live in a small village with a few roads and there are only four people who own cars in the village. When driving around the village there is no real need for a formal system of road rules because the potential complexity of traffic is not very great and any potential situation can be addressed using common courtesy among friends when it arises. But if you live in a city with a million cars then you need to have rules to govern what to do at intersections and so on in order to avoid the economic and human cost of multiple traffic accidents.  The fact that there are large cities and countries with poorly enforced road rules and that these places have high road numbers of road deaths illustrates the point that in some situations formal rules enforced by a single centralised  power result in better outcomes for society in general.

The connection between technology and political structures has worked in this way for most of history. Any technology which increases the number and complexity of social interactions consequently leads to more rules and control being required over a society. To enforce these laws a bureaucracy and some sort of coercive capacity – police and military - are needed. To fund these, a source of income – taxation – is needed. To raise taxes you need good infrastructure and bureaucracy. To protect your investment in the infrastructure and technology you need more military. And so on until you reach the point where you have territorially defined states exerting what Max Weber famously described as a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within their borders. While the ways in which the laws within these states are created and decided has changed significantly with the rise of representative democracy, the functions of the state itself are no different in a democracy like Finland or dictatorship like North Korea. The step from state to nation-state is to claim the legitimacy of the state in question is built upon the people it governs' connection to the land it controls through shared culture and history.

The internet and its associated technologies have changed the functions of the state in one crucial way – they have created a space that is not physical territory where complex social interactions take place. The internet is largely, as political scientists would call it, ungoverned space. And although there are constant fears from some quarters that the governments will rein in the internet, and they do in countries such as Iran and China to some extent, the fact that a website like Silk Road can exist indicates the difficulties facing states attempting to govern cyberspace. Fundamentally the methods of controlling a physical space cannot be translated into controlling a nonphysical space like the internet. Yet the internet is such a vital part of the lives of much of the world’s population now that for the first time it appears that some of the ability of the state to protect citizens and their property may be waning rather than growing. Even if this is true, however, there is a limit to how much the power of the state can be eroded. Regardless of the reach of the internet into our daily lives we are physical beings and we live in a physical world. The control of states over the physical aspect of our social interactions (and I mean this on a large scale: the production of goods and services, the protection of property rights etc.) seems unlikely to weaken any time soon.

In this sense, the nation-state is like the QWERTY keyboard. It is not inherently the best tool for the job (in this case the governing of large complex capitalist societies) but because it gained an early dominance over other potential options it has become embedded as the way things are done. The more people own QWERTY keyboards, the more sense it makes for new keyboards to be made in the QWERTY layout because that is what everyone is familiar with. In a similar way, the more states claim legitimacy through their appeal to nationalism the more other states will do so as well as they will fear losing their own power and legitimacy to nationalist movements. While the keyboard is a practical tool, the nation-state is primarily ideological. However as mentioned earlier, international law in the form of the United Nations Charter has also effectively made it a legal necessity as well. That peoples have the right to self-determination may sound self-evident but even this could be interpreted differently, if you were willing to accept self-determination within a broader state framework.  Nonetheless, as the current drive for Scottish independence proves, it is hard to convince any one nation that they should give up their claim to statehood when so many other nations already lay claim to states as well. At the same time, attempts to create pan-state or trans-state governance structures like the EU or ASEAN appear to have stalled with the global economic crisis which has also seen the re-emergence of nationalist political parties in much of Europe. 

Even the banal nationalist fervour of nation-state based spectacles such as the Olympics show how embedded the concept is in our collective psyche. The nation-state is a key economic construct as well, allowing the exploitation of resources and the trade of goods and services at scales unthinkable without the infrastructure and legal creations of nation-states. Even though transnational corporations and global trade appear to stand as antithetical to nation-states in reality the existence of multiple different nation-states helps large corporations by allowing competition for corporate tax rates and banking laws. The connection between transnational corporations and the national is less strong, but national identities are reinforced through media output and corporate branding and marketing which exploit them for commercial gain. The franchising of television shows like The X Factor in different countries is an example of this process at work. Put simply, the concept of the nation-state is entangled with so many aspects of contemporary life that for it to be superseded by another form of socio-political organisation would require a global cultural revolution of almost unimaginable magnitude. 

Just because the nation-state appears to be here to stay doesn't mean that there will not be changes to its form brought about by technological advances. I think there is at least one way in which the information technology age might shape the future of the nation-state. Most nation-states are highly centralized, with political decision-making effectively in the hands of a few people - whether they are democratically elected or not. One thing the decentralizing nature of the internet might do to this structure is to decentralize it as well. Previous advances in information technology have drastically changed the world. To pick a famous example, the printing press opened up an age of scientific, social and political revolution in Europe as ideas could be transmitted quickly and cheaply like never before. As I pointed out earlier, this can be seen as one of the key causes of the creation of the modern nation-state. The medium itself was the crucial aspect of this information revolution, as it will no doubt be with the internet’s impact upon our current world, which is only just being felt. I suspect that as our ways of thinking become more used to concepts of decentralized networks rather than hierarchical patterns of control, so the pressure to arrange our political organisations along these lines will also mount. 

In many ways the trend towards decentralisation is a long one already, as it can be argued that the beginnings of representative democracy and universal suffrage were themselves the steps towards removing the control of the state from a centralised elite. Continuing in this vein Twitter and Facebook have been credited with at least partially driving the Arab Spring, and it is undeniable that there is potential for a whole new way of facilitating political change through information technology by way of networking, engaging, and sharing information with a wide range of people and organisations outside of the physical realm. The nation-state as an underlying concept to the way we order our social and political lives may endure for the foreseeable future but the way in which the state itself is governed still has a wide scope for evolution and development as new technologies continue to change the way people engage with and interact with information and each other. 

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