Always the bridesmaid, never the bride…

For some unthinkable reason, I was not invited to Technoccult’s roundtable on the future of the nation-state.  Probably because they’ve never heard of me, Wes and Edward aside, but I won’t let that get in the way of some good snark.  Besides, I can now claim to be a renegade renegade futurist, which justs adds to my edgy appeal.  Or something.

Anyway, good question.  The whole viability/decline of the state has become a very interesting question in light of the credit crunch.  And I have more than a passing interest in social organization in the past and present, in no small way due to reading John Robb for the past three years or so.

Following the question, I would say what happens to China is vital in seeing which way the coin falls.  I believe it could go either way, but how China deals with the crisis is critical. The only thing that has decreased more than Chinese exports is Chinese imports, right now.  So, while the economy is still not brilliant, the foreign currency reserves continue to grow.  How long this can be maintained, considering the worldwide slump in consumption, is unknown.  In the meantime, the Chinese government has taken the risk of social instability very seriously.  Promises to keep on as many workers as possible, subsidy payments to laid off migrant workers, attempts to reform security offices, increased communication (read: propaganda) with the population is the carrot.  Increased powers and resources for security elements, placing the blame on outside agitators and quietly promoting the idea that Japan and the USA, not China, is to blame for the current economic woes, forms part of the stick.   However, Chinese control of the media and most methods of mass communication would mean that, except in the event of some unforeseen catastrophe, I would expect them to come out of this fairly intact.

India has, so far, weathered the economic crisis of the present.  Due to strong regulatory bodies and swiftness in dealing with financial malpractice, India has come out of this better than many key players.  However, India suffers problems that few other states do.  For example, the ongoing Naxalite insurgency has essentially created a parallel judicial and social system, that exists alongside that of the Indian government.  According to the Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, the group has significant clout, deterring foreign investment in India, organizing protests and taking control of resource rich regions.  They have also expertly used the vast disparity of wealth in India to gain recruits and a measure of influence that, when last checked, extended over 13 states and 170 districts in the country.  This is going to have an increasingly significant impact on the Indian state’s claim to represent the people, and thus its legitimacy.

Russia, as I have mentioned before, is a power on the decline, I believe.  The economy did not diversify enough when the money was coming in, and their reliance on energy resources for foreign currency is hitting them hard right now. They’ve actually tried to increase their arms sales in order to try and fill the gap left by collapsing oil prices, but hawking its wares in places like Sudan is only going to bring it into conflict with Chinese interests in Africa.  Protests against the President have increased, and the nature of the Russian political system makes it very easy for leaders of oblasts and republics to become de facto rulers.  Russian military might and ferocity, as witnessed in Chechnya, will keep most of these in line, but should the day come that a breakaway province successfully and convincingly beats the Russian Army (the current one, not the poor conscripts and corrupt generals who ran the first and much of the second Chechen wars), then trouble will be on the cards.

The USA is an interesting case.  States like California are already having trouble paying the bills, and much of the attention on fixing the financial system is placed there.  Dire predictions have been made of the United States before, but I actually believe that in this case, most of the US’s international rivals are suffering much more.  So, while I would expect to see a rise in violence, crime and corruption in the US, I think those would be the major problems.  Its power will wane somewhat, of course, but since other powers are taking even harder hits, I would expect the US to still come out on top of the international heap.  The question will be whether the US has the power to fill the gaps left by other states once it recovers, or if more private enterprises will make their way in first.

The EU is a hard one to analyze.  Iceland has already suffered, the UK looks likely to follow its example, and Greece, Hungary and the Baltic states don’t look healthy either.  Italy interests me most though.  Attempted student radicalism due to the state of the economy, an effect I am expecting to see in the UK soon and that we have already seen in Greece, has been heavily stamped on by the current proto-fascist government, who have maintained the social status quo through denigration of foreigners, Muslims and leftist radicals, and has forged alliances with far right groups to harass and attack such targets.  Could this be a model that the rest of Europe will follow? Hard to say, but most European states have currently elected centre-right parties in the first place, and as times get harder I can see the appeal of social democratic parties growing, not shrinking.  Expanding the welfare state may be the method they prefer to offset social tensions.

So, with that in mind, what do I think is happening?  I think John Robb’s Hollow States are the worst case scenario right now.  I expect to see them, but in the cases of the strongest states, such as the USA, I would be very surprised if they occured, at least without some other catastrophic event preceeding it.

However, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t leave myself with a get out clause.  I do think if the economic crisis continues, especially the currently failed method of throwing money at the banks without seeking reform and replacement of key executives (especially with good bankers who didn’t get involved in this whole shitfest – Barclay’s, Santander, HSBC and a few others have some decent people to spare), then I would expect things to perhaps go somewhat worse.  Throwing hundreds of billions at the problem and failing to solve it will contribute to the decline of the nation-state.

Also worth watching is how successful the war in Afghanistan is.  The surge was spun as a success in Iraq, despite not being, but if US forces cannot win, or at least leave looking victorious, from Afghanistan, then that bodes badly.  A state that can neither manage the economy or security for its people will soon lose its claims to legitimacy.  If non-state groups, such as the Taliban, manage to show they can create better economic opportunities, as well as protect against powerful militaries, then they will be in a very strong position.

The question of who fills the gap still bothers me.  The obvious contenders would be businesses, but as you’ve no doubt noticed, they’re having a rocky period right now.  And while there are organized crime, religious and terrorist groups who can fill the gap also, in most of the western world such groups are small in number, religion aside.

Instead, I think we’ll hit a transitional period.  This will be the time that such groups tend to form, alongside the nation-state structure.  Instead of the mixed economy, imagine a mixed polity.  I would expect states to retain a reasonable degree of power, but in the meantime, as they recede (gently or otherwise), groups will start to form to contest the gaps left in their absence, or expected absence.  Some states may manage this successfully, and draw up power-sharing arrangements to the benefit of most parties.  It may even give the nation-state the breathing room necessary to adapt and become more successful, once again supplanting those groups when they are no longer needed.  Other countries, however, through jealousy or ideological blindness or a myriad of other reasons, may not want to play so nice, or share all the toys.  And that would be where I would expect to see conflict, and the possible creation of hollow states.

Or, everything will just go to hell a la Argentina and we’ll all be riding our bikes around the desert in 6 months time.  At the best.

3 thoughts on “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride…

  1. Great stuff Cain. Interesting overview, and I’m checking out that Global Guerrillas site too.

    Is the idea of a hollow state similar to feudalism, just propped up with an illusory official government?

  2. I would suggest feudalism is probably more conceptually sound and defined than a hollow state. I would say what defined feudalism was firstly the class hierarchy, which still exists if more informally, but also the overlapping nature of loyalty within the system. A feudal lord could be quite easily sworn to more than one king, for example. So the idea of “France” as a single country, for example, was a lot less solid that currently exists.

    I think it could go that way, but it wont, necessarily. I do like Hedley Bull’s concept of neo-medievalism and think it has a lot of merit, but equally that social evolution and new technology will cause changes to the model, so even if its mostly analoguous to feudal societies, there may still be significant differences in general operation.

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