Are Nations Going Extinct?


When I was a young philosophy student, my Marxist fellows discussed the 'withering away of the state' with an almost rapture-like awe. We would all, they assured me, be hunters in the morning, fishers in the afternoon, and poets in the evening.

Today, the nation state is clearly withering. But where Marx saw this as the logical result of a workers' utopia and the perfection of humankind, it is precisely the failure to manifest that utopia and perfection that is both a primary driver, and a primary symptom, of the state’s demise.

This withering has profound implications for foreign policy. Counterinsurgency and nation building doctrines are based on enhancing the legitimacy of the state. If the state as a functional structure is circling the drain, then so are these policies – which might help us understand why nothing seems to work in Afghanistan. The basic assumption of creating a viable state is itself nonviable.

Complexity science heads don’t do – or even believe in – prediction. The world is too fluid and emergent for that. But we do track behaviors over time and play with scenarios, probabilities and trajectories. So let me climb out on my favorite limb with my trusty chainsaw and suggest that the nation state, as we know it, will go extinct over the next few decades.

There are several reasons for this. Most important is that the world is just too big, too fast and too interconnected / interdependent for states to effectively respond to emergent events. Their timelines are too long. They have to recognize the issue, consider the political benefits and pitfalls, decide on a course of action, draft and argue out legislation, fight over appropriations, determine the spin, brief the players . . . Meantime, the world has moved on and new crises have appeared, perhaps driven by the actions or inactions of the state(s) in question.  

States also suffer terribly from ‘over prescribed’ structure. They have literally millions of rules, regulations, check and balances, as well as parallel layers of administration that often compete with and obstruct each other. Multiplied together, this induces paralysis.

Meanwhile, the world is continuously manifesting ‘butterfly effects’ – events that trigger something, which then triggers something else, which then triggers a whole cascade of effects. It’s iterative and emergent, and bureaucrats can do little but run in circles screaming and tearing their hair, while trying desperately to blame someone / something else for the fallout.

Another key factor is that states no longer have a monopoly on violence. We live in an open source world, and states can neither exclusively apply, nor effectively contain, violence as a policy tool. The loss of that control equates to a loss of prestige, which also means a loss of deterrence.

As state structures dissipate, they will be replaced by a variety of ‘post national’ entities. In the near term, these may be primarily parasitic – such as hybridized gangs, militias and crime syndicates – profiteering on the chaos of a governance vacuum. In the longer term, however, these emergent entities will likely become the new centers of innovation that define, design, prototype and ‘infect’ through their success the future shape of civilization.

There is no agreed upon language for this kind of emerging entity. I like the term, ‘Other Guys’ (OGs). They’re not government, not an NGO, not a political party. They’re just self-organizing networks of . . . other guys.

OGs stand outside the dominant system, even as they navigate and exploit it. They follow Bucky Fuller’s advice not to fight the existing reality – except as necessary to maintain freedom of action – but to build new models that make the old ones obsolete.  

As state breakdowns become more obvious – whether military failures, bungled relief efforts, endemic corruption or unresolved financial and social crises – we can begin to see what the triggers are. How that varies by culture or region or GDP. Over what time period it plays out. And what emerges in its place.

That last is especially important, but so far, the answer is . . . a lot of different answers. Rather like William Gibson’s observation that, 'The future has already arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’

There are, however, some basic organizing principles and common threads.

First, these emerging entities operate along ‘organic’ pathways. As with natural selection, multiple groups try multiple avenues, sometimes competing and sometimes collaborating. OGs arise to fill niches in the cultural ecosystem created when states vacate social space. Those that do the best job filling the voids in people’s lives – especially around security, livelihood, development and infrastructure – also fill the governance void.

The most successful OGs function as ‘constructive networks’, continually adapting and reconfiguring in response to changing conditions. They learn, unlearn and relearn, and continually co-evolve with their social / economic / ecological landscapes.

‘Positional’ or hierarchical leadership – think president, maximum leader or grand poobah – is displaced by group intelligence and open space / open source models. Titular leaders may remain, but the most effective will be more facilitators than commanders.

And while ‘isms’ may provide an initial rallying point, successful OGs are more likely to be entrepreneurial than ideological because, as Stafford Beer put it so beautifully, ‘Ideology is a very poor variety attenuator.’ It tends to make orgs non-adaptive – too often acting out of dogma rather than objective realities.

There are several OGs we can study to see how these variables play out.

Hezbollah may be the most visible example of a ‘first generation’ OG org. And – as a militia, political party, social welfare provider and upholder of the faith – perhaps the most diversified. The Hezbollah model, however, may not be replicable or scalable. Emergent outcomes are the result of complex interactions among initial conditions, rules and relationships, and Hezbollah has enjoyed some very fortuitous initial conditions and relationships.

Not least are a coherent narrative, a homogeneous population, an enemy to rally against, and allies with relatively complimentary goals and deep pockets. What it lacks is a true source of livelihood, which I’d argue is the one absolute essential. If you’ve got the gig, you can create the rest. Hezbollah is vulnerable due to its economic dependence on Iran and Syria.

Perhaps a better example is the La Familia Cartel in Michoacán. They produce and distribute methamphetamine, smuggle people, pirate DVDs and run a strong arm debt-collection service. (Their fulfillment rate is reputed to be near 100%. They kidnap defaulters.) They also collect ‘taxes’ for protection and buy politicians.

In exchange, the cartel provides drug treatment to mitigate the impact of their products within their territory, supports schools and clinics, keeps order and even does micro lending. (Word is their rates are lower than banks and turnaround time from application to funding is under 72 hours.) This is all wrapped in a quasi evangelical ideology and a Robin Hood aura, supported by social networking capabilities, and all underwritten by a solid gig.

Mara Salvatrucha – MS-13 – is an example of a geographically distributed model. It has a powerful Identity and primary loyalty. Members have their tats, Uzis and homies to demonstrate belonging. And they have drugs, theft, protection and smuggling as a gig.

There are two primary weaknesses to that model, however. Where it arose primarily to protect Salvadorians from other immigrant gangs, MS – 13 is purely parasitic today, so lacks the kind of popular support Hezbollah and La Familia enjoy. And it hasn’t decoupled from the larger system, so when that system goes into crisis, it has no ‘crumple zones’ to absorb the impact of a crash. The gang’s cash is still tied up in the global system, and they can’t eat it. MS 13 lacks deep resilience.

That lack of deep resilience is common to most of the current crop of OGs, and it’s often multiplied by a lack ‘requisite variety’.

The greater the diversity within a system – the greater the number of perspectives it can see and possibilities it can imagine – the more effective it is, and the more resilient it is to perturbations. But the composition and Identity of most OGs today are too narrow to support genuine resilience. Their goals are too small – even too personal – and don't benefit the larger community, which will ultimately come to see them as the parasites they are. (Think Taliban.)

The fact is, if most of today’s OGs were decoupled from legitimate social and political grievance, they would be seen as simply criminal, and deserving of eradication. Since they are often able to mask themselves as crusaders against oppression – or simply as those who succeed in a system crafted to suppress them (Super Fly Syndrome) – they are often viewed as heroes. Admiration without remuneration, however, is not sustainable. OGs that don’t give back will go away.

Potentially more durable models are beginning to emerge in more affluent regions and neighborhoods. Not because the people there are smarter or more ambitious, but because it’s a lot easier to pursue transformation in a relatively stable environment where you have a significant degree of safety, and the necessary economic resources.

These new models are hyper local, scaling down to city block size or smaller. They feature components like local energy production and grids, with surplus power as an export product. Water capture and reclamation. Food production, including permanent production edible landscapes. Security is provided through self policing – whether through internal patrols or contract providers – with social governance enforced by ‘tribal’ models such as shunning and banishment.

These ‘urban village’ models create local institutions to capture and locally recirculate the big outflows of a typical community – interest, insurance, energy and food – and underwrite community livelihood. In so doing, they decouple from the global system and create the crumple zones that will allow them to weather external system shocks. (Citi goes, bust? Oh well. Our assets are in local infrastructure, local financial institutions, local currencies, seed banks, time banks, root cellars . . .)

In an OG world, the metrics for success are local, democratic and entrepreneurial, with a significant degree of insulation from external fluctuations. Self sufficient, self protective and self healing. Successful OGs will generate not only livelihood, but also safety, Identity, community and fun.

That’s what security means in the 21st century, and that’s what nation states can’t provide.

Which is why they’re heading for the dustbin of history.

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