Our notion of nations

Consider: I a matter of a year, the leaders of Italy, Greece, Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia have all been ousted not in the normal course of governance and not at the polls. Who’s in charge there? In the Middle EAst, it’s the people, at last (but can they retain power?). In Europe, its bondholders and neighboring nations. Meanwhile, in Spain and the #occupywallstreet movements, disgruntled, disorganized citizens are making their voices heard. In Iceland they’re rewriting their constitution using Facebook.

What is becoming of our notion of nations?

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Georges Papandreou’s short-lived threat to hold a plebiscite over the EU’s insistence of austerity as a condition of bail from fiscal jail set off a debate among the paper’s editor, Frank Schirrmacher; the esteemed political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and economic writer Rainer Hank.

Far be it from me to translate the language or its subtleties and ironies, but it’s clear that they are debating who’s in charge in Europe: government? bond-holders and bankers? the people? Hank notes that “the governments of Europe are under dual supervision.” He questions whether Europe is facing “dictatorship of the people versus dictatorship of financial markets” or a question of “democracy versus rule of law.”

At the same time I (tried to) read all that, Martin Gurri wrote a most eloquent review of and rumination on Public Parts (his son, Adam, happened to do likewise). Gurri père raises many thoughtful points about the value of publicness and its support of trust. I recommend reading both posts. But for purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on Martin Gurri’s trepidation about government. To quote:

In the existential struggle between the public and the old structures of authority, Jarvis is a participant, not an observer.  At times, he makes it sound as if the public can bypass authority and strike out on its own.  The larger argument of Public Parts, however, is that the conflict can only be resolved when authority regains the public’s trust by aligning its practices with those of the new information environment.  Though optimistic in tone, Jarvis doesn’t directly venture an opinion about the cost of this transformation, possibly because he views it as inevitable.  In the manner of a conqueror he proclaims, “Resistance is futile.”

It’s an easy guess that the collision with the public will transform the old institutions.  The question is the social and political pain involved:  whether the process will resemble gradual evolution or, as I suspect, an extinction event.  (There are those who theorize that such a cataclysm has already struck the global economy.)

Because of their immense inherited weight, business and government have a vested interest in inertia.  In this context, resistance may be futile in the long term, but rational for the moment.  As an old government hand, I can attest to the accuracy of Jarvis’ portrayal of the bureaucracy – but he fails to note the profound emotional investment in existing institutions by the people who inhabit them.  Even the most up-to-date bureaucrats, in my experience, will resist the advance of the public until retirement day.
Bending the massive structures of authority to the ideals promoted in Public Parts may well be impossible without a traumatic fracturing of the status quo.

And a traumatic fracturing of the state itself?

That is the question I want to raise here: Are we seeing such cracks begin to open before our eyes?

Is Europe’s crisis of economics and government structure — even of the legitimacy and power of government — a signal?

Is the Arab Spring and its ability to tear down government without a clear notion of what will be built in its place an opportunity to rethink government?

Is Iceland as a startup nation a legitimate effort to show that course?

Did Spain attempt to organize a revolution without organization?

Is #occupywallstreet an effort to reassert the authority of the people outside the structure of politics and government? (Some say they make a mistake not becoming overtly political with candidates and platforms. I am coming to believe they are right to stand outside government and demand attention and reform from that distance. Its platform perspective might be: ‘We don’t want to get any on us.’)

Will we question the idea of what a nation is? Are Greece and Italy still sovereign nations when bankers can overthrow their governments and neighbors can dictate the terms of governance? Are the hashtag rebels of Spain then the U.S. then other nations establishing a new society (albeit one even more unsure in its structure than Egypt’s and Tunisia’s next forms)?

Says Gurri Senior:

Particularly unsettling are the prospects for government.  The extraordinary outcomes today demanded from politics, Paul Ormerod has shown, lie beyond the reach of human power.  We simply don’t know how to “solve” unemployment or inequality.  The more we expect to impose such outcomes on a complex world, the deeper our disenchantment will be.  Transparency and citizen participation, in such circumstances, will only aggravate the friction between a triumphant public and its failed institutions.  Modern government, outwardly so imposing, will be revealed in its nakedness to be a feeble and incapable organ, unable to rise to the hopes of the citizenry.  The consequence is likely to be turbulence for every ruling principle, including liberal democracy.

Gurri might have begun wondering whether I went to far. Then he went even farther.

  • Yes, we have a tendency to forget that the way things are is not the way they’ve always been or always will be. The idea of the modern nation-state is relatively new (i.e. Italy itself has only existed in its present form since the mid-1800s) and can be rather directly traced to the industrial revolution. So things like technology do effect and even help create new power structures when the old ones begin to fail.

    • Yes, Germany and even Canada as well came into their present forms relatively recently.

      At the Club de Madrid meeting of former heads of state, at a panel on which I appeared, one of the former government officials suggested that citizens of the world should be allowed to vote in the elections of the nations that affect their lives — that is, everyone should be able to vote in the U.S.

      • Yeah, that was a common refrain during the ’08 elections from my friends across the pond. There is some truth that if we’re going to be the “leader of the free world”, the free world should get a free vote. Likewise, if a multinational corporation is going to have a major affect on my life, shouldn’t I get some say in how they conduct business?

  • “We simply don’t know how to “solve” unemployment or inequality.”

    Bah. We know some ways not to solve them, though, and those always seem to be the plan on hand.

    I lose patience when people just want to throw up their hands and say “Oh, it’s just too hard” before anything has even been tried, and especially before the obvious steps are tried.

  • Andy Freeman

    Italy’s govt wasn’t overthrown by “bankers”. It was overthrown by the political branch of the EU.

    Unlike Greece, Italy’s govt deficit is less than its interest payments. In other words, Italy doesn’t need loans to keep operating, so it could default without immediately affecting things.

    However, default by Italy puts the EU at risk because EU bank regulators said that soverign debt was risk-free and “encouraged” banks to hold it for political reasons. As a result, Italian default would make some French and German banks technically insolvent. Since there’s a revolving door there (like between the Obama administration and Goldman Sachs)….

  • I’m actually not predicting the collapse of the nation-state: having been a government analyst, I’ve pretty much sworn off divination of any kind. I do believe the encounter with a technologically-empowered public will feel like a Cat 5 hurricane to the great top-down institutions which have dispensed authority since the start of the industrial age – and that very little is going to look the way it does today, after the storm is over.

    This is by no means unprecedented. As you write in Public Parts, the invention of the printing press empowered the Reformation (and you could have added, the French and American Revolutions).

    I also think government faces a special problem. Those who believe we can impose our desired outcomes on complex human arrangements I will simply point to Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail and Duncan Watts’ Everything Is Obvious. If Ormerod is right, the public’s expectations of government in liberal democracies are totally out of whack with its capabilities. Frustration and disenchantment will be correspondingly profound. Maybe this is no different from the gap between expectations and performance in, say, journalism – but multiply the implosion of the news business by the wealth and power of the modern state, and you have something to worry about.

    The nation state is not doomed to die, but neither is it guaranteed survival in the storm. The most interesting reflection on the possibility of collapse was written by my friend, Tony Olcott : I recommend it (see below). Tony plucked his title off the Communist Manifesto, which described industrial society in terms strangely applicable to the prophecies and complaints inspired by the digital revolution:

    “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…”


  • This vibe has been on my mind ever since I first began my journey into postmodernism. In recent months, a doomsday scenario has been unfolding in which the tail we’ve been chasing suddenly vanishes, and we’re all left standing in awe at the reality that there’s nothing for us to do. The house was built with cards after all, and we’ve got to start over. Where to begin? Human nature; there’s the rub. Can we sufficiently remove the self-centered part in order to build a better world? I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

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