The role of the nation state

CC0 Lennart Heim

Albert Wenger is a venture capitalist. Let’s not hold that against him, though, as he says some smart things on his blog. In a recent post about the future of the nation state, he says some smart things. Wenger states his position before going on to make several great points:

I believe it is critical that we get past the dominance of the nation state as the key organizing principle in the world. That doesn’t mean doing away with nation states (at least not overnight), but gradually de-emphasizing their importance.

I identify with the left of politics, but have always been uneasy about socialists’ over-reliance on the state as the instrument of power. As an historian, I know how often this can be abused. On the other hand, the neoliberal agenda of a small state and unfettered capitalism seems abhorrent. It’s only recently that I’ve come to see libertarian socialism as a better way forward. It emphasises self-management, co-operation, and decentralisation, and organisations I support such as trade unions and co-ops.

Libertarian socialists are strongly critical of coercive institutions, which often leads them to reject the legitimacy of the state in favor of anarchism. Adherents propose achieving this through decentralization of political and economic power, usually involving the socialization of most large-scale private property and enterprise (while retaining respect for personal property). Libertarian socialism tends to deny the legitimacy of most forms of economically significant private property, viewing capitalist property relation as a form of domination that is antagonistic to individual freedom.

It was Vinay Gupta who convinced me of the dangers of the nation state. He’s been talking about microstates and ‘Weak State-Like Entitites’ (WSLEs) since about 2008, even mixing-up ideas around basic minimum income that are all the rage these days. It’s hard to argue against his definition of states:

The State is that entity which can retroactively legalize criminal behavior.

Returning to Wenger’s post, he discusses the history of Germany, which is where he’s from originally. Like many European countries, it was originally made up of smaller principalities which he shows using a map from the year 1200:

It shows a large number of tiny principalities that had their own rulers, spoke widely varying local dialects, used different currencies, etc. Over time these fused into larger units and in the early 1800s Franconia became part of Bavaria. Today Bavaria is part of German, which in turn is part of the EU. This process of change and and should continue on a global scale. How should we determine at which scale to address a particular problem? The key principle here is the one of “subsidiarity”: decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. Since we have one global atmosphere we need to make some decisions globally, like how many greenhouse gases we should have. But staying with the same issue, the actual ways of achieving a limit should be decided a lower levels, such as regions.

New technologies mean we don’t necessarily require the economies of scale that we previously needed. We can make decisions at a local level, while making agreements and deals at a much larger level. One last word from Vinay about WSLEs, which I think we’ll see versions of by 2050 at the very latest:

WSLEs are guests of local governments, not nation states and it is on this distinction that their successes and failures will rest. But given that the planet has very little land free for the taking, the WSLE approach of “negotiate a corner to live in” has much to recommend it, and a foreign policy based on not being too annoying and not being at all threatening is a critical component of this approach. Finally, we come down to population. I believe the appropriate number is a shade under 30,000 – the size of a small town. It is an M2 community (i.e. in Monkeysphere / Dunbar number terms, it’s a bit over 150 * 150 people, approximately two moneyspheres in radius.) I believe you need a population of about this size to support things like first world style medical care and regular flights to the nearest airport. It also creates some resilience in local infrastructure. It also gives some guide as to the amount of territory required: at 1 acre per person, it’s about 50 square miles or 130 square kilometers. Not a small patch of land.

All of this is eminently doable. I grew up playing the game Frontier: Elite II and have recently revived that interest with the long-awaited follow-up, Elite: Dangerous. In both games, different planets have vastly different rules. Until we become a multi-planetary species, we need to figure out how to do all this on planet Earth as unfettered neoliberal capitalism isn’t working. Perhaps we need to carve out areas for experimentation at the ‘state’ level?

Photo by Lennart Heim on Unsplash