Jamie Bartlett in Aeon:
Until the mid-19th century, most of the world was a sprawl of empires, unclaimed land, city-states and principalities, which travellers crossed without checks or passports. As industrialisation made societies more complex, large centralised bureaucracies grew up to manage them. Those governments best able to unify their regions, store records, and coordinate action (especially war) grew more powerful vis-à-vis their neighbours. Revolutions – especially in the United States (1776) and France (1789) – helped to create the idea of a commonly defined ‘national interest’, while improved communications unified language, culture and identity. Imperialistic expansion spread the nation-state model worldwide, and by the middle of the 20th century it was the only game in town. There are now 193 nation-states ruling the world.
But the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world. And as Karl Marx observed, if you change the dominant mode of production that underpins a society, the social and political structure will change too.
The case against the nation-state is hardly new. Twenty years ago, many were prophesising its imminent demise. Globalisation, said the futurists, was chipping away at nation-states’ power to enforce change. Businesses, finance and people could up sticks and leave. The exciting, new internet seemed to herald a borderless, free, identity-less future. And climate change, internet governance and international crime all seemed beyond the nation-state’s abilities. It seemed too small to handle international challenges; and too lumbering to tinker with local problems. Voters were quick to spot all this and stopped bothering to vote, making matters worse. In 1995, two books both titled The End of the Nation State – one by the former French diplomat Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the other by the Japanese organisational theorist Kenichi Ohmae – prophesised that power would head up to multinational bodies such as the European Union or the United Nations, or down to regions and cities.
Reports of its death were greatly exaggerated, and the end-of-the-nation-state theory itself died at the turn of the millennium. But now it’s back, and this time it might be right.