We’re living in an age of disruption. How deep does the rabbit hole go?
What we’re witnessing is a shift from territorial monopolies on the use of force as a way of ordering civilization, toward a world of borderless civic networks. In other words, in the words of Tom W. Bell, a move from nation states to stateless nations, which extend the dynamics of social networks into areas traditionally monopolized by government. Digital currencies like bitcoin are already challenging the state’s monopoly on the provision of currency, and it is inevitable that peer-to-peer technology and smart contracts will begin to challenge its monopoly on law and dispute resolution.
This shift reflects the extent to which the internet has expanded our range of thought and activity. We can easily make friends with people on the other side of the world who share our interests, we’re now able to buy and sell to anyone anywhere. We can offer our services on freelance sites like Fiverr and Upwork. All of this is amazing, and unprecedented, and there is more to come. Our social habits and economic opportunities have been transformed, and we’re better because of it. Those who believe that an institution designed in the 17th century is going to be able to adapt to the new world through minor changes in policy rather than fundamental institutional disruption are not processing reality effectively.
It sounds radical. But the truth is that the old-fashioned nation state can’t last forever. It belongs to a particular chapter in human history, and was built for a certain kind of society and economy that no longer exists. Ancient civilizations like Rome and Egypt also aspired to permanence and inevitability, but were swept away by underlying social and economic changes. The same was true for Feudalism. Magna Carta challenged the overreach of King John and created the beginnings of constitutional monarchy and what we now call human rights. The Declaration of Independence challenged the overreach of King George III and created in the West what we have today- the liberal democratic state. But that system is now behaving more and more like a creaky anachronism which violates our liberties, creates inequalities, divides our planet and distracts us with petty arguments about the “left/right spectrum”. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards liberty. Is the liberal democratic state really “the end of history” as Francis Fukuyama once put it? Is this all there is? Or can we create in the 21st century another leap, on the scale of Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence, into something greater still?
Many believe that the best strategy for dealing with a globalized world is to globalize the nation-state, or to make it more democratic, but this is a profound mistake. The problems with Feudalism and the British control of the American colonies were not logistical or administrative, they were moral. What defines a state above all else is its monopoly on violence, and forced participation in a given geographical area. Stacking layer upon layer of authoritarian control from local to global is simply applying a flawed 17th century style of governance in new ways, without questioning the model itself.
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