Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The proliferation of defunct states

[Another excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse.]

The triumph of the nation-state was made possible by the triumph of industry over artisanal production, especially in the area of weaponry. Industrialization gave the larger nations the means to produce vast quantities of war matériel, in turn giving them the impetus to homogenize and standardize the population by imposing a single language and educational system in order to be able to field a unified fighting force. The transformation was profound: at the time of the French Revolution only 10-12 percent of the French population could be said to speak French; in Italy the number of people who could be said to speak Italian was even lower. It allowed a handful of European nation-states to conquer the entire planet, before suffering the successive paroxysms of the two world wars. As they retreated, they did their best to carve up the planet into patches that, they hoped, would emerge as nation-states in their own right. Many of these experiments at constructing nations out of heterogenous ethnic raw material are famous failures: the Tutsi–Hutu Rwanda, the Sunni–Shia–Kurd Iraq, the Moslem North and Christian South Sudan, the permanent disaster area that is the Congo, along with numerous less famous ones. But no matter how weak the case for unity happens to be, it is a requirement that each patch of land belong to some nation-state or other.

Take the example of the Republic of Abkhazia, a tiny speck of a country on the Black Sea that, after the collapse of the USSR, fought and won a war of independence against the newly hatched and rabidly nationalistic nation-state of (former Soviet) Georgia. Abkhazia then spent more than a decade in political limbo because the world at large frowned upon its separatist ambitions. Meanwhile its remaining residents held a referendum and voted for independence, while at the same time acquiring Russian passports. They wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Georgia while realizing that full independence was but a dream. In August of 2008 the Georgians lost their cool and attacked South Ossetia (another limbo territory full of Russian citizens). For this they were severely punished by Russia, which then de facto annexed both territories. Since then the international furor over Abkhazia’s refusal to be part of Georgia has been buried. Clearly, the problem with the world’s refusal to recognize Abkhazia’s independence had nothing to do with Georgia; it had everything to do with independence. Now that Abkhazia has been claimed by a nation-state, all is well and the matter can be regarded as settled. And when we say “the world,” let’s be clear that we mean the United Nations, the OECD and various other international organizations whose members are... nation-states. Membership has its privileges, and one of them is the privilege of stomping on the heads of non-members.

Such is the pressure that every single patch of dirt on the planet should belong to some nation-state or other, even if it is weak or defunct or purely a notional artifact of the political map. Any patch of dirt that fails to coalesce with one of the neighboring tiles in the nation-state mosaic can, in principle, become its own separate nation-state, but then it must organize a national government for the purposes of seeking international recognition and entering into state-legal relations with other tiles. It is by now abundantly clear that not every former imperial possession does a viable nation-state make: the planet is littered with defunct or semi-defunct states that succumbed to internal conflict. The idea of carving up peoples according to arbitrary patterns set by previous imperial conquests and treaties is not a fruitful one.

It is often tempting to see the problems of these stillborn nation-states as problems of governance: if only the political arrangements could be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction, democratically, of course. This approach rather glosses over the point that the world is full of tribes which have lived in close proximity for eons but generally do their best to avoid each other, perhaps only interacting in specific ways, for example by trading on market days, like animals that call a temporary truce when approaching a watering hole. Such tribes remain happy provided they can maintain their cultural, linguistic and social separateness while being able to insult their neighbors (not to their faces, of course). Failing that, they are happy to go to war with their neighbors until their separateness is restored. Forcing neighboring tribes to submit to a single government is tantamount to forcing them to fight. The problem is not with the lack of governance; it is with the mindset that centralized governance and political unity are necessary.

Here is a prescription for disaster. Take a collection of tribes that proudly hate their neighbors and treasure their ability to maintain their separate identity and way of life. Split them up into separate territories based on previous patterns of imperial conquest, being especially careful to make sure that the new borders cut across as many seasonal migration and trade routes as possible, to unnecessarily increase the amount of hardship. Hire a low-budget design agency to come up with a flag, an anthem and some other national symbols. Download a template for a national constitution off the Internet and spend an afternoon customizing it. But then you face a choice: organize a national government that pretends to be democratic and obeys the constitution, or just put the constitution in a glass display case and pick a dictator? These are both bad choices, but in different ways.

Dictatorship is a good form of governance in a bad situation. During the Roman republic the senators would elect a dictator when faced with very serious crises, although a better practice was to elect a couple of consuls, so that their dictatorial powers would be divided between two competitors. The situation of being a recently formed, weak nation-state that confronts a political map crowded with established nation-states, many of them powerful, can be considered a crisis of such monumental proportions that the choice of a dictatorship may seem to be a wise one. However, the country rarely gets a chance to un-pick the dictator once the crisis is over. Perhaps the biggest problem with having a dictator is that dictators tend to either end up being Western stooges or getting overthrown by the West.

Here are some examples of dictatorial successes in holding non-viable nation-states together. The authoritarian Josip Broz Tito held Yugoslavia together and made it a pleasant place. Once it was left without his unifying presence, Yugoslavia descended into ethnic cleansing, genocide and civil war. Saddam Hussein succeeded in creating a prosperous Iraq out of disparate bits and pieces of the Ottoman Empire, with a large, thriving, well-educated middle class. Once he was overthrown, the country (if it can still be called that) descended into civil war, and is now an impoverished ghost of itself characterized by misery and permanent unrest. Muammar Qaddafi achieved similarly stellar results for Libya, and was for a time regarded as an honest broker and a peacemaker throughout Africa. He launched communications satellites in an attempt to break France Telecom’s stranglehold on that continent. But he was overthrown, and now Libya is a war zone and a dangerous place for Washington’s ambassadors. Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar, the current dictator) held Syria together for thirty-odd years, but now it has descended into civil war.

Yes, dictatorship is at best problematic. But any nascent nation-state that decides to give democracy a try is sure to confront many problems as well. To start with, democracy is a tradition that cannot be conjured up on the spot or imported and installed like a piece of industrial machinery; it has to evolve in place. The best, oldest, most stable democracies have tribal roots and rely on direct democracy at the local level. A representative democracy is a degenerate case open to many kinds of corruption and abuse that may become bad enough to invalidate the entire project. In a representative democracy the electoral process involves forming national political parties which tend to become financially dependent on the dominant class in a process that disenfranchises those whose only ambition is to pursue local interests. On the other hand, violent confrontations over votes are likely when the elected representatives represent specific districts. An attempt to institute granular political representation in an already weak state dominated by non-state actors is a prescription for political violence. Add to this the fact that, in a heterogenous population, proportional representation gives the more powerful and numerous tribes the upper hand over the smaller, minority tribes, which do not readily accede to such an arrangement and look for opportunities to make mischief.

Secondly, democracies, young democracies especially, are easily corrupted by money, especially money from abroad. Much of the foreign aid that comes from the US, the EU, Japan and, more recently, China, has been spent on propping up weak governments, to the detriment of the governed. There is a long list of countries that have an impoverished, disenfranchised population lorded over by a government that is headed by corrupt officials who drive around in limousines and wear flowing robes and plenty of bling and command foreign-trained, foreign-armed militaries. It has been a long-standing pattern for such officials to accept Western loans, promptly deposit most of the money in their own personal offshore bank accounts, and leave the country saddled with the impossible task of repaying them. The same pattern of exploitation that corporate raiders practice in doing leveraged buyouts of public companies, where the raiders walk away with a great deal of money while the company is left behind as a hollow shell suffocated by debt, can be practiced with respect to countries, especially if they are democratic ones. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that democracy enables the process by which private property can be transformed into political power. If an authoritarian regime finds that individuals or corporations are using their private property to undermine its political power, the property in question is confiscated (nationalized). There is a very nice fellow by the name of Michael Khodorkovsky, who used to run a major Russian oil company but is now cooling his heels in a Russian penal colony. The reason he is there is that he did not appreciate this particular aspect of authoritarianism: he naïvely thought that his corporate wealth automatically gave him political leverage.

Although a nonviable nation-state run by an authoritarian government or a dictatorship is better at pushing back against neocolonial predation by other nation-states than a pretend-democracy, neither one is ultimately satisfactory. The solution that tends to emerge spontaneously is one of local self-governance that takes each small region out of the arena of state-legal relations altogether. If a region possesses a system of informal self-governance, refuses to allow selection of representatives, refuses to enter into treaties and rejects all claims of outside control or ownership with a credible show of force, then it effectively becomes, in the parlance of international law theorists, an ungoverned space. Such spaces are not necessarily lawless or even dangerous, but they are dangerous to outside forces wishing to advance their own interests to the detriment of the locals.

As more and more erstwhile nation-states pass through the weak phase and tip into the defunct column, they can collapse into durable disorder or endless civil war, but they can also collapse into local autonomy and self-governance and let national borders grow porous. Their human populations are then able to come out of the vegetative condition to which settled, civilized existence has consigned them and revert to their original, nomadic state. There is a none-too-subtle difference between terrestrial plants and animals; the plants do not move, while the animals do (and when they do, there is just one species that requires passports or visas to cross international boundaries). We did not colonize most of the planet by staying put; nor will we be able to stay put if we wish to adapt to life in a depleted, disrupted, rapidly changing natural, physical and social environment.

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subgenius said...

One of the "design" flaws of the internet is that idiots can troll out comments with TOTALLY off topic nonsense.

So in case Walter gets over here from Resilience, I thought I would preemptively call him out, point to the last place he went off the rails, and pray to Odin and Wotan and Shiva and any other sky fairy that this satisfies the requirements for "perspective" (which is ironic, as he seems unable to acknowledge a perspective other than his own) and we can all be left in peace.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Yes, Walter is a troll. He proclaims great things about himself, but these are not attested facts. What is evident is that he is a solipsistic blow-hard whose comments are relentlessly off-topic. The good thing is, unlike Resilience.org, this blog really is moderated, and Walter is now banned. (Resilience.org is moderated to the extent that a comment by Neil calling Walter a "twat" got deleted.) So, enough about this nonsense!

Jean-Paul Printemps said...

I like that the word 'banned' is used in a comment on your views on the nation-state. When communities form around some available resources, judgments have to be made vis-a-vis cultural congruence. It's true that only at a local level states really respond to the community, but every marketplace also is a marketplace of ideas. So what is acceptable is broadened many times by regional judgments. The peaceful emergence of superior courts can be seen to be a result. It starts to fail when those giving judgment fail to persuade through discussion, and there parties form. Then no need for corrupt swindlers to take control; the process is already subverted.

Kevin said...

A fine post, rich with insights and consistent with the anarchist views you've expressed hitherto. Your closing sentence in particular makes me wish that I currently had the option of moving to Uruguay, because I suspect that the SF bay area where I presently reside is going to wind up as a particularly dysfunctional heterogeneous fragment of a formerly credible nation-state.

cmaukonen said...

You have brought up a topic that few wish to acknowledge. That humans are still primarily tribalistic and clannish in their social behaviors.

We have been this way for 10s or maybe 100s of thousands of years. Far longer than the "forced" way we have been living in the last thousand years or so.

And it's not necessarily on conscious effort. We as humans like to think we have evolved past it with our scientific and engineering advances, but it is truly deep withing us.

I would also suggest that our advances in communication has made this part of us even more manifest since it has enable "tribes" to interact that would have otherwise not done so. At least no as much.

Add to this the overall population growth leaving little space to avoid each others "tribes". Though this aspect maybe reversed by nature via bacterial agents that we can no longer kill with our antibiotics but have become even better at killing us.

Andy Brown said...

It's unfortunate that so many of the innovations that enable the concentration of power (e.g. agriculture, nation-building, mass media, etc.) don't overlap better with human happiness or well-being. If I were the designer god, I'd see to it that basking, napping, benign tolerance and generosity of spirit were better rewarded in the realm of Real Politik.

Trmist said...

The days of the nation state are numbered. Therefor the transnational corporation and globalization are living on borrowed time.

Small groups, small towns and things scaled to human size will rise in the ruins of the twentieth century.

Look to the past to glimpse the future.

Robin Datta said...

Can we anticipate even the thinnest sliver of a possibility that there is still room for adaptation?
The Climate Train Has Left The Station - Decline of the Empire:

Arctic News: The worst-case and - unfortunately - looking almost certain to happen scenario

Lance M. Foster said...

If this is true, it doesn't really matter at this point. http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-worst-case-and-unfortunately-looking-almost-certain-to-happen-scenario.html

Dmitry Orlov said...


That's the most over-the-top weather forecast I've ever read! Cute article, actually, although it could use some editing. I have a weather forecast of my own: rapid glacial melt will destabilize the earth's crust, causing gigantic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which will envelop the Earth in a cloud of stratospheric ash so thick that it will block enough sunlight to cause temperatures to drop to a point where a new ice age will be triggered. Or not. One thing is certain: defunct states will proliferate.

HeyZeus said...

I can't keep from quoting the examples of Park Chung-Hee in Korea and Mahathir in Indonesia.. two (quasi)dictators who seemed to have passed on the reins to a more democratic form of government at just the right time.

But even more interesting is the case of Pakistan... a country which seems to have become a demonstration of the dictatorship-democracy duality in practice. Your essay reads almost like an analysis, diagnosis and then cure for the case of India-Pakistan... as arbitrary a patch work as any.

cmaukonen said...

Your first paragraph reminds me of the Babble Fish.

"Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

Kind of like our current mass communications.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis and commentary. I am from India and it's hard to imagine this country holding together in the face of climate change and PO. It may happen but the probability is very low.
We have some 800 languages in this country to boot, it's like having one country made out of entire Europe.

vera said...

Walter's not a troll. He is a farmer in WA who's doing a lot of good. I suspect he is tired of all of us intellectual types blathering on, when we really should be doing stuff. Especially soil-wise...

Lance M. Foster said...

Another historical example of a troubled state that dances with dictators is Nigeria, which included three major ethnic areas: the Hausa and Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest, and the Igbo (or Ibo) in the southeast. It was the Igbo who had the misfortune to have oil discovered in their ethnic territories during British colonial rule. When Nigeria was granted independence, the militant northern peoples asserted control over the south, which the Ibo resisted, and this sparked the bloody Biafran war (1967-70). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigerian_Civil_War)

I was there in 1996 and the place was still in chaos, despite the courage and ability of her people. I learned a lot about what is coming to many countries, including the U.S. Sadly Nigeria has become mainly known for financial scams. I was there during the rule of dictator Abacha, who also employed traditional juju magical specialists it is said to keep control. At some point, I imagine there will be another war over there, that the western powers will be involved in (I notice that in the movie "Avatar" some of the soldiers from Earth had fought in a "future" Nigerian war).

Like you said, the future will have a large return to various forms of nomadism, in addition to all the migrations based on war, famine, collapse, and climate-caused droughts and rise in ocean levels. Just like governments don't like non-nation-states (is that a word?), they really really don't like nomads, whether pastoral or hunter-gatherers (or modern groups like the gypsies). You can't count them, it's hard to tax them, and they just are hard to control.

I would say Afghanistan was an example of an ungoverned state by the criteria you put forth, despite the limited "governance" by so-called President Karzai. They had their own laws based on a combination of local warrior traditions and the Qur'an, they definitely are dangerous to outside interests wanting to advance their own interests, whether Alexander, the British, the Soviets, or the Americans. And of course rare earth minerals and other ores are now one of the outsiders' interests. I'm just wondering when the Chinese will start making overtures. They are much more sensible in their approach.

Well, I'm broke as usual, but I am celebrating a small painting commission I have made, by ordering one of your autographed copies of your forthcoming book. I have gained a lot from reading your blog over these last several years, enjoyed the insight and the virtual company, and I just wanted to support your efforts :-)

Chaucer said...

The pre-Colonial natives of Central Africa were never benign. The Muwanamutapa wer overtthown by the Rozvi and the Shona were reduced to hiding in the hills by the predation of Mzilikazi's impis from Zululand. The conflct between the White miners and the matabele arose because we objected to the Matabeles' birthright and honorable tradition of slaughtering the Shona, who had taken shelter in the mines and behind the skirts of the whites.
We subdued the Matabele (with losses) and in gratitude the Shona turned on us. The Shona being a spineless lot surrendered as soon as we burned down a few straw huts.
They then sat back on their heel for the next 60 years to learn the ways of the whiteman, and using their superior debating skills persuaded the rest of the world that they were poor likkle ikkle victims. (In fact under our watch their numbers exploded. So much for them not benefiting from Colonization)
But the world knew better and Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe and their illustrius leader is Robert Mugabe, Bless his Soul.

subgenius said...

@vera (& @walter, if ever checks back...)

I was being a little harsh, I admit. I was already aware of Walter from other comment threads - and he does post interesting stuff. And - more to the point - DO interesting stuff...) I would like to see a decent write up by/about him actually.


He did jump in on a post titled "where there is no government" discussing structural collapse and socio-politio-econo-gangsterism with a rant on the weird state of a large part of the permaculture clique.

And then attacked kollapsnik, when he somewhat bemusedly called him on it and pointed out that he was WAY off-topic.

I even agree with the main driver of his argument re. Permaculture (I don't get the concept that kollapsnik is rolling in dough from flogging paperbacks to a somewhat marginal audience, but I digress), though I think he is attacking he wrong thing – the issue he identifies is a result of the marketing of green to the former middle classes, who love their middle class frameworks (regulations, ceos, certifications, etc). This is the primary focus of the collapse talked about in the piece

I also get the anger/frustration thing (boy, do I get THAT part of it). But please, walter, pick your targets. Friendly fire is not cool. On the other hand, that is some very cool shit you have going on – might I suggest you focus on propagating that (write it up, not too terse - make it accessible to a wide audience..). I see more interesting stuff in the detail you post as comments to articles than I do in your own blog.

In the end our current model will fail and a new model will be needed. People working at facilitating that process need to work out a model of interaction that gets back to building cooperation and support if they are to stand any chance of really making a difference in the long run.

vera said...

Subgenius, I don't know why Walter picked on permaculture in that particular comment thread. I am glad you wrote back and clarified your own thoughts about the whole thing... let's get along, boyz and grrlz... enough a-holes out there without us adding to the list.

Middle class frameworks... gadz. Someone ought to write a scathing post about that. Planning, committees, reports, argh.