Afternoon Inquisition

3.25 Afternoon Inquisition

As usual, Wednesday’s AI comes courtesy of last week’s Comment o’ the Week winner! Your questioner today is (Other) Amanda, who writes:

I actually polled some friends for help coming up with something, and
somebody posed this question to me:

Will we ever get past the idea of the nation-state, and if so, what
comes next?

I’m curious to see what a group of skeptically-minded (and awesome)
people can come up with.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. I don’t think the concept will ever go away completely. Even when (if) we get into outerspace, there will still be the concept, but we will probably call it the planet-state, or the nation-planet. You know, homeworld.

  2. The idea of the nation-state will, at first, start to give way to the idea of a world state. But as the movies teach us, it will actually be replaced by the Post-Apocalyptic Multi-Cultural Gang. If you plan on being successful when this happens, let me know, I’m working on a primer on DIY assless chaps.

  3. Ever is an awefully long time. In the next 10 or so generations no. In 100 years no. 1000 years, who knows? Do we need an evolutionary change in our thinking, or is it possible as we are now?

    Then there is the whole resources problem, we act to get our share over other groups, which plays into the need or desire for a nation-state. How would the idea of ending nation states be accepted with unlimited resources? If we could spread out in the universe?

    Some great science fiction has been written about this.

  4. Considering how the Christian fundies feel about one-world government and its allegations that it will be the government of the AntiChrist, I expect one Hell of a war if we try it anytime soon.

    The biggest block I see other than that is nationalism. Many nations, including the US, feel that they are the best on the planet and that they should tell everyone else how to live (i.e. just like them). There’s nothing wrong with patriotism (love of country), but there is plenty wrong with uncontrolled nationalism when coupled with a large arsenal.

  5. Obviously, the next stage in governmental evolution is Skittle-states. States ruled by Skittles and defined by borders composed entirely of Skittles laid down in a line.

    No, but seriously I don’t see physical co-location becoming any less important to government in the near future, so that rules out a large number of funky-fresh alt-govs. If anything, we might see in the near term a fragmentation of some existing nation-states, but even that seems unlikely and nonetheless doesn’t represent a true change in the system.

    It’s tempting to propose something like the Franchises from Snow Crash — which would probably be the most likely of the funky-fresh alt-govs –, where there’s a combination of “virtual” membership in larger confederations with local instances of said confederations controlling isolated pieces of geography. It’s difficult to see how we’d get there from here, though. (And we probably wouldn’t want to. The result in Snow Crash is a bit dystopian.)

  6. There is an online community called Orion’s Arm that has put together a plausible science-fiction future for humanity. By plausible, I only mean that they avoid things like Time-travel and warp engines. Anyway, one of the ideas they have is that people will begin to identify themselves not by nationality, but by ideology. So eventually you might have people of different religions and philosophies seeking to distance themselves from others in a physical way by hopping aboard starships for a new world to settle.

  7. Given history is often the best indicator of future events I say its not likely. Everyone getting along better would be nice as long as everyone agrees with my definition of getting along.

    I think any future calamity or significant change in how the world economy operates with regard to worse case scenarios associated with global warming and energy resources will lead to more fragmentation and protective acts by the current collection of nation states.

    The one thing that would rid humanity of nation states would be invading exoskeletal aliens possessing a hive mentality and a desire to serve man.

  8. It seems like people are less border-conscious in their daily lives than they used to be. I remember, in the early 90s, being amazed that I could have an online (usenet) discussion with someone in another country. Now, it’s routine.

    The concept of national identity is slowly eroding under the pressure of ubiquitous communication. Some countries are attempting to stop this but “resistance is futile”.

    I could see a future where “us versus them” is more a matter of social networks and philosophical groupings than geographic locations. That would require a major rework of concepts like taxes, immigration and defense, though.

  9. I think that tribalism is too ingrained in the human psyche to ever totally stamp out nation-states or nation-state analogues.

    My feeling is that we may end up running into situations where national governments aren’t as important, per se, as smaller level ones are. This sort of thing has begun happening in places in Europe. The coming of the EU has diminished, in some cases, the strength of national govs and has also emboldened the sort of cultural units that used to be repressed by national govs (ie. the way the Catalan parts of Spain have been given more power, devolution in Scotland, etc).

    To me, this sort of thing is fine on paper. I wouldn’t even mind having the US break into regional authorities (also on paper). But when the uneven distribution of resources gets added to the mix, it makes this sort of thing difficult to imagine. Nonetheless, fragmentation is still somewhat likely in larger states.

  10. I think when historians look back they will say that we are living in the last days of the true nation state as we move toward larger regional states (continental states?). We are already seeing the European Union slowly and cautiously supersede the nation states of Europe. In theory the United States did the same thing to the individual nation states of the original independent states although the individual states never truly had their own identities separate from the US identity. As trading partnerships get stronger, those ties will encourage nation states to join together into larger units.

  11. Sometimes I wonder if we will start to use product brands to differentiate ourselves.

    I’m a mac citizen. and I’m a pc citizen.

    Or try suggesting it’s fun to play an Xbox on a Playstation forum.

    Some people go crazy for this shit, though their coups are far less bloody

  12. Despite the prevalence in SF of planetary governments I think it more likely there will be a multilevel system with regional “governments” like the EU being the highest level that actually governs, and the next up level being an arena for negotiation and cooperation rather than anything with power.

    Nation states will still be around, even if diminished from their role today.

    The complete end of the nation state requires a uniformity of … well everything, that I don’t think is either realistic or desirable.

  13. Will we ever get past the idea of the nation-state, …


    … and if so, what comes next?

    A different kind of tribalism.

    P.S. I despise the obscene practice of wedging two or more questions into one sentence. It contributes to confused and unclear answers. It pollutes the discussion.

  14. I think the next iteration of the concept might be virtual states. As Internet communities start organizing around shared ideals, they might get to the point where they become sufficiently cohesive that their influence rivals that of countries with actual land. It’s a little odd right now, but I think as we get generations of folks who grow up with an increasingly immersive online experience, it might not be so outlandish.

    Which, of course, begs the question of what costume the first Furry delegate to the U.N. will wind up wearing.

  15. Primates are tribal; it’s genetically ingrained. But the size of the tribe varies. Packs of apes will fight against each other for territory, but then join and fight against a common enemy.

    We’ll fight against neighbors over fences, but we’ll unite with them against another neighborhood. We’ll unite with another neighborhood against city officials. We’ll unite with the city against other cities. We’ll unite with the whole state against other states. Etc.

    The classic example is that New Yorkers badmouth Angelinos, but both badmouth the mid-west, and even the mid-west joins in badmouthing France. It’s always an us vs them attitude, but who we define as “us” depends on the situation.

    As such, the only way to get the whole planet to unite – in any fashion – is to have something else to unite against. Literally, something extra-terrestrial, though not necessarily alien. It could be Mars, having finally been colonized by humans. It could be a group of space stations. I don’t know. It just has to be a “them” vs “us”.

    That’s primate – and human – psychology. Will it mean a collapse of the nation-state itself? Likely not. Regional designation generally follows regional differentiation; unless you can homogenize the planet, there’ll always be distinctions of some form. They may not have much relevance, but they’ll be there.

  16. I want to say NO, but given that the idea of the nation state came out of the enlightenment and has only been around for ~250-300 years (it just seems like countries are eternal) I’m prepared to say yes its possible.

    Up until the 18th century, territories changed hands all the time with wars and royal marriages etc (imagine, the local duke’s daughter gets married and suddenly your no longer Austrian but French), thats how Scotland got the Orkney Islands from Denmark.

    There’ll always be some form of tribalism while ever people in the next valley over wear a different sort of hat. I suspect that, as other people have said, regional meta-ethnic blocks will emerge, Europe, LatAm, Oriental etc etc made up of >100M people

  17. get past the idea of the nation-state

    The rather loaded way of putting that aside for a moment, why would you want to get ‘past’ the idea?

    Over here in the UK it’s really quite nice being able to pop over to France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain or Italy and to experience the different food, languages and general look-and-feel.

    I was in Minuch just before Xmas, I’m off to Normandy in a couple of weeks and I’ll probably be holidaying in Italy this summer. Last time I went to Italy I drove there via the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Austria then into Italy over an Alpine pass. Vive les differences I say.

    Why would I want to change that?

  18. Actually, my biggest fear is the corporate state, as in the novels of Richard K. Morgan. We are well on the way to that with the rise of the multi-national corporation that is beholden to no government.

    @Austin: I’m not certain that even an extra-terrestrial threat would be enough to completely unite the world. I could see some country or another (maybe multiple countries) trying to cut side deals with the ET’s. Can you say “Quisling?”

  19. @cloudsoup: while I definitely agree with the duplicity of customs, I think the point was ‘getting past’ the more negative aspects of identifying with only those that look/act/sound like you do.

    Oh, and the green on my face is envy. Have a great trip.

  20. Its hard to get past good old fashioned tribalism.

    well.. not so good old fashioned tribalism. Who is there to hate and fear if not the ‘other’ group?

  21. Nation-states began for two reasons: to protect their resources, and to take resources from others. Governing and providing for their people was a means, not an end. Most people in a nation were property, not citizens. Up until the mid-twentieth century, stronger nations (or alliances of nations) preyed upon weaker nations (or those without strong alliances). Often, nations would defeat others and then take their territory. This happened all over the world during the colonialism period.

    With few exceptions, that doesn’t happen any more. The modern world doesn’t let it (think about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait). There are still wars, but they are no longer about conquest.

    In fact, since WWII, we do most wars backwards. When countries are defeated in war, they are not conquered. They are reconstructed, repaired, and allowed back into the world.

    I think the notion of nations has changed dramatically in the last two centuries. They no longer conquer, or defend their citizenry against other nations, but rather represent them to other nations on the world stage. The EU may be a logical extension of this. Obviously, there are still some exceptions, mostly from theocracies and dictatorships.

    Modern ideas helped to facilitate this:
    Democracy – Bad leaders will (in theory) be replaced
    Nuclear weapons – Makes conquest less desirable and more costly
    The UN – Puts a veneer of legitimacy on decisions made by many nations against “rogue” nations
    Ubiquitous Communications – Satellite TV/radio, Internet, etc. allows ideas and actions to be seen and judged by others

  22. Humanity needs something really fucking awful to happen to it. Something like the giant Alien in Watchmen, assuming it was convincing enough to fool people and that psychics were real. Or, my personal favorite, Zombie Apocalypse. People need something completely inhuman to make them appreciate humanity as a whole. I have hope for a World Government someday. I think that Europe is making great strides with the European Union and the dissolving, albeit a slow and imperfect one, of Borders. I agree that tribalism is part of the human condition, but if we faced a threat that wasn’t human I feel that Humanity would be able to band together to face it, otherwise we’re screwed.

  23. I don’t hope for world government, I fear it. Given an arbitrarily long period of time any government will become intolerably incompetent, corrupt or tyrannical. If that happens to governments today, people can try and leave for greener pastures. If tyranny descends there is at least a chance you can get help from outside, even if its only diplomatic pressure.

    But a government that ruled the world? It might be fine as long as the rulers are honest and competent, but how long do you expect that to last?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge fan of nation states either, but my ideal future is one where nations are small and ephemeral. That would require a way for government services to be robust to rapid changes in a country’s status, but its what i hope for.

  24. I second what JamesK just said. The larger a government gets, the harder it is to fix whatever bad policies it might sign into law.

    For example – the Dover school board passed their idiotic intelligent design policies, were taken to task for it, and they all lost their jobs at the next election (if I recall correctly). Perhaps when something is *that* egregious on the national stage, then it’d be possible to kick a bunch of congressmen out – but I think it’d take a lot more effort. OTOH, what if there are polices that are backwards and harmful, but on a smaller scale? On a local level, it’s fixable, but on a national or continental scale, things have to get to where they’re irretrievably screwed up and broken before people actually re-evaluate policies.

  25. The nation-state is a different thing from a nation, and from a state, and the combination of the two is a relatively new thing in the grand scheme, and is already starting to show its age.

    Really, you have three distinct elements that interact to determine your political unit- Discrete cultures, the governments that manage them, and the land they must necessarily inhabit. Have a culture not tethered to a formal government, or the land, and you have band nomadism. Have a government and a culture, and you have tribalism. Have multiple cultures under one government, and you have a tributary empire. Have a culture and land but no government, and you have Somalia. Have one culture, one land, and multiple governments, and you have the Balkans, or the “-stans.”

    The confluence of one culture filling one geographic area commanded by one government- the standard definition of the nation-state- is a relatively recent invention, not really appearing by most reckoning until the 1800’s and probably peaking out at the end of WWII with the collapse of colonialism.

    I can say with some confidence that things like the Snow Crash franchises or ideological communities or online governments or whatever are not the next step, simply because all the whizbangery in the world does not change the fact that people need places to live, those places are associated with infrastructure and services, and most of those present sufficient tragedy-of-the-commons problems that your political organization needs to be associated with that of your neighbors, with pretty big “grain sizes.”

    But the old-school nation state has been slipping for some time. We have the EU and the like bringing differing cultures under one flag (or have our standards of commonality been slipping and they are all the same) countries like the US who have a majority of their physical commerce occurring on lands controlled by governments we fundamentally disagree with, and all this is happening in a world where states are arming up to squabble over thinning resources while their people are increasingly consuming the same digital culture soup.

    As for what comes out…I am certainly curious to see.

  26. The modern concept of the nation-state is already quite different from its original formulation. I don’t know what changes are in store for humanity in the future but I’m sure much of it will be explained by the following three references:

    The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss
    Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington
    Narcissism of small differences — Sigmund Freud

    The only thing I’d be willing to put money on is that there will still be plenty of fucked up things to gripe about and therefore my happiness will never be threatened.

  27. I suppose the next (obvious?) step after nation-states is continent-states.

    The size of the domain ruled by one person or group has steadily grown throughout time. The smallest unit, that of the village, still exists today. As time moved on it’s just been grouped together with other similarly sized properties into ever larger umbrella groups like shires, provinces, kingdoms, empires, etc…

    Where the area and borders of land ownership used to be determined by natural structures (ountainranges, rivers, coastlines), it seems only logical that the next step towards globalisation would be the continents. Nothing says “us vs. them” like the natural divide of an ocean.

    Granted, that border gets kinda vague in some areas, but it’s usually rather obvious.

    It seems only natural for countries in the same neck of the woods to show enough cultural similarities with each other and enough differences with the rest of the world to initially stick together for mutual benefit. Despite any infighting between them.

    From a stricktly economic standpoint, single nations really can’t take on entities like the European union or the USA any more (and in that regard, I’m considering the US states to be more or less on the same level as single European nations from a financial p.o.v.). They need to start banding together and pool their resources.

    You may get the reverse from the conquesting empires of old. With all the economically most viable regions already grouped together, smaller, less wealthy nations will be fighting in order to become part of that group for economic benefit, rather than the other way round a few centuries ago, when territory was all that really mattered. I think mainly because people, as a resource, are no longer attached to the spot they live. Financially strong companies can find them wherever they are, and lure them in promising good wages.

    So in other words, the nation state will evolve into the next thing, perhaps with a new name, but the basic concept will remain the same.

  28. @cloudsoup: I agree, though given that european countries tend to blend into one another (northern italy with southern austria, france with spain, germany with everywhere else [it used to be A LOT bigger]) there isn’t the same distinction between countries as you might think. It’s not like you cross a river and suddenly everything is different.

    It’s more the case that the cultural differences are greater within countries than between them. Munich and Berlin are very different for example.

    I also agree that Americans/Canadians/Austrialians are pretty unlucky being stuck in vast mono-cultures and we Northern Europeans have a much wider pallete to choose from. Hopefully by the end of this year I’ll have visited every city in The Hansiatic League, each is the same, each is unique. Brilliant.

  29. @russellsugden: spoken like a person that has never driven from Boston to Atlanta.

    I’ve noticed driving sound N. America that the cultural differences are huge and noticeable one you et out of your car and talk to people.

    Canada and the US may be huge nations but they are both made up of distinct communities and regional cultures with their own backgrounds. Just go anywhere in Canada and ask them what they think about Ontario. You’ll see a difference.

  30. @PrimevilKneivel:

    spoken like a person that has never driven from Boston to Atlanta.

    I’ve driven from DC to Memphis; from SF north ot the redwoods then down to Vegas and up to the Grand Canyon; from Atlanta up to Hunstville and down the Mississippi to New Orelans and back via Birmingham; and from Denver over to Utah and around the Rockies and Canyonlands.

    I’ve met a huge variety of people, of course, but there simply is less diversity than you find between the various countries of Europe.

    I have to say you US folk live up to your reputation of being fantastically polite.

  31. @PrimevilKneivel:
    I’ve never driven there, but I’ve been to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, LA and Las Vegas. There’s quite a bit of difference between all of them, but it’s not comparable to actually being in a different country.

    To get that effect, you’d need to drive to Canada or Mexico. That’ll put a new perspective on things.

    American tourists have a bad reputation for being boorish and obnoxious, but I think most of that just stems from being unfamiliar with what it means to be in a different country, only different parts of their own country. Or possibly just never having met many tourists back home. It’s not because of willful ignorance or stupidity, but rather a lack of a frame of reference.
    And of course, only the bad ones are remembered, so there’s some sampling bias too.

  32. Since I was raised overseas, I learned early to be humble in other cultures, ask lots of questions, be as polite as possible to everyone and try hard to learn the local language. I also learned that there are more points of view about the USA than our own – and some are valid and not entirely flattering.

    It is true that USAmericans have the reputation of being obnoxious in other countries, but other cultures have the same reputation in the US – ask any travel professional in private. No country has yet cornered the market in a$$holes. Overall, I have found most overseas tourists to be decent folks and very pleasant to deal with.

    I have had some memorable experiences with people from other countries that did not speak English. One that stuck with me was a young Italian man that got off a flight at the wrong city on a “direct” (as opposed to a”nonstop” flight). We were able to communicate with him in Spanish (both I and my co-worker spoke it) and sketches. Italian is close enough to Spanish that we could ‘sort-of’ understand each other. We had a great time until we could get him on his way. I have a good feeling for Italians to this day, just because of how he reacted to what could have been a terrible situation.

    I do agree that USAmericans tend to be under-exposed to other countries and cultures. Many don’t even cross over the northern border to visit their cousins in Canada, much less travel further. Some of this is driven by the expense of traveling overseas. We don’t have the luxury of many countries in drivable proximity, as Europe does. I think this plays into the problems many of us have with welcoming immigrants – It’s easier to welcome someone even a little familar than a complete unknown.

    I find living near Washington DC fascinating. I have met many people that I never would have met otherwise, because so many immigrants, technical workers and diplomats live in the area. That is no guarantee of familiarity, though. USAmericans need to take the responsibility of going to meet them and learning from them (and vice-versa).

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