Nationalism Is a Good Idea That’s Past Its Prime

“Germany” was once a laughably absurd concept. A map of central Europe from 1850 is a shattered window of principalities, languages, religions, folklores and cultures, incompatible where not actively hostile. What do Hessians and Bavarians have in common that isn’t shared with Tyrolians or Bohemians? Why should speakers of North Frisian feel more kinship with Bavarians than with the Dutch? Modern Germany, the country, along with the entire concept of “German” as an identity, is a successful product of a 19th century political invention – Nationalism.

In 1850, Germany was a silly, impossible idea. Twenty years later it won a war against France and became the most powerful political force on the continent.

Central Europe in 1861, By ziegelbrenner – own drawing/Source of Information: Putzger – Historischer Weltatlas, 89. Auflage, 1965, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=957323

A nation is a mental construct. Look down on the Earth from space and you won’t see any countries. Test your blood and it will identify no nations. Accomplishments we see nations achieve rise from the power of our collective imagination, the force we can deploy when humans learn to collaborate. Nations exist in our minds, and carry no power beyond the pull they exert on our imaginations.

That pull is declining as the relevance of nation-states fades. Nationalism worked, for a while, because it pried open our mental construct of “us” to incorporate a larger, broader span of humanity than the clan-sized groups our brains evolved to respect. Humans will perform remarkable acts of sacrifice and selflessness to protect those they define as “us.” The same people will unleash unspeakable horrors on anyone they see as “other.” Every human achievement is a product of collaboration, and the nation-state gave us the power to collaborate on a previously unimaginable scale.

Nationalism worked because it let us build a far bigger mental picture of “us” than we’d ever before envisioned. It is failing now because it can’t keep pace with the power of newer social innovations, like the corporation, capable of even greater scale and reach. Just as monarchies continue to exist, like little historical snow-globes of charming irrelevance, nation-states might not die. We have, however, reached the end of their status as our largest mental sphere of “us-ness.” Like monarchies, nation-states aren’t going to survive without help and protection from something larger and more inclusive. Adaptations that bestow power in one environment can become evolutionary burdens in another.

In retrospect, the great nation-building exercises of 19th century Europe are a wonder of human evolution. To best understand the political order of pre-nationalist Europe, one most look to one of its most persistent surviving institutions – the mafia. All around us nations have emerged in which conflicts are resolved by reference to written legal codes meant to encompass everyone, even your friends or your cousin or the most powerful man in the village. That is not the natural order of human interactions.

Kinship is our most natural mode of organization. Mafias are organized by kinship and structured around authoritarian decision-making. Trust between mafias is established through a balance of violence, which seldom wanes. Order within the mafia flows through a kinship hierarchy, based on client/patron relationships, reinforced by ritual expressions of loyalty and bonded by exchanges of gifts. Local dons owe fealty to higher dons in a feudal pyramid that strains quickly as it tries to extend beyond the bounds of regular personal interaction. These political forms dominated European life for time beyond measure, as they defined political life in virtually every other pre-modern civilization.

You can’t build a skyscraper out of bricks. Mafias cannot defeat national armies. A feudal order cannot support the kind of efficient, honest bureaucratic rule available to a nation-state. Feudal organization, as demonstrated today by our remaining mafias, are simply too slow, too personal, too small-minded, and form bonds too weak to support the larger organization enabled by nationalism. People who wouldn’t risk a punch in the mouth to protect the don of a neighboring village will charge into machine gun fire for a flag. People who wouldn’t pay tribute to a clan leader ten miles away will give half their income in taxes.

Feudal systems are built on relationships. Nation-states are built on laws.

Feudal kingdoms were halting, brittle efforts to construct super-mafias atop the violent patron-client structure of local Medieval life. Hopeful, failed attempts were made to create laws that would operate outside this mafia structure, binding even the senior figures in these pyramids of blood into some rational constraints. Loose national cultural projects endeavored to define identities larger than the village or the most powerful local don. Shakespeare painted a picture of Englishness. Later, Goethe helped define a German language. Fichte would follow, imagining a German ethnic identity.

The English Revolution is seldom remembered as the watershed in nationalist history that it was. Members of Parliament, the fountainhead of law, challenged their king, the head of their mafia pyramid. Parliament defeated and executed the king in the name of a new national identity based on religion and law. That order was short-lived on paper, but what emerged at the end of the 17th century was the first semi-successful effort since Republican Rome to build a nation larger than a ruling family.

Nationalism allowed human beings to create better lives for themselves by creating a mental construct they couldn’t previously imagine, and assembling an order around that construct that made remarkable physical achievements, like universal access to clean tap water, possible for the first time. France and Italy are both democracies. Both experienced a liberal revolution. Both achieved middle income status and have long, rich cultural histories. Only one of them operates a fully functional nation-state, because only one of them experienced the wrenching revolutionary trauma that decimated the power of the old mafia structure and brought a few national entities fully into the modern world.

It was Napoleon, enabled by the demolition work of the French Revolution, who built the model of the modern nation-state. His law code remains the standard definition of the state outside the English-speaking world. In a couple of decades he constructed the elements of the nation-state and spread them by force across the rotting hulk of mafia Europe. Once that genie was out of the bottle it was an unstoppable force. Wherever nationalism and its liberal values of free speech, rule of law, and individual sovereignty was energetically resisted by the kinship rule, those places descended into poverty and barbarism, becoming the new backwaters first of Europe, than of the world.

The nation-state would come to the US through our second Revolution, the Civil War. It would come in time to the loosely organized crown colonies of Australia and Canada. When Africans threw off the chains of imperialism, nation-states were imposed in their place. By the end of the 20th century, the nation-state was so pervasive that we forget it had ever been invented, imagining it to be as natural as the opposable thumb.

Nationalism made modern liberal democracy possible, defining a relatively large sphere of “us” within which more or less everyone could be trusted to contribute to political power. Though we credit much of this success to the rule of law, it was new notions of race and blood that bore most of the weight of the nationalizing project. Art and theater, and later film, radio and TV would be used to build a Platonic construct of Frenchness or Germanness or Americanness out of scraps of localized identities.

Map of French languages in 1847, from the David Rumsey Map Collection

One of Napoleon’s first and most lasting innovations was the centralization of French government for the purpose of imposing a single national identity. From Breton to Provence, people who lived within the reach of French political authority had little sense of being French, certainly not enough to be worthy of sacrifice or effort. A survey performed during the Revolution by Henri Grégoire reported that French was a language of Europe’s ruling class, along with parts of Paris and its environs. Fewer than half the country’s population spoke any form of French, and only about 1 in 8 spoke a standard variant. Napoleon combined the revolutionary virtues of liberté, égalité, fraternité with a carefully imposed, centralized French language, religion, culture and administration. It was a pattern that would be refined with even greater success by the Germans, and then attempted with much less effectiveness in the US.

The nationalist project wasn’t successful everywhere. Few Latin American countries ever paid more than lip service to their dysfunctional national governments. There, beyond the reach of the capital, old patterns of patronal allegiance to wealthy dons were never placed with a national identity or rule of law. By contrast, in places like China and Persia, early nation-state projects far older than in Europe never quite faded away, rebounding in force once colonial harassment declined. By the end of the 20th century, you could measure an average individual’s prospects in life by the quality of their nation-state project.

Nothing works forever. What worked in one environment, like mafias, becomes an obstacle to advancement (or even survival) in another. People who cling to the past in resistance to innovation become the unfortunate collateral damage of progress, the starving children in some distant maudlin appeal. Falling behind has cruel consequences. We are falling behind.

In 2012, the American company, Proctor & Gamble, moved most of its remaining brand headquarters from Cincinnati to Singapore. Another American company, Johnson & Johnson, runs its massive babycare business from Shanghai. British company, Unilever, has more employees in its Singapore office than at its nominal London headquarters.

Americans spent much of last week yammering about Nike’s decision to cancel a shoe featuring the Betsy Ross flag while missing the point. US consumers account for less than half of Nike’s booming revenue, and their share is dropping fast. Americans in general aren’t all that important to “American” companies, and the aging white Americans who wield such outsized power in politics are utterly irrelevant in the marketplace.

There are no more “American-made” cars, not because of automation or outsourcing, but because the efficient production of almost everything has expanded beyond the constraints of borders. The three automobiles built with the highest concentration of American parts and labor are produced by companies based in Italy and Japan. Arriving at such a contorted calculation as the “nationality” of a car brand requires inventing a whole standard, evaluating the nationality of manufacturing employees at different stages and among a galaxy of suppliers.

We already live in a world in which the nation-state can no longer function as the highest level of political organization. Power has swung toward a borderless, post-national world and a corporate ID is that world’s first passport. Whoever builds the governing structure that will allow people to capitalize on the ability to collaborate globally will enjoy tremendous power. We haven’t seen it yet, but there are glimmers.

Corporations are evolving to meet our common needs for organization beyond the limits of our imaginary borders, but they can only do so much. Nationalism turns everyone within its reach into citizens. Corporate entities extend the “us” only as far their shareholders. Consumers and employees each have their own unique status in a corporate universe, but shareholders retain primacy, at least in the current versions of the corporate form. That form grants companies the reach to operate beyond national limits, but leaves them less broadly based as an organizing force than the old nation-state.

Human beings haven’t yet invented a stable means to define “us” at any level higher than a nation. In fact, we still strain to hold nations together. Europe, thanks in large part to its bloody history, has come closest to this dream, scrapping most national borders. But it has yet to make its super-national structure stable. It functions instead as an extension of a Franco-German alliance, entirely dependent on the leadership, stability and cooperation of those two nation-states.

Our failure to develop a post-national form might be alright, except we now operate with such universal power and reach that no corner of the planet is unaffected by our actions. Living in a world in which no sustainable cooperation was possible beyond the level of the nation-state left us vulnerable to wars and limited the scope of our trade. It didn’t threaten our ability to survive as a species until our weapons reached a certain threshold. Even then, fear was enough to hold off disaster. Now, the routine operation of our world is creating externalities, like pollution, on a scale that threatens the planet as we know it. No single nation, acting alone, can more than dent this threat.

When Giovanni Cassini travelled France to map the country in 1740, he encountered people with no concept of the existence of their fellow human beings two villages away. Today, we are all functionally a “we” whether know it or want to be or not. Thanks to the power of our technology and our social adaptions, simple choices made by individuals who know little of the rest of the world can have life or death impacts elsewhere. We have grown in reach to the point that no one stands alone, regardless what fictions they invent to isolate themselves.

There is no remaining wilderness on the planet. What supposedly “wild” places that remain are merely tended gardens, protected by our choices. Plastics manufactured on the US Gulf Coast clog Indonesian coral reefs. Demand for fish in Europe drives extinctions in Lake Victoria. Garbage from all over the world accumulates in a massive gyre in the central Pacific, overwhelming isolated, uninhabited outposts like Wake Island. And of course, the ubiquitous carbon exhaust from almost every modern process is heating up our atmosphere in an escalating cycle with no clear end.

Our global impact extends beyond the natural environment. When a civil war breaks out in an isolated dictatorship, democracy in Germany is destabilized. Money piled up by brutal Kleptocrats in remote corners of the world is used to pervert democracy in stable nations. Kids at computers in a St. Petersburg office building can manufacture information pollution that jams the gears of the world’s most powerful democracy. Whether you love nationalism or hate it, our concept of a nation-state is no longer large enough to address our simplest day-to-day needs.

Build more walls than your mind can imagine and our borders will remain what they have always been, a mental construct, a fiction, a dream we have attempted to impose on the landscape. Nation-states were a remarkable feat of human social evolution, an adaptation that vaulted us into command of our entire planet. Now our problems have outgrown our imagination. Something larger and more inclusive that the nation-state will dominate our future, but we haven’t yet imagined it into existence. Someone will. We will continue to evolve, or we will be governed by those who do.

44 Comments

  1. Some thoughts:

    The article mentions the importance of language as a national unifier, but I think you are missing something about why nationalism is losing effectiveness: English is the first world-wide lingua franca. Within almost every country, there is a group of people of varying size who can speak English and tap into the global Anglophone business and cultural network.

    All this talk of corporations replacing nations is practically true, but given the economic elitism of corporations it will lead to worse economic conditions for many previously protected by national identity. Both outsourcing and immigration are union-busting tactics. Elites bust class solidarity by injecting a national/ethnic division into a class.

    By focusing on unity across geography (bridging vertical cuts of humanity), you are exposing yourself to be exploited by those who cut humanity up horizontally into classes.

    I predict corporations will defeat states because they will not be encumbered with social welfare costs, and that after any regime change things will get worse in the short term for the average person as behaviors need to be recalibrated to defend against a new kind of predation. Not that the nation or state has not already outlived its usefulness, or that this process can be reversed.

    Just be aware that carrying water for corporations is really no different than carrying water for states. I find this process fascinating to observe, but I would not venture to say whether new developments are “better” or “worse” in an absolute sense. The winners and losers will change to an extent.

  2. I fear we are lost.

    Children are being harmed as federal policy. Children.

    https://www.npr.org/2019/07/12/739530731/pence-visits-border-as-lawmakers-hold-hearing-on-migrant-detention-conditions

    https://oversight.house.gov/news/press-releases/new-staff-report-shows-administration-s-child-separation-policy-more-harmful

    Trump can hurt children and we can’t stop him. What kind of constitution is that?

    Individual lawsuits may help some, but there is no mechanism to make him give those kids a shower and some food. And to reunite them with their families.

    Dinsdale may be prescient.

    1. I know, BoBo. These sweeps trump is announcing also allow for collateral collections. IOW, immigrants in proximity to named parties can also be picked up but never company management who employ the undocumented for a pittance. It’s like the unfairness of arresting prostitutes while giving paying customers a pass for services rendered.

    2. EJ

      While I understand your grief and anger, Bobo, I must reply as follows: they have machine guns and tanks, and you don’t. Direct resistance just adds your corpse to the pile.

      Example here:
      https://chicago.suntimes.com/2019/7/13/20693130/tacoma-washington-immigrant-prison-attack

      The violent apparatus of the state has, for now, chosen not to go after you personally. However, that forbearance comes at the cost of you standing aside and doing nothing to stop them going after their current prey. If you attempt to use violence against them, they’ll just kill you as they did this heroic person.

      Negotiating with or appealing to the better conscience of the violent apparatus of the state also doesn’t work. You may have noticed the lack of resistance from within Homeland Security and Border Patrol. You may have noticed the lack of resistance to them from the police in the areas they operate, or from the ranks of the military in the bases the concentration camps are being relocated into. Literally every single person in uniform is at best a collaborator and at worst an enthusiastic supporter.

      So what can you do? Well, nonviolent direct action works well. Sabotage works well. Shutting down the companies which supply them with power, water and data works well. Hacktivism works well. Refusing to socialise, or to do business, with the members of the violent coercive apparatus works well. Ruining their credit ratings works extremely well in countries where security clearance includes credit rating (as I believe the US does.) Their weakness is that for all their bluster, they need the rest of the infrastructure of civilisation to back them up. If people stop collaborating with concentration camp guards, the concentration camps will close tomorrow.

    3. Some fellow in Tacoma, Willem Van Spronsen, age 69, whose tactics were all wrong, tried to help yesterday. What I find interesting, was that GEO Group is using slave labor in their concentration camp, implied by the fact that the State of Washington is trying to force the corporation to pay minimum wage for the work that the prisoners are doing.

      Many people were executed after Nuremberg for precisely the same thing: Operating a concentration camp and profiting from it.

      Only difference between then and now is that the SS owned all the companies profiting from slave labor, while most of these are privately and publicly owned companies. I wonder how long it will be before someone finds out that top ICE officials own some of the companies running these “detention centers”, which would then puts them exactly at the same level as members of the SS.

      Fun read here: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/ss-and-the-camp-system

      No, Mr. Van Spronsen’s tactics were all wrong. Had he targeted the sociopaths owning and operating these facilities, or the politicians that created the “laws” that allowed for the creation of these things, that would have been far more effective.

  3. This interview with Wendell Berry might help place a context around the definition of “conservative” that I grew up with and was taught academically. There is a conservative intellectual tradition tracing back to Edmund Burke, including figures like TS Elliot and Russell Kirk, which has almost completely disappeared from Anglo-American politics. But it’s still out there. As it’s lost its pull over “conservative” politics, it’s become even more vital as a forgotten balancing force in society. We will need conservatives in the days ahead.

    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/wendell-berry-burkean/

    1. Another good essay on Berry:

      “Nonetheless, Berry advocates a spiritual and self-reliant worldview that places him squarely in American traditionalism. He rejects the excesses of capitalism but also the modern ideologies that have shaped leftist thought from Marxism to post-modernism. He is not a modern at all, but a Jeffersonian who values local community and the self reliant men and women who root themselves in land, community and family. They defer neither to the centralized state nor the corporation, but they are humble in the shadow of their creator, deeply knowledgeable about their own limitations and the fleeting, sometimes harsh nature of life.”

      http://www.intellectualconservative.com/article2932.html

      If you’ve never read any Berry, let me recommend Jayber Crow as an introduction.

      1. Chris,

        The articles you posted appear to be excellent (I will read them more fully later).

        However, I am sure you are aware of the importance of definitions and framing when engaged in debates.

        Nonetheless, Berry advocates a spiritual and self-reliant worldview that places him squarely in American traditionalism. He rejects the excesses of capitalism but also the modern ideologies that have shaped leftist thought from Marxism to post-modernism. He is not a modern at all, but a Jeffersonian who values local community and the self reliant men and women who root themselves in land, community and family. They defer neither to the centralized state nor the corporation, but they are humble in the shadow of their creator, deeply knowledgeable about their own limitations and the fleeting, sometimes harsh nature of life.

        To label such people leftists is to surrender too much to ideologues right and left. A worldview that rejects material excess, that does not reduce all of life to political or economic calculation, that refuses to surrender the human heart to science, and dares to treat with civility and respect even those we do not understand, that is the stuff of conservatism, properly understood. It is also the foundation for the good life, properly understood. This seems to me an unarguable position.

        I suggest liberals are more willing than conservatives to embrace new ideas and unfamiliar people prior to fully understanding them.

        If we can’t agree on this, then we risk simply declaring one side inherently better/smarter than the other by fiat.

      2. Berry “values local community and the self reliant men and women who root themselves in land, community and family”, you cited.

        So no FEMA for Berry?

        Strikes me as a rosy, romantic — and completely unrealistic — view in a land where we depend on unknown persons to remove our trash, protect us from floods and pay us crop subsidies.

        Tie it with religion, and it’s a little scary.

    2. Here is a provocative question…

      Would we be better off today had Al Gore won the presidency instead of Bush/Cheney?

      It is not so much Bush as this was Karl Rove and Dick Chaney and their derision of the reality-based community…

      “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”

      I don’t think it is much of a stretch to suggest Al Gore would have be more pro-active in recognizing the reality of climate change and, maybe, doing something about it.

      The Trump presidency has taken the Karl Rove playbook to an obscene level.

  4. Chris, I saw your Facebook post referencing the Business Insider article. We are quite literally, toast. Now, working within the crucible (no pun intended) of Global Warming, I expect democracies to fall, as the tyrants rise, actually in the name of nationalism, to protect whatever tribe people associate with, as water and food run scarce.

    The nation states of Amazon, Microsoft, and Exxon will have to wait for a while, but are likely inevitable. It is a great time to be alive if you are a psychopath, or a historian. For everyone else, we are screwed.

  5. Another article about the collapse of conservativism under the anger of nationalism;

    https://www.economist.com/briefing/2019/07/06/conservatism-is-fighting-for-its-life-against-reactionary-nationalism

    Not much here members of this board don’t already know except a bit more historical detail, but important that The Economist has picked up the thread.

    That said, though I respect Chris’s writing and this writing on the matter of “conservativism is the political will to preserve institutions and the rule of law,” that has in no way convinced me that conservativism is different or opposed to our current nationalism. For instance, in the United States, the institutions and laws being preserved were designed for the protection of white men necessarily against the opportunities and competition of others. On Britain, it is the preservation of quote-unquote “Englishness” both in attitude and in policy.

    Conservativism is just the preserving of power by those that currently have it. That’s why you get the part of this Economist essay about “Elsewhere in Europe” where conservatives promoted restoration of monarchies etc. This is also why liberalism isn’t necessarily opposed to conservativism and vice versa. If the institution to be preserved is liberal in economics and policy, one can non-ironically call it a conservative liberal institution. Which is, in the US after the 90s, the Democrat party.

    Racism is an American institution, and the conservatives have actively been preserving it under the banner of conservativism the entire time I have been alive.

    1. Even now, my personal inclinations are best described as “conservative.” Thing is, there’s no one approach to life or politics that remains best for all times and circumstances. It is very difficult right now to write a persuasive defense of conservatism as an idea because we live in a time that calls for a fairly radical restructuring of society. The role of a conservative in a time like this, if there is one, is to remind everyone else of the cost and dangers of radicalism. And to be prepared, I suppose, to act as a check on the most extreme elements when that restructuring comes.

      Conservatives see society as a garden, where liberals tend to see a machine. But even a garden sometimes needs a fire.

      It is good to live in times suited to conservatism. It’s a privilege I’m afraid we’re not afforded now.

      1. Rob,

        Thank you for the insight!

        While I knew all the separate pieces, you have made new connections for me.

        I am a classic neophile. If I’m expected to do something I don’t understand but is expected, I will almost always look for a “better way”. I want what I am doing to make sense to me. Something I can defend without relying on group-think.

        While I obviously have problems when dealing with people who want to tell me what to do, I also have problems with neophobe subordinates.

        I struggle to get them to understand the reasoning behind my instructions when they just want me to tell them what to do.

        Understanding is hard work. It is a lot easier just to be content doing rather than thinking.

      2. Boy do I disagree with your analogy: conservatives tend to see society as a garden…liberals as a machine….I must not be understanding. To me, conservatives are rigid and controlling and liberals flexible (read that “tolerant”) and accepting of differences. It is possible for an individual to be a mixture, but most conservatives I know definitely correlate more with the machine society. You seem to be the exception Chris, in that you have the capacity for empathy and the awareness of the importance of diversity. Am I missing your point in your comparison?

      3. Mary,

        While I share your confusion about Garden versus Machine, I suggest the analogy might make more sense if you think of a Food Garden instead of flowers.

        I grew up next to a retired farmer. He had a modest house with an acre which, for all intents and purpose was a miniature farm. Complete with onions, strawberries, corn, fruit trees, etc.

        For about 10 years (until I turned 17), I was his personal farm hand. Of course everything had to be done his way which was old fashion. For example, I split a lot of wood using two wedges and a sledge hammer. No fancy log-splitter, not even a large woodcutter’s axe. Most of this tools were the same design that farmers had been using for 100’s of years.

        My neighbor farmer was very conservative in that he was quite content with tending to his “garden” the same way he had all his life.

        As I recall, he wasn’t tolerant with kids trespassing. He probably benefited from having me around because I wouldn’t allow any late night raids on his food. Mainly, because I would have had to deal with the fallout.

        It was a good learning experience.

        In summary, I can see how a self professed conservative would see his/her activities as tending gardens. Considering it mostly involves removing things that don’t belong be they weeds or other weird, unfamiliar plants.

    2. EJ

      “Conservative” is a strange word. Nowadays it’s been dragged into such disfavour, whether by old people like Rupert Murdoch or young people like Ben Shapiro, that it’s almost meaningless except inasmuch as a term for “a liberal who hates women and gay people.” Since that doesn’t describe Chris particularly well, it’s an open question as to how useful the term is any more. Once upon a time it meant something different, and once upon a time “gay” had no homosexual implications, but words change as the societies that use them change.

      In the political lexicon that’s emerging among my generation, Chris is very definitely a liberal: he believes that gay people should have civil rights, but that the question of whether they should starve or live in a palace should be left up to the stochastic machinery of the free market; and as Mark Fisher points out, will angrily dismiss any implication that there are alternatives to investor capitalism. Liberals are not a small tribe and they are not a powerless tribe, but they seem to have currently lost the initiative within the Anglophone world. Many people believe this means that they are powerless. I think this is historically blind.

      Liberals have historically been extremely good at co-opting the machinery of radicalism and degenerating it into a mere show of anger, possibly giving just enough concessions to defuse the possibility of real change, and then winding those concessions back again later. Liberalism is also very good at surviving the loss of wars, in ways that more radical ideologies are not: the Soviets never recovered ideologically from Afghanistan, whereas Vietnam didn’t destroy capitalism in America. The 20th century is littered with the tombstones of ideologies that thought they would bury liberalism: in the long run, the mixture of personal individualism and extractive capitalism that characterises liberalism is extremely stable.

      Let’s see if it can adjust to deal with another slow, stable and easily-overlooked problem: climate change.

      1. Fundamentally, I suggest a “conservative” has the mindset that one should be rewarded for playing by established norms.

        A liberal has the mindset that change is a given and should be embraced.

        My bias, as a liberal, is that we should push for change because I believe continual improvement is best for society in general.

        I can understand why conservatives push that a stable society is better because of well established rules of right and wrong.

        I will refrain for expounding further in hopes others will present their distinctions between the terms. I suspect we all agree that the common usage is a mess at the moment.

      2. EJ

        While I’d like to hear other people’s opinions, I would also like to interrogate your position a little.

        Is all change liberal? For example, would systematically stripping US Spanish speakers of their citizenship be liberal, in your view? Would eliminating the concept of private (as opposed to personal) property, or abolishing the violent coercive apparatus of government be liberal, in your view?

        If not, what is the set of changes which you would consider liberal? I would suggest that this is perhaps a more useful definition of liberalism.

        (I give these examples because they are not hyperbole: there are large groups of Americans today, and have been smaller groups for decades, who genuinely hold all of these positions.)

      3. El,

        Thank you for your interest. I suggest generally people would like to think they are doing the “right thing”. After all, it was the “right thing” to keep Negros in their place because of an interpretation of the “Mark of Cain” in the bible.

        Change is inevitable (says the liberal), conservatives tend to resist change (by definition). Changes like stripping US Spanish speakers of citizenship, would have the overall effect of resisting change.

        Let me suggest that we are talking a spectrum. Assuming one accepts that climate change is real, what can be the reactions?

        1. Ignore: deny it… not my problem to fix… in Gods hands… etc.

        2. shift problem: suppress competing cultures, let “others” die, go to war

        3. embrace: work towards mutually agreeable solutions

        There is generally a place for the voices saying “not so fast”. There are also plenty of examples of unscrupulous people creating an artificial crisis to motivate people against their own self interest. I would like to think I would not do this.

        I hope this helps explain how I see things.

      4. “Fundamentally, I suggest a “conservative” has the mindset that one should be rewarded for playing by established norms.

        A liberal has the mindset that change is a given and should be embraced.”

        That’s what I said: conservativism is about retaining power. You’re not gonna support a rules-based system that disenfranchises you, so you’re not going to be a conservative if the rules aren’t already giving you power.

        ‘Liberalism’ isn’t really the best word for the value of changing the rules, but has been pigeonholed into it by modern usage. Partly why many left of center Americans prefer ‘progressivism’ and many right of center Americans are more appropriately called something like radicalism or revanchism. But I am keeping my definitions loose.

      5. I would agree that “progressivism’ is probably preferred by people who see “progress” as a good thing.

        Obviously, the current fight is approaching the fight for the sole us as human beings.

        It is one thing to have disagreements about whether or not “big government” is good or bad. It’s another to suggest we have no obligation to help our fellow man/woman just because they are not part of “us”.

      6. The discussion of conservatism/liberalism and their orientation toward change brings to mind this book: Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, by John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith & John R. Alford. The authors are affiliated with the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska. Their book asserts that people have different biological responses to change and authority, and these differences show up in their political views and actions. In general, conservatives tend to be neophobes and liberals tend to be neophiles. I liked the book a lot. It’s available on Amazon etc., but the full text also seems to be online at archive.org. Not sure if that’s kosher from a copyright perspective.

      7. EJ

        Thank you, Rob, dfcord, Aaron.

        I still feel that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in this case are, fundamentally, not useful; we are ascribing supposed meanings to the words which do not match the way that they are used in practise.

        Here are my two objections:

        Firstly, if they are fundamentally about the speed of social change, then social changes in which society moves to the Right can’t properly be described. For example, take the current drift towards militarised police. This is a new thing which society has not had before. Does that make it liberal? Many liberals would be surprised if so. Likewise, abortion is an old and time-honoured legal right; does this make moves to defend abortion rights a conservative cause? Many conservatives would be surprised at this too.

        Secondly, if they are terms divorced from specific ideology, it means that they can be applied to ideologies other than capitalist democracy. Richard Spencer and Gavin McInnes are definitely not liberals in a conventional sense; they do, however, want to move society rapidly in a direction which they (presumably) sincerely believe to be beneficial to society as a whole. Can one be a liberal and a fascist? A conservative and a socialist? Surely the belief in a specific different ideology precludes the term “liberal” from being useful here.

        For this reason, I prefer to use the more modern definition of rhe words, in which “liberal” receives a specific ideological definition and “conservative” basically gets dropped; I feel that the attitude-to-change definition just gets confusing in the modern world.

  6. If we are truly witnessing the beginning of the end of democracy and nations, I guess I am betting on the rise of empires and tyrants for a while, then the ultimate control of humanity in 20 or 30 boardrooms.

    I am starting to wonder if Frank Herbert’s Dune series is the guide. Somewhere down the road 100 years from now we will see House Bezos playing deadly political games against House Putin, House Sony, House Exxon, and House Xi, assuming there is any large scale civilization left after global warming really kicks into high gear, and the nuclear exchanges have subsided.

  7. I’ve only been reading these for a short time; this already is the deep out-of-the-box stuff I’ve come to expect from you Chris.

    This echoes things I’ve been wondering about for some time. It’s easier for corporations to pick up and move now than in something like 1960 or 1880. If they didn’t like a country’s policies they were more captive to them in those days. The question is how to turn their resources more toward the public good. Europe is doing as well at this as anyone.

    Just the way runaway slaves challenged and eventually broke slavery, maybe the tax-free enclaves like the Cayman Islands challenge and will break the nation-state system.

    While in the US for decades millions of NASCAR fans have been basing their purchasing decisions on who sponsors their favorite and least favorite drivers, it seems like to break through to other population segments corporations and groups will need something else. I wonder if cooperative ownership is the thing. We’ve had stock markets for a couple hundred years. Coops have existed for a long time. Silicon Valley start ups notoriously pay in stock rather than money, and it works spectacularly well for a few people. The prefigurings (to use the term my anarchist friends use) of the next system are there, perhaps.

    There could be levels of participation perhaps. There’s a community on Staten Island called Ganas which has three levels. The innermost 12-15 share their income with the community and participate in running the three community businesses. About twice that many may help with the businesses and participate in other activities but pay rent. The rest just pay rent. All feel a part of Ganas and identify with it. It’s easy to see, say, 20 million people have these levels of participation with, say, Procter and Gamble.

    You could see down the line B-corps allied to fight against pure profit corps.

    Just a few semi-aggregated thoughts.

    1. It’s interesting to me that the Ganas business is recycling.

      I agonize over recycling a lot, my own efforts and the city’s.

      It seems to me that a traditional business structure (managers oversee workers) is a force fit for recycling.

      Frequently, the workers are not paid much for their hard, dangerous work and managers find they can better maintain margins if they just bury huge swaths of the stuff we’d like them to recycle.

      Looks like Ganas is trying a different structure. Very interesting.

    2. “It’s easy to see, say, 20 million people have these levels of participation with, say, Procter and Gamble.

      You could see down the line B-corps allied to fight against pure profit corps.”

      That sounds quite interesting.

      Not as an actual way that I’d like for real people to live. God, no, definitely not. As part of a premise for a dystopian cyberpunk novel? Yes, it’d be quite interesting to see people entirely dependent on undemocratic corporations for everything.

  8. I love it when people refer to science fiction in their comments. Have you read The Diamond Age? Neal Stephenson posits the formation of groups, in a world 3-4 centuries hence, which are somewhat corporate but more united by culture, like Victorians, Africans, etc. The largest one have a presence everywhere.

    Another interesting future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Mars develops a gift economy. On Earth, lesser developed countries become wholly owned by for-profit transnationals, existing alongside the more powerful traditional nation-states.

  9. Ethnic / cultural nationalism is, or at least should be, useless. Institutional districting of certain geographies into useful representative blocs is still very useful, because diverse geographies and diverse populations must be managed in diverse methods relevant to their special interests. The nation should relate to global organization the same way a state relates to the US, a county to the state, a municipality to a county, a township to a municipality, a district to a township, a neighborhood to a district, a block to a neighborhood, and a household to a block.

    This does mean, as federalism means in the US, that occasionally states stand up against dictates from the federal government and occasionally the federal government overrides state governance. There’s never a perfectly satisfied answer for every individual. Each echelon has to be both dynamic and responsive of other eschalons. A neighborhood should be able to decide to veto a business, but shouldn’t be able to decide to refuse racial integration, for example. Any transnational government organization would have to recognize sovereignty whole also be able to enforce laws. Shit gets complex.

    But borders do serve useful purposes in aggregating interested persons downriver who may take umbrage to pollutions or complete resource capture of populations upriver. Where boundaries, jurisdictions, and borders are not useful are in the keeping-out or keeping-in of populations deciding to move to areas they decide better offers opportunity, representation, or resources.

    Nations should exist, but with complete and total freedom of movement, itself a form of freedom of association.

    All immigration should be legal. Full stop.

    1. It’s a good point. Their nationalism looks a lot like the expansionist nationalism of the Caliphate among Islamists. However, just like those Islamists, they focus all their energy on what ends up being just hyper-nationalism locally in their own countries. It’s a little odd, but I guess it’s a consequence of practical constraints.

  10. This is a fascinating essay. I have long believed that nationalism as a concept was at the end of its useful life. Humans seem to need to belong to a group. Initially that was an extended family structure, i.e. the band / clan. That evolved into a tribe (and as you mention mafia groups) The nation state succeeded that. Gradually nation states have gotten larger. Now we are in a transition stage to something else, that may be regional groupings of nation-states as some have postulated. But that will not be satisfactory because they will compete against each other, have conflicts and create external impacts. One only needs to look at our present global competitions, between the U.S., Europe, China and Russia. A kinetic conflict (to use Pentagonese) between any of these entities could destroy civilization.

    My feeling is corporatism will not really be satisfactory because the modern corporate world, with its emphasis on monetary profits is creating massive externalities that are also threatening civilization. Any external impact that cannot be monetized is ignored, such as waste proliferation, including global warming gases and the plastic gyres in the oceans. To control these external impacts will require the creation of a supra-state or some other organization that has the power to impose laws, rules and regulations and then to enforce those.

    A supra-state seems to be required. FDR conceived of the United Nations as sort of a supra-government with the US, Britain, China, and Russia as the enforcers. That evolved to be the Security Council. But that never really got started effectively because the four enforcers immediately began quarrelling with each other. Each had its own plans and would not cede the necessary sovereignty. The initial conception was to prevent global kinetic conflicts, but now our needs supersede that because of the impacts on the global ecology.

    Where the impetus will come from to create such a supra-state will come from is the question. Perhaps it will come from another global kinetic war? Perhaps it will come from an encounter with an alien civilization? I certainly do not know. Based on human history, I fully expect that there will be some very severe crises in the near future. To surmount these crises, will require some visionary leadership. At the moment, I do not see any such leadership apparent on the global scene. The major leaders throughout the world are all reactionary and focused on restoring the perceived past glories of their respective nation states. That includes Trump, Putin, Xi and most of the national leaders of Europe. There do seem to be some forward thinking people in Europe, but Europe still needs to transition to be an effective nation state. The U.S. has some, but they are in the political wilderness at this time. As far as Russia and China, they are largely closed societies and any forward thinking people and thoughts not acceptable to the current leaders are suppressed.

    This is one of the benefits of this forum, in that it allows respectful discussion of these concepts.

  11. Chris,

    You may be getting through to me.

    Being over 60 with lots of exposure to depression era, WW1 and WW2 history in my youth has provided me with a potentially unique sense of how much things can change.

    My step grandfather was an antique dealer. As long as I remember, I was surrounded by things up to a 100 years older than I was. Both of my great grandmothers were alive for the first 10 to 12 years of my life.

    I was an avid old science fiction fan (with lots of “Corporate Government” stories).

    One of those dusty old books my grandfather had was titled “The World War”. Yes, it was written shortly after World War I but before World War II. It was a large leather bound book written by very serious scholars explaining the vital importance of stomping out Germanic Nationalism by all means necessary. My teenage self was appalled at the stupidity of these old scholars not seeing that this would “obviously” bring about WW2 like it did (the advantage of 20/20 hindsight).

    So, yes, I can see the emergence of recognizing some kind a “corporate sovereignty” but it will be quite messy. After all we are still fighting “states rights” issues.

    1. I’m not sure I see corporations taking on that supra-national sovereign role so much as delivering the financial demand for it. But yea, we have this habit of superimposing our present day understandings backward onto the past. We forget how fluid and dynamic human events can become, and do things as silly as predicting that the outcome of the 2016 Election will be dictated by a Blue Wall of Democratic dominance. We live in a funny old world.

    2. I love it when people refer to science fiction in their comments. Have you read The Diamond Age? Neal Stephenson posits the formation of groups, in a world 3-4 centuries hence, which are somewhat corporate but more united by culture, like Victorians, Africans, etc. The largest one have a presence everywhere.

      Another interesting future is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Mars develops a gift economy. On Earth, lesser developed countries become wholly owned by for-profit transnationals, existing alongside the more powerful traditional nation-states.

  12. EJ

    I’m interested in your comparison between corporations and nation states, as I think it’s both a little historically inaccurate and a little apples-and-oranges.

    Firstly, the VOC was incorporated in 1602, well before most people put the origins of modern nationalism. One could therefore say that corporations are older than nation states.

    (Of course, there are entities similar to modern nation-states far older than 1776, just as there are entities similar to modern joint-stock limited-liability companies far older than 1604. But this path of argument leads to the “does a man with one hair on his chin have a beard” sort of absurdity, in my view.)

    Secondly, one could also say that the concept of the corporation is meaningless without the concept of the state; after all, they rely on a state for currency and jurisprudence, and often for violent enforcement of those things. Apple and Disney cannot exist in a place without police and taxation, and also cannot run their own. If the state disappears, how can they persist?

    1. I’m not really intending to set up and apples to apples comparison between corporations and governments. They are different, though of course, everything is interconnected.

      And the notion of a corporation extending power beyond the reach of a government isn’t new. It took almost seventy years of hostility between the East India Company and the Parliament for the government to finally snuff out the EIC in 1858. And they only did it after the EIC almost cost them control of India.

      And yes, part of what makes corporations so powerful is the body of organizational functions delivered for them by the state. Then again, part of what made early parliaments so powerful was the legitimacy, court systems and authority provided for them by their monarchies. Parliaments outgrew that need.

      I don’t think that corporations as we know them today have the breadth of participation and depth of personal identity you’d need to replace the core functions of nation-states. They are, however, already providing a fascinating bridge between the nation-state era and something larger. In the process they are creating a powerful financial demand for supra-state functions that someone will have to fulfill. That demand is more powerful than what was created by a handful of EIC-type trade companies in the 19th c., because there are tens of thousands of this institutions out there now operating with a similar scope.

      1. EJ

        That’s an interesting point, if I understand you correctly: that Facebook and Amazon, by flouting the rule of nation-states in such an absurd manner and by playing off nations against one another, ultimately create the environment in which international entities large enough to regulate and control them are forced to exist.

        Chris, I never would have thought this of you, but are you by chance veering into accelerationism?

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