“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.
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.
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.