Sunday, May 03, 2009

Greece, Arizona, and the Decline of the Nation-State

One of the ongoing focuses of this blog is the decline of the Nation-State model--for those interested in an overview of my thoughts on the Nation-State, see my essay The New Map.  Today I'll take a couple of items from current events to discuss developments in the decline of the Nation-State:  Greece and the US state of Arizona.  It's easy to think that these two issues have little in common, in part because the press is viewing them as entirely separate.  In fact, at their core they are the result of the same phenomena:  the gradual decline of the Nation-State model and the battle over its replacement.

In Greece, bloated pension obligations and government salaries have led to the brink of a debt default, and have forced the EU to attempt to bail out Greece (to save their own cost of borrowing), requiring "austerity measures" in exchange.  This is a fine example of the ongoing decline in the Nation-State system.  The Nation-State is a construct whereby a theoretically contiguous "nation" provides the constitutional and moral justification for a political "state" to govern it, and in exchange that state provides for the needs of its constituent nation (producing a reflexive entity, the Nation-State).  In Greece, the state made lots of promises about the welfare of its constituent nation, but now can't keep them.  The nation was happy to cede control to the state in exchange for it keeping these promises, but how happy will it be to do so if the state isn't keeping up its end of the bargain, and instead imposes "austerity measures"?  Of course, as long as the global economy and economic "pie" continued to grow thanks to an increasing supply of cheap, high-quality energy, this was rarely an issue.  However, what will happen as this trend reverses?  What happens to the state as it must now increasingly provide less to its constituent nation?  In extremely simple terms, this is the basis for the current and accellerating decline of the Nation-State...  Greece is just a canary in the coal mine, and will most likely be propped up by the rest of the EU and community of other Nation-States who don't want to deal with the underlying cracks in their system.  Much like environmental and energy issues that are now global, not regional in scale, however, these rescue efforts will not work on a large scale, and the time is coming when the Nation-State system will fall appart with increasing speed.  I think we will continue to cling to the notion of the Nation-State for decades to come, but the will be increasingly hollow constructs.  Watch what happens in Greece for a prelude of how this may play out.

In Arizona, the US state has passed a law attempting to crack down on illegal immigration by forcing police to stop and question anyone who they suspect of being an illegal immigrant.  In Arizona (on the Mexican border, and a key hub for illigal immigration from Mexico after the US border patrol focused on the California and Texas sections of the border), this essentially means stopping people who look Hispanic and asking them for ID.  While it's clearly an inflammatory law (and the Pima county sherriff, where Tucson is located, has already refused to enforce it), almost all of the debate over the issue misses the key ingredient of understanding the constitutional nature of the Nation-State.

First, I should point out that I used to live in Arizona, I'm a huge fan of the Tucson area, and I often joke that Arizona is one of the strangest mixes in the US--traditional hispanic communities that have existed since before there was a USA, liberal college communities, strongly right-wing business interests, xenophobic and racist religious communities, snowbirds (people who go there from the colder northern states in the winter), and new-age/"hippy" communities.  It's a bag of mixed nuts, which produces some wonderful and repulsive features simultaneously--the Tucson area and the southern part of the state tends to be more "left" nuts and the Phoenix area and northern parts of the state tend to be more "right" nuts, but it's always a bit crazy.

Arizona is a classic location on the blurry margin of the theoretically "cartesian" Nation-State.  It used to be indian country.  Then it was Mexico.  Then it was the US.  Its populations have blended together, and demographic trends have ebbed and flowed.  Now, however, it is within the cartesian boundary of the US Nation-State.  Of course, none of this changes the fact that much of its population has ties to communities in Mexico, and that the regional economy is better seen as an Arizona/Sonora nexus, overlapping with Arizona/California, overlapping with Arizona/New Mexico/Colorado/Utah, etc.

The debate in Arizona, and the larger US immigration debate, are really debates about how to deal with the decline of the Nation-State.  The reactionary community wants to shore up the artificial boundaries and concept of the Nation-State, and make sure that the State provides for the needs of its constituent Nation, primarily by excluding immigrant laborers from taking jobs that the "American" nationals want, and from letting American manufacturing and other jobs leave the bordrs of the American state.  Of course, there are two key flaws in this view--one, that there is no such thing as an "American" nation--we're a blended amalgam that retains strong ties to many other sources of loyalty beyond the American state (religions, homelands, etc.), and two that the American state can no longer provide for the continual, real, and relative gains in the wellbeing of this ficticious American nation for the same reasons that Greece can't.  The alternative is to move toward either the Market-State (as advocated by Philip Bobbitt) where the state defines a market and people and capital of all nations flow freely through its doors, or (as I've advocated) a reconceptualization as a set of overlapping networks of scale-free self-sufficiency that don't depend on some state superstructure for basic needs (what I've called Rhizome).  The business desire to let cheap Mexican labor into the US, for example, is a position of the Market-State, whereas the recognition that access to and interaction with diverse cultures without clashing state ideologies is more a position of Rhizome.

The fundamental problem in this debate is that the political structure where it is playing out is a captive of the Nation-State concept.  Politicians have to pretend that there is a coherent Nation serving as the constitutional justification for the American State, and that this State is capable of providing for the needs of that Nation.  Neither is true, but they maintain this charade to get elected, and then have to pander to this base.  For this reason, the immigration issue will not be resolved until we begin to honestly address the flaws in this Nation-State structure.  Until that happens (and I'm not holding my breath), the situation will only escalate...


ryan said...

great stuff, as usual.

"I think we will continue to cling to the notion of the Nation-State for decades to come, but the will be increasingly hollow constructs. Watch what happens in Greece for a prelude of how this may play out."

i am doubtful. it seems to me that the combined severity of environmental, social, and economic pressures will not allow prosperity for the market-state or nation-state within a decade. perhaps some will still cling to the notion due to their positions of dependence - the employees and immediate beneficiaries of the state - cops, military, politicians, etc.

much of what's been going on in Greece seems to have caught on around the world rather quickly:

Jeff Vail said...

I don't disagree that the Nation-State construct will be quite hollowed-out within the decade, but I think people will cling to it quite adamantly. It's all they know, and even among the "educated elites" and people who should understand the constitutional basis for the Nation-State (and the fact that the Nation-State construct is a relatively new innovation), I don't think they'll be able to let go of it. It's a huge paradigm shift for people to stop thinking in terms of the Nation-State as the framework for everything in our political and economic worlds. It will have to happen, but I think people will pretend that this is just a "blip" or a "recession," and that soon everything will go back to the Nation-State status quo. It's less scary to think that we can fix the Nation-State system than that we need to move beyond it (because no one in power is even sanctioning the discussion of "move on to WHAT?").

Frankly, I think things like "global solidarity with Greek anarchists" (the linked article) just fuels the reactionary attitude of the majority and makes them hold on even tighter. People just don't get anarchism--it needs a major rebranding (as well as refocusing, as to some extent people don't "get" it because it's so often reactionary and non-constructive itself). I think the path forward is to focus on building the alternative, without labels (though, of course, I use both Rhizome and Diagonal as explanatory labels, though I don't think these should or will catch on as labels accepted by a unified "movement"). Building scale-free self-sufficiency and diagonal networks can build the alternative to the Nation-State without trying to overcome people's fear about abandoning the Nation-State. I think that's what we have to do--otherwise, I think the Nation-State will stick around in name as it becomes a de facto oppressive Market-State...

vera said...

I am waiting to see if Greeks will be able to push their demand that if there are austerities, the elites take a big chunk of that on themselves.

And whether a lesson will be learned from the Ottoman empire, and decomplexification will begin in order to shore up what is still remaining of the Nation State.

Jeff Vail said...

Decomplexification of the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating example, and something that I should explore in more depth. While the Ottoman empire certainly didn't exist in a vacuum, I wonder if that kind of decomplexification is possible in today's much more globally interconnected and rapidly evolving marketplace? Finance institutions and capital markets are truly global--can the "periphery" decomplexify at all, or will it merely be forcefully (economic or otherwise) reintegrated into the global whole? That's my chief problem with applying past empire-collapse studies to our present situation, is that past empires could always recede, to one degree or another, in partial vacuum, whereas I'm not sure that's possible today. Anyway, point to ponder...

ryan said...

"...but I think people will cling to it quite adamantly. It's all they know, and even among the "educated elites" and people who should understand the constitutional basis for the Nation-State (and the fact that the Nation-State construct is a relatively new innovation), I don't think they'll be able to let go of it."

i think the permanence and importance of the nation-state in the near future will be contingent largely on how fast climate change/environmental catastrophes effect the global system. people sure do love flags, borders, anthems, and rallying behind made up gods and premises... but they really, really, really love things like drinkable water, food, shelter, and the hope of a vaguely survivable future. as governments increasingly fail to provide these, loyalties shift.

we are already witnessing climate migrations. UN pop and climate data suggests about 1 billion people will be displaced by 2050 - that's 40 years. very many will be forced to move much sooner and these will not just be the poor and easy to ignore, many of whom have already had to relocate (or just die) due to climate change, drought, rising seas, etc. now we see formerly stable industries and settlements forced to vacate/collapse due to climate: from dessicated ski towns/resorts in the Alps to decreased flow for hydroelectric power to melting permafrost effects on infrastructure in Alaska and Russia to swamped, low-lying island nations - these have already begun and the forces causing them are only increasing and compounding. this will be a very strong and rapid driver of massive social/power shifts. many people will certainly still cling to their flags and songs and gods and authority figures, but will those people have much power or influence over the course of culture and social change? i doubt it.

regarding the "solidarity with greek anarchists" - i have been more interested in this in terms of emergence and the potential of virtually instantaneous global occupations/attacks/social shifts. the amount of chatter and action after the shooting death of Alex Grigoropoulos was fascinating, as were the regional and international actions in solidarity. i wonder what could happen if these events were directed at global systems disruption...

i feel like majority response is that of the anarchists and global social/environmental justice movement - perhaps what you are referring to is "the reactionary attitude of the rich/elite."

"That's my chief problem with applying past empire-collapse studies to our present situation, is that past empires could always recede, to one degree or another, in partial vacuum, whereas I'm not sure that's possible today"

exactly. hierarchy and imperialism are manifestations of primate biology and our evolutionary history that were adaptive in PAST conditions... they are hypertrophies of human behavioral tendencies, not human nature. the environment changes and they become maladaptive - novel patterns emerge.

ryan said...

Greece in the news today - 3 dead during Greek riots

"An estimated 100,000 people took to the streets Wednesday during a nationwide wave of strikes against spending cuts aimed at saving the country from bankrupty.

Protesters were hurling Molotov cocktails at police and buildings. At least two buildings were on fire, while hundreds of people were involved in the clashes."

Mark said...

Great post Jeff! I read your other pieces on the decline and or collapse of Mexico closely. The history of the southwestern U.S. makes me think of Tacitus’ Germania. How long will we cling to the “nation” idea until it just does not seem worth it. Of course, I’m not sure that when the “scanning” process does begin as Tainter calls it, that it actually be understood as a conscious rejection of the nation-state by Americans. People will just slowly start to provide for themselves in small ways i.e., home-schooling, car pooling, and self-healing etc. Hah, a lot of that has already taking hold. So with home- schooling for example, why pass a tax increase when increasingly people have given up on the government provided education. It alone has been the primary way that the modern nation has created loyal subjects. All of this may unfold as a long slow process, but there is always a chance for a massive upheaval too. If Mexican blackouts in Mexico City were to become widespread—load shedding is already a common occurrence there—it could be devastating for the SW, not to mention all of the 20 million Mexico City residents who have become accustomed to their modern lifestyles. The pressure to emigrate out of Mexico would be like never before…For many in the Eastern US, I wonder if the SW is like the frontier of the late Roman Empire? -Mark