Monday, May 11, 2009

The Problem of Growth and the Decline of the Nation-State

Two of the topics that I most frequently write about are the Problem of Growth and the Decline of the Nation-State (links go to keynote papers on each topic).  Today, I'll discuss how these two phenomena interact--specifically, why the decline of the Nation-State means that there are no political solutions within the Nation-State system to the Problem of Growth (and why our political problems ultimately stem from our failure to address the Problem of Growth):

Much modern political commentary focuses, in one form or another, on our failure to reign in the growth of government--whether it's spending, taxes, debt, invasion of our private lives, etc.  This is certainly more frequent on the conservative/libertarian side of the political spectrum, but equally relevant is the lack of discussion of this trend on progressive/liberal side of the spectrum (where the discussion tends to focus on the same trend, but in multi-national corporations, finance, the rich, etc.).  Unconsciously, it's really all discussing the same issue, and while I think it’s a start to recognize that government (or corporations) needs to get smaller (at least if we want to move toward sustainable and resilient increases in freedom, opportunity, and median per capita happiness, as opposed to the opposite direction), this realization must be paired with an understanding of the source of the Problem of Growth. It isn’t this administration, or these politicians. No election results will reverse the trend. No new political platform of any party or politician within the system will lead to solutions. The source of the problem is instead a fundamental attribute of our *system*.
Our government is a centralized hierarchy, on two levels (here I'm referring to government and the organizations that seek to come to power within it, not American federalism). Such hierarchies engage in what anthropologists call peer-polity interaction–in other words, they need to grow, or be out-competed for resources by peers that do. This is true of what some call “national” economies, of political parties, of agencies, etc. It’s a structural attribute, and can only be changed by changing the structure.

Even if, theoretically, a political party could win elections on a platform of reducing the size, scope, and intensity of government; actually deliver on those promises; and then hold on to control of government long enough to make this a trend (doubtful, in my opinion), it would be a mistake to think that this would actually impact the problem you focus on in your post. This is because the fantasy that Nation-States within a global Nation-State system are the only game in town. The Nation-State, predicated on the theory of absolute sovereignty over some Cartesian territory, is already a relic of the past, and we increasingly hold on to this guise only out of populist political expediency while our actual institutions move toward a Market-State. But most significantly, the crumbling of the Nation-State is increasingly leading to a system without true sovereignty–our world is increasingly defined by overlapping power networks: “Nation-States,” multinational corporations, trans-national black-market and gray-market networks, cross-border cultural affinities and religious identities, etc. This is why politicians cannot “solve” the problem of government growth by merely reducing the size and scope of our notion of “government”–with sovereignty of government over physical territory modest and quickly eroding, government itself is but one “peer” in the peer-polity competition between these many competing powers. Even if you could reduce “government,” without addressing the source of the Problem of Growth the end result will only be the imposition of the same growth-derived problems from another source.

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.


Laodan said...

Dani Rodrik summarizes the predicament of globalization in one sentence: "Democracy is compatible with national sovereignty only if we restrict globalization. If we push for globalization while retaining the nation-state, we must jettison democracy."
How powerful a sentence!

This does not address the conundrum of late-modernity (the Problem of Growth); it only addresses the question of opportunism in a globalized system.

So what is engendering this Problem of Growth in late modernity?

1. let's first observe that this problem is typical of all "already industrialized countries" but does not affect "non industrialized countries".
2. history indicates that economic growth is generated by increasing volumes of consumption. Two factors can impact that volume of consumption:
- the quantity of consumers
- the average level of consumption of each consumer
3. modernity is characterized by a capitalistic economic development that started as merchant and then morphed into industrial capitalism
- "already industrialized countries" seem to have reached the top possible limit of the industrial phase when growth basically does find no more avenues
- "non industrialized countries" have barely started entering into this industrial phase of development.

While the quantity of consumers has topped in "already industrialized countries" it has barely started to count in "non industrialized countries".
While the average level of consumption of each consumer in the "already industrialized countries" has topped and seems on a path downhill the average level of consumption of each consumer in the "non industrialized countries" is still at the bottom from where it has but one way and that is up.

It is in that particular context that Dani Rodrik's observation takes it full significance.

Now while being inescapable realities; the "level of development" as well as Rodrik's observation about democracy are bound to encounter the natural systemic limitations of modernity:
- peak oil, phosphorous, and all the rest leading to economic collapse
- soils, water and air pollution
- climate change
- societal fragmentation leading to atomization and last to societal collapse.

After feeling the stones they walk on and rejecting the mantra of always more economic growth the individuals, in the "already industrialized countries", who are conscientious about those dynamics seem to part on the ways forward: green activism versus "Dark Mountain" waiting for the collapse but all insisting on the primacy of democracy and the decline of their nation-state.

Things look rather different from the perspective of those living in "non industrialized countries". While some of them are conscientious of the natural systemic limitations of modernity they nevertheless want their countries to spread the sweetness of consumption to all as rapidly as possible. For them the strength of their nation-state comes first and democracy ranks second...

vera said...

The problem of growth cannot be solved within a system that has not solved the problem of power.

Any entity that stops growth will be engulfed and devoured by those who can grow.

Jeff Vail said...


Agreed...see the discussion in the linked essay Problem of Growth: the cause of the problem of growth is dependency, which is solved by scale-free self-sufficiency. Especially on the downslope of energy descent, the physical power of existing hierarchies can be increasingly effectively confronted by distributed, open-source opposition comprised of this scale-free self-sufficient network ("rhizome").

chiinook said...

I've very much enjoyed your articles here Jeff. I'm working on applying rhizome and systems concepts to the area of local and systemic church health.

I am an ordained pastor but have spent the majority of my adult life serving in Estonia among small, often rural churches. Both here and in the United States, churches are facing sustainability problems very much along the lines of our world's current nation states.

Interestingly enough, Christian theology and early descriptions of the nature of the Church contain striking parallels to systems theory and rhizome theory: an emphasis on organic growth, an openness (at the very least) to horizontal organization, and individual identity informed by relationships, most markedly in the Trinity.

I'm exploring these things with great interest and am gaining a lot of perspective and insight from your thoughts here. Thanks for making them accessible to us all.