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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nation states will destroy the world

by David Atkins

In the wake of my posts about liberalism and human nature, many commentators from Greenwald to Stoller to lesser lights have accused me of being a warmongering imperialist and apologist for America's wars of choice. But their misguided attacks completely miss the gist of the points I have been trying to make and grossly mischaracterize my views while demonstrating the critics' own limited imagination of the capacity of human civilization.

I have been trying to explain for some time now that the world needs a new model of human organization if it is to survive. The current one is failing badly.

Consider just one pressing example: climate change. David Roberts at Grist puts it clearly in his TED Talk: if the nations of the world don't get together to do something about climate change and fast, humanity is screwed.

I'd like to be an optimist about this, but the notion that the nation-states of the world currently bluffing one another over allowing the Syrian regime a shipload of attack helicopters are going to come to a mutual set of treaties that seriously tackle the problem of climate change is simply delusional. It's not going to happen.

The notion that an ever-increasing number of nation-states can develop nuclear weapons uninterrupted without engaging in full nuclear war at some point over the next century is similarly delusional. If climate change doesn't decimate or destroy this species over the next two centuries, nuclear winter almost certainly will. And that's just assuming the actions of nation-state actors, ignoring the very real possibility of non-state actors taking possession of these weapons.

The notion that the nuclear-armed nation-states of the world will simply adapt to peak oil without resorting to a third world war is improbable at best.

The notion that the world's governments will somehow adapt with mutually effective treaties and internal domestic laws to deal with the increasing power of multinational corporations is delusional. In a world of global labor arbitrage wherein the top multinational corporations collude to buy off governments, the only competition that occurs is between governments themselves to sell themselves to the Fortune 100 in exchange for "investment." That is why austerity is so powerful in Europe and the American government is so easily bought. Global corporate power is beyond the power of any individual nation-state to stop, even networked by (toothless) treaties.

I could mention many other examples ranging from environmental challenges to human rights issues. We have, in short, reached a point at which global challenges have breached the limitations of current political structures to control them.

Many on the left would like to pretend that these problems can be resolved through more diplomacy, or that the nation-states themselves can create a patchwork of domestic laws to adequately tackle these problems. They would like to pretend that people are basically good, ignoring millennia of constant warfare and greed throughout global human history amply demonstrating otherwise. They would like to believe that the nation-state is the pinnacle of human political organization, and that if nation-states would simply leave one another alone, setting up trade barriers and reducing military spending, the world would see lasting peace and prosperity. It's not surprising, but it's wishful thinking and not helpful in solving the real structural challenges the world faces.

Human history is in many ways the story of the power of civilization and complexification to mitigate the worst tendencies of human nature while expanding universal rights and unlocking the secrets of the universe. Reversals are commonplace, perhaps even cyclical in nature. But the overall trend is clear. Increasingly large and complex societies collaborate to solve increasingly large problems while creating better quality of life and guaranteeing increasing protections for their citizens through the process of government of consensus and consent, enforced by mutually-agreed-upon mechanisms. It's how tribes grew into villages, how villages grew into city-states, city-states became kingdoms, and kingdoms became empires. It's how empires fell of their own weight, how dark ages grew into feudalism, feudalism centralized into nation-states, and how nation-states gradually adopted democratic reforms through fits, starts and revolutions.

There is no reason to believe that that process of societal complexification has ended with our current global political structures. In fact, there is every reason to believe that without a metamorphosis of some kind toward greater complexity and universality, humanity itself stands at the precipice of its own destruction.