I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the collapse of the nation-state, a concept which many social theorists and historians are putting forward now, and which coincides nicely with the singularity. I’ve been specifically drawn to a book called the Sovereign Individual by a James Dale Davidson and Lord Rees-Mogg who argue that the coming information age will subvert state power and technology will decentralize power and empower individuals. It’s all a very scary yet optimistic view of the future which is appealing to me.
Before going further I should probably clarify a bit about what the “collapse” of the nation-state will look like. “collapse” is perhaps not the best word for this transition, perhaps “subversion” is more accurate. The best way to describe this power shift is by analogy to the last major shift of power relations in Western history, the transition from a church centered society, where the catholic church took the role of building infrastructure, building a common identity, launching wars (crusades), and protecting Europeans from each other. Around the end of the 15th century various technologies (gunpowder, the printing press) undermined church authority. At this point in time, the beginning of the reformation, public disdain for the clergy members and realistic corruption and excess of the church reached levels comparable to our disdain of politicians and the corruption and unwieldiness of Western democracies. The irony in all of this is that the church and nation states helped unify vast amounts of people and thereby foster the development of the very technologies which subvert these institutions. I say “subvert” because it’s not as if the church disappeared, it just lost power, just as we will likely continue to elect our “leaders” for some time, even as their positions mean less and less.
The specific technologies which are transforming our society today are information technologies. Our increased control over information is quickly making location unimportant, rendering individuals and businesses more mobile and less subject to the control of a government. The information revolution will sharply diminish returns to violence, because the benefit of violent actions will decrease when wealth has no physical location and, as the authors of The Sovereign individual point out, individuals will be capable of acting from beyond the grave; they could theoretically program a device to gain retribution from whomever killed them. Because the primary service governments give us is protection, when we can protect ourselves there will be little incentive to keep allegiance to a nation.
You may have caught on by now that this has the air of a libertarian fantasy world, where we won’t need to pay taxes and governments will either have to become vastly more efficient or perish. I’ve previously discussed my problem with libertarianism and the indifference it fosters toward the impoverished. Poverty is a problem we delegate to the welfare state, a kind of state which will cease to function in the same way this century because of forces which favor a more libertarian world. The problem of how to take care of suffering on this planet is going to need to be readdressed.
The authors of The Sovereign Individual are no exception to the deplorable manner that I’ve seen libertarians talk in relation to poor people. To them, the bottom third of America who are unable to understand a map of a bus route or add and subtract simple numbers have “failed to prepare themselves” for this transition. in addition to this, the authors point to a correlation between the bell curve distribution of human intelligence and the distribution of wealth in our societies, implying that the upper class is composed of more talented individuals, and if lower class people were more talented they would be upper class by now. I frankly was tempted to stop reading the book when I read this claim which to me seems such a poisonous way of thinking. I understand that there is a correlation of intelligence and social class, and I understand that very personally because I come from a fairly well off background with family members who are all quite obviously more intelligent than average. yet I know that if I was born into poverty, poverty is likely where I would stay, even though as I am now I am more capable of accruing wealth than all previous generations before me. libertarians need to understand how much of a trap poverty is, and that motivation is something which is given to someone through education and growing, not something that anyone can find in themselves at any time. None of us deserve the life we were born into. I feel like pasting that sentence a million times all over this blog and yelling it at every libertarian I meet. None of us deserve the life we were born into! It’s absurd to think that we do, because we couldn’t possibly have done anything previously to have deserved anything. None of us deserve the life we were born into: you are as smart and talented as you are because that is what society has made you into. Had you been born a million years ago, or in an isolated tribe in South America today, you would be a lazy idiot by modern standards and it wouldn’t be your fault.
I am optimistic that our new societal structure and technologies will improve, rather than worsen the way we handle suffering. Though we will not have an overarching institution to suck up a percentage of our money and redistribute it, I know that individuals will fly to where there is a need, even more so when flying and helping is easier (which it will be). Somehow, things will get better, because we are too aware of the world to stand by and watch people suffer.
I understand the fear that comes with this transition. We give our government somewhat of a monopoly over the control of violence and development and use of new weapons because we are too afraid to let each other have them, for good reason. I also understand, however, that while individuals will wield greater power and capability to use force, violence will come at greater cost and less benefit to the perpetrator. If an individual had, for example, a nuclear weapon and detonated it for a selfish purpose, the world would work tirelessly to find and destroy the cause of violence.
So that’s pretty much it, individuals are going to become societies in and of themselves, everything will change soon, and it will be scary but good. My next several posts will build on and rely on the concept of the collapse of the nation-state.