Renegade Futurist Roundtable: The Death of the Nation State?

In certain visionary circles, the imminent end of the nation-state is taken for granted. At the forefront of this line of thought is John Robb, author of Global Guerillas. Robb prophesizes that nation-states will become hollow states: “The hollow state has the trappings of a modern nation-state (“leaders”, membership in international organizations, regulations, laws, and a bureaucracy) but it lacks any of the legitimacy, services, and control of its historical counter-part. It is merely a shell that has some influence over the spoils of the economy.” (Source)

According to Robb, corporations and/or organized crime will step into the primary government roles, and citizen’s allegiance to the nation state will be overrided by their “primary loyalties” to a corporation, tribe, gang, family, or community. In certain anarchist and libertarian circles, the end of nation-states is viewed as a good thing: an opportunity wrest power away from the state and replace it with something positive.

However, new superpower nation-states are on the rise, and it’s difficult for me to dismiss their influence. Can we really expect China, India, Iran, Russia and Brazil to become hollow states? Or is it safer to assume they will swallow up failed states?

Also, is there anything truly positive about state failure? Somalia as an Iranian satellite state is surely preferable to its current circumstance. If anything, I fear that we may be seeing, if not an end, a long hiatus of “open societies” in favor of “state capitalism” – an alarming trend in its own right.

What do you think? Are nation-states in decline or just getting started?

  • Justin Boland
  • Johnny Brainwash
  • Uriah Maynard
  • Wes Unruh
  • Vin al Ken
  • Chris Arkenberg
  • Ulysses Lazarus
  • Bill Whitcomb
  • Edward Wilson

  • Justin Boland
    Writer/blogger/rapper, founder of Urban Evolution

    I think Robb is fundamentally right — I also think he’s right that as collapse happens, we’ll be seeing people revert to Primary Loyalties. However, social networks and cultural identifications have been getting remixed, violently and globally, for about a century now. I don’t think anyone can really predict what the actual fault lines will look like.

    I would guess that “Bio-Regionalism” will be a strong general pattern, though. I suspect that mapping various demographic anomalies and concentrations of belief will provide clues ranging from the novel to the obvious — for instance, we can all agree on who would be running Utah in a post-collapse US. It will be much more interesting to see if New York and Los Angeles will be able to manage their transitions peacefully. This is a very important time for GIS workers to build and distribute tools. Those of us working in data visualization have an equally heavy responsibility.

    This is an important time to agitate and educate. This is also an important time for irresponsible brainstorming and Utopian story-telling. We need to radically expand the parameters of this debate from the current polarity of “Are We All Going To Die” vs. “But Who Will Protect Us.” Generating new ideas is more important the debating and defending them. Create and move on. The Internet provides an ecosystem for ideas that will do the work for you if the concept makes sense to people.

    Have faith in people. People you don’t know and will never meet. We need to give out the broadest, most adaptable toolkit we can create. We need to make infrastructure science common knowledge as quickly as possible. The pipes and wires of daily reality cannot remain a mystery — let’s get normal folks everywhere thinking and talking about their infrastructure.

    The worst thing that could happen is a managed transition Manhattan Project with a dream team of international experts and intellectual heavyweights. The Work that I see ahead for our tribe is planting seeds and spreading fertilizer and letting the Rhizome shape itself. We need to stop ranting, stop lecturing, and stop judging. We need to phrase our answers in the form of a question. We need amateurs and children and housewives dreaming a better tomorrow. We need everyone who thinks they’re not qualified to speak up — and the self-appointed smart people need to STFU and listen. For many years to come.

    Johnny Brainwash
    Writer/blogger, historian, operations director of Esozone

    I see no reason to believe that the state is in any mortal danger. As global finance wanes in the current crisis, the state is again the default location of power.

    Many individual states will be challenged by financial collapse. The US in particular would enter a collapse with decaying infrastructure and a dependency on foreign oil, as well as a political system that is steadily losing the faith of its citizens.

    Could this be the start of a long, ugly decline for the American state? Sure. But let’s not commit the particular sin of the American, to believe that after us must come the deluge. The failure of our system will be a terrible thing to live through, but it will be one state out of about two hundred. Lots of new powers would like to step into our shoes. If it’s not China, it could be Japan, India, Brazil, Iran, any number of European states or the EU as a superstate. It could be someone we don’t even imagine today.

    States have failed before. The French state collapsed in 1789, and states comprising much of Europe collapsed by the end of the first world war. But neither of these events caused the state to decline as an institution. In fact, they simply book-ended the establishment of the nation-state as the standard model. The state changed its form, but it remained intact.

    This is the real challenge the state will face- does it hold its association with the nation? Japan or China may strengthen the nation-state model, but a strengthened European Union or a unified Dar al Islam would represent the next level of growth. Neither national nor imperial, they might best be called civilizational states (with a nod to Samuel Huntington, of course.)

    But the trend towards bigger political units is by no means certain. Singapore is the only significant city-state today, but it provides an interesting model for Gaza. Units smaller than a nation are as likely as anything else in places where colonial powers drew maps with no regard for the people who have to live there.

    The failure of the American state is an important topic to consider, with implications for us and for the world. But the state as the basic unit of political structure is unlikely to go down with it. It will change, as it always does, but it’s got plenty of life left in it.

    Uriah Maynard

    Is this the end of the nation-state? No. Clearly not. We are living in a world where systems of power are rooted in the military power of control by force that is held by nations. Totalitarianism, jingoism, and war are all likely results of the period of economic chaos we are currently experiencing, as current powers seek to retain control. Similarly, corruption, regime change, and the segmentation of populations into small like-minded communities will be the common result of failed or inadequate attempts to unify existing nations. That being said, the nation-state as a conceptual entity will not change without very specific and directed action toward that end. Yes, there will be many more cases of failed states than we have seen in generations, but it is extremely unlikely that the major superpowers of the world will fail, especially with the major advantages larger economies enjoy.

    For examples of major superpowers failing, we can of course look at the USSR. But even in that case, a strong national government in Russia was put in place within just a few years, despite an economy in complete disarray, widespread corruption, confusion, poverty, crime and all the rest. Humans crave security and tend to choose systems of order to help provide that security. The nation-state is one of the oldest and most trusted systems for that purpose. As such, power-seeking movements will generally choose to assume control of national government and the associated control of the economic system whenever possible, even when their goal is to dismantle the nation-state itself.

    Hollow states can only persist for more than a few years in cases where there are a variety of forces pushing against one another in such a way that neither dominance nor compromise can be effectively achieved. Witness the plight of Columbia, with the rural drug-funded FARC pushing against the US-backed Columbian government. The end result is a hollow state that’s lasted for generations.

    The world is in flux. The confusion and lack of faith in current systems has led to huge opportunities for emerging movements to acquire power. Regime change is a serious threat for those in power, and is one that many current regimes are addressing with tyrannical policies. The real question is what do we do to promote and support equality and freedom while preventing and mitigating violence and extreme poverty in the looming face of economic collapse?

    Wes Unruh
    Author of Art of Memetics, social media consultant

    If you had asked me this a decade ago, I would have dug out my old copy of a Zendik Farms newsletter describing the breakdown of the US into bioregions based around local economies and existing religious and political tendencies. having just flown back from south Florida, and having lived in Denver, I’m more than willing to concede that there’s ways these massive urban centers are in many ways their own island nations, and their density is only increasing that seemingly inevitable breakdown at the nation-state level. However we have only until 2029 to be amused with city states – after that it will be a mad-dash to get off the planet.

    The idea of a break-down in nations to bioregions is seductive, don’t get me wrong, and if the future didn’t include a near-earth asteroid possibly skimming the planet, then I would predict a breakdown into massive city-structures becoming a corporate entity governed increasingly by supply-demand and labor rather than traditional law and order institutions imposed at the federal level – and in-between at the weakest point an increasingly powerful pirate element co-opting resources.

    My the sad reality is I believe we will be forced off-planet in the most unpleasant way and be fighting for survival in extremes we’re just barely capable of managing.

    Let’s hope I’m wrong.

    Vin al Ken
    Esozone logistics director, Mu Ryu founder

    No power goes without a fight. The nation-state will exist as long as it can feed itself on the populaces’ sweat and taxes, history shows that nations will do what is in their power to extort the maximum amount possible from them. Any nation-state’s that does not, is either constrained by external pressure, internal resistance, or calculated economics (see Power & Prosperity by Mancur Olson)

    A nation-state’s “success” is not premised on legitimacy or services – services are the carrot that convinces the people of the legitimacy of the stick. A nation-state’s government’s rubric of success is CONTROL – some governments may foster a quantum of independence among their populace for various reasons, but a nation-state is best seen as a shepherd taking care of sheep – he sees to their food, ills and protection because they are his for shearing and roasting.

    The real difference between the prospects for individual nation-states is the timeframe its leaders are working with. In practical terms, most of the nations of the world are focused on abstract indicators and percentages on a daily, quarterly and yearly basis and since the immediate media present is based on perception not reality, the facts are traditionally distorted by all institutions.

    The current financial “crisis” manifests this – governments creating fiat money from nothing, letting private banking consortiums set and manipulate rates for their interests, all “created” wealth that only existed virtually by virtue of ideological consent to a mutually beneficial simulacra of endless growth – a stratagem let governments expand as their corporate remoras aggregate (& who support the state’s efforts to control the populace, create hurdles to new competition and to monopolize/subsidize the existing market). Now when the paper-thin sky has tore through, they have found themselves dangerously overextended. But when such a gargantuan system of cogs gets enough sand at the right stress points that it begins to fail locally the failure can quickly spread through the system.

    The future of the nation-state will be forged in the aftermath of the credit crisis – will governments no longer be able to grow through spending and debt or will they just turn on the screws on the public? Could the nation-state end by increased cooperation – the long-sought after New World Order (which Bush harmed, but Obama will foster). The only thing worse than competing nations is a unified government – if there is no other place to go, what can you do (a big cost for repressive states is that intelligent people leave them for freer environs)? Or will some nation-states become starved enough for funds that they splinter along stress lines? Perhaps – that seems to be the rule in places where tribe, gang, family or community affiliations are strong but in most of the developed world a rigorous weakening of those loyalties has been going on for decades and memetic loyalties are too weak for any real action. Furthermore, those with the most reason to oppose the system, the poor and dispossessed, are carefully aligned to its interests through welfare state programs. The same has happened with the expanding aging population.

    The only way the nation-state will die is by its own bloated hand not being able to escape the cookie-jar.

    Chris Arkenberg

    The work of John Robb & others using systems theory to analyze macroeconomic and geopolitical futures is certainly revolutionary. Their models for studying insurgency & 4th generation warfare have effectively predicted events in Iraq, the Niger Delta, Mexico, and the Gulf of Aden. Robb himself has been similarly prescient about many of the liquidation crises now rocking the global financial system. He’s created a compelling and frightening vision of the near future, combining the trends of economic decline with the rising empowerment of tribal insurgencies and criminal networks.

    Indeed, we can see many nation states beginning to struggle against their failings. Nations are becoming increasingly preoccupied with managing international trade and over-extended military conflicts, while facing budget shortfalls leading to domestic job loss and deteriorating infrastructures. Meanwhile, opportunistic interest groups are leveraging technology and targeting critical services to delegitimize the state as the primary caretaker. This tactic has been very effective in undermining the al-Malki government in Iraq which is still unable to keep the power on due to ongoing attacks from militants.

    In America the state is already showing signs of stress. The sever Winter hitting the Midwest & East has illustrated the creeping decay of an under-resourced energy grid. Buried under snow, a half million Kentucky residents were left without power and clean water for weeks when services failed. Late last year, the South endured a month-long gas shortage due to storm impact on Gulf refineries that shut down pipelines. California – the fifth largest economy in the world – is about to declare bankruptcy. As unemployment rapidly climbs it’s easy to see a future where major cities are overwhelmed with homeless, crime, routine blackouts, and contaminated water supplies.

    Yet it must be understood that the very nature of dynamic systems is complexity and disequilibrium. The core disconnect between our internal models and the world at large arises because the territory is so vast and heterogeneous. Our maps always simplify and approximate, and yet we inevitably hold them up as universal truth. Furthermore, they often fail to see the outliers – the good Black Swans that just might save us.

    Many states will fail. Many will adapt. Most will be somewhere in between. Some cities will decay while others will build resiliency. It is certain that the concept of the nation-state and its value to communities will continue to be challenged but it is unlikely that everything will collapse.

    Ulysses Lazarus

    The death of the nation state has been announced far too prematurely. Much focus is put on supranational and non-governmental organizations without questioning where the real (economic, social, and military) power lies. What’s more likely than the withering of the nation state is another round of Balkanization (primarily in Europe and the Middle East, but perhaps also in North America) and expansion of existing states as the Russian Bear reawakens and China marches towards reuniting China. I stand by my long-standing opinion that the European Union is a tenuous and temporary organization whose existence will be as ephemeral as the United Arab Republic- how long have England, France, and Germany ever been able to agree on anything?

    In general, I find the power of supranational organizations largely overestimated by conventional wisdom. What can the United Nations /really/ do without the backing of a major military power, most likely the United States / United Kingdom axis of evil? Compare and contrast this with multinational states which have a solid power base in a national state, such as a Greater Russia that has come to encompass bits and pieces of its neighbors.

    But in a sense, the nation-state has always been an abstraction, ever since the Treaty of Westphalia. Smaller, less powerful states have always been beholden to larger, more powerful states. The idea that they exercise some kind of mystical “sovereignty” above and beyond the tolerance of their more militarily muscular allies is a joke (see: Canada).

    The concept of a “shell state” seems deeply flawed. Why would organized crime organizations, for instance, which have acquired control over a large area of continuous territory not take the next logical step and seek political legitimacy? Particularly when one views the conflict in Ireland, the division between freedom fighter and numbers running thug becomes very, very blurry. Even the Bolsheviks had a large organized crime contingent. Especially in a multipolar world, the question may ultimately be not whether criminal enterprises will make attempts at nationhood, but rather who will recognize them and who will not.

    Bill Whitcomb
    -Author of Magician’s Reflection, Technoccult blogger

    I believe that we will see a flowering of state mutations in the next few decades, like a socio-economic Cambrian explosion. Some nation-states, as we have known them, will continue their jockeying for economic and military dominance. We have seen failed states in the past, but there will probably be an increase in their number, as dominant players continue to attempt to exploit remaining resources. There will be things in-between that might be considered hollow states, acting as fronts and tools for other states and multi-nationals. While this is nothing new, the multi-nationals will continue to evolve. In many respects, the largest multi-nationals are much like governments that have learned to exist without fixed borders, existing in parasitic or symbiotic relationships with their national hosts. This gives them freedom to mutate wildly. Nearly all provide social services for their “citizens,” ranging from health insurance to providing schools and housing or other services as in some of the larger Asian corporations. Some, like Halliburton, have become capable of fielding their own “security” forces, though only for a profit, but most will probably continue leaving their own military needs to the forces of willing governments. Perhaps the most interesting and most recent development is the emergence of NGOs – international organizations of considerable power, but which are neither governments nor corporations in the traditional sense. The evolution of collaboration and social networking tools spur the growth of these new kinds of organizations. In the next decade or two, there will be increasingly fierce conflicts between these new free-floating networks and the nations and multi-nationals that try to blunt their influence, playing out their struggle in the refugee camps of the failed states and the media and markets of the dominant nations. Much will depend on the ability of new global networks to engage the traditional nation states, supplanting or at least balancing the inherently self-centered influence of the multi-nationals. If they are successful, the nation state may truly wither in the long term as we move towards more global forms of organization. If we can’t make the leap, however, we can’t expect much except more of the same old thing as we spiral down into endless and increasingly local conflicts over the remaining resources of the planet…which could lead to the death of the modern nation state, but not in a good way.

    Edward Wilson
    Author of Art of Memetics, Social Ecology Consultant, Transglobalist

    First off… Somewhere feudalism is still in play and then a little further that way we can find some nomadic bands…

    So the nation state isn’t going away even if it’s dominance is finished. What we are seeing is a growth period in the institutional ecosphere. The environment, which had been on a fairly stable plateau for a while leading to the dominance of the large and slow nation state institutional form, has shifted. Old reliable resources are now scarce but a plethora of new resources are now available. Whenever this happens to an ecosystem the dominant creature suffers and a variety of small nimble creatures start fighting each other to capture the newly available niches. We are seeing this now. Many upstart organizational schemes are arising and falling away again quickly and the institutions best adapted to the environment will fill their niches and the rest will be forgotten except by a few people who will march around with signs claiming they would have made the world a utopia.

    The alpha predators of the institutional ecosystem, nation states and multinationals, will still be around no matter how much I might personally like them to go extinct. Other organizational forms I see as growing in importance are the city-state or canton, needs-based co-ops, nomadic or viral corporate bands, and a variety of informal rhizomatic networks. The nation state might need to evolve slightly closer to John Robb’s concept of a hollow state. Even then, it will likely retain more coherence as a structure that supports and contains symbiotic institutions like the cantons and needs-based co-ops.


    1. what a sausage fest. ;P

    2. I think the idea of state capitalism is on the rise, if you’ve been watching the events of the States, Russia, and many of the European countries.. it is only matter of time it seems.

      Unfortunately, only sausage bearing meat robots did reply with textual musings.

    4. >The Work that I see ahead for our tribe is planting seeds and spreading fertilizer and letting the Rhizome shape itself. We need to stop ranting, stop lecturing, and stop judging. We need to phrase our answers in the form of a question. We need amateurs and children and housewives dreaming a better tomorrow. We need everyone who thinks they’re not qualified to speak up — and the self-appointed smart people need to STFU and listen. For many years to come.


      >My the sad reality is I believe we will be forced off-planet in the most unpleasant way and be fighting for survival in extremes we’re just barely capable of managing.
      Let’s hope I’m wrong.

      My sad reality= sorry to say that’s a you problem, not a me problem.

    5. Knee jerk response here (I’ll dig into the links at leisure later) but this seems like the classic J.G Ballard vision of dystopia.

      Isn’t this like the shitstorm of panic that arises when people infer or predict the collapse of the nuclear family? The implication is that there’s no alternative.

      In a “globalised” world economic context, I’d imagine that the City State would end up rising to prominence, especially given how geographic ideosyncracies will express themselves in response to climate change. “The Region” becomes the by-word for resource and crisis management. Nation States might expose themselves as having been transitory.

      And since when were we not governed by Gangsters and Corporatism? I’ll worry when the UN disbands, thanx (good-for-littles that they may be, at least they’re there)

    6. Ah, I’ve looked a bit now. Bill Whitcomb’s “Cambrian” analogy is very apt. The resounding sense is that this is uncharted process-terrain geo-politically, so expecting novel diversity is the very least in preparedness.

    7. Can’t remember where I read/heard it, but: “Organized crime is for men who couldn’t get organized enough to go into politics.”

      Vatican city is a city-state with no small amount of power.

      Islam-as-political system is a non-nation-state that could do even more harm than it already has should the West continue to submit.

      There is no reliable means to predict the future of politics, including the past or present. The present can be guided, and the best guide is learning from the mistakes of the past. But what happens next is unknowable. Thus the most prudent system is one in which the amount of harm any one generation can do is limited and the peacable means of transition of power are built in to the system.

      Read up on the economics of Italy 1922-1943 and the untried program of Sir Oswald Mosley, then compare it to what’s being discussed / done today. Just don’t say the f-word.

      I have next to no political power at all and my opinions count for little.

    8. @ Trevor- “I have next to no political power at all and my opinions count for little.”

      Bullshit! Everyone’s opinion is “valuable”. Especially if it makes people “think”, or stimulates constructive discourse. It’s exactly those opinions which we chose to “ignore” or think “irrelevant” or “absurd” that we may need to pay more attention to.

      IMO, I have to agree with the “sausage fest” comment. Where are are some women’s views on this, and if they were asked to participate why did they feel they had to decline comment and/or didn’t feel comfortable being a part of this? These are just some things that the editor(s) of this blog may need to look into.

    9. @Regular reader I don’t think everyone’s opinion is valuable. But I do think Trevor’s is =)

      A few women were invited to participate, but they all declined saying they didn’t have time. However, many more men were invited than women.

      I have a few more women on my list for the next one. BTW, the round-tables will not always have the same recurring cast.

    10. I really liked Wes Unruh’s piece, especially his finish. I’ve had a lot of dreams along those same Space Operatic ley lines…amen.

    11. Justin: I’m sure the future subclass of people will be put in a rocket headed for the sun. I mean, it’s inevitable, right?

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