There have only been six types of organisation in the whole of human existence. Family, Group, Clan, Tribe, Empire and Nation-state. The central four were only successive enlargements of the basic family . . . as the arts of civilisation were perfected and social tolerance expanded. But what about the sixth creation — the nation-state? Is it a natural consequence of the others or is it what animal breeders used to call a sport — a genetic disaster?
Animal breeding might be a useful key to understanding what a nation-state is. The fact is that animal breeders reach the end of the line sooner or later. Racehorses today are no faster than racehorses of 50 or 100 years ago. What we call shirehorses in this country — those that pull heavy loads or deep ploughs — are all about the same size in many different countries where they’ve been bred. They are not as big as elephants, for example, which, one supposes they might have been if some horse breeders had had their way.
Another consequence of highly specialised animal breeding — that is, more and more intensive in-breeding in order to concentrate on certain qualities — is a high incidence of handicapped animals. Too many recessive genes have mutated and then accumulated in the general stock. Recessive genes, when in single doses, are not excessively troublesome. When they match up, they can produce disastrous handicaps. And the more intensive the breeding the more that handicapped offspring arrive. Horse breeders like to outbreed every now and again, but there’ll be a limit when the whole world’s stock of racehorses will have arrived at an almost identical repertoire of genes with the same high density of recessive genes.
So there’s a natural limit to species, and specialised sub-species within them. Could the same be said for human organisations? Could it be that the Empire is the natural limit for human organisation and that the Nation-state is a sort of sport or a genetic disaster? Is it a step too far?
Just what is the difference beween an empire and a nation-state? They both have many things in common. They both inevitably have single leaders (plus no more than about three or four powerful but loyal supporters). They are both highly aggressive and competitive. There’s only one major difference, it seems to me. It is so obvious that I never realised it before until it was pointed out in a recently published book by Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens. It is that the leaders of empires weren’t the slightest bit bothered what their citizens believed by way of religion or what languages they spoke or what currencies they used, or what traditional customs they practised so long as (a) they weren’t plotting to take over, (b) they paid their taxes.
In contrast, the leaders of nation-states, particularly in the early years of their formation — such as at around their theoretical foundation, the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 — require uniformity from all their citizens, the same language, the same customs, the same currency, the same loyalty, etc. The Treaties were tolerant of all the varieties of these things — so long as they were in other countries! The basic problem that the Treaties were concerned with was that warfare was beginning to be far too expensive, far too destructive.
The problem didn’t go away immediately. It still took another 300 years before the sense of Westphalia was fully realised — at least by the intellectuals who started to frame the game theory basis of national confrontation, that is, when it was realised that nuclear weapons were much too mutually destructive to rely on in the future. It was all very well using a couple of them in 1945 to subdue a a hyper-intensive nation-state, Japan, and save American GI’s lives that would have been lost in a conventional invasion but, from then onwards, nuclear weapons have never been used. Nor or ever likely to be. Nor are other even more powerful weapons than nuclear bombs such as biochemical or electronic hacking.
The year of 1945 was, in effect, the zenith of the nation-state. There are still reverberations of competition going on — tariff barriers, currency revaluations, corporation taxes, Olympic gold medals, World Cups — but territorial aggrandisement is out — except by some, such as Isis in the Middle East which has not actually been fully-functioning nation-state before. Al-Bagdhadi calls it a Caliphate, not realising that previous Caliphates were, in fact, empires, not nation-states. They were tolerant of other religious believers within them — so long as they paid their taxes, of course!
What is actually happening in the fully-functioning nation-states and even in one, China, which is still an empire, is the development of something quite new. This is that a new sinewy, lateralised type of organisation is growing from within them — more of a spider’s web between a relatively small number of super-cities — mainly businesspeople at present but also rapidly including scientists but also other specialisations, and even retired politicians when they join the global lecture and conference circuit. The ‘citizens’ of these new domains are much more loyal to one another than they are to the countries of their birth.
It’s all very new — and increasingly catalysed by the Internet and encryption — so not a lot else can be clearly discerned for the time being. One corollary seems to be the division of populations in the most advanced countries between the well-educated — who become part of the new lateral organisation — and the less educated who’ll slumber as old-fashioned cultures. Some countries — most of them probably — will largely remain as the latter with only a microscopic minority active in the lateral network — unless and until, somehow, they develop sufficiently well-developed scientific nuclei that can bring new goods and services into being.
Where does this leave the European Union? Having gobbled up 28 countries from its original 6, it seems to have set out to be an empire yet, at the same time, by instituting a common currency it is also now trying to be a nation-state, though it hasn’t got the brutality of all previous nation-states in suppressing native languages and customs . Of all the different occupational sectors hinted at above, bureaucracies don’t readily link up with one another. The EU seems to be striving at being one or the other type of organisation at the same time and failing at both — falling between two stools.