The development and future of the nation-state

Gary Dean, January 1999

Humanity's political 'state of nature' has characteristically been defined in terms of small, nomadic family groups with little need for complex organisational structures.  Continuously moving across the landscape with tenuous attachment to the land upon which they walked, organisational requirements were simple and perhaps often instinctive.  To go to one place or to another was a choice often dictated by environmental or seasonal factors, and upon the limited accumulated generational knowledge of the small collective.

That Homo sapiens is a social animal is clear enough; s/he functions poorly and unhappily as an isolate.  The family-sized collective group is his/her natural home.  From this group there is sufficient mass to successfully perform the full range of survival tasks, such as hunting, gathering, shelter construction.  There is also sufficient mass to ensure the continued solidarity and perpetuation of the group, though activities such as sexual pair-bonding, child-rearing and collective defence from external dangers.[1]

The hunter/gatherers were highly successful and spread to cover a large part of the globe, even while their tribal units remained small and simple in their organisation.[2]  However, an enormous, revolutionary change occurred as humanity gradually moved from the nomadic way of life to the agricultural way of life in a process starting about 10,000 years ago, after the end of the Ice Age.[3]  The beginnings of civilisation had three centres; the eastern Mediterranean, Central China, and the Americas, and each was inextricably linked to a cereal food plant, respectively, wheat, rice, and maize.  Without these accidents of plant genetics, civilisation as we know it could not have happened.[4]

The development of townships as a consequence of this settled agricultural pattern of life necessitated entirely new and complex forms of social organisation in order to sustain it.  It was no longer possible for every person in a large settlement to personally know every single person there, thus perhaps a certain social detachment needed to develop.  In the nomadic group of, say, 50-60 persons, everybody knew everybody else by name, and they knew their own blood relationship to that person.  The settlement of 5,000 persons requires entirely new social thinking on the part of the individual; it simply impossible to know everyone by name, or the particular blood relationship of more distant relatives.  At the same time however, a sense of group cohesion was still required, and it is at this point that the role of religion[5] possibly became more important.

Because of the social distance that could exist between two or more individuals or groups within a settlement, there also now existed the possibility of one of them been seen and treated as an 'outsider', or a member of an 'out-group'. Nomads are attached to a landscape or region more than to a particular place, thus in the agricultural community the rule of law has a different character from the nomad law.  The social structure of the agricultural community is bound up with the regulation of matters that affect the community as a whole: access to land, the upkeep of irrigation systems and the control of water rights, and other infrastructure of agricultural systems.

Agricultural surplus is pivotal to the development of cities.  A city must live on a base, or a hinterland, of agricultural surplus in order to survive and thrive.  With the growth of large populations concentrated in relatively small areas systems of social understanding and control necessarily developed.  Whilst simple rule of physical force may have been sufficient for small groups and settlements, the city required more than this; it required a set of commonly held understandings amongst people to regulate and order social interactions; in a word, religion.  By themselves, ancient animist mysticism and ancestor worship could not provide coherent forms of social understandings within the context of the city.  Organised religion, with its priestly class, provided these social understandings (ie, morality or ethics) necessary for the city.  In addition, the priestly class provided the first organised apparatus of administrative and social control.

God-kings were the focus of the earliest city-states; The Great Inca, the Pharaoh, the Devaraja of Southeast Asia, the Emperors of China, all embodied mystical as well as administrative functions, with mystical power giving the socially-acknowledged authority required to undertake these functions.  Power was focussed exclusively towards the apex, and radiated out from the centre gradually weakening with increasing distance.

The ruler of these mandala served as intermediaries between heaven and earth.  'Mandates from heaven', in their many and various forms, were linked to a sense of the ruler as a bridge or stabilising force who was responsible for aligning social rituals with the actual state of the cosmos.[6]  In these states kingship was integral to social organisation and control.  Under such regimes rulers tended adopt new religions/ideologies in order to better exert their power, for example, the Chinese Han Dynasty which appropriated Confucianism as the official ideology of the state.  Confucian rituals were linked to state ceremonies in which the Emperor made sacrifices to heaven.[7]  In addition to a mystic (or mystifying) element common to all religions and ideologies, the adoption of Confucianism also brought with it an established body of legal principles which could be incorporated as part of the legitimising infrastructure of the state.

Whilst the theoretical territorial extent some mandala could be impressive at times, they were fragile structures dependent upon vassalage, patronage and the personality of the ruler at the centre of the particular mandala.  Within the mandala, power was dependent upon control over populations more than over territory.  The more people a ruler controlled, the more rent could extracted in the form of labour, military service and agricultural product.  As distance from a powerful city-state increased, it's influence decreased to the point that less powerful settlements on the periphery of the mandala may well give allegiance or tribute to more than one power-centre.  Thus, the absolute political borders as we know today were never as clear in the past, and the authority of the mandala was far from evenly distributed, and started to fade quickly once over the visible horizon.  The limitations of communication and transportation necessarily limited the size

Organised religion, in particular the historical religions of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, promoted the development of unified patterns of thought and behaviour, which in could be used to promote order and stability within a society.  Religion was in fact essential as a means of organising and controlling large populations without needing to always resort to violence or the threat of violence.  Religious observance provided a non-violent method for manipulating societies whilst appearing consensual.  From organised religion developed a framework of cultural protocols and underlying assumptions that could aid the process of communication within large populations.  With such common understandings power could be much more easily extended - and importantly, maintained - once over the horizon.  Thus, the technological limitations in communication could to a certain point be overcome in the development of larger and larger empires.

In Europe, the concept of the mandala was overtaken with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, when governments ceased to support co-religionists in conflict with their own states,[8] instead recognising territorial jurisdiction of the kings and princes, and following a policy of non-interference within those claimed and defined territorial boundaries.  Thus the extra-territorial authority of the Roman Church in particular was severely weakened, giving rise, much later, to the development of the concept of the (supposedly non-ideological) secular nation-state.  The mutual recognition by the European states of each other's sovereignty in the important matter of religious belief meant that states were willing to forgo certain political objectives in return for internal control and stability.[9]

Until 1500 Europe can be considered to be a rather peripheral region, struggling not to be swallowed up by Muslims and Mongols.  With the radical reshaping of its primary religion through the reformation, all that changed, culminating in the rapid development of science, capitalism, nationalism, liberalism, and industrialism.[10]  To a greater degree, the history of the world after 1500 was to become the history of Europe.

As a consequence of 'sovereignty', political lines upon European maps assumed importance.  The concept of the powerful city-state radiating and concentrating power, and of overlapping circles of influence, was replaced with the idea of homogeneity within linear territorial borders.

This novel political idea was to be transplanted to every corner of the Earth as European colonialists imposed their superior worldview through military might upon the militarily-backward civilisations of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.[11]  With great care and detail, the European colonialist drew lines upon maps, thus delineating nations where none had existed before, or dividing nations as if they had never existed.  The subtlety of the mandala system meant that many power relations remained ambiguous and unstated, and as a result, open to a wide variety of interpretations as to the precise nature of the relationship, and to the degree of vassalage or otherwise that one power-centre gave to another.  Many existing homogenieties of race, religion, and culture were also misregarded.

The claim of 'sovereignty' within a bordered territory brought with it powerful legitimising factors for an incumbent ruling class.[12]  Cultural, religious and political homogenieties could be imposed using the 'nation' in a more systematic and efficient manner.  Nationalism becomes the claim that political power should reflect cultural homogeneity to every corner of the sovereign territory, thus nationalism extends and deepens the scope of sovereignty to require certain kinds of cultural conformity for citizenship.[13]  Thus a citizen's worldview - religious, ethnic, cultural, and political - must reflect in a broad way the worldview of the state, and vice versa.  Differences in worldview or cultural coherence within and between states can be used to justify the break-up or amalgamation of sovereign territories.

So, the modern nation-state is the product of the concept of territorial sovereignty.  While populations are relatively immobile, culturally homogenous, and uninfluenced by disintegrating factors from outside that realm, then this notion of governance[14] is relatively stable.

From the 19th century until perhaps the 1960's, the nation-state could be considered to have experienced its highpoint as the dominant social entity in the world, with state and society virtually becoming one.[15]  Since the 1960's the world has experienced a shift in the dominance of the nation-state organisation, as a consequence of a number of factors, among them a cultural revolution in the West; ruptures in the international communist movement; increasing freedom of movement of capital across international borders; and economic, political and social dysfunction in recently independent former-colonies, especially in Africa and Asia.

In the 1990's the role of the once-all-powerful nation-state has to an extent been reduced to that of a municipality within the global capitalist system, responsible for providing the necessary infrastructure and services to attract capital investment.[16]  However, whilst true, this is much too simplistic.  Societies also demand identity, and the nation-state has sometimes been successful in synthesising this where other identities have been weak.  The nation-state can therefore play an important part in expressing to the outside world a unique identity associated with a particular locality.  This is particularly true in highly cosmopolitan societies, and also of societies with a very high degree of existing homogeneity.

The nation-state is less successful in those situations where the population is fragmented between several large groups who do not wish to surrender portions of their different identities in order to produce a national identity.  Malaysia, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia are just a few particularly good contemporary examples.  In these cases, the national ideology for various reasons fails to assimilate large sections of the population, causing on-going crisis of belief within the society, that is generally responded to with the use of (sometimes violent) coercion by the apparatus of the state and by the dominant group.  The majority of nation-states with such problems seem to be the artificial creations of war and/or colonialism rather than the product of 'natural' evolution.

The cultural effects of accelerating globalisation have brought with them disintegrating factors that tend towards the atomisation of societies, and towards the breakdown of older social, political and cultural units, including that of the nuclear family unit.  This tendency is most pronounced in the economically advanced nation-states of the West, and has tended to reduce the authority, importance and relevance of the nation-state as an institution.

Alongside this atomisation within societies, especially Western societies, has come a seemingly contradictory tendency towards regionalisation.  The surrender of many of the economic functions of nation-states to regional super-groups has been a feature of this latest burst of globalisation.[17]  The European Community and the North American Free Trade Area are now relatively established as economic and political super-groups, with the ASEAN Free Trade Zone coming up the rear, and APEC a distant possibility.  The coalescence of economic functions to supra-national organisations represents a clear surrender of sovereignty by the nation-state to these new organisations.

However, perhaps more unrecognised has been the growth of global cities and their influence across national borders, and their increasing independence from the nation-state to which they ostensibly belong.  Indeed, some global cities such as New York even have their own foreign policies recognising that "cities have become actors in international affairs"[18] and that certain regions and localities now orient their 'foreign policy' or actions somewhat independently from that of their central governments.  New York, London, and Tokyo have been identified as being 'global cities of the first order', whilst cities such as Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Zurich, Paris, Sydney, Singapore, among a dozen or so others, can be considered 'second-order' global cities.[19]  The relationship of these global cities to national governments is changing, especially in critical areas such as monetary policy, interest rates, commercial treaties, and immigration.

Alongside the development of global cities has been the growth of a vast territory that has become peripheral from the major social and economic processes, and these territories cut across the boundaries of rich and poor countries.[20]  Whilst including much of what was known as the 'Third World' and the countries of the former communist bloc, this peripheral economic wilderness now includes large regions within the developed 'First World' countries themselves.

Globalisation in many ways constitutes a culture or ideology of itself, embodying as it does the hyper-individualistic attitudes and worldview of the neo-liberal, side-by-side with communication technologies that reinforce individual autonomy and freedom from the requirements of place.  Of course, at this level, globalisation is an ideology of the rich; for the world's poor, the majority of whom have never placed a phone call much less surfed the 'Information Super-Highway', globalisation is less than relevant to their everyday lives, except to keep them where they are.

Controlling population movement has become a key function of the modern nation-state, and keeping the poor immobile has become a principal concern, especially for those wealthy regions of the world who do not want their cities 'flooded' with people - usually unskilled - for whom their economy has no useful purpose.  Like flies to dung, migrants flock from the periphery to the core, drawn by the power and promise of the new mandala.  All over the world the poor are pounding on the gates of the rich, demanding to be let in: Mexicans to the US, Chinese to Australia, Francophone Africans into France, Albanians into Italy, and so on.  Some succeed in passing through the 'official channels' to the promised lands, as 'refugee's', skilled workers, or marriage partners; others simply run the fence, increasing social problems as a consequence of large 'feral' populations within the cities.

Increased world-wide population movement has contributed to new concepts of citizenship and identity.  As many as 100 million people are currently living outside their countries of citizenship.[21]  Many of these new arrivals tend to maintain close contacts with their countries of origin, and increasingly, more countries are allowing dual citizenship, which has contributed to a blurring of national identity.[22]

In the next century we will perhaps witness the further decay of the nation-state as the all-powerful and sole centre of power, and with that we will see the further development of non-state organisations, and the further concentration of actual power within the global cities.  The nation-state has already become a mere administrative unit within the global system, especially in developed countries, and increasingly nation-states concentrate their efforts on municipal and domestic security affairs, on controlling the movement of people between administrative zones, and on enforcing business contract laws.  The ideological war has been fought and won by the neo-liberalists, and hyper-individualism, globalism and techno-fetishism have replaced God and Nation as unifying ideologies.  Real power is now radiated across every administrative border from the hotpoints of the new mandalas, the global cities.


[1] Morris, D (1969) The Human Zoo, London, Jonathan Cape: 15-39
[2] Morris (1969): 17
[3] Smart, N (1989) The World's Religions, London, Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge: 64, 74
[4] Smart (1989): 65
[5] For the purposes of this essay I have used the word 'religion' in a broad sense to encompass mysticism, culture, ideology and nationalism.
[6] Stange, P (1995) Ancestral Voices in Southeast Asia, Murdoch University, Perth: 60
[7] Smart (1989): 114
[8] Hirst, P & Thompson G (1996) 'Globalisation, Governance and the Nation State' in Globalisation in Question: The International Economy and the Possibilities of Governance, Cambridge, Polity Press, 171
[9] Hirst & Thompson (1996): 172
[10] Smart (1989): 315
[11] Australia is deliberately omitted.
[12] Hirst & Thompson (1996): 172
[13] Hirst & Thompson (1996): 172
[14] My use of the word 'governance' here is deliberate, as the nation-state constitutes not just the framework of governance, but a system of governance.
[15] Hirst & Thompson (1996): 176
[16] Hirst & Thompson (1996): 176
[17] Globalisation as a process is not a new phenomenon, but rather an historical direction with ancient roots.  See
[18] Council on Foreign Relations Inc (1998) The City and the World: New York's Global Future, New York, Brookings Institution Press
[19] Schachar, A (1990) 'The Global Economy and World Cities' in Shachar, A and Oberg, S (eds), The World Economy and the Spatial Organisation of Power, Aldershot, Avebury: 157
[20] Sassen, S (1994) 'Place and Production in the Global Economy' in Cities in a World Economy, Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi, Pine Forge Press: 4
[21] Council on Foreign Relations Inc (1998)
[22] Council on Foreign Relations Inc (1998)