A Brief History Of Human Society

1.4m BC To 2015

VII. The Failure Of The Nation State

At first sight, the nation state continued to be a successful form in the 20th century – the number of nation states blossomed from about 60 to more than 150. This is a result of various factors: de-colonialisation is obviously a major one; the striving for ethnic identity is another; and there are others. But in a bigger sense they are all throw-offs from the paralysis of big-state nationalism that resulted from the World Wars. Many of the new, smaller countries have done better than their larger peers.

Nation states nowadays exist at various stages of development. Parts of Africa resemble early mediaeval Europe, while at the other extreme today's European nations have perforce largely abandoned aggressive nationalism and rely on the international rule of law to guarantee their integrity.

Although they have done some good, and can be seen as an inevitable stage in the evolution of human governance, nation states have been responsible for some very negative events and trends in the last few hundred years. With the Nation State came anomie, anti-social behaviour, the 'working class', the -isms, and above all, modern warfare, especially the global wars of the 20th century.

It is difficult to see how such problems can be solved within the confines of a governance structure based on atomized, independent nation states. Although there has always been a strand in philosophical thought that advocated the minimally intrusive State, and there have even been individual politicians who paid lip service to the idea of 'rolling back' the State, in reality these remain just pious sentiments. On the contrary, as we have seen, the State has enthusiastically intruded into almost all dimensions of society over the last 200 years.

It is not to governments that we should look for salvation from the clammy embrace of the nation state; instead, it will be delivered by globalisation, much helped along by the Internet, and the empowered individual. As the next section of the book will show, tendencies are already at work which will undermine the power of the nation state. Robert Cooper17 is one of many authors who portray the 'post-modern', particularly European nation state as in decline. In addition, 'tribalism' (which here we would like to call groupishness) sees regions and ethnic groupings with their own identities contesting (within post-modern states or elsewhere) for their right to exist. The Basques and the Scottish are two obvious examples.


17 Cooper, R (1997) The Post-Modern State and the World Order, Demos, London