The content of this post is heavily reliant on The Rise and Decline of the State by Martin van Creveld.
The nation-state emerged during the twilight years of the absolute monarchies because it offered a competitive advantage in large-scale warfare between governments. The European governments that did not adopt the methods of the nation-state perished or were otherwise absorbed by those that did. To the extent that different governments adopted large, hierarchical bureaucracy supported by mass conscription, they tended to succeed.
The broad adoption of this method of government also created broader diplomatic and trade compatibility within Europe, particularly after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The climax of the nation-state occurred with World War II, the largest global conflict between states ever before seen. After the development and deployment of nuclear weapons, it became crucial for states to put an end to war at scale between ‘first-rate’ states that could credibly threaten the annihilation of its opponents even when losing a war.
Since then, at least internationally, states have ceased to experience strong competition from other states. The check upon corruption used to be that, if your state became too backwards in terms of technology, economy, and bureaucratic efficiency, it would be conquered and subjugated by neighboring states. A nuclear arsenal makes it so that no matter how incompetent and miserable the state, it can maintain itself until internal dissolution pulls it apart, sometimes pushed by indirect competition between states.
The critical competitive advantage of the state was in the field of war. Because the state was capable of fielding a large, mass army of capable fighters on short notice, it was able to overwhelm small kingdoms, republics, and city-states that were not capable of doing such a thing reliably. This competitive atmosphere was generated in Europe in part by the continual weakening of the nobility and the papacy, combined with over a century of religious warfare between Christian factions. Consolidating war-making power within fewer hands was adaptive.
This is why when, if you propose a return to monarchy or to some other alternative to the nation-state, most educated people will scoff at you. That habit of scoffing at the proposal made a lot of sense for the last few hundred years. The mental lives of people who can conceive of nothing outside the state are considerably different from the mentalities that existed before. I would say that our minds are structured differently from the type that was common before the state became dominant.
Mass Overcame Quality. Now Quality Overcomes Mass.
The advantage of the aristocracy in military affairs used to be concentrated in its ability to bring together highly skilled, highly mobile, expensively armed professional soldiers, and to be capable of deploying them to defend far-flung, non-contiguous territories on short notice. Reigns of many sovereigns were spent largely on campaign. Standing armies were rare. Instead, aristocrats and kings would hire mercenaries when they hired ‘regular’ professional soldiers at all. Wars between Europeans were fought primarily for profit, and secondarily for glory, recreation, or for religious purposes.
Although it is difficult for most of us to understand, before the era of the state, war was an entrepreneurial activity, perhaps the primary entrepreneurial activity. Tax collection, thief-catching, and other activities were also often run privately because bureaucracy was still limited, non-standardized, and statistically illegible. Much of colonial activity was conducted by corporations and privateers. The first corporation ever was the British East India Tea Company, chartered by Queen Elizabeth and funded by worthy noblemen and merchants.
This company and its privately-owned army and navy subjugated the prime nations of Asia and brought modern civilization to them. The behavior of this company and that of countless other similar ventures ranging from pirate sloops to mighty corporations is one of the reasons why a lot of people find notions about corporations that magically respect the ‘non-aggression principle’ to be a little goofy: because the historical record shows that corporations, let off the leash by governments, proceed to not be all that squeamish about aggression when there is profit in it.
The United States has its roots in this historical trend, and is one of the reasons as to why it took longer for the nation-state to properly take root within the country relative to European developments. Competitive isolation from European wars also helped to keep Washington backwards relative to other European capitals until the state fractured through the secession of the Confederacy, and mass conscription became necessary to restore its territory.
With the rise of the nation-state and nationalism with it, the state subsumed all war powers within itself. The aristocracy was destroyed in parts from the late 18th century until the interwar years of the 20th century.
After World War II, conscription became unpopular, as general fears regarding nuclear conflict and regret for the 20th century record of mass slaughter fueled by competing nationalist doctrines created a new sort of mass-pacifism. The necessary bureaucratization of states, originally motivated by the need to wage war, had also necessarily resulted in pacification. You can’t have a bureaucracy that trains people to be obedient to arbitrary pencil-necked authority, non-violent, and eager for paper-work and also have a population that is eager to fertilize the grass with blood.
Another unforeseen consequence of determining elite status through meritocratic advancement within the nation-state’s universities is that it has tended to cultivate a leadership class eager to avoid personal risk and violence in general. When you select for leadership on that basis over a period of generations, and subordinate military leadership entirely to civilian leadership, it’s not surprising that the nation-state has tended to retreat from direct conflict since 1945.
In the US and internationally, this lead to the institution of the all-volunteer military — a rebuke to the state’s reason for being, which is to grant a competitive advantage in mass warfare. Technological shift temporarily granted an advantage to mass warfare, and it has reversed owing to technological shift.
Why Personal Government Is Returning
The nation-state’s critical difference from previous forms of government is that it is both an abstract legal entity and that it is not owned by a particular person or group of people. Ownership pressure is replaced by a collective sense of fellow-feeling combined with the administration’s sense of ownership over itself. This is particularly distinct in a fully abstract nation-state that is not the informal property of a dictator or his family.
Owing to its decline, the nation-state now asks for more in terms of material resources while providing less. Its statistics are becoming unreliable (or perhaps just less reliable than they have been in the past). Its standards provided for trade and finance are becoming antiquated, and too expensive to reform. Its critical advantage in warfare has eroded, and many states have become reliant on private security firms to provide physical security, intelligence, and logistics whereas before they were able to rely on nationalist zeal to provide all of those services at an unusually low price.
Further, the internal systems developed to regiment the population, to regulate the economy, to make it suitable for funding regular mass warfare, to sustain loyalty, and to maintain a zealous nationalism, are breaking down owing to financial mismanagement combined with a lack of general will. Because no particular people own the governing structures of the Western governments, no particular people have strong, personal incentives to properly maintain those governing structures.
How to React
The facts in question are not in much dispute. There are several ways in which educated people have reacted to the facts:
- Magical thinking: repeating the monetary and fiscal policies of the 1970s at larger scale will rescue the state, permit it to meet all of its obligations with some minor tweaks to social programs, and result in a new golden age of innovation guided by our wise institutions. It will be difficult, but with faith and common commitment to a global mission, we can succeed.
- I don’t care! I’m going to make money. Screw the rest!
- The world is going to hell, which is why I’m hording guns and gold bullion.
- If our political faction can win, we can manage the state to a new period of prosperity. If only our opposition were defeated, we could succeed.
- We must get to work constructing an alternative order.
I am in camp number 5. Neoreaction is in some mixture of camps number 3 and 5 with some flirtation with number 4.
The politically partisan press is in camp number 4. The establishment press is in camp number 1. The business class tends to be in camp number 2 with some mixture of numbers 3, 1, 4, 2, and 5.
The key opening for camp number 5 comes as different sections of the nation-state fail, and the people that rely on those sections seek alternative providers for the services that the state once monopolized. In pursuing that goal, history can be a useful guide to learn about methods that once worked under previous political conditions, that can be again re-applied in different ways fitting modern circumstances.
The tendency among people who have been raised in the mindset of the state (which includes me and everyone reading this) is to associate the failure of the nation-state with apocalypse, because what might come after is inconceivable to us.
The key to providing hope to people, towards explaining a positive vision of the West’s political future, is to conceive of goals worth fighting for that go beyond mere indefinite holding actions, and to put forth some useful templates for political strategy that can be adapted and used to local conditions in an amorphous way.