Featured Post

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, May 07, 2023

The decline of the nation-state

 The era of the modern nation-state began with the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century.  They enshrined the idea of equal citizenship and governments dedicated to the welfare of their peoples. The French Revolution also inaugurated the age of the modern mass army.  Progress towards real democracy was slow in Europe during the first half of the 19th century, but it accelerated after the American civil war, which among other things marked a victory of democracy over aristocracy.  The unification of Germany led to a new era of European great-power conflict in which the major powers maintained large conscript armies and growing navies, generally protected their national economies with tariffs (except for the United Kingdom), and developed national arms industries.  After 1898 the United States became a player in the world conflict among nation-states as well and joined in the imperialism that went with it.  

The era of the two world wars vastly increased both the power of nation-state governments and their impact upon the world.  They raised armies of unprecedented size and unleashed new destructive power.  Twice they significantly redrew the map of Europe.  They required greater loyalty from their citizenry, which they enforced by various means, including wartime detention of aliens and persons thought to be suspicious.  In the Second World War the communist Soviet Union emerged as a stronger power than any nation state except the United States,  Even before that war, the USSR had starved millions of its citizens and imprisoned millions more, and the German state killed more than ten million people under the Nazis.  The United States developed atomic weapons, and the USSR, Britain and France followed suit in the postwar era.  

Equally importantly, the enormous sacrifices of the common people in the Second World War created new bonds between them and their government. The rights of organized labor peaked in the postwar period all over the western world, and governments took many steps to improve housing, health care, and education.  Meanwhile, only a mixture of inflation and very high marginal tax rates could finance that war and its aftermath, and those bore more heavily on the rich than the average person and created much greater equality of income and even wealth.  On the continent of Europe, however--where the growth of the power of the nation-state had had the most disastrous results--a countervailing political movement arose in the 1950s.  The European Common Market, which eventually became the European Union, sought to create a unified European political authority that would relegate national rivalries to the past.  West Germany, realizing how frightening any resurgence of German nationalism might be, took the lead in this process.  France under Charles de Gaulle refused to abandon its national sovereignty and still believed in a unique national mission, but the EU eventually moved to a common currency well after is death.

A more serious revolt against the nation-state--and indeed, against authority of all kinds--began in the late 1960s in the US and western Europe.  In the US it targeted the Vietnam War, and much of the Boom generation grew up distrusting the government on principle.  In Europe the revolt may have targeted the protesters' parents' collaboration with National Socialism.  The US revolt led to the end of the military draft in 1973--the abandonment of perhaps the most important single power of nation-states.  Britain had abandoned its draft much earlier, and eventually all the western European nations followed suit.  

The governments' loss of prestige helped, and was accelerated by, the rise of neoliberalism in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and in the US under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.  Both of them explicitly targeted the increased taxes and increased role of the government since the 1940s and argued that government was the problem, not the solution.  I have found in my new book that every subsequent president until Joe Biden has echoed Reagan's rhetoric to some extent while they continued the deregulation of the economy.  Meanwhile, international trade has increased enormously and all the richest countries depend on China and various third world nations to produce many necessary goods. The rights of labor have largely evaporated in the US and the UK, and although they remain stronger in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe, all these nations are trending towards greater economic inequality.  The governments of Britain and the US abandoned their industrial working classes, leading to Brexit and Trump's election during the last decade.  

During the Second World War, Roosevelt and Churchill bragged--deservedly--that their democratic nations could do at least as good a job of mobilizing their resources as totalitarian ones could.  The war in Ukraine has revived the conflict between authoritarian powers--Russia, and perhaps China--and democratic ones.  The American government has found that it barely has the industrial capacity to keep Ukraine supplied with necessary weapons and ammunition, much less to provide Taiwan with what it needs to prepare for a possible Chinese attack.  The US military establishment concluded after the fall of the USSR that it didn't have to prepare for another major war.  That assumption is now very questionable.

Meanwhile, the nation-state bequeathed by the Enlightenment has suffered even more--especially here in the US--by the collapse of intellectual authority.  We have no generally shared commitment to our institutions, little remaining respect for the achievements of our past, and no shared body of facts. Social media allows anyone not only to believe anything, but to find a ready audience for their beliefs.  The great repository of historical knowledge built up over the last few centuries is either ignored or replaced by distorted propaganda.  It turns out that Jack Teixiera, the Air National Guardsmen under arrest for the biggest unauthorized release of documents since Wikileaks, believed, among many other things, that the federal government staged mass shootings to promote gun control.  He is almost surely not unique among our volunteer military, the place where one would expect the most traditional patriotism.  And the pro-gun movement in the United States has deprived our government of one of its most fundamental rights: the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Because I do not see how the United States could reverse these trends--from the influence of our biggest corporations on our government, to our intellectual elite's frightening self-confidence and our population's disaffection--I continue to believe that we are at an historical turning point, one which I also identified at the end of American Tragedy in 2000 and the concluding chapter of No End Save Victory in 2014.   I find myself repeating the serenity prayer quite often.


PJ Cats said...

Dear Prof Em Kaiser,

Thanks again for this. I like these sweeping posts. During my history studies, from 2000 through 2007, it was thoroughly imprinted upon me that one was not allowed such statements. I think these statements are very important. Knowledge is like creativity; it is a common good, but it comes through one.
Anyhow, I agree with much of your post. There is just one thing I'd like to add. The economic equality you describe has led to the rise of a priviliged class, which is exempt from all the rules for ordinary citizens. This creates circumstances akin to those prior to the French Revolution. There is also, for many reasons, a tremendous amount of anger in the ordinary man/woman. It is all very volatile.
I don't do serenity prayers, I'm accepting the fact I'm not a very serene person. But sad it is, all of it.

Bozon said...


The Civil War was not a victory of democracy over aristocracy.

Aristocracy had been repudiated by the rogue American colonists ab initio, when these ungrateful darlings claimed that King George III had enslaved them, not their negroes, and not their white indentured servants, which were legion over here!.

The Civil War marked the advent of the first nation state of terror, not of democracy, as even as eminent a limited thinker as Bobbitt acknowledged, in The Shield of Achilles.

You must try to smell the coffee, some day.

All the best

Bruce Wilder said...

Divisions were long a feature, not a bug, in the emergence of the liberal nation-states and their oligarchic rule dressed up with the institutions of constitutional, representative democracy. From the rival campaigns ginned up by the Whigs and Charles II's Tories in the Exclusion Crisis down thru the emergence of Right and Left (and "mountain") in the French Revolution's National Assembly to the absurdities of Fox News and MSNBC, divide-and-rule has been the method at home as well as in the colonial abroad. The British Empire left behind a divided India, a divided Palestine, a divided Cyprus and a divided Ireland.

The technologies of propaganda have accelerated the volume as the size of the target audiences have burgeoned from millions to hundreds of millions and even billions. Whether the psychological techniques of hypnotic manipulation have become more sophisticated, I cannot assess, but I do note that the massive displacement of reliable "facts" and Enlightenment concepts of "objectivity" from political discourse seems to have taken a toll on the morally progressive power of once mighty Public Opinion. Journalists have dwindled in number as locally-based metropolitan newspapers have been absorbed into Media empires; meanwhile public relations professionals have multiplied, outnumbering the rump army of journalists by what? 5x 10x? Reliable figures remain out of reach. Reliable figures on any subject seem increasingly rare. And, "Artificial Intelligence" stands ready to automate the production of more bull shit than even "neural nets" of NGOs can generate with legions of interns.

The American Revolution rested on the foundation of the Committees of Correspondence. The debates on the Constitution of 1787 left behind the marvelous Federalist Papers. The American Civil War was preceded by at least a decade of popular obsession with the moral and constitutional issues posed by slavery. A typical antebellum newspaper might have issued only twice a week and contained 8 pages, but multiple people read and discussed each copy and the newspaper might well print nearly whole the debates of Lincoln and Douglas or the magesterial Cooper Union speech delivered by Lincoln. The philosophes of late Ancien Regime France fed an increasingly literate populace eager to have opinions. If the subsequent attempts to govern from a foundation of parliamentary deliberation floundered more than a bit, requiring Napoleon's sword to bring in fundamental reforms, the popular eagerness to think and discuss and debate was impressive.

Where are we now? Russiagate? The horrifying war in Ukraine. The gerontocracy that accumulated behind Biden and Pelosi and Feinstein and McConnell is crumbling beneath nature's steamroller, as is often the case in political cycles. But what can we expect of a public that has been trained under gas lights to puzzle over trans rights and whether woman means female?

Serenity indeed.