8 June 2012
In my book Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to formulate my theses in the greatest possible generality (Russell’s influence was at work here, since he often urged formulations of the greatest possible generality), and, to this end, I did not loosely write in terms of states or nations or countries, but chose to write instead in terms “political entities.”
From the glossary appended to the same work, here is the definition that I gave for political entities:
Any actor whatever engaged in political activity. Political entities include, but are not limited to, individual persons (under the aspect of homo politicus, i.e., political man), interest groups, peoples, city-states, nation-states, and republics. The demarcation between political entities and economic entities (q.v.) is in no sense fixed, as many entities are both political and economic actors. An NGO (q.v.) is a political entity, though it is no kind of state, which latter may well be the paradigmatic political entity. And the nation-state (q.v.), in so far as it engages in quasi-economic activity (q.v.), is both a political and an economic actor.
When I opened my book with a discussion of the nation-state, I tried to be clear that while the nation-state is the central political fact of our time, it is only one political entity among others, and just as other political entities were central to the world system prior to the advent of the nation-state, so too other political entities will someday supersede the nation-state. But don’t expect it to happen soon, or in your lifetime. These things move at a glacial pace, and are only apparent in hindsight to the historian; they are hidden from our view by the onrushing events of the present.
Another way to formulate the preeminence of the nation-state in the contemporary global system is to say that it is the indispensable political entity of our time. I thought of this formulation a few days ago when I was writing The Radicalization of Miners in Andean South America. I was re-reading the Pulacayo Theses and came across this formulation early in the very first item:
1. The proletariat, in Bolivia as in other countries, constitutes the revolutionary social class par excellence. The mineworkers, the most advanced and the most combative section of this country’s proletariat, determine the direction of the FSTMB’s struggle.
And in the original Spanish:
1.- El proletariado, aún en Bolivia, constituye la clase social revolucionaria por excelencia. Los trabajadores de las minas, el sector más avanzado y combativo del proletariado nacional, define el sentido de lucha de la FSTMB.
Note: this may sound a bit slow on my part (sometimes I can be rather dense), but when I was studying this a few days ago I hadn’t even thought to search for an English language translation, but I found one today at the Permanent Revolution website, and that is the English language version that I have given above. I had rendered this as, “The proletariat, in Bolivia as in other countries, constitutes the indispensable revolutionary social class.”
This is boilerplate Marxist doctrine: the proletariat is the revolutionary class, and will be the force that expropriates the expropriators, though it may have to be prodded into action by revolutionary cadres of bourgeois intellectuals converted to the revolutionary cause. While such claims become tiresome when repeated rote by doctrinaire believers, placed in a larger and more general context of political entities it becomes interesting.
In my definition of political entities quoted above I didn’t even think to mention social classes (though I did mention interest groups, which aren’t quite exactly the same thing), though I have an out because I did specify that my list was not exhaustive. A social class like the proletariat must be counted among the political entities that have played a central role in history. Among various political systems, different political entities can serve as the indispensable political entity of that particular system — the conditio sine qua non of a given form of political thought.
Thus it is that, in the world today, the nation-state is the indispensable political entity; for the Marxist, the proletariat — a class — is the indispensable political entity; in the Hellenistic world of antiquity, the city-state was the indispensable political entity, and it is to be noted that Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics both address the political structure of a city-state. One of the interesting things about feudal systems, whether found in the West or elsewhere in the world, is that no one particular class is indispensable. In feudalism, each class has its role that is indispensable to the social whole; it is the class system itself that is the indispensable political entity — which makes feudalism a kind of meta-Marxism.
There are so many different kinds of entity that could serve as the indispensable political entity for a political system that it is almost surreal and reminds one of Comte de Lautreamont’s wildly disparate grouping of the umbrella and the sewing machine on a dissecting table, or of Latourian Litanies.
What else? What next? What might be (or become) an indispensable political entity? This obviously suggests a negative formulation: what could not serve as an indispensable political entity? I do not think that there is any adequate system of political philosophy yet formulated that can even give us a clue as to how to begin to answer this question. Where do we set limits, and why?
The nation-state is a geographical entity tied to a legal and an economic regime; the proletariat is a social class tied to a revolutionary idea; feudal systems are social structures that apportion classes within a society but are not identical to any one class or class interest; the city-state is an urban entity. Contemporary ideas of urban planning might be said to be converging upon the city as the indispensable political entity, but this is a very different sense of urbanism than the urbanism of ancient city-states. Other examples might be the Caesaropapism of the Byzantine Empire, the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt, or possibly a mythological time of the foundation of a political order, to which all political structures are made to refer. Not only is there nothing essentially in common between these indispensable political entities; there is not even any kind of discernible family resemblance between these diverse objects representing the centralization of political power.
This ought to a lesson to us in terms of thinking that political development has ended or reached a dead end (the “end of history” thesis). I’ve addressed this aspect of the “end of history” thesis from a related angle not long ago in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, where I argued that Gödel’s own interpretation of incompleteness results points to ongoing intellectual development.
It seems odd to even have to say it, but the incredible, overwhelming inertia of unimaginative political thought forces us to repeat the fact that human political thought is still in its infancy and has yet to even reach a point at which complex and difficult problems can be intelligently and rationally discussed. Almost all political thought to date has consisted of a kind of political theology that engages in special pleading for some kind of pre-determined end. Until we get past this point, we will not yet see the first glimmerings of the maturity of our political thought.
When we have, as a species, at least glimpsed the possibility of mature political thought, we will be able to systematically lay out the limits as to what can and what cannot serve as the indispensable political entity of a political system. We are not yet in a position to do so.
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20 November 2010
What’s an obsolete geopolitical entity to do?
The struggle for continuing relevance in a post-NATO world
As the NATO summit began in Lisbon, the BBC asked its readers “Is Nato still relevant?” The nature of the question, like many such questions floated in the mass media, was calculated for readers to express their distaste for the treaty organization. Many did so; many also defended NATO.
NATO is faced with a classic dilemma of what I have called historical viability. The original rationale for NATO — a treaty organization conceived and implemented for the purpose to addressing the threat posed by the Soviet Union and, more generally, the Warsaw Pact — no longer exists. For NATO to retain its historical viability in the wake of the absence of its raison d’être will require NATO to change. If NATO is an intelligent institution, will be able to make these changes; if it is not an intelligent institution, it will ultimately join the Warsaw Pact in oblivion.
If, in accordance with what I call the principle of historical viability, namely, that, “an x fails when it fails to change as the world changes,” and its implied corollary that, “an x succeeds (better: demonstrates historical viability) when it changes as the world changes,” then NATO must change as the world changes. These changes may ultimately be profound and radical, such that in the long term future NATO becomes a political entity that is unrecognizable from the point of view of what it once was.
The NATO summit participants boiled down their strategic “concept” into a remarkably concise 11-page document, “Strategic Concept For the Defence and Security of The Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.” This document is broken down into bullet points under the headings of Core Tasks and Principles, The Security Environment, Defense and Deterrence, Security through Crisis Management, Promoting International Security through Cooperation, Open Door, Partnerships, Reform and Transformation, and, lastly, An Alliance for the 21st Century.
NATO has always been a strategically focused supra-national political entity, and the new initiative envisioned for NATO at the Lisbon summit is a sweeping strategic initiative of enormous proportions, though it appears in the “strategic concept” document as a single diminutive bullet point. Item 19 of the document reads as follows:
19. We will ensure that NATO has the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against any threat to the safety and security of our populations. Therefore, we will:
And among the bullet points following, the sixth item down reads as follows:
• develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defence, which contributes to the indivisible security of the Alliance. We will actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia and other Euro-Atlantic partners;
A NATO-wide ballistic missile defense system would be an undertaking of enormous financial and technological proportions. It would be difficult to overstate the amount of money and technological expertise that would be absorbed by such an enterprise. And to have Russia participate in this undertaking would make it all the larger, apart from any troubling issues in regard to sharing the most advanced military technology that can be produced by the most advanced industrialized economies on the planet.
Whether such a system would work is mostly beside the point; if properly pursued, the economic and technological boost to involved economies would be significant. I don’t think that the system, once built, would be any more effective than the Maginot Line. If ballistic missiles can be shot down with any degree of reliability, then rogue regimes pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and intent upon their use, would use any means of delivery other than ballistic missiles. Given our experience on 11 September 2001 of the exaptation of commercial aircraft for military purposes, we need to take the unexpected — also known as strategic shocks — seriously. The order of magnitude of the surprise of 11 September 2001 is what we should expect. It would be simple-minded to expect something as unimaginative, and as relatively easy to counter, as a ballistic missile.
NATO’s strategic concept document is, at present, a mere “scrap of paper,” and the provision for strategic anti-ballistic missile (ABM) deterrence a mere bullet point written on this scrap of paper. For anything to come of it, member nation-states would need to get together and agree on at least the initial details of implementation, and they would need to budget for the initial stages of research and development. Moreover, once there emerges an elusive consensus among member states that R&D into the ABM system has reached a level of maturity that an actual ABM can be built, member nation-states will need to budget further funds for its construction.
In the present political climate of budget austerity, it would be much easier simply to do nothing at this point, and, as King Lear rightly said, nothing will come of nothing. However, the economies of NATO member states will eventually grow again, and funds will be available for projects such as ABM strategic deterrence if the political will is present to put this expensive and long-term project into practice. In the long term it would have substantial benefits regardless of its efficacy; in the short term it would be difficult to kick start because it is always easier to do nothing than to do something. Without some kind of external stimulus (like the Cold War stimulus to the development of military technologies), it seems unlikely that the political will to move forward with an international ABM system will overcome political inertia. Whether or not a strategic stimulus will appear must remain a known unknown for the time being.
NATO is a victim of its own success. The mission it was created to counter no longer exists because the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, and with the passing of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, a large-scale war in Western Europe taking the form of a massive armored penetration from east to west is widely understood to be unlikely. Since NATO was an institution constituted for a specific purpose and that specific purpose no longer exists, NATO is a strategic entity with no strategic purpose — in other words, its lacks its raison d’être.
We need new strategic institutions to manage current and future strategic threats — we need a clean slate. NATO should be gracefully retired (maybe with some kind of spectacular ceremony that gives closure to those who have invested their lives in the institution — but this should have been done in 1991 or thereabouts) and the Western powers should begin experimenting with novel strategic institutions in place of a retired NATO — institutions not tied to a particular history, a particular way of seeing the world, and a particular mission.
The decommissioning of NATO is unlikely to happen. This is partly due to the fact that once a bureaucracy is created, it is almost impossible to eliminate. Vested interests keep institutions in existence long after they have ceased to be viable. But this isn’t the only reason. I think that many people feel a quite genuine sentiment — an institutional patriotism, if you will — for institutions that have figured prominently in their lives. To put it bluntly, many people would be literally sad to see NATO go, feelings would be hurt (especially among those who have devoted their entire careers to the institution), and so excuses are found to keep NATO afloat.
Because it is unlikely that serious money will be made available for a NATO-wide ABM system, and because it is unlikely that the best technology that would emerge from such an undertaking would be freely shared with Russia (as was explicitly stated as a part of this initiative, presumably so that Russia would not feel threatened by it, and therefore would oppose it), and because it is at least equally as unlikely that NATO will be formally decommissioned, the most likely scenario in the near term future will be for NATO to continue its non-mission as a military bureaucracy, spending its budget on grandiose plans for an ABM deterrence that will not be built, and, if it is built, will not be effective.
Thus even our strategic aims and ambitions, which one might falsely suppose would be subject to the most brutal utilitarian calculation (and are so subject in time of war), are shaped by sentiment, nostalgia, and feeling. Perhaps we can afford this at present; perhaps we are so safe, so secure, and so affluent that we can support an optional military bureaucracy in place of one with an authentic mission based on contemporary strategic imperatives, but we cannot count on the world remaining in this happy state for long.
Supra-national political entities — like NATO, the Warsaw Pact, The League of Nations, and the Hanseatic League — have a limited record of historical viability. Perhaps the longest lived of those examples I have given, the Hanseatic League, was influential for a few hundred years, from the high middle ages into the early modern period. The influence of the Hanseatic League is felt to this day, but as a political entity today it is a non-entity, known only to historians and antiquarians. (It is interesting to hear Jonathan Meades’ exposition of the Hanseatic League in his Magnetic North television series.)
If NATO can maintain its relevance and its historical viability by transforming itself into a transnational missile defense military-industrial complex, it would defy the record of history. While this is not impossible, it is also not likely.
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