It takes all kinds to make a world…

25 November 2008


It is widely recognized, even if not widely remarked (perhaps from a sense of charity), that mentally retarded persons need and prefer a rigid routine to their days. Any disturbance of a daily routine is an occasion of distress, confusion, and discomfort. Only with the restoration of the intimately familiar, of the tried and the true, is the world of the retarded set right again. For the rest of us, variety is the spice of life. Or so it is said. I have come to the opinion that routine and change define a continuum, and that one’s tolerance for change is directly related to one’s cognitive capacity. Previously I made his observation in Today’s Thought on Civilization.

Variety is the spice of life... but not everyone has the same tolerance of spices.

Variety is the spice of life... but not everyone has the same tolerance for spices.

This is not to say that some very intelligent persons do not enjoy and even prefer a routine (in some cases a routine as rigid as that favored by the retarded), but that the more intelligent a person is, the more flexible they tend to be, the less traumatic they will find change to be, and the more able they are to readily cope with change and to adapt themselves to changed circumstances. Thus one can distinguish persons of ordinary mental powers who are comfortable enough with ordinary upsets in a day not to be traumatized by them, but who begin to falter when the larger organization of their lives is called into question. Such lives are as robust or as fragile as the establishment upon which they have constructed their identities. Beyond the ordinary run of ability, there are the clever persons who always know how to roll with the punches and to land on their feet. Still, the clever can be caught short by a crisis that calls into question deeper issues than those posed by the shifting circumstances of life. Beyond the clever are the acute, who are not distressed either by a change in external or internal circumstances, but who are able to take in stride the vagaries and uncertainties of the world (both the inner world and the outer world) however these manifest themselves.

The same continuum can be employed, and the same categories extrapolated, to describe not only individuals, but also institutions. Some institutions are thoroughly ordinary in their ability to deal with the day-to-day events, but are challenged and perhaps shaken by a confrontation with larger events. Let us take the example of the nation-state as a paradigmatic institution. A merely ordinary nation-state, for example, might be brought low by a war or by other external challenges that do not have as their direct cause the internal structures of the nation-state in question. Certainly a dysfunctional or archaic state, attempting to employ institutions refined in a previous age to the unprecedented circumstances of a later age, will be severely threatened by a war or similar crisis. One thinks in this connection of Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire, or the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. All were destroyed by the First World War. Perhaps it is unfair to call these examples of nation-states, as all were, in fact, relics of past imperial powers that were, in the day, quite extraordinary. Their institutions were not so much merely ordinary as simply decadent. Better examples of ordinary nation-states with institutions of no particular intelligence would be those perpetually struggling states regularly making the evening news due to their interminable problems. (1)

The Tsar of Russia, apparently blissfully ignorant of the state of his own country, called the Ottoman Empire the "sick man of Europe".

The Tsar of Russia notoriously called the Ottoman Empire the "sick man of Europe", apparently blissfully unaware of his own precarious position.

Beyond the ordinary run of nation-states are the clever ones who know how to roll with the punches and land on their feet. Such clever nation-states, like clever individuals, may survive an external crisis that would destroy a merely ordinary nation-state, but they can still be shaken by internal crises of governance, such as a constitutional crisis, or a succession crisis, or profound corruption within the governing class. Many of the most powerful and successful nation-states of our times fall into this category, and most have had profound crises that shook the confidence of the people at some time in their history. The Civil War in the US was such a profound internal crisis that nearly resulted (or temporarily resulted) in a bifurcation of the country into two separate parts.

By extension, the acute or superior nation-state would possess institutions of such intelligence that it would be shaken neither by internal nor external crises. While I have no doubt that there are individuals with this capacity, and perhaps even some institutions of smaller scope with this capacity, I doubt there has ever been a nation-state possessed of such intelligence. In my Political Economy of Globalization I advanced the thesis that the nation-state is an institution of limited historical viability, and that it will, in the long-term future, be erased from history . (2) Paraphrasing Foucault, I wrote that the nation-state may disappear, “…like a map drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.” (3)

a map drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.

The nation-state: a map drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.

Further evolution and development of the nation-state may yet be possible, however, and if there is a future for the nation-state, this future would consist of fashioning intelligent institutions that could respond to external or internal crises with the requisite strength and flexibility, while retaining a sense of perspective that affirms the vagaries and unpredictability of the world even while surmounting the challenges that follow from them. Thus there is hope for the nation-state after all, but the realization of a hope is a different matter entirely from the hope itself.

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Note (1) The above account of decadent and struggling nation-states could also be formulated in terms of Toynbee’s challenge and response mechanism. Also, an important question posed by the above catalog of failed empires is too large for us to treat in the present context: What is the relation of Russia today, or Turkey today, to their imperial antecedents, from which they were born like a Phoenix from the ashes of historical conflagration? Is there a continuing national identity that underlies the changing identity of the state and its institutions?

Note (2) Thesis 2 of my book runs: “The State is not a permanent institution.”

Note (3) On the last page of The Order of Things, Foucault makes the famous claim that, were the institutions that brought man into being to change, man himself would disappear from history, “…like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.”

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Michel Foucault's post-structuralist masterpiece

Michel Foucault's post-structuralist masterpiece

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Grand Strategy Annex

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