Are countries over?

Photo some rights reserved by Raja Habib.

I think it was nearly ten years ago that I hosted an event with Clay Shirky for Demos in London. Clay was talking about Here Comes Everybody, his fantastic book about the role that decentralised technology is having on society and the collected audience of wonks, geeks and innovators all nodded along in agreement to most of the things that Clay said.

But part way through the Q&A, things took an odd turn and the expressions on the audience’s faces changed. Clay said that he didn’t think we’d need nation states in the future. His example was Belgium which at the time hadn’t had a government for over a year because they couldn’t agree on a new coalition. Nothing particularly bad had happened — the bins were still being emptied and hospitals still worked. Towns and cities had continued to operate without the elected national politicians being able to decide who was in charge.

After the event I started thinking that perhaps many of the problems we face are a realisation of that tension — the institutions of nation states are struggling to work out what they’re for and citizens are confused as well. Neatly overlaying identity and governance has always been difficult, but it’s in flux once again and national politicians now focus simply on the things that are unique to them — the use of force and control over borders.

Of course not everyone thinks countries are over. Donald Trump thinks nation states are a very good idea. His speech at the UN General Assembly contained a section saying as much: “the nation state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition. It’s in everyone’s interests to seek the future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.” “Make America Great Again”, “Take Back Control” and so on all appeal to people who do believe in countries as the best way of organising things.

But I’m not sure that’s tenable in the long run. We’ll see much more change over the coming years and countries will have to find a new role. Today it has spilled over into horrible violence in Catalonia, tensions linger in Scotland about a second referendum, Kurdistan is at the centre of a battle for independence, the list goes on. Perhaps less obviously, individual cities are becoming more powerful and autonomous — something I think is a positive long-term trend.