The Mark Twain syndrome--why cities might rule (sometime): Colin James predicts that megacities may in time challenge the nation-state system that has underlain international affairs for five centuries.

AuthorJames, Colin

Mark Twain quipped that a report of his death was an exaggeration. The same is often said of the sovereign nation-state. But Mark Twain did die, thirteen years after the exaggerated report.

Death reduced Mark Twain to putrefaction and sustenance for creatures of the dark. His words live on, a disembodied testament to our human need and yearning for ways to knit belief that we have meaning and are distinct from and superior to all other living things in this temporary, 10 billion-year habitat whose sun will one day go out.

We invest similar belief and hope in our governing constructs. But, like Mark Twain, they are not immortal. Multiple empires and multiple lesser satrapies and realms have disintegrated and dematerialised through the past three of four millennia.

The sovereign nation-state is 'an improvisation of recent centuries', to quote Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh. (1) It was born of violent sectarian conflict. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, ending 30 years of devastating war, established a limited principle of states' sovereignty, which firmed in practice over succeeding centuries. The industrial revolution was a major element in that firming, linking local economies and societies and turning them into national economies and societies. By the early 20th century the nation-state was held to be inviolably sovereign in managing its affairs--though, of course, the principle was not always observed because invasive war remained in vogue, even up to 1945 in 'civilised' western Europe.

A nation-state is built on a nation, that is, a people or related grouping of peoples bound together by history and culture or by a unifying fiction or narrative constructed and embedded over time. The nation-state is bounded by survey pegs, separated geographically from other nation-states. It believes itself whole and distinct from others lying outside the survey pegs. From that it assumes an inalienable right and duty to rule itself and all who live within it according to its lights and traditions, without interference from outside, whether violent or admonitory.

In the mid-20th century the United Nations embedded this principle. Like the Treaty of Westphalia, the United Nations treaty was born of destructive wars. The United Nations ideal was to avoid future such wars by collective recognition of the inviolable sovereignty of its member-nation-states, secured by those survey-peg borders. This sovereignty principle was extended to the newly decolonised states of Africa and Asia, including those that were hotchpotches of different and even warring nations and peoples aggregated arbitrarily by Europe's aggressive land-grab empire-building.

But is nation-state sovereignty still inviolable and, even if so now, will it endure? Endogenous and exogenous forces are gnawing at it similarly to the way viruses and chronic ailments weaken an ageing human.

Important signal

A signal in rich liberal democracies has been the wearing down or decay of the centre-left/centre-right dominance. This was a structured system, shaping liberal democratic societies into something resembling a rugby football and shaping the political sphere similarly. Most of this football was occupied by centre-left and centre-right parties or coalitions that commanded governments and operated within well-understood boundaries. There were minor extremists in the points at each end of the football and there was some space on the flanks for occasional rogue or populist irritants.

New Zealand's rugby football went out of shape in the 1990s after the radical governments of 1984-92. ACT and the Alliance occupied quite a lot of space at the two ends and New Zealand First and Christian Democrats pushed out the sides. The middle was squeezed both lengthwise and sidewise. But the football regained its regular shape in the Helen Clark years in the 2000s, when Labour, then National, reclaimed much of the football. It now looks remarkably stable and in shape compared with other liberal democracies, including Britain, the United States, France, Spain, Italy, Greece and even Holland and Germany.

In Britain and the United States the two big old parties look on the surface to be still running the show. But within Britain's Conservatives and Labour and the United States' Republicans and Democrats there are not just different tendencies--that is usual within any large institutions, particularly political ones--but two or three forces at serious odds with each other. In France the Socialists are in crisis and in elections in May and June last year the conservative Republicans were blanketed by Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche movement and were under pressure from the National Front (though did hold their own in September in Senate elections, which are not by popular vote). In Spain a new left force, Podemos, emerged out of the Socialists. Syriza in Greece did that even more spectacularly and has been running the government. In Italy the anarchistic Five-Star Movement, formed by a clown, holds a number of major mayoralties and is running close to 30 per cent in polls, in first place ahead of the ruling Democrats, who are the reconstituted Socialist party under a pinup leader, Matteo Renzi. In Holland and Austria the conservative parties have had to imbibe and regurgitate some of their far right challengers' rhetoric in order to cling to office. Even stolid Germany has been deserting the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats.

Centre question

The centre-left/centre-right dominance was built on a very large centre or middle occupying most of the football. But where was the centre last year in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and in the Brexit referendum? Where was the centre in Macron's surge to power or in Germany's election in September?

The centre-left/centre-right hegemony generated structured policies and operated by them. The centre-left/centre-right parties were constrained within recognised boundaries that excluded the extremes and populist or other fads. Policy adjustments did not cause havoc.

Now that the rugby football has been squeezed out of shape in northern liberal democracies, policies are no longer reliably structured. The emergence of other forces that are not built on a centre opens up nation-states to divisive or destabilising influences or forces. This gnaws at sovereignty from within.

So it is not surprising that within some states there are attempts at secession: Spain's richest region, Catalonia, Scotland in the now Dis-United Kingdom and overwhelming majority 'consultative' votes...

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