The End of National Governments: The Shocking, Unforeseen Impact of the Internet Revolution
Egypt has a problem. For nearly 30 years the Egyptian people have been living under an autocratic regime and they are fed up. Once again, the power of the internet is being credited with building and sustaining this popular uprising. In fact, we are now looking at our third “Twitter uprising” in two years. What is happening here?
Presently Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, is cooling his heels in a London jail. What our government will do when they get hold of him we will not be permitted to know, but it won’t be pretty.
The US government has been pulling its hair out over the infuriating audacity of WikiLeaks in exposing government secrets. Never mind that many of those secrets are along the lines of criticizing world leaders for being venal, stupid or self-indulgent (stuff we could’ve guessed) or revealing that the Pakistanis are not very good allies (stuff that is obvious to anyone who has bothered to read a book about Afghanistan). Nevertheless, we are urged by the media to disdain Assange as a dangerous radical, to be outraged by his irresponsible whistle-blowing. And we comply, by and large, without thinking it through more deeply.
Naturally, if someone is revealing government secrets that endanger soldiers in the field, or jeopardizing military strategy, those revelations are criminal. But we are not being asked to parse the leaks released by WikiLeaks. Rather, the government and the media want a blanket condemnation of Assange and his ilk. In other words, they want the ability to silence internet whistle-blowers any time they feel like it, and they want our approval in doing so. For now, we are willing to give it. But will we always be?
A World Without Borders
We are less than ten years away from accurate and reliable voice translation software. Soon we will be able to hold our cell phones up to someone speaking another language and play it back in English. We are on the verge of a world without language barriers.
Language is the greatest single impediment to cultural assimilation. Remove it and you have a whole different world, one where an angry radical in Pakistan can have a frank conversation with a Bible college student in Little Rock, if they care to talk to each other, and increasingly they do.
Quite literally, the young people taking to the streets in Egypt (and getting clobbered and killed for it) are the same people some of you have been playing Farmville and Mafia Wars with. How does it effect you differently when Muhammed (Mafia War name: Bugsy), the same fellow who helped you score a pair of brass knuckles and a chain gun, is slain by riot police in Cairo; or when Oscar fails to show up for his chess match at six because he got blown up in a car bomb in Mexico City?
My guess is that it brings it home to you, unfiltered, without spin, viscerally – and if you should ever start communicating with these people outside the social gaming world, should you ever have frank conversations with them about things that really matter, and find that, by golly, you actually like them, you might start getting angry about government efforts to silence them.
Political and Cultural Fragmentation
The internet is a huge and growing problem for national governments – all governments – even the ones pretending to be open and aboveboard. If people start talking to each other across languages, across national boundaries, across cultures, and find common cause, this could, eventually, lead to the decline of national governments, and the beginning of a new tribalism.
We are only a nation because we agree to be, because we believe more strongly in our national identity than we do in our other possible identities, ie., international businesspeople, artists, aid workers, players of Mafia Wars, etc. But if that identity is called into question, if it’s diminished or trivialized, it can fade into insignificance.
The noisy fringes on the right and the left have developed a nasty habit of calling into question the patriotism of those they disagree with. The right wing in particular, behind politicians like Sarah Palin and mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, are fond of declaring who is and who is not “an American”. They would dearly like those who disagree with them to go away. They may get their wish.
Today, rational political discussion is becoming increasingly difficult. Compromise is scorned. To make matters worse, many Americans, regardless of political affiliation, feel the government no longer represents them. The whipsaw nature of politics today has a lot to do with this. In trying to please both sides the government is failing to please either. Ultimately the country could split. But don’t expect a civil war. Fragmentation is the likelier outcome.
Pioneers in a New Global Mindset
Throughout history the process has played out. When the tribe gets too big, growing out of touch with its people, fissures develop and ultimately the tribe breaks up into smaller units. The breakup of the British Empire is but the most recent example. We are on the verge of another. The internet will accelerate the process, and corporate greed could provide another catalyst.
Locavores, permaculturists and barter clubs are experimenting with living off the grid, looking for ways to work around an economy that no longer works for them but works instead for giant multi-national corporations who sometimes seek to increase their profits at the expense of the public.
Seen another way, these corporations are working for their stockholders, the members of their tribe. When they act in the interests of their stockholders at the expense of the general public, their tribal identity is greater than their national identity. Whether or not they realize it, they are pioneers in a new global mindset, one that places tribal identity above national identity.
The End of National Governments. Is This Going Too Far?
Despite what most people think, the nation state has not always been with us. In the full arc of western history it is a relatively recent development. Prior to 1648 most social and political groups in Europe were essentially tribal. They overlapped and impinged upon each other frequently, leading to war and strife. Even in Roman times, the great Roman Empire was more like a sequence of military occupations imposed on tribal peoples than a vast nation state as we think of it today.
The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 changed all that. It established the concept of sovereign nations based on territoriality and fixed the idea of national self-determination. It was an elegant idea and an effective one for its time. But we may be growing past it.
Today, plagued by intractable political divisions, convinced that our governments no longer represent us, we find ourselves networking more effectively with like-minded people all over the world, defining ourselves culturally, economically and politically in ways that transcend national boundaries. The day is rapidly approaching when our tribal identity could become more important than our national identity. The one thing that could kick this whole process into overdrive is governments’ attempts to suppress it.
The Drift Toward New Tribalism
Cracking down can take many forms. Watch how the US government redefines and picks apart net neutrality. Recasting whistle-blowers as dangerous radicals is an effective way to eviscerate the prime responsibility of journalism to speak truth to power. At the far end of the spectrum the billy club of the Egyptian security forces gets the job done. But it won’t work.
Governments that try to suppress the free exchange of ideas on the internet may briefly succeed but will ultimately fail, either because they lack the will to impose harsh and unrelenting restrictions on freedom of speech – any chink will only lead to a groundswell of discontent – or because they act to clamp down so thoroughly, like North Korea, that they become irrelevant in the global economy and a pariah in the community of nations.
The drift toward tribalism is on. We are likely headed toward a world constituted of self-sustaining, supra-geographical governmental units working, where possible, in conjunction with one another, but not represented or overseen by a traditional national government defined by territoriality.
It won’t be pretty. We will experience many hiccups and set-backs before we get there (the most likely outcome in Egypt is an even more autocratic government, probably one with an Islamist cast) but the general trend is away from ineffectual, heavy-handed national governments toward something better, a world where the power of the internet to bring us together is allowed to flourish, a new tribalism that allows individuals to grow and prosper within a community of their own preference and definition. ♦
Author and Client: This article was written by Malcolm Logan for Searchwarp
Egyptian Riot Police, Muhammad Ghafari; Julian Assange, New Media Days; Glenn Beck, Luke X. Martin; Unemployment Line, FEMA (public domain); The Treaty of Westphalia, public domain; Riot Police Attack, Athens Indymedia