A few months ago I wrote an article for The Atlantic about how the nation-state is a more fragile institution than we often realize, so we best take care of it if we want international stability. I argue that we must safeguard the notion of the sovereign nation-state, since even presidential candidates and Facebook millionaires appear to be showing disrespect for it through tax loopholes these days. To people who think that the modern nation state is eternal, it might seem a little weird to worry about protecting a political idea.
To illustrate my point, take what has happened in newly “liberated” Libya. With Khaddafy dead and gone, the country has not moved forward to form a single, stable government for the nation-state in his absence, instead it has split into three regions governed by paramilitary organizations tied to the major cities. The rebel strongholds of Benghazi, Misrata and Zintan have become increasingly independent of Tripoli’s new regime, and the chaos is not necessarily as bad as you might think. Take the experience of one businessman who’s doing better without a nation-state mucking things:
Qasr Ahmed, Libya’s biggest container port, is the jewel in the city’s crown. The harbour that once spouted the geysers of incoming rockets is now jammed with shipping, and I get a tour in the only tug in Libya that can do something complicated with its engines that allows it to move sideways. The port authority has decided to run the place without reference to central government, which means that the port is open 24 hours a day, and also means that Misrata gets to keep the tugboat.
“In the old days there would be 12 forms and it would take 10 days to pay all the bribes,” says Nasser Mokhtar, who printed photographs of the shaheed – martyrs – in the war in his print shop and is now back at his clothing import business.
Now, he explains, there are no bribes; customs officers fear the wrath of the port authority if they try it [he clothes] on.
Before and after the nation-state: the city state rules
We are led to believe that the current state of affairs, in which most people pledge allegiance to nation-states more than regions or cities, is the only way to do business. In fact, the city-state is a much older and resilient way of organizing economic and political life. When large, disconnected supra-national institutions fail, the trend is to look much closer to home when we go to rebuild. One thing is for sure – nation-states are neither immortal nor unbreakable in this day and age. We may get to see this pattern quite a bit in the years to come.
If you want to know what’s next, look to the cities.