Mankind has, so far, gone through three main stages of political organization since Day One, say 200,000 years ago, when anatomically modern men started appearing. We can call them Tribes, Kingdoms, and Nation-States.
Karl Marx had a lot of things wrong, especially his moral philosophy. But one of the acute observations he made was that the means of production are perhaps the most important determinant of how a society is structured. Based on that, so far in history, only two really important things have happened: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Everything else is just a footnote.
Let’s see how these things relate.
The Agricultural Revolution and the End of Tribes
In prehistoric times, the largest political/economic group was the tribe. In that man is a social creature, it was natural enough to be loyal to the tribe. It made sense. Almost everyone in the tribe was genetically related, and the group was essential for mutual survival in the wilderness. That made them the totality of people that counted in a person’s life — except for “others” from alien tribes, who were in competition for scarce resources and might want to kill you for good measure.
Tribes tend to be natural meritocracies, with the smartest and the strongest assuming leadership. But they’re also natural democracies, small enough that everyone can have a say on important issues. Tribes are small enough that everybody knows everyone else, and knows what their weak and strong points are. Everyone falls into a niche of marginal advantage, doing what they do best, simply because that’s necessary to survive. Bad actors are ostracized or fail to wake up, in a pool of their own blood, some morning. Tribes are socially constraining but, considering the many faults of human nature, a natural and useful form of organization in a society with primitive technology.
As people built their pool of capital and technology over many generations, however, populations grew. At the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, all over the world, there was a population explosion. People started living in towns and relying on agriculture as opposed to hunting and gathering. Large groups of people living together formed hierarchies, with a king of some description on top of the heap.
Those who adapted to the new agricultural technology and the new political structure accumulated the excess resources necessary for waging extended warfare against tribes still living at a subsistence level. The more evolved societies had the numbers and the weapons to completely triumph over the laggards. If you wanted to stay tribal, you’d better live in the middle of nowhere, someplace devoid of the resources others might want. Otherwise it was a sure thing that a nearby kingdom would enslave you and steal your property.
The Industrial Revolution and the End of Kingdoms
From around 12,000 B.C. to roughly the mid-1600s, the world’s cultures were organized under strong men, ranging from petty lords to kings, pharaohs, or emperors.
It’s odd, to me at least, how much the human animal seems to like the idea of monarchy. It’s mythologized, especially in a medieval context, as a system with noble kings, fair princesses, and brave knights riding out of castles on a hill to right injustices. As my friend Rick Maybury likes to point out, quite accurately, the reality differs quite a bit from the myth. The king is rarely more than a successful thug, a Tony Soprano at best, or perhaps a little Stalin. The princess was an unbathed hag in a chastity belt, the knight a hired killer, and the shining castle on the hill the headquarters of a concentration camp, with plenty of dungeons for the politically incorrect.
With kingdoms, loyalties weren’t so much to the “country”— a nebulous and arbitrary concept — but to the ruler. You were the subject of a king, first and foremost. Your linguistic, ethnic, religious, and other affiliations were secondary. It’s strange how, when people think of the kingdom period of history, they think only in terms of what the ruling classes did and had. Even though, if you were born then, the chances were 98% you’d be a simple peasant who owned nothing, knew nothing beyond what his betters told him, and sent most of his surplus production to his rulers. But, again, the gradual accumulation of capital and knowledge made the next step possible: the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution and the End of the Nation-State
As the means of production changed, with the substitution of machines for muscle, the amount of wealth took a huge leap forward. The average man still might not have had much, but the possibility to do something other than beat the earth with a stick for his whole life opened up, largely as a result of the Renaissance.
Then the game changed totally with the American and French Revolutions. People no longer felt they were owned by some ruler; instead they now gave their loyalty to a new institution, the nation-state. Some innate atavism, probably dating back to before humans branched from the chimpanzees about 3 million years ago, seems to dictate the Naked Ape to give his loyalty to something bigger than himself. Which has delivered us to today’s prevailing norm, the nation-state, a group of people who tend to share language, religion, and ethnicity. The idea of the nation-state is especially effective when it’s organized as a “democracy,” where the average person is given the illusion he has some measure of control over where the leviathan is headed.
On the plus side, by the end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution had provided the common man with the personal freedom, as well as the capital and technology, to improve things at a rapidly accelerating pace.
What caused the sea change?
I’ll speculate it was largely due to an intellectual factor, the invention of the printing press; and a physical factor, the widespread use of gunpowder. The printing press destroyed the monopoly the elites had on knowledge; the average man could now see that they were no smarter or “better” than he was. If he was going to fight them (conflict is, after all, what politics is all about), it didn’t have to be just because he was told to, but because he was motivated by an idea. And now, with gunpowder, he was on an equal footing with the ruler’s knights and professional soldiers.
Right now I believe we’re at the cusp of another change, at least as important as the ones that took place around 12,000 years ago and several hundred years ago. Even though things are starting to look truly grim for the individual, with collapsing economic structures and increasingly virulent governments, I suspect help is on the way from historical evolution. Just as the agricultural revolution put an end to tribalism and the industrial revolution killed the kingdom, I think we’re heading for another multipronged revolution that’s going to make the nation-state an anachronism. It won’t happen next month, or next year. But I’ll bet the pattern will start becoming clear within the lifetime of many now reading this.
What pattern am I talking about? Once again, a reference to the evil genius Karl Marx, with his concept of the “withering away of the State.” By the end of this century, I suspect the US and most other nation-states will have, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist.
The Problem with the State — And Your Nation-State
Of course, while I suspect that many of you are sympathetic to that sentiment, you also think the concept is too far out, and that I’m guilty of wishful thinking. People believe the state is necessary and— generally — good. They never even question whether the institution is permanent.
Continue: The End of the Nation-State | Mises Wire