Power fragmentation or centralization?

Interesting juxtaposition of positions about the future of the state and where power will reside.

In this corner is this interview with John Robb.

Democracy, as we knew it, will wither and the nation-state bureaucracy will increasingly become an enforcer for the global bond market and kleptocratic transnational corporations. Think Argentina, Greece, Spain, Iceland, etc. As a result, the legitimacy of the developed democracies will fade and the sense of betrayal will be pervasive (think in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union). People will begin to shift their loyalties to any local group that can provide for their daily needs. Many of these groups will be crime fueled local insurgencies and militias. In short, the developed democracies will hollow out.

And compare that with this interview with Ian Bremmer who argues that we’re seeing an emerging of state capitalism which

if they leave it entirely to market forces to determine who wins and who loses from market activity, they risk enriching those who might use their new wealth to challenge the state’s political legitimacy.To determine how (and for whom) wealth is generated, authoritarians have invented various forms of state capitalism. Inside China, Russia, and other authoritarian countries, the state now dominates entire economic sectors. They use state-owned and privately owned national champion companies to intervene in global markets for energy, aviation, shipping, power generation, arms production, telecommunications, metals, minerals, petrochem­icals, and other industries. They finance state capitalism with the help of sovereign wealth funds. Their purpose is to use the power of markets to create wealth that can be directed as political officials see fit. The ultimate motive is not economic (maximizing growth) but political (maximizing the state’s power and the leadership’s chances of survival).

Kind of interesting in that Robb seems to argue that the forces of globalization will cause power and loyalty to spiral out from the center while Bremmer argues that globalization will cause the state to clamp down in order to maintain the political system.  And since the state still has a preponderance of force at its disposal it will be able to maintain control, at least for the foreseeable future.

Robb seems a bit alarmist to me.  I’m getting a bit weary of hearing about the imminent demise of the nation state and think he might be assuming that since some nations have trouble with stability they all will.  So, when he says:

…large scale governance is on the way out. Not only are nearly all governments financially insolvent, they can’t protect citizens from a global system that is running amok.

I suspect Bremmer would respond with something like:

China’s success has persuaded authoritarians around the world that they really can have explosive growth without undermining their monopoly hold on domestic political power. China has enjoyed double-digit growth for thirty years without freedom of speech, without well-established economic rules of the road, without judges that can ignore political pressure, without credible property rights—without democracy. And the events of the past 18 months have made China more important that ever for the future of global economic growth.

Update: I’ve been thinking about this some more and I’m not totally sold on Robbs’ vision.  Iran has had one failed state on its border (Afghanistan) for 30 years now and another (failed?  failing?  stability challenged?) in Iraq for the past seven yet somehow (to almost universal dismay) it’s managed to hold on and maintain power throughout much of its territory.  Likewise, Africa is awash in failed states that border others that are able to function as real nation states.  So, to say that events on the Mexican border will result in America ‘hollowing out’.  Are we really more fragile than countries like Iran and Chad?

Further, I’m not too sure about this ‘local resiliency’ thing he talks about.

So, instead, control is ceded to local groups that can provide basic levels of opt-in security, minimal services, and jobs via new connections to the global economy…

I’m not sure if we’re at the point where we can maintain connections to the global economy and have the withering of the nation state.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the legal or illegal flow of goods and services, I suspect many of those systems in place now depend on some level of existence by a nation state in order to function.  Twitter and Facebook will not replace the Westphalian system.  If the nation-state dissolves, those with power will attempt to fill the vacuum and if that were to happen (again, I think the old girl still has some life left in her) a likely contender would be multinationals that have access to resources and wealth to hack out a new order.

In a way I get the feeling that these guys are both trying to describe the world in the late 5th century as the Roman Empire was collapsing.  Maybe Robb is writing from Gaul where the Dark Ages are closing in, society if fragmenting and things are about to get real local, real quick.

And maybe Bremmer is writing from Constantinople.  Increased state control will keep the empire chugging along but it’ll look very different from the principate of Augustus (or even Diocletian’s reformed empire).

Of course the real trick, if these guys are right and given the division between Robb’s Gaul and Bremmer’s Constantinople isn’t necessarily geographical, is deciding in which area you’d want to be in and how to make sure you get there.

5 responses to “Power fragmentation or centralization?

  1. “has persuaded authoritarians around the world that they really can have explosive growth without undermining their monopoly hold on domestic political power.”

    WTF. How MANY authoritarian states y’know of which is as successful as Mainland China thus far? North korea, zimbabwe, singapore… wait, singapore is “democratic”. F*** me I’ve lost count.


    • Well, perhaps not as successful as China but I think Bremmer is saying that China has provided an example for authoritarian regimes to strive for.

      • Yeah, they can await more social dissent & problems like lunatics goin’ ’round hackin’ at kindergarten kids with meat cleavers. What a prime exmple to emulate for sure.

  2. Seriously, why do people still listen to John Robb? The guy is a wild futurist, filled with speculation and conjecture and without any substance. For him, the apocalypse is always just around the corner.

    • I haven’t read Robb’s work but the interview did seem a bit over the top. Still, if you’re a ‘futurist’ (man, where do I get that job title) you don’t sell many books by saying ‘Yeah, things are going to look pretty much the same as they do now with a few more cool gadgets.’

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