President George H.W. Bush’s advisor Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed that we had reached ‘the end of history’. In the intervening years, his belief in the triumph of liberal capitalist democracy and Neoliberal trade policies over all alternative models of social organisation has been publicly tempered and critiqued by others. There was, however, a grain of truth in his proclamation in that the moment was historic. With the Soviet Union’s collapse and the reformulation of the world-system, anyone born from this time onwards would grow up knowing of no other alternative to the American-led system of world capitalism. The economic and ethical ideas of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand seemed to have reached the peak of their influence, and were for a moment almost beyond reproach. As Gramsci (1935) has pointed out though, hegemonic struggle is never complete. One side might gain the upper hand but others will inevitably reconstitute their forces over time to challenge it. Instead, I would like to suggest that this historic moment’s true significance lies in it being the beginning of the end of the nation state’s leading role in global governance. Globalisation is a process which is far from complete. However the 200 years from the Industrial Revolution to the turn of the millennium is as definitive a timeframe as any to provide bookmarks to the nation state’s ‘golden age’ of influence.
The nation-state today is under direct challenge from a number of different directions. This has the cumulative effect of weakening its authority, legitimacy and influence, albeit diversely according to local contexts. The nation-state is most prominently being challenged by Transnational Corporations (TNCs) and what I refer to in my thesis as Global Populist Social Movements (GPSMs). Each of these represent the most politically conscious and aggressive faction of the private sector and civil society, respectively. These political actors seek to pull and shape global society in their own interests, in their own image. In simple terms this future global regime will either take the organisational form of a hierarchy or a network. In other words global society can either be a form of top-down authoritarianism wherein the typical human being’s experience is punctuated by alternating waves of brutalisation and deprivation or a new localism and direct democracy wherein billions of people worldwide have realised their political agency and participate in their own local community’s governance in some ongoing way. In both ‘post-state’ scenarios the nation state’s leading role is on the way out; similar to that of empires in the early 20th century. Kojm (2012) of the National Intelligence Council, for instance, describes a 2030 scenario of a non-state world, where states still exist, but perform the role of collaborators and coordinators with vast networks of political non-state actor coalitions on various issue-based campaigns.
One significant trend which portends the decay of the nation state is the well-documented rise of ‘anti-politics’ in public sentiment. Across a range of countries opinion polling shows that large parts of the public views elected representatives with scorn and cynicism. Politicians are regarded as corrupt and disliked worse than any profession, on a list that includes bankers and parking inspectors. Margaret Thatcher when asked what her greatest achievement was famously remarked: “Tony Blair”. This of course is the follow-up comment to her quote that “There Is No Alternative” [to neoliberalism]. New political parties and individual leader figures are sprouting up around the world which tap into this critical sentiment, such is the richness of it. They critique the largesse and detachment of legacy parties. Often legacy parties are accused of having dwindling memberships and resorting to ‘branch-stacking’ practices to appear to legitimately represent some wider constituency. Examples are from both the left and right of the political spectrum and include Donald Trump of the Republican Party and Bernie Sanders of the Democratic Party in the United States 2016 presidential election campaign, Podemos in Spain and Jeremy Corbyn’s recent win in the Labour leadership contest in the United Kingdom. All of these parties and individual leaders represent the phenomenon of a widespread public apathy and disengagement from electoral politics. Ultimately though, however energetic and earnest an individual leader happens to be, winning control of state power cannot alter the reality of a globalising world. Most notably, this is born out in relation to the systematic austerity campaign to dismantle the Welfare State of the 1930s-1980s. Syriza in Greece is almost the perfect experiment to show what happens when the public elect an anti-austerity government. The economic terrorism of the Troika in Greece over the course of 2015 has prompted a humanitarian crisis as rates of homelessness, unemployment, GDP contraction and so on skyrocket; all at the same time as the national debt gets bigger and demands for more aggressive cuts to social welfare programs continue. I assert on the basis of this experience that austerity, as a creature of the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s, is here to stay. This shows the failure and incapability of the nation state to provide for basic social needs. Solutions cannot come from winning state power, and must therefore come from civil society.
At the same time as the countries of the Global North undergo the same ‘economic shock therapy’ as those of the Global South experienced in the several decades before, increasingly authoritarian capitalist societies such as China and Singapore are being upheld by some as the model of socioeconomic success. They are characterised by their high GDP growth rates, high productivity, low corporate taxation, lax environmental regulation, low labour costs and bellicose repression of all dissenting rebels. Workers in the Global North are routinely told they must “compete with China” in a race to the bottom for investment capital. With the above considerations, the paradigm of liberal capitalist democracy from roughly 1800-2000 is more or less over. The post-state global society has begun.