Technology Can Kill the State

After reviewing Julian Assange’s 2012 book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet for h+ Magazine, I feel compelled to swim against the tide by illustrating an optimistic alternative to the techno-dystopia identified by Assange. The idea of the death of “modern states” may elicit dread in some, and delight in others. For some thinkers, it is a necessity of history, to be neither embraced nor protested. For me, it is a sign of social progress like the end of de jure racial segregation.

The dire prediction of Julian Assange is the emergence of a totalitarian surveillance regime or regimes with global scope. Assange cautions us, “The transnational surveillance state and endless drone wars are almost upon us.” But Assange’s forecast is made against a backdrop of fierce (and loathed almost universally) state persecution of whistleblowers. Given this, the spread of techno-pessimism can be of little surprise and the belief in a technological dystopia can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, there is a more optimistic perspective. When we interpret them from a more scholarly angle and taking the larger view of history into account, the state’s excesses against troublesome individuals can be better understood as a show of weakness than a show of strength. “Modern” states are losing social cohesion and are in decline. The mere fact that we can talk in a scholarly way about this phenomenon shows that the weakening of state legitimacy and social cohesion is a credible theory.

Cypherpunks itself entertains how emerging technologies can threaten the state’s power to achieve any respect and dominance via force in the traditional sense:

Technology and science is not neutral. There are particular forms of technology that can give us these fundamental rights and freedoms that many people have aspired to for long.

When we consider this, we are forced to consider state weaknesses that are unprecedented in history. It is not particularly important that the state is less able to function, but it is important that the state is going to be less required to function. The state machinery is on a road to superfluity in the long term. What is being witnessed already is not a threat to state power and efficacy, but to state legitimacy. Without legitimacy, which means popular confidence in the authority of the state, states will falter and will find the loyalty to their regimes getting paler. Duty to “queen and country” would already appear to be a laughable idea to most Britons, because transnational affiliations and awareness are stronger in the present day. The need for a strong nation-state affiliation is perishing, and with it any ability to take state authority very seriously. Oddly, this deterioration of nation-state loyalty seems to be happening even while popular devotion to ethnic and religious identities and figures continues as strong as ever (likely because these cultures are not contingent on territory, while the “deterritorialization”addressed by globalization scholars encompasses the trend of the increased circulation of people and information).

One can make the argument that triumphs against surveillance turn the tide in the battle of the individual and state. Cypherpunks contends that cryptographic tools on the web can “force” out the state, and this unprecedented revolt actually begins to discredit the state monopoly on force. The state is also incapable of enforcing its will, if its demands and goals can fall prey to popular rejection and ridicule because of the ease of web communication and the easy movement of human beings. Perhaps, most importantly, self-sustaining technologies (e.g. future generations of 3D printers and similar devices) and increasingly skilled individuals will lead to the possibility that forces normally conserved by states could be “deterritorialized”, if they become far too wieldy in the hands of individuals to sustain any geopolitical relevance. Consider the capacity for lone, skilled insiders such as Edward Snowden to present (I would argue) a far greater challenge to US global dominance and legitimacy than anything the US is currently facing from opposing states. Consider the challenge that a deterritorialized post-state organization such as Wikileaks can pose to multiple “great powers” whose surfaces were hitherto impossible to scratch even by the most skilled technicians.

Geopolitical state power is not only losing its significance, it is also gradually losing its legitimacy as it becomes exceedingly irrelevant and powerless to address social problems. Governments are looking too sluggish to keep up with the challenges of the accelerated, digitized world. In the past, information, technologies and other economic assets were impossible to operate without the backup of a powerful geopolitical actor i.e. state. Now, such things are circulated with tremendous ease (today it is information, tomorrow it will be hardware). This does not bode well for geopolitical power and its legitimacy. It does not bode well for the disparity between low-tech civilization and high-tech civilization previously inevitable due to the unwieldy nature of certain production processes in a global economic system. If technologies usually reserved for the industrial might and arms of states become easy to move around and replicate as a result of current trends in engineering, the arguments for state power from economic necessity will become outmoded by arguments for a transnational social system. Ultimately, only paranoid security narratives will then be cited to justify traditional state power. Such narratives are going to be equivalent to the “four horsemen of the Info-pocalypse”, described in Cypherpunks as terrorism, child pornography, money laundering and drugs. It is not unrealistic to expect other conservative security narratives and drives towards moral panic, as states struggle to justify their archaic role and keep the division of labor intact. These arguments are of the same moral and intellectual standing as medical and supposedly “scientific” arguments against racial integration or homosexuality.

By relying on the forecasts of sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, one reaches the conclusion that the larger trend is towards the delegitimization of nation-states, which are in a crisis of cohesion. With the crisis of state social cohesion, brought about by mobility, mass migration and now (I would argue) the internet, states will someday find it difficult to present any coherent rationale for their own existence. The use-by-date of nation-state legitimacy is gone. National myths are also in decline, and this cultural vector of crisis also helps to debase the justifications for nation-state authority and security. In the cultural arena, departures from nationalism will inextricably lead to rejections of state authority as justifications for borders (the limits of state jurisdiction) are sure to lose political traction. Numerous other facets of the complex crisis and transition described by Immanuel Wallerstein in books such as Utopistics (1998) show the transition to a stateless world order much different from the current order. Minus the instability that can arise from such a social cohesion crisis, there is much to gain by embracing the collapse of the nation-state system. There is already an “open borders” movement, and we know there will be social progress inherent in defeating exclusion and nourishing the definite transnational body politic encouraged by Assange.

To reckon with the state backlash against the internet and against the weakening of borders can easily give activists the impression of an emerging fascistic dystopia. However, do not be deterred. Whether your perspective is that of the marginalized migrant or the persecuted leaker, a dystopian view may be misinformed by despondency of having experiences magnified by the very fact they are “on the ground”. Most people, out of respect for individual sufferings and stories, would contend that this close and gritty perspective leads to accuracy, but it does not lead to a comprehensive analysis of the kind forwarded by Wallerstein. Although created in an “ivory tower” in some sense, the long-term view of the world system and its historical trends expressed in Wallerstein’s theories would conclude that a democratic, stateless and egalitarian alternative can indeed be achieved when the great chaos and suffering typical to historical transitions is overcome. This is not an argument for a stateless world, but rather an argument that a stateless world is a historical inevitability, and adapting to its inevitability and acknowledging it will make the transition less dangerous (although nothing can make history truly safe) for us all. What we now perceive “on the ground” as the emergence of a totalitarian regime is really the convulsions of the “modern” states system as it finally dies and is succeeded by a reintegrated humane civilization. Whatever the case might be at our current juncture, the “deterritorialized” migrant or leaker is on the correct side of history. Those of humanity who are suspended between states, who exist primarily online, and who have no “homeland”, are the citizens of the Wallersteinian future civilization.

To conclude, the “modern” states like everything else are doomed to be killed by the winds of change. One of the things evidently killing them is the social change accelerated by the emerging transnational technological architecture surrounding us. As technology accelerates our world beyond the control of sluggish authorities, we will experience the next generation truly threaten those authorities, as argued by Charles Stross in his recent invigorating article, “Spy Kids” at Foreign Policy. What will follow could well make even Assange’s vision of our options look parochial and narrow-minded. For the moment, I concede that much of our convenience still seems to be dependent on the state machinery and our provisional loyalty to the state, but this will not survive things to come. Whether it takes a decade or a century, social change will render the state obsolete, and our security will then be guaranteed in embracing the successor system rather than clinging to reaction.

Harry J. Bentham is a British futurist blogger who has been a contributor at a number of think tanks including the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies since 2013. His work at Press TV and the multi-faith Beliefnet website has gained increasing attention and praise, including in the international media. Commentaries on political and ethical controversies by Bentham have been published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, H+ Magazine, Dissident Voice and numerous other publications. He edits The Blog. Read other articles by Harry.