The last sections of the course deal with processes that quite clearly overwhelm the nation-state: globalization and climate change.
For most of human history, the vast majority of human beings lived an almost exclusively local existence. Movement was difficult for most people and mountains, rivers, deserts, valleys, and all sorts of of geographical features limited mobility. Moreover, people had little reason to move around. Life was primarily determined around agriculture and once the fields were cleared there was no reason to move. Even nomads had regular cycles of movement determined by the weather and constrained by geography.
There were always some, however, who did move around and these people were primarily traders (an even smaller number were simple explorers). Over time, trade expanded as new modes of transportation emerged–the development of sea-going ships was a dramatic breakthrough in trade. The trade routes became regularized and new occupations developed: scouts, inns, bodyguards, and other new skills were necessary to support the traders. Some of these routes became very regular, and the most famous of all these trading routes was called the silk road which united the civilizations in China, South Asia, and the Middle East. These three centers thrived because of the trade and complex civilizations grew up around this economic activity.
The 19th century, however, saw an incredible explosion in global trade. The industrial revolution made truly global trade possible. Integrating what the Europeans called the New World was possible because of advances in navigation, but it was the development of the steamship, the telephone, the telegraph, and, most importantly, refrigeration, made trade in agricultural goods possible. By the end of the 19th century it was possible to talk concretely about a truly global market. Local advantages is providing goods and services began to wash away as comparative advantage eroded the constraints on being held hostage to a single market.
The late 20th century saw a similar explosion of technology which made global communication instantaneous and capital was able to move to wherever it could be used most efficiently. Land and labor remained somewhat local, allow immigration and migration made labor more mobile. Capital sought the lowest wage centers to become sites for manufacturing and the ability to transport goods quickly and cheaply made location almost irrelevant. Today, if one wishes to order a pizza from Beijing to be delivered to Nairobi bythe next day, it is eminently possible to do so (provided one can afford it).
Globalization has favored those who can be mobile and capital is the most mobile of all the factors of production. Nation-states rule territory, but capital can evade the constraints of territory. It is conceivable that nation-states could limit the mobility of capital. Nation-states are, after all, sovereign, and money has to be deposited someplace. But capital also has the ability to influence political decisions and there are few laws that have been passed by any nation-state that significantly constrain capital. Huge sums of money are hidden away in offshore banking accounts, and those accounts have been rendered untouchable by the governments of most nation-states.
The problems arise when the value of labor reaches a point where the people who can only sell their labor have no bargaining leverage whatsoever. That degree of powerlessness leads to growing concentrations of wealth which then leads to growing inequality in a society. If the inequality reaches a certain level (and we have no idea what that level may be), then markets will collapse because there are too few consumers capable of buying the goods produced. Moreover, if that inequality is preceived as being unfair (and that is not always the case–most people accept inequality if they do not think it is “excessive”), then the political system loses legitimacy and civil society begins to erode. We have no idea right now whether we are near or far away from that point.
Climate change is also a process that transcends the nation-state. While there are several states that have contributed mightily to the emission of greenhouse gases, climate change is a problem common to all. Nation-states have tried to come to agreements regulating the mission of greenhouse gases (such as the Kyoto Protocol and the more recent Paris Agreement), but there remain serious doubts about the ability of those agreements to stave off debilitating climate change by the end of this century. The recent decision by the US to pull out of the Paris Agreement was the act of a sovereign state, but it reflects a definition of the US national interest that assumes that climate change is not a serious issue. As long as that attitude persists, or that other nation-states believe that using fossil fuels is the only effective way to stimulate economic growth to reduce poverty, then the problem of climate change cannot be solved.
So we have two major problems to discuss this week. And we should address the following question:
Does the system of nation-states need to be replaced or modified to address the issues of globalization and climate change. What changes are necessary to preserve the stability of the internaional system for our children’s children?
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