Sunday Sermon: The Border Crisis


The big lie of nationalism is that borders are necessary.

Of course borders are necessary, if you are a nationalist (e.g.: supporter of the system of nations we call “nationalism”).

I’ve been puzzled about this since I was a kid; the whole system of nationalism appears to me to be a gigantic, immoral, scam. I suppose parts of that statement are redundant, but it’s important, to me, to emphasize how odd and just plain wrong it all is. Back when I was reading Étienne De Boétie’s (1549) Discourse on Voluntary Servitude [stderr] the whole time, I was extending the question De Boétie asked toward nationalism, in general. He asked, “why is it that so many people submit their will to rulers, who are generally only individuals far fewer in number than the populations they control?” Why is it that 328 million americans participate in a fake democracy that has been so controlled and manipulated that a relatively small number of people (let’s say congress and the executive and their immediate followers) are able to control them so that they participate more or less peacefully in their own subjugation. Why is it that 328 million americans participate more or less willingly in a system that offers medical care so bad it’s unacceptable, yet spends billions on F-35s that don’t work, and are designed for wars that the population has no interest in fighting? How does this happen? What is wrong with people, so that they put up with it?

Turns out it was to keep Hadrian’s sheep from wandering away

De Boétie’s answer is that people are divided amongst each other. It’s what I’d call an “emergent conspiracy” – there is no master clique that meets in a dark room, deep underground, and charts the course of this massive plot – it’s simply that doing these things is a matter of convenience for the manipulators, who see opportunity as a result of doing certain things, and do them. For example, the american south’s dependency on slavery was not designed by some secret committee, it happened because of greed and laziness. Ditto, when the US assembled its constitution – the south was granted disproportionate power simply because they were in a position to force the north to negotiate with them in that way; it’s not as if there was some secret cabal of southerners who set that situation in motion – they simply saw the way the cards had been dealt, and played them. I guess that’s part of my answer to “why do these things happen?” For all intents a lot of humans’ actions are randomized (within expected boundaries) and it’s probably impossible to plan that far ahead. When I think of history, and the history of “grand strategy” it’s mostly a string of failures. Emergent plans (i.e.: muddling through) seems to work better.

So, nationalism is a system that divides people from eachother, in order to make them more tractable. That doesn’t mean it’s less of a scam; that means it’s more. If we’re all born free, with a package of rights and privileges simply from being human and alive [I actually doubt this] then for many humans, nationalism immediately steps in and violates those rights. At the very least, simply because we are born within some imagined lines on a map, that means we are subject to the laws (and coercive force) of the government that has emerged to control that territory. Over at Mano Singham’s, the other day, there was some discussion about Taiwan, [mano] and I made a meta-inappropriate comment from a post-nationalist perspective: there is no Taiwan, it’s all a result of people’s political imaginings. Sure, there are plenty of people who believe in it now, but that’s just because it’s been there for a while; originally it’s a result of a pissing contest between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai Shek, and some American leaders all of whom are dead and politically irrelevant by now. Taiwan, as a political entity, is some sort of lingering idea of the Taiwan of Mao and Chiang, but it’s sort of like a standing wave of an idea: there is no Taiwan except in people’s minds. That sounds crazy (even to me) but it explains why we have situations in which people and nations have very different and contradictory ideas about the meaning of some piece of land: we’re dealing with a sort of consensual delusion.

Of course, political systems, including nationalism, accrete around themselves protective mechanisms to give a reality to the delusion. As someone once said, “it doesn’t matter if you believe in the mafia; the mafia believes in you.” All of the mechanisms of international law, border controls, wars and posturings for wars, diplomacy, etc., – those were constructed to give teeth to the idea of nations. You can’t continue to deny the reality of a nation for long if it’s willing to kill you, after all. Which, of course, they are: by being born within their borders they assert the right over you to harness you into their economic system, force you to participate in their military, tax you, maybe give you health care and some services, but otherwise the fact that you were born within these lines on a map means they assert the nation’s right to your enslavement. One particularly striking example of this, for me, was the recent “return” of Hong Kong to China. There was a deal made by some colonialist imperialists and a no-longer existing government of the empire of China, in which the colonialists won a war based on superior technology and forced an agreement that the colonialists would govern Hong Kong for 99 years. Nowadays we understand how evil colonialism was, but – why, in 1997, did Hong Kong return itself to Chinese control? There was a huge population – entire cities – full of people in Hong Kong who did not consider themselves subjects of the government of China, who woke up one morning and found themselves subjects of China. That makes remarkably little sense, unless someone wants to whip out specious arguments like, “ungoverned people simply cannot exist without our help.” But that is, basically, what governments say, when they’re willing to argue and not simply resort to main force, which is their usual response. The mafia believes in you, your beliefs are irrelevant.

China’s F-35. It slowed the Mongols down for hours.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy the main drama in which the United States, itself a colonial empire welded together out of a grab-bag of land-grabs, threatens dire violence against China if it attacks Taiwan’s sovereignty, while utterly failing to question whether giving the entire citizenry of Hong Kong to China, like a trading card in some game, makes any sense at all. The “United States of America” is in no position to chide anyone about their disrespect for sovereignty, of course. In fact, the United States is – like any large, successful empire – hardly in a position to claim moral high ground.

That’s why I stare agape when I read about “the crisis on the border.” What “border”? What moral basis does the United States or any other government apply to assert its power to  control the people outside of its borders, or inside for that matter? How and why does it claim moral authority?

It doesn’t, of course. It threatens with force. Even if there is a majority of believers in the “United States of America” who feel they have some kind of authority to keep others out of their imaginary lines on the map, what, other than force, is that based on? We have seen, for the last 10 years or so, that the US is willing to resort to brutal measures – criminal measures – to enforce its borders, but that just compounds the moral crime. You’ve got a bunch of folks chasing other folks out of “their’ country – saying, without intended irony, “it’s ours, we stole it fair and square.”

All that crap about “the social contract” was a fairly good attempt to assert a relationship between government and governed, to tease out the aspects of that relationship that distinguish a legitimate state from an authoritarian gang. The social contract, however, would specifically reject the notion that a state has “borders” that it can “protect” from would-be participants in the body politic. I know virtually nobody in the US believes it, but those people would be pretty happy taxpayers – the “immigrant success story” of the US is undeniable: historically it has done a great job of absorbing the hard-asses, rejects, kooks, and criminals of other countries and turning them into paid-up members of the economy. As long as they are white, that is.

This is why I sit with my jaw hanging, while I hear the descendants of Germans, Poles, Irish, and English saying “the country is full, go away.” They have absolutely no moral right to say that: the lines on a map that they are trying to enforce are simply the imaginary boundaries of their power. Not their authority. They have no right, or authority, to say that immigration can or should be controlled. Of course the United States has granted itself that right, but look at the panoply of “rights” the US has granted itself: the right to commit genocide, the right to enforce Jim Crow, the right to gerrymander elections, the right of its politicians to put themselves up for sale in the most crass manner imaginable, the right to bomb whoever a small group of cowardly warhawks in the government think can be bombed, today, the right to fleece vast amounts of tax money from the people, etc. Like any other government, the United States has no political legitimacy other than its grotesque monopoly on the use of force (now backed with nuclear weapons). If Rousseau were here, today, he’d be pointing out that for a government to be legitimate, it needs to be taking care of the least of its citizens, not its richest. Those least citizens are the ones crossing our southern border, who want to join this great big seething mess, to gain power and economic prosperity so that, eventually, they can rain down the shit of disapproval on new versions of their former selves.

This is an example of those “problems too big to have a useful suggestion for” – I see no practical way that nationalism (which is now allied with capitalist oligarchs) can be unseated. Yet it seems to me, by its assertion of a priority of rights over the individual’s, to be a criminal enterprise. Basically, the nations of the world are rival gangs, writ large, with a “divide and conquer” philosophy. That’s how we can see one government stand by, with its arms crossed, as the citizens “belonging to” another nation are slaughtered. Sovereignty is the assertion of the right to do that, basically – the right to control the people within a border. I suppose it’s not hard to imagine anything more immoral – all you have to do is look at the things nations regularly do, and there’s a great big laundry-list. I wish I had an answer to what to do about nationalism, but I expect it co-evolved with us humans. Pace Rousseau, there was never a “state of nature” unless that “state of nature” was proto-humans ruled by the most vicious, willing to harm others to inflict their will – probably a male, a proto-ruler. Oligarchs have always been with us, and they’ll be with us at the end – because they’ll be what kills us.

I would say that this posting is literally anti-social, in that it attempts to break down core tenets of society – which, these days. organizes itself under a nationalist system. Is there anymore more “out there” than saying we ought to scrap all that? And what would we replace it with? I don’t know, but the virus of tribalism and nationalism seems to guarantee that every social collapse turns into <i>The Road Warrior</i> world, fairly quickly. None of this makes me confident that anything will survive the +4C rise that’s coming. (We are on track for much more, and we already acknowledge that we can’t survive +4C. Great, huh? Nationalism is going to kill us with nukes or incompetence; it hardly matters.)

Comments

  1. brucegee1962 says

    As soon as there were enough humans to split up into separate cultures, some were more aggressive and some less so. And the ones that were more aggressive would tend to plunder, enslave, or kill the peaceful ones, so pretty soon all the cultures were warlike, because all the rest had been enslaved or killed.
    Why am I loyal to King Shalmaneser? Because I know that, just a few days’ march from here, there is a kingdom full of dirty, smelly Hittites who would love nothing better than to kill me and enslave my wife and children and eradicate the language and songs and stories I love that make up my culture. I’ll gladly pay my taxes to the King because he’s got an army that will protect me from those Hittites. Heck, maybe he’ll capture a Hittite city and take some of them as slaves and I’ll be able to get one — that sounds nice. Sure, he’ll use that same army to oppress me if I get out of line, but he’d have to make my life pretty miserable indeed before he’s worse than those Hittites would be. If I have to be subservient to someone, I’d rather it be someone who shares my culture.
    I also think that the constant warfare through most of human history is the main reason for human progress. If you’ve played any of the Civilization games, you know that if you don’t keep making developments, you’ll be wiped off the map in short order. Not just military developments, either — if you want a big enough empire to avoid being taken over, you’re going to need mathematics for logistics and sophisticated communication to hold your cities together and codes of law to keep things running smoothly. Just military isn’t enough — look what happened to the empire that Alexander conquered.
    But the problem with warfare is that the more effective your technology is at conquering, the more it tends to destroy the resources that you wanted to conquer. So in the last century or so, warfare has started to be more and more of a losing proposition, and other forms of competition like capitalism have been more effective. That’s my take, anyway.

  2. Ketil Tveiten says

    This post has some real issues with confusing nations and states. It seems you’re mostly complaining that states exist, which doesn’t have that much to do with nations, which also are things that exist. As soon as everyone treats Taiwan as a real thing, it becomes a real thing.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Capitalism is the replacement for war, now that war is to deadly to do properly? That actually makes a lot of sense.

  4. says

    I wish I had an answer to what to do about nationalism, but I expect it co-evolved with us humans.

    To some extent, humans probably have an innate desire to form groups, a desire to belong to some community. After all, we evolved as social beings.

    But our biology is not sufficient to explain the current problem. There is a lot of nationalistic indoctrination. At school, for me there was mandatory participation in nationalist holidays. History lessons from a nationalistic perspective. Nationalistic stories in literature lessons. Even language lessons were nationalistic. My language teacher taught us the importance of cherishing Latvian language and keeping it free from foreign influences. The latter idea is, of course, a load of bovine waste. Once you actually seriously study linguistics in a university (as my school’s language teacher must have done, yet she somehow missed the point), you will learn that languages have always changed and developed and influenced each other. It is inherently impossible for some language to remain pure from foreign influences. But tell that to nationalists!

    Nationalism seems like a self-perpetuating disease. Like religions. Like misogynistic gender norms. Like disgusting social customs (for example, mutilating the genitals of infants). People were taught this way since childhood, so they happily go on and spread the nonsense to the next generation.

  5. says

    Ketil Tveiten@#2:
    This post has some real issues with confusing nations and states.

    OK, I’ll bite. What’s the difference? I can see making an argument that a nation is an “ideal” or something, and a state is an implementation of that ideal. But that’s just word-smithing. I think it’s not unreasonable at all to treat them as the same thing, one being an instance of the other – you’re fine-slicing my language in a way that doesn’t add anything. But if it makes you happy, that’s good.

    It seems you’re mostly complaining that states exist

    No, I am complaining about much more than that. Please don’t think you’re refuting my posting by picking one point and hammering on it, while ignoring the rest. Your very statement implies that states exist, which … maybe, but let’s not take that as a given.

    If we challenge the legitimacy of states and question the origin of nationalism, what does that mean about borders? Seems to me that they’re just ideas. Oh, sure, those ideas are reified on maps, and there are armies that march under the flags of those states, but nations appear to be a group hallucination, to me. Sure, there are states built on those hallucinations but – so what? Their existence doesn’t make the nation more real – it’s just an idea with an army.

    which doesn’t have that much to do with nations, which also are things that exist. As soon as everyone treats Taiwan as a real thing, it becomes a real thing.

    That’s too simple. Obviously there are a lot of “Taiwanese” who imagine one thing called “Taiwan” and there are a lot of “Chinese” who imagine another. Do both exist, or does neither? Or something in between? Is it Schrodinger’s eigen-state?

    I generally don’t buy the “lots of people having an idea makes it real” argument because then we have unicorns and gods and all kinds of other reified imaginary entities crashing around in our heads.

    If you want to say “Taiwan exists because it has an army” (for example) then that doesn’t sufficiently reify “Taiwan” for my purposes – I can just point and say, “no, that army exists and thinks it has a “Taiwan””

  6. says

    sonofrojblake@#3:
    Capitalism is the replacement for war, now that war is to deadly to do properly? That actually makes a lot of sense.

    It’s an argument I’ve seen in places and it carries some weight. I’m afraid, though, that eventually it’ll become one of the arguments capitalists use to justify their system: “Look! No more wars! Just the occasional bunch of union guys getting their asses kicked. It’s way better.”

    Another way of looking at it is that building increasingly advanced weapons systems requires larger and more vertically integrated economies. The ultimate example of that being nuclear weapons and their delivery system. The more advanced weapons systems used to be able to win wars but now – for now – nuclear weapons seem to have created a plateau in violence. But I believe it’s only temporary. They’ll get used, eventually, because they are there. As vertically integrated economies develop, anarcho-capitalists ally with the government to help produce bigger and better weapons (think Krupp in the 1900s and Dupont in the 1900s and WWII) – the more powerful you become, the tighter the economic controls on the population become, and the deadlier the eventual wars become. WWI was pretty bad but WWII was truly appalling. What will WWIII be? As Asimov said, WWIV will be fought with sticks and rocks.

    Shorter capitalist: war is bad for business.
    That argument has also been made. I remember I was talking with someone once who told me that Lockheed was still paying patent royalties to Japanese companies during WWII, for technology used in dive-bombers that were bombing the Japanese navy. My interlocutor thought that was a good argument for how capitalism damps down the severity of wars because they are bad for business. But then I mentioned that he was talking about WWII – which was pretty bad for business. David S. Landes, in his incredible The Unbound Prometheus (recommended book!) points out that the pre-WWI industrial economy was not much more than preparation for WWI and arguably the level of preparation caused the leaders to decide that they had to use all their new stuff because it was going to go obsolete. It’s an interesting point, especially if you track what happened to the world’s navies between WWI and WWII.

  7. says

    brucegee1962@#1:
    As soon as there were enough humans to split up into separate cultures, some were more aggressive and some less so. And the ones that were more aggressive would tend to plunder, enslave, or kill the peaceful ones, so pretty soon all the cultures were warlike, because all the rest had been enslaved or killed.

    Yes. That’s what I was trying to get at with my posting about the nihilism axis. A culture/state/nation that is more aggressive is going to take that first-mover advantage against the others and, pretty quickly, you’ve got King Thag the First. Everyone winds up militarized because not militarizing is obviously a losing proposition, but it still is not going to succeed in general.

    I forget the author but I read some guy who was claiming that the US was the first stealth empire, because we realized that we can use air power and rapid naval power to solve the problem of administering the world. You can’t really conquer it, the way the Mongols would, and install a new political entity in each part of your expanded border, but you can dominate it by saying “so what we can bomb the shit out of you if you misbehave and you can do nothing about it. [Now you see why I believe the North Korean leadership are probably the most suicidally sensible people on Earth; they have defeated the US’ strategy]

    Why am I loyal to King Shalmaneser? Because I know that, just a few days’ march from here, there is a kingdom full of dirty, smelly Hittites who would love nothing better than to kill me and enslave my wife and children and eradicate the language and songs and stories I love that make up my culture. I’ll gladly pay my taxes to the King because he’s got an army that will protect me from those Hittites. Heck, maybe he’ll capture a Hittite city and take some of them as slaves and I’ll be able to get one — that sounds nice. Sure, he’ll use that same army to oppress me if I get out of line, but he’d have to make my life pretty miserable indeed before he’s worse than those Hittites would be. If I have to be subservient to someone, I’d rather it be someone who shares my culture.

    I agree that seems like how the situation might have evolved. You even worked in “form a permanent underclass” into the equation, which is good – most civilizations do that, somehow.

    I also think that the constant warfare through most of human history is the main reason for human progress. If you’ve played any of the Civilization games, you know that if you don’t keep making developments, you’ll be wiped off the map in short order. Not just military developments, either — if you want a big enough empire to avoid being taken over, you’re going to need mathematics for logistics and sophisticated communication to hold your cities together and codes of law to keep things running smoothly. Just military isn’t enough — look what happened to the empire that Alexander conquered.

    As states get more powerful, their war-economies get larger and they are harder to tackle. One path is to leap the technology ladder and develop black hole guns and killer asteroid-pusher drones, which are very expensive and require massive investment. Only a bigger more successful economy can defeat asteroid-pushers. Etc. So everything gets bigger and bigger and more dangerous – and the wars get worse and more total.

    But the problem with warfare is that the more effective your technology is at conquering, the more it tends to destroy the resources that you wanted to conquer. So in the last century or so, warfare has started to be more and more of a losing proposition, and other forms of competition like capitalism have been more effective.

    Maybe. I buy that argument except I am scared that our political leaders are a bunch of nihilists who really don’t care and would be happy-ish to push the button on the way out. For one thing, our habit of allowing older and older people to rule really scares the shit out of me.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    brucegee1962 @1:

    As soon as there were enough humans to split up into separate cultures, some were more aggressive and some less so

    I imagine hunter-gatherers had territories which would have been defended to varying degrees, depending on abundance and other factors. Culture needn’t come into it; you want to make sure you can feed the members of your group. The outsiders might even be relatives who split off from your group a generation or two ago. So what? Food is food, and pride is pride.

    Of course, there would have been trading and intermarriage with other groups, but the potential for conflict would always be there, largely based on territory. And with agriculture, the borders of territories become more fixed.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Andreas Avester @4:

    But our biology is not sufficient to explain the current problem. There is a lot of nationalistic indoctrination.

    That’s nothing new. The only difference is scale. We’ve had sentences like “my group does X, Y and Z better than your group” pretty much since we first started forming sentences, and that is passed on to the children.

  10. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Having a me/not-me boundary is fundamental to our biology, and an unconscious, accepted idea that saturates our thinking. From the lowliest lipid-wrapped cell on up, living organisms create a me/not-me boundary, across which they can import energy and export shit, and within which they can accumulate resources in safety. Psychologically we extend our personal me/not-me boundary, our skin, in many ways, to the walls of our houses, bodies of our cars, edges of our lots.

    This idea continues to work applied to groups; we accept the need for an us/not-us boundary within which the resources we accumulate, the capital assets we build, are reliably safe and can be used in tranquility. That reliability, predictability, of accumulated capital, is a great reducer of psychic stress. If the us/not-us border is broken by anything, everything about the future of our laboriously accumulated property, public or private, becomes in prospect uncertain, chaotic, frightening — and people just hate uncertainty and will accept anything to restore predictability, which means reestablishing and shoring up that us/not-us boundary.

    It is a sign of increasing average intelligence over generations that we have accepted ever larger, ever looser definitions of “us”. In that regard, I have always thought the formation of the EU was a real milepost of human cognitive advance, the courageous acceptance of a whole bunch of strangers and traditional enemies as acceptable parts of “us”.

    The simultaneous movements that led to Brexit and to Trumpian wall-building represent the backlash of the old guard against wider, looser definitions of “acceptably us”. These movements are tied to conservative politics because generally, conservatism hates unpredictability while liberalism is willing to embrace it (in measured doses). Walls, borders, boundaries of every kind symbolize predictability and safety for our hoards of stuff at a very primal level of our thought. We won’t get rid of the desire for them for many generations, if ever, but we can make them softer, more humane in application.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    China’s F-35 [the Great Wall]. It slowed the Mongols down for hours.

    Actually, most of it was built after the Mongols were kicked out. They didn’t come back in, did they? And it seems to have kept out the Manchus for a few decades.

    Anyway, one of the main purposes of walls has been to control trade. You wanna get your camels through? See that gate over there? Go there and pay the nice man with the burly guards behind him.

  12. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#8:
    I imagine hunter-gatherers had territories which would have been defended to varying degrees, depending on abundance and other factors. Culture needn’t come into it; you want to make sure you can feed the members of your group.

    That seems right to me. At a certain point, territorialism and property become part of culture as an inevitable side-effect of scarcity or over-consumption.As soon as someone says “hey! those are my berries!” then we can have a throw-down to determine if that’s correct.They’re mine if I think they are mine and I can give someone a black eye or worse for thinking that they’re theirs.

  13. says

    Andreas Avester@#4:
    To some extent, humans probably have an innate desire to form groups, a desire to belong to some community. After all, we evolved as social beings.

    That seems right, to me. Humans do not like isolation – in fact, it’s torture. Obviously, we can’t do experiments on infants to see if they can be raised asocial, but that’s the big “nature versus nurture” question, isn’t it?

    But our biology is not sufficient to explain the current problem. There is a lot of nationalistic indoctrination. At school, for me there was mandatory participation in nationalist holidays. History lessons from a nationalistic perspective. Nationalistic stories in literature lessons. Even language lessons were nationalistic. My language teacher taught us the importance of cherishing Latvian language and keeping it free from foreign influences.

    I guess it’s enforcing another (imaginary) border. The in-group/out-group. How do we have a sense of identity without a barrier? We can’t be a people without our language and our secret gang-signs.

    Nationalism seems like a self-perpetuating disease.

    I’d say it’s a self-perpetuating bad idea.

    In the near future, mankind will have to respond to a crisis that requires unified action and sensible leadership. I don’t think we’re going to make it, if we’re breaking along the division-lines that have been built into us in order to dominate us.

  14. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#11:
    Actually, most of it was built after the Mongols were kicked out. They didn’t come back in, did they? And it seems to have kept out the Manchus for a few decades.

    Yeah, that was a brain-fart on my part. I forgot which set of invaders it was built against. The point remains: it served as a border but it wasn’t a militarily effective border – bribing or threatening the wall-keepers worked pretty quickly.

    You’re right that the main purpose of such walls was to enforce a border, economically, politically, and otherwise. I guess I’d say it’s turning the imaginary lines on a map into a real one. One that’s still pretty easy to get over, once it’s undefended (it’s the defenders that make the border, not the wall)

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911):

    Boundaryn. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.

  16. cvoinescu says

    This idea [grauniad] is particularly apposite, and reinforces your point of view from a different direction: “Why is the right obsessed with ‘defending’ borders? Because it sees citizenship as a commodity” (subtitle: “Xenophobia plays a crucial role, but to truly understand the border crisis we need to take a global economic perspective”)

  17. says

    cvoinescu@#8:
    I’ll check it out, thanks.

    The US border is basically a big scam for accomplishing two things: keeping non-white people from becoming a voting majority, and maintaining a labor underclass.

  18. sonofrojblake says

    I’m afraid, though, that eventually it’ll become one of the arguments capitalists use to justify their system: “Look! No more wars! Just the occasional bunch of union guys getting their asses kicked. It’s way better.”

    Well… isn’t it?

    Also: nuclear weapons are “there”, but I’m actually sceptical they’ll ever get used, at least intentionally or on the kind of scale they were making TV mini-series and pop songs about when I was a teenager (I lived through a war and I won’t have anyone my grandparents’ age tell me different…). Why? Because while war may be arguably good or bad for business, a nuclear war will END “business”. Billionaires ultimately want (presumably) to be trillionaires – which is to say, at the top of the heap in a technologically advanced stable society. Oligarchs want to be Lady Trieu – not Immortan Joe. And because of that, I don’t believe we’ll have any more big wars, at least not the kind any of us would recognise as such.

  19. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve been thinking a lot about borders and nations recently. I’m working on an sf novel that touches on this, and I’d love to discuss it with some of the commentariat here.
    The premise is that a ship leaves a failing earth to try to set up a functioning colony on another world. Among other themes, I want to explore this question of what a liberal utopia would look like.
    The founders of the colony can raise all the colonists from blastocysts that were donated before they left earth, but they decide to conceal as much knowledge of earth’s mistakes from the colonists as possible and start with a largely blank slate in order to try to eliminate sexism, racism, and other -isms. Once they get to the stage of multiple city-states, they make sure that they have a monopoly on the means of violence so that they can prevent warfare. For the purposes of discussion, assume the founders are benevolent and have no use for power for its own sake or other forms of corruption (there is conflict between them that will drive the plot, but that isn’t what I want to ask about here.)
    The founders encourage the colonists to set up different laws in each city-state that is founded, ranging from hardore libertarians to anarchists to authoritarians. There is just one uber-rule enforced by the central government, besides the no-wars rule: every state must allow, and contribute to, a fund that allows every citizen to relocate to a different city every year if they want, for any or no reason. The theory is that all the city-states will be in competition with one another for the kinds of citizens they want, and will strive to make their laws and customs as attractive as possible to increase their populations. They’re all in competition with one another, but the competition is non-destructive.
    Where I could use some help from all of you is trying to figure out if such a borderless world could possibly work. Two big problems immediately present themselves. One is crime – inevitable everywhere there is private property. How can it be deterred? Two of the main traditional forms of punishment – exile and incarceration – both break the uber-rule of free migration: one keeps you from coming in, the other keeps you from leaving. What’s left – public flogging? Also, states trying to discourage criminals from coming to live in their borders might engage in a race to the bottom to make their punishments more and more draconian.
    The other problem is that not every system may scale up. If we all establish an anarcho-commune that works fabulously when there are just 150 of us, it may fail spectacularly if another 2000 show up and want to join. Or if one country adopts a “every couple can only have two children” rule to conserve resources, and their neighbor has a laissez-faire custom of “have as many kids as you want and ship the excess to two-children land,” that could be a problem as well.
    So I ask the assembled FtBers – if you had the chance to build a world with no borders, how would you make it work despite these problems?

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    brucegee1962 @20:

    they decide to conceal as much knowledge of earth’s mistakes from the colonists as possible and start with a largely blank slate in order to try to eliminate sexism, racism, and other -isms.

    To me, that’s a major problem. Knowledge is power, and knowledge about others’ mistakes, and one’s own potential mistakes, is vital. What are the worst possible outcomes, and how can they be avoided? Humans have a lot of innate baggage, the tendency towards tribalism being a huge one. Don’t deny it. Use it.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    Another way of putting it: You have to know your weaknesses, so that you can avoid the dark alleys they can lead you down.

  22. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    @brucegee1962, I can’t imagine your novel setup reaching the point your real interest begins, with the multiple city-states, because of the horrible moral swamp the founders would be in long before. How would they maintain a “monopoly on the means of violence”? A fucking hammer is a “means of violence” (not to mention a fist or a shard of flint). So what are these founders (who I assume are computer-resident intelligences, so they can be immortal) going to do? They have to maintain constant intrusive surveillance of all their little descendants. “Oh shit, another smartass just invented gunpowder!” At which point what do they do? Kill the smartass? Or lobotomize them? The founders quickly become horrible people who are actually going to end up killing all the intelligent people, not the evolutionary force they’d like to be.

  23. xohjoh2n says

    There is just one uber-rule enforced by the central government, besides the no-wars rule: every state must allow, and contribute to, a fund that allows every citizen to relocate to a different city every year if they want, for any or no reason. The theory is that all the city-states will be in competition with one another for the kinds of citizens they want, and will strive to make their laws and customs as attractive as possible to increase their populations. They’re all in competition with one another, but the competition is non-destructive.

    Ah, but we *know* where that leads already.

    The new supermarket drops the price of bread below its production cost, undercutting the local baker, to attract custom. Baker goes out of business. Supermarket ramps up price above what the baker used to charge. If a second supermarket survives the fallout, they make a show of competing a little bit, but don’t actually have to do so very hard as it turns out that people don’t *like* to change frequently.

    (In other words you need some tough ground rules on what kinds of local policies are considered self-destructive or unsustainable, and some serious enforcement teeth.)

  24. brucegee1962 says

    @28 JORE

    How would they maintain a “monopoly on the means of violence”? A fucking hammer is a “means of violence” (not to mention a fist or a shard of flint). So what are these founders (who I assume are computer-resident intelligences, so they can be immortal) going to do? They have to maintain constant intrusive surveillance of all their little descendants. “Oh shit, another smartass just invented gunpowder!” At which point what do they do? Kill the smartass? Or lobotomize them? The founders quickly become horrible people who are actually going to end up killing all the intelligent people, not the evolutionary force they’d like to be.

    They don’t outlaw violence — just warfare. It’s up to individual city-states to determine what kind of police they want and how much or how little violence they want to allow within their borders.
    Borders would still exist, and have some kind of process for determining disputes — you need borders to determine whose jurisdiction and what laws apply in a place, after all. It’s possible there would be a procedure to adjust borders based on population, and to allow smaller territories to vote and decide which of their neighbors they want to join. But remember, anyone can live anywhere — if you’d prefer to live under a different government, you can just go there. It’s a bit like the United States, with the various states competing with one another for a mobile population, but rarely going to war with one another due partly to the militarily superior central government, and partly because you can go wherever you want.
    The founders maintain their monopoly of violence by keeping the highest levels of technology for themselves. Of course, it’s likely that eventually their descendants will catch up, so this is temporary. But I wonder if the same impulses for war would develop if there wasn’t a cultural tradition of war going back centuries. After all, war is all about control over resources, especially people — would this still be an impulse if the people strongly believed that they could just leave if they didn’t like a place?

  25. Ketil Tveiten says

    I am sure Marcus loves the real failure-mode of the Great Wall – generals opening the gates to the Manchu during the great peasant uprising because they preferred a new «barbarian» upper class being in charge to, you know, the people running things.

    Your refusal to call things like nations, states and Taiwan «real» is just a failure to acknowledge that non-physical things can be real. On different levels, to be sure; I don’t suffer any consequences for ignoring the very faint reality of unicorns (which exist as ideas, but not more than that), but the State is very definitely a thing that exists in terms of practical reality. «You don’t exist» is not a valid entry in my tax returns. Basically, I prefer practical definitions that apply to practical reality. We can discuss whether the state is a legitimate thing, but it’s somewhat silly to claim it doesn’t exist.

    Nations vs states: a nation is a group if people with some real or imagined common language and culture; a state is an organisation exercising power and government. They are not the same thing, and have their own separate problematic issues, but like anything complex neither are purely bad; nationalism is the idea that they should be the same thing, and in an exclusionary way. My complaint here was simply that you muddled this stuff up in an overly simplistic way; I broadly agree that borders are somewhat dubious things.

  26. sonofrojblake says

    LAND borders are certainly dubious things. But what about islands? Especially smaller ones. If your ancestors braved terrible hardship and life-threatening conditions to arrive at a place to call home, a place with definitely finite resources that require you to carefully manage your local environment and population as a matter of basic survival, then isn’t it expecting a bit much to require you to welcome anyone and everyone who later passes by and thinks “nice beach – I’ll stay here”?

    There’s a Culture saying (Iain M. Banks’ books) – “money is a sign of poverty”, the implication being that scarcity requires the invention and maintenance of a common medium of exchange because not everyone can have everything they want, or even need, if resources are limited. And right now, resources are limited. One might extend this to say “nations and states are a sign of poverty”, because if resources were functionally unlimited (i.e. way more than the population needs or wants) then all but the most psychopathic have no need of a border or a state. Banks’s solution to those few psychos is to amuse them in virtual environments where they can do what they like to an arbitrary degree of convincing reality without hurting anyone Real, or to simply follow them around everywhere they go and forcibly prevent them from doing harm.

  27. brucegee1962 says

    You know, whenever someone starts talking about the unreality of social constructs, it makes me want to say “You’ve probably got a bunch of green pieces of paper in your wallet whose value is purely a social construct, so if you want to live without constructs, you probably ought to send those to me.”

    @26 sonofrojblake
    Thanks for the recommendation — that was interesting reading, and I may follow up with the books. Reading about utopias has always been a fun hobby, going all the way back to News from Nowhere in the nineteenth century. Starting with the assumption of unlimited resources seems a bit like cheating, though.

    I’ve also started to wonder if a post-scarcity society is even possible. I have a sneaking suspicion that, even if we all had replicators that could create any object we could imagine on demand, we would still come up with ways to have scarce things. Look at crypto-currency and the new craze for NFTs — when people have everything they need, they seem to make up imaginary scarce stuff just so they can have new ways of keeping score.

    Art — at least physical art — also seems like it contradicts post-scarcity. If I go out into the forest, cut down a tree, and spend six months carving it into a statue, I’m not going to be very happy if you come in the night and jack it off my lawn to put in your foyer. We all have what seems to be an instinctive love of the unique that would be hard to breed out of us.

  28. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve been thinking more about borders. Probably the only society that could get by without any defined borders would be a pure anarchy, with no laws. One implied quality of every law ever written is the concept of jurisdiction — the idea that there are some places where the law applies and others where it doesn’t. Jurisdiction automatically implies borders. So I conclude that the argument over whether or not borders are necessary is really just a subset of the argument over whether humans can live in an anarchy.

  29. bmiller says

    @26 sonof: One of the most fascinating invention in Banks’ works was the culture who NEEDED a Hell, so they created a virtual one. Which led to wars in “reality” as well!

    I would also note that our entire economy is based on increasing the “everything they want” demands. A family of three NEEDS a 5,000 square foot house with a four car garage in modern Upper Middle Class America?

  30. says

    brucegee1962@#30:
    I’ve been thinking more about borders. Probably the only society that could get by without any defined borders would be a pure anarchy, with no laws.

    I’m not sure. It seems to me that it’d be possible to accept that herding people behind borders is an immoral proposition, and still allow states to exist – so long as they respected people’s rights to mobility. The result would (I imagine) be a sort of democratization of nationalism: a government that screwed up too badly for too long would eventually bleed out as everyone took their marbles and left.So they’d all be implicitly under the threat of depopulation if they did not govern well. I think that fits in well with Rousseau’s notion of a social contract going both ways between the individual and the state.

    One implied quality of every law ever written is the concept of jurisdiction — the idea that there are some places where the law applies and others where it doesn’t.

    Well, remember I’m an anti-nationalist; I’d favor the existence of some minimal super-state that organized and empowered laws governing the behavior of states. That would amount to a sort of universal bill of rights: life, liberty, mobility, freedom of speech, freedom of one’s possessions, right to bear arms, etc. [just kidding about the right to bear arms]

    So I conclude that the argument over whether or not borders are necessary is really just a subset of the argument over whether humans can live in an anarchy.

    It’s an argument over whether or not any state can be or has ever been legitimate. In that sense, it’s a question of whether or not humans can live in anarchy. I think that if it were constructed carefully and we could eradicate the vestiges of capitalism and nationalism, it’d be possible – but those systems would not go quietly and, I think, they’d reach for the Samson option before they allowed themselves to be disempowered.

  31. says

    brucegee1962@#29:
    You know, whenever someone starts talking about the unreality of social constructs, it makes me want to say “You’ve probably got a bunch of green pieces of paper in your wallet whose value is purely a social construct, so if you want to live without constructs, you probably ought to send those to me.”

    I don’t think anyone is saying that or anything like it. As I said before, it doesn’t matter if you believe in the Mafia, as long as the Mafia believes in you – these are social constructs that may be nothing more than customs or imagination, but people are still willing to kill over them. That makes them “real” in a sense [I would say “it reifies them” – i.e.: it makes them real to the believer]
    We have to live in the world we find ourselves in. We maybe can’t even live in the worlds we imagine might be.

    Meanwhile, to the main point of the posting: nobody seems to be explaining how “you were born inside our borders therefore we can subject you to our laws and capture your labor, tax you, starve you, allow you to die in a pandemic, etc – just because you had the misfortune to be born in US/Georgia instead of Finland.” I think that proposition is indefensible, but I’d love to hear someone stick up for it.

  32. says

    Ketil Tveiten@#27:
    Your refusal to call things like nations, states and Taiwan «real» is just a failure to acknowledge that non-physical things can be real.

    I have repeatedly acknowledged that very thing. “The Mafia” is a non-physical thing – an idea of membership in a group – you can’t touch it, but it manifests itself and has real world effects. I’m not denying any of that and I don’t understand why you seem to think I am.

    On the other hand, you ought to admit that a border is an idea, right? We can see that it’s “merely” an idea because they change all the time and can simultaneously exist differently for multiple people (e.g.: a contested border) So, it seems to be a hugely immoral proposition, to me, to claim that anyone gets rights over anyone else because they were born within one particular imagined border or another.

    What seems to be happening is that some people are focusing on the first part of what I said, and ignoring the second – which is the important part.

  33. brucegee1962 says

    It seems as if the point is that borders and boundaries make sense as political entities. The point Marcus is making is that they become problems when they become barriers to restrict movement.

  34. sonofrojblake says

    @brucegee1962: Start with “The Player of Games” or “Use of Weapons” and pick up “Consider Phlebas” later. It’s the first, but not the best place to jump on. If you only read two, make the second one “Excession”.

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