In 1900, the modern nation states of Europe faced many challenges in terms of how they were run, with poverty and disease still prevalent. The largest problems were more or less successfully addressed by 2000. The road involved world wars and civil wars, but the essential recipe to the problems prevalent in 1900 has been found and implemented in most countries in Europe. In turn that recipe has been copied in many other places.
The problem of how to organise the economy has been addressed via the mixed-market system and the general organisation of a national bureaucracy in large semi-autonomous institutions with specific roles, such as national police systems and national water supply systems.
The problem of how to get legitimacy in the whole system and turnover amongst the elites has been largely solved by the universal democratic franchise, a non-religious non-ethnic story telling national identity, and a basic safety net for all.
The problems of low health and low productivity in the general population have largely been solved via national health services and free state-organised education.
The problem of over-militarisation and a highly disruptive nobility class oriented around land rents has been solved in Western Europe by having most of them killed or displaced by two World Wars. We have also outsourced the gravity point of the military to the Americans, greatly increased human capital investments, and been lucky to have had few natural resources. Combined, they have prevented the production of lots of new barons.
What are the main challenges facing European countries today in terms of how our societies are organised? How might these challenges be addressed? Let us not bother with small stuff like Brexit or fake news, which are basically historical blips and part of the ongoing theater of politics, but only talk about general challenges to our survival and quality of life.
One challenge is that of the internet to national identity, national taxation, and national truths. Our countries face the problem that the population in many ways lives and trades online in an international no-man’s land that is conducive to internationalism, tax avoidance, and the creation of truths on the basis of economic interests and religious ideologies rather than national interest.
I suspect that the route now explored in Russia and China is going to win out, which is the emergence in each large region of a bureaucracy that controls the important aspects of the internet as pertaining to that country or region. This partly involves a nationalisation of some of the key functions now performed by private companies (search functions, social networking, market places), as well as the establishment of a national internet police service and a national internet identification service. You see a lot of steps in this direction.
We cannot know how this nationalisation of the internet will go, but I suspect that we will end up with a system whereby anyone on the internet will have to wear a unique nationally-distributed device that identifies them and their activities. I am thinking of a biometric identification device that will unlock financial, democratic, and other functions on the internet, but that is of course also related to their taxes and propaganda behaviour.
A quite different challenge is that of climate change and other international environmental problems like too much plastic in the oceans and too few fish.The ‘old approach’ of letting someone own the common resource (the oceans or the climate) is unlikely to work. The ‘obvious approach’ of having a world empire in which a world bureaucracy enforces an international solution is unlikely to emerge because I think nation states will continue to win the political battle for hearts and minds, beating all international ideologies, as nation states have done in the previous 500 years.
I suspect that we will see coalition-of-the-willing engineering solutions to many of these problems. As a non-engineer I can only take a wild guess at just what the winning solutions will look like. The way the marine scientists in Australia are now planning to essentially (genetically) engineer a heat-resistant Great Barrier Reef ecosystem is a good example for how I think lots of other environmental challenges will actually be tackled.
I imagine autonomous vessels with artificial intelligence that roam around the oceans to collect the surplus plastic, organised by a UN-type organisation.
I imagine huge national marine ponds floating in the oceans to spawn fish and other marine life, with larger water territories emerging on the basis of regional cooperation, perhaps slowly converging on global cooperation.
I imagine groups of large countries combining to pump reflective aerosols into the higher atmosphere to cool down the planet, resisted by other countries who want it to be warmer.
I foresee both national and regional attempts to preserve and increase biodiversity, including the creation of new species (“how much diversity do you want? Labs can provide!”).
Hence I suspect we will get a patchwork of specific alliances that try engineering solutions to specific global environmental problems.
Another challenge is that of the disconnect between mobile international elites and the majority populations of the nation states. This problem has exacerbated elite tax evasion, attacks on the stories of national identity, widening inequality, and political corruption on a scale not seen after WWII.
I suspect that we will see broadly the same solution to this in the 21st century as we saw to a quite similar problem of elite-disconnect in the early 1900s: political strife resembling civil war culminating in the renewed supremacy of the national project as the dominant political organising force. I just cannot see any form of internationalism supplanting the nation states, though we might get large blocks of nation states becoming more and more like nation states.
The challenge for those who mean well is not how to stop the coming wave of nationalism, but rather how to channel it in a way that maximises it benefits and minimises its damage. It might be that we go the Swiss route to involve populations much more in their own national stories via much more participative democracy. We might go the Chinese social-shaming route wherein everyone, including the elites, have a running social score telling the others how well they are behaving. We might get fascist utopias wherein a small elite enforces a very narrow conception of scientific and genetic purity on a whole population. We might get wild experimentation of hybrid humanoids and AI systems given the responsibility to look after the rest of the country.
I think that there will be a great pull towards new systems that are seen to work in other countries, which at the moment means the systems in Northern and Central Europe. If they can show how to rope their elites back into the national fold, then I can see their examples getting a lot of traction elsewhere. The Dutch and German approach of mandating a limit to the incomes of the managers of state-connected institutions is an important example of new attempts to force the elites back into the fold.
Yet another challenge is the continued increase in the number of ways in which small groups can kill billions of people by design and by accident, via the proliferation of nuclear technology as well as cheaper biological and artificial intelligence systems.
I suspect we won’t do anything serious about this until at least one of these risks materialises in a big way, such as via a nuclear attack by an extremist group, a mistake, or a run-away AI experiment that manages to provoke a large-scale military conflict costing millions of lives. Even then, I suspect the solution will be very much hap-hazard and oriented towards the exact nature of the catastrophe, ie a band-aid.
It is hard to see a general solution to this general problem emerge because national sovereignty and the strong incentives for leaders to grand-stand will be in the way of any more permanent solution that would require countries and elites to give up their power. I thus suspect this problem will not be solved this century and will be part of the luggage of the next one.
My anticipated ‘solution’ in the long-long-run is the emergence of actual gods that will rule us and whom the human survivors will worship, ie the end of nation state supremacy and the emergence of a pluralist theocracy in which humans are no longer the dominant entities. However, that’s a highly uncertain future possibility and part of a larger and different conversation.
Another international challenge is that the areas of the world producing more children are those with the least well-run governments, leading to a massive and disruptive migration flow from poor to rich, threatening the social integrity of some destination countries. In turn, this migration takes away the pressure on the elites in the countries from which they come to really reform.
I see a combination of three factors that might solve this: i) dropping fertility rates even in the poorest and worse-run countries due to things like the increased presence of the internet and mobile technology, which in turn increases the returns to educational investment everywhere, which in turn makes kids expensive; ii) special economic zones in other continents set up by Western countries and China that effectively become well-run colonies that absorb most of the local migrants (pretty much like Hong Kong and Macau in previous centuries) ; iii) continued globalisation of languages and culture that will reduce the cultural distances which will reduce the disruption associated with migration flows making people in richer countries less bothered about in-bound migration.
Finally, there are the dangers to world peace emanating from flaws to the political institutions of the main super-powers, with two main sub-problems that I see as the biggest threats: America will have to get used to its lost dominance, and China is inherently politically unstable because it lacks a separation of powers. This is really tricky. Very few realise that both problems exist and are serious; neither the Americans or the Chinese want to acknowledge the problem, making a transparent solution to them impossible; and I do not see historical solutions to either type of problem that did not involve large-scale blood-letting. They are design flaws, one inherent to national pride, and the other to collectivist empires.
I am not aware of an historical instance where dominant nation states learned to get comfortable with being subservient without getting a bloody nose, or worse. The UK didn’t stop dreaming about its Empire till the Americans forced them to back down in the Suez crisis of the 1950s and even now some of the UK elites dream of the glory days at the expense of the present. French wounded pride was partially responsible for the Second World War via their insistence on German humiliation in the treaty of Versailles. It took a devastating defeat with millions of casualties to get the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires to get used to their lower status. Etc.
Similarly, the Chinese political system never learned in their more than 2,000 year history as an imperial bureaucracy to avoid major civil wars as the only way to have significant leadership change. The Chinese suffer from an inherent problem with collectivist winner-take-all decision making systems, which is the lack of a separation of powers that makes it impossible for a previous elite to be secure in some of their property rights when a new elite takes over, which in turn makes old elites fight to the death to hold on to power.
From 1945 till now there were three large internal Chinese conflicts directly caused by power-struggles at the top: the communist takeover of 1949; the Great Leap forward of 1960; and the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s.
Part of the problem is that the Chinese are not taught in school that they lost over 50 million people last century because of elite power struggles. For instance, instead of being told that the Great Leap forward was a Mao-induced disaster that cost 30 million people, they are told there was unusual weather in that period leading to famines. There is hence no open awareness of the flaws in their political system.
The tell-tale sign of increased pressure at the top is an ideological purity drive, invariably invoked by a threatened incumbent elite faction to marginalise another one. Mao in the late 1950s inflicted an ideology of a Great Leap Forward, and then in the Cultural Revolution inflicted the ideology of his little red booklet. Both heralded disasters.
The Chinese were lucky in the late 1970s to be led by Deng Xiaoping who managed to get the Chinese Communist Party to adopt a system of gradual elite renewal that worked from 1980 to 2010, but with his death the natural tendency of winner-takes-all politics has been re-established.
Xi Jiping has consolidated ultimate power in his hands and that of the group around him, just as Mao did in the 1950s. Mao needed a catastrophe every 10 years to fend off the opponents. With the death of Deng Xiaoping and his pragmatism, the Chinese leadership has now returned to ideological slogans of the Mao era.
Mao used purity drives to mobilise idealistic young people against political opponents. There are indications a new conflict is brewing right now, with a new ‘social virtue’ drive sweeping through China. It probably won’t get too bad whilst growth is easy, but the inherent instability is there.
So the odds are that the US problem will cost other countries a lot of lives and the Chinese will continue to have civil strife from time to time. I don’t think there is much we can do about either, so let us hope we are lucky and that both will be contained.
On the whole, I am optimistic about this century, with many indicators of humanity’s progress looking very healthy indeed. Our population levels are likely to stabilise; our ability to feed ourselves looks guaranteed; poverty rates are falling; the incentives to be nice to each other keeps increasing due to the increased connections between our economies; and we are likely to live much longer too. The main dangers come from the same place as the solutions: technology and politics.