The Dangers of Believing in the Existence of Non-Existent Nations: 1
One of my more important insights into systemic large-scale human stupidity is about what people are willing to believe in or, to be more precise, their persistence in belief about stuff that clearly do not exist. The vast majority of suffering throughout history (and the present) can almost always be traced back to belief in their own bullshit- whether it is about gods, prophets, religions, morals, social mores, authority, ideologies etc. One of the contemporary examples of this stupidity concerns people continuing to believe in the existence of nation-states that clearly do not exist. As I will show you, this particular thread of self-delusion is unusually dangerous not only to those affected by belief in it, but also those who act on that belief.
But before we go further, let us try to quickly define what a modern nation-state is and is not. A modern nation-state, such as those that came into being after the industrial revolution (especially after the late 1800s) are entities unlike any that preceded them. Their uniqueness is not a consequence of people being stupider in earlier eras, but rather a consequence of socio-economic and technological changes subsequent to industrialization. Modern nation-states are defined by the protean reach of the state machinery (or bureaucracy) into the day-to-day lives of their ordinary citizens or subjects. To put it another way, “sovereign” governments that cannot support an almost all-pervasive and moderately functional bureaucracy cannot function as modern nation-states.
But why is this definition important? Well.. it comes down to what socio-economic systems they can support and the consequences thereof. For example, the existence of capitalism in any form requires that most people are engaged in wage work. This is not possible unless an invasive and functional bureaucracy can systemically control, pauperize and immiserate the majority of the population. The same is true for state communism and is the reason why nation states such as the USSR were not fundamentally different from the USA. But this feature of the modern nation-state comes at a peculiar cost. People who rule and govern modern nation-states start believing in their own bullshit, especially the part about it being the “only way”. They so desperately want to see everyone else in the world doing things the “same way” that they often make, and act on, decisions that have no link to reality. As you will see in the rest of this post, such willful ignorance and stupidity comes at a huge human cost and is ultimately as dangerous to the believers as those initially screwed over by their stupidity.
Consider the following examples of modern nation states that do not really exist even though the rest of the world, especially the west, act as if they do.
Iraq: What can I say.. It began as a country carved out of post-WW1 ottoman concessions to the then victorious allies and suffered multiple rounds of uprisings and low-intensity civil wars even before WW2 started. After WW2, the broken european nations had to relinquish indirect control to local leaders sparking, you guessed it, another round of uprisings and coups which led to Saddam Hussein who was able to keep the lid on things for a couple of decades. After that we had the USA-initiated Gulf War 1 , then a Gulf War 2 which was followed by a decade-long and still running civil war. This part of the world has not experienced anything remotely approaching a semi-functional nation-state since 1991 and YET the most of the world pretends that this nation-state actually exists. They do so even when the “official” elected government has no authority even 30 km north of their capital city, Baghdad. The northern part of this supposedly modern nation-state has been an almost autonomous Kurdish proto-state for over a decade. Then there is the now hard-to-ignore fact that most of the middle of that country is run by an semi-centralized entity that calls itself ISIL or Da‘ish. Given that there is little possibility of this situation changing substantially in the near future, shouldn’t we just stop believing that Iraq exists. I mean.. what harm can come from acknowledging what has been obvious for the last three decades or more. Perhaps it will be easier to deal with three entities that have some control over the territory they claim than one entity that has no authority over most of the country?
Afghanistan: Seriously.. how can this place be even considered to be a nation-state? For starters- it was carved out by the British and other western powers in the 19th century out of parts of central Asia that were too hard to colonize. It also does not help that most of this place has, since time immemorial, been occupied by numerous related but largely independent tribes engaged in continuous low-intensity conflicts with each other. Sure.. there have had kings and even emperors- but those individuals had little real authority beyond their capital city. To put it another way, most of the people in that region have never experienced anything close to living under a nation-state. I would hasten to add that the boundaries of this nation-state are hard to define because they are arbitrary and often passes through inhospitable terrain. Then there is the issue of Pakistan, its eastern neighbor, who has a lot of socio-economic and military influence in the eastern part of this country. To make matters even more complicated, most of this influence is based on transient and often fragile working arrangements with local tribal leaders. So how is a “country” whose government’s writ does not run beyond its own capital city and whose borders are poorly defined and uncontrolled considered a nation-state? Iraq had two decades of despotic centralized rule under Saddam Hussein. I don’t believe the nation-state known as Afghanistan had even that..
Yemen: Yet another example of a place that has seen human occupation and civilizations for thousands of years, but which is not a nation-state. Sure.. it, like Iraq and Afghanistan, has nominally been the part of many old empires. But its peculiar geographical characteristics have made it hard to define and has also resulted in a history filled with many small and localized kingdoms and fiefdoms. It does not help that this place has always been politically highly decentralized and geographically rather vague. A look at satellite views of its official borders with neighboring countries is helpful for understanding the later part of the previous sentence. Then there is the whole issue of who has been ruling, or not ruling, that country since WW2. While it started as a nominal arab-style tribal monarchy in the 1920s after a complicated civil war, things went to hell by the 1960s resulting in another much larger civil war and re-partitioning of the country, followed by a reunification which led to a rekindling of the low-intensity civil war which led to another country where the governments writ does not run beyond the capital city. Yet this place is considered by the west to be a nation-state.
In the next part of this short series, I will try to write about similar “nation-states” such as Ukraine and Libya.
What do you think? Comments?