Nation-States Are A Plague On Our Species

Organized Religion – My First Plague

For many years, I have said, when confronted by religious people, that organized religions are a plague on our species. I am not really troubled by individuals who believe in some god. The universe is a big place, and our insignificance in it causes troubles for many. So, I can understand the need for some explanation or perceived protection from the unpredictable whims of our world.

But, when you look at organized religions, you can’t help but see them as a plague. They have been, and continue to be, a huge source of conflicts at the personal and societal levels. Even the most cursory review of European history alone shows organized religions at the center of endless wars. This seems to be because organized religions are all exclusionary. They believe that nonbelievers are to be converted, shunned, or burned at the stake.

Then we have the fact that all organized religions are run by men. They oppress women and non-straight men in many different ways. Now, many of the so-called liberal religions in the Protestant division will claim this is not so. One only needs to look at the most recent eruptions within the Methodist sect to see that this counter-claim is on very thin ice.

Organized religions, as proclaimers of the received words of their gods, compel their followers to believe in magical thinking and undermine faith in science or even arguments by the predominance of the evidence. This serves the needs of the leaders of organized religions to the detriment of facing up to the serious issues our species confronts.

Finally, organized religions consume huge human and material resources that might otherwise be available to address real needs. Recently, I visited Spain. This included visits to many very large ancient religious buildings. Each of them built on the backs of peasants over the centuries. More recently, on a road trip through parts of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia the number of churches, even in obviously poor rural towns, was overwhelming.

The Nation-State – My Second Plague

In thinking about our species’ situation on our planet, we can identify a number of global problems:

(presented in random order)

  1. global warming
  2. exhaustion (pillaging) of the earth’s resources
  3. overpopulation
  4. mass extinctions of many other species
  5. a capitalist economic system that produces pollution as a necessary systemic feature
  6. a capitalist economic system that requires continuous growth
  7. a capitalist economic system that concentrates income and wealth in the hands of an extremely small portion of our species while impoverishing the vast majority (>95%).
  8. a capitalist economic system that gives private investment decisions priority over investments for the common good.
  9. a political system that uses violence and wars as a method of governing the planet

All of these are global problems. None can be meaningfully addressed by individual nation-states or even a coalition of them. Even the United Nations is of no help. Embedded in its charter is the sovereignty of individual nation-states. “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter;….”[1]Chapter 1, Article 2, Section 7. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/chapter-1 The nation-state is the basic political unit of the world. As such, its replacement with a governing process that can address our problems is a central problem.

We should take note that there is one system that is acting at the global level. The capitalist economic system, in particular its leaders, the rich and corporations, have made great strides toward achieving global economic hegemony. With the application of neoliberal principles[2]For a relatively brief introduction to neoliberalism see my About Neoliberalism(opens a new tab). to create a global marketplace for goods, services, and money, the rich and corporations are, in fact, acting at a global level. Global corporations and finance are substantially either in control of the nation-states they inhabit or, in the case of much of the developing world, acting as they wish with no effective countervailing forces. A central problem is that their decisions are completely self-serving and bound by the economic processes embedded in their system. With their deepening focus on financialization[3]Financialization is an important element of the neoliberal enterprise. For a discussion, see my Financialization – from production to extraction(opens a new tab), their planning and investment horizons are becoming ever shorter and more disconnected from the creation of products and services.[4]see William Lazonick, Investing in Innovation: Confronting Predatory Value Extraction in the U.S. Corporation, Cambridge Elements: Corporate Governance (Cambridge U. Press, 2023)

Let’s return to the nation-state. Most histories of the development of the nation-state as a form of human organization date the initial phases with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 in Europe. By the beginning of the 20th century, the nation-state had become sufficiently widespread as an organizational form to drive two world wars. Today there are 193 nation-state members of the UN. So, the nation-state has been evolving for more than 375 years.

Do we have 300-plus years to evolve a system of global governance to address the very evident problems of our environment and the exhaustion and predation of the earth? The way forward seems scarily uncertain. As a species, we have evolved our present human culture over a span of some 300,000 years. By culture, I mean: “…… behavior peculiar to Homo sapiens, together with material objects used as an integral part of this behavior. Thus, culture includes language, ideas, beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, and ceremonies, among other elements.”[fn]https://www.britannica.com/topic/culture[/fn} It is the shared innovation and knowledge that we learn and develop, then pass to next generation.

If you lay out the entire history of the planet as though it occurred in one 24-hour day, our species arrives in the last 4 seconds of the day. Our 10,000-year history of living in groups larger than 150 – 300 or so occurs in the last 1/5 of the last second of the day. This suggests that there are many adaptations built into our culture that reflect the lessons of the first 290.000 years of our history. Perhaps these are now maladaptations. That is evolutionary adaptations that worked well over the first 290,000 years but are now not so helpful in our present environment?

On a recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center, I noticed this on a wall:

For this discussion, I might re-write it a bit:

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Chapter 1, Article 2, Section 7. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/chapter-1
2 For a relatively brief introduction to neoliberalism see my About Neoliberalism(opens a new tab).
3 Financialization is an important element of the neoliberal enterprise. For a discussion, see my Financialization – from production to extraction(opens a new tab)
4 see William Lazonick, Investing in Innovation: Confronting Predatory Value Extraction in the U.S. Corporation, Cambridge Elements: Corporate Governance (Cambridge U. Press, 2023)

2 Comments

  1. I share much of your low opinion of both organized religion and the nation state. I’ve been writing novels about the rest of this century for about 6 years. It’s hard even to imagine what will take the place of the nation state. I believe both capitalism and most governments will be broken by the climate crisis by 2070, possibly sooner. But what will take their place?

    Capitalism arose on the margins of feudalism, mostly in the towns that arose on the edges of the great feudal estates to service them. Then it was supercharged by the mercantile era’s pillaging of the rest of the world. But how can a more just system arise in the ashes of our current world? I feel like socialism as described by Marx and then Lenin and the rest had a shot and failed. It’s failure was in governance — how do you beat back capitalism while not becoming as bad as it? Maybe also economically — how do you incentivize progress?

    So what will the future hold? A decentralized kind of local anarchy (in the 19th century sense)? How will small decentralized societies be able to band together to deal with the global changes that the climate will bring?

    A world government, or perhaps a few governments along the lines of a more powerful EU? How will that not devolve into what we have now?

    We’ve been so focused on making capitalism more humane that we’ve forgotten that it will never be able to meet our needs. Western Europe perhaps has come the closest, with a (sometimes) vigorous social democratic approach that tries to tame capitalism by assigning more economic and political power to workers. But Western Europe is still a capitalist world; witness the fight over immigrants and the endless ups and downs of greening Europe.

    I think this is a major challenge. One school of thought is that new economic and political forms will emerge, as they did in the Middle Ages, on the margins. In our context, that might mean in Africa, South America and other parts of the world that will likely have to fend completely for themselves as the Western world declines in the face of the climate crisis. Free of imperial overlords, people in these regions stand a chance to do something better. But what? That’s still the question and I for one have not seen much compelling in that direction. And the time is drawing nigh.

    • Mark,
      Thanks for your thoughts. From my perspective I see the ecological environmental issues to be much more pressing than even most progressives. Global warming and mass species extinctions are upon us. We are intensifying the pillaging of the earth and now more intensively the oceans. The oceans are a particular concern because we know less about them than the moon and they are clearly intimately involved in the mechanics of our environment. So I don’t believe we have another 76 years to address this issue.

      My second thought is that our species’ capacity to bring new ideas into our culture and bring them to fruition is both limited and slow. You mention of the development of capitalism over a period of several centuries. This suggests exactly the sort of timeline I don’t think is sustainable for the problems we face. As you stated, and I am in complete agreement here, there are no fixes to capitalism to achieve an equitable economy that meets our actual needs in a sustainable fashion.

      You really put your finger on the heart of the problem. How are we to develop a new socio-economic system without the trial and error method that evolution uses. This is clearly completely uncharted territory. And as you close, the time is drawing nigh. Mark

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