Saturday, 6 September 2014

Back to the Future

The graphic representation of the Islamic State area of control as a series of "spreading cracks", or the welts raised by a whipping, is presumably meant to question the state's stability and hint at its malignancy, but it also echoes the idea of a state that is constituted by caravan routes and oases, rather than the straight lines and blocks of colour on a map beloved of Sykes and Picot. This in turn points at both the anachronistic, medieval style of the caliphate (in the eyes of the West) and its exceptional nature - i.e. it's not a "normal" state and therefore not subject to the normal rules of inter-state relations (much as Cuba was deemed "abnormal" to justify the CIA's plans to assassinate Fidel Castro).

This visual trope is nostalgic, in much the same way that the Islamic State's choreographed beheadings are: the longing for a cleaner, simpler more decisive way of living among conflicted young men trapped between tradition and modernity. This antique framing finds a parallel in the Western nostalgia for city states that thrive through trade and innovation, which is undergoing a periodic revival. The trope has been around for a couple of centuries, since the Romantics compensated for their nationalism by sentimentalising the high medieval. The historic movement from the rural to the urban, and the massive growth of cities that this gave rise to, was ideologically smoothed by reference to vigorous city-state epitom├ęs, such as Classical Athens and Venice, much as bourgeois norms were sourced to pious burghers rather than progressive aristocrats and early state bureaucracy. The city state is part of the foundation myth of the capitalist economy.

According to Izabella Kaminska in the FT: "You can feel the sentiment in the air is changing. From Scotland’s Independence vote and talk of London getting its own interest rate to Peter Thiel’s seasteading ambitions and Elon Musk’s desire to colonise Mars. The idea is that we are entering an age that transcends borders and sovereign identity, and instead becomes focused on shared values, interests and code". In an earlier piece, she looked backward rather than forward: "Which begs the question: are super-city states about to disrupt our current concept of the old fashioned sovereign state? You know, a la the return of the Hanseatic league of Northern Europe during the Middle Ages?"

I'm sure Kaminska is partly having a laugh here, but the idea that city-states are the future is not limited to the well-paid apologists for Singapore and Dubai. Since the onset of the Eurozone crisis it has been fashionable in some quarters (such as the Wall Street Journal) to claim that the problems of Italy and Greece stem from unification and that they'd have been better off remaining a patchwork, as if Renaissance Florence was a template for the 21st century, and as if Greece had not been unified under the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The ideology concerns the preservation of wealth. As the WSJ summarises it, the city-state depends upon "Regional competition, the necessity of private property, entrepreneurial freedom, the leadership of visionaries and of conservative economic practices".

The tendency for futurism to be built on a reactionary dream of the past is well known. Peter Thiel, whom Kaminska includes in her zeitgeist checklist, is famously curmudgeonly about the crapness of modern technology, despite having made a mint out of PayPal: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters". His misanthropy, libertarianism and love of expensive hardware is of a piece with a disappointed worldview. As the New Yorker noted, "He looks back to the fifties and sixties, the heyday of popularized science and technology in this country, as a time when visions of a radically different future were commonplace". More worrying, you can spot some nasty thinking emerging around the technological augmentation of humanity: "Speciation might well happen, but instead of class, I think it'll be much more driven by culture. You might get a country that decides it wants to bring down its healthcare budget by subsidising an upgrade that makes people healthier. The end result might be that the Singaporeans become their own species". City-state 2.0.

The real target of all this is inter-regional fiscal transfers within the nation state. The trope of the medieval city-state or kingdom is simultaneously used to justify regional autonomy, as in Catalonia and Bavaria, and to discredit transfers to poorer areas. Thus the Lega Nord consciously evokes the memory of the Lombard League in its desire to curtail subsidies to Southern Italy (aka "Africa"). Historically, regional investment has become salient not at unification, but at the point when universal suffrage has been introduced. For example, the "southern question" was addressed after Italian Unification through state repression, which did much to establish the mafia, while under Fascism investment was biased towards the North and Centre. Major state investment in the South only started with the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno in 1950. An assault on fiscal transfers is usually an assault on democracy dressed up as a plea for "fairness".

Austerity works to reduce transfers, both through direct cuts in regional expenditure and the associated shift in tax regimes from income and assets to consumption, which has a disproportionate impact on poorer areas. The consequence, as should be obvious in the case of Scotland, is a greater desire to "go it alone" and at least be the master of your own fate. But the corollary of this is not greater cohesion in the rump nation state, but a more acute division as the city-state becomes proportionately more powerful. As CRESC noted in 2011, "The political outcome of financial crisis in the UK has paradoxically consolidated the power of London as a kind of ‘City State’ within the national economy and with its own internal inequality. The politics of austerity in the UK brings us closer to the end of the national, if by the national we mean a space of social redistribution and negotiated political compromise." If Scotland quits the union, the resulting reconfiguration of UK fiscal distributions is unlikely to lead to more investment in Newcastle or Leeds.

The direction of travel points to the paradox of a more atomised polity in a more globalised and interconnected world. It would be foolish to oversell this - the nation state will continue, at least as a cultural market and a monopoly of violence - but the idea that megacities will increasingly operate as independent global powers is not far-fetched. This won't be because they cast off from the nation state, but because they become essentially coterminus with it, a process we can see all too clearly in London.


  1. Is there any precedent for countries/city states dumping their troublesome or poor regions? Can Ukraine dump the east leaving a united Ukraine? Can Italy dump Sicily? Can we dump Wales? Not advocating, just wondering.

  2. The most recent precedent would be South Sudan, though the willingness of Khartoum to let it secede only came after decades of civil war. Arguably, the independence of the Republic of Ireland was as much the product of British disaffection as the efforts of the IRA. Once Ulster was squared, they were happy to "dump" the economically backward South.

    Ukraine will not want to dump the East as that is where much of the industry (and thus wealth) is. If Donetsk is Manchester, Kiev is Chester.

    Italy would be unlikely to dump Sicily because: a) that would unravel unification and encourage the secession of Lombardy or Veneto; b) the centre-right depends on Southern votes; and c) the island has huge strategic importance for NATO.

    If Scotland leaves, the retention of Wales would become critical for the continuance of the British project. The more likely area to be "dumped" would be Northern Ireland.

  3. Not sure about specifics. If you dump Italy south of Rome, the northern pressure to secede declines. And as long as Ukraine has the east, Russia will interfere. Dump it, and rUkraine can do what it wants. (Maybe, but absolutely guaranteed that Russia will interfere for ever if they don't.)

  4. The pressure in Italy is not for a simple separation of North and South, despite the vogue awhile back for the nonsense of Padania (and few are arguing for the restoration of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies). Milan and Turin despise Rome as much as they do the South, the centre (Umbria, Lazio etc) has no desire to be dominated by the North, and there are significant secessionist movements in Sardinia, Val D'Aosta, Trentino and Veneto. If the South were cast adrift, this would increase the pressure for fragmentation elsewhere.

    The problem with Ukraine writing off the East is that it makes the rump less attractive to the EU. It starts to look more like Bulgaria and Romania - i.e. agriculture-heavy. Even if it were to take this path, Russia would still interfere. Ethnic Russians are found all over Central and Southern Ukraine (the latter is the area historically known as "Novorossiya", which Putin has taken to referring to recently), and while relatively few would argue for outright secession, the autonomy of the Donbas (or incorporation into Russia) would undoubtedly embolden Russian revanchists in areas like Odessa.

  5. Generally fair. But not sure you deal with the possibility of rich, stable regions dumping poor, unstable regions. Why not? We dumped the empire.