How the Nation-State Crushed the Region and Created Our Global Survival Crisis

Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Puyé, northern New Mexico. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The rise of the nation state

The map of the world today is covered by splotches of color indicating the boundaries of nation-states. Though the world has had empires for over four millennia, the nation-state is a relatively new animal, beginning to gain form in Western Europe in the 1300s, and over following centuries rising to replace the city-states and multi-ethnic empires that preceded it. Originating in France and Britain, the nation-state became an engine to impose an unprecedented level of cultural and political uniformity on what had been a more diverse landscape. In doing so, it obscured the more fundamental reality of the region.

Nation-states tend to be large abstract concepts, none more so than the United States, which was born of a set of concepts.  But the foundations of every nation, its constituent elements, are vital places and regions.  Advanced geographers, in fact, have declared the region the cellular unit of the global economy.  The region is where life really happens, where economies take shape in the form of specialized economic clusters, where basic decisions are taken concerning transportation systems, land use, energy supplies, knowledge acquisition and cultural development.

Lewis Mumford, the seminal urbanist and regionalist, pointed out that civilization has a regional framework predating the rise of the nation-state.  “. . . the human region existed as a fact, long before the political state as we know it came into existence.  The region continued to exist, even though it was ignored and to no small degree frustrated by the prevailing theories of politics.” [1]

In the middle ages, roughly that 1000 years from the fall of the western Roman Empire to around 1500, the continent that was the seedbed of the nation-state and the system that eventually came to encompass the world, Europe, was primarily centered on local entities. Great city-states such as Venice, Milan, Florence, Antwerp and Amsterdam were the creative centers. Nation-states themselves rose out of a regional reality, that of the capital city. In the 1300s, the monarchies of Britain and France were finding it increasingly necessary to create bureaucracies to manage their kingdoms.  Kings and courts had formerly roamed their kingdoms. But now they had to settle down.

“The records of the courts, the rolls, the registers, the archives, the correspondence, not to mention the officials themselves, had become too numerous and bulky to move,” Mumford wrote in his classic, The City In History, “As population and territory increased in size, direct personal supervision became impossible: impersonal administration and delegated authority became necessary . . . the centralization of authority necessitated the creation of the capital city, while the capital city, commanding the main routes of trade and military movement, was a powerful contribution to the unification of the state.”[2]

It is no surprise that the capital cities of these earliest modern states, London and Paris, completely overwhelm the nations they lead, with political, economic and cultural life disproportionately centered there. It is also predictable that four of the 10 highest income counties in the U.S., including the richest, are in the Washington, D.C. area. Power and money cluster around capital cities.

The crushing of the region

By the 1700s, the earlier forms had largely been supplanted by the nation-state. “To the progressive minds of the eighteenth century, humanity was an undifferentiated mass of individuals; if they had and special historical and political identity in groups, it was that which theu had achieved as members of the state.”[3]

The process became final in the 1800s, when the last areas of Europe in which city-states still functioned were formed into the nation-states of Germany and Italy.

“The city and the region ceased to have, politically, their separate identity; they became in theory creatures of the state; and for purposes of the state these natural groupings were often completely ignored  . . . The great states of the world, still more their minor administrative districts, are the products of political forces and events which have only accidental relations to the underlying geographic, economic, and social realities.”[4]

Mumford noted that the process was “driven to absurd lengths” in the U.S., with a profusion of state boundaries running along straight lines “without the slightest respect for actualities,” or demarcations along rivers. A unifying “means of intercourse, nor a barrier . . . (the river) is the worst of all possible boundaries.”[5]

Today’s bioregional mapping projects seek to recapture the sense of natural boundaries by re-centering in watersheds, where the network of water flowing through streams and rivers, from highlands to valleys and coasts, is reclaimed as the unifying principle. The long process of reclaiming a regional identity and culture through focusing on the bios, the living reality of the place, is an effort to reverse the damage done by the nation-state in obscuring regional realities.

Growth without limits

Mumford traces to the rise of the nation-state two of the most destructive trends in the modern world, ones which are reaching a culmination point, threatening the world with ecological exhaustion and annihilating warfare. Those are hyper-individualism and growth beyond limits. Mumford in many ways was a precursor of later critiques of economic growth without regard to limits, particularly the spread of formless metropolitan blobs across the landscape. Resource-gobbling, polluting conurbations at the center of the global climate crisis and the dependence on fossil fuels associated with wars and great power competitions.

With the rise of the state came a uniformity that reduced complex physical realities to abstract form. Straight lines with abstract notions of measuring space pervaded politics, city building and architecture. Time became a mechanical reality governed by the clock. With the ascent of capitalism that accompanied the rise of the state came an “abstract love of money and power.”[6] “Experience was progressively reduced to just those elements that were capable of being split off from the whole and measured separately . . . “ Abstraction provided great new scientific and technological powers, precisely because it broke the world into “units that could be investigated swiftly and accurately just because (emphasis Mumford’s) they were dismembered, fragmentary, incomplete.“[7]

In reducing the world to abstractions, lost was the sense of the whole that was present in city-states and their surrounding regions, which had functioned in many ways as municipal corporations with economies based on mutual obligations. “Real men and women, real corporations and cities, were treated in law and government as if they were imaginary bodies; whilst artful pragmatic fictions, like Divine Right, Absolute Rule, the State, Sovereignty, were treated as if they were realities.”[8]

Stripped of the collective reality that characterized earlier life, with its sense of the whole, the system Europe spread to the world manifested the ills that now threaten to overcome us. “Freed from his sense of dependence upon corporation and neighborhood, the ‘emancipated individual’ was dissociated and delocalized: an atom of power, ruthlessly seeking whatever power can command.

“With the quest for financial and political power, the notion of limits disappeared – limits on numbers, limits on wealth, limits on population growth, limits on urban expansion” on the contrary, quantitative expansion became predominant. The merchant cannot be too rich; the state cannot possess too much territory; the city cannot become too big. Success in life was identified by expansion. This superstition still retains its hold in the notion of an infinitely expanding economy.” [9]

All this came with the imposition of uniformity by the state, by the desires of political classes for more power combined with the desires of capitalists for ever expanding markets, both sets of desires ultimately enforced by militaries. This is the world in which we live today, the culmination of a process that began centuries ago, and which is now embedded in political and economic institutions across the world.

Beyond endless expansion – Back to the region

Thus, nations can gather to talk about the climate crisis for 30 years, while carbon pollution only increases, and the ecological foundations of life – soils, forests, fisheries, waters – deteriorate under the impact of ever expanding economies, with a sixth great extinction is under way. Meanwhile, nations develop ever more powerful weapons and intensify their competitions with each other, even as those weapons threaten us with extinction while global cooperation is required to an unprecedented degree. At the same time, the gap between classes increase, and world wealth is increasingly concentrated in a small number of wealthy individuals and corporations.

The fragmentation of reality that Mumford decried, our inability to see the whole, is at the root of all these trends. Our world of nation states, living on abstractions driving an endless expansion now running into walls and off cliffs, can’t seem to grapple with the realities they have created. That is why we need a fundamental re-conception and re-centering of life where it really happens, in real places and regions, where we can begin to learn again the arts of living a balanced life in communities that have re-gained a sense of mutual obligation and support. Returning to the region as an organizing principle is basic to dealing with the interrelated crises coming upon us. Within the context of the region we can again learn how to live within the limits that we must, if we are to survive.

This first appeared on The Raven.