Protopian Politics & the Future of Nationalism
Are city-states the future for humanity here on Earth and on other planets and moons?
Note: The latest issue of Skeptic magazine, Vol. 27, No. 4, is devoted to Nationalism Matters (in keeping with our 2022 thematic issues of Trans Matters, Abortion Matters, and Race Matters; in 2023 we will address Economic and Money Matters, Energy Matters, Education Matters, and Health Matters). In this issue we solicited articles to make the case for nationalism, the case against nationalism, the rise of Christian and religious nationalism, political polarization, rigged election conspiracy theories, why nations are becoming more secular, and why America is so religious. My contribution, a shortened version reprinted here, is based on a portion of the last chapter of my book The Moral Arc, in which I speculate about the future of moral progress, in both the near and far future.
Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. Paid subscriptions go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit education organization. Please consider becoming a subscriber.
Order the latest issue of Skeptic here.
Protopian Politics and the Future of Nationalism
Lenin said, “If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs.” However, 20 million dead Russians and 45 million dead Chinese are not eggs, and all those five-year plans and great leaps forward failed to produce an omelet. The history of attempts at putting utopian ideas into practice is strewn with the wreckage of failed societies, from Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana and John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida Community in New York—both relatively harmless communal experiments—to Lenin/Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s Communist China, which were catastrophic. Prophets and prognosticators often envision what life will be like when we get “there,” but this is not the right way to think about the future because there is no there there—in the utopian sense of the word’s Greek origin as “no place.”
Utopias are no place, save for in the imagination, because they are grounded in an idealistic theory of human nature—one that assumes, quite wrongly, that perfection in the individual and social realm is a possibility. A better descriptor than utopia for what we ought to strive for is protopia—a place where progress is steadfast and measured. The visionary futurist Kevin Kelly described it this way: “I believe in progress in an incremental way where every year it’s better than the year before but not by very much—just a micro amount.” Instead of Great Leap Forward, think Small Step Upward.
Is Globalism the Future?
Throughout history people have been coalescing into ever-larger collectivities: from bands and tribes, to chiefdoms and states, to nations and empires. The historian Quincy Wright has documented that in 15th century Europe there were over 5,000 independent political units. By the early 17th century these coalesced into 500 political units. By 1800 there were around 200. Today there are 50. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama notes that in 2000 B.C. there were no fewer than 3,000 polities in China alone, but by 221 B.C. there was only one. The trend in unification has led ideologues on each extreme end of the political spectrum—from fascist dictators on the far right to One-World Government dreamers on the far left—to imagine the day when there would be a single overarching Leviathan in charge. But how likely is it really?
I would like to suggest that centuries from now, there will be no more nation-states, their former borders so porous economically and politically that the very concept will fall into disuse. Instead of power-obsessed Kings and Queens, vainglorious dictators and demagogues, megalomaniacal Führers and Dear Leaders, and egocentric Presidents and Prime Ministers, perhaps the most powerful political person will be…the mayor. That’s right, the person who cuts the ribbon at a ground-breaking ceremony for a new building, who works with the police and fire chiefs to keep crime at a minimum and disasters under control, who engages with technocrats and engineers to make sure the public buses run on time, who meets with educators to create the best environment for learning in schools, and who fixes the potholes. Cities, not nation-states or a One World Government, may be the future of humanity.
Are City-States the Future?
We are so accustomed to the nation-state as the norm that we forget its existence, as a concept—depending on how it is defined (by its politics or its people)—is barely two centuries old, whereas cities date back ten millennia. The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser calls the city “our greatest invention” that allows people to be richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and even happier. The long-term historical trend, then, may be a U-shaped curve of lots of political units as civilization takes off, reducing in number over the millennia as smaller states coalesce into larger states, but instead of hitting the bottom of the curve at a One World Government, the curve bounces up off the bottom of the graph and rises again into much more numerous and smaller political units, each governed locally and directly by those most interested in fixing local problems.
The long-term trend toward the decline of centralized power is across the board and well documented by Moisés Naím in his book The End of Power. “Power is spreading, and long-established, big players are increasingly being challenged by newer and smaller ones,” he writes. “And those who have power are more constrained in the way they can use it.” Naím defines power as “the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals,” and in that sense power is not only “shifting from brawn to brains, from north to south and west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile start-ups, from entrenched dictators to people in town squares and cyberspace,” it is decaying as well, and is “harder to use—and easier to lose.” Naím’s title is a little misleading, inasmuch as it implies that power has ended, but his point is that even though “the president of the United States or China, the CEO of J.P. Morgan or Shell Oil, the executive editor of the New York Times, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and the pope continue to wield immense power,” they wield less power than their predecessors.
Geopolitically, for example, having a massive army doesn’t give you as much power as it once did. A 2001 study by Ivan Arreguín-Toft found that in militarily asymmetrical conflicts between 1800 and 1849, the smaller country realized its strategic goals only 12 percent of the time, but between 1950 and 1998 the weaker side triumphed 55 percent of the time. The Vietnam War is an example, as is the current war of mighty Russia vs. little Ukraine, the latter holding strong after a year of armed conflict. Dictators and demagogues are also on the way out. “In 1977, a total of 89 countries were ruled by autocrats,” Naím reports. “By 2011, the number had dwindled to 22.” CEOs are also losing power. Among Fortune 500 corporations, CEOs had a 36 percent chance of keeping their jobs for five years in 1992, a 25 percent chance in 1998, and by 2005 the average CEO for all 500 companies held their position of power for a mere six years. The companies at the top of the heap are also falling by the wayside, seeing an increase from a 10 percent chance to a 25 percent chance of dropping from the top quintile within five years.
Naím notes that nearly every political institution and principle we have today—representative democracy, political parties, independent judiciaries, judicial review, civil rights—were all invented in the 18th century. The next set of political innovations, Naím predicts, “will not be top-down, orderly, or quick, the product of summits or meetings, but messy, sprawling, and in fits and starts.”
The political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose 2013 book If Mayors Ruled the World—appropriately subtitled Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities—argues that cities “are unburdened with the issues of borders and sovereignty which hobble the capacity of nation-states to work with one another.” Nations and their leaders care about national issues, whereas most of us care about neighborhood issues. Mayors, not Presidents (or Premiers, Chief Executives, or Federal Chancellors) are best equipped to handle immediate and local problems. Thus, Barber suggests, if we need a parliament of some sort (or a senate or congress or some other gathering of people who don’t know you and couldn’t care less about your immediate problems), it should be a Parliament of Mayors: “A planet ruled by cities represents a new paradigm of global governance—of democratic glocalism rather than top-down imposition, of horizontalism rather than hierarchy, of pragmatic interdependence rather than outworn ideologies of national independence.” The reason is obvious once you think about it. Cities, Barber notes, “collect garbage and collect art rather than collecting votes or collecting allies. They put up buildings and run buses rather than putting up flags and running political parties. They secure the flow of water rather than the flow of arms. They foster education and culture in place of national defense and patriotism. They promote collaboration, not exceptionalism.”
As Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue and The Long Now Foundation notes, “The cities did what the nations could not.” They solve local problems. Brand lists over 200 organizations dedicated to effecting local change, including the International Union of Local Authorities, the World Association of Major Metropolises, the American League of Cities, Local Governments for Sustainability, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, United Cities and Local Governments at the UN, the New Hanseatic League, and the Megacities Foundation. Brand also points out that more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, and the percentage is growing rapidly. “Cities are the human organizations with the greatest longevity but also the fastest rate of change. Just now the world is going massively and unstoppably urban…. In a globalized world, city states are re-emerging as a dominant economic player.” He points out that in 1800 only three percent of the world’s population lived in cities. In 1900 it had grown to 14 percent. In 2007 it reached 50 percent and by 2030 it will exceed 60 percent. “We’re becoming a city planet,” he says, in which “communications and economic activities bypass national boundaries.”
The social anthropologist Spencer Heath suggests alternative models for the way in which people might come together in nonpolitical voluntary communities consisting of both private and common areas. There already exist many such communities all over the world operating smoothly and efficiently.
For instance, shopping centers are proprietary communities, as are condominium complexes, mobile home parks, retirement communities, industrial parks, private colleges and universities, and corporate campuses such as those of Microsoft, Apple, and Google, which are, in essence, miniature cities operating through proprietary instead of political means.
The hotel is another fine example. “The hotel has its public and private areas, corridors for streets, and a lobby for its town square. In the lobby is the municipal park with its sculpture, fountains, and plantings. It has its shopping area, where restaurants and retail stores bid for patronage. Its public transit system, as it happens, operates vertically instead of horizontally.”
When you rent a hotel room, included in the price are utilities such as water, electricity, heat and air conditioning, and sewerage, and for an extra fee you get room service, current movies, and high-speed Internet access. Also provided are police and fire protection by security guards and sprinkler systems. Many hotels include a chapel for religious services, babysitting and play areas for children, pools for recreation and bars for imbibing, concerts and plays and even theater shows (especially in Las Vegas).
Could the proprietary community concept be expanded globally? In his 2014 book Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think, the economist Peter Leeson provides numerous examples of social self-organization in which private individuals secure social cooperation without government, and even though there is no world government, as we have seen in the decline of war and the new long peace somehow nations have found pathways toward nonviolent solutions to conflicts and disputes. True enough, but critics of anarchy point out that all such proprietary communities are situated within sovereign nations that provide military protection from foreign enemies, police protection from vandals and other criminals, public roads to access their private roads, courts to adjudicate disputes over contract violations, and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force to ensure that the overarching rule of law is enforced fairly and justly.
Whether these types of communities can be maintained in, say, city-states instead of nation-states, or will ultimately be replaced by other social technologies such as proprietary tools that produce the same results, remains to be seen. Whatever changes are made going forward; history shows us that in order to succeed they should be implemented incrementally, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in his reflection on the American Revolution:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
I am assuming that we are not going to genetically engineer out of our nature greed, avarice, competitiveness, aggression, and violence, because these characteristics are part and parcel of who we are as a species, and all have an evolutionary logic to them. Instead, what I foresee in the far future of civilization here on Earth (and, one day perhaps, on Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and maybe even on exo-planets in other solar systems) are civilizations that have learned to design their political, economic, and social systems to bring out the best of our nature while holding back the worst.
I envision not a monocultural civilization on Earth, but a multicultural one. And, presuming we will develop the technology to live on other planets, there will not be one civilization, but many. Given the distances and time scales involved, I foresee many species of spacefaring hominins in which each colonized planet will act like a new “founder” population from which a new species evolves reproductively isolated from other populations (the very definition of a species). These civilizations will vary even more than nations on Earth varied before globalization. There will be dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of different civilizations in which sentient beings may flourish.
If this were to happen, sentient species would become immortal, inasmuch as there is no known mechanism to cause the extinction of all planetary and solar systems at once. In the far future, civilizations may become sufficiently advanced enough to colonize entire galaxies, genetically engineer new life forms, terraform planets, and even trigger the birth of stars and new planetary solar systems through massive engineering projects. Civilizations this advanced would have so much knowledge and power as to be essentially omniscient and omnipotent, indistinguishable from God.
Sound impossible? Sure it does, but as Robert Browning reminded us, “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?”
Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. Paid subscriptions go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit education organization. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
 Rayfield, Donald. 2005. Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him. New York: Random House; White, Matthew. 2012. The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities. New York: W. W. Norton, 382-392; Akbar, Arifa. 2010. “Mao’s Great Leap Forward ‘Killed 45 Million in Four Years’.” The Independent (London), September 17; Becker, Jasper. 1998. Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. New York: Henry Holt; Pipes, Richard. 2003. Communism: A History. New York: Modern Library. See also: http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/mao-and-great-leap-forward
 The phrase was introduced by Gertrude Stein in her autobiography, in describing her childhood home of Oakland where she famously declared “there is no there there.” It’s not clear what she meant, although it appears to reference changing identities (one’s home city and one’s self). Stein, Gertrude. 1937. Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography. New York: Random House, 289.
 οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”): “no place”
 Kelly, Kevin. 2014. “The Technium. A Conversation with Kevin Kelly by John Brockman.” http://www.edge.org/conversation/the-technium
 In researching his 2010 book What Technology Wants, for example, Kelly recalls that he went through back issues of Time and Newsweek, plus early issues of Wired (which he co-founded and edited), to see what everyone was predicting for the Web. “Generally, what people thought, including to some extent myself, was it was going to be better TV, like TV 2.0. But, of course, that missed the entire real revolution of the Web, which was that most of the content would be generated by the people using it. The Web was not better TV, it was the Web. Now we think about the future of the Web, we think it’s going to be the better Web; it’s going to be Web 2.0, but it’s not. It’s going to be as different from the Web as Web was from TV.”
 Wright, Quincy. 1942. A Study of War, 2nd Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Gat, A. 2006. War in Human Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Fukuyama, Francis. 2011. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 98.
 Konvitz, Josef W. 1985. The Urban Millennium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press; Kostof, Spiro. 1991. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. Boston: Little, Brown; Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House;
 Glaeser, Edward. 2011. The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. New York: Penguin Press.
 Naím, Moisés. 2013. The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be. New York: Basic Books, 16, 1-2.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 243-244.
 Quoted in Barber, 2013.
 Brand, Stewart. 2013. “City-Based Global Governance.” The Long Now Foundation. http://longnow.org/seminars/02012/jun/05/if-mayors-ruled-world/
 MacCallum, Spencer Heath. 1970. The Art of Community. Menlo Park, CA: Institute for Humane Studies, 2. See also: Heath, Spencer. 1957. Citadel, Market and Alter: Emerging Society. Baltimore, MD: The Science of Society Foundation.
 Leeson, Peter. 2014. Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think. Cambridge University Press.
 Jefferson, Thomas. 1816. “Letter to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), July 12. In Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99, Vol. 10, 37. Facsimile available at the Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mtj1&fileName=mtj1page049.db&recNum=254
 The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr defined a species as “a group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations reproductively isolated from other such populations.” Ernst Mayr. 1957. “Species Concepts and Definitions,” in The Species Problem. Washington D.C.: Amer. Assoc. Adv. Sci. Publ. no. 50.
Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. Paid subscriptions go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit education organization. Please consider becoming a subscriber.
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His many books include Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, and Heavens on Earth. His new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.
I will never be able to understand why one level of organisation (state) is worse than one other (city). Some states, like mine Sweden, have less citizens than cities like Hong Kong or Los Angeles. Why is a hypothetical nationalistic Sweden a worse idea than a self-interested Hong Kong? Globalism in itself does not seem to make sense.
OK, wow. I'll have to reread this many times, take notes,and otherwise use my brain more in additional readings. I agree with so much of it, but also have some big, fundamental objections. The first is the radical, overwhelming importance of energy, and access to energy, and all the other resources we need and use and rely on (all of which we also need lots of energy to utilize and benefit from). None of that energy and other resources are distributed equally, not even close, nor are they likely to be shared in an egalitarian manner, ever. I love cities, and I agree that local solutions are the best solutions, but most locales are not local to any of the resources societies, let alone civilization (in whatever form), needs to survive, let alone thrive and flourish as you suggest in your vision of the future, though (at least to my undereducated mind). I love it though. Please make it happen and invite me over. Happy new year from a happy subscriber.