24 October 2014

A Viral New World Disorder

. @hjbentham. #antistatism. #IS. #IslamicState. #kalifaat. #flagless. #blackflag.

The world IS falling apart!

As we continue the collective journey into the unexplored territory of the Twenty-First Century, nation-state after nation-state is crumbling under the contagion of popular dissatisfaction at their arbitrary and unjust claims to power. Unable to contain the crisis, every nation-state now seems to live under the specter of imminent possible crisis and collapse. No-one is immune.

For the well-informed student of International Relations, everything is proceeding exactly as predicted.

On 29 August, US President Obama told us to resist the notion that the “world is falling apart”. Of course, what he really meant by the “world” in that phrase is the US-led international community that had seemingly prevailed since 1990. Beyond this, however, the Westphalian nation-state is finding itself seriously challenged by the rise of unprecedented new actors like, in the Middle East, the Islamic State.

The phrase “new world disorder” has been used, perhaps most notably by pundit Peter Foster in The Telegraph on 18 July and by Victor Davis Hanson in National Review on 2 September. In both articles, the conflicts in Ukraine and in Syria-Iraq are oddly depicted as challenges that the US state is facing, rather than problems facing each state where the violence is taking place. Such a one-sided narrative overlooks the true contagions threatening states today.

For a student of International Relations, there should be nothing surprising about the new wave of crumbling modern states, from Somalia to Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Mexico, and beyond. Since the 1990s, many theorists of International Relations have been making predictions about the kind of crisis that should dominate security thinking after the Cold War. Despite their different schools of thought, most seemed to agree that traditional nation-states will at least begin to lose their social cohesion as a result of forces like migration, ecological damage, and the expansion of middle classes.

For example, in Immanuel Wallerstein’s Utopistics (1998) as well as other theoretical works authored by the same author, there are predictions of a period of 50 years that can be called “hell on earth” or “chaos”. We can surmise that we are in such a period now, and hence the perception that the “world is falling apart” is not far from the truth. While it is grave news for many, it is also inevitable, if the models of global crisis authored in the 1990s are accurate.

Pseudostates, states recognized by few if any other states, seem to be proliferating rapidly. The Islamic State is an exceptional example of a pseudostate in the modern world, in that it is recognized by no-one but itself. It did not come into existence without the support of certain states, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia usually being named as the suspects, but the result is still something fundamentally alternative to the traditional nation-state, and will have profound consequences for the future. The rebels fighting to establish the pro-Russian pseudostate of Novorossiya also do not care if no-one recognizes their state: they only care that they control the ground upon which it rests – preferably including every port north of the Black Sea.

Intrastate conflicts and power vacuums are proliferating, helped along unwittingly by the states most threatened by them, as a way of sabotaging one another while avoiding the consequences of openly attacking each other. Iran supports non-state actors against Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia supports non-state actors against Iran. The US supports Kurdish non-state actors against another non-state actor, the Islamic State, but risks arming enemies of its own ally Turkey in the process.

The result of these mutually corrosive policies is that the foundation many states rely on for their own legitimacy and mutual recognition is crumbling, as a result of their own actions. International law has descended into comedy, ineffective because it relied on the support of the disintegrating “international community” to work, while far too many states try to escape accusations of aggression by arming non-state actors against each other. In every instance, such policies backfire.

As grave as it is, it is possible that the Islamic State is now a political fait accompli, here to stay, regardless of the US campaign to destroy it. If so, its solidification and endurance in the face of international pressure will in turn weaken the foundations of what had been called the “international community”. Coupled with Novorossiya’s defiant entrenchment along the Black Sea, events taking place now might later be seen as the beginning of the end of the “international community”. With the community of “nations” incapable of agreeing on much, future political entities might no longer bother to solicit recognition from one another, thereby relying solely on physical force for legitimacy.

As violent and bloodthirsty as the Islamic State is, we might be looking at a forerunner of the kind of post-nation-state entities that will engulf the entire world in coming decades. Throwing acid on the states system by supporting non-state actors anywhere, whether this action is carried out by the US, Saudi Arabia or the Russian Federation, threatens the legitimacy and claims of all states everywhere.

At the same time, another unabated pressure continues to weaken the state. We still have not seen the end of the standoff between the state and the internet, most climactically told through the tug of war between the United States government and WikiLeaks. It does not take much thought to realize that while the Islamic State represents repressive and coercive statelessness, WikiLeaks represents literate and public-serving statelessness. Despite their different values, both are transnational in nature, basing their causes on transnational solidarity and the rejection of traditional arguments for national security.

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Julian Assange has argued in works like Cypherpunks (2012) and When Google Met WikiLeaks (2014) that in the age of the internet, information has been able to outmaneuver the brute force of the state for the first time in history. State attempts to suppress information in the public interest have become increasingly futile due to this revolution, and the result is inimical to state legitimacy. It is not hard to see that the most fundamental change has come about due to technology. Technology, as Assange has argued, is “not neutral” but can be used to bring about forms of liberty and transparency that had formerly been thought impossible.

The transition to a post-state order can be understood in terms of losses of control of information by governments and the disintegration of mutual respect of sovereignty among actors in the international system. The end result of such processes, in the long-run, would appear to be a form of transnational anarchy. In this anarchy, effective mechanisms of global governance will be weakened, borders will be universally ignored, and each individual regime will need approval from no-one but itself to justify its authority.

Where the crisis of our archaic nation-state system will lead is impossible to predict, but one way of understanding it is in terms of an eventual global dilemma between peaceful statelessness and endless warfare. Coincidentally, the Islamic State’s black banner resembles another banner: the anarchist flag compelling us to conceive of a peaceful and cooperative post-state order, based on values of voluntary and open governance rather than repressive authority.

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