Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Every patriot believes his country better than any other country. Now, they cannot all be the best; indeed, only one can be the best, and it follows that the patriots of all the others have suffered themselves to be misled by a mere sentiment into blind unreason. In its active manifestation — it is fond of killing — patriotism would be well if it were simply defensive; but it is also aggressive, and the same feeling that prompts us to strike for our altars and our fires impels us over the border to quench the fires and overturn the altars of our neighbours. It is all very pretty and spirited, what the poets tell us about Thermopylae, but there was as much patriotism at one end of that pass as there was at the other.
Patriotism deliberately and with folly aforethought subordinates the interests of a whole to the interests of a part. Worse still, the fraction so favored is determined by an accident of birth or residence. The Western hoodlum who cuts the tail from a Chinaman's nowl and would cut the nowl from the body if he dared, is simply a patriot with a logical mind, having the courage of his opinions.
Patriotism is fierce as a fever, pitiless as the grave and blind as a stone.
The following text is a slightly updated version of an old essay. Wishful thinking I daresay, but the wish is for the survival of all I hold dear, including life on Earth, so the least I can do is air it.
Demonisation of perceived threats was once a survival factor for human communities, but in the past few millennia it has become a threat in its own right. Inherited emotional baggage makes otherwise intelligent people counterproductively and vindictively explosive when reason confronts them. Their choice of target is a matter of fad; it is not for nothing that "witch-hunting" has become a term of reproach. What is unfortunate is that like most terms of reproach it quickly lost all meaning by having been adopted as a term of abuse,
But violence is fun, so that is all right then. Since I originally wrote this essay, various peacekeeping wars and international Muslim terrorism have erupted into unusual levels of intensity and altogether usual levels of self-righteousness. I did not explicitly forecast these events, but they are in no way surprising in their nature and context.
For the past few decades one major target of the politically correct has been globalisation in the form of transnational corporations. Unthinking liberals and anarchists are prominent among the violent elements, oblivious to the irony of their own actions. Logically anarchists should be supporting global corporations for all they are worth. Transnationals present little threat to individual freedom: what they primarily threaten is the traditional nationalistic state. Empowered by the rise of technology, multinationals are logical and sanitary successors to our current systems of national government, despotic and democratic alike. The social order they are likely to foster bids fair to come closer to the objectives of constructive anarchism than anything of major significance in human history.
Anyone in a large corporation (and nowadays that means a multinational, practically by definition) should notice that in spite of all the unavoidable infighting and competition, there is commonly an underlying spirit of constructiveness, a responsiveness to the need to get things done. Such a spirit is rare in politics and in most government departments. What is more, that attitude spills over into interaction with clients, consultants and colleagues from other corporations. Competition certainly can be vicious both between and within large corporations, but notwithstanding the hype in fiction and film, their competition is benign in comparison to war between states. For one thing, in corporate life it is generally the incompetent who initiate violence. It almost always pays better to concentrate on one's own corporate objectives than on frustrating those of the competition.
One revealing thing, especially in these times of cheap and casual communication, is that one is prone to help a faceless colleague or a client twenty thousand kilometres away, as readily as someone a desk away. In fact, perhaps still more revealingly, one also is likely to help a random stranger or even, within reason, a rival. And that help is given right away: no interdepartmental memos, no formal application to the minister of foreign affairs, just "simple service simply given…" I have even seen something similar between countries actively at war with each other. No names, no pack drill, but where a computer company had clients in both warring countries, customer engineers from one were flown at need via a neutral country to fix computer systems for clients in the enemy territory.
At the heart of such attitudes is a mismatch between the world in which nationalistic mindsets arose and the world in which technology permits cheap transport and instant communication. The remoteness that once fostered xenophobia and insulated militant nationalism from good sense and good will has become leaky. We keep having our noses rubbed in the fact that the person at the other end of the line shares our competence and concerns and is good to work with. It is a surprisingly gratifying feeling to receive a communication of congratulation and thanks for a solution provided to an unknown colleague from halfway round the world. The idea of hating or killing each other becomes progressively more alien. Communities get seduced into economic and administrative co-operation, with speculations about federation glinting in many an eye. Bureaucrats and politicians like to enlarge pools in which they can be big fish, while Mr and Ms Everyone increasingly see international borders as artificial obstacles to their personal opportunities. Removal of international borders could be a major step towards reducing world poverty.
Did someone mention migrant labour? How would migrant labour fit into a world with no boundaries other than labour markets? And rather than let migrant labour squat and rot and riot on their doorstep, everyone would support the labour marketing corporations that would shunt labour to where the unemployed and their skills would be most welcome, whether next door, or next continent, whether at sea, in the fields, or at the user interface.
Territorial nationalism already has become an anachronism. It originated as a neoplastic outgrowth of our hominid ancestors' xenophobic adaptation to a hostile world. It grew via might-is-right thuggishness in family groups, first into villages, then into communities that began to exceed the capacity for beneficial control of people by people who personally knew and cared for their people. Feudalism followed, and revere-the-flag, hang-the-non-royalist, birth-certificate nationalism grew from that. It culminated in a stereotypic, totalitarian caricature of family loyalties. It nourished, first the parasitic tyrant and nowadays the parasitic politician who bosses the country for the greater good of this week's convenience of the clique. Nothing really needs to be in the interest of the people at large, because nothing needs to work, as long as verbal formulae will appease the herd.
And "almost" is good enough for most politicians most of the time.
Intelligent politicians largely leave the running of the country to business, but in a nationalistic world naive politicians insist on playing games with the pretty buttons and the outcomes of their games rattle in the world's closets from Cambodia to the Congo. The corpses of past statehood crawl on pointlessly, impelled by the vultures that for their own purposes seek to retain commitment to a delusion, a disease that they call patriotism. This surely cannot last. It is hard to imagine how commitment to a juju called a flag can compel support in a world in which the IBM song-book has become a standing, or at least a lingering, joke!
In business realities are more obtrusive. However a bad manager squirms to buy time, in the end even very, very large multinationals go under if they lose drive and direction. There are limits to how long any competitive organisation can maintain momentum while mediocrities specialising as survivors accumulate in the works as deadwood. The last forty years have yielded example after horrible example in the computer field alone, from upstart startups to apparently unassailable juggernauts. Once hardening of the executive arteries favours internal vested interests, it becomes a race between the passing of the corporation and the passing of the obstructions.
Established corporations are pathetically unoriginal in trying to save their dominance by pushing on strings that are clearly, one would have thought unnecessarily, marked: "Pull". But the point is that a corporation's bankruptcy differs from a country's bankruptcy or losing a war. Usually it is more like a carcase being recycled. Its identity vanishes. There are no residual patriots, no "The king is dead. Long live the king!" Casualties survive as best they may and effective corporations take over the resources. In an industrially supported modern war, few resources remain to take over.
This is a clue to the resilience of, not corporations as such, but organic Darwinian systems in general. Darwinian systems demand effectiveness and they populate niches. This explains how intelligent privatisation has converted burdens on the taxpayer into effective, profitable services, sometimes by the very staff who had been marking time wastefully as public servants. It prompts one to speculate how far one can take this sort of thing usefully. It is hard to see the limits. Everything from garbage to medicine, from policing to prostitution, from armed forces to education, could become either a business or a branch of businesses. Taxes would be replaced by fees. Territory would be defined by customer bases instead of political boundaries in atlases.
The tendrils of transnationals penetrate borders, even the borders of oppressive regimes. Diffidently but indefatigably, they persist in the face of official hostility as long as there is hope of business. They dangle baits for greedy or suspicious politicians, providing employment, profits and influence. They come croppers, but where one fails two more put down roots. Local staff imbibe the culture of the company, and of their foreign colleagues. This is not necessarily conscious indoctrination, which in fact is prone to be counter-productive; it is spontaneous and incidental, but its effectiveness justifies the nightmares of obsessive nationalists and theocrats. Like many cancers, this sort of growth is refractory to long-term treatment; it outlives policies and politicians and even civil services. Attitudes tacitly instilled into the minds of staff are harder to deal with than explicit propaganda.
As commercial and executive communities grow, the activities of multinationals become progressively more ubiquitous and it becomes logical to privatise the ultimate mechanisms of the state as well. Elections could be scrapped in favour of competition for clients. Most of the world would be one territory within which the nearest equivalent to nationality would be one's employer and perhaps one's insurance policies and bankers. The upshot is likely to be a loose, effectively global, government within a century or two, give or take a few Nepals or Palaus. The influence of the media would be both increased as executive power became more dispersed, and diminished as elections vanished with democracy and other tangible fictions of statehood.
It is hard to imagine just what the Internet or its ecological successors or commensals would be doing by then, but individualised communication is likely to become increasingly important. In fact, since I originally wrote this, that increase has become ridiculous in many respects.
Social structure based on such transient, interpenetrating, independent organisations would be rife with corruption, coercion and questionable practice, so not all our longstanding international traditions need be lost at once. Unlike international relations of today however, the new order would have little to offer in the line of shooting wars because the disappearance of nationalism would reduce the scope for bellicose demagogues. Instead, corporations could make a fortune channelling aggressive energies into competitive forms of sport with elements of useful skills and wholesome risks or violence.
The main risk in such a new order is that the community may develop too short-sighted a view of parochial objectives; an obsessional bottom-line, business-is-business rejection of grand projects might result. To preserve social viability, some types of services would require subtler structures and more sophisticated relationships. Government itself would be one example. It could be replaced by consultancies, agencies for brokering agreements and projects, and councils for arbitration. Among their responsibilities would be to drum up participants and support for space races, conservation of rainforests, universities and superconducting supercolliders.
Make no mistake, the death of nationalism and rise of wholesome globalism would be no simple process, would be subject to constant peril of the rise global dictatorship or even tyranny in its stead. Whether either or the other would be any better or worse, would depend on certain other developments that we need not discuss here, but history does not incline me to optimism on that point. I argue elsewhere that humanity probably will destroy itself because of being apes instead of termites; in less optimistic moments I fear that we are too much more like ticks.
Still, there is scope for developments in support of a headless community of global corporations. Enforcement of agreements, fair practice, security and social order in general, duties traditionally performed by statutory regulatory armies and police, could be undertaken by specialist companies competitively bidding for subscription to their services. Short-sighted protection rackets would not wear well because angry consumers would not be bound by legal constraints in hiring rival hit forces. Once a few dozen large protection corporations had emerged, probably as branches of the insurance industry, it would not pay them to waste their resources on cheap gangsterism and they in turn would hardly be willing to put up with cheap gangsters trying to muscle in on their turf, either by force or carving up the most profitable market places, or creating consumer resistance to their services.
Small business initiatives, particularly in local or niche markets, should be about as viable as at present, with about the same constraints of competition and encouragement. It still would be risky to take on the big boys, and yet seed industries could still grow as new technologies and falling giants leave gaps on the forest floor.
And nationalism would become a difficult concept to convey in history classes; it would seem about as logical and civilised as female circumcision, and about as attractive.