By Robert Hickson 06/10/2017

Are we approaching “peak State”, where the power of diverse nation states starts to decline back toward greater power being held by large cities or culturally or religiously more homogeneous regions?

Catalonians and Iraqi Kurds voted in independence referenda this last week.

In contrast to Scotland’s and the UK’s Brexit referenda a few years ago neither of these has the support of their State governments.

Cameroon too, has had a violent independence riot.

Other cities and regions have expressed an interest in seceding from their countries. Some groups even want to establish their own micro-nations off-shore, away from meddling governments.

And, as we are seeing in the US, some states are taking the initiative when they see their federal government failing to address critical issues, such as climate change.

Governments too are voluntarily devolving some powers and more decision-making to large cities or regions.

And lets not forget the obverse, where particular groups are killed and evicted, as is the case for the Rohingya. Or a government annexes other territories at, it is claimed, the behest of “their” citizens, as in Crimea.

Are these signs of growing fractiousness and fragmentation of nation states and larger economic unions?


The end of the nation state?

Some are promoting the view that the era of nation states is ending, and that cities will become (again) the critical social and economic structures.

A pessimistic “non-state world” scenario developed by the US National Intelligence Council a few years ago considered the possibility of governments subcontracting out many responsibilities, leading to enclaves with different laws.

A variety of factors are at play.

  • Increasing decentralization of power to large cities or regions.
  • And, conversely, not devolving enough, so that regions feel that their culture or history is being lost, or not sufficiently recognised.
  • Disaffection from regions who consider that they pay more to central government in taxes and other monies than the value they get in return.
  • The increasing size and economic power of some cities.
  • Increasing “connectivity” at sub-national levels that remove the need for traditional diplomatic intermediaries to do business internationally
  • A belief that cities or regions are better able to address the needs of their inhabitants, or respond more quickly to emerging issues than bureaucratic central governments. Or that interests are better represented by homogeneity.
  • The view that central governments are now largely administrative and managerial rather than interested in creating shared visions with their citizenry

“Precisely because technology is moving so fast, and parliaments and dictators alike are overwhelmed by data they cannot process quickly enough, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. Consequently, in the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but it no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.”

Yuval Noah Harari, quoted by Jetzek


And the rise of the global citizen?

Does this also mean that nations, as well as cities, become less relevant to those growing up in an increasingly digital world, and where they become less attached to place?

That seems less likely. There is often a strong personal connection to place, be that where they are now, or where they have come from. Andrew Curry suggests that there is  emerging a new politics of place, where there is stronger identification with a particular area as opposed to a country. This, he suggests, is due in part to the increasing reliance on service and knowledge economies, rather than the traditional industrial and agricultural labour.

As the mythologist Joseph Campbell put it decades ago

The rise and fall of civilizations in the long, broad course of history can be seen to have been largely a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth; for not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilization.


Studies are showing that cities (and organisations) that embrace diversity tend to prosper economically. So building and maintaining diversity and difference is often worth working hard for.

Joseph Nye has pointed out

“Given that less than 10% of the world’s states are homogeneous, treating self-determination as a primary rather than secondary moral principle could have disastrous consequences in many parts of the world. “


There is great uncertainty over whether secession results in improved quality of life for those that secede.

Nye notes that Switzerland and Belgium give their different cultures substantial autonomy (though frictions still exist). But Catalonia already has some degree of autonomy within Spain, so there are different perspectives on what people expect from autonomy.


What about here?

Whangamomona is already a self-declared “republic”, though with little strategic influence or power.

More seriously, members of some Iwi, such as Tuhoe, continue to advocate for their independence.

There is a spectrum from centralised control through decentralisation to autonomy and secession. And many different approaches will probably be tried, willingly or not.

I anticipate that we’ll see more attempts at devolving powers and decision-making to regions and cities. There is already plenty of political discussion, and some action, around government agencies “partnering” with the private sector and the NGO or third) sector to address particular issues. Often not particularly successfully. There are still a lot of lessons to be learnt (or is that “learnings to be had” these days?)

Devolution (or autonomy) without defining what success looks like, and how to achieve it,  isn’t a good strategy, as the UK’s National Audit Office has noted.

As Nye concluded

“The best hope for the future is to ask what is being determined as well as who determines it.”


What seems likely is that developing a sense of belonging, as well as a strong sense of meaning in life, will be what matters most (at least to those not living in poverty or on the edge of it). That’s not just the role of governments, but they need to be actively involved in helping create and sustain them if they want to remain a nation.


Featured image: La Sagrada Familia by Ferran Fusalba on Unsplash