Many episodes of the classic high school sitcom Saved by the Bell follow a similar plotline. The central character, Zack Morris, tells a well-meaning fib or takes on a task a little beyond his ken. Over the course of 20-something minutes, the original venial sin compounds; unexpected mishaps entice Zack to widen the gap between reality and his deception. This culminates in some desperate, toxic lashing-out against members of his friend group as he attempts to retain control over the situation. Finally, his friends intervene and bring him to his senses, each leveraging their own unique capacities, and together they figure out a way to clean up the mess.
The supposition I will convey in this essay is that the nation-state has found itself in a Zack Morris-like situation.
The dominant, European rendition of the nation-state dates back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Other forms of territorial governance such as tribal lands, empires, kingdoms, and feudal domains predate it. The federal, republican variant we know in the United States came about in the late 18th century. This is old social technology, devised before there was any whiff of global climate change, a border-crossing Internet, or transnational fast fashion brands. Yet nation-states remain the basic unit of global governance, responsible for ruling the world through a web of treaties and organizations where being a nation-state is the premise of participation.
It seems reasonable, in principle, to have governments that oversee bounded territories with more or less shared cultures. But, like Zack, that principle has taken on more than it knows how to handle. Lately we find ourselves in the lashing-out stage. Toxic, authoritarian, ethnonationalist politics are on the rise. Donald Trump’s campaign promise that “I alone can fix it” becomes more laughable by the day — for him or any other politician. The time has come for someone to intervene and put the nation-state in its place.
To try governing a nation-state in such a context is an ever more absurdist task. No one country can stop climate change. The U.S. President takes blame for rising inflation, even though similar patterns are occurring in most other countries at the same time. A viral headline shaping a country’s politics might be real, or it might be the work of profiteering teenagers on the other side of the world. Governing territorial areas remains important, yet an ever-larger spread of also-important governance challenges have to do with less territorial matters like the atmosphere we breathe, the supply chains no human being can comprehend, and the relentless torrents of networked meme-making.
One way to understand the turn to ethnonationalist fantasies and strongman-style leaders is as a symptom of the nation-state’s weakness. If governments continually fail to deliver the governance we actually need, we can at least feel better by doubling down on what governments can do. Nation-states can’t stop climate change, but they can enact an elaborate, nostalgic fantasy of national identity and militarize their borders. Politicians can impress their constituents by denouncing transgender kids and insulting ethnic minorities. If they really need a fix, they can invade less powerful countries for inexplicable reasons.
One way to understand the turn to ethnonationalist fantasies and strongman-style leaders is as a symptom of the nation-state’s weakness.
All this lashing out will not get us any closer to economic security or a habitable planet. But the frustration is boiling over, and when we feel most powerless, it is a kind of relief to exert what little power we have left. And there is not really any alternative but to lean on the nation-state nowadays. There are organizations like the United Nations, but it is just made up of nation-states. There are the governments of local jurisdictions, but they are really just parts of nation-states. There are corporations and NGOs, whose power can dwarf that of nation-states, but they are mostly out for themselves, and they do not even make a pretense of being democratic. And their existence depends on legal recognition by a nation-state.
Some argue that in this crisis, the nation-state needs to get bigger: Nationalize the social-media platforms, deficit-spend our way out of climate change, and provide a universal basic income on top of that. Others would prefer nation-states to go away: Everyone will be just fine without any regulation, except a few rudimentary property rights and markets. But neither of these agendas addresses the basic mismatch between territorial governance and trans-territorial problems. Instead, the nation-state could offload some of its governance burdens to other kinds of jurisdictions, other concurrent layers of governance that are more tailored and accountable in their domains.
Native-land.ca is a website that maps the Indigenous jurisdictions that nation-states have sought to erase, through violence and other forms of erasure. According to it, I live on overlapping territories of three separate nations; before colonization, they shared the land through seasonal variation and coexisting ways of life. The borders on the map are generally rounded, rather than sharp and precise. This kind of map can help us begin to imagine how governance can look in a world where politics is not reducible solely to nation-states.
My local community is currently deciding whether to move our library system from control by one city’s budget to a library district. People outside the city use its library, and many of them do not have a library of their own. Dedicated districts are a common kind of jurisdiction in the U.S. that establishes a tax base, crossing city and county lines, to fund a library system (or a fire department or the like) with taxes specific to the shared service. This also enables governance more tailored to the particularities of the issue at hand; our district’s board will likely be peopled with library enthusiasts. Though still a territorial jurisdiction, it serves as a kind of friend to the governments it overlaps with, removing from them the burden of funding a library. Waterways and fisheries have long been governed similarly. These are commons, with governance appropriate to their nature and scope.
There are many more examples of cross-territorial governance layers in the making. The municipalist movement is cultivating networks of international cities that have more in common with each other than with their surrounding countrysides. The Global Covenant of Mayors, for instance, enables cities to link their climate commitments independent of their national governments. Organizations like the Kurdish Academy of Language connect groups that speak a common language across borders; these could develop methods of shared decision-making and shared standards, just as communities of software developers decide on the features to include in their programming languages. Social media users, wherever they happen to live, could write the codes of conduct for their platforms — following experiments in crowdsourcing constitutions in places like Mexico City and Iceland — rather than deferring to the regulations and norms of the country where the platform’s servers happen to be.
Today, such cross-border jurisdictions rarely have teeth, because only the nation-state has real enforcement power. Nation-states hold claim over all habitable land on Earth. Property rights and organizational structures depend on nation-states’ willingness to enforce their provisions. Political possibilities are reducible to what is politically possible for nation-states to do or advocate for.
Sometimes it takes a flashy technology to shake us out of old habits. In addition to their usefulness for scammers, charlatans, and aspiring plutocrats, the advent of blockchains presents a fresh opportunity to establish jurisdictions. Because a blockchain contract can enforce its own rules computationally, it can operate at least somewhat independently of territorial laws and enforcement agencies. Users can co-govern a blockchain from anywhere in the world — even without disclosing their geographic locations. Blockchains also produce digital tokens that people regard as valuable, which means participants have a stake in the system: something to gain and something to lose. For better or worse, blockchain jurisdictions are already in the making, and so is the struggle over what they will become.
Sometimes it takes a flashy technology to shake us out of old habits.
I have been around crypto long enough to have seen several cycles of libertarian fantasies for replacing nation-states with tokens and markets. Years ago, for instance, a startup called Bitnation promised we would all soon have blockchain passports and health insurance. More recently, crypto investor and entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan self-published The Network State: How to Start a New Country; he envisions token-holders banding together and acquiring land in ways that bring to mind a corporate retail chain more than a contiguous territory. The mechanism of how power will flow, however, is unclear, and it looks suspiciously like the top-down structure of a startup. Crypto-hero Elon Musk promises “direct democracy” on Mars, but he prevents unions from forming at his factories. There is no guarantee that crypto-based jurisdictions would be any better, or more democratic, than the ones we now have.
New jurisdictions must not simply place public goods in private hands; the overlapping jurisdictions should offer more rights and protections than we have now, not fewer. But they can also be more creative in their designs than governments are, picking from among a diverse palette of mechanisms to identify what is most appropriate to their particular domains. Some jurisdictions might be small, while others might represent everyone on earth, regardless of their territorial locations. New jurisdictions should offer opportunities to experiment with the possibilities of democracy, as well as the choice to create another alternative when one fails to be accountable. The repertoire of democracy should be explored beyond elections and representatives, toward models that are less coercive and that enable people to participate in diverse ways.
A municipalist jurisdiction, for instance, might be a council made up of city governments, operating according to a model of “rough consensus” similar to the evolution of Internet protocols. Meanwhile, a language standards body might make decisions through a reputation system, where highly regarded users of the language — the poets, the elders, the comedians — make its future rules. Social media users might decide on policies and enforcement through randomly selected juries, whose members are paid to take time to understand the complexities of an issue before deciding on it. People around the world might opt in to an income tax that redistributes funds directly to those with less. Early experiments will set the tone for later ones, so it is important from the start to design systems that set a high bar — ensuring that those who abuse power will lose it, and those who need to leave a jurisdiction can do so safely. In addition to collective decision-making, democracy depends on a basic framework of rights.
If people have opportunities to be part of more kinds of jurisdictions, they can put less stock in any one jurisdiction. They can keep identifying most with their nation-states, which can then focus on being great at governing their particular territory, or they can exchange that layer for other ones. The ethnonationalist fantasy has less to offer if the nation is no longer the only hope for change. A constellation of new jurisdictions is globalist, but it is also localist and more.
In a world of new jurisdictions, nation-states would need to relinquish some of the power they now claim. Just as the infamous U.S. law known as Section 230 gave social media platforms free rein to moderate content, governments can enable new jurisdictions to govern themselves as they see fit. In exchange, perhaps, the new jurisdictions should be expected to demonstrate that they are democratically accountable to their citizens. Over time, new kinds of jurisdictions may become important enough to people’s lives that the permission of nation-states no longer seems necessary. Our primary identities may someday have less to do with accidents of birth and more to do with the jurisdictions we choose.
New layers of global governance are forming whether we like it or not, but how we build the new jurisdictions matters. People experimenting with practices and tools of self-governance today have the opportunity to show the nation-state what Zack Morris realizes over and over: You don’t have to do everything yourself.
Nathan Schneider (he/him) is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he leads the Media Enterprise Design Lab. His most recent book is "Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy."