Ch. 11. Nation States

    It is amazing how quickly the world has changed from traditional tribes and monarchies to nation states. In 1500 there was no such thing. The Netherlands became the first about 1600. By the late 20th century, nearly all the land on Earth, with the exception of the Antarctic, was recognized as belonging to one nation state or another. 1

    Never before in history has change of this magnitude happened so quickly, but then never before has there been as much incentive. During the five hundred years since the modern transformation began, world population has risen from 425 million to over seven billion, and food production has more than kept up. The production of wealth and the quality of life have skyrocketed far beyond anything that tribesmen, peasants, or even aristocrats could have ever imagined. 2

    It is common for scholars to give the primary credit for these changes to an increase in the rate of technology development. That is true, but there is a reason for the much faster rate of improving technology. It is the triumph of the market economy and the new nation-state structure that is able to promote growth and development, while regulating the markets for the benefit of everyone. 3

Political and Economic Interdependence

    The nation-state government has a huge role to play in creating the conditions that are necessary for a high-performance industrial economy. There has to be a reliable form of money, and there needs to be the right amount of it, not too much and not too little. There has to be a standardization of business procedures starting with weights and measures but going on to include: taxes, contracts, liability law, criminal prosecution, and more. Business people, who are expected to invest their money and effort, must have some assurance that the fruits of their labor will not be stolen from them. Nation-state governments must enforce the rule of law to protect both the citizens and their livelihood. All of these political requirements can be performed well, and the economy will thrive, or they can be done poorly, and there will be difficulties. 4

    A well-functioning market economy can be a beautiful thing. Millions of people are all going about their business, doing their own work, and yet everything is coordinated, everything fits together. When the government does its job of setting up and maintaining the necessary legal and physical infrastructure, the invisible hand of the market will take over and do all of the organization and coordination required to make sure that the production of goods and services runs like clockwork. 5

    The market economy cannot do the job all by itself. The government cannot do it alone either. When the invisible hand of the market and a competent government work together, along with a healthy well-educated population, prosperity will follow for almost everyone. These conditions can be achieved by any country on any continent, but it takes time. 6


    The downside to this extraordinary economic and political transformation is that the process of nation-state formation often produces a large amount of violence, including: border war, ethnic cleansing, imperial war, and national rebellion. The high level of warfare has also increased the rate of technology development. There are many reasons why this massive reorganization of the world’s political, economic, and social institutions has been so violent. 7

    There are two hundred nation states in the world today. Most of them do not have the same borders and populations as the aristocratic conquest states or tribal entities that preceded them. The process of establishing these nations, determining their borders, deciding who would be included in the population, who would be excluded, and who would run the government has been the largest cause of violence during the modern transformation. Identity cleansings, border wars, civil wars, and national rebellions are all part of the larger process of nationalism, the creation and development of nation states.  8

Border Wars

    Aristocratic states were flexible organizations based on the land possessed by their royal conquest dynasties or feudal lords at any given time. Modern nation states are different. They require fixed borders, which ideally should include populations that have something to unite them: language, kinship, religion, or geography. Finding the new borders has often been a violent process. France and Germany hold the world record for border wars. There were the wars they fought with each other, which included the two World Wars, and the wars they fought with all of their other neighbors. It would require a team of historians just to add up all of the violence that occurred before the contours of France and Germany finally stabilized. 9

    A majority of modern nations have used some amount of violence as part of establishing or expanding their boundaries. There are nearly a hundred countries whose shapes were primarily defined by their colonial rulers. After independence, many of these countries still had border wars or skirmishes with their neighbors. Establishing limits and dividing lines has always been a difficult process. 10

    Since 1948, Israel has had numerous border wars, hundreds of skirmishes, and the process has not been completed yet. We still do not know what Israel’s final shape will be, and whether or not there will be a Palestinian nation state. So far the evidence suggests that national borders stabilize over time, but it can take a long time, and a lot of bloodshed. We do not know how many more border wars will be required before the process has been completed worldwide. 11

Identity Cleansing

    In the development of nation states, it is common for a dominant population to insist that their borders include land which is inhabited by a smaller less-powerful identity group, while excluding the people of that group. This is done by removing them from their land, either one way, or another. Identity cleansing has happened to a greater or lesser extent in a majority of modern transformations. The last chapter covered the beginning of the modern revolution in the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and France—the first four nation states. All of them included episodes of identity cleansing. 12

    In the 16th century, the Netherlands were divided in half by a major war with Spain for political, economic, and religious freedom. It was only the “Northern Provinces” that were able to defend themselves from Spanish armies and achieve independence. During the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), the northerners cleansed out that part of their population who remained Catholic. The Spanish governed provinces in the south, which eventually became Belgium, cleansed the Protestant “heretics” from their midst. 13

    From the 1640s to the 1750s, the emerging English-controlled nation state of Great Britain cleansed Papist Irish and Highland Scots. Within a few years of arriving in North America in the early 1600s, the American colonists began cleansing the First Nations. This official policy continued for two and a half centuries until nearly the entire native-Indian population of the United States was destroyed. In the 1690s, the French cleansed their Huguenot Protestant community. During the height of revolutionary violence in the 1790s, it was the Catholic clergy who went to the guillotine. 14

    This is usually called religious or ethnic cleansing, but the problem is not really religion or ethnicity. Sometimes it is mountain people versus flatlanders or civilization versus tribals. People have always formed group identities for many different reasons. 15

    The problem of different identity groups fighting battles with each other to see who will form the next government is just as common. Cleansings and battles between different ethnic and sectarian factions over who will govern are still happening, as with the Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, and others in Iraq and the numerous identity groups in Syria and Afghanistan. This kind of violence will continue for a few more generations until all countries have progressed into the final stage of the modern transformation, which is usually more peaceful. 16

National Rebellion

    More than half of all the nation states in the world today were created through a process that included national rebellion. The Dutch rebelled against the Spanish Empire, and the Americans rebelled against the British Empire. Italians rebelled against both French and Austrian rule. The modern transformation has included a huge amount of national rebellion, culminating in the great disintegration of empires after World War II. In recent times, southern Sudan has been in rebellion against the north and Kashmir against India. The breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were caused by national rebellions. 17

    These kinds of rebellions have often been extremely violent, especially the methods used by governments to repress them. The violence sometimes has a way of bouncing back and forth between insurgents and national security forces, while escalating with every reverberation. Half of all national rebellions have failed, as did the Confederate States of America and the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka. 18

    Since the modern transformation began, there have been hundreds of attempted national rebellions, and over a hundred that have succeeded in forming independent nation states. The use of violent rebellion in the formation of new nations will continue for another generation, but on a much lower scale. Developing governments are gradually becoming more pluralistic and willing to recognize the rights of minority identity groups. The need for violent rebellion seems to be decreasing. In some countries the same objective can be accomplished peacefully, as in Czechoslovakia. 19

Social Revolution

    Nationalism can be blamed for a majority of the violence stemming from the modern transformation but not all of it. Other parts of the revolutionary experience have also contributed. Two different kinds of social revolution were, and are, major parts of the modern transformation. When the modern revolution began, the first order of business was to reduce or destroy the power of the secular and religious hereditary aristocracy, followed by the king. In western Europe, it required centuries of rebellion and revolution to complete this job. 20

    As the official hereditary rule of the titled nobility diminished, the remaining aristocrats were absorbed into a new oligarchic ruling class which developed to govern the emerging nation states. The first successful business entrepreneurs become very wealthy in the developing capitalist market economy. The first successful political families also become rich and powerful. It was inevitable that the wealthy business elite would begin to intermarry with the powerful political families. In pretty much every modern transformation, this has led to the development of an oligarchic ruling class that controls both the capitalist economy and the nation-state government. 21

    That completes step one of the social revolutionary experience, removing the aristocrats and monarchs from power, and allows the country to continue on to step two. The end result of the modern transformation is democratic-market society where the nation is governed by all the people, not just a political class of ruling elites. Step two of the social revolution requires ending the monopoly of political power enjoyed by the oligarchic ruling class and distributing it more evenly to all citizens. This is usually the second most violent part of the modern transformation. 22

    The problem with the oligarchic ruling class is not that it forms to begin with. Wealthy oligarchs are needed to kick start modern industrial and commercial development. The problem is that the first successful pioneers of modern business and government quite often monopolize the nation's wealth and political power, and pass the monopoly on to their children. Most of the population becomes part of a large working class, which has little choice but to accept whatever menial jobs and low pay that are available. The ordinary common citizens become more and more dissatisfied. If the oligarchs refuse to compromise with the working class and share their wealth and political power, it will lead to revolutionary class struggle. Socialism, communism, fascism, and Islamic fundamentalism evolved to lead much of this second-stage social-revolutionary battle. We will observe how this process began in western Europe in the next chapter. 23

    About half of all modern nations used to be primarily tribal in structure. Many of these countries did not begin the modern transformation until after World War II. They are in the process of changing tribal leaders into national politicians. Arab countries, African countries, Afghanistan, and Island nations around the world are still working out how to do this. The modern transformation in tribal cultures appears to be just as violent as it has been in aristocrat-peasant societies, but there has always been a lot of variation. Mongolia is an example of a tribal population that is making good progress through the modern transformation without having a civil war. 24


    With all of the above listed reasons for violence, most developing countries had, and still have, periodic waves of street fighting, assassinations, gun-powder plots, rebellions, class conflicts, border wars, and identity cleansings. You would think this would be enough violence, but not for western Europe. They just had to add world conquest into the mix. 25

    Imperialism was an important factor in all aristocrat-peasant societies of the last five-thousand years. It was universally accepted that conquering your neighbors, taking their wealth, and forcing them to work for you as peasants or slaves was an honorable thing to do. If you could go farther and conquer large empires as Persia, Rome, and China did—so much the better. 26

    By 1500, Europeans had learned how to go much farther by sea. Their growing commercial and maritime strength gave them the ability to launch overseas expeditions in search of trade. They were also looking for weaker people who could be conquered and exploited. Today, we think of this as being evil. In traditional and early-modern times, it was just normal standard-operating-procedure. Soon the Spanish were looting the New World of its gold and silver. The Portuguese were using their stronger ships and heavier cannon to return from the Indies with fortunes in spice and exotic products. Early-modern imperialism took off from there. 27

    The western Europeans were well practiced at war. Their military technology was constantly improving. Their financial technology was also increasing. Early-modern warfare required soldiers, ships, and weapons—but more than anything else—it required money. As their modern capitalist economy continued to develop, Europeans were able to mobilize more money through the bond markets and more of everything else that was needed for conquest. 28

    The modern transformation was making Europe more modern and more powerful, while the rest of the world continued using aristocratic and tribal institutions. By the 19th century, the combination of a maritime commercial economy, financial markets, and modern weapons gave the western Europeans the capability to conquer most of the world. It was not long before the imperialists were doing more fighting with each other over colonies than fighting with the natives. Whoever was winning, European imperialism continued to expand. 29

Worst Case Scenario

    Overall, nationalism has been the largest single cause of violence during the world-wide modern transformation. That includes: border war, identity cleansing, and national rebellion. Social revolution has been the second largest cause of violence. This starts with rebellion against aristocrats, monarchs, or colonial masters in the first stage of the modern transformation. The result is an oligarchic ruling class that dominates both the government and the economy. After the industrial revolution has begun, this usually leads to some degree of class struggle where the working class tries to diminish the power of the oligarchic elites. The result can range from a relatively mild case of socialism to extreme forms of communism, fascism, or Islamic fundamentalism. 30

    The worst case scenario occurs when these two main causes of violence happen at the same time and become entangled with each other. In central and eastern Europe during the second half of the 19th century, serfdom was coming to an end, the industrial revolution was beginning, and a working-class proletariat was emerging. All of this was happening prior to the development of nation states. The conquest dynasties of the German Kaiser, Austro-Hungarian Emperor, and the Russian Czar still ruled the entire region. When those monarchs came crashing down at the end of World War I, it was time to redraw the borders for all of central and eastern Europe.  31

    The three most difficult and violent problems of the modern transformation—nationalism, social revolution, and imperialism—all came to an apocalyptic crescendo in the first half of the 20th century. It was not Kaisers, Czars, Fuhrers, fascists, and communists who caused the two World Wars. It was the modern transformation that caused the downfall of the Czar and the Kaiser, the rise of communism and fascism, and the creation of a dozen new nation states. As a result, border wars, national rebellions, identity cleansings, social revolution, and imperial conquest all merged into two gigantic episodes of violence that are known as World War I and World War II. We will take a closer look at central and eastern Europe in Chapters 14 and 16. 32

    Something similar to this worst case scenario is happening today in the Arab world. Egypt is the only Arab country that has traditionally had a strong national identity. Egyptians have been Egyptians for five thousand years. Most of the rest of the Arabs have traditionally used religion and tribe as the basis of their identity and group loyalty. After World War II and the colonial independence movements, the Arab world was divided into nation states based largely on boundaries left over from the European imperialists. 33

    In central Europe at the end of World War I, an argument started about who was and who was not a Pole, where exactly the boundaries of Poland should be, or if there really needed to be a Poland at all. Germany and Russia did not see any reason for having a Poland. It was going to take another World War and a Cold War to find the answers to those questions. There are similar problems in the Arab world today. No one knows exactly what a Syrian is. They know Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Christians, Kurds, Ismailis, Turkmen, and Armenians, which are some of the identity groups that live within the borders of Syria, but what is a Syrian? Is it necessary to have a Syria at all? If there is going to be a Syria, who should be in charge, the Alawites? Maybe there should be a universal caliphate to rule all of the Faithful, but that just brings up the questions: who is included in "the Faithful," and who should be caliph? 34

    In traditional times, the various candidates for leadership would mobilize their forces and fight it out until the last one standing became the new ruler. That is essentially the way central and eastern Europe tried to answer their questions about nationality in the 20th century. Just keep fighting until a winner emerges. That is how it was decided who would inhabit, and who would rule, the United States of America. This has been a common solution to the problems of nationalism and social revolution throughout the five hundred year history of the modern transformation, but it generates a lot of bloodshed and suffering. There have also been other, wiser solutions. Sometimes after just a moderate amount of fighting, the various identity groups have found that compromise can lead to more successful and peaceful ways to define and rule their emerging nation state. The Japanese pro-modern nationalists, daimyo, and samurai fought a number of small-scale battles over these issues, and then found other ways to work things out, Chapter 13. 35

    One thing we know for certain is that everyone has to eat. In the modern world, this requires a market economy where people can buy food, which requires a nation state to regulate the markets and keep the economy functioning. Whether the modern transformation in Syria or any other country uses a lot of violence, or a much smaller amount, the end result will still be a democratic-market nation state. We will take a closer look at the Arab world in Chapter 19. 36

Good Guys and Bad Guys

    The above sections of this chapter clearly state that the modern transformation is the universal cause for border war, identity cleansing, national rebellion, and social revolution in developing countries. When we watch the television news, we can see these events happening in real time. In the summer of 2014, there is a small-scale border war taking place in eastern Ukraine. Religious cleansing is being carried out by the new Islamic Caliphate around Mosul in northern Iraq. The Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other again in and around Gaza. 37

    The reporters who cover these stories do not explain that these are ordinary average border wars and identity cleansings that commonly happen during early and middle-stage modern transformation. What a boring story that would be. Their editors want heart-wrenching human drama about good guys, bad guys, evil deeds, and heroes who save the day. 38

    As a result, we get stories about the "bad guy," Vladimir Putin, who in his lust for power and glory is orchestrating death and destruction in an attempt to recreate the Czarist and Soviet empire. The problem is: if Vladimir Putin was more like Abraham Lincoln, it would not be small-scale border fighting. The entire Russian army would be advancing across the Ukraine killing everyone who tried to oppose them. The way Americans write the story: Abraham Lincoln was the "good guy" because he fought a massive war to reunite "their country," and did not stop until the job was completed. Vladimir Putin is the "bad guy" because he is willing to use violence to reunite the two largest parts of "his country." 39

    The latest turn of events in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars has seen the rise of an aggressive Islamic "Caliphate" that is cleansing Shia Muslims, Christians, and Yazidi—a surviving offshoot of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. Reporters and commentators go on and on about evil jihadi terrorists and man's inhumanity to man. When the American frontiersmen spent two and a half centuries cleansing "heathen savages," the cleansers were considered to be the "good guys" and the victims were the "bad guys." 40

    Jews and Palestinians are two different identity groups who are fighting over the same piece of land. The Israeli Likud government describes Hamas as the worst form of Satanic evil. The Palestinians feel exactly the same about Likud. The reality is that Likud and Hamas are identical to the extent that they are both at the hardline most-violent extreme of the political spectrum. Likud refuses any form of compromise and regularly kills large numbers of Palestinians with airstrikes and artillery, but in the American media, they are the "good guys." Hamas is fighting as hard as they can for freedom from Israeli oppression, and has repeatedly stated that they would be willing to compromise and accept a two state solution. The European media now considers the Palestinians to be the "good guys" and Binyamin Netanyahu to be the "bad guy." 41

    History scholars have followed the journalists down the same dead-end path. Most of their work is biographical and most of it is about "good guys and bad guys." Everything that happens is attributed to the leaders and rulers. If good things happened, then the leaders were "good guys." If bad things happened, they were "bad guys." Most history stories are either about local heroes or foreign villains. 42

    There are two primary reasons for putting the focus of history almost entirely on rulers and other elites, to the exclusion of ordinary common citizens and their economic requirements. One is that history scholars are supposed to use primary sources, which is much easier to do if you focus on the leaders; the archives are filled with biographical data about rulers and other important powerful people. Second, readers like gossipy stories about royalty, national heroes, founding fathers, villainous dictators, and the rich and powerful. 43

    The result of all this journalism, commentary, and history that puts most of the focus on leaders is a gross misrepresentation of what is actually happening in the world. Dictators, radical imams, and warlords are blamed as the root cause of the violence in developing countries. It is just not true. Dictators and other leaders are caught up in the violence and forced to find ways to respond to it, just like everyone else. The actual cause of all the border war, identity cleansing, class struggle, and general mayhem is the modern transformation, the change from traditional to modern society all around the world. 44

An End to the Violence

    It was obvious from the beginning that this new nation-state form of society was just as violent and prone to warfare as the aristocratic conquest dynasties of the past. Many people worry that this is still the case. A deeper analysis gives us reason for hope. Identity cleansing, borders wars, national rebellion, and social revolution are problems that show up prominently in the early and middle-stage of the modern transformation. They tend to taper off toward the end. 45

    Imperialism was smashed by two climactic World Wars in the 20th century. All of the major empires have been dismantled. The only attempt at imperial conquest in recent times was by Saddam Hussein, and his aggressions were as much border wars as imperial wars. In any case, his fate is unlikely to tempt others into similar ventures. 46

    The early development of nation states is clearly a violent process. Since many countries are still in the middle stage of the modern transformation, there is a lot of violence that is still happening, but there is also hope for the future. Since the end of World War II, the pace of the modern transformation has greatly increased. Real progress has been and is being made. The next three generations should see a slow but substantial decline in the amount of revolutionary violence around the world. If developing countries have a better understanding about what the modern transformation is, and how it works, the violence may be reduced even faster. 47

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