Writing speculative fiction gives a writer the opportunity to have a go at predicting the future. For me, the best tool I always find useful, in order to build the world in which to set the novel, is looking at the past. ‘To see the future one must look to the past’ and follow the trends.
I began by asking ‘What is a nation? A state? A country?’ and then went on to research different types of sovereignties throughout history. I followed the trends and discovered the future of the world’s political landscape is a mixture of obviousness and surprise. The one prediction that seems most definite amongst all the others is that the nation states we live in today are not static, rigid institutions, but evolving, changing political creatures.
One of the obvious developments is the trend of nations moving towards supernationhood. Historically, growing and successful communities constantly expanded to accommodate the increasing power of the citizens of these states. A town grows into a city-state; a city-state turns to empire. Up until last century ’empire’ was a natural progression for any nation blessed with the position of economic power. However, empires that refused to evolve by the time the twentieth century came along struggled to survive. The spread of democracy made sure of this. Ever since the city-state of Athens experimented with mixing democracy and empire (a fail in my opinion), large dominions struggled or faltered once injected with representative government. Successful empires were the ones that dealt with democracy by absorbing the ideal into its political composition, alas the advent of constitutional monarchy and republicanism. As these forms of sovereignties become irrelevant into the twenty-first century, new forms are beginning to arise.
Economic Blocks initially were sold to citizens of developed (democratic) nation as mere trade treaties, political union was never in the sales pitch. Yet the promise of prosperity hooked the entire continent of Europe. Political union has always been at the forefront of European history hence why all those large-scale wars, but for a modern empire to take flight, a new approach needed to be implemented. Instead of conquering, the Eurocrats resolved to forge an empire by having nations willingly enter subjugation. Independent peoples are today willing and eager to give up their sovereignty for the promise of prosperity. Forget the wars and struggles for liberty their recent ancestors went through; access to cheap money was all it took to stamp out nationalism.
It is not hard to foresee that when the EU arrives at the crossroads, the Eurocrats will issue their constituents with an ultimatum; federalism, political union, or die in poverty. Europe is on the road to empire, to become a supernation, and compete with all the other, old and new, supernations.
Spheres of Influence are as old as empires. In ancient times, all regional powers asserted a sphere of influence over their neighbours. Control that sphere for a substantial period and that region is theirs, until another power comes along and takes it from them. The Persians did it to expand the empire as an alternative to war. The Greek city-states did it against each other. From the Romans meddling in foreign politics, to the Cold War, the tussle between spheres of influence determined the fate of imperial aspirations. The winner usually takes all, and builds an empire with the spoils.
The United States, a supernation by definition, established its sphere of influence as soon as it became powerful enough to do so. Without really conquering new territory, it maintained an empire for over a hundred years, culminating with the Cold War of the Twentieth Century, which divided the entire world into two spheres of influence. This is nothing new. Cold Wars have been fought between the Mycenaean and Hittite Empires, Hittites and Egyptians, the aristocrats of Sparta and the democrats of Athens, the fundamentalist Hellenes and the theocratic Persians, Romans and Carthaginians… each time the winner taking all.
Today all the major powers are carrying out their own mini Cold Wars. The Russians are forever trying to resuscitate their former Empire status over their satellites nations. Since outright conquest has proved in modern times vastly expensive, maintaining a sphere of influence over them is proving more effective. Economic war is much cheaper, it seems. Far less fallout. China has also become an expert in establishing its sphere of influence, one that stretches far beyond their immediate neighbourhood. They buy love and affection in continents as far away as Africa and Australia, in the hope that they will hang on to this influence long enough to not warrant gunboat diplomacy.
To survive, just like in business, smaller nation will need either to join with an Economic Block or enter a foreign power’s Sphere of Influence. Either way, independence and sovereignty is lost whilst the Supernation dominates.
Cities, by nature, have always been economic powerhouses throughout history. Like the laws of gravity, centres of urbanisation attracted wealth and power. The greater the mass a village, town or city has, the more attractive power they possess, syphoning human resources away from rural communities. It is easy to see how these centres of concentrated wealth evolved into the first political states. Babylon, Athens and Rome grew into city-states, powerful enough to influence and have a central role in civilisation. Epicentres of science, arts, religion and trade, these cities gave birth to empires, monarchies, as well as regional and national states. A thousand years later City-states such as Venice, Florence and Genoa in Italy, and the Free Imperial Cities, sovereign city-states in Germany and Switzerland, rose to prominence, challenging the might of European monarchs, such as the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires.
Few modern city-states exist today; include The Principality of Monaco, Singapore, Vatican City, and the world’s oldest republic and only surviving Italian city-state, San Marino. Aside from Singapore, they do not wield the power and influence as nation states, but as populations in cities around the world continues to grow, syphoning more and more resources away from rural areas, towns, and even rival cities, the shift of power away from nation-state, and towards the city-state could feasibly occur.
Generating more and more of the world’s growth, these mega cities will become increasingly influential as the city-states of the past. Today, just 40 city-regions account for two thirds of the world economy and 90 percent of its innovation. Nation States pool the wealth extracted mostly from their big cities, and redistribute it to the wider regions they encompass. Citizen of cities with populations over thirty, forty, million people could justifiably view this redistribution of their wealth as unfair. If a particular city is in the position to gain self-sufficiency in basic needs, like water, and not have a great over reliance on regional resources, its citizens could seek to protect their wealth. Greater autonomy or breaking away altogether could be on the cards for the megalopolis of Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou, the mega-cities growing in Japan, Mexico and Brazil, or any others currently forming in India, West Africa and The Middle East. In old world nation-states where nationalism and federalism are entrenched, this development is unlikely. However, in new economies this may indeed occur.
The rise of the Refugee and Corporate City-State. To avoid their wealth from being taxed into oblivion by supernations and liberate themselves from convoluted trade agreements, wealthy elites could decide to buy territory from struggling nation-states, outright or on hundred year leases, and build their own city-state. All they need, is a few countries to recognised it as a sovereign state, invest to set up an international air and sea port, establish an international capital exchange for global companies, create a currency, and open the doors to the rich, the poor, and to refugees seeking to build a new life.
Unlike the supernations, which promise easy and immediate prosperity but deliver oppression and totalitarianism, these mega city-states promise hard work initially, but after a long investment period these cities could become the last bastions of true democracy and deliver their citizenry the kind of prosperity and power not seen in living memory.
The Virtual Countries
Countries without borders have been around since prehistoric times. Migration has always been part of human civilization. When tribes or whole communities of people set off to find new territory to settle, fleeing natural disaster or hostile invasion, along with their pots and pans, spears and sheepskins, they also take their culture, language and politics with them. Nomadic peoples are cultures on the constant move; true mobile nations, which naturally brought them into conflict with the rising new territorial nations that locked down more and more land, closing migration routes.
Conquered peoples, especially ones relocated as slave in foreign lands kept their cultures, their religions, forming communities within communities. These slave or migrant Diasporas were the first virtual countries. Similarly structured to family clans, business associations, military institutions, these early, mostly religious, movements or virtual countries, grew in power and influence regardless of the lack of territory ownership, and flourished in the face of oppression. Christianity became a powerful virtual country that lasted for centuries before acquiring territorial status, turning into a land-based empire for nearly two thousand years, and settling down into city-state status in the modern era.
What limited virtual countries in the past was the supreme economic power of the land based nation states that locked down resources within their borders. Today, and more so in the future, this lock down is slowly being bypassed. The invention of The Internet has blasted open the door for the creation of border-less economies. While the old school nation-states try to insulate their domains from the advent of virtual geography, the rise of The Virtual Country will threaten their very existence.
The Internet gives peoples with similar ideals, cultures and gaols the ability to congregate and organised themselves without the need to be physically present.
The online world is already host to millions of nascent virtual countries. When the 4chan and Tumblr communities went to war with each other, it displayed an aspect of what countries, virtual or territorial, have been doing for millennia.
The Anonymous movement also demonstrates how these early stage decentralised communities can evolve in time into powerful virtual countries. All they need is economies to underline them.
With the development of cryptocurrency, such as bitcoin, large online communities can feasibly build powerful economies, powerful enough to rival the traditional economies of the nation-states.
Corporations could also get into the action. Instead of catering only for the pockets of shareholders, companies can also include customers and employees into the voting membership mix. Structured similarly to nation-states, global corporations could build virtual empires in practically any geographical based nation-state.
Social media companies like Facebook or Twitter could harness the power of their users to build such Virtual Countries. All they have to do is provide them with banking and finance, communication, insurance and health services, (traditionally nation-states services provided through taxation.) and support it with a solid currency in the form of reward points, cryptocurrency, gold or fiat backed by shares.
Giant corporations like Microsoft or Google can easily achieve this. Instead of progressing through the corporate life cycle of growth, merge, transition and decline, they could reinvent what corporations are. Instead of buying out their competition to dominate one economic sector, they could branch into every sector and attempt to dominate them all. Energy. Retail. Housing.
If members of virtual countries get better benefits than from what they get from the Nation-State they belong to, then it is easy to predict which system would triumph in the end.
This is possible for any conglomerate to achieve. Used correctly, technology’s ability to transgress borders and the unification of customers, employees and shareholders are both powerful empire building tools, and once religious groups, Diasporas, political and social movements, and multinationals start to understand the benefits of the Virtual Country, then the rise of such entities, including Supernations and Mega City-States, could set the agenda for the next five hundred years.