The Nature of the Nation-State is Changing: Is a Broken Social Contract to Blame?

When looking at current events it is impossible to ignore the multitude of succession and separatist movements happening across the globe. From the Kurds of Northern Iraq and to the Catalan people of Spain, both have declared independence and seek to operate as states separate from the government authority of Baghdad and Barcelona. Regional powers such as Russia and China each have to contend with separatist conflicts that pose challenges to each nation’s economic and political interests. Russia’s annex of former Ukrainian territory Crimea has rekindled tensions with both NATO and Ukrainian nationalists as Russian backed separatists carve out land beneficial to Moscow’s projection of power into the Black Sea. China’s attempt to control a strategic border crossing in the Himalayan region of Bhutan has fueled military tensions with India and put a spotlight on China’s control of politically tense borders populated by minority groups such as the Buddhists of Tibet and the Uighers of Xinjiang province.

These issues pose challenges to Russia and China’s autocratic-leaning state -centric models of government as national independence movements become politically appealing in an era where free wielding globalization has dampened the pillar of the modern nation-state. Territorial integrity, that of sovereignty, is the main principle defining today’s rules-based order of the nation-state system, but is now used as a primary agent in challenging the boundary between citizens and rulers. Sovereignty has proven to be politically malleable in its definition, where it is a convention of the ever-changing organization in the way differing human societies mold institutions.

Britain’s exit from the European Union shattered the illusion of a Europe capable of operating as a united super-state and instead pulled focus to Europe’s intractable problem of balancing state centers of power with the people’s quest for popular sovereignty. In both Europe and America, there is an upsurge in the attractiveness of populist political factions, asserting a more aggressive nationalism and challenging the status quo of mainstream politics. The populism of the West has not only empowered authoritarian leaning right-wing political parties, but has questioned the validity of the state’s founding myths. Where the economic impact of globalization has connected the interests of multiple countries to one another it has collided the interests of individual people against one another. The individual has been left unshielded and unprotected in a global environment not of his or her making. If people are feeling disconnected and isolated from the state, with the addition of being economically disenfranchised from good paying jobs, it should come as no surprise that people all across the world are searching for a new identity. The modern state is operating dangerously close to dysfunction, unable or unwilling to provide basic protections and freedoms for the people that it is suppose to serve. Has the state broken its social contract with the people?

The Liberal International Order, as defined by multilateral institutions that shape and implement free trade agreements, has taken sharp blows to its reigning influence. A mild uptick in nationalism may pose challenging questions to the way people relate to the state, but it is also the crisis of capitalism, as free market principles has shown to enrich corporations and devalue human labor with each cycle of boom and bust. In our modern era of post-ideological order, where the battles of tomorrow will be defined not as a conflict over the ideology of governance (communism vs. capitalism) but on the governance of power and the end of America’s status as global hegemon, giving rise to a multipolar order where regional powers pose a challenge to American influence. As this occurs, issues of identity are taking center stage, opening up questions about the political nature of the state and its ability to provide protection in a world where the only determinant is the unpredictability of order.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704): The State of Nature and the Nature of the State

Locke’s social contract design begins with the belief that tradition holds little command over society. He describes man not as a warlike animal, but one that is lonely, insecure, and capable of guiding his own decisions. Hobbes’ man was in a state of survival, whereas Locke’s man could decide for himself and is his own judge. Locke says that once man runs into his fellow man he sees that this other individual has been conducting the same behavior and using the same utilities for survival.

Now the question arises of who has the right to the fruits of life? There must be a shared complicity by the two men so as to retain peace. Once this notion of shared utilities comes into being, such as property, this is when the warlike condition will come into being. Man’s rights of life, liberty, and property will inevitably come into jeopardy when his fellow man endangers the survivability of these.

In order to obtain social order, Locke’s prototype for man’s state of nature says that he must be complicit before entering into the social contract. Locke says that one must emerge from the state of nature in order to gain unanimous agreement to join the social contract. Hobbes never explained how the social contract would be governed and thus only provided that man entered for the fact of obtaining peace as a warlike creature. Locke pushes Hobbes’ model forward by addressing how the social contract should be governed.

In a social contract there must be decisions made on how governance will be constructed. Locke states that decisions will be obtained by majority rule, where its only purpose is to govern. Therefore, the first contract created is from the unanimous joining without force and the second is the contractual agreement from the majority. What will remain a tricky spot within this theory his how the minority will conduct itself.

Minorities always question the representation they have among the contract, which leads to corruption of a pure social order. This flaw is inevitable within Locke’s social contract theory. When one group has the representative vote it is hard for the unrepresented minority to feel secure and safe. In Locke’s design the individual has the right to resist if the majority (second contract) does not help to protect an individual in a harsh environment. Similar to Hobbes’ design, Locke is noting that there is a necessity to topple any government that restricts your freedom of life, liberty, and property. Government should not define what is dear to our life, liberty, and property because that is when the unanimity breaks.

What is compelling in Locke’s design is the formation of the two contracts. In order to obtain a social contract one needs to have a unanimous opinion. If one is forced into the contract he leaves room for distrust and disunity. A majority rule as the political contract is an easy way to get a community working within agreement. The responsibility of this political contract is measured out only on how well it can protect an individual’s innate treasure of life, liberty, and property.

Locke understood that this political design could be potentially dangerous if a political entity knows how to cripple a man’s innate treasures in order to obtain a stronger political advantage. How to properly govern the social contract is vital to the individuals that create the community and it is dangerous when a part of the community takes advantage of an individual’s will to be a part of a society. Man can be considered as decent on his own but once a community (or state) mishandles his treasures it is time to question the authority coming from above.

Do we see a pattern similar to the resurgence of ethnic nationalism and succession movements? The nation may be defined in part by its ability to politically defend a geographical space, but it is the modern administrative state that has taken on the responsibility to delegate justice in the affairs of man. If one is to make a judgment based on the current mood of people living in the modern state, the state has not lived up to its duty as the standard bearer for protecting the natural rights of man. When the legitimacy of the state begins to come under question, the vitality of the nation is the only thing strong enough to maintain a visage of order. If the nation itself is in crisis, as in a constitutional crisis that questions not only its principles of governance but also its founding ethos, there are only two ways to guide a people back to a consensus of civil order. One is through reform, the other, revolution.

The compelling nature of Locke’s design takes us to the next step with Rousseau’s theory, which will be the next post in my series on social contract theory and the crises of the modern world.


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