Monday, February 08, 2010

Global Networks and State Power

In previous posts, I’ve considered the economic and political decentering of the nation-state, the unraveling of free-market orthodoxy in the face of the economic crisis of 2008, and my opinion that our political disarray of recent years emerged from these two factors.

You might fairly ask how I can talk about the decentering of the nation-state after a massive financial bailout and stimulus package, and in the face of major health care legislation. Not to mention the assertive international policy of the Bush years.

I’ll begin my answer by considering a characteristic that all of these phenomena share: That is, they all involve responses to the increasing ability of networked groups of non-state actors to cause disruption on a global scale.

We well understand how 9/11 depended on the ability of a non-state actor to take advantage of networking opportunities provided by new communications and transportation technologies. The neoconservative response, rightly or wrongly (and I still hold, rightly) constituted a serious response to this new reality: the reorganization of hostile societies, they argued, served as a means of policing wayward elements that the US could not control from a distance. Iraqi social patterns would benefit us if they enhanced the relative authority of the moderate, and hopefully growing, middle class: The neoconservative project ultimately depended on a very socially-oriented view of national defense. (Some, obviously, will disagree with the premise that we can alter foreign societies socially. Nonetheless, one would have difficulty disagreeing with the idea that the social constitution of foreign societies bears increasing relevance in an age of weapons of mass destruction, improved communications and transportation, etc.)

The financial crisis of 2008 bears strikingly similar traits to the “terrorism crisis of 2001” in that the networking of housing-purchase decisions across the country created a heretofore unknown interconnection between national housing values. Here again, enhanced communications technologies played a central role: Namely, they allowed financiers to organize nation-wide housing derivatives into unified products and allowed massive pools of capital, from international sources, to overwhelm traditional patterns of home financing. In finance, as in the case of international terrorism, the state confronts a vast web of transactions that it cannot successfully monitor or police. In the case of TARP, as in that of Iraq, middle class wealth and habits reveal themselves as the ballast of a volatile political economy: Specifically in the US case, the middle-class funded bailout of high-stakes financiers, after a crisis created by those same financiers as well as by uneducated homebuyers, suggests that ultimate financial stability does not derive from New York but from the well-being, and education, of the mass of American society.

The US government acted aggressively in Iraq and with regard to the financial crisis. In each case, however, the logic of the events precipitating these actions indicates that state power faces a lasting, and growing, challenge from the power of networks unattended until the moment of crisis. The nature of such networks should fascinate us even more than the loud words and deeds of a superpower.