If you have not read Part 1 of the Westphalian Order series, please do that first: You’ll need it to understand what I cover here.
Now, having (I hope) established that the Westphalian order of states is in some trouble, I will proceed to another reason for my pessimism.
The Obedience Game
All states of all periods share a common foundation: a group of subjects who accept rulership. Without this, no state can endure. That applies to democratic regimes, socialist regimes, republics, monarchies, theocracies and any other ruling arrangement. If the people are unwilling, the state will fail soon enough.
Though they seldom mention it in public, the operators of states know this. That is why they want to control information flows, and why, in a crisis, they will shut them down. Contrary voices undercut legitimacy, and the states cannot survive without it.Think of it this way: If a state had no more legitimacy than the local Rotary Club, attempts to collect taxes would be widely rebuffed; people might not buy government bonds, obey orders, or even choose to repair government equipment. That state would collapse.
A pristine image of legitimacy is essential to the state, even more so than power. The proof of this was the Church in the middle ages: They had no power to speak of, yet they ruled for a millennium. They were able to do this for one reason: They maintained a monopoly on legitimacy. (I write on this at length, by the way, in Production Versus Plunder.)
The Lost Heyday of Info-Control
The peak of information control came in the mid-20th Century, when perhaps 98% of all American news came out of one or two zip codes in Manhattan. (About the same was true for London and other capital cities.) Furthermore, the people who produced mass-market news were a fairly homogenous bunch. Some of them did excellent work, but there were not many dissenting voices. Party A always fought Party B, but thoughtful questioning of the larger operation was not heard. (Crazy people questioning the larger operation were welcomed, since that helped legitimacy.)
Even cable television didn’t add many dissenting voices, but something else did:
The Accidental Internet
A strange thing that happens when politicians get scared: They grudgingly call in the smart guys and let them loose. Most of us learn about this in elementary school: The smartest kid in the class is more or less abused until the class gets into real trouble; then they run straight to him and promise to do whatever he says. That’s how the Internet was born.
The event that scared the politicians was Sputnik. Russians surging ahead of the US into space meant that they had to pull out all the stops. The resulting Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was where the Internet began.
The Internet is not really a control technology. Designed by the smart kids rather than political types, it is purposely decentralized. That makes it hard to control.
Almost no one saw the Internet coming. Its explosion in about 1993 surprised almost everyone. And, before long, a lone news geek exposed Bill Clinton as a willful liar and “guys in jammies” brought down the mighty Dan Rather. The game had been changed.
Governments are presently retaking control of the Internet and using it for mass surveillance, but they are treading carefully, and it may be some years before they (along with their mega-corp friends) can clamp down on it altogether. In the meanwhile, ideas that question or oppose state legitimacy are spreading. There is no more gatekeeper.
There is also a serious decline of gatekeeping in the publishing business. Rather than requiring the approval of a major publisher (with friends in broadcast media and government, needing publicity help and attending the same cocktail parties), the rogue author can publish himself: either at zero cost as a blogger, or at zero initial investment as a print-on-demand publisher.
Newspapers also are in a state of flux. They began the Internet era by giving away their stories and have suffered continuing losses. Now, they seem to be moving to a pay model. This may save some of them, but it also breaks up what we may call the info-matrix. Once people are cut-off from ‘free’ news, they will begin to choose. And since they are paying this time, they will choose more carefully. This will favor newsletters and other providers of superior content. And, again, the state-friendly gatekeeper is removed from the equation.
Although it is not widely known, foreign nations are spreading money around Washington and New York to influence media coverage, and some of them are spending shocking amounts. (I strongly suspect that the same is happening in other countries.) So, the state that wants to influence the media in its own country now has competitors, and some percentage of the time, a media outlet will lean toward the foreigner who is paying better.
To retain proper control and influence, a state needs more than some of the intellectuals to comply with them; it needs substantially all of them. The state’s version of events must be the only sane version to be seen; any competing views must be seen as crazy and dangerous. Once truth outside of the authorized stream becomes possible, people will begin to wander, and the state’s brittle legitimacy can be broken.
To continue reading, visit Westphalia’s End Part 3.