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Protopian Politics and the Future of Nationalism

Lenin said, “If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs.” However, 20 million dead Russians and 45 million dead Chinese are not eggs, and all those five-year plans and great leaps forward failed to produce an omelet.1 The history of attempts at putting utopian ideas into practice is strewn with the wreckage of failed societies, from Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana and John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida Community in New York — both relatively harmless communal experiments — to Lenin/Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s Communist China, which were catastrophic. Prophets and prognosticators often envision what life will be like when we get “there,” but this is not the right way to think about the future because there is no there there2 — in the utopian sense of the word’s Greek origin as “no place.”3

Utopias are no place, save for in the imagination, because they are grounded in an idealistic theory of human nature — one that assumes, quite wrongly, that perfection in the individual and social realm is a possibility. Instead of aiming for that unattainable place where everyone lives in perfect harmony forever, we should instead aspire to a process of gradual, stepwise advancement of the kind one might imagine occurring on a mountaineering expedition. It’s not a straight climb up, like on a ladder; instead, decisions have to be constantly made about the best route and method to get everyone further up the mountain, one step at a time.

A better descriptor than utopia for what we ought to strive for is protopia — a place where progress is steadfast and measured. The visionary futurist Kevin Kelly described it this way: “I believe in progress in an incremental way where every year it’s better than the year before but not by very much — just a micro amount.”4 Instead of the 1950’s imagined jump from the jalopy to the flying car, think of the decades-long cumulative improvements that led to today’s smart cars with their onboard computers and navigation systems, air bags and composite metal frames and bodies, satellite radios and hands-free phones, and electric and hybrid engines. Instead of Great Leap Forward, think Small Step Upward.5

Is Globalism the Future?

Throughout history people have been coalescing into ever-larger collectivities: from bands and tribes, to chiefdoms and states, to nations and empires. The historian Quincy Wright has documented that in 15th century Europe there were over 5,000 independent political units. By the early 17th century these coalesced into 500 political units. By 1800 there were around 200. Today there are 50.6 The political scientist Francis Fukuyama notes that in 2000 B.C. there were no fewer than 3,000 polities in China alone, but by 221 B.C. there was only one.7 The trend in unification has led ideologues on each extreme end of the political spectrum — from fascist dictators on the far right to One-World Government dreamers on the far left — to imagine the day when there would be a single overarching Leviathan in charge. But how likely is it really?

Given these trends, it seems plausible that at some point, maybe centuries from now, there will be no more nation- states, their former borders so porous economically and politically that the very concept will fall into disuse. Instead of power-obsessed Kings and Queens, vainglorious dictators and demagogues, megalomaniacal Führers and Dear Leaders, and egocentric Presidents and Prime Ministers, perhaps the most powerful political person will be…the mayor. That’s right, the person who cuts the ribbon at a ground-breaking ceremony for a new building, who works with the police and fire chiefs to keep crime at a minimum and disasters under control, who engages with technocrats and engineers to make sure the public buses run on time, who meets with educators to create the best environment for learning in schools, and who fixes the potholes. Cities, not nation-states or a One World Government, may be the future of humanity.

Are City-states the Future?

We are so accustomed to the nation-state as the norm that we forget its existence, as a concept — depending on how it is defined (by its politics or its people) — is barely two centuries old, whereas cities date back ten millennia.8 The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser calls the city “our greatest invention” that allows people to be richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and even happier.9 The long-term historical trend, then, may be a U-shaped curve of lots of political units as civilization takes off, reducing in number over the millennia as smaller states coalesce into larger states, but instead of hitting the bottom of the curve at a One World Government, the curve bounces up off the bottom of the graph and rises again into much more numerous and smaller political units, each governed locally and directly by those most interested in fixing local problems.

The long-term trend toward the decline of centralized power is across the board and well documented by Moisés Naím in his book The End of Power. “Power is spreading, and long-established, big players are increasingly being challenged by newer and smaller ones,” he writes. “And those who have power are more constrained in the way they can use it.” Naím defines power as “the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals,” and in that sense power is not only “shifting from brawn to brains, from north to south and west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile startups, from entrenched dictators to people in town squares and cyberspace,” it is decaying as well, and is “harder to use — and easier to lose.” Naím’s title is a little misleading, inasmuch as it implies that power has ended, but his point is that even though “the president of the United States or China, the CEO of J.P. Morgan or Shell Oil, the executive editor of the New York Times, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and the pope continue to wield immense power,” they wield less power than their predecessors.10

Nations and their leaders care about national issues, whereas most of us care about neighborhood issues.

Geopolitically, for example, having a massive army doesn’t give you as much power as it once did. A 2001 study by Ivan Arreguín-Toft found that in militarily asymmetrical conflicts between 1800 and 1849, the smaller country realized its strategic goals only 12 percent of the time, but between 1950 and 1998 the weaker side triumphed 55 percent of the time. Think about the Vietnam War. Dictators and demagogues are also on the way out. “In 1977, a total of 89 countries were ruled by autocrats,” Naím reports. “By 2011, the number had dwindled to 22.” CEOs are also losing power. Among Fortune 500 corporations, CEOs had a 36 percent chance of keeping their jobs for five years in 1992, a 25 percent chance in 1998, and by 2005 the average CEO for all 500 companies held their position of power for a mere six years. The companies at the top of the heap are also falling by the wayside, seeing an increase from a 10 percent chance to a 25 percent chance of dropping from the top quintile within five years.11

Naím notes that nearly every political institution and principle we have today — representative democracy, political parties, independent judiciaries, judicial review, civil rights — were all invented in the 18th century. The next set of political innovations, Naím predicts, “will not be top-down, orderly, or quick, the product of summits or meetings, but messy, sprawling, and in fits and starts.”12

Who knows? At this point we’re all speculating, but perhaps the sixties’ environmentalists got it right with their bumper-sticker slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Then again, here’s another slogan: “Think Historically, Act Rationally.” The first informs the second.

The political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose 2013 book If Mayors Ruled the World — appropriately subtitled Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities — argues that cities “are unburdened with the issues of borders and sovereignty which hobble the capacity of nation-states to work with one another.” Nations and their leaders care about national issues, whereas most of us care about neighborhood issues. Mayors, not Presidents (or Premiers, Chief Executives, or Federal Chancellors) are best equipped to handle immediate and local problems. Thus, Barber suggests, if we need a parliament of some sort (or a senate or congress or some other gathering of people who don’t know you and couldn’t care less about your immediate problems), it should be a Parliament of Mayors: “A planet ruled by cities represents a new paradigm of global governance — of democratic glocalism rather than top-down imposition, of horizontalism rather than hierarchy, of pragmatic interdependence rather than outworn ideologies of national independence.” The reason is obvious once you think about it. Cities, Barber notes, “collect garbage and collect art rather than collecting votes or collecting allies. They put up buildings and run buses rather than putting up flags and running political parties. They secure the flow of water rather than the flow of arms. They foster education and culture in place of national defense and patriotism. They promote collaboration, not exceptionalism.”13

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg explained the problem of dealing with the Federal government this way: “I don’t listen to Washington very much. The difference between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level. While national government at this time is just unable to do anything, the mayors of this country have to deal with the real world.” What about terrorism? Isn’t that a national problem? Not really. Terrorists don’t attack a nation. They attack a specific target, like a building or subway. After 18 months of training his staff at Homeland Security, Bloomberg concluded, “We’re learning nothing in Washington.” (Perhaps Bloomberg should have listened to his own advice and passed on running for President of the United States.) Ditto climate change. After next to no progress by national delegations at a climate change meeting in Mexico City in 2012, for example, representatives from 207 cities signed a Global Cities Climate Pact and pledged to pursue “strategies and actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions” at the local level.14

In the book Smart Cities the New York University urban research professor Anthony Townsend reviews the history of cities in which “buildings and infrastructure shunted the flow of people and goods in rigid, predetermined ways.” However, that flow has been altered by computers and the Internet, that link up people within and between them. “Smart cities are places where information technology is wielded to address problems old and new” because they can “adapt on the fly, by pulling readings from vast arrays of sensors, feeding that data into software that can see the big picture.” Townsend also sees mayors as the lynchpin of the future, and he shows how mayors all over the world are working with companies such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Google, Tesla, and Apple to work on problems like crime, pollution, garbage pick up, retail business foot traffic, high rise corporate office space, energy consumption, housing, public venue use, parking, public transportation, and the scourge of all cities — I would know as I live in Los Angeles — traffic.15

As Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog and The Long Now Foundation notes, “The cities did what the nations could not.” They solve local problems. Brand lists over 200 organizations dedicated to effecting local change, including the International Union of Local Authorities, the World Association of Major Metropolises, the American League of Cities, Local Governments for Sustainability, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, United Cities and Local Governments at the UN, the New Hanseatic League, and the Megacities Foundation.16 Brand also points out that more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, and the percentage is growing rapidly.17 “Cities are the human organizations with the greatest longevity but also the fastest rate of change. Just now the world is going massively and unstoppably urban…. In a globalized world, city states are re-emerging as a dominant economic player.”18 He points out that in 1800 only three percent of the world’s population lived in cities. In 1900 it had grown to 14 percent. In 2007 it reached 50 percent and by 2030 it will exceed 60 percent. “We’re becoming a city planet,” he says, in which “communications and economic activities bypass national boundaries.”


The social anthropologist Spencer Heath suggests alternative models for the way in which people might come together in nonpolitical voluntary communities consisting of both private and common areas. There already exist many such communities all over the world operating smoothly and efficiently. For instance, shopping centers are proprietary communities, as are condominium complexes, mobile home parks, retirement communities, industrial parks, private colleges and universities, and corporate campuses such as those of Microsoft, Apple, and Google, which are, in essence, miniature cities operating through proprietary instead of political means. The hotel is another fine example. “The hotel has its public and private areas, corridors for streets, and a lobby for its town square. In the lobby is the municipal park with its sculpture, fountains, and plantings. It has its shopping area, where restaurants and retail stores bid for patronage. Its public transit system, as it happens, operates vertically instead of horizontally.”19 When you rent a hotel room, included in the price are utilities such as water, electricity, heat and air conditioning, and sewerage, and for an extra fee you get room service, current movies, and high-speed Internet access. Also provided are police and fire protection by security guards and sprinkler systems. Many hotels include a chapel for religious services, babysitting and play areas for children, pools for recreation and bars for imbibing, concerts and plays and even theater shows (especially in Las Vegas).

Could the proprietary community concept be expanded globally? In his book Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think, the economist Peter Leeson provides numerous examples of social self-organization in which private individuals secure social cooperation without government, and even though there is no world government, as we have seen in the decline of war and the new long peace somehow nations have found pathways toward nonviolent solutions to conflicts and disputes.20 True enough, but critics of anarchy point out that all such proprietary communities are situated within sovereign nations that provide military protection from foreign enemies, police protection from vandals and other criminals, public roads to access their private roads, courts to adjudicate disputes over contract violations, and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force to ensure that the overarching rule of law is enforced fairly and justly.

The Future

Whether these types of communities can be maintained in, say, city-states instead of nation-states, or will ultimately be replaced by other social technologies such as proprietary tools that produce the same results, remains to be seen. Whatever changes are made going forward; history shows us that in order to succeed they should be implemented incrementally, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in his reflection on the American Revolution:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.21

I am assuming that we are not going to genetically engineer out of our nature greed, avarice, competitiveness, aggression, and violence, because these characteristics are part and parcel of who we are as a species, and all have an evolutionary logic to them. Instead, what I foresee in the far future of civilization here on Earth (and, one day perhaps, on Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and maybe even on exo-planets in other solar systems) are civilizations that have learned to design their political, economic, and social systems to bring out the best of our nature while holding back the worst. I envision not a monocultural civilization on Earth, but a multicultural one. And, presuming we will develop the technology to live on other planets, there will not be one civilization, but many. Given the distances and time scales involved, I foresee many species of spacefaring hominins in which each colonized planet will act like a new “founder” population from which a new species evolves reproductively isolated from other populations (the very definition of a species22). These civilizations will vary even more than nations on Earth varied before globalization. There will be dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of different civilizations in which sentient beings may flourish. END

About the Author

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the podcast The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. For 18 years he was a monthly columnist for Scientific American. He writes a weekly Substack column. He regularly contributes opinion editorials, book reviews, and essays to the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Science, Nature, and other publications. His new book is: Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

  1. Rayfield, D. (2005). Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him. Random House; White, M. (2012). The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities. W.W. Norton, 382–392; Akbar, A. (2010). “Mao’s Great Leap Forward ‘Killed 45 Million in Four Years’.” The Independent (London), September 17; Becker, J. (1998). Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. Henry Holt; Pipes, R. (2003). Communism: A History. Modern Library.
  2. The phrase was introduced by Gertrude Stein in her autobiography, in describing her childhood home of Oakland where she famously declared “there is no there there.” It’s not clear what she meant, although it appears to reference changing identities (one’s home city and one’s self). Stein, G. (1937). Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography. Random House, 289.
  3. οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”): “no place”
  5. In researching his book What Technology Wants, Kelly went through back issues of Time and Newsweek, plus early issues of Wired (which he co-founded and edited), to see what everyone was predicting for the Web. “Generally, what people thought, including to some extent myself, was it was going to be better TV, like TV 2.0. But, of course, that missed the entire real revolution of the Web, which was that most of the content would be generated by the people using it. The Web was not better TV, it was the Web. Now we think about the future of the Web, we think it’s going to be the better Web; it’s going to be Web 2.0, but it’s not. It’s going to be as different from the Web as Web was from TV.” How does this type of technological improvement translate into moral progress? Kelly explains: “One way to think about this is if you imagine the very first tool made, say, a stone hammer. That stone hammer could be used to kill somebody, or it could be used to make a structure, but before that stone hammer became a tool, that possibility of making that choice did not exist. Technology is continually giving us ways to do harm and to do well; it’s amplifying both… but the fact that we also have a new choice each time is a new good. That, in itself, is an unalloyed good — the fact that we have another choice and that additional choice tips that balance in one direction towards a net good. So you have the power to do evil expanded. You have the power to do good expanded. You think that’s a wash. In fact, we now have a choice that we did not have before, and that tips it very, very slightly in the category of the sum of good.”
  6. Wright, Q. (1942). A Study of War, 2nd Ed. University of Chicago Press; Gat, A. (2006). War in Human Civilization. Oxford University Press.
  7. Fukuyama, F. (2011). The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 98.
  8. Konvitz, J. W. (1985). The Urban Millennium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present. Southern Illinois University Press; Kostof, S. (1991). The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. Little, Brown; Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House.
  9. Glaeser, E. (2011). The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Penguin Press.
  10. Naím, M. (2013). The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be. Basic Books, 16, 1–2.
  11. Ibid., 7.
  12. Ibid., 243–244.
  13. Quoted in Barber, 2013.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Townsend, A. M. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. W. W. Norton, xii–xiii.
  19. MacCallum, S.H. (1970). The Art of Community. Institute for Humane Studies, 2. See also: Heath, S. (1957). Citadel, Market and Alter: Emerging Society. The Science of Society Foundation.
  20. Leeson, P. (2014). Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think. Cambridge University Press.
  22. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr defined a species as “a group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations reproductively isolated from other such populations.” Ernst, M. (1957). “Species Concepts and Definitions,” in The Species Problem. Amer. Assoc. Adv. Sci. Publ. no. 50. Mayr offers this expanded definition: “A species consists of a group of populations which replace each other geographically or ecologically and of which the neighboring ones intergrade or hybridize wherever they are in contact or which are potentially capable of doing so (with one or more of the populations) in those cases where contact is prevented by geographical or ecological barriers.” See also: Mayr, E. (1976). Evolution and the Diversity of Life. Harvard University Press; Mayr, E. (1988). Toward a New Philosophy of Biology. Harvard University Press.

This article was published on March 31, 2023.

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