12th Grade: From Nation to Market, from Family to Individual


This week we looked at the transition from the ‘Nation-State’ to the ‘Market-State,’ with all its attendant implications.

The ‘Nation-State’ (1914-89) was the era that you and I grew up in.  Sometimes its easy to assume that our experience is somehow universal, but in fact that America was different than the America of Thomas Jefferson, and the America of our children will be different as well.

What characterizes this era?

We see here that, in Bobbitt’s words, “Government’s are responsible to and for the people.”  In contrast to Washington, Jefferson, etc., whereas before, people found their identity in ‘the state,’ now ‘the state’ finds its identity in ‘the people’ (my thanks to Addison Smith for this insight).  Gone is the more aristocratic, patriarchal attitude of the founders.  One can see beginnings of this shift in Jacksonian Democracy.  The closing of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ puts forward a new basis for government’s relationship to the people.

Essentially, the Nation-State will end up creating a sense of unity and community.  Many of us remember growing up playing with kids from ‘the neighborhood.’  ‘We are the World,’ and ‘Hands Across America’ were major cultural phenomena.  We listened in with all our friends to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 to see what the #1 song was for the week.

Politically, if we are a family, we take care of the family.  So programs like Social Security to take care of the elderly and Welfare to care for the poor make sense within this rationale.  Iconic presidents on both sides of the political spectrum arise like FDR and Reagan that can rally the whole nation behind them.

It is easy to romanticize this era, and it has many strengths.  But this was also the era of ‘Total War,’ for if whole populations make up ‘the State,’ then whole populations can be the targets.  The horrific devastation of World War I & II come out of this mentality.  Also, mass groups define themselves at times by who is outside the group as well inside.  So the Nation-State era also experienced terrible levels of ethnically motivated violence of which the Holocaust is only the worst example.

The ‘Long War’ of 1914-89, like all epochal conflicts, inevitably forces states to innovate.  And so they did.  The weapons that won this war (nuclear weapons, the computer, international trade) just as in the past, ended up destabilizing the nation-state order and helped bring about our current one, what Bobbitt calls the ‘Market-State.’

We might contrast the two orders by recalling some common experiences then and now.  In the Nation-State, you had to go to a few centralized locations to ‘consume culture,’ for example.  If you wanted to hear a couple songs from an artist, you had to buy the whole album.  If you want news, go to one of the 4-5 major outlets, most of which said much the same thing.  It was the era of the ‘water-cooler’ show, where everyone tuned in to see the Cosby Show, for example (‘Seinfeld’ may have been the last show truly like this).

Now, thanks to technology, identity politics, Vietnam and Watergate, among many factors, we have many more choices.  We can individualize our lives in ways not possible even 15 years ago.

I wanted the students to think about the implications for modern America, and the modern state in general.

First, we noted that governments now have a much harder time controlling the message they want heard. Government’s simply won’t be able to mobilize mass opinion as they could before.  The Arab Spring is one example of this, but there are countless other smaller ones.  Note the leaking of the Abu Ghraib scandal, for example.  Perhaps a downside to this is that with the wealth of options available, we never have to listen to the ‘other side’ if we don’t want to.  Might this contribute to the current rancor in politics today?  Both Bush and Obama have been compared to Hitler, which in my opinion does not foster healthy, responsible debate on their relative merits.  Still, every president or senator is bound to have plenty of critics.   In one sense then, governments have much less power than they used to.

But on the other hand, technology puts a tremendous amount of information at the government’s disposal.  What will happen to the concept of privacy, for example?  The globalized market de-emphasizes territorial boundaries among states.  In the same way, traditional notions of private and public boundaries are also changing.  Will our interpretation of the 4th Amendment also change?

Regardless of where we might stand on these developments, we must avoid a) Vainly wishing for a mythically pristine bygone era, or b) Assuming that every change is inherently good because it is change.  The Market-State, like any other model, will give and take away, and we need to be discerning to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.

Dave Mathwin