November 2012

States + Boundaries

Written by Jerry Everard


Viewed from an IPE perspective the world appears to be shrinking rapidly. With the global spread of electronic telecommunications, epitomised by, but not restricted to, the internet, some commentators are suggesting that we are in the grip of a change as radical as the industrial revolution, or even the Renaissance. As markets become more timecompressed and as money flows become increasingly independent of state borders, it seems timely to ask: W(h)ither the state?

Unpacking this short question suggests immediately two possibilities: either the state could wither away (without the ‘h’), or it could have a future that might be a little different from what it seems to be today, hence whither (with the ‘h’). If the latter, then what role will the state play in a globalised economy?

To address these questions I want to divide this paper up into a set of themes. To that extent I intend to frame this paper more as a map for further research, rather than seek at this stage to attempt to provide definitive answers. Firstly I want to examine the nature of the state as information - a ‘discourse formation’ which will both allow for the operation of history (the state’s essential ‘contestedness’) and emphasise the contingency of the state.

Secondly I want to disaggregate the state into multiple facets, in order to show why the idea of the decline of the state can be both evident and wrong depending on which facet of the state is being considered; and finally I want to examine the globalisation of internet in terms of its potential impact on the state’s various facets. In doing so I hope to counter some of the more extreme hype about living in a ‘wired’ world, while examining some of the real changes that are occurring as I write. Don Tapscott, Chair of the Alliance for Converging Technologies, and author of The Digital Economy opens modestly with this claim:

Today we are witnessing the early, turbulent days of a revolution as significant as any other in human history. A new medium of human communications is emerging, one that may prove to surpass all previous revolutions-the printing press, the telephone, the television, the computer-in its impact on our economic and social life ... Such a shift in economic and social relationships has occurred only a handful of times before on this planet. ... A new enterprise is emerging... as different from the corporation of the twentieth century as the latter was from the feudal craft shop.1 Certainly a shift is occurring, as it does with the widespread introduction of any new technology, but whether it will surpass the revolutions brought about by writing, or by movable-type printing, or by railways, telegraph or telephone, is debatable.

In recent debates about globalisation and about the global spread of telecommunications several themes are presented in sets of binary oppositions: sovereignty as against the borderless society; public access to information as against privacy; the state as against
individual interests; the virtual as against the real; and so on. Such binaries , as we shall see, can lead to misunderstandings or overstatements.


The State as Hyperreal

The State in many respects is like a piece of software - it seems stable enough while the power is on and it hasn’t run into a major bug yet, but interrupt the power supply, or corrupt it and it falls apart with startling rapidity. According to Rousseau, if at base it is about its own preservation, the sovereign state must have ‘a universal and compelling power to move and dispose of each part in whatever manner is beneficial to the whole.’2 Moreover, he argues that, in the same way that people have power over their own limbs, so too the social contract gives the state, as body politic, absolute power over all its members. It is this same power, Rousseau argues, when directed by the ‘general will’ is termed sovereignty.3 For him the ‘software’ of the social contract is corrupted when the best interests of the majority are not invoked by the general will of the people. The question of how to identify the ‘general will’ of the people when the people are engaged directly with global economic processes at a speed and in a manner barely discernible by the state is not addressed.

For Machiavelli4 the international society of states consists of competitive states that either become conqueror or conquered. The Prince must be powerful and skilled in military affairs in order to continue ruling the state, and the Prince is the person who holds the  monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Machiavelli was well aware of the state as an essentially contested term, which is another way of saying that the state is historically contingent. He understood that the state was subject to reticulation and that it required vigilant maintenance in order to survive as a viable identity. What Machiavelli doesn’t address is how the security state can act nationally when the economic bases of its power are controlled offshore.

Thomas Hobbes 5 posits the state as a ‘Persona Ficta’ which exists within an anarchical system of states, each competing for diminishing resources. From this perspective the life of the state would be unstable, nasty, brutish and short. The state, for him is an idea - a legal fiction - that operates as an identity to which the domestic polity subscribe in order to marshal its resources more efficiently for the good of the people. What Hobbes’ Leviathan fails to address is how relevant that identity will remain when people are forming international communities and joint-ventures based around ‘virtual corporations’ that effectively by-pass the state in most of its dealings - the domestic policy is becoming increasingly globalised.

So we have a number of problems confronting traditional Realist approaches to the State and to (inter)national. These problems have a lot to do with the location of identity in an increasingly globalised and ‘wired’ world. Identity is produced through practices of boundary making, practices  that divide the idea of self from the idea of the Other (‘us’ as against ‘them’).

States, under this rubric, might be viewed as ‘symptoms’, or outward signs of their boundary making practices. From this it follows that the state will have a multitude of facets - each reflecting aspects of what it means to be a state from a  particular point of view. The state therefore would need to be conceived in a dis-aggregated form, existing as a function of its differences and dispersions, rather than as the rational, unified originary actor of modernist realist discourse.

The other side of this process is that the identity produced/invoked by practices of boundary-making itself forms the locus for further boundary-making practices. Which came first historically is less important than the recognition that these processes occur. Moreover these processes become arguably one of the key mechanisms of history - if states sprang fully formed from some ideal type there would be no shifting of boundaries across time.

Collective identities in the form of states can be invoked for specific purposes, such as treaty-making in international law, or the state setting of interest rates. But one aspect of this view of states as identities is that these identities themselves become visible where they are weakest - where they reveal a contested and contingent site of absence. The idea of state-hood is arguably most strongly invoked when the place or importance of the state is placed in question by another identity, whether internal (insurgent) or external (from other states).

If states and other identity formations are at base produced through their boundary-making practices, then maintenance of those boundaries by those legitimated to act in the name of the state becomes a matter at least of credibility, and at the extreme, of state survival. So states (or more properly those who speak in the name of the state) are concerned to have internal policing and security mechanisms to ensure that those who are legitimated to speak for the state retain a monopoly on the power to do so.

So, whether about military or cultural violence, two points become clear: first, that nation-states have always been, in one form or another about the prince or his analogue having a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Such force has always been about policing and maintaining boundaries between Self and Other. Indeed, it is no accident that the words ‘policing’ and ‘policy’ derive from the same roots.

Cognisant of this derivation, the Napoleonic-era strategist Carl von Clausewitz came to his now classic formulation of war as ‘a continuation of policy by other means’. 6 Clearly Clausewitz was aware of the discursive nature of war. Thus the State as traditionally conceived in Realist accounts of international relations is perhaps more accurately termed the ‘security state’. I shall consider other modalities of state (economic, cultural, and political) later in the paper.

Second, in the foundational texts of Realist discourse,the state has always been recognised as a discursive formation - a legal fiction - articulated to (re)present the will of the people as an overarching identity to which the domestic polity subscribe. It follows from this, that the state in realist discourse (at least by the founding fathers - and I use the gendered term advisedly) has always been at its most visible at its moments of challenge, that is, at its boundaries. At the heart of this are sets of practices that speak the state (7). Indeed, as Dillon has recently argued, the constitution of what he terms (inter)national political order is a creation of power8.

Considering that the development of internet arose from basic research sponsored by the US Defence Department to improve computer processing performance through networked computers, and considering it was taken up as having almost coincidentally solved a potential military problem9, and considering virtual reality technologies are still at their most advanced within military systems, the globalisation of the internet seems to continue to have rather a lot to do with nation states and power. Indeed security - a term arguably at the core of what international relations traditionally has been about - is still most usually defined in terms of military security. So I read with interest when writers, such as the Director of MIT’s Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, assert the following:

Like a moth-ball which goes from solid to gas directly, I expect the nation-state to evaporate without first going into a gooey, inoperative mess, before some global cyberstate commands the political ether. (Negroponte, 1995, p.236)

He goes on to assert that: ... the role of the nation-state will change dramatically and there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for smallpox. (Ibid.)

What Negroponte seeks to point out here is that with the globalisation of the internet, there will be, as there are now, multiple sites of political activity.

Along with many classical Realist theorists of International Relations, Negroponte conceives of the nation-state as a unitary object. Something that, to use his terms, is tied to ‘atoms rather than bits’. He refers to the state as being tied to space and place, geometry and geography’. In other words he sees states in terms of the physical traces - the manifestations in the walls, rivers, or mountains -of their boundaries or borders.

Rereading Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau, one can locate a view along the lines that states are like software programmed to run in the wetware of the people who subscribe to the identity of the state. Like software the state exists while it is ‘run’ and maintained. It is a very complex piece of software written in a number of programming languages, such as economics, military security, and environmental discourse and so on. These exist as articulations of a particular mode of defining self and Other. It is about sets of relations between those who are included - us, and those who are excluded - them. It is about locating a sense of self and a sense of belonging - loosely and traditionally interpreted as a sense of place. It exists primarily as the result of a set of boundary-making practices that invoke and are invoked by the people subscribing to the idea of the state. And this probably explains the emphasis placed on military security when terms like security and sovereignty are invoked. But security is broader than military security.

States are above all cultural artefacts, or information produced by and through practices of signification - from the writing of foundational documents -constitutions - to the discourses of smart bombs and the global spread of Coca-Cola. Sovereign identity then is comprised of bits rather than atoms. Moreover, it is relations of power that have characterised relations within the domestic polity; between the domestic polity and the broader interests of the State; and between states within the global system.

We can begin, then, to construct a grid to illustrate something of the nature of the complex of relations between actors. Such a grid arises from the boundary-making behaviours in which people participate in order to articulate their relations as identifiable ‘bodies’ with respect to the issue areas they invoke.

On the one hand we can look at issues of size or scale (individual, sub-state actor, state, system of states, transnational organisations or corporations, and the global). On the other hand we can look at a set of issue areas, or arenas in which these identities are produced (security, economic, cultural, environmental...etc). What becomes mapped as boundaries are those areas where relations between identities/actors come into conflict or collusion with other actors at the individual, state, transnational corporation or NGO levels, or within and between issue areas, for example, where environment and economics conflict. Add to this the additional dynamic of economic first world/developing world and the extent of complexity becomes clearer. Under this rubric we can examine aspects of the globalisation of communications technologies epitomised by internet in functional terms, rather than as an integrated set of overhyped assertions. In the process of  disaggregating the state, it becomes defined in terms of its relations with individuals and sub-state actors, with groups of states (such as APEC or the European Community), its relations with transnational organisations and its relation to global issues, such as refugees, pollution and so on. The State is also defined in terms of its ability to mobilise its substate actors to provide for their safety, economic well-being, cultural identity and its environmental concerns, such as emissions controlled/regulated by domestic legislation, and by the agreements signed in its name with other states, such as, for example, the Biodiversity Convention.

When people start to think in terms of the death of the state - usually they are saying that one or another of the facets of the state is taking a more prominent role with respect to an issue area - ie transnational corporations are becoming more prominent in the arena of capital flows around the world. That does not of course mean that the state is necessarily less powerful in other issue areas, such as military security for example.

Pollutants do not recognise national boundaries,  as was shown so poignantly by Chernobyll in 1986. Narcotics traffic and organised crime seem to cross national boundaries with impunity. With the development of sophisticated technologies of communication, international economics has taken a quantum leap, rendering states seemingly increasingly powerless to control their own resources, and with the globalisation of internet, even the cultural identity of individual nations is coming under threat. Pornography and the spread of the English language raise legitimate concerns in the hearts and minds of the developing world. I want to suggest that It is these questions among others that concern states, and that shape their reaction to the globalising power of internet.

This indeed seems to be the case, whether discussing the exercise of or struggle for power, the sanctioning and continuation of inequalities displayed in and through war -even down to the narratives of peace that serve to institute and inscribe a status-quo - these too are narratives of the effects of the conflicts that established these sets of relations through the inscription of boundaries by an arraignment of forces. Such a view becomes particularly evident when one analyses what various states have said about the growth of internet and what it means for them as states.


1 Don Tapscott The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence McGraw-Hill 1996 p. xiii.
2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau The Social Contract Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986 p.74.
3 Ibid
4 See Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince Harmondsworth: Penguin (1986)
5 See Thomas Hobbes Leviathan Harmondsworth: Penguin (1987).
6 Carl von Clausewitz On War Harmondsworth: Penguin (1987) p.119
7 G.M. Dillon and Jerry Everard ‘Stat[e]ing Australia: Squid Jigging and the Masque of State’ Alternatives 17/3 (1992) pp.281-312.
8 G.M Dillon “Sovereignty and Governmentality: From the Problematics of the ‘New World Order’ to the Ethical Problematic of the World Order’ Alternatives Vol 20/3 (1995)p.323.


Jerry Everard holds PhDs in International Relations and in Cultural Studies from the Australian National University. Jerry’s academic career has ranged from literary theory and cultural studies (at Murdoch University, WA) to International Relations and philosophy (at ANU).