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January 06, 2004

On creating modern states

Abiola Lapite states that ethnicity is the problem in Africa. In sum, the problem is the diversity of ethnicities that exist because of a relative insulation from the "human web" of information systems and governments that have (relatively) homogenized large stretches of the Eurasian continent since the "Axial Age." African situations do exist in Eurasia, but only when there is a confluence of historical and geographic factors, case in point, Caucasia. This is reflected in the biological diversity of fauna and flora, in addition to the famous linguistic and ethnic babble that is the hallmark of this region. Sometimes geographic constraints are very tight, and paradoxically they give freedom to isolated peoples who see in them refugium against centralizing states and ideologies.

Ethnic diversity is an indicator of deep seated differences between pre-modern nation-state Europe (circa 1500) and pre-modern nation-state Africa (circa 1800), to give a comparison. Europe of 3,000 years ago was almost certainly as diverse as Africa is today (which after all is something that we evaluate after the Bantu expansion from eastern Nigeria). Abiola has argued on his own blog that the slow transformation of the gentry dominated England toward universal franchise over hundreds of years is the smoothest model of transition to a nation state (the central thesis of Fareed Zakaria's Future of Freedom). It takes little brilliance to see why Africa is in such straights.

World religions, liberalism, democracy, etc. were "memes" that took thousands of years to "take" in most of Eurasia, and even today they have not put in deep roots everywhere. In contrast, Africa has been jump-started into the process of modernization from the village to the nation in one fell swoop (at least on the de jure level). I have spoken of this in the context of Bangladesh, which does have an elite that has been "plugged in" to the Eurasian web for a few thousand years.

Unfortunately, the sacroscant nature of the "nation state" is the price that poor Third World nations pay so that the West can be secure its own stability (remember, some nations like "Germany" and "Italy" are not much newer than some of the African countries in the long view, though they had more intermediate stages of polity formation). Case in point: Cyprus. Why must this sham go on? Allow the Turkish Cypriots to unite with Turkey and give the Greeks their enosis. But no, the dogma of colonial boundaries, the nation-state by fiat, still holds sway....

In a strange way, we do live in an age where international consensus makes many nations a prison-house of peoples. Read about the Bougainville embargo. That's why the "internationalism" of the Left today seems so self-interested and machiavellian to me....

Posted by razib at 02:01 PM