If, as I strongly suspect, the American nation-state is in a terminal collapse, what is to become of its antiquated forms? Will they, like the government under the Articles of Confederation, or the Confederate States of America, simply disappear? Or will they, like Ozymandias’ empire, dissolve into the surrounding sands?
The study of chaos reminds us of the difficulty in trying to predict the course of complex systems, particularly those involving a nation of some three-hundred million people. As I have written before, the American political system is in a state of turbulence, from which only one of two outcomes seems likely: either for it to reorganize itself into a more orderly system, or to experience entropic collapse. I see little likelihood of the present state system acknowledging its causal connections to this turbulence and reforming itself. To self-correct one’s behavior requires a sense of resiliency, an attitude inconsistent with the arrogance and hubris underlying the American political system. No fundamental transformation can be expected to arise from within Leviathan.
Our current social and political disharmony has been brought on by an exaggerated commitment to the vertical structuring of society — under the micromanaged direction of a central state authority. Thus, one approach to reorganization might involve the decentralization of political power back to the level of individual states. Under this possibility, "America" might return to a system akin to the "Articles of Confederation," a model that has served Switzerland well for many years. The growing interest in political secession may presage such a change.
Another possibility would be for a fundamental transformation to replace the formal, vertically-structured, coercive political systems with more informal, horizontally-networked systems grounded in voluntary relationships among individuals and associations. It is conceivable that this second condition might evolve, later, from the first confederation model.
Unless something along these or similar lines occurs, however, I believe that the American political system may well experience the same fate as the Soviet Union, with a rapid descent into entropy. I suspect the managers of the established order in this country sense the same dynamics at work within; and that recent efforts to exponentially increase government police and military powers reflect an intention to shore up, by the most forceful means necessary, the collapsing vertical structures that define the state. A healthy organism lives in symbiosis with those around it, nourishing and being nourished by one another. Such is not the case with the current state. Mutual distrust characterizes the relationship of the state and the public it pretends to serve. It is fear of the citizenry that causes state functionaries to demand more power over it.
I offer this as my best assessment of where American society stands at the moment. My visions of the future are as subject to the uncertainties attending complexity as anyone else’s, and should be so considered. I have no special knowledge or secret information that is not available to anyone else who might take a focused look at events and pressures in our world and try to anticipate where we are headed. One thing does seem quite clear, however: the American society into which you and I were born and have lived is no longer viable in its present forms, and is in the process of major organizational change.
Consistent with lessons from the study of chaos and complexity, either the collapse or major metamorphosis of the state will generate unpredictable social forms and practices. I trust in the self-interest motivations of most Americans to formulate organizational systems that will serve their practical needs. In a rapidly changing world that no longer tolerates the sluggishness of state systems that inhibit creativity and productiveness, men and women will instinctively find ways to profit from the removal of restraints.
My experiences in the reading of history suggest that, even when major changes occur, remnants from the past often survive, albeit in altered forms. Thus, the English transformation to a parliamentary form of government did not result in the destruction of the monarchy, which has been retained — without genuine power — for the image of historic continuity.
I presume the same influences will accompany the decline and fall of statism in America, as the conservative nature of people finds expression in the preservation of governmental forms, even as they are deprived of power. Washington, D.C., may be turned into a new kind of tourist attraction — perhaps like the palace at Versailles, the Tower of London, or the acropolis of Athens. Years ago in Madrid, I watched a "sound and light" show, where bright lights played upon the palace as episodes of Spanish history were broadcast over loudspeakers. Perhaps the same spectacle will one day be performed at the U.S. capitol to inform visitors of American political history ("and in those primitive times, members of Congress would gather to deliberate what substances men and women could put into their bodies, or to cheer as presidents entertained them with lies and empty visions of national greatness").
The roles of the various branches of government might even be maintained — absent any coercive powers, of course — in a stateless world. Congress, which has long been intent on imposing its opinions as law, could continue this function as a nonbinding exercise. Unlike previous civilizations — whose epistemological bases were grounded in either divine revelation, reason, or empiricism — modern culture has adopted opinion polling as the standard for truth. Congress could perform this role in the future. "What was the best movie of last year?" "Should doctors be allowed to pull the plug on a brain-dead Uncle Willie?" "Does second-hand smoke cause cancer?" "Who is the u2018number one’ team in college football?" Hearings could be held, floor debates conducted, and congressional votes taken on these and many other questions about which "inquiring minds want to know." But, of course, such votes would have no more legally-binding significance than do college coaches’ polls, the Academy Awards, or the results of questions asked by public opinion pollsters.
Congress has already prepared itself to be an arbiter of trivial inquiries. From rubber-stamping whatever police powers and tax revenues the president wants; to abandoning its war powers to the whims of White House occupants; to enacting administration-desired legislation without waiting for it to be drafted, members of Congress have expressed satisfaction with having a largely ceremonial role in Washington. Mindful that the folklore of "separation of powers" requires occasional compliance with the rituals of legislative deliberation, Congress has periodically devoted its attention to such matters of state as whether Bill Clinton should be impeached for lying about his sexual conduct, or Terri Schiavo’s life-support system should be disconnected. As long as such isolated inquiries do not impede the establishment’s agenda, Congress is allowed — and content — to play its token role, an attitude that will make it easy for members of this body to segue into a new form of insignificance.
What about the executive branch? The administrative agencies that have insisted upon managing even the smallest details of human existence may, stripped of coercive power, be relegated to purely advisory functions. The Consumer Protection Agency might offer product recommendations to consumers willing to consider its opinions. The Federal Communications Commission could provide reviews or ratings of upcoming television programs. You can see how this might play out in a stateless society.
But what of the presidency? We might have saved ourselves centuries of grief had we remembered the means by which our allegedly "primitive" ancestors inhibited the development of political power. In his book, Society Against the State, French anthropologist Pierre Clastres observed that such societies loaded their tribal chief with so many ceremonial duties as to deny him the time or inclination to pursue power over his fellow tribesmen. Should the chief fail to satisfy these ritualistic functions, he would lose face.
Such benefits could be recovered in a stateless society. Like the British monarchy, the role of the president would become a purely ceremonial one. The president could show up at shopping center openings to cut the ribbon, or award the Congressional National Championship trophy to whatever college football team Congress has selected, or judge beauty contests, or be the Grand Marshal at various parades around the country.
The only role I could see for members of the judiciary in a stateless world would be to become private arbitrators or mediators. By offering their services in the marketplace — where men and women would be free to accept or reject them — judges could get a realistic sense of their value to others. They could then get back to the mindset of earlier judges who spoke of "discovering" the customs and usages of society that were the basis of the "common law" system. Those who saw their roles as being to impose standards of conduct upon an unwilling society, would probably find themselves without a clientele.
And who, in a stateless society, would pay for these ceremonial functions? It is to be expected that there will be many who, cut loose from the state’s umbilical cord, will insist upon retaining the empty forms of the state as a security blanket. Let these sad beings pay for their continuing addictive dependencies. Organizations could be set up to solicit donations from such men and women; or lotteries could be used to provide such funds. Without any coercive power to exercise, however, such donations are unlikely to be forthcoming from the corporate-state interests that now flood the pipelines to Washington.
What is the course that will likely follow the collapse of our present top-heavy, vertically-structured system? As a student of chaos and complexity, I can assure you that I have no way of making a definitive prediction. I have offered what is little more than personal speculation as to possibilities. But if we are to avoid being crushed beneath the fall of the ossified forms that are destroying human society, each of us had best undertake the speculations that precede all creative actions.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.