“And the people were divided one against another; and they did separate one from another into tribes, every man according to his family and his kindred and friends; and thus they did destroy the government of the land.”
– The Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 7:2
The late Professor Daniel H. Ludlow was fond of noting that The Book of Mormon not only provides counsel written by ancient prophets for our day, but that it also serves as a metaphor for modernity. The Nephites and Lamanites were people who were preparing for the first coming of Christ, and we can expect to see parallels in their society to what the world will be like as we approach the Savior’s Second Coming.
It is in that spirit that I read 3 Nephi 7:2 as more than just a product of its time.
I am now going to give you entry to some of my more bizarre political musings, many of which wander afoul of common sense and veer into mild lunacy. But that said, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the nation state, as a concept, is on its way out.
This isn’t a variation on John Lennon’s “Imagine there’s no countries.” Most who decry the nation state yearn for a borderless Utopia where nobody fights, nobody ever says a cross word, and everyone hugs a lot. That might be nice, I guess, but that’s not where we’re going. Divisions will still be a large part of our future, but those divisions will be increasingly tribalistic, not nationalistic. There was a time when tribalism and nationalism were the same thing, but that’s not the case anymore.
Granted, the nation state itself was born as an extension of the tribe. Most people spent their entire lives in direct contact only with those in relative proximity, and borders sprang up to add definition to an already existing reality. But as travel and communication opportunities have increased, the strength of both physical and cultural borders have eroded, and tribal loyalties can now easily transcend geography. I feel more kinship, for instance, with a Mormon living on the other side of the world than I do with a Muslim who lives just down the street. My tribal loyalties are no longer bound by borders.
Of course, those borders still figure in to my personal tribal calculus. I’m an American, after all, and my American-ness is very much a part of my identity. But I’m a Mormon before I’m an American, and I’m a husband and father before I’m a Mormon. My primary tribal loyalties are to my family and my faith. My loyalty to country, while significant, will never ascend to the top of that list.
And what happens when country fails?
I don’t mean who wins or loses elections. Increasingly, the partisan bickering in every country is over small and relatively silly things. The ship of state is increasingly looking like the Titanic, and the relatively small shifts to the left and right that dominate current politics aren’t going to be enough to escape the iceberg. Within the next decade, the demographics of the modern welfare state will require huge austerity measures and massive benefit cuts in both America and the EU if governments don’t take action now. Well, no one is going to take action now. So we’re all going to follow Japan down the toilet, and people who turn to the state for help will eventually discover that no help is forthcoming.
So where to turn? Simple. We’ll turn to our tribes.
When the state can longer keep its promises, it will also lose its power to govern. That has happened in Iraq, where tribal identities have nothing to do with nationalism. No one in Iraq thinks of themselves as an Iraqi – they think of themselves as Sunnis or Shiites or Kurds. The state there is failing because it bears no relationship to the tribes it supposedly represents.
It will take longer for the state to fail in Europe, where common ethnicities and languages and centuries of shared history have shaped the culture for all of recorded history. But the EU is an artificial construct that can’t survive the coming economic implosion. Does a Frenchman think of himself as an EU citizen, or as a Frenchman? Certainly when the EU implodes, no one will cling to their EU citizenship as their tribal identity. And when France can’t keep its commitments, how big a deal will it be to identify as a Frenchman? People cling to tribes because there is strength and protection in them. When countries can’t provide such things, then their citizens will, of necessity, turn to something else.
I’m not saying the nation/state will dissolve in a puff of smoke, or that the shift to tribes over nations will necessarily be apocalyptic. I think the tribal future will have its good points, too.
For example, Mormons are of the opinion that Jesus can’t come back until the Restored Gospel is preached to every nation, kindred, and tongue. The assumption is that this process will require legal recognition in every country on earth, and young men on bicycles will pedal their way through Saudi Arabia before the end finally arrives. But is this really necessary to fulfill the prophecy?
There was a time when a nation state could control the information that flowed to its citizens. That era has long since passed, despite North Korea’s best efforts to stem the tide. Missionary work is shifting from bicycles to wireless connections, mainly because that’s where the conversation is. A Muslim living outside of Mecca is far, far more likely to come into contact with the Book of Mormon through a Google search than through two Mormon kids in the desert knocking on their door. When the nations stop mattering as much, the kindreds and tongues will take over, and the gospel will spread online to anyone who seeks it. When Isaiah said that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea,” (Isaiah 11:9) he was likely anticipating the universal reach of the World Wide Web. Borders are floodgates, and once they’re opened, the knowledge of the truth will pour into every corner of the globe.
I recognize that erosion is usually a slow process, and that the Grand Canyon wasn’t born in a day. But the nation state is definitely eroding, and the collapse of the unsustainable welfare state concept will likely break a large hole in the dam. I don’t think nations will disappear altogether, but I do think the nation state will collapse into irrelevance far faster than anyone currently anticipates.
This is why I find myself increasingly uninterested in the political enterprises of great pitch and moment whose currents will soon turn awry. Both Democrats and Republicans are going down with this ship. It’s time we all started to look to the tribal lifeboats.