The Rise of the Social-State

As the clock struck midnight on December 31, 2000, at the start of a new millennium, there were approximately 360 million unique internet users. Just 1/1000th of the populations in the Middle East and Africa had access to the internet. Facebook was still but a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.

Thirteen years later, this has changed dramatically. At nearly 2.5 billion people, the internet is used by more than 1/3 of the world’s population. More than 15% of Africans now have access to the internet – the majority of them getting it through mobile data via cell phones – while a whopping 40% of Middle Easterners are now online. That represents a growth of over 3000% (that’s three thousand) in just over a decade.

At the same time, social media use has risen exponentially. If all the Facebook users in the world were assembled into one place, they would make up the third-largest country on Earth with over 1.1 billion citizens (behind only China and India). While not nearly as numerous, there are over 500 million users of 140-character Twitter, with over 10% of those people in a single country:  China.

A Different World

You forgot the "@" before Mubarak.
You forgot the “@” before Mubarak.

People are no longer left to rely on the state-sponsored dictation of events, or even a few media outlets reporting what they’ve seen. With Twitter, first-hand accounts and pictures can be passed quickly; with Facebook, users can share and collaborate on growing trends; on YouTube, we can see with our own eyes exactly what is happening in Syria, Egypt, or on the streets outside Washington, DC.

The most enduring reality of the past decade has been the rise of the global individual. In 2006, Time‘s “Person of the Year” was the individual (“You,” to be specific). In response to old, slow, unresponsive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and a host of other countries, leaders were either deposed in a violent way or forced to make significant concessions antithetical to the totalitarian norm.

Global individualism has led to a prioritization of individuals and ideologues over the traditional concept of “nation.” When you can “like” the Syrian Free Army on Facebook or “follow” al-Shabaab on Twitter from the comfort of your own home, it doesn’t matter that you live in the land known as “Pakistan” or “Egypt” or even “the United States of America.” Individuals across the globe are organizing themselves more now by ideas and preferences than by borders or nationality.

This notion is not new in religious lore. In Islam, the organization of Muslims everywhere is known as the “Caliphate.” Before it was a UN-recognized state, Israel was the name of the global community of Jewish people. Today, we might call all fans of the Dallas Cowboys a “Facebook group” and all the internet subscribers of Muqtada al-Sadr his “Twitter followers.” In the 21st century, the diaspora is connected via wi-fi.

The Decline of Nationalism

At a recent gathering of more than 150 American citizens with at least some level of college education, I asked the assembled crowd to identify the corporate logos of Starbucks, Shell, AT&T, McDonald’s, and Fed Ex. 100% of the crowd was able to correctly identify at least 4 of the logos, while around 90% were able to identify all 5.

Immediately afterward, I asked the same 150 people to identify the national flags of Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Libya, and Chad. Approximately 80% could identify 1 flag, 60% could identify 2 flags, 33% could identify 3 flags, 10% could identify 4 flags, and only 1 person (an African studies major in college) could identify all 5 flags.

In an effort to drive the point home, I flashed the flags of five U.S. states: New York, Alabama, Delaware, Indiana, and Massachusetts. If you can believe it, the percentages were actually worse; not a single person was able to correctly identify all five state flags (to be honest, if I hadn’t researched for the event, I doubt I would have been able to guess more than three or four either).

This erudite experiment, though anecdotal and far from scientific, points to a larger global trend:  the decline of nationalism, and the rise of global individualism.

The Ideological Basis of Armies

In light of the recent revolutions that comprised “the Arab Spring,” one must ask:  how are armies fielded? In our textbooks, we are taught that armies are the property of nation-states, who field them in defense of their borders or broader national interests.

But isn’t the original concept of the nation-state simply an ideal? At its basic level, an army is stood by people coming together to protect themselves from harm by a common enemy. It follows, then, that the armies of the 21st century will follow this natural law—that they are fielded to defend ideals—and with that comes a monumental shift in the global political paradigm: the rise of the social-state.

This is not a new idea. In his book Jihad Joe, J.M. Berger estimates that more than 1,400 American citizens have taken part in some form of militant jihad over the past 30 years. As our communication and connectivity brings us closer, our money and internet history drive our future more than the votes we drop in the ballot box.

Yet simple connectivity cannot supplant real action from Internet users. In “Tweeting Toward Freedom,” the Wilson Quarterly noted that, “More than a million people have joined a Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition, but few among them have taken any additional action to help those in Sudan.” The most effective ideologues in this century will be those who can turn words on a computer screen into reliable action from their followers.

The Social State

In a Small Wars Journal article, Richard Lindsey wrote, “There comes a point in any insurgency where it must move beyond the reach of social media, and tangible gains must be made on the ground – positions occupied, personalities deposed, systems replaced, logistics realized, and governments overthrown.” Yet if insurgents and individuals can defend themselves from governments while operating within that government’s borders, they have already made “tangible gains…on the ground.” The positions, personalities, systems, logistics, and governance are provided through wireless or ether connections and supported via the “social compact”—namely, some form of user agreement.

If I can get access to the internet, I can pledge to a cause, fund that cause, and become indoctrinated to that cause. We might call this process “assimilation.” My physical location is only important insomuch as I can carry out actions for that cause in my specific locale or travel to a nearby location to do the same. The “social-states” created by this reality are the future of the world, where citizens are arranged by borders of thought, ideology, and preference.

On its face, this may seem like a unique solution to so many conflicts throughout the world. However, the “borders” created by such a reality are much more fluid, volatile, and confusing, and they will drive our concept of conflict. In the book Warrior Politics, visionary author Robert Kaplan surmises that “the spread of information in the coming decades will lead not just to new social compacts, but to new divisions as people discover new and complex issues over which to disagree.”

Rather than access to weapons and land, the ability to control the electromagnetic spectrum and access to the internet will define future battlefields as the “strategic high ground.” Cyber strike and defense will be the most critical mission sets as friend and foe alike use this medium to achieve not only kinetic effects against their enemies–including CBRNE—but important non-kinetic effects as well, especially those encompassed in the concept of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD).

Without respect for nation-state political borders, these effects will be felt indiscriminately by both supporters and opponents of the cause. Therefore, those who can develop the ability to discriminate their effects will find the most success and support.

The Tough Sell

A new global paradigm isn’t limited to the shores of Africa or the Middle East; it can be seen here in America. The government shutdown is a case study in the inability of governments to respond to large-scale discord in a way that maintains credibility – and in this century, credibility and confidence is currency. Those who cannot control the 24/7 opinion and social media reality will quickly cede their control to the growing social-state underneath.

Therefore, it will be in the best interests of major nations like the USA, China, Germany, United Kingdom, and France, among others, to counter these tendencies and find a way to “sell” the nation-state in a 21st century marked by individual power. More than Nazism, fascism, or communism, the synergistic effects of non-state actors, insurgents, and individuals through social media and collaboration will be the greatest existential threat to freedom as we know it—the kind of freedom nation-states enjoy—that the world has ever witnessed.

In his New York Times piece “The End of the Nation-State?” Parag Khanna reminds us that “[t]his isn’t to say that states have disappeared, or will. But they are becoming just one form of governance among many.” In an age where information and products consume our daily routines, nation-states are faced with a very tough sell, indeed. There are many questions that partisans, policy makers, and populations must answer: Is the nation-state worth fighting for, or is the social-state a better alternative? Are the two mutually exclusive? Is the paradigm shift inevitable?

We will shape the answers to these questions over the coming decades. In the meantime, the only certainty seems to be that we will be uncertain.

LT Roger L. Misso is a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) in the E-2C Hawkeye, recent MAWTS-1 WTI graduate, and former director of the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC). The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

2 thoughts on “The Rise of the Social-State”

  1. Excellent article. Except for the example of people’s inability to identify flags of African nations. The flag-poll makes sense as an argument for nations to consider doing a better job of branding themselves, but it does not work as an example of fading nation-state brands. In my 50 years of political awareness, only a few national emblems were ever as commonly identified as the MacDonalds logo. Besides our national ensign, these come to mind: the hammer and sickle, the flag of the confederacy, the swastika.

  2. Excellent article (albeit, I am a bit biased). As this author knows, I believe in the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle. As the “old” dies, the “young” will rise. In this case, the nation states, regimes, and governments of yesterday will give way to the social-cyber savvy generation. And, eventually, they will give way to a newer technologically-advanced, X-ism generation. And so forth, And so forth, And so forth. I am not sure if the world will get to this level of discord between each other. Then, again, I’m sure my Italian-immigrant grandfather, who fought during WWI, never envisioned befriending Germany or fighting a war without a bayonet.

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