Saving the 21st Century State

Saving the 21st Century State

Prof John Harbeson

The hundreds of thousands of migrants risking everything to try to reach stable, functioning states in Europe and the Americas brings dramatically to the fore a much more fundamental problem than the gigantic humanitarian crisis it represents, as important as that is. That deeper problem is figuring just what the key requirements are for a stable state in the 21st Century.

While the majority of these migrants may appear to be from the Middle East, they also are coming from sub-Saharan Africa as well, notably Eritrea. Moreover, to these throngs must be added the hundreds of thousands of refugees from African countries seeking safety and survival in neighbouring countries and the additional hundreds of thousands of peoples in Africa and elsewhere that continue to be internally displaced.

The reasons for these vast movements of desperate humanity are certainly varied and mixed. Unquestionably, economic crises in the home countries are ‘’push’’ factors, and the lure of economic opportunities in the recipient countries are “pull factors.  Ethnic and political abuse of minorities and unrelenting authoritarian oppression of everyone in certain countries are certainly important causes for these migrations. But I also discern in these movements a questing for states which offer stability, along with dependable respect for the most basic human rights, and at least basic investment in expanding economic opportunity for the poor as well as the non-poor.

Problematic definition

I read in all this a largely unacknowledged reality that the very meaning of the state, as it is tacitly or explicitly defined, is in need of re-working to take account of profoundly transformed socioeconomic, political, and, yes, technological circumstances of the 21st Century.  One could even say that the concept of the state is one of the last to be decolonised from its temporal association with the heyday of western imperialism.

Consider how the state continues to be understood today within the academy as well as by policy makers and by ordinary citizens as well as political and economic elites. The reigning contemporary understanding of the state traces back to the early 20th Century philosophy Max Weber who supplied the classic definition of the state as a monopoly of the legitimate means of violence within a territorially defined compulsory community.  Note, first, how problematic the definition itself is today. The vast contemporary movements of humanity across as recognised political boundaries have demonstrated sharp limits to the enforceability of compulsory communities.  And the very illusoriness of asserted monopolies of violence in a great many states has demonstrated that predominant force alone cannot suffice as the defining property of the state.

Next, recognise how the pervasiveness of positivism, the philosophy that social rules achieve validity because they are enacted by authority, has corrupted even Weber’s definition. Positivist interpretation of the state as Weber defined it obviously begs the question of the source of the state’s authority to determine those rules, including those on the basis of which that “authority” itself exists.  Compounding this conundrum is the near universal, usually implicit, practice of equating bureaucratic governmental rule with the state, thereby shackling government itself to the underlying circularity of the argument about where the state’s authority comes from.

Note that the degree the state is defined in this reductionist fashion leaves murky at best, how far establishment of governmental legitimacy, by its electoral accountability to the voters, also extends to the state itself.  Democratically constructed and ratified constitutions address this problem but only while these processes happen. As Kenya’s experience with the aspirations of the 2010 Constitution has demonstrate, the problem is who and what holds government accountable for implementing, as well as upholding the letter and spirit of the Constitution.  Fully empowered judiciaries are an essential but, I fear, insufficient requirement by themselves for this purpose.

In my view, the Nobel committee that awarded the 2015 Peace Prize to the Tunisian Quartet and the US-based Fund for Peace has put their fingers on a central dimension for a valid, sustainable 21st Century reconceptualisation of the state but without quite saying so.  The Fund for Peace has conducted annual surveys of fragility in just under 180 countries, employing twelve overall criteria, which include over 80 specific indicators.  Its annual surveys are easily accessible on line. A defining feature of these indicators is identity of the key sources of state fragility not primarily or even largely in governmental administrative and security bureaucratic weaknesses per se. Rather, the Fund finds a principal source of state fragility in a range of societal conditions that governments in a great many countries have ignored or left poorly attended, leaving the survivability or sustainability of citizen lives precarious. These conditions include demographic challenges like poverty, ill-health, and pollution, population displacements, unaddressed group grievances, development patterns that leave whole populations behind, and abuses of basic human rights, all this in addition to government failures in terms of democratisation, basic security and service delivery, and inattention to elite factional strife.

An evident but unrecognised hypothesis to be drawn from the Fund’s criteria is that the conditions of citizens lives, their survivability, sustainability and empowerment, must be part of the definition of the state itself. In a word, the working definition of a viable state needs to include representation of citizens’ individual and collective interests as well as its coercive capacities. The late very distinguished social theorist Charles Tilly, careful to focus principally upon the study of European states, traced their emergence of the conduct of war and war preparation, while also recognising their connections to capital.

The study of the 21st Century state needs to go deeper to elevate the viability of ordinary the conditions of citizens’ lives to equivalence with macro-level development indicators as well as government’s coercive capacities.  The awarding of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to cooperation of a quartet including the Tunisian bar association, its human rights league, its General Labour Union, and its Human Rights League offers a clue how this political economy definition of the 21st Century state might work. The Nobel committee gave the work of this quartet credit for being instrumental in saving Tunisia from civil war in 2013.

Crucial link

The Nobel committee’s award suggests the fundamental importance of autonomous civil society to the viability of the modern state in the post-colonial era, but civil society in a larger sense than as it is normally conceived, neither as just as a counter-balancer to the state the French philosopher Montesquieu advocated nor as a captive or captivator of the state Gramsci as might have envisioned.  Rather the award envisions an organised civil society acting as a guarantor of both governmental attention to sustainable life requirements of its citizens as well and fidelity to citizen acquiescence in terms of political association established in a democratically constructed and ratified constitution

Implicitly, this model suggests writing democracy into the very definition of the 21st Century state rather than as just one form of the state, placing a high burden on civil society as an indispensable link between citizen and government, and a responsibility of government to recognise and respect it as such.  ^

Writer teaches African Studies at the Johns Hopkins

University School of Advanced International Studies.

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