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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Do we need the state?

On Friday, the clouds were mottled and swirling in a string wind – autumn, it seemed, had closed down summer. But the last 2 days have been cloudless and the dawn now announces a similar day. Yesterday, as I was preparing the potato omelette with the eggs my neighbours had brought me (and a very tasty soup); the milk from their cow (who feeds on our grass); the locally prepared cheese I had bought from other neighbours; and the salami from a neighbouring village, I realised that, here in my village, I am almost self-sufficient (if we count the village as “self” and allow me to keep my oriental spices and large, white Bulgarian beans (“Bob” – as they are called). My overheads (I have to keep on pinching myself) are 100 euros a month (including power, heating, tax and insurance). It is petrol and the mobile phone (25 euros) which adds to the expenses (and the wine and palinka/Rakia stocks!)
By coincidence, I came across this American paper which confronts the possibility of the collapse of American society – and how people should cope. Sadly (but typically) a lot of space is concerned with guns and self-defence. And the paper makes no reference to the blog which has, for some years, been dealing (on a weekly basis) with the “peak oil syndrome”; how it would affect the (unrealistic) way of life of north americans; and what practical steps people could be taking now to develop the resilience which will be necessary to cope with the new conditions. One of my readers has drawn my attention to a book published in 2008 which suggested many of the conditions which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union (military spending; oil shortage, debt, trade deficit) are now present in the USA - Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse - but that much of the infrastructure available to the Russians to cope (eg District heating; vegetable plots) is missing in North America.
North Americans, of course, do not factor the state into these issues since they assume that the state is part of the problem. In Europe – despite the neo-liberal hollowing out of the state and politicians increasingly being seen as hollow puppits – many persist in our belief that collective action still has a role. The question is whether politicians and the state can rise to the challenge.

Last November I suggested that any convincing argument for systemic reform needed to tackle four questions -
• Why do we need major change in our systems?
• Who or what is the culprit?
• What programme might start a significant change process?
• What mechanisms (process or institutions) do we need to implement such programmes?

Earlier this year I drafted a paper which tried, amongst other things, to summarise some of the writing on the second and third of these questions - but have not given proper attention to the last question.
One of the bloggers I respect has, however, recently turned his attention to the issue of the moral basis for a greater role for the state.
And a recent paper from the Quality of Governance Institute by Bo Rothstein, entitled Creating a sustainable solidaristic society - a manual is also relevant.

The proper and legitimate role of the state are, of course, central concerns of this blog of mine. It was only when I started my work with governments in transition countries 20 years ago that I started to think seriously about the subject – although my debureaucratising mission of the 1970s in Scottish local government had made me think very hard about the role of local government and its various stakeholders. But this was hardly the most appropriate preparation for the issue of what “the state” might reasonably be expected to do in the special conditions of post-communism? And, in any event, the basic questions of the role of the state were quickly settled in Central Europe in 1990-92 without any public discussion – thanks to international bodies such as The World Bank. You would nonetheless have thought that some academics in countries such as Slovakia (which has twice experienced the process of state-building - once in 1918 as part of Czechoslovakia, then in 1993) might have pulled together some lessons and considerations about the role of the state!

I’ve also started to Fukuyama’s latest tomb – The Origins of Political Order - which appeared in the spring. It’s a sequel of sorts to the late Samuel Huntington’s classic “Political Order in Changing Societies.” Fukuyama’s update of Huntington’s work examines what current scholarship understands about the evolution of states. Beginning with hunter-gatherers, the book ranges across an astonishing array of knowledge to look at the development of countries, up to the French Revolution. (A second volume is intended to pick up where “The Origins of Political Order” leaves off). Evolutionary biology, sociology, political philosophy, anthropology – all these disciplines are mined for insights into what is among the most difficult problems in international politics: the question of how to establish modern, functioning states. David Runciman summarises thus
Human beings have always organised themselves in tight-knit groups – there never was a Rousseauian paradise of free-spirited individuals roaming contentedly through the primordial forests. The trouble was that the first human societies were too tight-knit. These were essentially kinship groups and generated what Fukuyama calls "the tyranny of cousins". People would do almost anything for their relatives, and almost anything to the people who weren't (rape, pillage, murder). This was a recipe for constant, low-level conflict, interspersed with periodic bouts of serious blood-letting.
The way out of the kinship trap was the creation of states (by which Fukuyama means centralised political authorities), which were needed to break the hold of families. States are one of the three pillars Fukuyama identifies as providing the basis for political order. The reason that powerful states aren't enough on their own is that political power doesn't necessarily solve the problem of kinship. Instead, it can simply relocate it up the chain, so that all you get are strong rulers who use their power to favour their relatives, a phenomenon that is all too easy to identify, from the ancient world to contemporary Libya. So the rule of states needs to be supplemented by the rule of law, which imposes limits on political power and corruption. However, the rule of law itself can destabilise political order by undermining the ability of states to take decisive action when it is needed, and giving non-state organisations too much of a free hand. Hence the need for the third pillar: accountable government (or what we might now call democracy). This retains a strong state but allows people to change their rulers when they start behaving badly.
Fukuyama thinks that we too often treat the three pillars of political order as though they were separate goods in their own right, capable of doing the job on their own. We champion democracy, forgetting that without the rule of law it is liable simply to entrench social divisions. Or we champion the rule of law, forgetting that without a strong state it is liable to lead to political instability. But he also thinks that whole societies can make the same mistake. He distinguishes between a good political order, and an order that is simply "good enough", which occurs when only one or two of the building blocks is in place, giving the illusion of security. For instance, ancient China arrived at a strong centralised state far earlier than the west, in order to combat the problem of endemic civil war. But the Chinese state that emerged was too strong: it crushed the warlords but also crushed any incipient civil society or ideas of accountability. Thus China enjoyed an early advantage on the path to political order, but it was this advantage that set it back, because too much power was concentrated too soon. It is this fact, Fukuyama believes, that explains the autocratic condition of Chinese politics to this day
Other useful reviews are here, here and here
The sculpture is in the park next to the Sofia City Gallery - marking the allied bombing of the city in 1944. For some reason some people want to remove it.....

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