The Return of the State

To be equipped with theories can leave one naked before experience. The many and varied rationalist explanations of mental illness most decidedly do not prepare for the shock of genuine schizophrenia. Technical terms then seem merely scientistic, an irrelevance in the face of what is often best described as possession. I mention this so as to stress that the appropriate language for the horror of September 11th  is and should remain equally old fashioned: huge structures of power, together with many of those who worked within them, evaporated into dust. This is not to say that an attempt to explain should not be undertaken, merely to stress that a sense of proportion should be maintained especially by this writer, distracted for much of the last weeks by illness. That caveat established, let me add to the discussion the view that we are likely to see, and should strive to create, an increase in the power of the state. To that end, I begin with an element of an old social theory, before looking at some central tenets of received contemporary wisdom.

Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was of course in considerable part an attempt to understand the character of, and options available to, his own society seen within the terms of a general philosophic history. His great treatise properly made much of the fact that the advanced cores of civilizations had always been vulnerable to the invasion of militarily-effective nomads, ever more attracted to the glories of the material advances made under imperial rule. Ibn Khaldun made very much the same point about the Islamic heartland, albeit he had an admiration for nomads wholly absent in the case of his eighteenth century colleague. But Gibbon maintained that the rise of commercial society, of wealth and science, was such that the hitherto inevitable cycle of rise and decline of civilization could now be ended. The advanced now had better weapons, and the ability, if need be, to pay others to use them in order to protect themselves. Does the destruction of the World Trade Center show that Gibbon’s optimism must now be replaced? Differently put, do outsiders have a military edge, given the circumstances of high technology? Although time alone will tell, one can at least suggest caution in embracing any view suggesting that the world has changed in this matter in any fundamental way. For one thing, the possibility that terrorist guerillas now do have certain advantages has long been apparent. For another, this new situation does not really resemble that of pre-modern empires faced with nomad outsiders. The threat is much more that of extremely deadly irritants than of the capacity to actually destroy an industrial social formation. Changes in weapons systems and in grand strategy are now inevitable. But there is little reason to think that the military capacity of the United States which accounts for the largest proportion of total world military spending of any society in the history of the world will be seriously undermined. In any case, societies can live through indeed have lived through the pain and pressures that terrorism involves.

The themes of our own social theory that seem most relevant today are those that stress the emergence of a global civil society and (in part as consequence) the hollowing out of state powers (an element of which, it is sometimes claimed, is the ending of its capacity to `homogenize’ disparate identities). The events of September make crystal clear what was anyway obvious about the notion of civil society: social self-organization does not in itself guarantee civility! Differently put, any complete definition of civil society must have at its heart acceptance of an agreement to differ that is, the removal of certain issues from the political agenda so that violence can be contained. Still more importantly, the anti-statism endemic to much of the writing celebrating civil society should be treated with the utmost skepticism. States are needed to protect society for without Hobbes we may not have Locke but rather the jungle, as those who have lived without a state know all too well.

The idea that American society is really multicultural that is, in fact, rather than as an aspiration was always vastly overdone. For one thing, intermarriage rates except for Afro-Americans are far too high to allow for the preservation of truly distinctive cultural traditions. For another, most ethnic identities lack genuine content, that is, cultural beliefs are tolerated only within the parameters of choice enshrined in the broader culture. More generally, what has been noticeable about the endless talk of difference is that it was so general, making it just another element within American culture. The domestic reaction to September’s horrors demonstrates that the homogenizing powers of this continental nation-state are most certainly not in abeyance. Patriotism abounds and flags are everywhere; the homeland is threatened. There are, so to speak, good and bad sides to this, as has always been the case in American history. The bad side is certainly seen in criticism of Muslim Americans, probably evident in public security legislation, and perhaps present in state-sponsored campaigns to reinforce national unity. The other side of the coin can be seen in attempts to protect Muslim Americans, necessary at all times and requisite in this case given that September’s hijackers seem to have no roots within American society. The extent to which America stands united is evidenced very clearly in the response of Robert Putnam: television is out, public-spiritedness back in.

It is a great mistake to oppose people and state, as if the two were always locked in a Manichean zero-sum contest. In fact, a united and homogeneous population is a force for state power, just as the right sort of response from a state can help enable its people. This is all the more so when that people demands increased protection by the state. That is what is happening now. States are machines for protection. The lack of foreign enemies has meant that the United States for most of its history has not needed much of a state. But its constitution was designed so that the state could expand in times of need, and this of course has happened before, in every case as the result of war. The sheer size of the budgets proposed for an increase in national security makes it absolutely clear that the state is back in America. But we can and should go a little beyond this crude indicator if the power of the American state, and of its response, is to be properly understood. Attention needs to be given in turn to the nature of its institutions and its intellectual capacity.

An increase in state power is often seen as an increase in arbitrariness, that is, as an increase in despotism seen as something hostile to civil liberties. This always has been a terrible mistake. Tocqueville argued long ago that the attempt to control could lead to sterility, to a low total sum of power with a social formation a condition nicely illustrated in our own era by the Soviet Union in its last years. Real strength comes from a politics of reciprocal consent. Very much related to this is that interesting literature on foreign policy, exemplified best by Columbia University’s Jack Snyder, which suggests that liberal institutions, which permit many levels of assessment so as to allow priorities to be set rationally, can result in policy superior to that often produced by authoritarian regimes. This does seem to apply to the conduct of American foreign policy at this time. A rushed and emotional response was avoided, with second thoughts seemingly making for general awareness of the difficulties of the task ahead. It may be the case that there is general realization that America’s greatest weapons against terrorism lie in an (improved) intelligence-gathering system and the control of the banking system. It clearly is the case that such weapons need to be used over the longer term.

The question of the intellectual capacity of the state is more complex. The presence of liberal institutions will only be helpful if intelligence is allied to voice&; if different voices are allowed to be heard, so that a process of critical discussion takes place. But for discussion to be critical in the sense of involving careful, exact evaluation and judgment, what must be brought to bear is historical background, skepticism, common sense, knowledge of geography: these make for an intelligence that enhances state capacity. The quality of current critical debate is not reassuring. There is of course truth to the notion, stressed by many on the left, that American foreign policy is associated with repression in much of the developing world, and above all in the Middle East. It is absolutely true that American hegemony would be wise to aim at, and stronger if its policy achieved, greater legitimacy. But this point should be taken very carefully. It would be madness to forget that there are local roots to the opposition, especially that of parts of the Muslim world, to the United States. Bluntly, the United States is not in fact responsible for everything that happens in the world. The rather poor economic and political performance of the Muslim world is easy to blame on the West, which is indeed not free of all guilt, but this is in part a cover, a failure to assume responsibility. Nor should it be forgotten that there is a tradition within Islam, much invoked at present, which stresses Holy War. But debate at this level are we or are we not responsible? is tiresome, and does not take us very far.

Intellectual understanding needs to be extended. American foreign policy intellectuals need to be provoked to reflect on nationalism, that protean force which they so little understand. Backing the Northern Alliance may prove to be ineffective, even costly given that it is based on minority ethnic groups. Further, the geopolitics of the region, above all the different interests of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, need to be clearly understood. Equally obvious is the fact that the military has little idea how to fight in this terrain, whilst nobody has any clear ideas as to how to reconstruct Afghan society as a whole. Above all, one flinches at the notion, stressed by the current administration, that American policy can now `rid the world of evil’. Politics is not moral in this sense, and it is dreadfully mistaken to believe, and to let one’s people believe, that this could be so. The proof of the matter here is that necessity has made for uncomfortable bedfellows: criticism of Russian behavior in Chechnya has ended, and a military dictatorship in Pakistan upheld.

I have argued that the state will gain in strength, most obviously in the case of the United States. But I wish to stress quite as much a normative point, that states are needed. The United States needs partners to create a safer world. The partners must be states. Just as stability was created in Europe when states could cage and discipline military entrepreneurs, so too would security be enhanced should states gain the capacity to control terrorists. Weak states do not bring peace. As it happens, the events of September 11th may give terrorism such a bad name that it will lose some of its force, thereby allowing for an increase in the power of such weak states. Something like this seems to have happened already in Northern Ireland, in that Sinn Fein’s greater control over its military wing has just given the peace process new life.

None of this is to deny that there has been an increase in global links amongst “civil society” which may attenuate the power of the state. Some such links are benign and progressive, but terrorism shows that others can be vicious, anti-liberal and anti-democratic. In this matter, I am a follower of the last great pages of Raymond Aron’s monograph on Clausewitz which argue that peace is most likely to come about by increasing the rationality of states. To stress this view makes it vital to reiterate that the inclusion of multiple voices, critically informed, and the creation of liberal institutions can enhance state capacity. But it is very, very hard indeed to push countries in that direction. The invention of policies to do so remains the most urgent task of modern social science.