Are ‘failed states’ so called because they are weak or because they are strong? Do we call them failed states because they failed, to manage themselves, provide for their citizens; or because we failed, to conquer and control them?
In a previous post I wrote about Alex De Waal’s analysis on this subject, particularly of Sudan, and looked at some of the reasons why the West wants to reform these countries:
without a strong central government they are less easy to work with (and to manipulate); it is harder to integrate them into the global economy; and their strong regional cultures give the smaller communities the means to resist foreign invasion.
In the current issue of the LRB Patrick Cockburn makes a similar point about Lebanon:
But the think tankers don’t mention that it is in these supposedly failed states that the US has suffered its worst humiliations in the years since 1983, when 241 US marines were blown up in their barracks beside Beirut airport by a suicide bomber… American intervention in states without effective government has been almost uniformly disastrous. (my emphasis)
In part Cockburn links this to one event, the Iranian Revolution (equal in importance surely to the French and Russian revolutions? though it has received comparatively little attention), and a new ideology that became associated with it – radical Islam. Though like De Waal he sees other factors at work.
Part of the relative success of Lebanon, its political freedom compared to the rest of the Arab world, has been achieved because of its sectarian divisions; always very fragile waiting to explode, thus the 1932 census is used for the distribution of political influence based on confessional lines; and is unlikely to be updated: it would lead to a redistribution of power, and a political crisis. Here you have a weak central state but strong regional or religious communities, which in turn may allow ‘highly-motivated non-state guerrilla movements’ to resist occupation. Cockburn compares Hizbullah’s successful resistance to Israel’s 2006 invasion with America’s easy conquests of the Iraqi and Afghanistani state systems; and also the response of the other Arab governments to the Gaza attack and other Israeli atrocities. In Iraq you could argue the US has temporarily created a failed state, and has paid the price…
He also makes a very interesting distinction between America’s two recent conquests. Describing Iraq with its fragmentation into different confessions as ‘Lebanon-in-Mesopotamia’ he writes that because of its oil wealth a strong state is likely to return: central government has the resources to effectively control the country. However, in Afghanistan its lack of such wealth may guarantee a permanently weak central government; that is a failed state. And he argues that this may be the reason why the counter-insurgency tactics that worked in Iraq, whose aim was to restore the central authority, may not work there.
An interesting question, which seems to have elided discussion, is why the western ideology of the last 30 years – Neo-liberalism – which has consistently downplayed the role and value of the government and state institutions generally should want strong states in the third world. Given the analysis of both writers here, and the seeming value and strength of regional cultures, why don’t the ‘think tankers’ seek to encourage non-state communities? Why don’t the Market Populists, to use Thomas Frank’s phrase, who believe freedom and democracy are created by the market, and who push for more liberalisation and deregulation, support the tribes and regional groups to go it alone, as community and regional entrepreneurs and market traders? It is a curious contradiction. For if you were that keenly against the state, working in countries with strong regional communities, and a weak government that would find it hard to interfere, would seem an ideal model both to develop; and to quote, in scholarly journals and press releases.
Of course a large part of the Neo-liberal ideology is intimately connected with Western, particularly American, power, and is thus unable to distinguish its ideas from the projection of that power. Ideas thus become part of a theology, which in turn, because a large body of doctrine is extremely flexible, allows for contradiction; providing different solutions in different contexts. Though as in all theologies there are ideas that barely touch the ground, interpreting empirical reality through thick ideological lenses - like the infamous Vietnam quote, you have to destroy the village in order to save it -, and there are ideas that are pure metaphysics; which are so high up they don’t even see the earth. Chomsky has a number of extraordinary quotes in Deterring Democracy, which illustrate this point, including Paul Kattenburg’s comparison of America to a benevolent professor: it maybe “egocentric” but it educates and emancipates the rest of the world, just like it did within its own land.
In the US American power relies on the wealth of the corporations, which in turn relies on a supportive state. However, though the American state has almighty power within certain sectors of the economy, in order to ensure corporate rule it has withdrawn significantly from intervening in other parts of the society, exposing the population to the consequences of unequal growth and lower wages. It doesn’t want to be a strong king protecting his subjects from the robber barons. It may no longer be able to – it is made up of them. Think of Obama’s finance team, some of whom, like Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, created the legislature framework under Clinton, which allowed the large financial corporations to bankrupt themselves; taking huge risks to run after high profits, and executive bonuses. Indeed, in the view of one business journalist:
Many of them should be getting subpoenas as material witnesses right about now, not places in Obama's inner circle.
In this doctrine the state must be weak; but only in certain areas – in its provision of welfare to the poor, and to the victims of corporate capitalism. Doug Henwood, in his analysis of current policy on the deficit, writes of how the European countries are following the American model, using the current crisis to role back the social provisions of the state, and to weaken the general population. That is, a strong state redistributing wealth – to the already rich.
Like all doctrines it works on certain assumptions that tend not be questioned, at least by the disciples in the field. Politicians and ‘men of action’ will use these ideas to justify their own purposes; so it is not surprising they use distorted and tendentious ideas to pursue their more mundane motives – for them ideas are very much like computers or tanks, just tools to get the job done. And these doctrines, because they are part of a theology, will turn the world into a battleground of ideas – between us and them, between our civilisation and their barbarism. Once this happens our civilisation becomes an abstraction, which replaces the real world; with the actual facts interpreted to conform to these ideals.
[“tough minded”] scholars… are willing to concede that the facts of history hardly illustrate the commitment of the United States to, as Hans Morgenthau puts it, its “transcendent purpose” – “the establishment of equality and freedom in America,” and indeed throughout the world… But the facts are irrelevant because… to adduce them is “to confound the abuse of reality with reality itself. Reality is the unachieved “national purpose” revealed by “the evidence of history as our minds reflect it,” while the actual historical record is merely the abuse of reality, an insignificant artifact.
Thus it is, we can have fanatical adherents of the free market wanting strong states in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the free market has changed meaning, for within the workings of the doctrine it no longer refers to small producers with a minimal government, but to vast multi-national corporations that are underpinned by global governments (Europe and the US control through the IMF and the World Bank). Not that this is ever stated. It is just taken for granted.
While the world’s telecom firms, software makers, and online brokerages fought an ideological bidding war, each one striving to top the others’ association of the market with freedom, with democracy, Demos provided the theoretical ammunition…. [Geoff Mulgan, a former Blair advisor,] discredited the various traditional bête noirs of the business class – taxation and government economic planning – by linking them (and quite wrongly, especially in the American case) to “the era of absolute monarchy.”… And he informed readers that “the upper classes in England resisted the telephone,” thereby setting up communications technology as an automatic subverter of the power of “elites.” (Thomas Frank)
By concentrating on the surface, media world of fast paced, individual creativity, leading to new technologies and cultural diversity, you ignore the bureaucrats and central planning that actually run these firms that produce these products. Are there no finance officers and office clerks in Apple? Do the musicians and producers answer the telephones and sell the advertising copy at EMI… To just look at its products, to look at just the iPhone or U2, is like trying to understand the ocean by only looking at its waves. It is also to make some quite extraordinary mistakes – eg equating diversity with freedom, which seems to be the Demos’ view, a British think tank in the American mould.
For at bottom ideas are abstractions; and because these doctrines are made of ideas, and are not supported by empirical evidence, the confusions and contradictions within them can be easily avoided – ideas are almost infinitely malleable if not tested with hard fact. So you can really believe that the chair of IBM, as an advert once had it, was a revolutionary!
And a strong state in Sudan is essential for the free market…