The Financial Express

Living with the devil we know

| Updated: April 18, 2018 20:09:06

Living with the devil we know

Rana Dasgupta's poignant piece, "The demise of the nation state" (See Guardian, April 05, 2018), traces the collapse of a four-century institution to a variety of "countervailing 21st century forces": 'declining political authority', 'apocalyptic nationalism', 'masochistic political style', 'wall-building and xenophobia', as well  as 'mythology and race theory'. These have flourished owing to an "ocean of deregulated finance, autonomous technology, religious militancy and great-power rivalry." These 'symptoms' can be found everywhere, he correctly argues: 'populist outbursts' in western societies, 'authoritarian solutions' here and there (Egypt, Russia, the Philippines, Turkey), 'purification' programs (in Hungary, India, Myanmar, among others), 'abandonment of civil rights and law' (China, Rwanda, Thailand, Venezuela), and indeed, so many parallel incidences that he stops short of calling 'coincidences'.

Nation-states have "lost their moral era," he forlornly posits, in turn, begetting civil wars , more refugees than during World War II (65 million now versus 40 million then: his figures), tax-evasion spiking, and democracy being reduced "to a dangerous mockery of what was designed by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and many others after the cataclysm of the first world war."

Such an indictment cannot be flawed, for sure, since it encompasses just about every dynamic making the current world tick, in fact, in fits and starts since the 21st Century began, or just a little earlier, when the Cold War ended. Not surprisingly, it is one full century since Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations and his cardinal Fourteen Points thrust the world system on to a new trajectory, one that accelerated the demise of imperial networks, adrenalized nationalism, and awakened two massive continents where the dust of the current outbursts of turmoil may settle: Africa and Asia.

Where Dasgupta erred was in diving off the deep-end for the analysis. With too much water surrounding him, he might have missed a couple of co-relationships that actually strengthen the state in its plight, not sufficiently, mind you, to recreate the once glorious 20th Century state order, but enough to expose why it remains the only outcome, defaulted at that.

Embedded in Dasgupta's analysis is the frantic search for identity, now reduced to the individual level given the widespread impacts of democracy (one-person, one-vote, for example), and the equally imposing neo-liberal thrusts privatising not just every opportunity at stake, but even those in public hands, such as under governmental controls. These were massive forces, at once the result of cumulative effects of the entire 20th Century and the gushes of the post-Cold War 'new world order' of the 1990s. Too much happened, and even more anticipated, for adequate institutionalisation: indeed, institutionalisation had to play second-fiddle to individualisation at all too many levels. No wonder nationalism took off too stridently, culminating in populist atmospherics; and in mixing with religion, it opened (or 'reopened', if one wants to bring in West Europe's 17th Century Thirty Years War, when a spate of decaying institutions began crumbling), a more lethal instrument that everyone could now wield, not just the powerful countries, but also almost everyone else, from 'lone-wolves' to organised terrorists, not to mention state-sponsored agents.

Somewhere in that mayhem were the elements Dasgupta did not connect: identity may be at its purest at the individual level, but without some collective anchor, it inevitably predicts the Hobbesian anarchical state of nature or Aristotle's perverted democracy that he dubbed 'mobocracy'. Social groups can be very binding, but lack the recourse to a legitimate instrument of force, if needed, and the inherent inability to transform identity into a tax-paying/welfare-receiving cash register where such public goods, as infrastructure, harmony, exchange-markets, and the like are located. No other agency has performed these tasks better than the state, and though the state is far from being publicly acclaimed as proficient in this business, it is, ultimately, all we have mustered in several centuries of social co-habitation: it elicits more confidence in a wider spectrum of people; and ambitious as those people always are in experimenting with other agencies, they just cannot ultimately let go of the state in the choppy waters of domestic and international politics dominant today.

Rather than this being the 'demise' that Dasgupta draws from the state-related variables at his disposal (and why should one blame him when there is so much to be so shocked about?!), it might be better labeled as the last-chance for the state to navigate its way out. Pessimists, like Dasgupta must be construed to be, give no chance to the state, but also leave no other public anchor. Optimists, on the other hand, will try to both revitalise the handicapped state and search for viable alternatives, even if selectively, even invoking non-state actors.

Ultimately, the one factor Dasgupta recognises but does not mobilise may deliver the final blow: technology. Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution help us assemble artificial knowledge in such a way that future robots might absorb the 'pains' today's humans and their sine qua non entity, the state, absorbs? We could begin to answer that question by delegating some of our laborious functions to such neutered contraptions, then programming them to snap back at other more corrosive ones (like corruption). Even by wading deeper into such a mechanised world, other faces of the peripatetic state is bound to surface. We'd be better off living with the devil we know than the ones we don't.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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