Kill the Leviathan with a thousand cuts
While today’s political debate focuses on the slow but steady disintegration of the so-called world order, the crises affecting the concept of the state, the foundation of all world order, may not be receiving the attention it deserves. they deserve.
Ever since it first appeared in its vague outlines, the state as a concept has been challenged by a range of factors – from paganism and its ritual to organized religion, ideology, despotic adventures, private financial power and, more recently, globalization.
Statehood had to overcome tribalism and embrace the larger concept of “the people” as the building block. He then had to ward off the contestation of organized religion and develop the concept of citizenship. What emerged was a world of nation states that could coexist, though not always peacefully, within a global order based on international law.
Today, however, most nation states face crises that, each in their own way, impact the global order as a whole. First, today we have 16 ungoverned territories or failed states, the most in 150 years, turning into places of instability and terror for chunks of West Asia and Africa.
Then we have nation states, including China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, that have been turned into vehicles for a cult of personality.
All of these states, and a few others such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Eritrea where the cult of personality is less pronounced, an ideological veneer is used to restore the image of the ruling elite.
Ideology, whether religious or secular, has always been the enemy of the state. Often the state believes it is using ideology in its service, as was the case when Constantine declared Christianity the state religion. Over time, however, it was the empire that became the servant of the church, with the saga ending with the disintegration of the empire and the Lilliputian Papal States in parts of Italy.
In the USSR, Bolshevik ideology kept Russia and her nations captive outside normal human history for more than seven decades, with tragic consequences that still affect Russia and even the rest of the world.
Today, the so-called democracies are also in crisis, sometimes with a buffoonish aspect as is the case in the United Kingdom.
Democracies face the challenges predicted by Hobbes in his “Leviathan”: the emergence of small but powerful interest groups that could use the power of the state to advance their narrow agendas.
This becomes possible when a majority of people, i.e. the voters who are supposed to choose those who govern, either lose interest in the political process or sympathize with single cause groups, lobbies and other cliques of activists.
In the 30 Western democracies, voter turnout over the past 20 years has hovered around 55%.
For decades, no American or French president or British prime minister has been elected with the votes of at least 50% of the voters.
Due to proportional representation, most Western democracies have developed various coalition models, including the currently outlandish one in Germany.
In such a system, symbolism becomes a must, with Cabinets becoming a political version of the smorgasbord.
You have to pay attention to what celebrities, from TV presenters, press pundits and radio hosts to alternative lifestyle proponents like Greta Thunberg or George Clooney, have to say. Behind the scenes, you have to listen to billionaires in blue jeans and bankers in sneakers.
As traditional political parties disappear into phantoms, all this means strengthening small but active groups at the expense of the state. But that’s not all.
The nation state has already lost some of its power to trans or international bodies such as the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organization and dozens of other bureaucracies. hiding behind acronyms.
In our country, what is called civil society carries out its parallel spectacle with hundreds, sometimes thousands of non-governmental groups (NGOs) not to mention the well-funded lobbies whose task is to kill the “Leviathan” with a thousand cuts, each getting a piece of the corpse.
On average, the democratic state controls more than half of the gross domestic product and thus turns into a redistribution mechanism, a kind of cash machine in front of which we see a long line of interest groups waiting in their flow in the slot.
As part of a very unscientific experience, I followed a week of French parliamentary politics. I had the impression to be in a bazaar where one speaks only about money. Gasoline prices are high? The state sends you a check. Can’t pay your electricity bill? Another check is on the way. Every problem under the sun is caused by “lack of resources”, a code word for money.
There was a big issue over whether the French should retire two years later than they do now and how to give certain categories a bigger check.
A debate on the war in Ukraine and the astronomical sums devoted to its continuation? No chance. What about the sad state of French schools where up to 30% of students find themselves without a teacher for at least part of the school year? No. Nor has there been any debate about pressure from religious fanatics on French schoolgirls of North African descent to wear extravagant outfits suitable for Halloween parties.
The concept of the state has always been attacked on the left as well as on the right. In practice, however, almost all left and right parties recognized the specificity of the state as an institution. A state can act rightly or wrongly, depending on who judges the act, but it will always act as a state. Now, however, we have glaring examples of states going rogue and acting as vehicles for a ruler’s fantasies. Judging by the latest Chinese Communist Party conference, China under Xi Jinping could become another example.