The Competitors for State Legitimacy

In many ways, the question of whether State Legitimacy is being eroded is a question about the future of the Nation State.  This is not a new question, and many writers have had various points of view (like Bobbitt and his Market State, for example).  Many writers go back, instead of going forward – I’ve recently been reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel; Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail; and Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order in some way all address the history of civilisation, and the state and its attendant social order.  There’s usually an epilogue or final chapter on future vision, or what this means, but generally speaking these books and their writers offer a historical framework for thinking through how States, and civilisations, evolve.  There are however significant external powers that are shaping our social order.  They are in some ways connected, though not entirely.  First, there is the emergence of multi-national corporations.  Second, there is the process of globalisation, incorporating regionalisation and general national interdependencies.  Third there is the growth of communications technology, including air travel and the Internet.  Fourth, there is the role of religion.  Fifth, there is the changing nature of military power, and of war.

  1. Multi-National Corporations (MNCs): We’ve talked about these guys before.  Joe Nye wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs in 1974 on the impact of MNCs on World Politics, and concluded, in part, that their impact was not so great as to be threatening.  As he put it, “to the common (and oversimplified) question whether multinational corporations are likely to render the sovereignty of the nation-state obsolete, the answer surely is a qualified “no”…even weak states can and sometimes have nationalized the local affiliate of a multinational corporation. For the foreseeable future, the two kinds of entities will continue to coexist, in uneasy tension.”  How things have changed.  There is a process that I call the virtualisation of capital that has seen MNCs rise above their physical manifestations in any given country.  Facilities are managed, services are outsourced, and only commodities need to be protected.  The levers of power for MNCs are financial and political.  The extent to which they can be usurped by national governments is fading every day.  In addition to this, governments are themselves virtualising their own service delivery infrastructure, outsourcing everything including healthcare, education, and even national security.  Governments are not only therefore subservient to the MNC in scale and power, but they are beholden to them for the very functions that they have secured the legitimacy to deliver.
  2. Globalisation and the increasing interdependence of countries has not so much compromised state legitimacy, but changed it.  More accurately again, however, this is perhaps more related to sovereignty.  I have blogged before on the concept of external and internal legitimacy, the extent to which a state is legitimised by external states versus by its own internal people and institutions.  In Ireland today, the government is domestically legitimated, and remains sovereign over the decisions of state, but due to international agreements in particular with the EU, IMF and ECB, its budgetary decisions are constrained as it finances the operations of the state from foreign borrowing.  Therefore while its sovereignty remains, it is compromised; its legitimacy remains, but only within the context of its international relations.  Such close physical proximity is not necessary; the United States and China two giants in World Affairs, retain a kind of symbiosis in their dealings with one another.  While China holds more US debt than any other country in the world, the US economy needs to retain its robustness in order to persist the major market for Chinese goods.  The US therefore cannot make any decision about trade or commerce without thinking through the impact on its relationship with China.
  3. Communications technology has made the world smaller, and in many respects acts as an enabler for many of the categories we’re going through.  Globalisation is only possible because of information and communications technology.  The power of MNCs ( and in particular this concept of the virtualisation of capital) is only possible because of technology.  The technology of warfare is heavily dependent on network and communications technology, and even religion and the impact of religion has been significantly altered by the Internet and television.  There is a fundamental aspect of technology however that is changing human social relationships and having an impact on people’s lives and relationships, including people’s relationship with the State.  The mass market adoption of communications technology, from the mobile phone to social networking, is creating new social structures, bypassing space and community, and automating interactions.  As community and social structures change – if they change, and the technology is still young – will interpersonal relationships and community structures change?  Is this an extension of Putnam’s Bowling Alone conjecture, an indictment on civil society structures that de Tocqueville so lauded in his Democracy in America?  It’s not at all clear how this will play out, but I have a sense that this is different, though perhaps the Internet and social networking are simply accelerants on a pre-existing trend.  If that is the case, the technology may be incidental, but it is crucial because it makes all of this distinctly measurable.  Separately, taking lessons from history, Daron Acemoglu talks about how monarchies refused to adopt new technologies such as rail roads in the nineteenth century because it would change the economic order, and by extension their power base, thereby placing their power in jeopardy.  Jared Rubin’s paper on ‘The Political Economy of Mass Printing’ looked at similar issues in Ottoman Turkey.  Technology changes economics, and economics bestows power – so how will power change as economics are changed by technology?
  4. Organised religion is a relatively new thing.  It’s only really been around for the masses for a few hundred years; and with information and communications technology rapidly spreading the word, it’s catching on fast.  In the west, sometimes this is a difficult thing to grasp; it’s easy to feel like we’re merely extricating ourselves from a couple of centuries of folly, that our enlightened atheism, or personalised spiritualism is somehow more advanced and more clean than that lowest common denominator socialist populism that Christianity in particular taught us.  However, growing numbers of people from the developing world are identifying themselves by their religion, and the resurgence of, in particular, evangelical Christianity in the US show that this is a long way from being over as an intellectual discussion.  Can organised religions replace that which the State provides?  Specialised healthcare (witness multiple blood transfusion controversies with Jehovah’s Witnesses) and specialised education (creationism) are already front and center, and that’s within Western Christian tradition.  Outside of that, in Islam, Hinduism, and all the other great religions of the world, there are deep philosophical power struggles that are increasingly threatening state control of various institutions.  At what point do they threaten the legitimacy of the state itself?  And – if we are to see the emergence of developing world Theocracies, how do they relate to other states, and impact upon the interdependent structures brought about by globalisation as discussed in (2) above?
  5. Finally, the development of military technology is changing the nature of international relations, and to an extent it almost obviates military power in an ironic evolution.  There are two crucial developments, I think.  First, the development of awesome weapons (awesome in a Biblical context, not in a generic American ‘good’ context), weapons that are capable of overwhelming destruction for a relatively small investment.  The world has set itself against nuclear proliferation in particular, and also biological weapons, but the reality is that the information necessary to develop dirty bombs and terrible weapons is pretty much commonly available now.  This has the effect of minimising the relative strength argument.  The second is automation – robotics, and the recent acceleration of developments in drone warfare, are having the effect of taking people off the battlefield.  People other than targets, that is.  Before, in international relations, the threat of attack by a powerful neighbour was enough to keep an army at bay.  The economics of attack have completely changed.  There is no domestic impact from dead soldiers coming home, if there are no soldiers (or if those soldiers are mercenaries, having outsourced battlefield operations to an MNC).  A ‘small’ nuclear attack is still a nuclear attack.  All nuclear attacks are awesome and terrible.  I am as yet not fully certain of the impact of these developments on State Legitimacy except to say this: a fundamental and crucial aspect of State Legitimacy is its power to wage war.  If war changes, and if it becomes de facto impossible to wage war, then that aspect of the legitimacy of the state becomes irrelevant.  There remain questions of policing and justice, but they are domestic, and we’ll deal with them later.

I think these may be five major sections of a book.  Or perhaps they are five books.  All of them are important, however, as macro trends that are having profound effects on states and their legitimacy.

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