In 2012, I began looking at State Legitimacy as a political entity under attack from globalisation and technology. At its core, my thesis was that the nation state was being re-cast in new dimensions, beyond geography and ethnicity, into brands, global culture, and digital communications. This was a more intellectual evolution, beyond the physical, into deeper concepts of identity. The possibility of deviance, of what Foucault or Zizek might call perversions, presented an opportunity for reduced anxieties and improved conditions for all of us.
Much of the history of the infrastructure of State harkens back to feudal and older systems of clan based fealty, where one clan is in the ascendant, and brings other clans under its wing, and the head of the clan asserts a right to rule through strength and politics. Francis Fukuyama talked a lot about that in his book on The Origins of Political Order. This kind of authority is still seen today in monarchial type totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia and (formerly) Ba’athist Iraq. There are some similarities with Bashar al Assad’s Syria, but they are limited. Wiliam Dalrymple‘s latest book Return of a King reminds us that Hamid Karzai, the current leader of Afghanistan, comes from the same tiny sub-tribe from whence the original ruler of Afghanistan hailed during the British War there in 1839. The Divine Right of Kings was a principle that emanated from Reformation Europe, and in particular from a Theologically thin doctrine hastily assembled to facilitate Henry VIII. This doctrine was in a sense the harbinger of modern secularism; the French Revolution abhorred the gap between rich and poor, and questioned how righteous the King really was, ultimately resulting in the schism between Church and State.
The coincidence of the Syrian crisis with the Jubilee Celebrations in the UK for the 50th anniversary of their Queen’s accession to the throne may appear at first instance to be entirely separate news items in a pretty busy news schedule. But underneath each story is a crisis of legitimacy, and attempts by key protagonists – Bashir Al-Assad in the first instance, and Queen Elizabeth in the second – to maintain their weakining legitimacy. Henry Kissinger waded into the Syria crisis with a strongly worded criticism of US policy in the crisis. With an argument rooted all the way back in The Treaty of Westphalia, Kissinger railed against the default interventionism that has characterised the Arab Spring as breaking with centuries of – essentially – respect for national sovereignty. Of course one could argue that the proxy wars of the Cold War and more recent interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan – and even in Yemen, Somalia, and Kosovo – pre-dated the Arab Spring and clearly established an option of pragmatic interventionism, moral hazard be damned.
The integrity of the state, the sanctity of its sovereignty, and quite literally the neck of Syria’s leader, are all on the line. A question arises about where the state itself gets its legitimacy. While Assad held recent elections, it appears pretty clear that those elections did little to legitimise his position. The opposition and self-proclaimed oppressed people within Syria are looking to the International Community to intervene and protect their human rights. Now, when we legitimise a political institution, we offer up our freedom to that institution so that it will secure our individual rights and freedoms. If the oppressed peoples of Syria are looking to the international community to secure their rights, and if interventionalism (humanitarian or otherwise) has become a default position, are we witnessing a transition of sovereignty and / or legitimacy to “The International Community”?
Meanwhile, closer to home, the sun is stubbornly refusing to make an appearance in London for the pomp of the Jubilee. Quite literally, it is raining on their parade. As if the British weather wasn’t enough, Poly Toynbee decided to have a pop at the Royal Family, as she is wont to do. Her assault is more wide ranging than that – she attacks that fading vision of Britishness, a decrepit and anachronistic national identity that bears no resemblance to who the British actually are. Perhaps the legitimacy of the State is not undermined by the extraordinary edifice that is the Monarchy; it is more tourist attraction / museum piece than something that geniunely represents Britain. But its position is increasingly detached from the State, and one suspects that the next accession could well be strained.