The State's Godly March
Georg Hegel, one of the leading lights of western philosophy, is best remembered for declaring that “State is the march of God on earth.” Though Hegel’s own Germany was yet to be unified into a single state during his lifetime, he was reflecting on a period of untrammelled growth and almightiness of the state in Europe. The modern nation-state system, debuting at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, kept acquiring strength, legitimacy and force to the point that Hegel could equate it by the early 19th century with God. Though a devout individual who understood the wellsprings of authority to emanate from divinity, Hegel’s apotheosis of the state saluted the booming secular power that was tangibly matching the spiritual in pervasiveness, protection, wealth and benediction.
Hegel’s celestial marcher had a fellow traveller whose fortunes rose simultaneously- nationalism. National consciousness permeated privileged and wealthy European minds through centuries of resource disputes and territorial rabbles. Deification of the state was made possible by the rising tide of nationalist sentiment among European nobles who fought war after war until 1945. A state in itself could not survive and command unquestioning loyalty of citizens without the emotional construct of the nation as a community of humans having a common identity that is distinct from the common identity of another set of humans. European nationalism latched on to language as the basis for common identity, though other grounds like religion, race and ethnic origins were developed in cementing the nation-state in colonised parts of the world.
Resort to nationalism as the strategy for freedom struggles in Asia, Africa and South America was ironically a victory of the state system the west had invented. No region of the world that fought against white oppressors abstained from launching nation states after independence. Decolonisation, in this sense, was a triumph of western political thought. When the United Nations opened in 1945, there were only 51 nation-states. Barely 58 years later, the world houses 191 countries. So seductive has been the idea of statehood and its appurtenances that secessionists and liberators of every hue are currently locked in deadly combat to have the right of owning a state with territorial jurisdiction over their respective ‘nations.’ Even highly anti-state constituencies like human rights groups advocate that statelessness is a curse none should endure. Even the most breathtaking experiment in regional integration, the European Union, is wary of trampling individual national sovereignties of its member states. A common European defence and foreign policy remains a tantalising vision that would take loads of baggage shedding. Whether the EU is a supranational body is debatable.
Growth of globalisation consciousness in the 1990s has led to a school of thought that states are meeting their nemeses in borderless trade and investment promoted by mammoth trans-national corporations (TNCs). One much-cited shock statistic is that 51 of the 100 biggest economies in the world are TNCs. More dramatically, IBM is limned bigger than Singapore just as General Motors is bigger than Denmark. Catchy beliefs that power has changed hands from Presidential palaces to corporate boardrooms hide a more complex reality. Of the 51 TNCs entrenched among the world’s 100 biggest economies, aren’t the majority US-owned and headquartered? Isn’t TNC domination of the world economy a deliberate policy of industrialised nation-states to elongate their financial leads over poorer nation-states? Haven’t GDPs of the OECD countries benefited the most from the TNC bonanza? Western anti-globalisation activists are stuck in the rut that corporations are instrumentalising governments without seeing that it could be the other way round too.
75% of world trade is controlled by the 200 biggest TNCs, but who are the members of the WTO that secure market openings facilitating this swallowing of the global economic pie? Aren’t they plain old nation-states pushing the best deals for their own TNCs? Every delegation that goes to WTO negotiation rounds is sent by a government which visualises more foreign exchange and technological advancement by pressing for trade liberalisation in some sectors and protectionism in others. These delegations are certainly amenable to TNC lobbying, but their overall strategy is set by finance and commerce ministries bent on promoting national economic interests. While some select TNCs and domestic producers gain, less favoured TNCs and domestic producers lose out due to state priorities in decision making. Whatever the doomsday predictions propagate, the powerful nation-state is a skilful beneficiary of globalisation, not a victim.
Another related phenomenon making deriders of the state eat their words is realisation that total disengagement of the state from economic processes is harmful. Libertarian laissez-faire has run its course and shown how dangerous it is to leave all correctives for imperfections in the hands of the free market. Progressive state intervention in providing safety nets and fall-back options, implementing land reforms and investing in health, education, water supply, employment generation etc. are near universal demands now after seeing the Reagnomic ‘trickle down’ myth melt into thin air. For the poorest segments of any country, state welfare benefits and guarantees are still the best bets for survival. The expectation that states dispense patronage and public goods is as strong as it ever was. If globalisation is to evolve with a human face, the entity which is being looked up to with hope is the nation-state.
Champions of post-Westphalian order and declining nation-state received a big blow from September 11th, though they tried to appropriate it to prove that non-state actors are now dictating world events. Most non-state terror outfits are proxies of states in reality, i.e. tools of traditional foreign policies. The primary actors behind and after September 11th 2001 are states. National security, the bread-and-butter concept around which the state system compiled its power, is back with a bang since the September 11th terrorist acts. It had been smarting under checks imposed by the global communications revolution and spread of universal human rights doctrines. People with access to the internet, cable television or international travel could easily learn about anti-national versions of events. The trickle of subversive news could not be dammed though China tried blocking Falun Gong-like websites. Ever present abuses of state organs like police, army and bureaucracy no longer remained sealed secrets. Even the UN, generally careful not to displease states, verbalised strongly in the 1990s in favour of “individual sovereignty” and “human security” as preferable values over national security.
Come September 11th, state security was rejuvenated throughout the world. Prevention of Terrorism laws were enacted everywhere at the cost of civil rights. Immigration laws were tightened at state boundaries and airports to show that no nation-state can be infiltrated or stealthily attacked. Red alerts were issued for nabbing non-state terrorist groups and old-fashioned inter-state coalitions were cobbled together to launch punitive wars putatively to defend national security. Well known state sponsors of terrorism also adopted the language of national security to claim that their own countries are vulnerable to terrorism! Nationalism and pride in one’s own national systemic virtues or way of life have also risen in response to a perceived global Islamist thrust. The most basic premise of social contract- state as a protector of citizens and a legitimate wielder of violence- is comfortably regaining currency around the world in an age of heightened awareness of terrorist acts by faceless zealots.
Nation states, especially the powerful ones, have achieved high maturity and subtlety in projection and operation in the information age. To mistake their non-apparent role in global order as decline or fade-out is a falsity that suits the whims of those who enjoy de-construction and fragmentation discourse. Elvis Presley famously said, “The world is a stage and we are all actors.” However, the state is still playing the lead guitar.
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