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Killing the Leviathan with a Thousand Cuts

Killing the Leviathan with a Thousand Cuts

Friday, 28 October, 2022 - 04:45
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

While political debate today is focused on the slow but steady disintegration of the so-called world order, the crises affecting the concept of statehood, the foundation of any world order, may not be receiving the attention it merits.

Ever since it appeared in its early and vague contours, statehood 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 adopt the broader concept of “the people” as foundation bloc. It then had to ward off a challenge by organized religion and develop the concept of citizenship. What emerged was a world of nation-states that could coexist albeit not always in peace within a world order based on international law.

Today, however, most nation-states face crises that, each in its way has an impact on the world order as a whole. First, today we have 16 non-governed territories or failed states, the largest number for the past 150 years, morphing into the loci of instability and terror for chunks of western Asia and Africa.

Next we have nation-states, including China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran that has been turned into vehicles for a cult of personality.

All such states, and a few others like Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Eritrea where the cult of personality is less pronounced, an ideological veneer is used to burnish the image of the ruling elite.

Ideology, whether religious or secular, has always been an enemy of the state. Often, the state believes that it is using ideology in its service, as was the case when Constantine declared Christianity as state religion. Over the time, however, it was the empire that became the servant of the church, the saga terminating with the disintegration of the empire and the Lilliputian Papal States in parts of Italy.

In the USSR, Bolshevik ideology kept Russia and its captive nations out of normal human history for more than seven decades with tragic consequences that still affect Russia and even the rest if the world.

Today, the so-called democracies, too, are in crisis, at times with a farcical aspect as is the case in the United Kingdom.

The democracies face challenges foreseen by Hobbes in his “Leviathan”: the emergence of small but powerful interest groups that could use the power of state to further their narrow agendas.

This becomes possible when a majority of people, that is to say voters who are supposed to choose those who govern, are either uninterested in the political process or sympathize with the single-issue groups, lobbies and other coteries of activists.

In the 30 Western democracies voter turnout in the past 20 years has hovered around 55 percent.

For decades, no American or French president or British Prime Minister has been elected with the votes of at least 50 percent of those eligible to vote.

Because of proportional representation, most Western democracies have developed various patterns of coalition including the farcical one now in Germany.

In such a system tokenism becomes a must with Cabinets becoming a political version of the smorgasbord.

You have to be careful what celebrities, from TV presenters, press pundits, and talk radio hosts to promoters of alternative life-styles to Greta Thunberg or George Clooney, have to say. Behind the scenes you have to listen to billionaires in blue-jeans and bankers in basketball shoes.

As traditional political parties fade into ghosts, all of this means strengthening small but active groups at the expense of the state. But that is not all.

The nation-state has already lost part of its power to trans- or international bodies such as the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, World Trade Organization and dozens of other bureaucracies hiding behind acronyms.

At home what is called civil society runs its parallel show with hundreds, sometimes thousands of non-governmental groups (NGOs) not to mention well-funded lobbies whose task is to kill the “Leviathan” with a thousand cuts, each getting a morsel of the cadaver.

On the average, the democratic state controls more than half of the gross domestic product and is thus transformed into a mechanism for redistribution, a kind of cash-machine in front of which one sees a long queue of interest groups waiting to in their debit card into the slot.

As a very un-scientific experiment I followed a week of French parliamentary politics. The impression I got was of being in a bazaar where all the talk is about money. Petrol prices are high? The state sends you a cheque. You can’t pay your electricity bill? Another cheque is on the way. Every problem under the sun is caused by “lack of resources”, a code word for money.

There was a big bust up whether the French should retire two years later than they do now and how to give certain categories a bigger cheque.

A debate about the war in Ukraine and the astronomical sums devoted to its continuation? Not a chance. What about the sorry state of French schools where up to 30 percent of pupils are left without teachers for at least part of the academic year? Nope. Nor was any debate about pressure put by religious fanatics on French schoolgirls of North African origin to wear outlandish attires fit for Halloween parties.

The concept of the state has always been under attack from both left and right. In practice, however, almost all parties of the left and right used to acknowledge the specificity of the state as an institution. A state could act rightly or wrongly, according to who judged the act, but it would always act as a state. Now, however, we have glaring examples of states going rogue and acting as vehicles for fantasies of a leader. Judging by the latest conference of the Chinese Communist Party, China under Xi Jinping may become another example.

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