In his recent article, “Strategic Alliance between India and the US Begins to Materialize,” dealing with an impending arms deal between the US, Pakistan, and India — the latter two “natural enemies,” but hey, why should that stop us as long as there’s money to be made? – Sekhar raises an interesting distinction. He speaks of “rogue states.”
On the one hand, he cites our polity as a prime example and forms of government on the other. Again, ours is supposed to be the most democratic of the bunch!
Offhand, this ought to raise a flag – a rogue state and a democracy aren’t exactly like ham ‘n eggs – but we’ve learned to live with incongruities, I suppose. (“Cognitive dissonance” is the academic term!) What’s of equal interest, however, the article was barely noticed by the usually astute BC crowd: as of now, the comments thread has been unusually sparse, thirteen in all. It’s not exactly surprising since it’s a well-known truism that most of our blind spots are under our very noses.
Well, the article at hand is a case in point and in vain perhaps, but try I must. I want to remedy this oversight and draw attention to some of the implications. Unwittingly perhaps, whether by sheer happenstance or divine intervention, Sekhar had stumbled upon a revolutionary proposition in the annals of political philosophy, a proposition I was literally stunned by because it’s so patently true and yet so elusive for the fact.
The state and the government aren’t the same!
Never mind definitions!
Etymology may be misleading, too. As C.S. Lewis has ably argued in Studies in Words, concepts change over time and acquire different meanings and connotations. And it’s the same with definitions. Contrary to what our esteemed grammar teachers might say, they’re of limited usefulness. They’re only a starting point, telling us what we already know. A more radical approach is needed.
Turns of phrase aren’t reliable either and are apt to mislead. “Head of state,” for one, is a synonym for the executive. And yet, we speak of a “government being formed” while the state, nominally at least, is believed to exist.
The hung Parliament in this year’s UK’s election cycle is a case in point. The present Iraqi stalemate, seven months old and counting, is another. And then, we may also recall the Clinton presidency during which, for budgetary reasons, “the government” was suspended for a week or so –which time, by the way, coincides with the Monica Lewinsky incident.
So there’s surely some meat to the distinction. What remains is to work it out.
In the interest of brevity, while far from pretending to do justice to so complex a subject, I shall limit this presentation to several loosely connected remarks.
- The infamous quote attributed to Louis XIV — Létat, c’est moi —may well serve as a starting point. And yet, the same Sun King was reputed to say on his deathbed, “I depart, but the State shall always remain.” Both aphorisms reflect a rather complex notion we’ve come to recognize in modern parlance as the State. The first suggests that the state exists by special interests – a point well taken and repeatedly hammered down by Sekhar! And surely, there are no special interests other than those that are personified by the King’s. And the second, that even apart from special interests, the state exists in perpetuity, if only by inertia.
- Contrary to what may or may not be a popular belief, the notion of the state is a relatively modern conception. Some analysts trace its origins to the Roman Republic, citing Cicero, for instance. My hunch is that the state’s institution was in direct response to the power and influence of religion. I’m therefore more comfortable with Thomas Hobbes rather than with Cicero or Machiavelli. Whatever the case, the concept is firmly engrained in modern-day thinking, reflecting the secular tenor of the times. There are apparent anomalies. We speak of Greek city-states, for instance. And it’s likewise with the Italiancity-states, Florence and Venice. And then, with nation-states, if only by way of contrast. But this is a throwback — a projection of modern-day thinking into the past. To make our past more understandable, we imbue it with a modern conception.
- What, then, is the essential difference between a government and a state? Let me be blunt and state my case outright: if “state “denotes an institution, “government” connotes a style. (It’s the age-old distinction between form and substance.) Indeed, we speak of a totalitarian or a fascist state or a socialist one. And even of the more “benign” version, otherwise known as democratic. But don’t let these distinctions fool you. The forms are many and variegated while the institution remains.
- The state, otherwise known as a polity, is a political construct. It’s no less real, however, for being a construct. Perhaps the concept of corporation provides the most helpful analogy. Indeed, just like corporations, states are chartered and declared by fiat. Magna Carta and state constitutions, whether in writing or merely implied, are some of the examples. States, too, have rights, rights which, how well do we know, transcend the rights of persons. (The powers of eminent domain — powers that trump personal property rights when push comes to shove, derive from, and constitute such rights.) We speak, of course, of states’ rights in the context provided by a federation of states, and such talk asserts and validates the rights of individual states as members of the federation — rights which are relative to the assumed rights and powers inherent in the coalition. But this usage is a derivative one and parasitic upon the absolute rights and powers of the state per se — rights and powers reserved by the state within the territorial domain under its control. Consequently, if there be any limitations to the absolute rights reserved for the state, they’re a direct consequence of the condition of dependency on, or subservience to, other states. “Satellite states,” which formed the communist bloc during the former Soviet Union, serve as an example. But even this condition, severe as it may be in its practical implications, doesn’t impinge on the theoretical rights and powers of such states and their assumed status of a sovereign. These considerations should leave no doubt that a political construct or not, a state constitutes and defines a political reality, a reality that is no less impinging than the reality of persons.
- What, then, is “the state” in layman’s terms? Several metaphors come to mind, each having to do with cognate uses borrowed from the physical sciences: a “steady state,” for instance, popularized by Fred Hoyle by way of a cosmological theory at odds with the Big Bang; a “state of equilibrium” or a “state of inertia,” both Newton’s contributions; a “state of atrophy” (or of entropy), and the examples abound. In the political realm, one thinks of an “order of things” — an “established order of things,” more precisely. A Wikipedia entry speaks of a “legal/political system in place.” One term suggests itself, which captures all of the above: “the Establishment.”
- It raises an intriguing possibility. Sekhar is quick to point out that the interests of the ruling class define the state’s interests. While there’s no question that there is some truth to this appraisal. I’m no longer sure it does full justice to so complex a notion. One tends to think instead of a variety of interests that perpetuate the political entity known as “the state,” the least of which is the gatekeepers’ interests to keep it afloat as an ongoing concern. Like all bureaucracies, and the state is a bureaucracy on the grandest scale, it acquires a life all its own; it is perpetuated ad infinitum by all those who have a stake in it and for no other reason than that it exists. Its interests are self-serving and inimical to the interests of We the People — the duly constituted members or constituents or subjects, whatever the case may be. For these reasons, the institution of the state is to be distinguished not only from the government but also from what’s commonly referred to as “political community.” Indeed, to conflate the two is not only an example of sloppy thinking; it’s also an effort on the part of the architects at obfuscation.
- These remarks on the nature of the State presuppose that it’s an efficient institution and that it’s a necessary one as well — necessary from the standpoint of its constituents. The thinking goes that if not the state, then what other agency could protect the citizens from physical or mental harm. To that end, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia invokes the notion of “the dominant protection agency” to justify the existence of a “minimal state, to serve as an antidote against all manner of abuses. I would include here corporate abuses as well.
- Both are reasonable assumptions on theoretical grounds if the object is to outline the contours of the State as an ideal type. Those conditions, however, rarely obtain in real life, and inefficiency rather than efficiency is the rule. Consequently, neither is Sekhar’s thesis concerning the rationality of the State — because it is presumed to represent the ruling class interests — applicable. It’s overly simplistic, too, if not downright naïve. Nor can the State — because of its irrationality! — be counted upon as an effective counterweight to all anti-societal tendencies and interests. And it signifies a failure of the political as represented here by the failure of the State — supposedly the pinnacle of human accomplishment in the realm of political thought!
In the following segment, I’ll continue with the exposition, this time from the vantage point of praxis.