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,” one is inclined to say, but hey, why should that stop us while there’s dough to be made? – Sekhar raises an interesting distinction. He speaks of “rogue states.” On the one hand, our own being cited as a prime example, and forms of government on the other (again, ours being billed as 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 scholastic 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 vein perhaps, but try I must, I’d like 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 truly 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 is misleading too because concepts, as C.S. Lewis (Studies in Words) has ably argued, change over time, acquiring different meanings and connotations. Definitions and etymology, contrary to what our esteemed grammar editor might say, are of limited usefulness, 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 do 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 period, by the way, coincides with the Monica Lewinsky incident). So there’s definitely meat to the distinction; what remains is to work it out.
In the interest of brevity while far from pretending of doing justice to so complex a subject, I shall limit this presentation to a number of loosely connected remarks.
(1) The notorious quote attributed to Louis XIV, L’État, 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 virtue of special interests – a point well taken and repeatedly hammered down by Sekhar – and there surely are no special interests more epitomized than those which are personified by the interests of the King; the second, that even without special interests at play, the state is likely to exist in perpetuity, if only by inertia.
(2) Contrary to what may or may not be a popular belief, the notion of the state is, relatively speaking, a modern conception. Some analysts trace its origins to the Roman Republic, citing Cicero. My hunch is, the institution of the state 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 may be, the concept is firmly engrained in modern-day thinking, whether tacitly or less so, reflecting the secular tenor of the times.
There are obvious anomalies. We speak of Greek city-states, for instance; and likewise, of the Italian ones, most notably, Florence and Venice; and then, of nation-states if only by way of contrast. But this is a throwback, I say, a projection of modern-day thinking into the past. In order to make our past more understandable, we imbue it with a modern conception.
(3) 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 do speak of a totalitarian or a fascist state, or of a socialist one, 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.
(4) The state, otherwise known as polity, is a political construct; it’s no less real, however, for being a construct. Perhaps the concept of corporation provides the most useful analogy. Just like corporations, states, too, are chartered or, shall we say, declared by fiat: Magna Carta and state constitutions, whether in writing or merely implied, are some of the examples. Just like corporations, states have rights, rights which, how well do we know, transcend the rights of persons. (The powers of eminent domain, which 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 of said federation. 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.
(5) What, then, is “the state” in layman’s terms? A number of 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.”
(6) Which raises an interesting possibility. Sekhar is quick to point out that the interests of the state are defined by the interests of the ruling class. While there is no question there is some truth to this hard ‘n fast appraisal, I’m no longer certain it does full justice to so complex a notion. One tends to think instead of a variety of interests which perpetuate the political entity known as “the state,” the least of which being the interests of the gatekeepers 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 that it exists. Its interests are therefore self-serving and inimical to the interests of We the People, the duly constituted members or constituents or subjects, whatever the case may be.
It’s for these reasons mainly that the institution of the state is to be distinguished not only from the government but also from what is 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.
(7) These remarks on the nature of the State presuppose that it’s an efficient institution. It’s been further assumed 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, one may ask, could possibly protect the citizens from physical or mental harm. To that end, Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State, and Utopia) invokes the notion of “the dominant protection agency” to justify the existence of a “minimal state, to serve thus as an antidote against all manner of abuses. I would include here corporate abuses as well.
(8) Both are reasonable assumptions for theoretical purposes, 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 if not downright naïve. Nor is it the case that the State, again, because of its resulting irrationality, can be counted upon as an effective counterweight to any and all anti-societal tendencies and interests.
For all intents and purposes therefore, this 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 however from the vantage point of praxis.