Are we really in a terrible state?


Earlier this week I suggested that progressives (yes, I do know this is a vague and flabby term, but it will have to do for now) should resist the temptation to abandon aspirations for good central government in favour of what I called lazy localism. By coincidence two stories from different sides of the world underline this point.

The first is the depressing news that, even after the event had been postponed in an attempt to drum up more interest, only four out of 54 of the continent’s heads of state turned up at yesterday’s African Union donor conference to discuss famine relief in the Horn of Africa. The background to this failure is described in a piece by Michael Holman in this month’s Prospect. Holman argues that the scale and ubiquity of aid agencies in Africa has allowed state and citizens to wash their hands of responsibility for tackling today’s crises or avoiding tomorrow’s:

‘a vicious cycle has been created. As the state surrenders many of its core responsibilities to aid agencies, its capacity to manage deteriorates. In the process, it loses some of the country’s brightest and best to the NGOs and UN agencies, who offer salaries that local employers cannot match’

The other story is the emergence of Rick Perry to become the favorite for the Republican Presidential nomination. Being right wing and outspoken, Perry is very quotable (both by his supporters and his opponents). One of his most famous offerings is his promise to make federal government as "inconsequential in your life as I can".

So, while for NGOs in Africa, there is simply no time to wait for responsible and effective states to emerge, in America the leading right of centre politician promises the state can wither away to irrelevance.

This way of thinking is encouraged by a kind of hostile reification in which the state is seen to be something entirely separate to that which it actually comprises. In democracies the state is, in essence, the agency which carries out the popular will. Of course, there are all sorts of critiques of this assertion. From the left, the state will be seen as inevitably ending up serving the interests of global capital and social elites, from the right the state is seen as falling into the hands of producer and other interests, all of whom want the state to grow at the expense of individual freedom. The problem is that these accounts of the vulnerabilities of the state have – with the able assistance of the mass media - come to define its very nature.

But if the weakness of states in Africa was expressed as the failure of populations to agree and implement collective actions it would be apparent that no sustainable progress is possible without state building. If in America the state was seen as the vehicle by which the nation (through its beloved constitution) agreed to act together, then Perry’s idea that a good country is one in which the population abandons any attempt at nationwide collective action would be seen as the nihilistic ideology that it is – an attack not on Washington but on nationhood itself.

Indifference, resignation or hostility to effective national government is foolish and dangerous. As I said the other day, we need to disentangle the various critiques of administrative centralism, the inadequacy of representative democracy, the limited autonomy of nation states, the weakness of political parties, the character flaws of politicians, in order to start to mount a defence of what good (which doesn’t mean big) national governance could be.

There have been lots of interesting projects looking at aspects of the problem of the centre. The Power Inquiry explored the need to renew democracy. Ippr, Reform and other think tanks have suggested ways of modernising Whitehall, but in the face of an overall decline in faith in the democratic state as such, it is time for a more holistic exploration of the foundations of modern governance.

‘Principles and practices for 21st century national governance’ - sounds like a good research project. Anyone fancy funding it?

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