On the Weakness of States

Did you ever see the original hulk TV show? They basically dusted Lou Ferrigno with green powder and asked him to growl. He was still more convincing that Edward Norton.

Weak or Strong?

It was not the case that old states were uniformly ‘weak,’ more that they husbanded their moral and physical authority for specific tasks… Where complex bundles of royal privileges and powers had come into existence, there was often a tendency for them to be broken up, becoming part of the patrimony of some other prince or noble. Kings and emperors often found it lucrative and convenient to ‘farm out’ their rights to the highest bidder…

In China… initially the emperors had been content to cede their power in one area in order to strengthen it elsewhere. In the longer run, however, the decay of these imperial functions gravely compromised the regime’s legitimacy. Recent work on the West African Asante [one of the great pre-colonial African kingdoms] has also shown that this aspiring centralized power was severely limited by local feudatories and lineage groups….

So Government in all of these great states was often something of a trick of the light. State power was powerful and purposive in defined areas, though constant vigilance was needed to stop it seeping away to magnates and local communities. Elsewhere it was patchy and contingent. Over large areas it was deliberately not exercised at all…In the monsoon areas of Asia where great kings vaunted their magnificence, warfare and tax gathering regularly came to a halt when the roads annually became impassable. The state could only deploy a small number of officials or exercise royal justice in particular cases. Everywhere, therefore, the panoply of state and imperial power rested in the longer term on the co-option and honouring of local elites or self-governing local communities.

Every time I open The Birth of the Modern World, I read a passage in which Chris Bayly exposes the complexity of historical reality and dangers of simplification. In this example, he looks at the period leading up to around 1800, in which states were beginning to take modern form. In examining the phenomenon of weak or strong states, Bayly emphasises that states are not static over space, time or function. As such, naming a state ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ may simply cloud the real story, that states choose to exercise power in some areas and not others, not always in the best long-term interest of the state itself and often simply in response to basic opportunity or aims that owe more to symbolic rather than rational ends. The Great Russian Empire existed primarily on paper, for example, with large swathes of land ungoverned – almost a textbook example of a ‘weak’ state. Yet when the state was called upon to exert its authority, it always found the means to, at least until 1917.

We talk a lot about weak states now, and even of ‘failed’ states. These are not new ideas nor new phenomena. When we think about modern failed states, we need to bear in mind that for most there are functions in which they are strong and there are areas in which they govern effectively; it’s from these that strategy on how to incorporate the rest of the nominally governed area must be generated. This may involve subjugation or devolution or both – states are about the exercise of moral and physical authority, which is not always pleasant to witness or be subject to. The process by which a patchily strong state becomes a uniformly strong state is rarely without severe conflict.

In the extreme cases, where ‘states’ govern a few square miles and little else, we are in uncharted territory. Historically, these have never succeeded, and gave way to successor states or anarchy. Our attempts to forestall this may be futile or we may find a way to build a new moral and physical authority to reinforce the state. Given that outside interference almost always involves an abdication of moral authority in the eyes of an insular or jingoistic public, it’s may be that only force can support these.

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