Falling Walls, Burning Buildings, Gutting Budgets

I’m in a very James-Scottian mood, torn between excitement and despair, watching the events in Egypt.

I fully appreciate the importance of thinking locally about these events and resisting easy attempts to swallow them up in glib narratives.

However, I also feel as if I’m glimpsing another manifestation of something as big as 1848 was across Western and Central Europe. Which, of course, was not something limited to that year alone, but was instead a political, economic and social moment of crisis and transition that stretched from the French Revolution to the late 19th Century.

This is not a novel thought, but I really feel that what is happening in Egypt is part of a comprehensive crisis of the modern nation-state as an institutional form, a crisis whose strongest initial eruption was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, then hitting a series of regimes around the world at a steady rate since then until now.

This is not a particular crisis of authoritarian, socialist or even pronouncedly statist regimes, however: I think it has had manifestations in various liberal democracies as well.

The modern nation-state can no longer provide services it once seemingly easily provided. It no longer protects from the vicissitudes of a globalized economy or restrains the excesses of financial capitalism, in most cases doesn’t even pretend to do so. The state, wherever it is, has no trusted vision of progress, no dream of modernism, no hope of helping its citizens secure a future of satisfaction and comfort. (Indeed, in the US, we now hear ghastly visions of ‘winning the future’, consigning citizens to a perpetual vision of ever more stringently extorted productivity, never-ending competitive one-upmanship.)

Everywhere the words of bureaucrats, ministers and presidents are sick, cynical, passionless and self-interested jokes designed largely to secure the authority of political classes through the tired rehearsal of well-worn gestures, and everywhere populations know those performances as perverse and unamusing pantomimes. Everywhere the nation-state tends towards bloat, corruption, inflexibility, paralysis.

Yes, I’m generalizing wildly, and at another moment, I would doubtless write a dismissive critique of my own words. Some states are trusted more, some states retain some sense of vision, some still deliver many of the services or fulfill the roles that they historically have filled. In some cases, the population is so intertwined with the state that popular disgust towards the state is nearly equivalent to self-loathing; corruption flows through the whole of societies, not just within the government, very much including the United States. (Note that as I write, the government of Kuwait has apparently just announced a new large monthly payment to all of its citizens for the next 14 months.) A few states are working hard to become more transparent, less corrupt, more flexible. But not many in any meaningful sort of way, and where they are, two steps forward often turns to three steps back.

Yes, rejection of the nation-state is taking on radically different local forms, evolving under highly particular circumstances. Not all revolts or reactions have been the same or even similar, even when the common structural problem is the senescence of the nation-state as we have known it. The Tea Party is one such rejection of the nation-state, but so very different than what is happening in Egypt, and not merely because of the obvious divergences of place, cultural practice, social forms and governmental regimes.

It is the radical divergence between all places around the world that is so important: nowhere does anyone have a comprehensive, potentially sharable, plausibly global vision of the political order, what we should be governed by (or how we ourselves ought to govern), of how to secure the parts of modernity that so many people in so many parts of the world have found desirable. Here people try to erect a clean technocracy, there they try a reformed liberal state, here they seek a competent or managerial authoritarian, there they try a furious sectarian nationalism, here a religious purification. Some just reject a single regime head, others the state, and still others to light the entirety of the social fabric on fire.

But amid all this, the most ridiculous and obscure vision of all now appears to be an earlier claim that we had arrived at the end of history. (I know, many of you thought it silly when it was first said.) Progress and teleology has broken decisively on the anvil of the state’s enfeeblement. Small wonder that Hardt and Negri in Empire resort to unsatisfying, vaporous invocations of the Multitude while insisting that they can say nothing of what will come of their eventual revolt. Because indeed nothing can be said.

In the past decade, both global and local political classes have offered nothing but enfeebled incremental, technocratic and self-absorbed fumblings to a succession of shared economic and social crises, hemmed in on all sides by both self-inflicted and exterior constraints. Not even evident self-interest can push some national elites towards reform: now in Egypt, yesterday in Zimbabwe, tomorrow who knows? rulers, ministers, bureaucrats continue commit elaborate forms of social suicide, driving not only their people but their own fortunes towards the abyss, sometimes in the most transparently avoidable ways.

I’d welcome the uprisings and rejections save for the dreadful likelihood that in most cases nothing better lies behind them. No one knows the way out of this cul-de-sac, nobody has a better idea. In many cases, those most disaffected by or angry about the deteroriation of the nation-state’s capacity and vision have still more horrible or destructive ambitions in mind, where the best thing we could hope for would be a bewildered, enfeebled liberal democracy weakly steered by weary technocrats lacking in all conviction.

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3 Responses to Falling Walls, Burning Buildings, Gutting Budgets

  1. Deadwood says:

    Now that Mubarak shut off the internet, I think the populace realizes they have to band together. Unfortunately, I agree with your assessment that the replacement will be just as bad. I am hoping those that wish for a theocratic state don’t seize control. I think at least that the firmer the state squeezes at this point, the more quickly they will be losing control.

  2. Jed Harris says:

    Two thoughts:

    First, in some sense your point is that we have arrived at the end of history — that is, the history we can imagine or tell in the languages we know. Certainly there will be history after this but if your line of thought is even close to right, it will shift toward some unfamiliar form.

    This pattern is pretty typical of radical paradigm changes, where those used to the old paradigm are tempted to say “That isn’t even real [science, or music, or whatever]” even when they are self-aware enough to know better.

    Second, perhaps we should be more optimistic about having a “bewildered, enfeebled liberal democracy weakly steered by weary technocrats lacking in all conviction”. Shift the connotations and maybe this could become “a humble, tentative liberal democracy cautiously steered by reticent technocrats lacking in all hubris.” I for one could be fairly happy with that.

    None of this addresses the essential question of what to do about rampant corpocracy, security apparatus, etc., but it suggests that we should look for countervailing forces other than an empowered nation state. It is tempting to wish for a nation state full of energy and conviction that will use its power only for good, but we already know how that story goes.

  3. Jed Harris says:

    Afterthought: Of course a big problem for us today is that the solutions that would be supported by reticent technocrats (e.g. the congressional budget office) are being kicked off the table by demagogues.

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