The Failed State?

24 Sep

I am reading a book by Jared Diamond called “The World Until Yesterday”. If you haven’t read it, do. It is not particularly sexy and does not even tell you what you want to hear. But it does make a lot of interesting arguments about nation states and how they operate, also non-state societies which used to be the norm apart from a couple of places well suited to growing lots of food – usually in the form of grain – where states were established thousands of years ago. I love the sense of perspective one gets, when considering human society not only now, but over thousands of years. Not a lot has changed really, we just make much more lethal weapons now, and we have machines to do many of our tasks and maximise our food production so we can keep standing armies and fight all the year round instead of staying at home, working in the fields, taking care of our grandmothers…

I saw a photo today, on Facebook of all places. It really touched me. I have travelled in many places in my life, and the one rule I have found to be absolutely universal is that people everywhere, whatever their nationality or religion or language, are basically the same. Take a look at it.

24 September, occupation, Jerusalem.

Who knows why this guy is being handcuffed. Maybe he was protesting, or just expressing himself? I am not so interested in Israel-bashing, or any other bashing. I will just say that nation states on the whole tend to be large, blunt, insensitive and somehow idiotic entities devoting themselves to simplifying the role of the individual. Frankly, when I look at England or America or even Germany, I don’t find the nation states there are doing an excellent job of understanding what is really happening. The nation state is always at odds with people, democracy is always a justification for the failures of the nation state. The argument, we are all familiar with it, is that democracy is the best form of failed system. Maybe so, but it is important to be conscious of failings and to put them in words.

To go back to the photograph, I would like to say that there is no such person as a Palestinian. There are only people who live in Palestine. Nationality has been used for too long as a way of categorising individuals. Nationality is largely a 19th century invention. In the case of Palestinians, it is even younger. Until very recently, the whole of the Arabian peninsula and most of the Horn of Africa were defined by their tribes and clans, which came a little closer to defining the outward signs of the individual. But in the end, people are just small bands of individuals trying to take care of their own families, friends and allies. To believe even for a moment that the state can fill that role is like saying that God will sort out your car insurance or help you get a better job. God is not concerned with these things. We know that – we know that all too well.

So let’s not take David Cameron too seriously, or Vlad Putin. They are just players. They are pushing an old model, and we need to move on.







4 Responses to “The Failed State?”

  1. Marcus Speh (Birkenkrahe) September 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    Jared Diamond has incurred some hefty [criticism for his description of tribal societies]…I wonder if he understands them and how dependent his argument is on understanding them. Also, he seems to be arguing (in his previous books) from a very ecology-centric perspective, discarding the influence of culture along the way…While I can follow the simpler part of your argument (“the state doesn’t understand you like an individual would – so don’t trust it as you might trust an individual”), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with 19th century concepts per se. Psychoanalysis? Assembly lines? Darwinism? Wagner operas? Karl Kraus? etc. And what’s a nation anyway — “[Les formes de la société humaine sont des plus variées…]” — I’d say there are as many ideas of nation (states) as there are ideas about what constitutes an individual. Would the people on the Arabian peninsula really like to return to the structures of the past? And given the interdependence of regions of the globe, of entire peoples, is the transfer of the concept of individual freedom (not the clearest of concepts either) to peoples practical, even doable, let alone fair in the face of global interdependence? A world without nation states is also a world without a UN, without International Laws, including those laws activated against crimes of war or against multinational corporations behaving as if there was no law. I suppose I see the state not just as an enemy but as a protector, as a cultural vessel, too. Not a failed concept for me, but certainly a concept in need of continuous improvement. Let’s not throw out the babe with the bathwater here.

    • Henning Koch September 27, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      Yes, Diamond has been criticized, but once you read his book it is quite clear that the criticism is out of context and even pig-headed. He is an academic, he is not outspoken, but certain emotional individuals have chosen to inflate parts of his book. He does not say tribal societies are innately warlike, what he does say is that certain tribal groups (he specializes in New Guinea) tend to have fraught relations with neighbouring tribes. Raids are common, the object being to snatch pigs and women, which sounds awkward I know. Tribal societies in New Guinea lose a larger percentage of their populations through violence than, say, Germany did in WW2. This is not an opinion, it’s a fact or it least it was a fact when the research was made. Things may have changed now in New Guinea, in practice many tribal groups have preferred to accept missionaries working among them, because, without a police force on standby, they have grown tired of the animosity, kidnappings, killings and raids. Christianity is a way of creating a nation state, in a sense, it is a larger belief system for scattered groups. But it is a big and complex question.
      Further, Diamond analyses legal systems and tries to look dispassionately at the advantages of legal frameworks in state and non-state societies. The latter concentrate on reconciliation and compensation after a crime has taken place. Any grudges left hanging in the air will damage normal relations in a village, where men and women who once made accusations against each other will suddenly have to hunt or fish or dance together. In state societies people face each other in a courtroom and will never have to meet again. The emphasis is on crushing one’s opponent. There are advantages and disadvantages of each system. Tribal people do not hold the key to the mystery, they are people like us, subject to the same issues, problems and dreams. But my guess, somehow, is that in many respects we have more to learn from them than they have from us.

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