Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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State of the State

The New York Times certainly didn't do Toni Negri and Michael Hardt's new book Multitude a favor by having Francis Fukuyama review it yesterday. How fair and balanced is that?

Still, I have to admit that I actually agreed with that smartest of neo-neocons on his concluding point:
They argue that instead of ''repeating old rituals and tired solutions'' we need to begin ''a new investigation in order to formulate a new science of society and politics.'' The woolliness of the subsequent analysis is hard to overstate. According to them, the fundamental obstacle to true democracy is not just the monopoly of legitimate force held by nation-states, but the dominance implied in virtually all hierarchies, which give certain individuals authority over others. The authors dress up Marx's old utopia of the withering away of the state in the contemporary language of chaos theory and biological systems, suggesting that hierarchies should be replaced with networks that reflect the diversity and commonality of the ''multitude.''

The difficulty with this line of reasoning is that there is a whole class of issues networks can't resolve. This is why hierarchies, from nation-states to corporations to university departments, persist, and why so many left-wing movements claiming to speak on behalf of the people have ended up monopolizing power. Indeed, the powerlessness and poverty in today's world are due not to the excessive power of nation-states, but to their weakness. The solution is not to undermine sovereignty but to build stronger states in the developing world.

To illustrate, take the very different growth trajectories of East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa over the past generation. Two of the fastest growing economies in the world today happen to be in the two most populous countries, China and India; sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, has tragically seen declining per capita incomes over the same period. At least part of this difference is the result of globalization: China and India have integrated themselves into the global economy, while sub-Saharan Africa is the one part of the world barely touched by globalization or multinational corporations.

But this raises the question of why India and China have been able to take advantage of globalization, while Africa has not. The answer has largely to do with the fact that the former have strong, well-developed state institutions providing basic stability and public goods. They had only to get out of the way of private markets to trigger growth. By contrast, modern states were virtually unknown in most of sub-Saharan Africa before European colonialism, and the weakness of states in the region has been the source of its woes ever since.

Any project, then, to fix the ills of ''empire'' has to begin with the strengthening, not the dismantling, of institutions at the nation-state level. This will not solve the problems of global governance, but surely any real advance here will come only through slow, patient innovation and the reform of international institutions. Hardt and Negri should remember the old insight of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, taken up later by the German Greens: progress is to be achieved not with utopian dreaming, but with a ''long march through institutions.''
Although I was delighted to see Hardt and Negri's previous collaboration Empire become a near-bestseller in the wake of the massive anti-globalization protests inaugurated by the "Battle of Seattle" in 1999, I have to admit that I found large portions of that book to be as "woolly" as one of those baroque sweaters made on an island in the Irish Sea. While I will surely end up reading Multitude as well, I suspect that, though I may be periodically carried away by bouts of leftist rapture, I will reach a conclusion similar to Fukuyama's, if one more charitably framed.

Yes, I fervently believe that, "there is a whole class of issues networks can't resolve."

But recognizing that we aren't ready to do away with the nation state doesn't mean we have to accede to the neo-conservative fantasy of a state without welfare. Here's what the Left Business Observer's Doug Henwood -- one of my heroes, who was being a good skeptic back in the initial bloom -- said when I asked him about the state of the post-9/11 state for Joel Schalit's Anti-Capitalism Reader:
We're back to the model of primitive accumulation, in which the state does nothing but criminalize poverty and vagrancy, and privative property. Over the last twenty years, all of the more benign roles of the state have been cut back, but its more punitive roles have been increased. And that sucks! As a leftist, I'm looking for anything that's going to reduce the power of competition on people's lives. Welfare states do that. They take the sting out of unemployment and reduce the power of the boss. By contrast, punitive states increase the power of the boss. You're more likely to go to jail, more likely to be surveyed. So I'm all for jacking up the better functions of the state. And if you're talking about the poorer places of the world, they clearly need a state that's going to foster some planning and development scheme. A poor country can't get any less poor without an honest and competent government doing serious work for it.
I can't think of a better statement to kick off the Democratic Convention.

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