The Decline of the State

In my last article we saw how the state arose during the middle of the seventeenth century in the Western Europe by conquering its rival institutions like Church, Nobility, Empires and Independent City-States. After rising to power, beginning in the nineteenth century, it consolidated its position and became a God like creature- an end in itself – by co-opting the belligerent nationalism movement. From Western Europe, it then spread to other parts of the world via imperialist policies of these Western Powers. Once set to rule without any kinds of constrains all over the world, it unleashed its wrath on humanity in the form of World War I and II  – and countless other mini wars – in the twentieth century killing millions of innocent people. Twentieth century saw the apogee of state power. In this article I will discuss Martin Van Creveld’s analysis of state’s demise beginning in 1970s, which is still on-going.

Creveld discusses five major factors as a sign of waning power of the state viz.,

  1. The decline of major wars after two World Wars,
  2. The decline of the welfare state,
  3. The improvement of technology, which is defying state powers,
  4. Takeover by other rival competing organizations of various state functions; and
  5. The loss of faith of people in the state

I will discuss these factors briefly below.

The Decline of Major Wars

Creveld attributes the waning of major wars after World War II to a single important factor: The waning of major inter-state wars, which during the closing years of the century is still under way, was brought about primarily by the introduction of nuclear weapons. He further explains why nuclear weapons have almost made it certain that never again these major state powers will go to war against each other like they did in the twentieth century:

From the beginning of the history, political organizations going to war against each other could hope to preserve themselves by defeating the enemy and gaining a victory; but now, assuming only that the vanquished side will retain a handful of weapons ready for use, the link between victory and self-preservation has been cut. On the contrary, at least the possibility has to be taken into account that the greater the triumph gained over an opponent who was in possession of nuclear weapons, the greater also the danger to the survival of the victor. A belligerent faced with the imminent prospect of losing everything – as, for example, happened first to France and Russia and then to Germany and Japan during World War II – was all the more likely to react by pressing the nuclear button, or, indeed, by falling on it as his chain of command collapsed and he lost control. (footnotes removed, pp. 337-38)

This, for example, very well explains why the Israeli and American governments are hell bent of stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. As the case of North Korea shows, once a weaker nation state acquires nuclear weapons, it is almost impossible for the super powers to attack it. Also, the cases of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi show what happens when a state dismantles its nuclear program! The stand-off between India and Pakistan or India and China also exhibits this phenomenon nicely. India and China can issue threats to each other or their soldiers can cross borders here and there, but they will never make a mistake of declaring an all-out war on each other. Nuclear weapons have changed the whole scenario of wars. It works as a deterrent and not as an offensive weapon.

Now, the great American journalist Randolph Bourne said, the war is the health of the state, and when these total wars are on decline after 1945, the state is also losing its power slowly. Martin Creveld explains this brilliantly:

As we saw, the man who really “invented” the state was Thomas Hobbes. From his time to the present, one of its most important functions – as of all previous forms of political organizations – had been to wage war against others of its kind. Had it not been for the need to wage war, then, almost certainly the centralization of power in the hands of the great monarchs would have been much harder to bring about. Had it not been for the need to wage war, then the development of bureaucracy, taxation, even welfare services such as education, health, etc. would probably have been much slower. As the record shows, in one way or another all of them were originally bound up with the desire to make people more willing to fight on behalf of their respective states…

No less important than the massive contribution that war made to the state’s structure and organization was its function as an emotionally unifying factor. Famous as they were, the writings of Rousseau, Herder, Fichte, Hegel and the like were read by only a relative handful. It was only when the French state, after the Revolution, instituted the levée en masse – in which respect it was later followed by other states – that the Great Transformation took place and nationalism, fostered by every means at the authorities’ disposal, was turned into the dominant ideology of the nineteenth century…It does, however, mean that states can develop a strong appeal to the emotions only so long as they prepare for, and wage, war. If, for any reason, they should cease to do so, then there will be no point in people remaining loyal to them any more than, for example, to General Motors or IBM, which is tantamount to saying that much of their raison d’être will have been lost. (pp. 336-37).

The Decline of the Welfare State

Once the state’s ability to wage major inter-state wars diminished due to the introduction of nuclear weapons, it turned increasingly inwards for winning public opinion for its continuing existence. The warfare state now became the welfare state.

Making use of tools such as statistics, taxes, the police, prison, compulsory education, and welfare, the state had been extending its power over civil society for centuries, imposing its own law, eradicating or at least greatly weakening lesser institutions in which people used to spend their lives, and building itself up until it towered over civil society. From about 1840 on socialist ideas, translated into practice, had worked in the same direction and helped bring about change; then the end of World War II, far from bringing about a period of relaxation, caused it to redouble its efforts.  (p. 354)

The welfare state which picked up speed all over the world after World War II is, after 1970 onward, in decline because, as Margaret Thatcher said, it ran out of other peoples’ money! Welfare state created many bureaucracies to run its welfare programs, and as it always happens, these bureaucracies were highly inefficient. It takes huge amounts of tax payers’ money to run these bureaucracies, and such boondoggle cannot go on for long for sure. Parasitism will end the day parasites become larger than their hosts, and that’s what happened with the welfare state over a period of time. Martin Creveld explains:

The other factor that drove the welfare state to the breaking point was its own success. Whatever their precise form, the various programs had been designed to assist the weak population groups such as the elderly, the sick, and, later, single mothers; however, it soon turned out that the greater the benefits offered, the larger the number of those entitled. (pp. 362-63)

As these states went bankrupt running these welfare programs, they, instead of facing the reality and cutting back on their expenditures, resorted to inflation i.e., money printing to continue running these programs. The result of these inflationary policies was, as expected, further deterioration of their economies. This process is still going on in front of our very eyes today. Most Western World states have piled up huge amounts of debt, which they are unable to repay. Government central bankers around the world are inflating their currencies like crazy to pay for these debt in debased currencies. The end result of these policies will be total ruin and the final demise of these nation states in future. Unfortunately, when these various states will collapse, those people who depend on them for their livelihood will be in a big trouble. The writing is on the wall for these people. They must try and find alternative means of generating their livelihood or their future will be bleak. On the other side, as Creveld also discusses, once these states will fall, many new opportunities will open up for honest, productive and responsible individuals. Those who know how to earn their bread in the private market will benefit from this collapse.

New Technologies are Defying the State

Historically, states have used technology to control its population. Here is Creveld again:

…the rise of the state is inseparable from that of modern technology. Print, roads, railroads, telecommunications, and typewriters – to say nothing of weapons and weapons systems – were among the most important means that enabled the state to impose its power over every square mile of territory and every individual in the population. Separately and in combination, they made possible the establishment and operations of the armed forces, the collection of revenue, in amounts, at speeds, and over distances that had previously been undreamed of. As it happened, the first use to which the early mechanical computers were put in the 1890s was to tabulate and collate the results of the US census. To look at it in another way, it is no accident that modern technology originated in Western Europe and that it has reached its highest development primarily in those parts of the world where states are strong and stable. (pp. 377-78)

The problem for the state began because many of these technologies – e.g., telegraph, telephone, railway trains, aviation, internet etc. – transcended state borders because of their very nature . These technologies, for its efficient use, required vast networks which goes beyond state borders. These technologies also required central coordination which again defied the powers of individual nation states e.g, the Indian government alone can’t decide internet protocols; it has to abide by the international norms! Various states faced a problem of abiding by these international procedures, which are designed by international organizations, or face isolation and decay like North Korea. Today we are seeing how the spread of internet is giving headaches to various nation states. Most governments are desperately trying to control the internet; they are looking for the “internet kill switch”. These technologies have helped people around the world to get connected and get information and analysis without any kind of state censor. This has exposed the criminal nature of the state.

The Failure of the Police State

In its efforts of providing all kinds of welfare services to its citizens, the state forgot to fulfill its basic function of providing protection to the life, liberty and property of its citizens. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was born to provide internal order by giving protection to its citizens from internal and external threats. But the state is failing miserably in fulfilling its police state function as we are witnessing everyday in present time. Instead of providing protection, it is one of the greatest aggressor against the life, liberty and property of individual citizens. State police is harassing people like never before. State armies world over are defeated by rag-tag guerrilla fighters.

From Afghanistan (where Soviet army was broken after eight years of fighting) through Cambodia (where the Vietnamese were forced to retreat) and Sri Lanka (which the Indian army failed to reduce to order) to Namibia (granted its independence by South Africa after a long and bitter struggle) to Eritrea (which won its independence against everything that the Ethiopians, supported by the USSR, could do) to Somalia (evacuated by most UN forces after their failure to deal with the local warlords), the story is always the same. Each time modern (more or less), heavily armed, regular, state-owned forces tried their hand at the so-called counterinsurgency game, and each time they were defeated. (p. 398)

We are seeing in India the internal chaos in the form of terrorist attacks (which state police and other intelligence agencies regularly fail to stop), many armed secessionist movement in Kashmir, Assam (ULFA), Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Chhattishgarh, Orissa (Maoist Naxal movement) etc. Indian state’s inability to control and stop these movements shows that the forceful unification of India’s diverse population after independence won’t remain in place for long. The Indian state will collapse in future, and for good.

And as the state is failing in providing internal security and order, many private corporations are taking over this job of producing protection.

Individuals, neighborhoods, and corporations have tried to protect themselves against terrorism and crime by hiring private guards, erecting security fences, installing alarm systems and close-circuit televisions, demanding proofs of identity when entering buildings and installations (whether legally or not, the responsible personnel often insist on retaining the documents in question until the visitor leaves), requiring badges to be worn, and much more.

While not all countries are affected to the same extent, so far those measures seem to have done little to eliminate the problem. What they have done is to turn private security into a growth industry par excellence worldwide…

Against the background of evidence that public faith in the police is declining, the task of fighting criminals may revert back to the “thief catchers” in whose hands, in most countries, it had been until the time the French Revolution and beyond. (footnotes removed, pp. 403-05)

The Loss of Faith of People in the State

Day by day we are witnessing that people over the world are losing their faith in the state officials like politicians and bureaucrats. In India the spate of corruption scandals has resulted into loss of faith of people in “democracy” [sic]. Many are looking for alternatives in the form of some strong authoritarian leader or even a military rule! Here is Martin Creveld explaining this phenomenon:

In fact, the opposite is the case. In study after study produced from the 1960s on, state bureaucracies have been presented as an endlessly demanding (the bureaucratic solution to any problem is more bureaucracy), self-serving, prone to lie in order to cover the blunders that they commit, arbitrary, capricious, impersonal, petty, inefficient, resistant to change, and heartless…”Red tape” has come to stand for anything that is evil, and one of the worst names that any person can be called is “bureaucrat”. (footnotes removed, p. 408)


All these factors point in one and one direction only: the state is losing its power and control over the lives of people slowly. Martin van Creveld provides the final verdict on the fate of the once omnipotent state:

Whatever the precise processes, almost everywhere they have been accompanied by a declining willingness of states to take responsibility for their economies; provide social benefits; educate the young; and even perform the elementary function of protecting their citizens against terrorism and crime, a task which at best is being shared with other organizations and at worst simply let go. At the close of the second millennium, and in a growing number of places from Western and Eastern Europe all the way to the developing world, the state is not so much served and admired as endured and tolerated. The days when, as used to be the case during the era of total war in particular, it could set itself up as a god on earth are clearly over. (footnotes removed, p. 414)

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1 thoughts on “The Decline of the State

  1. PI says:

    One should question in good faith the basic intentions of Modi.

    What was the need for Swatch Bharat mission? Did he not know that economic prosperity brings cleanliness with relentless advertising by toilet cleaner, floor cleaner companies.

    Indian muncipality failure was just part of failed Indian bankrupt state. Born 1947 Died 1991.

    Was he representing the people or the Indian state – by trying back to get it back alive after its death? One can see he is a very sentimental person.

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