Thursday, March 5, 2009

Security, legitimacy, the State

I've mentioned the issue of piracy before. Piracy is imposing a cost and a brake on international trade. Australia is a country whose economy is crucially tied to others by international trade. Piracy is flourishing because states are becoming weak. Why are states so weak?

States exist because at an earlier time they were forged from disparate social elements existing in a defined geographic area by an elite of some kind using force. This elite may have been originally a group of predators who discovered it was better to settle among the population and milk them via taxes rather than raid, rape and pillage on an occasional basis. Over time the elite becomes compromised by dilution or by some other means which weakens their grip. The bulk of the population forces political compromise on the elite such as habeus corpus or some sort of representative body which helps broker power relationships. Eventually democracy may arise.

As political power spreads and trickles down into the population, politics becomes dominated by special interests, careerists and administrators. Loyalty to the state becomes less visceral and more nuanced: loyalty to ones subgroup or to procedure or to an institution or ideal becomes more common and loyalty to the elite as a primary loyalty less so. Legalism flourishes and the state becomes less flexible as more energy becomes absorbed in administration and maintenance. Novel situations and threats can be difficult to respond to because loyalties are now diffuse, many interests need to be appeased before action may be taken and those directly threatened may be forced to work through agencies which are not threatened and which feel little sense of urgency in solving the problem.

And so we now have a situation where powerful warships hang about off the coast of Somalia but seem incapable of taking decisive action against lightly armed pirates in small open boats flitting among them, seizing passing merchant vessels. While complex administrative procedures govern relations within states and make them run generally in a predictable and functional way, relationships between states are far cruder and more tenuous: more dependent on personal relationships between individual leaders and ad hoc arrangements. The United States has successfully led a campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations, a body which could have brought order to the international situation in a way national governments have brought order internally. This is why the pirates can operate in a number of areas with impunity: internationally law and order are weak. For states like Australia which depend on international law and order for the functioning of their economy this represents a grave and growing threat.

International disorder is beginning to fray nation states at their edges. Many already have their legitimacy weakened by the forces operating internally which I've mentioned above. Over the next few years as the world economy goes through the stresses of financial meltdown, oil supply problems and the economic recessions brought on by all this we can expect many states to begin to break up and others to to act more aggressively in order to try and shore up their legitimacy. Energy shortages will reduce the power and legitimacy of all states. Less oil means less economic activity and the taxes which derive from it. Oil has powered industrial civilisation. In Australia the Federal government and hence State governments depend on large revenues from sales tax which is mainly attached to consumer goods and services. As the consumer society dies so will this revenue. Those dependent on the Federal and State governments for income or support — public servants, teachers, doctors, armed service personnel and social security recipients — will see their income decline very noticeably and as it does so will their dependence, attachment and loyalty to the State.

All this will mean increasing disorder and insecurity internationally and as prosperity declines, within states. How strong is Australia as a nation and what kind of threats can we expect? I've mentioned the economic threat which a breakdown in international trade represents: this could weaken Australia's ability to maintain a strong federal system. Individual states may well feel less attached to the others. Queensland will be bordering unstable regions to the north and will find it impossible to maintain border security. Western Australia will be so isolated that it may feel no need to remain attached to the rest of the country.

Within individual states politics will change. As the corporate entities which now dominate political life wither and die along with the industrial system which supported them, other players will emerge. Who will those players be? Will Australia devolve into a loose collection of city states dominating their surrounding countryside? How stable and prosperous will they be?

It's easy to foresee the course of the next few years or decades but further out becomes the realm of pure speculation. I'm currently writing a novel which runs with some of these ideas and I'll be posting it on this site later in the year. In the meantime have a look at this essay on piracy by William S. Lind. To quote from his conclusion…
Piracy is only the barometer; the storm will be something else. That storm is coming, and soon, as Brave New World’s promise of unending material wealth in return for acceptance of an administered life proves a lie. By the time the storm is over, the elites that fear to hang pirates will be hanging from lampposts themselves.

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