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Going to Pieces Slowly...
And then what?
A reminder that Spanish versions of my essays are now available here, and some Italian versions of my essays are available here. Marco Zeloni is now also posting some Italian translations, and a French translation of one of my recent essays will appear next week. Italia e il Mondo recently published an interview with me, in English and Italian. Many thanks to all the translators. Now on to the main feature.
I’ve written several times recently about the likelihood and consequences of state and societal collapse, and this has generated a number of comments in return about how long governments can survive, and even whether other forces, such as multinational companies, could somehow replace them. So I thought it might be worth setting out some ideas on all this in a bit more detail.
I’ll begin with a quotation from Max Weber that I’ve used before but which, like a lot of things he said, bears repeating. It comes from his 1919 lecture on Politics as a Vocation, in which he defines a state as a
“human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”
Now, most people will be at least vaguely, familiar with this quotation, but it repays a little careful study. Notice, for example, that the claim has to be on behalf of a “community” (Gemeinschaft), not just a small, random group. That group has to be identified with a given territory, as opposed to just a roving band of marauders, and its use of physical force has to be accepted as being “legitimate” —a point I’ll come back to. Notice also that by “physical force” (Gewalt) Weber includes not just overt violence, but all forms of power and coercion. He makes it clear that this monopoly is not the only qualification for being a state (though it is a necessary one) and he goes on to argue that this monopoly is not only over the use of force itself, but over the ability to say, through laws and procedures, what use of force is legitimate, and what is not.
So any entity that genuinely wanted to substitute itself for an existing state, even in part, would have to try to meet these criteria. The most important one is not only to claim the monopoly of legitimate force in a given territory, but to do so successfully: ie to have its claim generally accepted. But how does that happen? And what is legitimacy anyway? Well, here the dictionary doesn’t help us very much, because it turns out that “legitimacy”, like “legal,” comes ultimately from the Latin word lex meaning “law.” So something is legitimate if it’s legal, which comes quite close to being a circular argument, and also prompts the thought that a lot depends on who makes the law. In any event, it doesn’t really help us to understand why ordinary people should consider something legitimate (ie worthy of respect and obedience) just because there’s a law about it. Even if we accept that the original Roman concepts of law placed a lot of emphasis on tradition and custom, the argument then just becomes that the use of force is considered legitimate so long as it’s used according to tradition and custom. Which may be fine as far as it goes, but by definition cannot cope with situations of crisis or discontinuity, or the appearance of new actors.
So the first question is how we define “legitimacy” in anything other than a tautological sense. Well, Weber had a go at this as well, and he distinguished three types of authority, which we will use here as a surrogate for legitimacy. The first was traditional. People obey, and consider commands legitimate, because they are used to doing so, because their society has always done so, or because they are issued either in the name of a figure such as a monarch, with traditional legitimacy, or by a figure who is conventionally regarded as able to give legitimate orders. Much of society functions like this. A football referee, a traffic policeman, or a security guard have different types and degrees of legitimacy, and some have the ability to coerce obedience: a referee can oblige a player to leave the pitch, for example.
The second type was charismatic. This kind of legitimacy and authority is always tied to an individual, and one moreover who is “set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Now notice the careful use of the word “treated”: it is how such people are perceived that gives them their authority and legitimacy, not what they necessarily inherently are. Such individuals are rare, but they do include the inspiring leader, who may not be the most senior or prestigious person, but who is conceived by others as having the legitimating qualities of decisiveness and firmness of purpose. Of course, being charismatic and being right can be two different things, as history sufficiently demonstrates.
The third type was rational/legal and here, the key difference is that the legitimacy is not related to individuals, to their personal qualities or even to their particular independent judgement. Legitimacy comes from exercising a function for which you are qualified and remunerated, as part of a structure which in turn is established according to recognised laws and procedures, and has been given a series of missions which it is to fulfil. So the policeman who asks you to move your car away from the scene of an accident to allow an ambulance to park, does this by virtue of authority invested in and delegated to, any police officer who happens to be passing, not for any special virtues of judgement that he (or she) may possess. By extension, rational/legal authority only applies in situations where the actor concerned has a right to do or demand things: no policeman can tell you to break the law, for example.
The contrast between these types of authority is the stronger in the original because Weber was writing in the context of the so-called Rechtstaat, best translated as “law-based state,” and effectively cognate with the French État de droit. In this situation, no state actor can do anything at all unless they can point to a law or decree which specifically gives them the right to do it, and differences in functions between different parts of the state have the force of law. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of the Rule of Law, although sometimes compared to these two, is conceptually quite different. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that in all societies one type of authority, and thus one type of legitimacy, comes from correctly carrying out recognised and accepted procedures.
Yet missing from all of this, in spite of the use of the word “force” (sometimes “violence” is the preferred translation) is the sense of actual physical compulsion of people who don’t want to obey or actively resist. Now in reality, not even the most repressive state actually spends all its time going around seeking out and physically destroying opposition. In most cases, even states that are regarded as repressive leave citizens alone as long as they don’t challenge their authority openly. Often they have little choice anyway : the feared Gestapo of the Third Reich, for example, never had more than about 30,000 personnel even at its height. It depended for its effectiveness (or at least its activities) largely on anonymous denunciations and part-time auxiliaries.
Legitimacy, then, is a complex phenomenon which is not limited to formal legal status on the one hand, nor to brute repression on the other. It is partly a question of habit, partly a question of social pressure, partly a question of intimidation, but partly also a question of cooperation for group survival. Nazi Party officials seem to have taken charge of air raid precautions in Germany during the allied bombing, but it is unlikely that the population obeyed their orders just out of fear of reprisals. By and large, then, modern legitimacy is a kind of pragmatic bargain between the people and groups claiming legitimacy, and to a degree it has always been so. Even in the days when legitimacy came from a god (or even God) the bargain was not just one-sided. The traditional model of rulership, from the Confucian classics to the plays of Shakespeare, placed obligations on the ruler to rule correctly or face popular revolt, and replacement by a more legitimate figure. Think of the bloody ends of Macbeth and Richard III.
I have argued several times that the most fundamental question in politics is: who will protect me? And the ability to protect its citizens is fundamental to the legitimacy of any state or of any structure that claims state-like prerogatives. This has important consequences for the world that we are probably moving into. The state in many western societies now finds it increasingly difficult to provide the level of public protection that was considered normal fifty years ago. By that, I don’t mean that the state fifty years ago was in-your-face everywhere with armed force, and it isn’t now. Effectively, the reverse is the case: the brutalisation of society under unconstrained liberalism and unchecked globalisation has produced crime problems which even the massively greater coercive power of modern states is incapable of controlling, and even where governments are willing to try.
For decades now, areas of poverty and high immigration in many western cities have been left to rot. Attempts to enforce the law in such communities are not regarded as worth the trouble likely to result, and the longer the problem is left, the worse it gets. Such enforcement as is available, is in the hands of criminal gangs, usually involved in the drugs trade. The result of this is that everyone who can possibly leave such areas does so, and their place is taken by more and more desperate waves of new immigrants, ready to be exploited in their turn. For the gangs, the state in all its manifestations is simply an enemy. For the rest of the population, the state is a traitor that no longer protects and looks after them.
However, the belief of western elites that such problems can be neatly contained in fenced-off areas no longer sees to be as true as it once was. Already, some city centres are becoming dangerous at night. Arrive in a major city in Europe these days, and the hotel will advise you where not to go, where not to stay too late, and where to take a taxi back from the restaurant: things that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. And restaurants and bars are closing because of the fear of violence, and because staff don’t feel secure travelling home late at night. Inevitably, this affects the perceived legitimacy of the state, which has been shown to be incapable of carrying out its duty of protection. One consequence is that political parties that promise to do something to regain state legitimacy (generally coded as “extreme right”) increase their popularity. Another is that people just give up on the state. They stop voting, if they have money they take their children out of state schools, they move to safer areas if they can, and if they can’t they are forced to make their peace with those who effectively do control their communities, and who can offer them some rudimentary protection.
One of my consistent themes has been that this kind of thing cannot go on forever. Given the many developing crises that are jostling for priority now, social breakdown, either self-generated, or more likely a consequence of multiple economic or environmental and health crises, may well not be far away. In fact social breakdown is perhaps already here, even if, as William Gibson might say, it’s not evenly distributed. But, insofar as we relate this to the state, and to the state’s responsibility for preserving society, then it’s important to stress once more that the relationship between the state and society is not, and can never really be, one of simple repression. It’s not as if most societies were eternally poised on the edge of revolt most of the time, waiting for a moment’s inattention by the authorities; or as if criminals were hiding behind every tree waiting to leap out as soon as the policeman’s back is turned. As I’ve argued, people accept the legitimacy and authority of the state as much out of habit and collective self-protection as anything else. So the kind of decay in state legitimacy that we are now starting to see is less likely to lead to violent conflict, than to a kind of sour apathy and disengagement, and a search for some way of making up for what the state can’t do. There are parts of the world where you can see this in action. There are African countries where nobody bothers calling the police after a crime, because they’ll simply ask you for a bribe, and have no capability to solve the crime anyway. In other societies (Lebanon is a good example) if you have a problem with the state, you don’t do the local office, police or otherwise, you go the representative of your clan, who will speak to the highest-ranking person he can find in the government who might have an influence. That’s how things get done.
Now, there are two qualifications to enter here. The first is that there are groups, criminal, political or both, who do wait for the state to show itself weak, and who do expand into the space the state has left. I’ve already referred to the case of some European cities, where certain areas are now outside the control, of the state. That said, the groups involved are relatively small, and would be no match for serious professional use of force. But that use is not likely now, and will probably become less likely, simply because it would be impossible to take down drug gangs and Islamist groups without a level of collateral damage, injury and even death which would be unacceptable politically. So these groups are essentially left alone, since after all, they prey overwhelmingly on their own people. If they were to spread their violence into wealthy areas (and there are signs this might be starting to happen), then this rhetoric would go into reverse immediately, but by that stage it would probably be too late. Re-taking control of even one major suburb would require not merely hundreds of armed police, but thousands more equipped and trained for riot control.
That reminds us of one of the key problems: the fact that legitimacy is largely a matter of habit means that every country retains internal security forces primarily to counter exceptional situations, when this legitimacy is actively contested. In the vast majority of cases, in the vast majority of western countries, the police stand by and watch peaceful demonstrations, co-operating with the marshals, and only getting involved if there are genuine emergencies or criminal acts. No western country has remotely the internal security forces required to defeat a serious massed challenge to the legitimacy of the state, because so much depends on unspoken social contracts between the governors and the governed.
But supposing that starts to break down? Well, the first problem is numbers, and what the military call the force-to-space ratio. The authorities need massively more personnel to contain an incident than the ill-inclined need to provoke it. It would only take a few hundred protesters, appearing and disappearing in small groups, lighting fires, smashing windows, setting fire to cars, breaking into shops and attacking passers-by before the forces of order in a city like Paris would be overwhelmed. (And Paris is by no means the largest city in Europe.) All that could be done in such a situation would be to cordon off certain areas of the city, notably where the government lived, and try to defend them, while closing down public buildings and shopping centres. The rest would have to be left to burn. This is essentially what happened during the worst of the Gilets jaunes demonstrations in 2018/19, where there were so many demonstrations in so many towns and cities, and it was impossible to know which ones would turn violent, that the Police were ordered, in the end, to stand by and watch things burn, unless lives were in danger.
Moreover, the logic of public order control is safe dispersal. For all the dramatic iPhone videos shown on the Internet, any properly-trained public order force is mainly intended to disperse the demonstrators and persuade them to go home. In the first instance, this is by physically preventing them from reaching their objective: a government building, for example. If this is impossible, then the next option is so-called “tear gas” that irritates the eyes and causes the protesters to disperse: it’s not pleasant, but is probably the least offensive way of achieving the objective. But again, there’s a large element of unspoken contract involved here: firing the gas is a signal to disperse, and most demonstrators accept the signal and move off. A really large crowd of really motivated demonstrators, with face masks and eye protection, would be something else entirely, and might well succeed in breaking through any protective cordon.
The real problem arises when groups turn up, often armed, intending deliberate confrontation and violence. This has increasingly been a feature of public order problems in recent years, and governments aren’t really sure what to do about it. On the one hand the assailants (it’s hardly fair to call them demonstrators) can attack the forces of order directly and are capable of injuring and even killing them. On the other hand, it’s impossible for the forces of order to respond without the risk of hurting innocent people, or at least people who can later represent themselves as innocent. For fifty years now, the search has been on for a benevolent means of controlling riots and disabling rioters without hurting any-one. It doesn’t seem to be exist. And violent confrontations like this, often in crowded areas, where it’s not clear who is who, and who is doing what, can be frightening and disorienting at best, and people who just happen to be passing can be drawn in and even hurt.
That said, in most countries, the numbers involved in deliberate violence have been quite small, and direct attacks on the forces of order or government buildings have been quite rare. But again, few western countries actually have the resources to combat this kind of threat on any larger scale and for any long period of time. The standard tactic (seen most recently in France) is for small violent groups to conceal themselves among crowds, and at a given moment take out weapons and protective equipment and attack targets, or the forces of order. In the confusion it’s then easy for them to melt away and appear somewhere else. It’s obvious that even quite small numbers can effectively bring a city to a halt, and tie up massive government assets. It’s also clear that quite quickly the forces of order will be exhausted, if only because they can’t be everywhere at once, and anything everything could be a “target.”
In reality, then, western states are probably a great deal more vulnerable to mass improvised violence of this kind than is often realised. We forget the extent to which it is safe to go out into the streets precisely because the vast majority of people never think about smashing their way into a supermarket and looting the goods, or attacking police or firemen. But this is only a convention and, beyond a certain point, if too many people decide to disobey it, there is nothing much that the authorities can do.
But surely, you may say, the state has enormous force at its disposal? There is the Army, for a start, not to mention the massive amount of physical and electronic surveillance that modern states now have. Surely, any serious attempt at mass violence could be quickly crushed? Well, it’s important to be clear what kind of situation we are talking about. If a group of armed individuals, whether criminal or political, tries to take on a group of trained soldiers, then they will almost always lose badly. It’s true that there were cases of the Taliban ambushing and killing NGO workers protected by ex-military personnel. And in Iraq the Islamic State developed quite sophisticated light-infantry tactics, using bulldozers and heavy trucks driven by suicide volunteers to blast holes in fortifications, followed by captured Land Cruisers full of infantry who would activate their suicide vests when they were wounded or had run out of ammunition. But these are very special cases: the Taliban could take on the Afghan Army in small groups, but only until heavy weapons or air power were employed against them.
That’s not what we can expect in the West. A more likely scenario is small groups of 3-4 people with automatic weapons and suicide vests, attacking mass targets such as football or concert crowds, or train stations and airports. So how can you protect against that? You can’t, effectively. Classic terrorist groups attacked a limited range of targets: government buildings and other symbols of the state, or political and government personnel, where in theory you could provide at least some protection Even the bomb attacks on public houses in England by the IRA in the 1970s were defended at the time as attacks on places frequented by off-duty soldiers. All that has now changed. So if you thought there were two or three cells of that type operating, what could you do to protect the general population? Again, not a lot, except through intelligence-gathering, which is a different issue. For a decade now, a number of European countries have deployed troops on the streets against this kind of threat. Since the 2015-16 wave of attacks, some 10000 military personnel at a time have been available for deployment throughout France, for example. That’s not a great many, especially when you consider that the majority are not permanently deployed, but just on call if there is intelligence suggesting an imminent attack. And of course they need to eat and sleep, so the actual number patrolling at any one time on the streets of a major city is probably measured in the hundreds. And as the military will tell you, static defence is pointless when almost anything can be a target. So you see them patrolling in half-sections of four (occasionally six), mainly in tourist areas or areas where there are prestige targets, and principally as a deterrent or to try to provide a sense of security. Such operations pose an enormous strain on the military, especially over a long period, and involve taking people away from the jobs they are trained for: the last group I passed when checking in for a flight from Charles de Gaulle airport were from an Air Force motor transport unit.
Still, even if total protection against ideological armed groups is next to impossible, those groups are not going to be able to bring down governments, whatever some of their leaders may hope. But what about the people as a whole, in large groups? What about the kind of organised mass violence against the state that is feared by many, and fantasised about by many more? Couldn’t the military be used effectively against them? Well, again, it depends on the context. The basic function of the military in any state is to ensure the monopoly of legitimate violence which I began by talking about. This is an unpopular thing to say in a democracy, where we like to think of the military as being for the defence of the frontiers, and perhaps for deployment overseas, but it is nevertheless true. As Weber noted, a state which cannot maintain this monopoly cannot really call itself a state. But in the first instance—at the tactical level, if you like—the responsibility for the protection of the streets, the institutions of government and the political leadership lies with the police, and few of the military would want it otherwise. They are called on only when the level of violence is such that the police can no longer cope. Military guards outside public buildings, for example, are essentially ceremonial, a political symbol of the subordination of the military to the civil power.
This means that in general the military are not trained and equipped for public order duties, and do not want to do them. They are bad for recruitment and retention, and the tasks are difficult, unpopular and unpleasant. The British Army found itself thrust into this role in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s because the (mainly-Protestant) Royal Ulster Constabulary was simply not trusted, and the Army commanders spent the next generation trying to get out. Moreover, the military, in spite of what is often thought, have no special powers or rights to use force in peacetime. Although the law varies a bit from country to country, the military generally have the right to use force, up to lethal force, to protect themselves or someone close by. But this force must be proportional to the threat, and cannot be indiscriminate. Moreover, all forms of military law require obedience to legitimate military orders only. So not only would an order to fire on demonstrators be illegal for a commander to give, and for troops to carry out, it would not even qualify as a military order because it was not for military purposes. And finally, military orders come through what the military call the “chain of command”: they have to be given by recognised superiors in that chain, so a civilian cannot order military forces into action, for example.
Any western government, no matter how beleaguered, would be stupid if it thought it could rely on the military to preserve it in power against mass demonstrations and popular violence. They are too few in number, not properly trained or equipped, and are very legally constrained. Their commanders would have not only the right, but actually the duty, to refuse to use military force against the people. Even if the situation were to deteriorate catastrophically, to the point of organised armed violence against the state, the rules of the law of armed conflict would then apply, and the military could only be used against what International Humanitarian Law describes as “military targets,” which are very narrowly defined.
Finally, perhaps, I should say a word about Martial Law, since it seems to have produced so much confusion recently. Martial Law is not a body of law or a set of arrangements, still less is it equivalent to a military government or a coup d’état: it is just a state of affairs. Essentially, when the civil state has broken down and the military is the only organised institution left, it may be given the task of substituting for the state and administering the territory, including enforcing the law. This classically happened in Germany in 1945. But this does not give the military magical powers, and they are still subject themselves to peacetime laws. Although governments generally have emergency legislation ready (which needs to be voted by Parliament), giving them additional powers, and they may suspend parts of the constitution, this never, so far as I know, envisages giving the military control of the country, something that would be beyond their capabilities anyway.
So we arrive at a very curious situation of the interaction between two negative outcomes. On the one hand, increasingly enfeebled and incapable states will gradually lose effective control of parts of their territory to organised crime, to extremist political movements, and just to an episodically enraged public. This loss of control may only be temporary: the centre of the city for a few hours, for example, but it will also be politically cumulative. On the other hand, none of the forces opposing the state will be capable of taking its place, even locally. This is why ideas of “civil war” that are regularly aired these days are misguided, because a civil war is a war for the control of civis, the state, between groups who want to control that state, or substitute a different kind of state for the existing one. For the first time in modern western history, there are no groups with organisations and ideologies waiting in the wings, either to launch a struggle for power, or to profit from a power vacuum.
It is sometimes argued that multinational companies or organised crime might fill this gap, but this is based on a misunderstanding. As we know from development studies, the private sector depends on the existence of the state for its very survival and prosperity, which is why economies suffer so badly in and after civil wars. The more secure the environment, the greater the benefit for private companies, even very large ones. By contrast an insecure environment, even short of actual conflict, discourages trade and investment and makes even mundane things such as transport, recruitment, deliveries, salaries and maintenance difficult to impossible. And that assumes that security is the only problem. How long would Facebook last if the average person only had 2-3 hours a day of reliable mobile phone service? How long would car manufacturers last if mass epidemics and political instability started to seriously disrupt the supply chains? How long would oil companies last if they could not export oil reliably? Without the immensely complex and fragile international financial system working correctly, banks will just start to disappear. How long will the housing market and its derivatives survive? In any case, the private sector, especially these days, is incapable even in principle of carrying out the functions of a state. All it knows is how to profit by them, so no state, then quite rapidly no private sector either. In a small way, we can see this happening in “difficult” areas of European cities, where supermarket chains are closing their shops, because it’s all too complicated.
Nor, paradoxically, can organised crime survive in the absence of the state. Like the private sector, it is a parasite: it supplies things that are illegal or too expensive or too heavily taxed. It is not interested (with very few exceptions) in providing basic services. Much of its power comes from its influence over governments and corruption of them: no government, no power.
The most likely future then, is one of extremely distributed power, rather as we find in parts of Africa, for example. Government will have effective control of the capital and the centres of major cities, and exercise a small degree of influence on what happens elsewhere. Local constellations of political and economic power may arise where conditions are favourable. There is likely to be some sporadic violence to control local economic assets and extract rent, but in a modern society so much is organised on a national or even international scale that vey little is “local” anymore. Road and rail communications will be degraded or unsafe, and distribution systems will no longer function properly. People will move from lower to higher security areas, mostly into already over-burdened cities.
I’ve suggested before that if you want to imagine the future of the West, it’s helpful to look at Africa, where many of the same conditions already exist. But the difference is that, even by comparison with the colonial era, infrastructure in most African countries has not decayed very much, because there was not a great deal of it in the first place. And Africa has resources of social solidarity and resilience, family and tribal networks and sophisticated informal governance mechanisms. We have Twitter and contract law.
The gratifying increase in the number of subscribers (over 4000 now) means that people are reading and commenting on my older essays, and in some cases asking for my replies. I will get round to this as soon as I can.
These essays are free and I intend to keep them so, although shortly I’ll introduce a system where people can make small payments if they wish to. But there are other ways of showing your appreciation as well. Likes are flattering to have, but also help me judge which subjects people are most interested in. Shares are very useful in bringing in new readers, and it’s particularly helpful if you would flag posts that you think deserve it on other sites that you visit or contribute to, as this can also bring new readers. And thanks for all the very interesting comments: keep them coming!