In his classic allegory, the Leviathan,the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicts a state of nature where there are “No arts; no letters; no society”, where men live “in continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. The state emerges, according to him, when men decide to hand over their liberties to a “sovereign” in exchange for security and protection. In the state of nature, men are wolves. Only within a political community– the polis of Athenian Greece – is civilisation possible.
Hobbes was a pessimist, having lived through an age of upheavals and civil war. He was led to the sobering conclusion that greed and the thirst for power is engraved in human nature. The role the sovereign is therefore to curb our beastly nature and to stop men from preying on one another.
Hobbes, like Machiavelli before him, maintains that all states are founded and maintained by force. But once established, they must be governed on the basis of a social contract. Thinkers such as John Locke and Rousseau later developed this concept into an elaborate political theory. In his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press, 1971), John Rawls of Harvard University conceptualised an original social contract requiring all rulers to govern with justice, equity and fairness.
German sociologist Max Weber defines the state as that organisation that monopolises the use of violence. The Maghreb historian and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, rather cynically defines the state as that organisation that has the sole right to commit crime and get away with it. He has a point, though. There are rare occasions when criminal methods — la raison d’état – will justify deployment of criminal methods to safeguard the survival and welfare of the state.
The American thinker, John Dewey, in his famous tract, The Public and its Problems (Holt Publishers, 1937), describes the state as nothing but a mechanism which is there to do what the people want. In his studies of Renaissance Italy — of the age of Lorenzo de Medici, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Giovanni Pico de la Mirandolla, Michaelangelo, Leornado da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello, Boticelli and Monteverdi — Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, depicts the state as “a work of art”. By this he means that a great state is built with the same passion, creativity and imagination as Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chappel and as Dante composed his immortal poems. The statesman worthy of immortality would be a sort of artist of power.
The modern state as we know it today is a product of the Treaty of Westphalia 1648, which enshrined the territorial state as the key unit in the Western-dominated international system. In the Age of Absolutism, monarch and state were synonymous. Which was why Louis XIV of France could arrogantly proclaim, “l’état c’est moi”. The English Revolution and Magna Carta enshrined the principles of parliamentary supremacy in relation to the monarchy. Beyond upholding the laws, preserving the common peace, provision of minimal public goods and mobilising citizens for endless wars, feudal monarchs had no business with the common people. Things began to change, first, with the 18th century Prussian monarch, Friedrick the Great, who remodelled himself as a servant of the people rather than their master; repositioning the state as a vehicle for the promotion of collective welfare and happiness. Intellectual, musician and warrior –Friedrick was the quintessential philosopher-king.
After the French Revolution 1789, Bonaparte took the agenda forward by codifying the laws, creating an efficient bureaucracy and executing ambitious public works. Bismarck not only united Germany as a modern constitutional state; he pioneered the welfare state that has become part of the Western social and political order today.
Political scientist James Scott, in his acclaimed Seeing Like a State (Yale University Press, 1998), describes the reforms that gave birth to the modern state: adoption of permanent surnames; standardisation of weights and measures; cadastral surveys; population registers; freehold land tenure; and urban planning and design. Scott also contends that social engineering designs by the state have foundered, as exemplified by the disastrous Stalinist collectivisations in the defunct USSR, the failed Ujamaa villagisation schemes under Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and the modernist planning of new cities such as Brasilia.
The philosopher Hegelrather overstated his case when he depicted the 19th century Prussian State as the very expression of God on earth. In a post-Christian secular West, men will obey nothing other than what is required by law. In the words of the French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil: “Every new development for the last three centuries has brought men closer to a state of affairs in which absolutely nothing would be recognized in the whole world as possessing a claim to obedience except the authority of the State. The majority of people in Europe obey nothing else.”
There have always been tensions between the state and the individual. Anarchists since Bakunin have yearned for a world devoid of the state altogether. Even Karl Marx pitched his ideals of communist revolution on the ultimate “withering away” of the state. For Hobbes, “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them”. When a government can no longer protect its citizens, the social contract is, ipso facto, broken. Rebellion then becomes both a right as well as a duty.
To fulfil the mandate of heaven, according to one analyst, the state in our 21st century must pursue the objectives of “security, legitimacy, capacity, prosperity, and humanity”. The duties of states today include the following: (i) effective control and monopolisation of the means of violence; (ii) securing the lives and properties of citizens; (iii) effective administrative control; (iv) management of public finances, wealth creation, and ability of extract taxes); (v) provision and protection of citizenship rights through effective public regulation; (vi) provision of public goods such as infrastructures, education, health and social services; (vii) creation of a vibrant market that ensures economic freedom, growth and expanding opportunities for all citizens; (viii) the upholding of the Rule of Law and promotion of social justice; (ix) ability to conduct regular, fair and transparent elections; and (x) capacity to enter into international agreements.
There are also the problems associated with the so-called “deep state”. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously observed that, “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined”. Behind most every state, there is always an invisible government – secret societies, intelligence services and invisible powers that ultimately call the shots in every society. In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt: “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of today.”
In a famous April 1961 speech to Congress, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy condemned secret societies; that network of “tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations”, as the greatest danger to liberty. Many believed that, by that very speech, he had signed his own death warrant. The mystery surrounding his assassination in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963 remains unsolved to this day.
The statesman of today must not only master the intricacies of government, economics, and technology; he must reconcile the demands of liberty with the pursuit of the common good. He must bring the people together, not divide them; executing justice; securing the common peace; and advancing the welfare and happiness of all. He must both be a lion and a fox – audacious, cunning, courageous and bold. There will always be the mystery of iniquity – what the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin terms “the crooked timber of humanity”. The New Prince must learn to negotiate compromises even with sworn enemies.
At the end of the day, politics is the art of the possible.The Creator will not give us burdens more than we can carry. The New Prince must be a watchman deeply aware of our fallen world, as St. Augustine of Hippo reminds us in his timeless book, The City of God. He must be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.
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