SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE BRINK OF FAILURE

Published September 10, 2023
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On YouTube, there are numerous videos on ‘failed states’. Those posted by certain American news outlets almost always describe Russia as a failed or failing state. Similarly, videos produced by Indian media outlets often refer to Pakistan as a failed/failing state. Then there are also some videos produced in China which ‘predict’ the collapse of the American state structure, and many American videos that speak of ‘China’s coming collapse’. 

So what is a failed state?

There are various theories about what constitutes state failure, but most political scientists and economists agree on two major symptoms of this failure. The first is when the state loses its ability to establish authority over its territory and citizens, and is unable to protect the country’s sovereignty. Secondly, state failure also constitutes the state’s inability to provide basic necessities to its citizens and when a country’s governing institutions become ineffective. 

However, according to foreign policy experts such as the Norwegian Morten Bøås, the application of the term ‘failed state’ is largely political in nature. A country threatened by another country whose state is facing a crisis, often labels it as a failed or failing state. This is why to the US, at the moment, Russia is a ‘failing state’ and to India, so is Pakistan.

Recently, Chinese propaganda has claimed that the US is on the brink of state failure, especially after the ‘backsliding’ that American democracy witnessed during the Trump presidency. It’s politics. 

The definition of what constitutes a ‘failed’ or ‘failing’ state may be determined by geopolitical interests, but the internal role of extractive and exclusivist institutions cannot be ignored

But does this mean that there are no failed states at all? There are. Most political scientists agree that Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, DR Congo and Sudan are failed states because state authority in these countries has almost completely collapsed. Outside the confines of areas in which the state does have some authority left, ‘non-state actors’ hold sway. Poverty, political chaos and violence are rampant. There is no presence of a cohesive state here. 

Even though one may agree with men such as Bøås that ‘failed state’ is a political term applied for propaganda purposes to justify external armed intervention or to impose economic sanctions, this does not mean that, apart from the more blatant examples of failed states, other countries are entirely safe from becoming another Afghanistan or Somalia. 

Most states, even in developed countries, often exhibit some symptoms of state failure. But the symptoms are particularly intense in developing countries, where there is a greater chance of the state failing.

In Pakistan, when Islamist militants had occupied vast swaths of land in the early 2010s, and the state seemed ill-equipped or even reluctant to reestablish its writ in these regions, many voices inside and outside the country warned that Pakistan was heading towards state failure. 

The warning was not exaggerated. However, the state too was conscious of this. It finally responded by conducting an unprecedented military operation. Between 2014 and 2017, it was able to oust the militants from areas where they had established parallel governing systems, mostly based on outright terror. 

But military action alone against forces challenging the writ of the state is not enough. In the book Why Nations Fail, the economists James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu write that nations fail not because they lack abundant natural resources or are located in volatile regions. One of the most prominent reasons that states fail is because of ‘extractive’ political and economic institutions. 

Nation states with inclusive institutions prosper because these institutions do not restrict the economic and political participation of all citizens. It does not matter what race or religion a citizen belongs to, they are encouraged to bolster the country’s, and their own, economic ambitions. 

Extractive institutions go the other way. Economic and political elites accumulate power and wealth for themselves from those who can’t find a voice or place in the extractive institutions. Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy. But this democracy is largely extractive and exclusivist. Its exclusivist nature is deeper than just ‘elite capture’. This is so because the non-Sunni and non-Muslim communities too are kept at an arm’s length, because they do not adhere to the definition of Islam defined by the Constitution. Some are even outrightly repressed.

A powerful state institution in Pakistan, the military, sees itself above this nature of exclusivity. Yet, from the 1980s onwards, it was the military that further strengthened extractive and exclusivist policies and even used exclusivist forces to meet its own political ambitions. The parliament and a politicised military have both contributed in severely limiting the participation of the diverse talent required to construct robust economic and political institutions. 

The continuing extractive policies have now instigated a clash within the extractive elites, both civilian and military. The extractive elites benefitted the most through exclusivist policies. On the other hand, those who are kept out because of their faith, sect, ethnicity or class have been severely marginalised and are just mere spectators of an ongoing tussle for power between the two factions of the extractive forces. 

The ‘anti-military’ riots on May 9 and 10 were an example of one extractive group trying to push back the other. So, the crisis of the state that Pakistan is facing today is also about a crisis within elite groups. A new election alone won’t resolve the crisis. Pakistan’s democracy is still navigated by an exclusivist constitution, which can actually deepen the crisis. 

I believe, alarmed by such a possibility, the military is contemplating a Hobbesian route. In his highly influential book The Leviathan, the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes posited that, in exchange for getting protection from violence, war, chaos, poverty and crime, the citizens are required to delegate a large degree of power to a sovereign state.

The exchange may also require the citizens to relinquish certain rights, so that the sovereign can work freely to guarantee the economic and political security of the citizens without any hindrance.

Indeed, this is clearly an authoritarian view, but Hobbes does warn the sovereign that the failure to do so is likely to cause state failure. On May 9 and 10, the extractive faction that the military was once the architect of, tried to usurp power by rationalising its actions as ‘pro-democracy’ and supported by ‘civil society’. 

I believe that, even if and when electoral democracy returns, the Hobbesian route will continue to be taken, because the military is now convinced that anything else is bound to put the state on the brink of failure.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 10th, 2023

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