The Pathos of Politics – Governance


“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of Nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” ~ Charles Darwin

600 years ago, people did not think of themselves as being in a nation. Most lived on subsistence farms, intimately connected to the nearby village, not caring much about the world beyond.

European states began to coalesce from the 14th century, as kings claimed greater power and tightened their control over territories. It was not until the early 19th century that states were established in the form with which we are now so familiar.

Even the educated elite were not much impressed with state-building until well into the 18th century. Most writers and correspondents tended to think of themselves as primarily part of a cosmopolitan European world rather than belonging to a particular nationality.

The kings creating states often had family ties that took priority over their political ambitions. The German monarchs who came to power in England in the early 18th century could not even speak English, so they married locally. During the Great War it was an embarrassment to the British royal house that the Kaiser of Germany was their cousin, so much so that they changed their name from Hanover to Windsor.

Military matters were not nationalized until late in the state-building era. Foreign mercenaries played a key role in most wars. English soldiers might be hired by a French king to fight the English, and vice versa. During the American Revolution, the king of England hired Hessians (German troops) to fight the uppity colonialists.

The invention of the modern nation-state was polished off by Napoléon in the early 19th century: wedding the passion of the French Revolution to an efficient bureaucracy and active army. The resulting state was nearly invincible, and it succeeded in conquering much of Europe. Its power partly derived from an army that for the first time fought not only for themselves, but for their country: France. Though Napoléon was eventually defeated, his demonstration of what a state could achieve meant politics would never be the same.

While Europe and North America had evolved into modern states by the early 19th century, most other peoples in the world lived under a variety of looser polities, like those in the European Middle Ages. Colonialism brought the concepts of state to them.

As imperialism waned in the wake of wars among the empire builders, leaders in the former colonies, almost all having been educated in Europe, adopted the state model under which their people had been oppressed.

Taxes were nothing new, but modern states squeezed hard: taking so much as to impoverish workers in the lower class.

(The median tax rate on wages in developed countries is 34%. The average tax burden on Western European workers is over 40%. Belgians pay 55%; Austrians, Germans, and Hungarians 49%.)

No government can exist without taxation. The grand art consists of levying so as not to oppress. ~ Frederick the Great

Meanwhile, the converse – the state giving rather than just taking – was something that emerged only from crisis. Welfare states in most countries only began to evolve in the wake of the Great Depression.

Power has only one duty: to secure the social welfare of the people. ~ English politician Benjamin Disraeli

Despite the ongoing failure of the market system to provide full employment and decent wages for workers, the state’s active participation in correcting capitalism’s deficiencies remains controversial in many countries, especially the United States.

America’s democracy is at a breaking point. Voters are less engaged, and signs of institutional decay point to a political system increasingly unable to tackle the economic challenges. ~ Zambian-born American economist Dambisa Moyo

The rules are rigged because the rich and powerful have bought and paid for too many politicians. Two sets of rules: one for the wealthy and the well-connected. And one for everybody else. Two sets of rules: one for white families. And one for everybody else. That’s how a rigged system works. ~ Elizabeth Warren in 2018 on US governance


Government! 3/4ths parasitic and the other 1/4th stupid fumbling. ~ American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein

Societies act as multicellular organisms. The nucleus of each social organism is the state: the political organelle that controls the organism to meet its own needs, not the needs of the citizens which are its responsibility.

Politicians come and go, but the problems they have created for their people remain. ~ Donald Tusk

The state always exhibits the same characteristics, varying only by degrees: limiting public expressions against its rule, taking rent from its citizenry, providing a modicum of services to pacific and preserve legitimacy. Whatever else it does, the state ultimately serves its own survival – all other priorities are secondary.

Failed States

The nature of state failure varies from place to place, sometimes dramatically. Failure and weakness can flow from a nation’s geographical, physical, historical, and political circumstances, such as colonial errors and Cold War policy mistakes. More than structural or institutional weaknesses, human agency is also culpable, usually in a fatal way. Destructive decisions by individual leaders have almost always paved the way to state failure. ~ American historian Robert Rotberg

State-building is a prolonged exercise in establishing the institutions necessary for governance, particularly the military means to secure territory, policing to maintain peace, judicial administration, and tax collection to support governance. Legitimacy in the eyes of the governed is also essential.

Most countries that fall apart do so not with a bang but with a whimper. They fail not in an explosion of war and violence but by being utterly unable to take advantage of their society’s huge potential, condemning their citizens to a lifetime of poverty. This failure is by design. These states collapse because they are ruled by “extractive” economic institutions which are not in place by mistake but on purpose. They’re there for the benefit of elites who gain much from the extraction — whether in the form of valuable minerals, forced labor, or protected monopolies — at the expense of society. Of course, such elites benefit from rigged political institutions too, wielding their power to tilt the system for their benefit. ~ Turkish American economist Daron Acemoglu & English political scientist James Robinson

To put it mildly, constructing a state is problematic; and so, as products of war, tribalism, or an exploitative elite, modern history is littered with failed states.

The heaviest concentration of failed states is in Africa, where the legacy of colonialism did not birth decent governance. Southwestern Asia also has more than its share of failed states, owing to Islam being a factionalized religion fervently followed by hotheads.

As part of its war of terror, the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Both countries were quickly conquered by the overwhelming military power applied. In both instances, the occupation that followed proved stupid fumbling. As the United States lacks the skill and patience for state-building, both Afghanistan and Iraq became failed states.

Before the US invasion, Iraq had been a dictatorship under Saddam Hussein. Decapitating Iraq’s leadership and dismantling its military led to a failed state, owing to corruption and Islamic warlordism.

Afghanistan had been a monarchy until 1973, when a military coup overthrew it. Political turmoil ensued.

The Soviets invaded in 1979, and malignantly lingered for a decade, unable to overcome local resistance. A political vacuum was left when the Soviets withdrew. Their puppet government was unable to attain legitimacy.

The Afghani mujahedeen who won the war of attrition were warlords, not state builders. Afghanistan became a failed state. The US simply stirred the political rubble for a time with their own prolonged Soviet-style occupation. Afghanistan was a failed state when the US romped in and disintegrated as the US lingered with its useless troops.