Imagine that in the near future another terrible famine strikes sub-Saharan Africa, at a time when most Western governments are preoccupied with fighting and funding the never-ending war on terrorism. The ghastly images are duly laid out for public consumption on the nightly news, but the public is jaded by too many images of a suffering world. Then some bright spark in one of the better-funded NGOs offers individuals the chance to ‘adopt’ particular children or families in the refugee camps, and to keep an eye on their progress through a direct video-link to their mobile phone. Instead of neatly written letters once a month bringing news of clean water and fresh textbooks, First World benefactors get the chance to monitor, minute by minute, the progress of their charges: to watch them eat, see them get better, hear them say thank you. The response is overwhelming, and a fully engaged public donates sums that dwarf anything being considered by even the most concerned politicians. Success in this enterprise breeds success, as more money is used to purchase better equipment to offer clearer pictures of the difference that more money can make. The result is that sub-Saharan Africa is better fed, better equipped and better informed than at any time in its history.
But because these parts of the continent would not necessarily be better governed as a result of this experiment – it is not clear that they would be governed at all – some of the equipment, including some medical equipment, falls into the wrong hands. As a result, this newly prosperous region is struck down by a mutated virus that spreads, like HIV, unchecked through swathes of the population. Again, the citizens of the wealthy North are fed direct images of the effect this disease is having on people they have got to know and in many cases to think of as friends, and again their response is swift and overwhelming. Because the disease does not respond immediately to treatment, because it is so obviously contagious, because the doctors needed to treat it are also needed by the donor states, and because the pictures coming back make people feel scared, powerless and betrayed, they turn off their handsets and lobby their governments to quarantine the whole of Africa below the 10th parallel, close all borders, place an embargo on the transport of medical supplies, and to enforce these restrictions with the aid of military force if necessary. This their governments are well equipped to do, having come to specialise above all else in the use of force to restrict freedom of movement and freedom of trade in biological items across the globe. Soon, great chunks of Africa are cut off from the rest of the world, though one or two people continue to receive scrappily written letters detailing the horrors of what is happening inside the diseased zone. The whole continent is written off as a place where good things can happen – a place where, in George W. Bush’s memorable phrase, ‘wings take dream’. It is left to rot. Welcome to the world of post-modern politics.
This scenario (or something like it) is laid out by Philip Bobbitt in the course of describing three possible futures for the world we now inhabit, one characterised by what Bobbitt calls the transition from a ‘nation-state’ to a ‘market-state’ model of politics and society. The nation-state is the model that was generated by, then went on itself to generate, the wars of the late 19th and 20th centuries, including ‘the Long War’ that lasted continuously from August 1914 until it was terminated by the Peace of Paris in 1990: the First World War, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were merely phases of ‘a single conflict fought over a single set of constitutional issues’, in which only the final outcome of the Cold War was decisive. The nation-state had been forged (most notably by Bismarck in Germany) to place the state in the service of the nation, and was at root a welfare state, in the sense that its legitimacy depended on its ability to better the welfare of its citizens. The Long War was fought between the proponents of what were initially three different visions of national welfare – Fascist, Communist and liberal democratic – and then between the champions of the surviving two. When there was only one, it was mistakenly assumed by many that this particular form of the nation-state had triumphed, and history was finally at an end.
The irony of this victory, however, was that in achieving it the liberal democratic nation-state had started to turn itself into something else. It was now ready to abandon as self-defeating the attempt to provide for the welfare of all its citizens, and instead sought to found its legitimacy on its ability to maximise their opportunities, and to offer them the basic security within which to make those opportunities count. It was becoming, in other words, a ‘market-state’, possessed of similar, or even in some cases greater, political and military power than its predecessor, but much more limited in the range of its activities. It was also starting to produce the kinds of leader who not only recognised but celebrated these limitations. The current special relationship between Britain and the United States becomes on this account something more than an alliance of interests; it is a meeting of minds between types of statesman or stateswoman. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were self-consciously the last great leaders in the nation-state tradition, even though it was their regimes that broke the link between the state and welfare. George W. Bush and Tony Blair are ‘among the first market-state political leaders’, even though one of them still talks as though the state can make provision for a kind of social security through its public services. That is all froth. Deep down they speak the same language, and believe in the same thing: securing through the power of the state the scope for as many individuals as possible (though inevitably not all) to make use of the opportunities the market has to offer.
Just as the nation-state produced three different versions of itself whose inevitable clashes produced the war that ‘destroyed every empire that participated in it, every political aristocracy, every general staff, as well as much of the beauty of European and Asian life’, so the market-state offers us competing visions of its basic character and purpose. Again, there are three, christened by Bobbitt the ‘mercantile’, ‘managerial’ and ‘market-mitigating’ models, or the Tokyo, Berlin and Washington versions respectively. Mercantile market politics involves the attempt to retain a kind of alliance between the state and national enterprise within global market conditions; it necessitates large-scale intervention on the side of capital rather than labour, elements of protectionism and the retention of strong cultural identity. It is the Japanese model, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to work. Managerial market-states look to regional blocs and alliances as the counterweights to national ambition, curtail freedom of movement between these blocs but open it up within them, invest heavily in forms of social insurance to alleviate some of the market pressures on labour, and continue to rely on limited government bail-outs for failing large-scale enterprises. This is the soziale Marktwirtschaft that is struggling at present to assert itself in Europe, and is showing minimal signs of progress elsewhere. Finally, market-mitigating states seek to blur the distinction between the welfare of individuals and the welfare of international society, construe opportunities for their citizens in broadly global terms, and seek to make them available as widely as possible within the society of states as a whole; they are suspicious of regulation, intervention and redistribution except in special cases (notably those relating to global security), and rely heavily on deregulated media to protect the public from the worst kinds of exploitation. Bobbitt, a professor of constitutional law and a former White House counsel, does not claim that the Washington model is now the one unequivocally emerging from Washington. But this is essentially the American wave of the future.
It is in a future world founded on the principles of the Washington model that Bobbitt locates the dereliction of the African continent while the rest of the planet averts its gaze. This is a world in which governments are good at co-operating in matters of security, but when faced with social calamities are in thrall to the vicissitudes of public opinion and to the NGOs and media outlets that service public opinion. It is a prosperous society of states – productive, diverse, but subject to waves of disruption and containing pockets of unobserved and unrelieved grimness. In a further recapitulation of his tripartite typology, Bobbitt labels this possible world the ‘Meadow’, in contrast to the futures we might also enjoy in the ‘Park’, or the ‘Garden’. In the Garden the Tokyo model becomes predominant: political communities turn inwards, and form intricate, discrete and essentially local networks of competition and co-operation; it is a militarily fraught environment, in which each state insists on its own ability to defend itself, and on its right to control its own nuclear arsenal; but it is a world in which politicians can still seek to cultivate the flower of national identity, and pursue the sublime as well as the merely just or efficient. The Park is the future as seen from Berlin: regular, well-fertilised, relatively high-maintenance, containing carefully husbanded zones for minority rights and cultures but also a few clear, clean lines of general demarcation; a municipal vision of health and vitality, but in its global application the stage for great-power confrontation between lumbering and relatively inefficient trading blocks – Asian, American and European. The life of the Meadow is that of a single political ecosystem under the general supervision of the United States, in which anything is allowed to flourish that can adapt to the fast-moving, evanescent opportunities offered by the global marketplace; a world where the rewards are on offer to anyone who ‘can deal with, indeed relish, impermanence’.
Bobbitt himself seems happiest with the thought of life in the Meadow, notwithstanding its horrors, and notwithstanding his own nostalgia for elements of the sublime. But he is convinced that the future belongs to any government that can recognise and transcend the constraints of the form of market-state to which it is committed. Each of the three possible futures he sketches out has something to recommend it, though as he describes them not much. In each, the pursuit of a single political vision is limiting and destructive of at least some of the things that make modern life worth living. But the only thing worse than a world in which one of these models becomes predominant is a world in which more than one of them is able to establish itself, and then to square up militarily to its rivals. This would threaten an ‘epochal’ war of the kind that made the 20th century so terrible for so many of the people who attempted to live through it. Any possible future for the world we now inhabit must contain a fairly limitless supply of local sites of conflict (between North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, China and Tibet, Russia and Ukraine, anywhere in the Middle East, anywhere in the former Yugoslavia), and Bobbitt sketches out a range of these, and a range of possible outcomes (including, in the Meadow, a fairly chilling account of the consequences of a chemical attack on Seoul and the subsequent reunification of Korea under central control from Pyongyang). But these disputes are nothing compared to the possible cataclysm of a war between Washington, Berlin and Tokyo. Bobbitt wants to remind us that in a world of states like ours the greatest dangers remain the confrontations between the most powerful states, though these in turn should not blind us to the possibility of allowing small-scale disputes to escalate into the kind of conflicts that overwhelm us. Because this is a world of states, the choice is not between war and peace, but between wars that we have anticipated and can manage, and wars that we haven’t and can’t.
Bobbitt’s book is in many ways a remarkable one. It is huge (really two books rather than one), breathtaking in its range of reference, forcefully written and fairly eccentric, at times indeed slightly unhinged. It may well make him rich and famous, in the manner of Allan Bloom, Samuel Huntingdon and other purveyors of the slightly unhinged academic diagnostic blockbuster. But the arguments he musters and the warnings he issues are curiously similar to those that have been coming out of one corner of the British Foreign Office for more than five years. Robert Cooper, who has written an essay in Reordering the World, was a senior policy adviser there (he recently left the Cabinet Office for the European Council, where he is senior civil servant for foreign affairs), and has become well-known in policy circles for his own tripartite schema of current political practices. He had the ear of Robin Cook and is now said to have the ear of Jack Straw (though Tony Blair, typically, blows hot and cold).
In The Post-Modern State and the World Order, Cooper divides the world up into pre-modern, modern and post-modern states. Pre-modern states attempt, and for the most part fail, to rule those places where modern politics (with its concern for the provision of security and welfare) has broken down or never properly established itself: places like Chechnya, Somalia and Afghanistan. Modern states are those that continue to pursue the political ideals of security and welfare in a conventional, nationalistic setting, relying on the well-worn precepts of raison d’état and balance of power to produce the usual sabre-rattling politics; they include India, Pakistan and some of the more successful states of Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Post-modern states have sloughed off these outmoded constitutional precepts and gone on instead to embrace co-operation, mutual interference and a heightened sense of morality in international affairs as their guiding principles; they are exemplified and in many ways defined by the states of the European Union. For Cooper, the challenge for the world as it exists now is simply expressed (though harder to put into practice): embrace the post-modern.
Cooper’s altogether cruder typology cuts across Bobbitt’s in a number of ways, not least in his insistence that the nation-state best placed – in every sense except the geographical – to embrace the wave of post-modernity coming out of Europe is Japan. Nevertheless, they have a lot in common. Neither believes that the state is likely to be swept away in the current riptide of globalisation. Indeed, both insist that there is no alternative to the state as the basic unit of political action and political understanding, and that the choice in the conditions of 21st-century global capitalism is between different forms of the state, not between the state and something else. What they do wish to sweep away are those international institutions founded on a conception of the state which is now outmoded. Neither Cooper nor Bobbitt has a kind word to say about the United Nations as a promoter of collective security, since both agree that such an enterprise founders on the impossibility of reconciling the idea of international co-operation with the principles of national sovereignty. Would anyone, Bobbitt asks, turn to the UN if international co-operation were a necessity rather than a luxury: if, say, a giant asteroid were heading to Earth? Moreover, a world organised around the UN Charter as its basic constitutional law ‘would resemble Cold War South Africa . . . a small gang of ethnic minorities would own most of the valuable property and keep everyone else confined to “homelands”.’ Nato, by contrast, is seen by both as an appropriate vehicle for post-modern political ambitions, because it is no longer limited by the imperative to seek a balance of power (in these arguments Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999 is held up in contrast to UN intervention in Bosnia in 1992-95). Cooper and Bobbitt also agree that the idea of a European superstate, able to compete with America on the international stage, deserves to join the UN on the scrapheap of history. ‘It is curious,’ Cooper writes of the architects of European union, ‘that having created a structure that is ideally adapted to the post-modern state, there are still enthusiasts who want to destroy it in favour of an idea which is essentially more old-fashioned.’ Bobbitt more bluntly calls it ‘rather pathetic that the visionaries in Brussels can imagine nothing more forward-looking than equipping the EU with the trappings of a nation-state’.
Where they differ is in their view of the relative strengths of the EU as presently constituted to meet the challenges of the new world order. Cooper is fairly convinced that Europe can and must lead the way; Bobbitt is much more doubtful. But, perhaps surprisingly, both share an ambivalence about the alternative possibility of the United States taking a leading role in the reconstruction of international society. For Cooper, the problem is that America is a state that has yet to decide on its identity: it exhibits many of the characteristics of post-modernity in the complexity of its social and economic networks, yet remains wedded to many of the strictures of modern politics in its dealing with the rest of the world: a lingering unilateralism and a deep suspicion of mutuality. Like Russia (which also exhibits a split personality but faces the added danger of a slide back to pre-modernity if things go wrong), the US had too much committed to the Cold War to be able easily to adapt to its outcome – that the defeat of Communism did not fix the world from America’s point of view, but entirely transformed it.
Bobbitt offers a subtler and more convincing explanation for American uncertainties. Uniquely among the world’s states, America forged its national identity without having to conjure up the spectre of nationalism. The decisive event was the Civil War, and the key figure Abraham Lincoln, whose Presidency left the Union with the trappings of a nation-state – onto which in due course a limited kind of welfare state could be grafted – but without the commitment to exclusivity and a closed national consciousness. As a multinational state founded on immigration and cultural experimentation, the United States was in some ways post-modern before the modern age had even reached its apogee. But as the most important player in the crucial battles of the modern world, and the victor in its ultimate war, the US is now trapped in the past. Its history and constitution leave it well suited to take the lead in making the world safe for opportunity, diversity and conscience (the watchwords of the market-state), or they would do if the US hadn’t spent so much of its recent history trying to make the world safe for democracy instead. This is the paradox of the Washington model. If the US pursues its historic mission to co-opt the rest of the world into its scheme of values, it cannot whole-heartedly embrace the open-endedness of market-state politics. But if it fails to take a lead, then the rest of the world will wonder what they are doing leaving their fate in the hands of those Bobbitt himself calls ‘the reckless and self-absorbed Americans’.
Cooper does not want Europe to go the way of America, but he does suggest that even Europeans need to accept that in the post-modern world, ‘the challenge is to get used to the idea of double standards.’ The post-modern states of Europe and elsewhere still face a threat from the pre-modern world which requires them where necessary to adopt aggressive or defensive postures for which they may lack the aptitude or will. This threat – whether in the form of terrorism, instability or simply an affront to conscience – means that states which are increasingly open, trusting and interdependent in their relations with each other may have to be closed, decisive and relatively tough in their dealings with others. The task is to know when to get in and when to get out of the pre-modern world, from the perspective of a post-modern political environment which no longer maintains any ‘in’ or any ‘out’ in its internal affairs. If this challenge is not met, Cooper suggests, the threat will expand to include the modern world, whose states will be all too ready to exploit any weakness emanating from the post-modern democracies, and to reacquaint them with the harsh lessons of power politics from an age they thought they had left behind. Finally, post-modern states face a challenge from within, which is to prevent their citizens becoming disconnected from politics altogether. The conditions of post-modernity are designed to focus people’s attention on personal rather than public relationships, and the evanescence of market opportunities produces a preoccupation with fleeting over enduring collective experiences (above all, a preoccupation with celebrity). If the state spreads itself too thinly across the disconnected and diffuse networks of personal identity, it will simply dissipate. Something has to hold it all together.
Cooper doesn’t say what that something is, except the will that it should be so. But what he also doesn’t say is that this problem is not peculiar to post-modern societies; it is the problem of modernity as well. And unlike the post-modern state, the modern state has an answer to this problem. Its answer is modern politics. The modern state was created precisely in order to be that something which made it possible to live in a world of double standards, a world in which individuals were both separate persons and combined peoples, bearers of private interests and vehicles of collective destiny, citizens and subjects. Cooper contrasts the simplicity of the modern political world with the complexity of post-modern politics and society. But the godless modern world of money and machines has never been uncomplicated; its complexities and inconsistencies have simply been clarified by the order that modern political institutions have been able to bestow on it. In this respect, post-modern politics can sound less like a challenge and more like a straightforward abdication: a concession that in the face of the inevitable double standards of modern life we are powerless to do anything but acquiesce.
Indeed, it is not clear that the post-modern state is really a state at all. The state is a quintessentially modern phenomenon, and the first part of Bobbitt’s book contains an account of the quintessentially modern forces that went into its creation, including the money and machines that go into fighting modern wars, on a scale that only states can sustain. Bobbitt identifies four forms of the state that preceded the nation-state of the late 19th and 20th centuries (the state that could provide the money and machines needed to secure the nation’s welfare), beginning with the ‘princely state’ of the Italian Renaissance, as described by Machiavelli. This was superseded by the ‘kingly state’ (whose most notorious champion was Hobbes, but whose greatest practical exponent was Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden), which gave way to the ‘territorial state’ (exemplified in the rule of Frederick the Great), then the ‘state-nation’ (the state of the Bonapartes), which in its turn surrendered to the nation-state that Bismarck built (literally so in the case of Louis Napoleon). These transitions are each marked by wars, and by technological and strategic shifts in the ways that wars are fought and won. Each is also ratified by a peace, which temporarily defines a particular constitutional order for the society of states. This is an essentially European story – after the fall of the Italian city-states and the demise of the Spanish Empire it is a story of Central and Northern Europe – and the peace treaties that mark its history tell the tale of its concentrated locale: Augsburg (1555), Westphalia (1648), Utrecht (1713), Vienna (1815), Versailles (1919).
These constitutional shifts brought in their wake spectacular upheavals in politics: the revolutions, liberations and enfranchisements by which European progress is conventionally measured. Yet throughout these transformations the challenge of modern politics remained the one it had been at the outset: how to objectify personal relations in such a way as to sustain the grand collective projects on which individual security was seen to depend. Initially, in the case of the princely state, the individual whose security was at stake was simply the prince himself. Nevertheless, the solution to princely insecurity in a world of mercenaries and newly efficient machines of war was to objectify the prince’s identity (hence Machiavelli’s insistence that the prince did not have to live by the same moral code as other men, but answered to a set of principles existing beyond the world of personal culpability). So began the gradual shift from individual status to the impersonal, administrative state.
Once the princely state had objectified the idea of personal service, the task of the kingly state was to reinforce this structure by making the impersonal machine human again. This task took on a new urgency once it was clear that large, well-managed realms (like France) would always defeat small city-states (like Florence and Siena). Kings and their dynasties could legitimise the hold of these new, large-scale states over their subjects by giving them a human face (in the language of Hobbes, which came to be the language of the modern world, by ‘personating’ or ‘re-presenting’ them); and where legitimacy is uncertain – as Hobbes knew, and as the famous frontispiece of Leviathan illustrates – a human face can be even more terrifying than an inhuman one. But kings and their dynasties were subject to all the weaknesses of the flesh, and the territorial state came into being in order to impose a new and secure identity on monarchical politics, without, it was hoped, destroying it in the process. As Bobbitt puts it, the challenge of the territorial state was ‘to make the state, rather than the person of the king, the object of constitutional and strategic concern, without permitting the people to claim the state as their own. “My land”, “my country”, but not “my nation”.’
The territorial state was unable in the end, however, to prevent the emergence of a new form of personal politics, as the newly objectified land offered a vehicle for those politicians who could claim to forge from it an identity for the nation. This was the age of national liberation, and its politics were exemplified, even after his downfall, in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet from Napoleon’s personal style came a reaction, and eventually a re-objectification of the state. Its new object was a nation that did not depend on a leader for its identity, but could be identified with the welfare of its individual citizens, expressed though democratic institutions, but monitored and managed by the giant bureaucratic and military machines of the 20th century. The history of this form of the state has been punctuated by its own periodic lurches into a grotesque kind of re-personalised (and pseudo-Napoleonic) politics, which even now lingers unhappily on in various parts of the world (North Korea, Cuba, until very recently Serbia). But it is the overarching model, the nation-state itself, which both Bobbitt and Cooper believe is now doomed, and has the potential to take us down with it.
The pendulum of modern politics has swung regularly between the personal and the impersonal over the last five hundred years, sometimes unevenly but never so erratically as to take the mechanism off its hinges. Now the pendulum is swinging back again. The monolithic structures of national politics are fragmenting under the pressures of opportunistic international capitalism and in conjunction with the increasing personalisation of the language of rights. Yet there must be limits to this process if we are to continue talking about a state-based politics at all. If the state is nothing more than the name we give to an indeterminate set of relations between the subjects of rights, then we are no longer living in a world of states, but in a world of governance. Such a world has much to recommend it – or at least it does if it is well governed – but it represents the final uncoupling of the personal and the impersonal whose alliance made possible all that has been good and all that has been bad about modern politics. Governance means rules, laws, codes, audits, accountability, efficiency, regularity, on the one hand, and people, on the other. It is clear how all of the former might benefit the latter. But it is not clear how people are to find the political identity on which states depend in the mishmash of rules and regulations by which they live.
In such a world, politics is unlikely to disappear. But it will be a crude, disjointed and uncomfortable business. Bobbitt gives some indication of what he suspects the new politics will be like: ‘there will be more public participation in government but it will count for less, and the role of the citizen qua citizen will greatly diminish and the role of the citizen as spectator will increase.’ Power will be increasingly concentrated, as office-holders accumulate more of it in the fewer places where it is needed. Of the US system, Bobbitt writes that ‘it will be important to ensure that the President’s ability to govern, in the limited area of responsibility given to market-states, be enhanced.’ In this role, as in all others, ‘the market-state merely tries to get the “best” person for the job,’ though there are unlikely to be any tests for what is best apart from those supplied by the market (hence Bobbitt suggests that we will soon look back in amazement at our scruples, if we still have any, about the way politics is currently financed in the affluent democracies). Where governments no longer take responsibility, the tests of governance will be straightforward. ‘The market-state test of the accountability of the NGO is simply this: they are accredited if they can raise enough money to finance successful operations that do not violate international law’ – operations like funding telecommunications links between the First and Third Worlds for the relief of famine. This is a world in which everyone, politicians included, is sensitised to risk but indifferent to fate.
Politics in these circumstances will inevitably become even more personalised than it is at present, as the objects of politics reduce themselves to the subjects of media obsession. Politicians will not abandon the attempt to speak for the state they purport to represent, but it is hard to see how it can be done with much conviction (which will make the appearance of conviction all the more important). The recent French Presidential election perhaps offers a glimpse of the spectacle to come, not so much in the success of the Far Right, though maybe in that as well, but in the crashing of gears as the democratic machine moves at improbable speed from the personal to the impersonal and back again. Two weeks is hardly long enough for any electorate, let alone one as frazzled by globalisation as the French, to adjust to the sight of a man with a criminal record and a rictus grin commanding their votes as the only possible embodiment of democracy. In the first round the French had the choice between what were in effect 16 personalities, and they voted accordingly; in the second round the vast majority had no choice at all, since Chirac was in the enviable position of being able to claim that he was the republic. This may be the consequence of a poorly designed electoral system, but it is also a parody of the history of the modern state, and it is a parody on offer in the future as Bobbitt describes it.
Both Bobbitt and Cooper accept that the post-modern or market-state may not be up to the challenges ahead. Bobbitt is particularly anxious about genetic engineering. He suggests that there may come a point at which science so completely opens up the individualistic basis of market-state politics – by subjecting such things as intelligence, beauty, emotional stability, physical strength, grace, even sociability to the forces of the market – that no state, and especially not one founded on the idea of equality of opportunity, will be able to cope. Cooper is worried about declining birth rates in the West, and more generally that ‘an excess of transparency and an over-diffusion of power could lead to a state, and to an international order, in which nothing can be done because there is no central focus of power or responsibility. We may all drown in complexity.’ But the implied way out of this – concentrations of power and pockets of opacity in a sea of openness – is simply a restatement of the problem, not a solution, since the problem is how to combine the opposed tendencies of open and closed societies within a unified political system. Cooper says nothing about this, and nothing he does say takes us beyond the concerns of the philosophers of the modern state (Hobbes and Locke, Pufendorf and Spinoza, Kant and Hegel, Madison and Sieyès, Tocqueville and Mill), who were all engaged in one way or another with precisely this question: how to reconcile the opposed forces of privacy and publicity, of the personal and the impersonal, within a single polity. In this light, it is perhaps not so pathetic for the architects of European union to seek some reconnection with modern political structures in order to continue this endeavour, even if the way they are going about it at the moment seems pretty feeble.
Cooper writes about post-modern politics as an opportunity we must seize. Yet post-modern politics is remarkably inert in the face of the challenge of constructing a new kind of state. It sounds more pre-modern than anything: not so much a world of complexity as a world in which no one has yet worked out a way of dealing with complexity. Certainly, the one active form of politics that Cooper champions has a distinctly pre-modern ring to it. He wants post-modern states to band together in pursuit of a new kind of imperialism, reconfigured for the moral circumstances of the 21st century. Bobbitt is altogether more circumspect. The Shield of Achilles is punctuated with poetry illustrating various of its themes (beginning and ending with the verses by Homer and W.H. Auden that give the book its title). The section entitled ‘The Historic Consequences of the Long War’ starts with Philip Larkin’s Imperial lament, ‘Homage to a Government’, whose last line is a kind of inversion of the much better known coda to ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (‘what will survive of us is love’):
Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
Bobbitt includes this poem without comment. For Cooper, the new world that Larkin was describing is already past. The soldiers need to go back, have indeed started going back to places like Sierra Leone, though the statues will have to come down and be replaced by new ones. Cooper calls this new kind of imperialism variously ‘defensive’, ‘voluntary’ and ‘co-operative’. But it is not clear what these words mean when you put them together. If they mean, as Cooper implies at some points, that states uncertain of their political character should be gently coerced into the club of post-modernity by a series of threats and bribes, as the European Union is attempting with some of the states of Eastern Europe, then it is hard to see how this is possible without relying on the basic structures of modern politics. If states are to be offered a set of choices, however loaded, and given the opportunity to take advantage of them, only fairly robust representative institutions will enable their decisions to seem either co-operative or voluntary to the people they represent. Moreover, this form of imperialism looks to be pretty dependent on ideas of territoriality, even though geography is one of the things from which the post-modern state is supposed to emancipate us. It offers the prospect of something like the Berlin model of market-state politics, with the world divided up into a series of giant regional trading blocs standing in politically uncertain and potentially very dangerous relations to one another. It also leaves open the question of what is to be done with states that refuse voluntarily to co-operate (unless the assumption is that given the right threats and bribes no state will ever refuse, in which case it is hard to see what is voluntary about it). How would this post-modern imperialism deal with the recalcitrance of a quintessentially modern state like Israel? It is possible to think of both threats and bribes that would bring Israel into line, and on such a scale as to undercut the democratic politics that makes Israel so difficult for the rest of the world to deal with. But threats and bribes on this scale are not going to sit well with the phrase that Cooper takes to summarise the ethos of post-modern international relations – ‘the world’s grown honest.’
Cooper suggests that the new imperialism is exemplified by what has been done in Afghanistan since 11 September. These views have gained him some recent notoriety. His basic argument here is barely different from what it was in the first published version of the thesis, in a Demos pamphlet of 1996, in the prehistoric days before Blair came to power. But where Cooper earlier wrote simply that ‘colonisation is unacceptable to post-modern states,’ in Reordering the World he adds: ‘the opportunities, perhaps even the need, for colonisation is as great as it ever was in the 19th century.’ This is the only real change, though it can be seen as just one more of the challenges of accustoming ourselves to ‘double standards’. It goes along with the claim that although ‘among ourselves we keep the law, when we are operating in the jungle, we also must use the laws of the jungle,’ which Cooper wrote in 1996, but which also holds for the mountains of Afghanistan.
Dealing with the pre-modern world, Cooper consistently argues, means drawing on the full range of political weapons that we have at our disposal, including those we may wish we had discarded. (Bobbitt, too, makes the point of warning market-states not to be queasy about ‘covert operations’, for which he foresees a rapidly increasing need.) It is the ultimate test of political imagination to find a way of reconciling these conflicting impulses. Yet Cooper leaves it at that, as a test of the imagination, and tells us nothing about the political institutions that are likely to help us pass it (he describes only the institutions that make it such a challenge in the first place). He also says nothing about how the challenge might be met in other parts of the world. This is odd, because the least one can say about the current plight of Afghanistan is that the need to find political institutions that reconcile people to a world of double standards is even more urgent there than it is here. What is more, some of the institutions that make this possible are at least known, even if they are not always to hand. They are, broadly, the pluralistic, democratic and welfarist institutions of the modern state.
Like Cooper, Bobbitt incorporates a post-11 September perspective into his argument, not to qualify it but to reinforce the urgency of what he is saying. The Shield of Achilles was written before the attack on the World Trade Center, but it includes a postscript entitled ‘The Indian Summer’, in which Bobbitt suggests that the September attacks were the first battle in a new epochal war. In response to the rejoinder that wars can only be fought between states, Bobbitt argues that the multinational, mercenary terror network that Osama bin Laden and others have assembled is a state – ‘a malignant and mutated form of the market-state’. Al-Qaida possesses many of the basic institutions of the state, including a standing army, a treasury, a permanent civil service, even a rudimentary welfare programme for its fighters and their families. All it lacks, according to Bobbitt, is ‘a contiguous territory’. It is a ‘virtual state’. The war against this virtual state and others like it will require a big shift in military strategies and priorities, as have all the epochal wars in history. The market-state we prefer will have to adapt to defeat the market-state we fear. But what is it about the market-state we prefer that makes it anything more than a ‘virtual state’? It, too, is increasingly detached from the narrow hold of territoriality (on Bobbitt’s account the state has been steadily detaching itself from the idea of territory since the middle of the 18th century). It, too, is a network of intimate but under-specified personal relationships. It, too, is rather shadowy, despite the ubiquity of its figureheads. Bobbitt is surely right to identify ‘virtual market-states’ as rather rudimentary political structures, not just in their welfare provisions, but in their inability to establish a plausible objective identity for themselves. Like the post-modern state, the virtual market-state more closely resembles the modern state at the beginning than at the end of its history.
Bobbitt’s account of the market-state contains both an offer and a threat, as befits the politics on which it would rest. The threat is of a global cataclysm, an epochal war to end all epochal wars. If politicians fail to understand the new world they are dealing with, they will destroy it. Bobbitt doesn’t really specify how, but then he doesn’t need to. Both he and Cooper pay relatively little attention to China as a possible source of future conflict, not, one feels, because they think the dangers negligible, but because they are so great as to be hardly worth spelling out. Somewhere behind the Washington, Berlin and Tokyo models there lurks a Beijing model of market-politics, only nobody is quite sure what it is yet, perhaps not even the Chinese themselves. Politicians who ignore the threats that they are likely to have to deal with, or wish they weren’t there, or mistake them for something else, are playing with fire. But that has always been true, just as it has always been true that the best politicians are those who transcend these constraints in the act of recognising them. No better vehicle for this has yet been devised than the modern state, notwithstanding the number of times that the attempt to transcend it has resulted in disaster. Certainly neither Bobbitt nor Cooper suggest the means of doing it any better, though they do both open up the prospect of abandoning the attempt altogether.
What Bobbitt offers instead is a radical kind of federalism that he believes the idea of the market-state places within our grasp. This involves the replacement of sovereign jurisdictions with an ‘umbrella’ form of political rule: a single zone of governance allowing a diverse set of provincial subcultures to co-exist under it. This would be the outcome of what he calls ‘a market in sovereignty’. Once basic principles of rights and security were established, individuals would be free to seek their own identity within different communities ordering themselves in different ways, and ‘these may be provinces where feminists or fundamentalist Christians or ethnic Chinese congregate, all within a larger sheltering area of trade and defence.’
This is a novel idea, but not an entirely new one. What it most closely resembles is the libertarian vision set out by the late Robert Nozick in his classic text of the 1970s, Anarchy, State and Utopia. Nozick argued that in a world where politics was based on nothing more than a mutual securing of property rights, the possibility would open up for different communities to offer people the full range of political options, subject only to the provision that individuals be free to join and leave these communities voluntarily. There could be Communist communities, and religious communities, and libertine communities, and co-operative communities, and any other kind of community you care to mention, all existing under a single framework of rights-based governance. Nozick called this a utopia of utopias – ‘an environment in which utopian experiments may be tried out’. But it is also utopian in the more straightforward sense that it is a world without politics. The choices that people make and the identities they assume and the relations they establish with one another are entirely divorced from the overarching rules by which they live, which are neutral, indifferent and impersonal. The same is true of what Bobbitt has to offer. There is plenty of room for anarchy in such a world, and plenty of room for utopianism, but no real place for the state.
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