Historically the evolution of the State as a socio-political, bureaucratic, and ruling entity has responded to specific needs or demands of the society, sometimes generated by external processes, others by internal ones, and often by a combination of both internal and external factors. For example, as farming developed, people ceased their nomadic wandering and private property became important and a more organized communal life needed to take shape. In this context, the State evolved as a key actor to define, protect, and transfer private property. Likewise, between the late twelfth and fourteenth centuries the move from a feudal system to city-states responded to the need of imposing some form of rule and security to vast uncontrolled land patrimonies. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the move from absolute monarchies and colonial territories to constitutional and independent states responded to the need for self-determination and the rise of civil society. The aspirations for a less tyrannical form of government, and for equality have also driven the evolution of the State throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and now the early part of the twentieth firs centuries. What do the events in 2020 mean for the State moving forward?
The Constant Re-Evolution of the State
Two seismic-like events have shaped 2020: a global pandemic and growing social demands for equity and expanding the democratic State. To put this current moment into perspective it has been about four centuries since the modern State emerged and evolved as a socio-political and economic entity. It has been less than two hundred and fifty years since the first wave of so-called democratic states came to exist and evolved. And, only in the last four decades have the majority of states began to adopt some form of democratic government. Into two decades of the twenty-first century before Covid-19, a slowed-down of the democratic momentum both in consolidated and in emerging democratic systems around the globe became a trend. Before Covid-19, democratic governance was being questioned from two fronts. First, conceptually in terms of whether traditional, liberal, western democratic values could be adapted into an array of different and new political settings, as well as whether non-liberal and non-western values could nourish new forms of democratic governance. And second, democratic governance was also being questioned in terms of its performance, as people in most democratic countries seem to be extremely disappointed by the economic and social results of democratic governance. This debate was giving way to focus attention on democratic sliding back and the expansion of more autocratic regimes, as well as the capacity of the State to be more accountable and to promote more inclusive policies.
Similarly, within the debate of democratic governance, the role and future of the State was coming into question. Not only were there arguments about the retreat of the State and whether it was indispensable or not, but also about how the market and technology had replaced the State as the principal regulatory force in societies. However, the ensuing Covid-19 events confirmed that these claims were somewhat inconclusive. The latest 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: Trust and the Covid-19 Pandemic revealed a remarkable shift in the landscape of trust since January 2020. The Spring Update report shows that amid the Covid-19 pandemic, trust in government in 11 countries has increased since the last measure in January 2020. The government became the most trusted institution for the first time in the 20 years history of the Edelman study. According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer survey, respondents wanted government leading in all areas of the pandemic response. For example, to provide economic relief (86%), to get the country back to normal (79%), to contain Covid-19 (73%), and to inform the public (72%). This reflected the unprecedented time when government response at all levels could mean the difference between life and death.
Other studies confirmed that despite the disruption Covid-19 has caused, it has had a strikingly positive impact on trust in governments. Figure 1 below shows the recognition of the crucial role of the state in COVID-19 response across the different world regions. More broadly the magnitude of the pandemic is diverse across countries, and some have been successful in limiting the spread of the disease, and in preventing deaths. However, according to the Global Health Security (GHS) Index the first comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security across 195 countries, national health security is fundamentally weak around the world. The assessment points out that no country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics, and every country has important gaps to address.
Pressures and demands towards State authority from citizens and social groups have grown steadily during the last decades, to expand opportunities, create wealth, and support policies in favor of equality and equity. Of the universe of states in the world today, a handful have shown strong external and internal capacity to manage and confront change, conflict, and uncertainties. Others, however, are still working towards strengthening their capacity, while still others have limited statehood and/or can also be described as collapsed states. Moreover, some countries did not invest in strengthening democratic institutions and instead allowed individuals with autocratic tendencies to govern and shape a less than ideal scenario for democracy to continue to flourish. Nonetheless, in spite of that diversity, one can speak of the modern states as one system of rule only at a high level of abstraction. During the last seventy years, developing and transition countries have exhibited a high degree of institutional differentiation, and their major functional problems have given rise to increasingly elaborated and distinctive set of structural and political arrangements (i.e., weaker or stronger; democratic or non-democratic; centralized or decentralized; federal or unitary republics, presidential or parliamentary).
It is one thing to claim that the State as an institution might be in retreat, and an entirely different one to argue that some states are deficient in configuring and sustaining political will, institutional authority and organized power to promote the expansion of economic, political and social opportunities and rights. Thus, the question about the role of the State in modern societies does not relate necessarily to the quantity of external and internal authority exercised by the State, but rather to the quality of that authority. In many countries, the State has failed to adequately discharge the very basic function for which the State was created as an institution. As Amartya Sen has pointed out, opportunities and prospects of development and prosperity depend crucially on what types of institutions exist and how they function.
Today countries have different levels of institutionalization, with different assigned functions of rule to different constitutional organs. Furthermore, the boundaries of the unit called State continues to evolve. Both in theory and practice the unit has always been more or less assumed. But new forces and tendencies, such as globalization, inequalities, local and/or cultural self-determination and immigration among the most important, are at work challenging existing and conventional assumptions. For example, the European Union (EU) model has presented countries with a fundamental dilemma. Member states can choose to preserve the authority of a smaller democratic political unit within which they could act more effectively to influence the conduct of their government, even though some important matters might remain beyond the capacity of that government to deal with effectively. Or they could choose to increase the capacity through a larger political unit to deal more effectively with these matters, even if their ability to influence the government were significantly less in the larger unit (the EU) than in the smaller unit.
The dilemma transcends the EU model, since wherever and whenever the societies and economies within democratic states are subject to significant external influences beyond their control, the dilemma will continue to exist. It has, therefore, existed ever since the idea and practice of democracy evolved in ancient Greece more than 2500 years ago. Although economic and strategic limits for the State are ancient, only recently have many people realized that actions in one State can have consequences in other countries. For example, the environmental and climate change issues. The same goes for corruption, as the phenomenon crosses boundaries in impact and influence. Even the capacity to control immigration has begun to slip away from the sovereign control of nation-states. Transnational actions affect all countries in varying degrees, with more intensity of course in developing and transition countries. Nonetheless, localized actions also tend to affect all countries in varying degrees.
On Inequality and the Need of a More Inclusive and Accountable Democratic State
In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the evolution of the State has also been accompanied by questions about democracy and the constant struggle to articulate democratic values and principles with economic performance and citizen expectations. While it can technically be argued that democracy has been in existence since the time of Pericles, democratic governance in all of its forms is barely less than two hundred and fifty years of age and is still evolving. Moreover, it was not until the first part of the twentieth century when the relationship state-democracy-governance was the focus of attention. Equality has been the value most persistently associated specifically with democracy. Over the last 5000 years, concerns with the issues of equality and inequality have led to both support and rejection of democratic governance. As Leon Baradat points out that throughout the larger part of human history most progressive intellectuals not only saw equality as a defining characteristic of democratic government but conservative ones also opposed it for precisely the same reason.
Although Aristotle and Plato disagreed about a great many things, each saw democracy as a form of class rule through which the majority should gain. Aristotle in particular in his Politics argued that constitutions reflect class interests. With the few and the rich in charge, the result of democratic politics would be an oligarchy or at best a polyarchy (a limited form of democracy, as per Dahl). Conversely, with power in the hands of the many or the poor (the demos), the end product would be expected to be a much more inclusive version of democracy, yet still would face challenges of complexity and multiplication of demands. Of course, in spite of the dilemma over the last two hundred and fifty years, the ideal aspiration of articulating equality and democracy has been a constant topic of discussion and discourse. While power has often not been used impartially, but to favor the dominant group or class, through social demands for reforms incremental but important progress has been made towards equality. For example, universal suffrage (initially for white males only and later for other groups and women). The assumption has been that democracy with equal political rights would lead to demands for greater equality in the conditions of life.
The ideas about democracy entailing not only formal legal rights and high levels of participation, but also material substance was to be picked up in the twentieth century, intensifying in the latter part of the century and into the first two decades of the twentieth-first century. Supporters of the welfare state, advocates of the paradigm of human development, and most recently endogenous advocacy and civil society groups in transition countries promoted the cause of enhanced performance and delivery of democratic regimes. The notion of democracy as a means to expand rights, participation, and dialogue also provided the foundations for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it inspired the so-called “third-wave” democratization process that started in the 1970s in South East Europe and that later it spread into many countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern & Central Europe, and the so-called “springs” (the Arab Spring). Unfortunately, the fears that Alexis de Tocqueville had once ago about limited or incomplete democracy are still alive. The main concern was that uncontrolled political power in democratic states might continue to use and re-use power to suppress equality, transparency, and accountability, and thus sustain inequality and enable a more autocratic form of government without checks or oversight.
How the State can Mirror New Emerging Local Political Communities?
The role of the State has been a key feature of the debate surrounding democracy and equality. Traditionally the debate has centered on two opposing views. On the one hand, there are those who favor using the State as an agent of social transformation. A democratic state, it is argued, could both develop economies and alter societies in such a way as to help human needs. Underlying this was a belief that the democratic state could embody collective will more effectively than the market, which favored privileged and more narrow interests. On the other hand, there are those who regard the State as a potential tyrant, and instead, the freedom and productive potential of the market are venerated. During the last couple of decades, while neo-liberal theories remained dominant in practice, the pendulum began to swing towards more state-oriented approaches, and the Covid-19 pandemic, for now, has further moved the pendulum in that direction. Moreover, the state-oriented approaches emerging are no longer exclusively top-bottom centered at the national level, but bottom-up centered in local governments.
Epochal change is difficult to grasp as it occurs. But there is a rare clarity to the historic shift that is now underway in nation-states all over the world. Nation-state development is moving from an era in which the consolidation of homogeneous governing units was the overriding value in politics and economic development toward a time in which the heterogeneity of one’s society, nation and fellow beings has been ushered into the front line of thought and discourse. People everywhere feel this change as they sift through the consequences of democratic and economic change and of the effects of globalization and processes of socio-political re-identification. We seem to be witnessing the culmination of a cycle in the U.S. and other countries, and the slow emergence of something yet amorphous, but more focus on localized political and policy space. A recent survey in the U.S. found that the public consistently put more faith in state and local governments than in the federal government when it came to handling the crisis.
States are no longer similar to those of the nineteenth, or for that matter to those of the twentieth century. As the old society of nation-states gradually decays, new potential forms are appearing. This new society will be faced by all sorts of internal and external challenges to their capacity to govern arising from strategic innovations and continuous decay of national institutions, socio-economic and political conditions, and the formation and re-formation of more localized democratic communities within borders and between borders.
It was the very same Alexis de Tocqueville who as he traveled through the U.S. observed how citizens in the 1830s were deeply engaged with their local governments, as they knew that having a vested interest in their local communities meant success for all. Local government and governance can help invigorate the culture of accountability, norms of justice, and prevent social instability. As they reinvent themselves, local governments will have to learn how to navigate a new and more complex institutional design landscape, which will have to be rooted in three distinct but related dimensions: 1) the local/national; 2) the local/regional; and 3) the local/international.
The reemerging democratic localized State could be a new space to renew politics and policy. A space to discuss new forms of production, redistribution of resources, how to avoid risks, education and health policy, ways to create more opportunities, the need to rebuild cities and build regions, and the management of an increasingly multicultural society. Local political communities will continue to strengthen and demand rights, participation, and accountability, and will influence the redeployment of political institutions. Democracy as a way of organizing the State will move away from being narrowly identified only with territorially based competitive elections of political leadership. Increasingly, the mechanisms of political representation would have to find other ways to accomplish the central ideals of democratic politics and avoid polarization. The replacement and decentralization of the logic where the national State is the only source of order and disorder is a long-term process at best. But there are some minor, but significant and hopeful indicators, which point to a new more localized and equal logic of democratic social and political action.
*Source of the Photo: Pexels, 2020