Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)
Chapter 8. Theorizing Failed States
The proceedings of civil and criminal jurisdiction … were
finally suppressed; and the indiscriminate crowd of noble and
plebeian slaves was governed by the traditionary customs which
had been coarsely framed for the shepherds, and pirates of
Germany. The language of science, of business, and of conversation,
which had been introduced by the Romans, was lost in the
—EDWARD GIBBON, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
THE SKY OVER Kisangani is flat and gray, but it never rains. Down by the river, market women sell small heaps of edible caterpillars, but no one seems to buy them. The streets of this small city at the heart of the Congo Basin are strangely calm and almost devoid of cars, most of which were looted during two recent invasions.
The old art deco buildings of the colonial era have slid into ruin, slowly succumbing to the rain, mildew, and vegetation, as if fading away before one’s eyes. No roads connect Kisangani to the rest of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or any other part of the world; the jungle has retaken the tarmac strips. At the riverfront, the muddy water flows past as it has for millennia; a further thirteen hundred miles from here, over a massive set of cataracts, the rough, churning, brown river spills into the sea, bringing debris and floating plants with it.
Kisangani began as a Belgian trading station. Henry Morton Stanley established it for King Leopold on the American’s third bloody march through Congo in 1883.1Joseph Conrad used the spot as a model for his inner station in Heart of Darkness. It is the last navigable point on the river; the next 250 miles upstream are broken by cascading ledges and waterfalls. I was in Kisangani on my way to Isangi to report on logging in the world’s second-largest intact tropical forest, but the police had detained me. Despite carrying five different forms of official documentation—including an ordre de mission and an autorisation de reportage—all stamped and signed by several different ministries, the cops insisted that I needed more paperwork, and while they prepared it I had to wait.
The next day, I visited the ramshackle provincial administrative offices. A dismal old clerk asked if I would pay $200 for the extra accreditation. I suggested $50. He agreed, but then each day brought more delays. I drifted around the city, befriended a man with a pet monkey named Johnny, drank beer at a bar owned by an Italian timber merchant, and sat on the steps of the church, looking out on the river Congo. There was no traffic on the water for lack of rain—the Intertropical Convergence Zone’s problems extend to central Africa. Drought has made the Congo’s water levels drop, and now it is full of dangerous shoals.
Finally, on the third day of waiting, I told the old clerk at the provincial offices that I would leave without the new authorization. That of course would mean he and his boss might go without the $50 “fee” they required. The clerk looked concerned. Suddenly, the document was ready. It was handwritten on old, brown paper but stamped and signed. On the verso was a different, older document: a typed travel authorization for someone else who was on a veterinary mission, also to Isangi. It read, “Congo Belge, District de Stanleyville‚ Secrétariat … 7 février 1957.”
Anatomy of the Ruins
That document encapsulates how states fall apart and failed states, or semi-failed states, are important because they are so vulnerable to climate change. In failed states social breakdown is the norm; yet, governance and administration are never totally absent. They exist, but in spectral form. It is as if the failed state has reverted to older, tributary methods of domination and reciprocity. Because state failure is relative, in most so-called failed states government is a semifunctional ruin—the state as improvised afterlife. The “travel document” that the clerk in Kisangani gave me is a ludicrous, yet concrete example of this: a handwritten note on the backside of a fifty-year-old colonial document. One finds this type of bureaucracy amidst collapse in most failed states, where underpaid civil servants toy officiously with the components of a defunct colonial police apparatus, not for the sake of law and order but simply to extract survival-level bribes.
Most failed or semifailed states are like that—they have hollowed out governments. Each has a flag, a currency, and a seat at the United Nations, but there is little or no law and order or functioning infrastructure. Failed states are not always apocalyptic war zones of Somalia-style mayhem. Though racked by spasms of violence, everyday life in failed states is more typically defined by the type of kleptocratic jumble found in the DRC.
In places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Guinea-Bissau, and Ivory Coast, the state is a ghost: it appears and then disappears. You can see its outline and feel its presence, but it’s not really there. For example, in Kinshasa, capital city of the DRC, there is no real law enforcement, no publicsafety program, but there is a strict, North Korean-style prohibition against taking photographs, and the police enforce it vigorously. I was once detained for two hours because I took a photograph of a huge, futuristic Space Needle-like tower that soars above the slums, a broken relic of Mobutu Sese Seko’s architectural megalomania. During my detention, I slowly negotiated the “fine” down from $500 to $150.
So it is in failed states, among the ruins of modernity past, the institutions of sovereignty rot and fade like old documents and the colonial offices that house them. On these political frontiers of the catastrophic convergence, the state in its coherent modern form has collapsed but leaves behind many of its bureaucratic components: its uniforms, insignia, paperwork, ministries and officialdom, like the hungry clerk in Kisangani. Only now, these forces take on a strange phantom life, akin to the severed limbs of a spider, each of which keeps twitching and struggling as if the organism were still whole. The police in the Congo demand permissions, travel passes, registrations, and receipts as if they were the agents of some great, centralized despotic state. But in reality, there are no dossiers, no database, and no real oversight or project of extending sovereignty. There is not even sufficient electricity or paper.
Amidst this political rubble sprout superstition, ethnic hatred, tribalism, millenarian faiths, and violent instability. Entire national economies fall into the hands of organized crime. Conflict resources—like diamonds, timber, ore, and drugs—are the main products of these battered places. Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace maintain an index of failed states that uses thirteen criteria to determine a state’s relative failure. They look at mounting demographic pressure, massive population movements, legacies of vengeance, chronic and sustained migration, uneven economic development and inequality, sudden economic downturns, corruption, criminalization of the state, deterioration of public services, arbitrary use of state violence and human rights violations, the relative autonomy of the security forces, factionalism among state elites, and finally, external intervention by other states or parastate forces. It is a descriptive collection of indices that is also explanatory.2
Development in Reverse
To travel in failing states, the front lines of climate change, has a hallucinogenic quality, as if one were passing through, in reverse, the arguments made by Max Weber in his famous lecture “Politics As a Vocation.” In that essay Weber defines the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”3 A modern state is defined by that and other features, crucial among them the depersonalization of politics. In the modern state, the head of state does not own the government, its armies, offices, equipment, revenue, and personnel. In the modern state the politicians and the administrators are legally separated from the means of administration and the real and implied repression they depend on. And they cannot, or should not, use these means of administration for personal profit. This depersonalization and legal rationalization of political power and administration gives a modern state legitimacy.
For Weber, political domination has three forms of legitimation: traditional domination rests on inherited patterns of age-old obedience; charismatic domination relies on the power, gifts, and personality of a specific leader; legal domination rests on “the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional ‘competence’ based on rationally created rules. … This is domination as exercised by the modern ‘servant of the state,’” and thus by the modern state itself.4
Thus, the crucial factor in modern states is that the “means of administration” are not private property. And it is the reversal of this—the reprivatization of the state and the repersonalization of politics and the privatization of war—that marks the start of state failure. Consider again the operative passages in Weber: “All states may be classified according to whether they rest on the principle that the staff of men themselves own the administrative means, or whether the staff is ‘separated’ from these means of administration… . The question is whether or not the power-holder himself directs and organizes the administration while delegating executive power to personal servants, hired officials, or personal favorites and confidants, who are non-owners, i.e. who do not use the material means of administration in their own right but are directed by the lord.”
A paragraph later the old Prussian explains the evolution toward the modern form of state:
Everywhere the development of the modern state is initiated through the action of the prince. He paves the way for the expropriation of the autonomous and “private” bearers of executive power who stand beside him, of those who in their own right possess the means of administration, warfare, and financial organization, as well as politically usable goods of all sorts. The whole process is a complete parallel to the development of the capitalist enterprise through gradual expropriation of the independent producers. In the end, the modern state controls the total means of political organization, which actually come together under a single head. No single official personally owns the money he pays out, or the buildings, stores, tools, and war machines he controls. In the contemporary “state”—and this is essential for the concept of state—the “separation” of the administrative staff, of the administrative officials, and of the workers from the material means of administrative organization is completed.5
In failed states it is the reverse. Power is repersonalized, the means of administration and repression reprivatized. Executive power—by which Weber means the power of decision making and execution—reverts from a centralized, legitimate institution back out to the institutional periphery, the officialdom that controls the apparatus of state: its offices, documents, dossiers, ministries, arms, checkpoints, and jail cells. These technologies are redeployed in a fragmented and parasitic fashion.
The failed state’s bureaucratic disintegration produces a unique political geography: a patchwork sovereignty akin to the collage of authorities—king, church, cities, lords—that defined medieval Europe. The patchwork today appears to varying degrees, across parts of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East and Central Asia. Perhaps the capital city is run by the “presidential guard” or some of the paramilitary forces of the interior ministry, itself the property of its head man. That would be a description of Kinshasa as well as Kabul or Baghdad. Outside the capital, a renegade commander’s men control some crucial road to the border; you’ll find this in Congo, Afghanistan, and Colombia. Foreign troops—perhaps wearing blue UN helmets or NATO insignia—secure the areas around their bases, a few government buildings, road links, and airports. Bandits and rebels control the areas beyond. In more distant regions or provinces with resources or lucrative trade links, one might find an armed and autonomous governor who pledges allegiance to whatever central government the great Western powers have propped up but who is, in reality, his own boss running an independent substate. In the port city, it will come as no surprise if the real power is the top import-export merchant, who, by means of his great wealth, bribes the cops and calls the shots with local politicians. These features again describe parts of Iraq, Colombia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, the DRC, and Somalia, to name a few.
These are the political patterns of fourteenth-century Europe, the political forms left by the collapse of Rome and in the wake of the plague.6 They are not the patterns of underdevelopment but rather those of social breakdown and political collapse. They are the institutional and political rubble of a past modernity. And increasingly they define the present.
We see here a strange inversion of Walt W. Rostow’s “stage theory” of development and his idea of “economic takeoff.”7 Collapse, like development, is gradual, each stage building sequentially upon the conditions created by the previous stages. Like development, it can become a self-reinforcing process. The slide toward entropy and chaos is like the virtuous cycle of modernization and industrialization imagined by the West’s postwar planners—but in violent reverse.
States, War‚ Crime
If we read Weber in reverse, we would do well to consult Charles Tilly’s classic essay “State Making and War Making As Organized Crime” in the same fashion.8 According to Tilley, “War makes states,” and “banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making all belong on the same continuum.”9 He argues that organized crime-style protection rackets are, in many ways, akin to taxation by legitimate states. War, extortion, and plunder exist on a spectrum, separated by different levels of intensity and legitimacy. The main point of the essay is that as European war making became more expensive in the cost of ships, cannons, and fielding armies, so too did the project of taxation and administration become more developed and thus modern. As Tilley puts it,
In an idealized sequence, a great lord made war so effectively as to become dominant in a substantial territory, but that war making led to increased extraction of the means of war—men, arms, food, lodging, transportation, supplies, and/or the money to buy them—from the population within that territory. The building up of war-making capacity likewise increased the capacity to extract. The very activity of extraction, if successful, entailed the elimination, neutralization, or cooptation of the great lord’s local rivals; thus, it led to state making. As a by-product, it created organization in the form of tax-collection agencies, police forces, courts, exchequers, account keepers; thus it again led to state making.10
If conventional war making produced the modern state, then asymmetrical warfare, social breakdown, intercommunal strife, brigandry, and open-ended counterinsurgency in the age of climate chaos may well be the modern state’s undoing. As the means of administration and “extraction” collapse, “bands of armed men” fall away from the state and are released freelance into society to survive by their own devices. Taxation becomes theft as soldiers and police revert back to bribery, extortion, and banditry. Where the state is totally absent, gangs arise to govern slums like proto-city-states.
There may also be technological aspects to the breakdown of modern state power. As the Kenyan case illustrates, there is something particular about the proliferation of small arms: AK-47s, grenade launchers and machine guns. When these “democratic” means of violence are cheap enough, they undermine state power in a manner that is directly inverse to Tilley’s argument in which expensive naval ships and cannons demanded (and thus created) elaborate, centralized, modern bureaucracies and taxation regimes.11 If cannons and frigates made the modern nation state, the Kalashnikov and field radio might undo it.