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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2612

Role of the State in Globalization?

By Professor Laksiri Fernando, University of Sydney (Visiting)

This article is about a book written by Graeme Gill, Professor of Government and Public Administration, and Australian Professorial Fellow, University of Sydney, titled The Nature and Development of the Modern State (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). Although it might be little late to write a formal review of the book, what attracted my attention is the positive portrayal of the role of the state in the context of globalization. Many of the theorizations on the state under globalization by Western writers have so far been discouraging for many state leaders and functionaries in the Third World countries. In contrast Gill’s discourse is both encouraging and instructive.

The book also has another key contribution that needs to be highlighted. Many of the political theorists, including Michael Mann, in the past used to conceptualize the modern state as the nation-state. By doing so they knowingly or unknowingly glorified the controversial ‘nationalisms theory’ in politics that underpins both international and internal wars in our era as well as many other human disasters. Instead Gill has interpreted the modern state as a ‘modern-state’ to emphasize its institutional character and the role that it plays and could play in society without restricting it to a nationalist interpretation. A certain nationalist character is not denied, but what is emphasized is the state’s modernist character and its enhanced capacity to address the needs and aspirations of its citizens while allowing the state to peacefully interact and co-exist with similar states in the international system.

The above aspect of his discourse is also relevant to many volatile Third World countries, including Sri Lanka, that are beset with nationalist or ethnic conflicts without knowing how to extricate themselves from the nationalist quagmire. If the state leaders and the functionaries (including the military hierarchy) perceive the state in the way that Gill has analyzed, they would be in better position to resolve those conflicts while delivering better state services to its citizenry irrespective of ethnicity, religion, language or any other distinction.

There is a clear justification for the book. Although for a long period after the Second World War the attention of political sociologists or scientists in general became deviated from the matters of the state towards the matters of the society, perhaps for understandable reasons, the neglect was damaging until the ‘state was brought back in’ by Theda Skocpol. Yet the new books on the state that arrived after her path breaking work in 1985 (Bringing the State Back In, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) while focusing on many aspects of the contemporary state’s structure, role and functions, missed some of the other important aspects such as the modern states’ social and political capacities particularly facing the challenges of globalization.

There was a general requirement for this kind of a book on one hand. In Gill’s own words, "Given the centrality of the state for the conduct of life in the twentieth century, it is not surprising that it should be the subject of substantial scholarship or that there has been a diversity of approaches to it." On the other hand, and more particularly, "What is perhaps more surprising is that there has been little explicit study of that which is central to the state’s survival and functioning, state capacity." Therefore, it is this ‘little explicit study’ that Gill has tried to magnify and reconceptualize. "The main aim of this book," in his own words, "is analysis of the nature and development, over time, of state capacity” (my emphasis).

There are seven chapters in the book, quite useful to any state leader or functionary who wants to study the business that they are actually engaged in - in a systematic manner. The chapters traverse from the ancient states to the modern ones, focusing on its development under the circumstances of capitalism and industrialization, without failing to touch upon the apparent differences between the Western and other nations. But the book’s most important chapter is the last, on the "State Capacity in a Globalized World," excellently argued and well placed, taking the reader to the recent debates and developments in a complex web of diverse trends and dynamics that are both global and local.

The starting point of the book perceptibly is a definitional interpretation of the state. Following Max Weber, the state is interpreted as that social institution which "possess an administrative and legal order," and which "claims binding authority, not only over the members of the state, the citizens…but also to a very large extent over all action taking place in the area of its jurisdiction." The state, therefore, "is compulsory organization with a territorial basis."

It is also argued that "The claim of the modern state to monopolize the use of force is as essential to it as its character of compulsory jurisdiction and of continuous operation." Because, "the use of force is regarded as legitimate only in so far as it is either permitted by the state or prescribed by it."

While the first aspect of the interpretation undoubtedly implies the state’s necessary capacity to regularize and intercede the economic activities of the business including multinationals, for the greater good of the citizens, the second element emphasizes the need to use legitimate authority to curtail criminality, violence or insurgency to maintain stability and peace in the arena of its jurisdiction. The state’s incapacity in either of those crucial areas for prolonged periods, naturally resulting into other ailments, might render it to be branded as a ‘failed state.’

In Gill’s view the modern state should not only be bureaucratic, but also rational. It should be governed by objective and enlightened rules equally applicable to all layers of the hierarchy. The state is “characterized by specialization." While it is differentiated from other bodies of the society, it is embedded with them at the same time. As he says, "the state is connected to institutions such as political parties, pressure groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and businesses, and through these to the society as a whole."

Gill’s interpretation of the state sovereignty might appear controversial in its theoretical explanation in chapter one, as he has taken a strictly conventional view. Only towards the end of his discourse he has fully appreciated the interdependent nature of the contemporary state within the international system, characterized by an increasing number of multinational organizations and international instruments (laws) that impinge on the state’s traditional sovereignty.

Gill is quite exceptional and commendable in not characterizing the modern state a nation-state. He agrees that there is a need for a "popular feeling of identity with and attachment to it," what can be called "a community of feeling." But he expresses doubts whether this should "rest upon assumptions about shared ethnic identity and to be manifested in a common language, culture and history."

“Many states have had populations who have shared such feelings, and this has given rise to the term ‘nation state," he admits. "Yet the vast majority of states are not characterized by a coincidence between a particular geopolitical unit and a single ethnic group; most states have within their boundaries a variety of ethnic groups, and many ethnic groups are to be found spread across state boundaries." He concludes: "So insofar as the term ‘nation state’ implies a coincidence between state and ethnic nation, it is a misnomer."

The autonomous character of the state is a crucial aspect of Gill’s argument. "The state has its own interests," he shows. "Clearly the state is able to pursue its own goals on the basis of the autonomy it is able to win. But there can also be situations when the state acts as more of an arbiter between competing groups rather than pursuing its own policy."

As he says, "But similarly there can be situations when the state is captured by a particular group within society [which can often be the majority ethnic community] and then turned to the achievement of that groups’ ends. In such situations of capture, the state loses its autonomy and becomes an instrument of its captors." This could be the worst scenario in the modern state, in his analysis. "State autonomy is probably best seen not as the exception, but as the norm."

It is not only in its autonomy, the state’s enormous capacity is anchored; but also in its embedded character with the society. The state’s autonomy is not inimical to the society, but to its benefit. Other scholars most often have tended to see state’s capacity in zero sum terms, against the society. Gill does not agree. "But in the normal course of events, the state does not exercise power against society, but through it," he maintains. One of the most useful counsels for state leaders and functionaries perhaps is the following.

"The state must administer society, it must ensure law and order and a tolerable degree of security, it must ensure that the processes essential to collective life function in a regular fashion. All of these things require the state to cooperate with other social forces, to work with them in achieving the aims which the state has and which many of those forces share." His instructive comments do not limit there.

"Similarly, in the more limited policy spheres, the state must seek the cooperation of the particular constituencies and groups which inhabit those spheres. The state will achieve more of its aims if it works in partnership with the groups that are active in whatever sphere is relevant than if it ignores them. It is likely both to formulate more effective policy and ensure its implementation if it cooperates with those groups most directly affected by it."

The book offers an extensive discussion on the trends of globalization as its analytical peak. The main focus naturally is on political dimension that is rare in many of the discussions on the subject. The thrust of globalization is not new according to Gill. It was there at least in incipient forms, since ancient times. What is evident at present, however, is de-territorialized globalization facilitated by de-colonization and the collapse of communism. He does not have any disagreement with others that it is geared by the technological transformations, but not limited to IT revolution. He discusses the three main facets of the process as economic, political and cultural/ideological in much detail, also outlining the limitations.

In discussing the limitations, he makes a distinction between internationalization and globalization. In conceptual terms, "Internationalization refers to a process of increasing interdependence between states and economies, but this is a process in which the national units maintain some autonomy and identity, and are able to act unilaterally in defense of their interests." That was territorialized globalization. In contrast, de-territorialized "Globalization involves the meshing together of the national units into a single system, so that those units cease to have an autonomous existence and function only as a part of the whole."

The following are some of his observations and conclusions on globalization. "The nature of the linkages that have emerged between national units in the last part of the twentieth century is both extensive and deep, but we should not exaggerate this. There is a clear politico-geographical dimension to globalization."

Simply said, he does not seem to believe that globalization has penetrated the whole globe in a significant manner; and it might not happen even in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, "Indeed, to see globalization as a single force is mistaken. Globalization as a tendency consists of a number of forces which, although they intersect and intertwine, are essentially separate; it is multi-stranded and driven by discrete but intersecting logic…While it is the combined impact of globalization forces upon which many focus, in practice it is the individual operation of each which produces the whole."

One of the important concerns of the present review is about Gill’s conclusions on the state and its capacity in globalization. In the first place, according to him, globalization has not rendered the state obsolete or irrelevant. This is in contrast to what Jean-Marie Guehenno and K. Ohmae argued in 1996 in two separate books of the same title, The End of the Nation State. The role and the capacity of the state in their principle forms that Gill has discussed in several chapters, therefore, remain more or less the same. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the state leaders or the functionaries, particularly in the Third World countries, could operate in the same manner as in the past, as if nothing has happened. Globalization at least has awakened and enlightened the citizens to many of their rights, and their own capacities, that the leaders could not simply ignore. These new challenges have to be effectively addressed. In Gills own words, "This may involve the greater development of some of its institutional structures at the expense of others, and therefore could mean some restructuring of the state apparatus, if it is to remain solidly embedded in the society."

Secondly, "There is much that the forces of globalization do not encompass but which still need regulation. A prime example is in the economic sphere, where globalization has involved the free movement of trade, investment and capital, but not labour; states still control who may work within their boundaries and under what conditions," he concludes. Labour in its broadest sense of the term means the people, in their various capacities, and therefore what is left out by globalization is not a minor task, although the multilateral organizations such as the ILO may regulate broader parameters of which the states might or might not follow.

"The opening-up of such room for the state is reinforced by the way in which globalization promotes fragmentation, particularism and differentiation," Gill discloses. "This ensures the existence of communities that are locally-based and oriented and these require the sort of order, regularity and predictability that can only come from the presence of a political authority."

Thirdly, "It is not only the spaces within globalization that create the room for state action, however. The forces of globalization themselves rely directly upon the state for their ability to function." It would be interesting to explore fully the various ways in which the states (including Third World countries) have or would come into play in the process of globalization as he has discussed. However, Gill’s explanations are two numerous to enumerate in this article. Only few examples might be highlighted.

In metropolitan countries, the institutions and processes that propel globalization have come to realize that they "need to have some guarantees that they will not be subject to criminal and terrorist attack.” As he argues, “The state remains the best placed organization to ensure that, as shown by the response to the 11 September attacks on the USA. It was left to the government to respond to this and to deal with it."

In peripheral countries, the societies that undergo the vast socio-economic changes under globalization, willingly or grudgingly, have also come to realize the need to have equal guarantees that their societies would not disintegrate and would not succumb to criminality or terrorism. It is also the increasing realization of the globalizing forces in the West and their governments, that the states in the periphery should also be strengthened and reinforced against criminality and terrorism.

However, the above should not be an easy excuse for the state leaders or functionaries, in countries best with criminality or terrorism, to focus solely on military functions and shirk away from civilian responsibilities. Many countries in the Third World are now linked to the economic activities of globalization to different degrees. The globalization has required the state to have an enhanced capacity with these increased economic, trade and business activity. In the context, the following may be something that state-leaders and functionaries should keep continuously in mind in their day to day functions.

"The people who work in the institutions of the emergent globalized world have to get to work each day; they need to be secure in their ability to travel about the streets, to acquire food and those other necessities of life. The continuing capacity of the state to provide this security is crucial. Even if the boundaries of states are becoming less important given the transnational nature of capital and goods, the task at the heart of the state’s rationale, the provision of security in all of its contemporary forms, remains central. Indeed, it may be that the perceived operation of impersonal globalizing forces will generate an increased sense of uncertainty and danger among people, which could stimulate powerful pressures for states to act to heighten security for their citizens."

The Nature and Development of the Modern State (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) by Graeme Gill, available through or other sources is essential reading for students and teachers of political science. It is equally useful reading, instructive and encouraging, for state leaders and functionaries particularly in the Third World countries.

- Asian Tribune -

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