Fallen States

umair haque on 2017-01-16

What’s the Most Unexpected Thing in the World Today?

Roughly two decades ago, economists created a new category of countries: “BRICS”, “emerging tigers”, and so on. The message was: the most important phenomenon of political economy in the world was the rise of formerly poor and broken countries. China, India, Thailand, etc. Their ascension into the league of rich and propserous nations was a happy and celebratory message for a world in which things were going right.

But today’s world is precisely the opposite. It’s most important phenomenon is the very opposite: the fall of formerly rich and prosperous nations. I will call such nations “fallen states” in this essay. Consider for a moment how genuinely new this development is: how unexpected and alarming and unprecedented. Would you have imagined just a decade ago that nations like Turkey and the US would — could — become what they are today?

Who is on the list of fallen states so far? Russia, America, Turkey, possibly Greece. And there are strong signs that many more are to come: the UK, for example. Hence, my suggestion is that if you really want to understand the world today, then the rise of fallen states is the single most valuable lesson that you can learn.

Fallen states are not just failed states — they are what lies beyond failed states. Failed states are nations in which institutions have failed to develop any “capacity”, as political scientists call it — or power and presence in simple human terms. Institutions are largely impotent, whether legal, executive, or social. The result is something like anarchy, the law of the jungle — roving gangs of warlords come to rule a society.

Fallen states are different. In fallen states, institutions are turned against civil society. They are not impotent — far from it. They are used to repress, subjugate, demoralize, and destroy it. A simple example is Turkey jailing and detaining journalists: the use of legal and executive institutions to delegitimize the simple publication of competing truths. Wherever we see the use of institutions to throttle, punish, and intimidate civil society, so there we see a fallen state.

Fallen states are infectious. Failed states don’t really threaten their neighbors very much. They are relatively powerless, remember? Too busy fighting their own internal struggles. Just because Pakistan failed did not mean, for example, that India had to. Fallen states are very, very different. Because institutions are still powerful, not powerless, they are used to destabilize neighbors. State sponsored destabilization programs emerge.

What do I mean by “destabilization”? I don’t mean intimidation and bullying, overt political games, saber-rattling and so on. Rather, I mean the quiet and almost invisible poisoning of another’s country’s civil discourse. With propaganda, spycraft, and puppet planting. Who is doing this in the world today? Who could possibly be behind the efforts to hack elections in the US, France, and Germany? That is state-sponsored destabilization. It is as if fallen states have an imperative, a longing, a deep yearning to spread their fall as far and wide as they can. That is why Russia today is bent on crumbling the West into ruins.

The best analogy I can offer you is that fallen states are like retroviruses. Retroviruses write themselves into the DNA of a host, and make permanent changes. So do fallen states — they make permanent changes to societies, to their very DNA — and then hope to infect the nearest healthy society.

Fallen states are valueless, because everyone is expendable. I mean this in a true and subtle sense. Let me try and explain as best as I can.

First, a fallen state has no genuine allies. Even historic friends are deemed disposable. Think of Trump’s treatment of Nato, and you get the idea. Second, a fallen state has no genuine friends. In an atmosphere of paranoia, everyone comes to be an enemy — and that is why fallen states need puppets. You don’t need puppets if you are able to have friends, right? Third, and to me most salient, even a fallen state’s own people are expendable. They are fodder, for whatever cause is deemed to be most important at the time. What causes are those?

Life in a fallen state always gets worse, never better. Fallen states are always fighting — not creating, building, improving, enhancing, investing. Because they are paranoid, threatened actors, incapable of genuinely relating to other societies on equal terms, they must fight. So they fight soft and hard wars…forever. Against anyone and everyone.

But the price is steep. Life in a fallen state only gets worse. Fighting imaginary wars is not investing in healthcare, transport, education, finance, is it?

I say “always”, and perhaps you think I am exaggerating. Has life — at the median — in Russia improved since the Soviet fall? Or has it gotten steadily worse? Is life in Turkey improving — with the rise of tyranny, can it improve? Has life in the US gotten better over the last 25 years — or steadily worse, to the point that now the average citizen faces falling life expectancy, income, and savings?

Life only gets worse. And so we come to the last and most terrible feature of fallen states.

Fallen states embody a vicious circle: fearful and angry people getting poorer support tyrants and institutions being nastier, meaner, harsher. The virtuous circle of genuinely succesful nations is precisely the opposite. Canada, Australia, Sweden, for example, have societies in which sharing prosperity yields kindness and wisdom and justice. Fallen states like Russia, America, and Turkey face a vicious circle instead: fear and anger lead to tyranny leads to malinvestment leads to poverty leads to fear and anger. And on and on.

In this way, fallen states are the emblems of a broken world. One in which prosperity has stalled, peace is sputtering out, and genuine leadership has vanished. Fallen states are microcosms of the problems afflicting the world today.

Let us then not just condemn them. But learn from them the universal and eternal lessons of the fall. It is hubris and gluttony, and the fear and deceit and rage that they produce, which cause the human spirit to descend into the underworld. As Orpheus knew, once a soul is there, only love can come to save it.

Umair January 2017