30 November
2017

The Rise and Fall of the Bureaucratic State

Posted in Europe

Today Spain is engulfed by a constitutional crisis in the wake of last month’s Catalan independence referendum. Yesterday a vote in Scotland threatened the unity of another European sovereign state. Tomorrow will likely see the turn of another region (perhaps Flanders or South Tyrol?) to make its own attempt at secession.

Ryan Barnes interpreted this Western European trend toward intranational fragmentation as a form of ‘economic separatism’, in which wealthier regions increasingly resent subsidizing the economies of their less prosperous neighbours before eventually wishing to part ways entirely. It is a reading that fits well with the comparative per capita wealth of the most pro-independence regions (Corsica being a notable exception). It also explains the timing of the increased post-recession support for secessionist movements, which parallels the recent political success of the explicit economic separatism embodied in Brexit and Trumpism. And it is a narrative that helps to make sense of the increasingly leftist Scottish and Catalonian nationalist movements’ tension between utopic accounts of future economic solidarity and current independence arguments which are instead unabashedly rooted in economic self-interest.

It would be a mistake, however, to accept the rhetoric of separatists at face value and reduce such a broad trend to a mere matter of economic logic. Any step toward economic isolation would be punished by our globalized economy as surely as gravity would punish a step away from a cliff’s edge and it is no good to simply pretend that supporters of independence are blind to this fact, whatever their self-confident façade. Furthermore, a strictly financial analysis suggests a strictly financial solution, which fails to account for resurgent separatism even in fiscally autonomous regions such as the Basque Country, where the majority now support a referendum on independence. Indeed, the very fact that ‘economic separatism’ seems to anyone to be sufficient grounds to explain secessionism suggests that the above cases are just the tip of the spear and that there are actually deeper causes behind this impending disintegration of the nation state. These causes can be discovered in the ideological framework of the modern bureaucratic state, which consists of a liberalism which is inimical to any meaningful unity amongst its citizenship.

For a polis to flourish firstly requires a shared narrative which allows its citizens a sense both of where they have come from (what they have received) as well as a vision of where they must go to (what they must give). Secondly it must furnish this directionality toward the common good with the means by which the citizens can endeavour to attain it.

Instead of a politics that is embedded in human histories, however, the bureaucratic state today seeks ahistorically and impersonally to justify itself in terms of a social contract of utility. This undercuts any unionist sentiments of loyalty towards one’s own homeland and it forces those disillusioned by liberalism’s empty abstractions to seek out new homes for their narrative needs, especially when the material utility of a given state founders. Furthermore, political liberalism resists any concrete conception of the common good out of a false sense of pluralism, which renders attainment of such goods to be impossible. And even where there is notional political agreement regarding the obligation to secure the material needs of the populace, the variegated economic means by which this is to be achieved necessitates a political deliberation which is anathema to the maximized efficiency liberalism seeks to establish through the market. As Prof Stefano Zamagni argues, this latter tension has increasingly resulted in the political sphere now offloading even its most basic responsibilities to the self-regulating market, with Moody’s AAA and AA ratings for AIG and Lehman Brothers (who both paid Moody’s for their services) on the eve of their 2008 collapses representing the high-water mark of this absurd trend. It is precisely such bureaucratic offloading of political responsibility to the depoliticized global market that results in popular sentiment regarding the need to regain control of one’s country.

Separatist movements, whatever their individual merits, offer no fundamental solution to the above-outlined political crisis, especially given the sheer extent of it. Indeed, supporters of independence instead often offer false answers to these problems. They tend to interpret today’s uncontrolled economics as a structural problem, rather than an ideological one. And, more importantly, they often presume that a current lack of political cohesion can be meaningfully resolved by establishing a new political regime that is more ideologically in line with that of the local populace. But, as Alasdair MacIntyre noted, peoples’ allegiance to a political ideology functions ‘irrespective of their nationality or citizenship’ and is therefore quite unlike the virtue of patriotism which exhibits a specific national loyalty that does not wax or wane according to the state of internal politics. The generic left-wing or right-wing adverts for separatism, therefore, only reinforce the liberal conception of the state.

Moving forward, we must instead seek to humanise our politics. Economics must become more than mere efficiency followed by afterthoughts of solidarity, democracy must be renewed as a realm of real rational deliberation on the end to which we collectively aim and nations must rediscover narratives that reconnect us with a past that communicates the necessity of loyalty to the polis. The current state of affairs, of course, does little to suggest that any such humanisation is on the horizon, but even as our nations unravel we can at least take succour from the evident fact that people are yearning for something beyond the thin gruel of the liberal bureaucratic state.

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