What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Guest post #001

Guest post by Márton Kasnyik

It’s about time for someone to break Péter’s monopoly over his own blog, so I’m very happy to use this occasion to summarize my own paper, which he mentioned before. It is unfortunately not yet available in English (it was published in a Hungarian journal called Kül-Világ), but I think, getting the main arguments together can make the whole thing a bit more clear and focused. So I’ll try not to write a too lengthy post.

Let’s face it: most of the scholarly (and even more so the policy) literature on ‘failed states’, post-conflict reconstruction and development is based on a very selective and narrow reading of social sciences. This can be argued of course, but at least that has been my feeling about it, ever since I got acquainted with the mainstream discourse on these issues. This powerful mainstream discourse operates with a lot of theoretical assumptions that can be called a bit arbitrary, and can be questioned with the help of different modes of theoretical enquiry. My project is about viewing the theoretical assumptions of state-building from an anthropological perspective. There is a lot of work done by anthropologists on the political life of postcolonial states, state formation etc., which can be utilized in this rethinking; it is actually a shame that so little (basically nothing) of all this was used in crafting the dominating theoretical frames, which then supplement the actual policies carried out in the real life. Here are a few main things I’d like to point out:

- First of all, anthropologists should not only be viewed as instruments in the broader policy (meta-)frameworks: they have a lot to say about the theoretical foundations of these policies. As long as we don’t take them seriously enough, and don’t incorporate their ideas theoretically, they won’t be the kind of “superweapon” like the Pentagon likes to think these days.

- There are fundamental problems with how the mainstream policy discourse portrays the concepts, such as of “the state”, “the civil society” or “the market” as the natural spheres of society. Particularly in the state-building discourse, thinking about the state as a unitary, homogenous actor can be totally misleading in postcolonial settings. Anthropological approaches have a lot to offer in understanding how power in these not-so-coherent apparatuses really works, especially when they are starting out from Foucault’s concept of productive (not only repressing) power, and governance / governmentality. This classic article by Timothy Mitchell is one that I strongly recommend.

- Beside the problems with the descriptive frameworks of the state-building literature, there are also some perspectives to be gained from anthropology in the normative dimension. The moral legitimacy of intervention is very often defined in a discourse which resembles the colonial way of treating local people. Anthropology has developed a sensitivity against this kind of hierarchical approach, which could be useful in getting closer to an understanding in local situations.

Ok, these three points were a bit superficial, but you get the picture.

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