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

Monday, August 4, 2008

Corrupt, failed, stupid states

Barnett Rubin's mention of it made me read Serbian economist Branko Milanović's article on "corrupt states," but I didn't like it very much. I'm not saying you shouldn't read it, but it's a dead-end sort of thinking that characterises it. Ex officio, being a contributor to the state failure discourse myself, I do feel the need to have my say about it, in a nutshell.
Quoting Milanović here, regarding the central notion of his article:
" "Corrupt states" are different from a more commonly used category of "failed states." The distinguishing characteristic of a failed state is its inability to exercise control over its national territory; a key feature of a corrupt state is its weak governance structure, lawlessness and inability to move toward self-sustained development. While failed states have existed in the past - think of the Ottoman Empire in its last century - the spread of corrupt or criminalized states is a recent phenomenon, almost non-existent before the current wave of globalization. Is this a coincidence? "
So are corrupt states so weak they are strong? So not "self-sustained" that they are sustained?
That's what seems to be implied here. But, of course, in fact it's not the state as such that is getting stronger or richer through corruption of the kind that is connected to illicit trade. The state is not an actor here. It's people "behind" the state who profit from corruption, people who have captured the state and taken on actorship on its behalf. Sort of.
Corruption, by nature, is informal. It will not make a state stronger. At best it will leave it unaffected. The money from informal exchanges goes to certain people. And some of the people around those people. You couldn't even say, along the lines of Joel Migdal, that it goes to society as opposed to the state.
The drugs trade, human trafficking, all those illegal businesses Milanović mentions are trans-national (or trans-state rather) in nature. The trans-state groups behind them include not merely consumers in the West, but Western dealers as well. Connecting the notion of this sort of corruption to particular states is just a mistaken approach. The opposite of what would need to be done, analytically. It could be more legitimate to talk of corrupted states, than corrupt states, and then one should look at reasons, processes and agents in the background of why, how and by whom they have come to be corrupted.
Milanović goes to suspiciously great lengths saying things like this about Albania:
"The best examples of corrupt states are found in the less developed parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America, exemplified by Albania, a regional center for human trafficking and cigarette and drug smuggling; (...) Albania is the most corrupt and lawless European country, exclusive of several former USSR countries, followed by Kosovo, the UN-administered territory that shares many characteristics. (...) Globalization's contributed by creating new suppliers - for example, Albania could not supply people and guns while it was a closed state."
My remarks:
1.) If Milanović implies here that Albania-the-state is consciously dealing in the illicit trade of guns, than my above point about the state not being an actor of corruption is invalid, regarding this at least. But this statement is a little absurd: So Albania is waging 4GW on the whole world or what? If I accept the absurd statement that it does, is that really corruption as far as Albania is concerned? Couldn't this possibly conform to a Realist view of International Relations and its concept of self-help as ideal state behaviour? Besides, I never knew the major global arms dealers were from Albania (too bad for those people who will now think that I'm wrongly informed and that Eastern Europe, including countries like Albania, is the only real centre for illicit arms deals - it is not).
2. So there is corruption in Albania. And there are Albanian traffickers of all sorts of contraband. No doubts there from my part. So what? In other states of the region, too, corruption and trafficking occurs. Like, I'm Hungarian. If this is more easily acceptible to Milanović, I'll say nothing about Serbia. Instead I'll just say there's enough corruption in countries like Hungary, too. But no need to get into a race in denouncing our own countries within the region. There's enough corruption in the West, too. To come up with a way too obvious example: What would Milanović say about Italy? With the Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan Sistemas or the 'Ndrangheta, to name just a few examples? All of them organisations that thrive on illicit trade.
This already brings us to the eye of the storm. That is the problem with labelling when one uses a binary code as its basis. If there are corrupt states, then there might be non-corrupt states... or do we claim here that all states are corrupt? Let's imagine the term "corrupt states" becomes as fashionable as "failed states." Who else, besides Noam Chomsky and some non-Western ideologues, will write a book for example about the U.S. as a corrupt state? (You know, not to say that it would really feel right to write about the U.S. that way - just because there is corruption in the U.S., too, just like everywhere else in the world there is.)
We may also need to answer questions like: Is Russia a corrupt state? Has it become less of a corrupt state under Putin? Has it ceased to be a corrupt state under Putin? Has it become more corrupt? What about China? India? What comprehensive metric should we use to answer such a question? Transparency's CPI is one possibility among some others - but even if we would have the methodologically immaculate indice, where would be the objective thresh-old beyond which a state as such is corrupt?
Else. What about solving the problem of globalisation-related illicit trade and corruption, through legalisation and deregulation, as suggested by the article?
In fact I'll just stop there. One simply shouldn't talk so naively about Gordian knots in a world where such knots can only be unbound, if they really can be, with great care and patience.

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