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, Grenoble, July 2010

State formation

Introduction Part 1 of the book « Rethinking the foundations of the State, an analysis of post-crisis situation ».

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Part I shows that State formation is a continuous process, however it does not follow that it is a smooth or constant one. Crises are an important impulse within this process, giving space to new actors and rules that can shape the State. The authors in this part have different approaches to the use of violence in State formation. In the post-crisis search for political order there are inherent tensions between different political projects based on the interests of the different actors involved in the State (trans)formation process, who are international, national and local players. External efforts at State-building often conflict with internal variations of State forms and the outcome of this confrontation is a reflection of the power relations between actors. Both Dieckoff and Bolivar put their finger on the paradox that the use of violence and of coercive tools extensively used in the past for State formation, like forced assimilation, compelled emigration or outright suppression are incompatible with democratic rules.

In chapter one, Alain Dieckoff assesses multinational democratic States and how they deal with the political challenge of diversity without oppression. His focus is on multinational rather than multicultural States. While many are both, multinational States have the particularity that they incorporate previously self-governing and territorially concentrated cultures. Many States have sought to end the existence of their internal nations whether through forced assimilation, forced emigration, or outright suppression. These harsh measures have tragic results and are clearly incompatible with democratic rule of law. Dieckoff is therefore interested in the political arrangements democracies have developed to deal with this diversity. To Dieckoff openness to diversity is the only option even if a multinational State’s stability cannot be guaranteed in the long run and if it cannot preclude, in extreme cases, secession. Factors that contribute to stability are cross-cutting divisions, which prevent the emergence of deep internal fault lines; a shared historical experience; the existence of a monarchy and/or a shared public culture that is firm enough to link the people together and flexible enough to preserve the autonomy of the various subunits. While common civil values are essential foundations for a democratic society, their general nature makes them unfit to become the sole unifying link within a multinational State. Factors like language, history, and culture are not very effective either because they can nurture internal divisions. Finally, whilst wars are often a catalyst for national solidarity, they can frequently sow seeds of division in multinational States.

In chapter two, Mau looks at the relationship between economic and political transformations in post-Soviet Russia. He chooses to use the European Revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries in France and England as well as the Bolshevik revolution in the 1920s as an analytical framework to describe the State trajectory in Russia in the 1990s. He points out in detail the determinants of revolutions and conditions/factors that lead to State consolidation. In his analysis, he insists on the intricate link between the weakness of State power and economic crises.

The collapse of the Soviet Union corresponds to the following general characteristics of revolutions: systemic change with preconditioned internal processes, and the weakness of State power. The latter is characterised by a fluctuation in economic policy; plurality of power centres; a lack of well-established political institutions; and a lack of rules. The State -as inherited from the Soviet era- was both strong and weak. Its strength relied on its ‘executive vertical system’ and its weakness was due to its protracted financial crisis; the emergence of new interest groups; the divergence of interests between enterprises, and the different republics and regions, all combining to create an uncontrollable social environment. The normalisation of economic processes and the retreat from a revolutionary crisis can be achieved only with the strengthening of State power and its stabilisation. According to Mau, a State should be strong enough to overcome striking discrepancies in interests promoted by individual social strata and groups, a discrepancy which is characteristic of pre- and revolutionary periods. This occurs only when a new elite emerges out of the revolutionary chaos, gaining in strength and becoming capable of supporting the new regime. Only then are the conditions ripe for achieving revolution. This process usually ends with the establishment of an authoritarian post-revolutionary regime.

Mau also explains why revolutions in many cases end in the recycling of elites: the reinforcement of the State power presupposes the formation and consolidation of the new elite, which is as a rule genetically linked with the old elite. In most cases the new elite emerges from the old, albeit with essentially different economic and political characteristics. He concludes that “the socio-economic and political characteristics of a country emerging from a revolution depend in the long run on the methods used for solving its financial problems and the kind of coalitions formed during the revolution. These factors determine the character of post-revolutionary developments in the given country, including its economic progression” (1). It is the latter that encompasses a new structure of ownership, predetermining a new configuration of different interest groups and the government’s status with regard to these groups.

In this chapter three Bolivar et al. put forward the idea that violence is an integral part of State-making. Following this line of reasoning it is therefore erroneous to analyse the political violence in Colombia as an anomaly. It should be understood as part of the process of State formation. There are many indicators that the four conditions of States, that of territorial integration, social stratification, political centralisation and a shared discourse about the State are not met in Colombia. Political violence has a function in the economic and political integration of the territory. The current situation in Colombia can best be described as a differentiated State presence, where the relationship between State and society is very different in the various regions. There is a divide between rural and urban areas, between the centre and the periphery - specially in the South-, regions where the guerilla are the most important political actors, those where the paramilitaries have a strong presence and then those where the Church, political parties and economic institutions determine the political playing field. Menkhaus, in chapter seven joins Ingrid Bolivar in discussing the centre-periphery tension and its implications on State formation. He also focuses on the hinterlands in his case study to demonstrate the non-unified processes of State formation in a territory, in this case the Somali-inhabited areas in the Horn of Africa.

Bolivar focuses on the variety of attitudes towards the use of violence as a means to exercise power and how there are affected by the degree of State presence in Colombia. The political trial Parapolitica that was opened in 2006, demonstrated the links and tensions between these different levels of governance and opened the debate on what are considered as legitimate means to exercise power. While regional actors know that the relations among armed actors, regional politicians and some local groups are what makes some regional and local orders sustainable, this sustainability in economic and political terms has been judged at the national level. The prevalence of juridical categories for assessing political performance inhibits an understanding of what happens with politics on the local level; at least in States in which political control is contested by means of arms. This discourse about the State also creates personal tension because there is a contradiction between the political violence people observe and the dominant political discourse that denies the link between violence and the State. In their conclusion Bolivar et al point out the paradox that the precarious ways that make local orders sustainable are not acceptable, and the acceptable ways -the legal political procedures- are insufficient to guarantee order.

In chapter four Anne Brown raises questions for international actors in State formation, questions linked to the concept of political community and engagement with different cultures and normative systems. Brown observes that current State-building exercises create States that are divorced from society; they are based on an alien discourse of political community that has no link with local practices. The marginalisation of local culture undermines the potential for participation and accountability as well as the essential linkages between government and population upon which broadly democratic, or even simply legitimate and effective government depends.

In opposition with the previous chapter, Anne Brown does question whether violence is a necessary ingredient of the State formation processes. Instead she proposes means such as inclusive political processes to facilitate the formation of States side by side with the emergence of a national political community and legitimate government. A practical example is that of linking State institutions with customary and community governance. Brown describes customary governance as a “dynamic and evolving source of social order which has a capacity to respond to conflict”. While they are not relevant in all post-conflict environments, and while there is immense variation between local customary orders, taking them into account represents a potential different trajectory of State formation. In the case of East Timor, we can find examples of customary governance in the domains of justice issues and natural resource management. Tarabandas -which Brown defines as customary agreements within communities reached after lengthy negotiations which govern the relations between people and their access to natural resources- are an example of mechanisms enabling articulation between different forms of governance. Brown also discusses decentralisation and the election of local government as possible means of taking into consideration local culture in State-building and to arrive at an inclusive and legitimate government; though both can have very mitigated results. “Decentralisation in itself does not guarantee taking local culture seriously and although the introduction of local level elections represents, in part, an effort to include rural populations in national political life, they are unlikely to be able to fulfil this complex task”. Brown concludes that “customary governance and formal government are inevitably entangled – the challenge is how to identify and encourage constructive interaction, open to forms of scrutiny and accountability that are intelligible to people (2)”.

In chapter five, Delfeld critiques teleological assumptions about the role of the nation in modern governance, and proposes instead to analyse different governance systems and their varying roles in peoples’ lives. In the case of the Philippines this does not mean that State institutions do not exist, it just means that the way they function and their meaning for local populations is different than in their original, European, context. She makes and argues the claim that there is no reason to expect that the relatively new States of the post-colonial world will take a path that parallels that taken in the Global North. She describes States that are less historically dependent on internal processes and legitimation than a true national State as « Hollow States ». These States should not however be considered as ‘fragile’ or ‘failed’ as stable political processes are in place, yet they are not necessarily considered legitimate from within that State, a definition that the Philippines matches.

This chapter looks at what factors can be used to explain the obstacles to an overarching identity in the Philippines. Delfeld points to natural geographical boundaries hindering communication and trade; ethnic diversity; the way the country gained independence; factors that have a centrifugal effect like a semi-permanent diaspora; corrosive effects of sporadic national-level corruption scandals; the comparatively high effectiveness of local governance; and the strong relational ties at the sub-national level. This chapter further looks at the national-level political moves that end up reducing the democratic impulse on the part of citizens. However “looking at national level politics in the Philippines, doesn’t always help to understand how governance actually works” (3). Finally the chapter analyses the reasons for the difficult connection between the local level and national-level politics. Before colonisation by the Spanish the centre of government was the barangay (or balangay), and for many purposes this local community of usually just a few hundred or thousand people is still the political core. Based on her research on the island of Palawan, Delfeld points out that the perception of local government is far more positive than the perception of national government. A factor of even greater interest is that she found out that the more effective form of local government, according to the population, is actually not a form of government at all, but the non-profit sector, locally-generated cooperatives, and similar organisations. She believes that the strong activity of certain NGOs and People’s Organisations at the barangay level preserves the illusion of effective local governance, thus skewing the opinion of the population in favour of local governance. Delfeld’s research findings bring into question the role of the State as the primary point of identification for a group of people within the State’s boundaries.

She observed an enthusiastic and mutually supportive relationship between local government officials and NGO workers, even in cases where the stances of the latter were at odds with those of national government. One reason this scenario has been possible on Palawan is the interest that the international community has taken in the province and the direct financial support they have provided for NGOs out of concern that the central government is unaccountable.

The category of the Hollow State, where the State itself is more the site of discourse with external partners than with domestic ones, might also apply to Lebanon. In the last chapter of part I, Josiane Tercinet explains that in a State like Lebanon there is also a discrepancy between internal and external sovereignty. Even though Lebanon might resemble a small pawn in the game of the great powers, it knows very well how to make use of its international recognition as a State. After the civil war, it had to face threats of separation coming both from outside (Syria and Israel) and from the inside (Hezbollah and its powerful militia). It receives help from the international community personified by the Security Council when international peace is threatened. So, Lebanon is a fragile State and nevertheless it presents itself as a sovereign State, demanding help in order to use its State powers. Usually, sovereignty is a consequence of being of the State linked to the possession of a territory, a population and effective public powers; in the Lebanon case, the sovereignty seems to precede the effectiveness of the State.


  • (1) : Mau, V. Chapter 2.

  • (2) : Brown, A.M. Chapter 4.

  • (3) : Delfeld, H. Chapter 5.