Crisis of Legitimacy and Hollowing of US States

A while back, I posted on John Robb’s distinction between failed states and hollow states. A reminder:

“A failed state is a complete breakdown in the delivery of political goods (security, law, health, education, infrastructure, etc.), the dissolution of most arms of the government (often what’s left is in absentia), and widespread chaos.  Think Somalia.

In contrast, these states are well on the road to becoming hollow states.  A hollow state is different from a failed state in that it continues to exist on the international stage.  It has all the standard edifices of governance although most are heavily corrupted and in thrall to global corporate/monied elites. It continues to deliver political goods (albeit to a vastly diminished group, usually around the capital) and maintains a military.  Further, in sections of the country, there is an appearance of normal life.

However, despite this facade, the hollow state has abdicated (either explicitly as in Lebanon’s case or de facto as in Mexico’s) vast sections of its territory to networked tribes (global guerrillas). Often, these groups maintain a semblance of order, as in rules of Sao Paulo’s militias or the Taliban’s application of sharia.  Despite the fact that these group control/manipulate explicit economic activity and dominate the use/application of violence at the local level, these groups often grow the local economy.  How?  By directly connecting it to global supply chains of illegal goods — from people smuggling to drugs to arms to copytheft to money laundering.”

In a more recent post, Robb argues that some US states are in effect hollow states based on this Global and Mail illustration:

As the article notes:

“California’s fiscal hole is now so large that the state would have to liberate 168,000 prison inmates and permanently shutter 240 university and community college campuses to balance its budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1.”

Not only that but, according to Robb, hollow states do not simply abdicate their margins of maneuver, they have no choice:

“Fiscal insolvency leads to an endless reduction in services.

The more you cut, the worse it gets.  The worse it gets, the more you cut.  Don’t cut fast enough and the financial oligarchy whacks you with higher rates and onerous dictates.  In the end, there isn’t much left.”

It also means that corporations may get to use state power for their own interest:

“Last week, Drew Wheelan, the conservation coordinator for the American Birding Association, was filming himself across the street from the BP building/Deepwater Horizon response command in Houma, Louisiana. As he explained to me, he was standing in a field that did not belong to the oil company when a police officer approached him and asked him for ID and “strongly suggest[ed]” that he get lost since “BP doesn’t want people filming”.


Here’s the key exchange:

Wheelan: “Am I violating any laws or anything like that?”

Officer: “Um…not particularly. BP doesn’t want people filming.”

Wheelan: “Well, I’m not on their property so BP doesn’t have anything to say about what I do right now.”

Officer: “Let me explain: BP doesn’t want any filming. So all I can really do is strongly suggest that you not film anything right now. If that makes any sense.”

Not really! Shortly thereafter, Wheelan got in his car and drove away but was soon pulled over.

It was the same cop, but this time he had company: Kenneth Thomas, whose badge, Wheelan told me, read “Chief BP Security.” The cop stood by as Thomas interrogated Wheelan for 20 minutes, asking him who he worked with, who he answered to, what he was doing, why he was down here in Louisiana. He phoned Wheelan’s information in to someone. Wheelan says Thomas confiscated his Audubon volunteer badge (he’d recently attended an official Audubon/BP bird-helper volunteer training) and then wouldn’t give it back, which sounds like something only a bully in a bad movie would do. Eventually, Thomas let Wheelan go.”

And that is on top of unlimited funding for elections and a corporate-friendly US Supreme Court and Congress.

Limited capacity of action (sometimes through voluntary relinquishing of state power) due to financial hardship involves declining services and increased crisis of legitimacy and financial hardship brings about further cuts and threats of further major shedding (see: deficit commissions and discussion of “what to do about Social Security”).

So, Somalia may have pirates and militias, Afghanistan has warlords, and the US and some of its states as well as financially-strapped “rich” countries have the transnational capitalist class.


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