All over the news and on every politician’s mouth one catch-phrase stands out recently: “The state must…”. Debates, contradictions and ideological clashes would have the state at same time intervene and not intervene (on the market), de-centralize in a deeper EU integration but still be “national”, immerse in the EU-framework but still maintain “power” and so on. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the influence exerted by the state on human lives is unsurpassed (thus far at least) by any other organizational construct (Zurn&Liebfried:2005). With the unfolding of the present economic crisis, the state-society constellation seems likely to undergo substantial changes. Competing pivots of change are the welfare-ism of the passing Golden Age and the savage neo-liberalism prompted by the economic slump, though their “duel” seems to go on under the auspices of an unlikely, and highly problematic “referee”: a resurgent nationalism (to be seen as a complex result of increased migration dubbed as a cause of the economic crisis, as well as of deeper integration into supranational organizations).

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The aim of this brief overview is to try and look at some possible directions of change for the state-society constellation, under the influence of the competing ideologies outlined above. Obviously, a full on theoretical assessment is beyond the scope of this paper, hence I will limit myself to one central dimension: the state seen as the fundamental actor on the international stage. The background for this choice is not random – growing influence of regional organizations and multi-national corporations and an acknowledged “decline of the West” with its monopoly on defining the terms of international politics –  but rather opens the door for many fascinating inquiries. As hinted in the opening lines, the key questions I will try to focus on are: What can the state actually do? and What is the state likely to do?. Obviously such immense questions cannot be fully answered here, yet starting to tackle them represents a very important stepping stone for political science.

The state between the twilight of the Golden Age and the murky dawn of post-crisis global politics

In the opening lines I tried to hint towards one important underlying question: How much power is the state enjoying in the present context? It is specifically for power that political science has always had an affinity for (Vanhuysse:2009, ch. 3), in its attempt to map out the state-society constellation, hence making it logical to start the inquiry from here.

The Golden Age was characterized by an isomorphism between nation-state and welfare-state (Clarke:2005) and a generational contract fueling a rolling pay-as-you-go system. However, with regional integration being the key phenomenon of the last years, coupled with increased migration, the nation-state, in a classical territorial-based sense, seemed to be unraveling. While neo-liberals are vociferously calling for a similar devolution of the welfare-state, what seems to be happening is something quite different: a retrenchment indeed, but not on neo-liberal grounds of un-sustainability, but rather on a very intricate blend of nationalistic politics and workfare-type policies (Clarke:2007). Even in the uniquely integrated EU, nation-states seem to be latching on to their powers with this new understanding of welfare: the “incoming wave of foreigners” is making life (to be read as economic life) almost “miserable, cruel and brutish”, to paraphrase Hobbes’ description of life without the state, for the nationals that are becoming “truly needy” (true enough Zs. Ferge contends that it is precisely the poor in rich countries that will be most hit by what she calls a change in the welfare paradigm – see Ferge:2002).

Beyond welfare-regimes there are other extremely important substantive transformations in what concerns the states’ powers. Certainly, the fundamental attribute of waging war still remains a trademark of the state’s power, but the unique integration path pursued by the EU (and mirrored to some extent by MERCOSUR and ASEAN) might open the way towards unraveling the Weberian monopoly on legitimate violence (see for instance Faure-Atger:2008). Quite similarly, in the realm of justice the international arena seems to be slowly but surely increasing its power. Obviously this does not mean a full shift though what all of the above seem to show is at the same a quantitative change (i.e. in terms of international/national balance) and a qualitative one (i.e. in the nature of the state’s power). The UK’s Eastern-Europe-related phobia and the continuous talks about a referendum to opt out of the EU seem the prime example of a state clinging on to the nostalgia of the Golden Years, trying to show that it holds the upper hand.  In this line of thought it is also interesting to notice that only rather recently has the EU included some sort of exclusion and exit mechanisms.

With economic recession being the common denominator it seems likely that the national-international relationship become even more intricate and interwoven.  Certainly, there are many more facets of these transformations to be analyzed, though for the time being suffice it to conclude that the gap between what the state can do and what it might do appears to be widening. Certainly, for the time being the state is still the central locus of politics, though it feels safe to assume that the complex transformations brought about by the recent political developments are bringing about a reshaping of the national constellations (to keep in line with the opening metaphor Zurn&Leibfried:2005)

Image Source: Robert’s Fool