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Posted by: on Mar 24, 2010 | 3 Comments

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History
By Phillip Bobbitt

This morning, after a hard-fought battle in Congress, President Obama signed a health care reform into law. The legislation was hashed out over a year, then passed in the House with just a few votes. No Republicans voted for the bill. And in my Twitter stream and Facebook activity feed, people characterize their opponents in outrageous ways. One set characterizes the new law as impending socialism or fascism, and they hope that it can be struck down or repealed. The other characterizes the law’s opponents as racists who hate the poor or dupes who exhibit a Pavlovian response to Republican fear-mongering. I’m left to wonder whether these two sets are aware of each other and whether they see the same status updates that I do. My guess is that they do, since occasionally one will threaten to defriend anyone who disagrees with him. As far as I can tell, no one pays attention to these threats.

Such battles, I think, have been brewing for a while and I think they will continue to intensify. I don’t think that’s because our representatives are hypocrites, oligarchs, or demagogues (although I’m sure some are) or because our citizens are underinformed, callous, or easily led (although I’m sure some are). I think it has more to do with the question of what the State’s obligation to its citizens is – the unspoken assumptions or warrants that underlie the State’s authority. And in this delicate post-Cold War period, the “end of history” as Fukuyama optimistically called it, we are in the middle of figuring it out. Again.

What is the role of the State? Phillip Bobbitt, in this award-winning book, doesn’t seek to prescribe it but to chronicle it. In his 827-page book (not including the index), he lays out the case that the State has undergone many transformations, many different constitutional orders and bases of legitimacy, each one corresponding roughly to an epochal war. Bobbitt lays out the following types of state, their approximate (overlapping) spans, and their bases for legitimacy:

  • Princely state (1494-1572): “The State confers legitimacy on the dynasty.”
  • Kingly state (1567-1651): “The dynasty confers legitimacy on the State.”
  • Territorial state (1649-1789): “The State will manage the country efficiently.”
  • State-nation (1776-1870): “The State will forge the identity of the nation.”
  • Nation-state (1861-1991): “The State will better the welfare of the nation.”
  • Market-state (1989-present): “The State will maximize the opportunity of its citizens.” (p.347)

Although Bobbitt has sometimes been read as advocating a market state (see the Amazon reviews), he doesn’t appear to be advocating at all, and in fact he is quite forthright about the many drawbacks of the emerging market-state. This isn’t a progressive understanding of history or a view of states as evolving to greater legitimacy or complexity. Indeed, he calls out Fukuyama’s notion of the “end of history,” arguing instead that what Fukuyama saw was only the end of an epochal war. More about this in a moment.

Rather than a progressive evolutionary view of the State, Bobbitt sees states as periodically undergoing constitutional crises in conjunction (or feedback) with other states, periodically redefining legitimacy as they do. (“Every era asks, ‘What is the State supposed to be doing?’” (p.177)). And as their constitutional bases change, so do the underlying assumptions regarding state actions. In one striking example, he argues that the 1995 debate over whether the US should have dropped the A-bombs on Japan in 1945 was “almost unintelligible in light of the struggle of the nation-state and its role in the Long War, but fits nicely within the assumptions and strategies of the market-state” (p.217, footnote).

Let’s get to the notion of the epochal war. Bobbitt argues that when a new constitutional order emerges, it corresponds roughly with epochal wars in which variations of the state battle for supremacy. For instance, he interprets the major wars of 1914-1990 as being parts of a single war – he calls it the Long War, and includes the Cold War among others – and claims that the Long War was about “which of three constitutional forms would replace [the preexisting imperial] system: parliamentary democracy, communism, or fascism” (p.24). That struggle, he says, ended with the end of the Cold War: parliamentary democracy outlasted and outcompeted fascism and communism, best enhancing the welfare of the nations that adopted it (p.62). This triumph yielded Fukuyama’s illusory end of history – and “the end of a way of living” (p.62).

Yet, Bobbitt adds, the nation-state can no longer deliver on its promises. It can’t guarantee the safety of its citizens: states that have no nuclear weapons cannot guarantee security, but those with nuclear weapons make their citizens a target (p.218). It can’t guarantee welfare: the proceeds of the nation-state’s borrowing have been returned as consumption rather than infrastructure or investment, so

a nation-state’s government simply finds itself unable to either balance its budget (because it cannot reduce welfare outlays to all sectors) or redirect the proceeds of its borrowing, because only by borrowing money can it continue plausibly to claim that it is bettering the welfare of its people …. Such policies have an inevitable end, as everyone recognizes. There is no reason a state cannot grow out of its deficit, but to do so, however, it will have to increasingly abandon the objective of the government’s maintaining the ever-improving welfare of its citizens. That is, it will have to change the crucial element of the basis for its legitimacy as a nation-state. (p.222)

Furthermore, the nation-state can no longer protect the nation’s cultural integrity: the nation-state relies on the morale of its own nation (and on crushing the morale of the nations of its enemy states), yet “the globalization of communications … wrests control of this morale from the instrumentality of the nation-state” (p.224). Further, the nation-state typically allies with one ethnic group in its nation, something that works against “the equal treatment of different cultural communities” – and as this problem works itself out, “we will inevitably get a multicultural state when the nation-state loses its legitimacy as the provider and guarantor of equality” (p.225).

Finally, the nation-state relies on controlling its self-portrayal. Yet the press and the electronic media have disrupted the history and self-portrayal of the state, delegitimizing it. At the same time, computer technology has “breached the security of the State and ever more widely disseminated the information government once claimed to possess solely”; the bureaucracy controls information, but the photocopier disperses it (p.227). (We might add, with Castells, the effects of the Internet, texting, YouTube, and Twitter – and we might marvel that China recently conducted censorship negotiations with Google as if Google were more than a company.)

So, Bobbitt says, the nation-state can no longer deliver on its promise to better the welfare of the nation: the system of entitlements has topped out, national security is only relative when other nations have nuclear weapons, and the idea of the nation itself is crumbling as national narratives are disrupted and nations themselves turn from “melting pots” to multicultural collections. Yet Bobbitt does not see the end of the State itself, as some have predicted. Rather, he argues that we are in the transition to a new sort of state, the market-state (p.228), which focuses on maximizing the opportunities (not the welfare) of individuals. The market-state has these characteristics:

  • It depends on international capital markets to create stability.
  • Its political institutions are less representative, more democratic.
  • It “assesses its economic success or failure by its society’s ability to secure more and better goods and services, but in contrast to the nation-state it does not see the State as more than a minimal provider or redistributor” (p.229)
  • It “exists to maximize the opportunities enjoyed by all members of society” (p.229). Personal autonomy is more valued and prevalent (p.668).
  • It sees currency and jobs as simple commodities.
  • It is “classless and indifferent to race and ethnicity and gender” (p.230)
  • It is not characterized by the rule of law, as the nation-state was, but by a level playing field.
  • It often chooses to restrain government in order to reduce transaction costs.
  • The marketplace replaces the factory as the economic arena; people are consumers rather than producers. (p.230)
  • Teamwork and harmony become better indicators of an organization’s long-term prospects than other indices (p.232) (cf. Heckscher & Adler, Castells, Drucker, Toffler)

Whereas the parliamentary nation-state’s motto was to “make the world safe for democracy,” Bobbitt says, the market-state’s motto would perhaps be “make the world available.” (p.233)

Let me interrupt the recap here. If you’re reading this and thinking that the market-state sounds like a Libertarian fantasy that corresponds closely to the Republicans who are resisting health care, that’s completely understandable. But I should point out that Bobbitt sees several possible forms for the market-state, only one of which is consonant to any significant degree with libertarianism. “Because the market-state secures political legitimacy through the active pursuit of opportunity for its citizens but declines to specify the goals for which opportunity is to be used, there will be different models whose advocates can plausibly maintain that their constitutional strategy best maximizes opportunity” (p.669). Bobbitt sees three models of the market-state, models that will compete just as the nation-state’s models of parliamentary democracy, fascism, and communism competed during the Long War. These models include:

  • The entrepreneurial market-state, which involves little protectionism, relies on immigrant labor, keeps wages low, grows hardy and agile local industries, tends to have high income disparity, and emphasizes autonomy and personal achievement (p.670). He proffers China as a model (p.670), which may be a surprise to some, because this is the most libertarian of the models (p.671). His metaphor for this form: the “Meadow” (p.721).
  • The merchantile market-state, which “relies on a strong central government to protect national industries, stabilize crucial research and development, and steer certain important enterprises toward success” (p.671). This state relies on artificial pricing and interest rates, coordinates capital flows, and sees long-term societal interests as outweighing consumer interests. Income disparities are suppressed and pay is rationalized (p.671). The objective is social stability, and success comes not through efficiency but through mobilizing all labor and encouraging high capital accumulation (p.672). Models include Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan (p.671). His metaphor for this form: the “Park” (p.721).
  • The managerial market-state, which “consists of three basic elements: free and open markets within a regional trading network, a government that provides a social safety net and manages a stringent monetary policy, and a socially cohesive society” (pp.672-673). Its main objective is to achieve social equality (p.673). It relies on “stakeholder companies” that seek to “reflect the priorities of workers, managers, communities, vendors, and environmentalists on something like parity with the interests of shareholders” (p.673). It’s highly regulated (p.674). Models include Europe and possibly India. His metaphor for this form: the “Garden” (p.721).

Each model has its own strengths and vulnerabilities. In Ch. 25, he conducts some thought experiments, imagining how worlds dominated by each model might handle similar scenarios. In Ch. 26, he discusses how threats will be manifested in a world dominated by the market-state, emphasizing that different forms of the market-state have different views of sovereignty (p.779). Throughout, he is brutal about and discussing the pros and cons of each model as well as the market-state as a whole; no cheerleading here. Moreover, Bobbitt doesn’t see the end of history here: he expects these three emerging forms of the market-state not just to compete but to war, just as parliamentary democracy, fascism, and communism did.

I’ve skipped a lot in this book, including Bobbitt’s lengthy discussion of each historical form of the State, and I hope that I’ve done justice to the discussion that I’ve reviewed here. Because I think this epochal view is an important one, and Bobbitt’s is more finely textured than some, such as Toffler’s three waves, and does a nice job of articulating some of the baseline assumptions about the legitimacy of the state. And I like his speculative work, although I am not ready to endorse that speculation or Bobbitt’s overall view of history. It’s an epochal view that’s worth examining, just as Toffler’s three waves or Ronfeldt’s TIMN or (to a lesser extent) Heckscher and Adler’s taxonomy of organizations. If you’re like me, you might try it on to see how it fits.

To bring things back to the beginning, Bobbitt’s discussion of states also provides a starting point for discussing current issues such as the healthcare battle discussed above. I think this battle has more to do with an underlying, but still quite inchoate, disagreement over the State’s function and legitimacy. And that doesn’t mean that we have market-state Republicans squaring off against nation-state Democrats – it means that people are still sorting things out on both sides of the aisle, still figuring out the shifting warrants, and in some cases still retreating to the nostalgia of bygone days as they grope for solutions to current issues (cf. the Tofflers’ Creating a New Civilization).

In any case, the sweep of this book is really quite remarkable, and I found it to be thought-provoking. If you have a solid chunk of time and the inclination, I highly recommend you take it for a spin.


  1. David Ronfeldt
    March 26, 2010

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. David Ronfeldt
    March 26, 2010

    clay — an interesting informative review. thanks for going into such detail. helpful esp. since i’ve still not gotten around to reading this important book. i’ve only read about it, or snippets from it.

    my TIMN angle on it remains that, much as i’m impressed by his useful coinage of the “market state” concept, it says more about the present than the future. i’d say it began to emerge seriously decades earlier than i gather he argues. say in the 1960s-1970s when scholars began theorizing about transnational interdependence. a system of market states is still emerging. but so now too is the network form and thus what will in time supersede the market state, in my view.

    as for a related view, i taken lately to learning about several writings of phillip blond ( he’s the trendy proponent of “red toryism” in britain. and part of his argument is that “1979 brought an end to the welfare state, 2009 will see an end to the market state and the next election will, with the election of a conservative government, usher in the birth of the civic state.” indeed, he’s quite insistent, esp for a conservative, that the market-state, as he understands it, has had deleterious effects and run its course.

    his notion of the “civic state” isn’t quite like my notion of a “nexus state” (or a “network state”). but there’s some overlap. — onward, david

  3. Clay Spinuzzi
    March 26, 2010

    Thanks for the reference! I remember you mentioning that you believed the market-state had already come and was being superseded, and I'm very interested to follow up. Still thinking through TIMN and related concepts.

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