Failed states of America?

Amongst the society of states ostensibly inhabiting the international order, the United States of America is truly a unique phenomenon. Arguably both a democracy and an empire, at once the wealthiest and most powerful state in world history, but never quite a true global hegemon.

However, the idea of the US as a state is worth reconsidering in the context of the mass protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020.

States of violence

A monopoly on violence is a first order criterion for the statehood of political entities. In the current international system, sovereign states are also required to have fixed territory, a populace, and the capacity to enter into diplomatic relations with other states.

While the US government is incredibly powerful domestically and internationally, the democratic federalism of the US constitution effectively divides sovereignty vertically and horizontally among various jurisdictions. A result of the complex historical processes of modern state building on the north American continent, this state of affairs calls into question the nature of centralised government in the US federal republic.

Indeed, it seems rather difficult to coherently maintain that the US government has a monopoly on violence within its territory – and not just now during the (para)military response to widespread peaceful and violent expressions of political will across the US. A functioning federal system requires the a central government that bears utlimate responsibility for all administrative activities, including ‘law and order’, whatever level of decision making they are associated with.

When agents of the state arbitrarily kill citizens on a systemic level, the state is no longer meaningfully in control.

Democratic credentials

The US both appears to be and claims to be a democracy. At best, it’s a democracy corrupted by capitalism, where money mediates more and more social relations, and interactions increasingly become transactions.

It is also corrupted by the deeply racist legacy of slavery and the colonial creation of an inland empire. Any social contract that conceivably accompanied the formation of the US was inherently flawed in its failure to apply the basic logical requirement for formal equality in a liberal democratic republic.

In the absence of accountability – of police to civilian authorities, of cities and counties to states, of state and federal governments to the people – the use of violence is unsanctioned, illegitimate. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by on-duty police officers are only the most recent reminders that the rule of law is a tragic farce in the failed states of America.

A regime’s status as the central government of a state requires not just a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence, for that tells us little in the scheme of things, but rather a monopoly on all use of violence. Further, in a democracy all state violence should be legitimate. That means being strictly an action of last resort, and being in the interests of, and accountable to, the people.

Continuing colonial legacies

In traditional conceptions of the police state, in addition to the prevalent use of secrecy, police actions violating people’s basic human rights – including the use of extreme violence – are predominantly deployed as instruments of state policy.

Yet in no conceivable way can the horrific and arbitrary police killings of African-Americans do anything whatsoever to further public policy in any sense relevant to liberal democracy. And while there may be genuine conspiracies in the mix, systemic cultures of racism and permissive environments for ad hoc violence are clearly a significant part of the explanation.

This plays out against the backdrop of a revolutionary federal constitution that retains significant jurisdiction for member states as well guaranteeing a number of powerful rights to individuals, including of course the right to bears arms provided by the Second Amendment. This would have made sense at the time, given the grievances held by British subjects in the American colonies, the Crown’s response to the expression of those grievances, and the character of colonial society.

Sadly, however, Lockean dreams in pursuit of happiness became lost in a demented Georgic landscape, serving up inherently perverse attempts to rationally justify a slave-owning Enlightenment republic.

Like the US itself, the reckless civilian firearms culture that developed over subsequent centuries is an outright anomaly among wealthy western nation-states. As are the terrifyingly high incidences of lethal gun crime and far-right domestic terrorism that have plagued contemporary American society.

On the other hand, this broad domestically distribution of the means of violence is coupled with an extremely expensive and over-capable armed forces structured to project power globally.

A neoconservative homecoming

Since the US consolidated its role as chief meddler in Middle Eastern affairs in the post-cold war period, there have been increasing synergies across its giant military and police complex. At the current time, in streets and public places across the US, surplus equipment and assets from the interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that found their way to national guards and police forces at all levels are being deployed against US citizens.

Despite the outwardly impressive institutions of liberal-democratic governance and its massive military strength, the US has in some ways come to resemble one of the failed or failing states it has helped militarise over the last several decades. What they share is the dispersal of the use or means of violence between the state, organised non-state actors, and considerable proportions of the rest of the civilian population.

However, these situations usually rely on a distinct culture that overtly and/or covertly endorses and enables the autonomous use of violence by non-state actors. While the state itself may have little control over specific acts perpetrated by militias and other armed groups and individuals, their ongoing presence and activity requires support – active or passive, material or ideological – from social and political elites.

This malignant symbiosis is predicated on the violence perpetrated at ‘arms-length’ by mostly willing pawns yielding net strategic advantage for its direct and indirect supporters and beneficiaries. Targeting of specific groups within society and protection of others is a key manifestation of this type of corrosive power structure.

And when war is brought home, citizens are inevitably seen as friend or foe.

Published by Kurt Vall

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Kurt studied linguistics, philosophy and Asian history at the Australian National University and is currently a graduate student in international relations at the University of Melbourne. He has over a decade's experience in public policy and administration in Australian federal and state government.

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