The state as the illusionary Deus Ex Machina

The 20th century was a century in which societies consolidated the belief that governments should provide certainty and protection from collective risks and developed the expectation that governments are well equipped to do so through large-scale interventions in the social environment.

The image of the state was transformed from that of an alien and often hostile apparatus in the service of the king and nobility to that of a collective organization entrusted with society’s safety and prosperity. This view grew stronger in the years of war-like economy and post-war reconstruction during the 21st century. Nationalism gave it the face of a father taking care of his extended family. Socialism gave it the image of a collective machine serving the interests of the working class. Democracy promised to tame its power, make it accountable to its subjects and harness it for the provision of public goods, whose definition was open to public deliberation.

The image of the state was also shaped by a growing belief in the use of science to give meaning to the ‘common good’ and offer prescriptions as to how a powerful central planner should work to achieve it. The state and science together provided a replacement for the loss of divinity. They offered a rationalization of power as enlightened parenthood. They created a secular Deus Ex Machina. Governments cultivated this paradigm as they were strengthening their role and clout over society through increasing levels of taxation, regulation and distribution, which in turn fostered public expectations for state effectiveness and political accountability. Recurrent failures led to policy re-adjustments some of which were historical political transitions. Yet all these transitions were responses that complied with this paradigm and sought to re-establish confidence in it.

Consider one of the most discussed economic and political transitions, the neoliberal turn. In light of recurrent economic crises, most prominently long-standing stagflation in the 1970s, neoliberalism best describes a re-adjustment of the role of government in the economy through privatizations, a drift away from Keynesianism to monetarism, and the re-regulation of economic structure. In the field of ideology, there was an effort to reshape public perceptions of what the state should not do with the promotion of economic freedom. Governments – most of them very reluctantly, such as both the Conservative and Labour governments in the late 1970s and the Ford and Carter administrations, while others very enthusiastically such as the Reagan and Thatcher governments – adopted versions of a ‘take some economic decisions back to you’ approach.

In the so-called neoliberal era, the state did not become less interventionist overall. Instead, governments redefined the nature of interventions in some areas to forms of surveillance of the responsibilities and individual risks that were given back to businesses and workers. Neoliberalism was a large-scale intervention in itself. It was an effort to revamp the economy and protect the capacity of states to extract resources from the market for political allocation. Governments preserved interventions that privileged the few and maintained those that continued to offer a safety net for the many (such as health insurance, progressive taxation and welfare state spending).

A remarkable juncture occurred when the 2009 crisis posed a systemic threat. Governments intervened to patch the financial system from a sequence of cascading events – partly the result of imbalances attributed to its own macroeconomic policies. The management of collective risk came center stage.

Terrorism is another case of the interventionist state. Spectacular terrorist attacks triggered a war-like response that combined the use of the criminal justice system with extra-judicial actions, including the mobilization of security and military forces and the introduction of new intrusive norms of intelligence collection and surveillance.

It is easy to discern that, over time, demand for drastic state action is more pronounced in the presence of dramatic single-source events or cascading events that are traceable as a single sequence. While millions are killed by car accidents and diseases, large-scale massacres such as the 9/11 or unravelling developments from the collapse of a major bank trigger a collective alarm. The public expects the state to intervene and give a heroic fight against the visible threat on behalf of society.

The most extreme version of the protective state is the current general lockdown. Not knowing any way out, governments can only deliver a form of collective protection that requires a general population quarantine. They offer society the kind of shield that a medieval wall and a locked gate offers in times of siege. Society both expects and accepts this.

Yet in the current pandemic governments still cannot deliver a cure. If a safe vaccine is not found, if the epidemic does not recede with growing immunity, if seasonal change doesn’t make any difference with contagion and if an effective anti-viral treatment is not found, governments will oversee their economies in rapid collapse and will soon have to make tough choices about how to turn the epidemic into a chronic manageable condition. For the time being, citizens remain disciplined in their lock-down and are the ones demanding strict measures. Governments know that, like in terrorism, citizens can be overwhelmed by fear as well as managed through fear.

In our efforts to understand what has happened and to make informed guesses about what could happen, metaphors can help or distort our perception. Societies have subscribed to an ideal image of political power that metaphorically resembles the biblical God: omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. They call for a divine intervention, they express their dissatisfaction when they see no signs of it but they never question its raison d’ être. But there is an ontologically different metaphor. In Greek mythology gods are superhuman creatures struggling for domination and survival with their own moral regards, vices and ignorance as they mess around with the world of humans. They struggle to rule based more on terror than wisdom, imposing justice that serves their order. Humans have to worship them in order to appease them. I find this imagery closer to a realist depiction of government.

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