Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bobbitt, 2002, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (political history)

I first read this back in 2004, and it had an impact on the way I thought about the changing nation state, but I have been thinking about it in the decade since, as the predicted “market states” of the 21st Century begin to take shape, not always as Bobbitt and his colleagues envisioned.  Bobbitt was a national security advisor in the Clinton administration, with a background in history and law. This book on the changing nature of the state should probably be read in tandem with Robert Reich’s book, The Work of Nations. Reich was an older cabinet colleague of Bobbitt, Labour Secretary under Clinton, and he made the case for the central role of the state being education, to position its citizens for success. That prescription fits well with the concept of the market state supplanting the nation-state as the dominant political form in the wake of the Cold War, but twelve years after Bobbitt wrote the Shield of Achilles, it looks to me as if both failed nation-states and a new authoritarian axis of managed markets and neo-mercantilism challenge the post-Cold War euphoria of liberal democratic dominance. 

Bobbitt’s broad scheme focuses on epochal wars and the ensuing legal regimes that entrench a particular order. His starting point is the twentieth century, before going back to the fall of the Hapsburg empire (predating the usual 1648 birthday of the modern state). He observes that with the hindsight of history, the three big wars of the 20th Century will merge to be seen as just one contest over political-economic organization. In rounds one and two, liberal-democracy beats fascism, and in round three (the Cold War) it beats communism. Surprisingly, the 90lb weakling liberal democracy triumphs over both systems that seem better at mobilizing resources under central command. Innovation and military technology played a key role, so military technology and social organization are variables that Bobbitt tracks in the series of “epochal” wars and post-war political-legal reorganizations.

The sequence of state types is a useful crib-sheet for teaching about the evolving nature of the state, which has not stood still as a form of political, social, and economic organization.  The princely state (like those of Germany and Italy) was followed by the Kingly state which could muster more armaments factories, then the territorial state, and the state-nation (spreading out from the capital to impose a national consciousness on its people), and finally the nation-state. There’s a helpful tabular layout of the major evolutions, but he has stuck to what he knows, and leaves out most of the economic history which reinforces and supports his argument. I can imagine conversations with political economist Robert Reich about the real nature of causality - the political-legal chicken or the economic egg providing the driving force.

As with many books written in the US in the warm afterglow of the fall of the wall, and before the Bush assault on international institutions, there is a sense of the inevitable triumph of democratic market institutions which seems excessively optimistic from today’s vantage point. Resurgent authoritarian Russia and China, corporate constraints on democratic functions, and erosion of the middle class in the western world make the worldviews of Clinton’s cabinet officers less convincing now.
David Last, March 10, 2014

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