Challenges to state development

23 May
Michael Centeno on the left and Jeffrey Herbst on the right

Michael Centeno on the left and Jeffrey Herbst on the right

This essay was originally written as a response to an essay question in my comparative politics class, but I thought I might as well reprint it here. Not all the arguments are developed as much as they could be because I had limited time to write this essay. Keep that in mind. My professor commented at the end of the essay that “it is fine to disagree with the perspectives of Herbst and Centeno; however, you must provide some alternative explanation or argument to address the question in the prompt.” I agree with the assessment, but with so little time, this was not possible. If it had been an essay I could have done over a week, I definitely could have come up with an “alternative explanation or argument.”

The question was: Discuss the different challenges to the development of the state. In particular discuss the contributions of Herbst [War and the State in Africa] and Centeno [a summary of his book on the topic].* What do the contributions of these scholars suggest for state development in Africa and Latin America? Do you agree with the perspective presented by these scholars?

My response (the essay itself):

Since the beginnings of human development springing from the agricultural revolution there have been challenges to state development. Before this, there had been communal living not in “organized” societies, what some arguably call “primitive communism.” This question, in order to be answered fully, must be broken into three separate parts.

The first part of this essay’s prompt is to discuss the different challenges to the development of the state. These challenges range from ability to provide public services to providing safety for its citizens. Rebellion and unrest bring on yet another set of problems. The ability of the state to maintain its legitimacy, and its “legitimate” claim on the monopoly of the use of force determines state development. Then, there is the problems of economic strife brought on by neoliberal policies imposed by the said government, international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO), or by other means.

In particular, from this point it is important to look at the contributions of Herbst and Centeno. These scholars suggest outcomes for state development in Africa and Latin America that some of us may find disturbing. Herbst, in writing about Africa, compares the wars in the continent to those in Europe. He basically says that interstate warfare is important for state development. He thinks these wars are needed. Centeno, on the contrary, rejects the comparison with Europe, saying that Europe has different political conditions than Latin America. He also argues that limited war is not beneficial and only “total war” will fully make a state. Basically both scholars are saying that ‘war makes states.’

I don’t agree with this perspective of these scholars, who are saying that war is good for state development, making it seem beneficial because of an ability to collect more taxes, have more mobilization, nationalism, etc… It is true that states do gain powers during wars, especially in those in which they have an advantage. However, not all of human history has been one of armed conflict between different groups, states, and others. The development of the first states, if you will, during the agricultural revolution, was not due to war. Even if you don’t go back that far, and into ancient times and so on, this is true. Now, even if you agree with the arguments of Centeno and Herbst, there is a grave problem with their arguments: a lack of morality. Where are the moral dimensions of war discussed. The answer is nowhere. Even if war did make states stronger, that does not mean it is just. In fact, the idea of a ‘just war’ in and of itself is a contradiction. War is unjust. Killing others, bombing towns and villages, engaging in brutal conduct such as torture is not just. In this day and age, war is not the answer. Herbst and Centeno in their supposedly  “value-free” assessment, do not even consider this, and despite their statements to the contrary, their arguments support the continuation of war as an instrument of national policy.

This essay aimed to provide some light on the challenges to state development. There is one final point: not only is war not the answer, but there are ways a state can develop without war, moving through the challenges to its further development. In the end, there must be a questioning to all ones knows, which would even include an assessment of the state as a legitimate institution. That is all.

*Comment below if you want the original articles themselves.

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