The most common definition of a state one is likely to encounter in the social sciences is Max Weber’s one which say that a state is an entity which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. An interesting take on this which reframes it in a more day-to-day metaphor is Charles Tilly’s description of the state as a protection racket – effectively saying that citizens pay tax to be protected from external (and internal) aggressors, and if citizens fail to pay the state then the state uses its force against them in the form of criminal prosecution. If we accept these broad definitions then a failed state is one which can no longer exercise a monopoly on violence, or to use Tilly’s idea, can no longer maintain its protection racket. A failing state is one heading towards this position.
I like both these definitions for their simplicity and for capturing the essence of the nature of states. They also tie in nicely to the idea of the social contract, which is a prominent part of political science theory discourse. I think that Tilly’s protection racket concept could be widened to encompass the idea that the violence the state protects its citizens from is not just physical but economic. Economic violence could be the effects of poor fiscal and monetary policy, or external forces such as being out-competed by other states, but the idea is that if the state cannot protect its citizens from prolonged economic hardship then it is not living up to its end of the protection racket bargain. In social contract terms, the state has broken the contract to provide for its citizens.
Watching coverage of the Greek elections today, I was struck by the shambolic state of affairs this rather important country has found itself in. It seems to me with my limited understanding of economics that the adoption of a single currency by group of sovereign states could never work in the long-term… but I digress. I think its time to stop kidding ourselves and admit that the Greek state is failing. One obvious example of this is the rampant tax evasion in Greece, which by some estimates has cost the government a third of its potential revenue. The Greek state has not been able to enforce its protection racket by collecting its dues, and now it can’t protect the people from the economic violence being wrought on them. This is not just the specific government in power’s problem, but the actual state artifice itself. It doesn’t matter who is elected in if the underlying structure is not being honoured by everyone. Those people who are avoiding tax are not going to start paying because someone new is in charge. Other taxpayers stopping paying because of the failures of their state is also a potential problem. Of course, tax collectors could be hired or new methods of enforcement could be tried but until these measures actually start to make headway the Greek state will continue to be “failing” at least in my eyes.
How far Greece can go before total state collapse is an open and very scary question. I think it will most likely avoid that path, but it is still definitely a possibility. European leaders should quietly be making plans for this outcome because if it does happen a whole world of sh*t will follow.