Year XLII, 2000, Number 3, Page 185
THE CRISIS OF THE STATE AS A CRITERION
IN HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL ANALYSIS
In the debate over the role that federalists will be destined to play in the wake of European unification, it is crucial to appreciate the existence, or otherwise, of the crisis of the state at world level.
The view that globalisation has profoundly altered the role played by the state, and that it lies at the root of its crisis, is one that is widely held, both among those who favour a return to nationalism and to more or less marked forms of protectionism, and among those who maintain that the “State”, as an institution, has now been superseded and that no resistance can (or indeed should) be mounted in the face of the tendency to regard the free market as the alternative to the “cage of state”.
The essential importance of the state as the basis and guarantor of peace and solidarity, which, in accordance with the Kantian view that “state equals peace”, is the founding concept of federalism, will not be dealt with here. It is, indeed, a topic that has often been discussed in the pages of this review.
But it could be useful for the current debate to look closely at the meaning of the expression “crisis of the states” as used in historical examinations of the process of European unification and in the political strategic thought from which the battle to create a European federation stemmed. Such an examination could represent the starting point for an appraisal of the situation at world level and allow parallels and differences to be brought out.
A key concept used to explain the process of European unification is that of the “historical crisis of the nation-states”. The expression refers to the end of the historical cycle which saw the European system of states playing a predominant role in the sphere of international relations.
The first signs of a change in this cycle were already visible in the last century. As Geoffrey Barraclough put it, “Long before there could be any question of the decline of Europe… international politics were breaking through their European setting”. Indeed, US politics have, even from the earliest period in the nation’s history (and, in particular, following that of its consolidation), tended to be characterised by a vision that extends beyond the American continent, across the Pacific towards Asia — an interest that can be likened to the attention paid by Russia and Japan to the Far East.
Moreover, the same logic that underlies the system of equilibrium and hegemony described by Ludwig Dehio had, with the passage of time, brought other forces into play: the non European superpowers that were destined to bring Europe’s central role in world politics to an end.
The real turning point in the transition from the European age to the age of world politics was produced by the United States’ entry into the Great War. The historical crisis of the European nation-states was laid bare, and in the decades that followed, European history was characterised by the final writhings of political subjects that, by now anachronistic and without a future, were later to be destroyed by the Second World War. Thus, the definition of what we have termed a “historical crisis” is closely bound up with the crisis, and end, of the European system of states, and the power vacuum that was created in Europe in its wake.
The “power vacuum” concept is characterised and defined by the idea of an eclipse of sovereignty, in other words by an incapacity to play an independent role (and assume the attendant responsibilities) in international politics, and by an abdication in favour of the United States of America.
But these political factors are not enough, on their own, to justify the crisis of the European nation-states. The crucial fact is that they manifested themselves within the framework of an advancing process of interdependence which, in the wake of the second industrial revolution, brought with it the need for markets larger than the national ones, themselves separated by barriers whose rigidity was exacerbated by the protectionist policies implemented by the European states. While Hitler’s attempt to unite Europe by the “sword of Satan” constituted a disastrous response to the need to overcome the limits of the nation-states, the launch of the process of European unification provided confirmation that it was a need for which an answer had to be found: confirmation that there could be no turning back.
On a conceptual level, the “political crisis” of the European nation-states is not the same as their historical crisis, but it does stem from, and thus imply, the latter.
The concept of the “political crisis” is difficult to define unequivocally because of its contingent nature; in other words, because it depends not so much on the deep historical course, as on the varying capacity of states to confront concrete problems, political or economic, as they arise.
All states have, in the course of history, been faced with periods of crisis linked to internal or external factors, periods in which power has been at stake. Yet no state has ever managed to attain a degree of self-sufficiency, in the economic sphere or in that of its security, great enough to render it immune to crises. And of course, the growth of interdependence is accompanied by an increase both in the quantity of problems on the table, and in the number of people sharing in their management.
But if all this were to be regarded as constituting the “political crisis of the state”, the significance of the expression, used in reference to an ongoing situation, would be nothing more than descriptive. It would be far more useful to develop, for the term, a definition that might, in the analysis of a given historical situation, allow us to pinpoint a moment of change, or possible change, in power structures. For example, the collaboration among states which leads to the birth of international organisations implies the renunciation, by the members of these organisations, of their absolute autonomy, but since this is an act that is always dependent upon the preservation of sovereignty, it does not produce any alteration in the power structure at world level; in other words, it fails to overcome the existing powers and the whole power hierarchy. Understood in this way, i.e., as a stimulus for collaboration, the expression “crisis of the state” refers not to an opportunity to change the power structure, but to a phase in the management of the existing one.
This is the distinction which makes it possible to identify revolutionary moments in history, periods in which the launch of political efforts to respond to the crisis through the promotion of an alternative power become feasible. These are periods in which those in positions of power become increasingly aware of the need for a new political project, and in which the political objective that must be pursued in order to confront and overcome the crisis becomes clear, i.e., the explicit renunciation of empty forms of sovereignty and independence in order to create a new state (the Schuman Declaration, which pointed to the objective of a European federation, was a case in point).
Moreover, once the project has emerged that will steer states in the direction of this objective, the inertia of the established powers can be overcome by making the necessary leap forward at institutional level, providing that the opportunity presents itself, and that it coincides with crisis phenomena so severe as to drive states to the very brink of a precipice from which the alternative can be seen in all its clarity and urgency.
The reason for the gradual erosion of the existing forms of power lies in the evolution in the mode of production, which determined the social changes that in turn prompted the major revolutions. This concept allows us to see from afar, with a look that takes in broad horizons, both spatial and temporal, the general lines characterising the profound changes of the past and present. It is this very evolution that heralds the crises that will force men to alter obsolete institutional frameworks. And yet it is not the only factor determining the modification of political formulae.
In the political sphere, human behaviour is conditioned by determinations that can be summed up in the expression “reason of power”, and the most compelling is that which impels those in possession of power to hold on to it, and to add to it. If the existing power situation, in other words, the existing states and framework of international relations, allows the problems on the table to be managed in some way, however provisionally and inadequately, then the determinations inherent in the “reason of power” will prevail, in other words, the status quo will be preserved.
The space needed for a revolutionary action aimed at altering the power structure through the transfer of power from the existing states to a larger state entity (the federalist aim) can be created only by one kind of crisis of the state: one that leaves no other alternative. And in situations in which the very survival of society hangs on the accomplishment of a change in the organisation of power, it can indeed be affirmed that there is no other alternative.
However, it is important not to forget the fact that the political response to the crisis of the state is neither automatic, nor unidirectional. Even in the presence of an acute power crisis it can never be taken for granted there will be a manifestation of political will commensurate with the danger faced: suicide and regression can always prevail over the will to live and over progress.
Can the present world framework be interpreted and judged on the basis of a criterion labelled the crisis of the state? There can certainly be no doubting that we are living through a phase of transition, through a passage from one mode of production to another, nor that the new mode of production that is emerging as a result of the scientific and technological revolution is paving the way for a gradual erosion of the forms of power that currently exist. It is this awareness that underpins the federalist view — a view that has become more and more politically pertinent as the progressive interdependence of mankind has turned the overcoming of the world’s division into sovereign states into a plausible (and, in Europe, partially realisable) project.
It is thus foreseeable that states will be increasingly conditioned by the need to manage this interdependence, and even now answers — answers that, until such time as a world federation is founded, can only be partial — are being sought to fulfil this need.
But having said that, and bearing in mind that the task of federalists has always been, and always will be, to point to world government as the only solution to the problems of global interdependence, can we really already talk of a “power vacuum” at world level, or of an “eclipse of the sovereignty” of states, whose extent is sufficient to promote the emergence among the political classes of a willingness to work towards the relinquishment of absolute sovereignty in favour of a new world state? Can we talk, at the present time, of a “crisis of the state” that is perceived by the political classes as leaving room for no alternative but a substantial and global modification of the current power situation in the world?
To ask these questions is not to deny the fact that, in the federalist view, the need for a world state already exists. Instead, to ask them is to appreciate the situation; to appreciate the nature of its reality. As Albertini said, “the revolutionary is the one who obeys reality”. And the real situation before us now is a world in which there exist established powers (the USA), powers in turmoil (Russia), rising powers (China and Europe), and innumerable medium-sized and small states (democratic or partially democratic, industrialised or developing) that could play an active part in world politics, if only they were able to unite and to move in the direction of regional unification.
All of these categories of state still have a role to fulfil. Some need to institute, or to strengthen, normal democratic life, and to lay the foundations of, or advance towards, economic development. The task of others, the most advanced states which are also those bearing the greatest burden of responsibility, is to promote the decorous and orderly management of world problems, even — in their own interests — assuming responsibility for situations characterised by backwardness and instability.
Today’s major states and states in the making still have plenty of scope for believing in their continued existence as full political subjects, and in their capacity to pursue domestic and international policies that are based on national interests. It is only when the latter can no longer be pursued, even to the smallest degree, without a movement towards the acceptance by states of their incapacity to act as independent political subjects — in other words, only when crisis point is reached at world level — that a global project for unification will be able to take shape.
What can be envisaged, at the present time, is that this mechanism — a mechanism triggered by an absence of alternatives and characterised by the acknowledgement by states of their own limitations — will manifest itself first at regional level, where the capacity to operate within the framework of a global economy and to exist as independent political subjects is still attainable through the aggregation of small states.
The simplification of the world order through the creation of regional federations, a process to which a full European federation could make a decisive ideological and concrete contribution, will be accompanied an ever more rapid acceleration of the growth of global interdependence. If our analysis is correct, a time will come in which even the great powers will become anachronisms. But it is, at the present time, hard to predict with precision what factors will trigger the global crisis. Whatever they are, it can only be hoped that they will not have the same tragic character as the decline of the European states.
 Mario Albertini, Una rivoluzione pacifica, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1999, p. 161.
 Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History, New York, Penguin Books, 1967, p. 95.
 Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance. The Politics of Power in Europe 1494-1949 , London, Chatto and Windus, 1963.
 Geoffrey Barraclough, op. cit., p. 118.
 Luigi Einaudi, La guerra e l’unità europea, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1986, p. 47.