A Catholic priest holds a placard with an image of Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy during a protest in Secunderabad on Oct. 21, 2020, against his arrest in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. (Photo: AFP)
The word “state” has many meanings. It could mean a condition as in "state of mind" or a nation as in the "state of India." A third use, increasingly common these days, is "government." This article uses the word as referring to government.
States, or governments, come into being in different ways. Today, most countries aspire to some form of democracy, viz. the will of its people as expressed through elections. But there still exist states, powerful states, which do not subscribe to the freedom to vote. China, for instance. Or Iran, a theocracy. Or Russia, an oligarchy posturing as a democratic nation.
And as we have just discovered, even that bastion of democracy, the United States of America, recently had a close shave from a vicious demagogue who threatened to compromise all its institutions of governance.
Why do states have criminal intentions? We don’t usually think of our government as criminal — at least not in the USA until Donald Trump came along and changed people’s minds. And yet most governments, even democracies, are prone to covert crime and wrongdoing because all governments increasingly lust for power and total control — and anyone obsessed with power turns soon enough to crime.
In any nation, the people form the large majority, and by contrast those who govern are few. But few though they may be, these few who rule us — the government — often seek to control the minds and hearts of the masses, so much so that the latter find themselves enslaved by all that the government does.
The bondage may not always be physical. In fact it is mostly psychological. The public media — TV, radio, the newspapers — and now social media — Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc — are deployed to “manufacture consent” (in those inimitable words of Noam Chomsky) to all that the state does.
If the state controls what and how you think, then the state has total control. In other words, it is totalitarian. Government then de facto becomes the state and so synonymous with the nation.
Some examples: Louis XIV, the 17th-century king of France, used to brag, “The state? I am the state!” Where have we heard this more recently? “India is Indira, and Indira is India!”
In many countries, a single ruler or a political party may so dominate the government that it does become synonymous with the state. Fascist and communist governments have done this for decades.
Most popular analyses of nationalism do not recognize the difference between concepts of the nation and the state. This distinction is perhaps best captured in Hannah Arendt's pithy observation that "the state has been conquered by the nation." In her view, nationalism transformed the modern state from an organ meant to execute the rule of law for all its citizens and residents into the nation state, an instrument of the national majority alone.
Nationalism often utilises populism to manipulate the masses. It is inherently a divisive force, identifying religion, ethnicity or language as the basis of the nation, and in this process inevitably excluding groups or creating hatred of others both within the state or outside it. So, smaller social groups within the nation are now transformed into minorities. This is done through conscious exclusion.
But if, as we have just noted, an exaggerated sense of the nation has devoured the state, the converse is also true: the state encroaches upon the nation, government preys upon its people. And big government most of all.
How the criminal state functions
Lies/propaganda: All public crime begins with the lie, “the bigger, the better,” as Goebbels liked to say. And the state is a past master at concealing and distorting the truth, banning dissent and discussion, promoting just one official version of an event, and at using propaganda, advertisement and half-truths to promote itself. As the old saying has it, “Never believe that something is true until it has been officially denied.”
Kleptocracy and crony capitalism: Kleptocracy means the "government of thieves." In fact, this is what most colonial empires were — an important cause of world poverty today and usually the reason behind migration from the South to First World countries.
But that apart, most governments who follow laissez-faire, neo-colonial policies continue to steal from their own people, especially from the poor.
They do this through manipulative taxation and corruption. The highest taxed nations are usually the worst administered. Money is poured into flashy but bankrupt projects like “the highest statue in the world” and “the fastest train in the country.” And corruption ensures that there is always less money than planned for.
Kleptocracy comes naturally to many in big government, for no public accountability is maintained.
And what does the government steal? Natural resources, to start with — land, oil, minerals. The state requisitions these resources citing the right of “eminent domain,” displaces whole communities, paying little or nothing by way of compensation, and then distributes the loot "for free" among its select coterie of oligarchs: a Vedanta here, an Ambani there, an Adani elsewhere. Pressured by the government, banks give non-repayable loans of millions to a crony industrialist for projects in foreign countries while shrugging off investments for education, housing and health care in their own.
All governments tend to resist accountability. This is one important reason why secrecy is so important. When no one knows what you are doing, no one can hold you accountable, no one can blame you.
But public crime does not always go unnoticed. Within the country, there are groups which protest, activists who file public interest litigation cases in the courts, and intrepid reporters who expose scams.
Against all these the state clamps down severely, for the criminal state tolerates no dissent.
Those who do challenge the authority of the state are either exiled, like a Solzhenitsyn, or thrust into detention centres and concentration camps, or become gulag labor. India's Bhima Koregaon detainees are an example of such — Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj, Stan Swamy, and others.
Others are simply assassinated — a Jamal Khashoggi, an Anna Politovskaya, a Gauri Lankesh, a Narendra Dabholkar.
When dissent and protest become more widespread, the state will also target whole communities of “people not like us” through pogroms and genocide — like the Jews in Nazi Germany, Christian adivasis in Kandhamal, Muslims in the Hindu rashtra, and activists and protesters everywhere.
All public crime begins with lies, progresses through large-scale theft and expropriation, and ends in violence, assassination and genocide. This is how the modern state turns stealthily into a criminal state.
Is there an antidote to the criminal state?
Yes, there are always options, difficult though they be. Realistically, we can suggest three.
First, recover the rule of law. We see how in a country like India, the severe backlog of cases in court effectively sabotages the rule of law. Another glaring travesty is the disproportionate number of people who languish in prison, unrepresented, forgotten. Such decrepit systems of justice encourage criminals to believe they are immune to punishment. It must change.
Next, let democratic participation be as widespread as possible, with the right to recall one’s representative in cases of fault. The most serious defect of democracies, as we are beginning to realize, is the corruption of its representatives, who slowly turn themselves into an oligarchy with vested interests. The Republican Party of the USA and the Congress in India are good contemporary examples.
Those who form part of big government will always find ways to loot it. As the Turkish proverb puts it, “He who holds the honey pot will surely lick his fingers.”
Therefore, it is vital to see that government doesn’t grow too large for its people. Resist the urge to centralize. Encourage local government. However, this is easier said than done.
Thirdly, respect and accept diversity. The nation state tends towards uniformity and irons out diversity. Its goal is “one people, one language, one leader,” thus leading to the hegemony of the majority at the expense of the “others” — minorities.
But today pluriformity is a fact of life as societies get increasingly diverse. We have mass migration to thank for this, and together with it, mass transportation which has made it possible. There are very few homogeneous communities left in the world, for migrants and refugees are everywhere, particularly in big cities.
Moreover today, when democracy means the public expression of one’s rights, even “the little voices” demand a hearing.
Indeed, the criminal state can slowly be overcome through application of the rule of law, local self-rule and the acceptance of pluralism. But it takes time and tenacity. For all governance is difficult, and democratic governance most of all.
Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Never give up, never despair. In every age and in every country, this has been the constant message of those who have resisted the depredations of the criminal state.
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.