The State of States

Reviewers have noted that a recent book claims the pandemic is being used strategically by states to further rivalries between states. A more striking recent claim is that “the massive expansion in state power during the Covid 19 pandemic may never fully be undone”. However, If that sounds like an interesting quote, unfortunately it does not come from an interesting article, despite it having being written by two lecturers in law.

Are we witnessing a “massive expansion in state power”? Can one imagine a historically-informed study, written today, to address that question? I’m not sure I can.

The last time I heard about someone intending to write a serious study of the consequence of states possessing “too much power” was twenty-eight years ago. It was an English Ph.D. student who, I understood, was thinking in terms of old church and state debates as an antidote to totalitarian thinking. Can one imagine such a debate today?

If there is any debate, its terms of reference are perhaps essentially American: the contrast between a state model that that allows for free enterprise as a basis for a “liberal order” and the typification of any variation from that loose model as “authoritarian government”. As an extension of that, one could perhaps imagine a history of the International Labour Organisation that could show how different states (such as the USA) looked upon it with distaste or favour at different times, depending on if it served its purposes well. By contrast, one might not be able to imagine any debate on totalitarianism as a concept beyond the pages of an old genre of European history book.

I’m thinking this now because my first reaction to reading the claim regarding “the massive expansion in state power” was that if someone was to readdress old debates on totalitarianism today, I think I would be interested to hear or read more about it. However, my second, immediate and corrective thought was “God no, anything but that!” So, I repeat: if, in theory or in practice, a massive expansion in state power either has taken place or is likely to take place in the future, how will it be seen, identified, or defined?

Can history assist in getting a perspective on “the state of states” if the terms of the debate are purely contemporary and journalistic? Perhaps that is a question that every generation has faced. Perhaps that is also a question that explains why only the truly dusty should truly interest the historically-minded. Indeed, what better way to put on a new thinking cap than to say: “the 1840s: here I come!”, or some such resolution: as the new year approaches, let the charm of yesterday breathe afresh and, virus permitting, days lost browsing in second-hand book shops become possible once more.

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