It's Time to Build a Stronger State

By Sundarsan  Kant

The story is told, most likely apocryphal of a British Officer who stumbles upon a sati ceremony in a remote Indian village. He hastily descends from his horse and authoritatively warns the group and the widow from proceeding with the act of self immolation. Annoyed at the intrusion of the foreign interloper, the village headman angrily proclaims that in his country the sacrifice of a wife on her husbands pyre is a time honored custom, to which the British Officer replies that in his country it is also a time honored custom to hang any man who burns widows.

This is one of those stories that provide an inexhaustible supply of hermeneutical possibilities, from the civilizing justifications of the imperial project to the layered critiques of European hubris and racism.

One could argue about the problem of selection bias in narratives like these where rare acts such as sati were generalized in order to condemn entire societies as barbaric and primitive. The underlying theme nonetheless seems to suggest a profound clash of cultures, between the traditions of the villagers and the sensibility of the British Officer. The constructivist explanation of the narrative while reasonable is nonetheless inadequate and fails to illuminate the real clash that still reverberates across societies today, including our own in Fiji. The story I argue for the duration of this essay should be understood as an example of competing institutions, as a clash between State and Society or between formal and informal structures of governance.

One of the fundamental problems encountered in state building and political development is the discrepancy that exists between strong societies and weak states, an argument proposed by Professor Joel Migdal and recently reiterated by Professor Francis Fukuyama. In many developing countries, the state manifested in formal structures of governance has great difficulty in penetrating the thick layers of society encased within informal norms and values. The modern nation-states of the world regardless of the degree of their homogeneity consist of diverse social communities differentiated by language, religion, ethos, traditions, ethnicity and tribe; all organized through informal institutions that predate the political state and the formal structures of governance. These ties of kinship and blood are connected by culture and place and are thicker than the artificial attachments of citizenship and political membership which are requisites of the modern political State. One of the puzzling features of mass immigration from the global south to Western Europe, North America and even Australia and New Zealand is the extraordinary intactness and resilience of religion, language, food and dress of immigrants who have otherwise willingly assumed a new political identity in their new homelands. It is easier to sever the formal bonds of association from a political community by assuming membership in another community via citizenship than it is to detach from the ties that binds one to society and its informal norms and values.

The modern political state is a product of formal institutions and its epistemic justifications are unmoored from the metaphysical or ontological claims of traditional society. Political modernity attempts to overcome the problem of social complexity by building rational institutions that are universally applicable across space and time. The conflict between the British Officer and the Indian villagers was between an ancient society governed by deeply embedded norms and values and the formal legalism prohibiting self immolation. An issue familiar to most of us which further helps illustrate this conflict is the problem of corruption. Formal institutions create legalistic procedures that require transparency and accountability in the execution of fiduciary and bureaucratic responsibilities in order to minimize malfeasance and corruption. These formal rules are problematic for societies that operate within a complex web of kinship obligations, cultures of reciprocity, patrimonialism and communal expectations. It’s often quite difficult for the political state with its formal institutions to override the informal norms of a strong traditional society in policing against corruption and collusion.

The British government bequeathed to almost all departing colonies many of the formal institutions of modern governance, such as electoral democracy, independent judiciaries, bicameral legislatures, a merit based civil service, etc. Unfortunately, most of these former colonies including Fiji have not been successful in maintaining these institutions post independence, not because the former colonial subjects were any less virtuous than peoples elsewhere or they somehow had a preference for chaos, instability and immiseration. The fact is that the colonial powers engaged in an act of political palimpsest, superimposing on extant societies formal institutions regardless of saliency and durability. The conflict between state and society was further complicated in Fiji when the Colonial Government codified for political purposes informal structures of governance that were unique to indigenous society into a formal institution. Both Dr. Victor Lal and Professor Crosby Walsh have reiterated this point recently in regards to that august institution known as the Great Council of Chiefs.

This brings us to the current controversy surrounding the Great Council of Chiefs and the recent decision by the Government to disestablish that institution. The problem with the Great Council of Chiefs is not that they are political, or partisan or even ideological, as the government charges, but that they are misplaced, or improperly situated within the organization of the modern state. The struggle of political modernity is not to erase the particularities of the human family but to transcend them and create a social order that is inclusive, transparent, accountable, equitable and flexible. The former Han Dynasty in the second century BC were the first to create a merit based civil service in order attenuate the influence of kinship and tribal loyalties in the execution of public administration. The contest is between entrenched social orders based on primogeniture, kinship and tribalism navigating the ship of state and inclusive models of governance based on formal institutions. This has a long provenance and is unlikely to be fully resolved anytime soon. State building is an enormously complex undertaking and institutionalizing the role of the Great Council of Chiefs within the structures of the formal state has only exacerbated the difficulties in Fiji by sharpening ethnic, religious and tribal cleavages from a societal level and pushing it up to the national stage at the expense of the larger cosmopolitan project.

The problem of the Great Council of Chiefs is that it is an anachronistic institution unfairly placed in a position it shouldn’t be. Formalizing the role of the Great Council of Chiefs by enclosing them inside the political sphere as opposed to their informal role as traditional leaders places an unfair burden on the itaukei to choose between the bonds of society and the responsibilities of membership in a modern political state. This is a calculation other communities have not had to make between respecting ones conscience regarding the validity of public policy or obeying ones Chief and the dictates of informal society. The viability and potency of traditional leaders resides in the bonds of informal society which are often more resilient than the fissiparous arena of political power, but it is the success of the modern state that creates the necessary conditions for the flourishing of diverse groups in multicultural communities. Establishing formal institutions necessary for a strong state does not come on the back of enfeebled society as some would posit in the wake of the governments decision to deformalize the Great Council of Chiefs. The informal threads of kinship and tribal affiliations stretch across generations and connect itaukei society in a manner that is rare and enviable, especially for those of us who struggle with the increasing atomization of contemporary culture.

The fundamental challenge for Fiji contrary to the revisionists voices is not that informal society is weakened or irredeemably damaged because we have a military regime, or an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, or a Muslim Attorney General or White Chief Justice, etc. The informal institutions of Fijian society are extremely strong and robust; the bonds of kinship, family and community are constantly legitimated by custom, religion and tradition. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the problem in Fiji is that we have a weak state that has been episodically run-over by a strong society. For four plus decades, partisan actors driven by parochial concerns have successfully co-opted the state on matters great and small. Influence has waxed and waned between business elites, sugar industry leaders, landowners associations, various taukei groups, religious denominations, nationalists, and whoever could extract their pound of flesh and push their agenda. The challenge for Fiji is to create a strong and modern state circumscribed by formal institutions which will enable it to withstand the competing demands of individual groups and work towards the common good. It would indeed be a good day when the government can politely refuse the policy inputs of a powerful constituency because its proposals are inimical to the national interest and injurious to the body politic.

A strong state is one that is at its core an autonomous actor able to transcend the parochial concerns of individuated parties and strive to execute the national interest. A strong administrative apparatus is necessary to efficiently and fairly generate revenue sorely needed for infrastructure development long neglected by the state while holding free-riders and tax evaders accountable for non compliance. Competence and specialization ought to define entry into the civil service rather than nepotism, ethnicity or patrimonialism. The state in Fiji has neither the resources nor the luxury of supporting political dilettantes unskilled in statecraft and thus incapable of moving the country forward with expertise and professionalism during this challenging period. A strong state must be able to resolve the issue of tenure and develop mechanisms to equitably allocate natural resources necessary for investment and domestic tranquility without the fear of obsolescing and violence from entrenched social interests. The hope in Fiji is to create a framework for a strong state by building formal institutions that can thrive alongside an already strong society with its own informal norms and institutions.


Islands in the Stream said…
An extremely useful and interesting paper from Sudarsan Kant. It touches on most of the profound issues that face us in Fiji today. However, this is the work of at least one generation: building a 'stronger state'. It ought always to have been viewed as such. The transition from a society driven by communal interests to recognition of the concept and manifestation of 'A Conflict of Interest' is a huge leap. This, in my view, is still twenty years away. Why? Education must predate this leap. It cannot be made by decreeing it into existence. Neither will violent revolution permit of it. The blood ties and social webs will not be exterminated. They must somehow be woven anew through a holistic recognition of the duties and obligations of entities and individuals to 'The Whole'. The Whole being the Nation State.

But, before this can take place sustainably, the State must be worthy of such an allegiance. It must be seen in its entirety and in its service to the people to be selfless, devoid of 'personalities with programmes' devoid of propaganda and specific allegiances to historic allies. The State must engender trust and confidence from its people.

Until this takes place, there can be no useful movement towards modernisation which is lasting. The forces of reaction will be cyclical: as we have seen since 1987. "Obsolescence and violence" will hang in the air though nuanced.

Exceptional leadership is required. The leadership of self-actualised persons who have no vested interest or desire to further their own goals or wealth accumulation but who value and who apply judgement on the right way, the sustainable and peaceful way forward for all. We have no one at present in Fiji who qualifies or who would be acceptable to everyone in such a role. The Chiefs have seen fit to pursue their own self-interest without equipping themselves through extensive and ongoing education and experience to assume the multi-faceted requirements of the Modern State. They simply to do not have the answers to the questions which must be asked of them. Thus, they are left naked, without clothes in a situation where they need to be armed with the armour of National Interest bar any other.

This exercise in national leadership demands courage as well as education. It requires that the applicant knows how he/she is perceived by many others. But in this perception, they must not be side-tracked but energised. Most of our leaders of late are lacking and seen to be lacking in the steely resolve, the wisdom and the good judgement that leadership demands of them for success. Must they be saints? No, not at all. They must be inspirational and this inspiration must play many tunes in many tones for assorted ears. Their weaknesses must be acknowledged by their own recognition of them. No one wishes to invest their trust in paragons: paragons are beyond belief.

Think of Nelson Mandela. Think of his example: 27 years' apprenticeship on Robbin Island. Think of him and pray for his like!
Anonymous said…
Thank you for your thoughtful response, You are correct to point out that the time frame required for building a "stronger state" is perhaps a generation away, the better title for the essay should probably have been "it's time to START building a stronger state..." However, I did not want to leave the impression that we have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak when it comes to state-building, because we have the information we need to help us along in putting many of the pieces together, such as constitutions, investment policies, infrastructure developments, rule of law, etc. What we lack as you have accurately observed is the political leadership and willingness so necessary to execute change and take responsibility. I have previously theorized in this forum on why we have such terrible leaders and ways in which we can improve that situation, but until then, the situation seems pretty desultory. In the meantime forums like this are so important for engaging in a thoughtful way on critical issues that will not go away, and ultimately will come back and haunt us. Thank you once again for your excellent reflections,


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