Somalia; a failed State? These two terms have become synonymous. The identification of the name Somalia with state failure and therefore with complete institutional and social disintegration is nowadays taken-for-granted: remember the image of Muammar Gaddafi shaking his fist wildly and screaming ‘do you want to be like Somalia?’ For us Somalis the complete collapse of the Somali state provokes two emotions. First, it’s a source of major embarrassment.
It suggests that we, as a people, have failed where others have succeeded. The failure of the Somali state, we conclude, must be the failure of the Somali people. Perhaps we, the untutored rebellious nomads that we are, are simply not fit for a State, we mumble secretly. Second, it causes us to be angry with whomever we attribute for the collapse of the Somali state. The target of this anger could be internal actors such as local elites and/or tribe X; or they could be external: Ethiopia, America, and so forth and so on. Regardless of whom we hold responsible, there is tremendous amount of anger and frustration.
This is the sentiment for those of us among the diaspora or those who read and are thus sensitive to the international coverage of Somalia. For the masses inside Somalia who know nothing and who care even less of what is said of Somalia, the absence of the State is experienced in a different way. For the average person in Mogadishu the need for a State is felt for all that goes wrong in daily life. If a driver drives on the wrong side of the street, the onlooker laments the absence of a State to put this traffic violator on the right path; if Somalis are humiliated and robbed in Kenya, his fellow countrymen lament the absence of a Somali state to hold Kenya to account.
Whatever ills the Somali people face the State is depicted as the panacea. So here we are, without a state, insulted everywhere for lacking the capacity to build and maintain one, feeling that a State would put all our troubles to bed, and dreaming of the day when there is a functioning Somali state. Yet, who amongst us doesn’t feel a complete lack of faith in the UN-sponsored shell-of-a-state and the incompetent scavengers at its helm? What to do then when a reflection upon this state of affairs leaves you bewildered and paralyzed? Below I offer some food-for-thought so that the next time you think of this paralyzing situation you may be able to smile inside and comfort that Somali vanity, which lurks just beneath the veneer of shame.
Often when the collapse of the Somali state is mentioned it’s done in terms of all the catastrophes that have befallen the Somali people since the disintegration of the State. Here, I want to talk about all the potential catastrophes, inherent to the State, which the Somali people may be spared because they have revolted from the State. That is right; I want to suggest that what took place in 1990 is a revolt of the Somali people from the State and not a failure to uphold it. To demonstrate the potential and actual negative consequences of the State I will take two models of the State form. I take the best and the worst form of the state: the modern states of the West and the post-colonial African states. We should remember that what we refer to as the State isn’t an entity. It’s a relationship between individuals and therefore involves material relations. In its best form this relationship is rationalized and institutionalized systematically.
These are the modern states of the West. These State forms are beyond and above the individual bureaucrats that function within them. They do serve in Marxist terminology the interests of those that own the means of production; but as highly bureaucratized machines these states have a life of their own that is not beholden to any individual or group of individuals. The modern Western State has a life of its own. It may justify its acts, good or bad, in the name of its populace or some supposedly universal value. In the last analysis, however, beyond all the rhetoric, these states are concerned with the continuation of their own existence as states. A State which faces an existential threat is one that is justified to undertake every possible action to nullify that threat. Under such a threat a State has no regard for individual lives or group of lives. Paramount in its consideration is its own survival. NOTE: when Israeli officials want to justify a potential war with Iran, they claim “the state of Israel faces an existential threat,” enough said.
These are what the best functioning states in the contemporary world are. They are immense bureaucratic machines, Iron Cages in the words of Max Weber, with massive destructive and war-making capabilities. The human beings who live within these machines are simultaneously treated like little children to be nurtured and manipulated as well as potential threats to the State. Accordingly, their thoughts, actions and lives are to be scrutinized for any hint of disloyalty to the State and possible rebellion. They are well fed like pigs being prepared for slaughter.
Don’t misinterpret the mechanized and rational manner in which these potential threats are handled for benevolence. NOTE: the revelation of the massive surveillance by the American Security Agency (NSA) on all communication. What has made it possible for NSA to imagine and operationalize such an invasive operation? It’s the way that life is lived within these modern states. The lives of every individual in these societies has become so mechanized, intertwined and electronic that it’s easy to observe, manipulate and disrupt as needed. In their own analysis the new frontiers of modern war in these states is what is called cyber-warfare.
Cyber-warfare is basically computer or information network warfare targeting vulnerable components of a system. Imagine if all electronic communication was disrupted and bank accounts frozen for a week or two in a city like New York. Multiply this five times and the consequences are unimaginable. What has made this possible? The same rational and bureaucratic organization that has made the modern state function so smoothly. So, my fellow nomads, the next time you think about the abundance and glitter that modern states have afforded their citizenry, reflect a little also on the dangers that mark the other side, the evil side, of this coin.