This Is A Time for Balancing, Not State Oppression

Contrary to what despotic systems and organisations think (and fear), liberty is not anarchy, it is a basic aspiration of all human beings. Within a state, societal freedoms not only keep the state in check, but also bring prosperity and a sense of belonging.

This Is A Time for Balancing, Not State Oppression

When William Golding marooned his schoolboys on an island, he was writing not just about human nature, but also about how societies are formed, unformed and destroyed.

Golding was no stranger to violence, having fought as a naval officer in World War II. But The Lord of the Flies is not just about violence; it is also about self-discovery, about how hierarchies are formed, how they are maintained and whether order is a function of rules such as the blowing of a conch shell, or brute force of the type depicted in a frenzied, ritualistic dance of hunting that ends in a brutal murder.

From that death onwards, the idea of establishing order through rules, like Simon’s lifeless body, is swept out to sea. Brute force dominates, rationality gives way to savagery and any possibility of ordered and civilised existence has ended. “And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”

Order has always been preferred to chaos or disorder. One must have rules because if there are none, as Hobbes argued, it will be bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. To get out of the state of anarchy and get “themselves out from the miserable condition of warr, which is necessarily consequent…to the natural Passions of men,” there must be a common “Power”, the Leviathan or State, terms Hobbes uses interchangeably.

Would a single great power bring peace? Unfortunately, no.

In The Narrow Corridor, a book rich in references, Professors Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that the path to liberty — a state of order and freedom — is a narrow corridor, which requires a balance between state and society. If the Leviathan is absent, society will face disorder, chaos and anarchy. In Lagos, where Wole Soyinka went around with a Glock strapped to his waist, “liberty was nowhere to be seen.” The chaos and violence did not bring equality: “Conflict was resolved in favour of the stronger, the better-armed party…Dominance was all around. This was not a coming anarchy. It was already there.”

What about the fearsome, despotic Leviathan? Would it keep everyone subdued and in check? No. It would be the order of a graveyard, with no liberty.

Acemoglu and Robinson name the problem after Gilgamesh, the proud and tyrannical king of the ancient city of Uruk. Sumerian tablets tell us that while the city boasted great palaces, temples and bustling markets, all was not well. Gilgamesh roamed the city, tearing children away from their parents at will, murdering and raping them.

Urkians plead with Anu, the sky god, to save them from Gilgamesh and restore some semblance of liberty. Anu tells Aruru, the goddess of creation, to create a man equal to Gilgamesh in strength and power who could balance him. Aruru creates Enkidu who challenges and pushes back against Gilgameshs tyranny. But Urukian happiness is short lived. The two make a compromise and begin to exploit the people together. Instead of the checks and balances desired by them, the people now had to put up with the combined despotism of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Acemoglu and Robinson argue that liberty did not take hold in Uruk because the society relied on one power to balance out the other. Enkidu and Gilgamesh are the elites — a theme the authors explored in detail in Why Nations Fail — who had no reason to be benevolent because the society had no political strength.

What is to be done? Too strong a Leviathan and it devours liberty; too weak and the society breaks down. The space between these two extremes is the narrow corridor, the Shackled Leviathan. It’s not a door. It’s not a permanent state of bliss, a transportation from a state of despotism or anarchy to a state of eternal balance. It is a corridor precisely because keeping that balance is a constant struggle and because the institutions and the rules of the game are forged over a long time. And they are not guaranteed.

In fact, Acemoglu and Robinson are not sure how it works. There’s no single template.

Since May 9 we have seen this country slip back into despotism. On the surface it retains the form of democracy. In some ways there’s also a pushback by the civil society and some honourable judges. But that’s about all. And it is not enough.

Contrary to what despotic systems and organisations think (and fear), liberty is not anarchy, it is a basic aspiration of all human beings. Within a state, societal freedoms not only keep the state in check, but also bring prosperity and a sense of belonging. States are not biological beings. There’s nothing in common between a person born in Gilgit and one born in Makran. They are not family. They don’t share DNA. If they call themselves Pakistanis it is because they share an imagined identity. But imagined identities can go only so far and no more. If the state is oppressive, as Pakistan is today, the imagined identity’s pull will continue to weaken until the imagination, and with it the identity, dies.

Why would anyone die for a dead identity? Despotic states can kill, as they often do. Fear can keep things together, for sure. Gilgamesh and Enkidu can take turns or join together in extracting and exploiting the people. But it will be a Leviathan without a society, without liberty, without prosperity, without an imagined identity.

Israel saw massive protests against purported judicial reforms by its current right-wing government. Reading a report by Reuters on August 1, “Israels spy veterans take on their government over judiciary overhaul”, I was particularly struck by what one former Mossad operative said to Jonathan Saul, the reporter: When you are on an operation, you need to have belief in the system and you block out everything else,” said Gil, [a] Mossad veteran who withheld his full name. Whos to say now that you risk your life and you wont have doubts whether its worth it, with everything going on and with this government.” (italics added)

To say that this country is in dire straits is to state the obvious. The Constitution is in a state of near abeyance; laws are selectively applied; freedoms are under threat; dissent is being killed through almost vengeful oppression; politics is divisive; the economy is teetering. This is a time for balancing, not state oppression.

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.