Government collapse

Nasty, brutish and short








The seventeenth century political scientist Thomas Hobbes described the State of Nature of human society without a political authority as one where the "life of man was nasty, brutish and short" .

There are several territories where administrative structures no longer function and the rule of law has ceased.

There is a danger that these areas may increase as thirty years ago this condition was very rare.

At present, January 2002, this condition can be found in Somalia, Sierra Leone (improving 2007), the Congo (Kinshasa), parts of Angola, parts of Sudan, and other parts of Africa. State structures are very weak in Liberia. In the Americas Haiti is a country with very weak government.

Lebanon, until recently under Syrian control, may have recovered from the worst.

Parts of the former Soviet Union went through a period (Yeltsin was president) when the decrees of the central governments were ineffective and ignored. Some of the successor republics are weak (while others are ferocious dictatorships). There has been a serious danger that large areas of Russia may approach this condition - though since Putin came to power government has become much stronger (and less democratic). The powerlessness of the state is replaced by Mafia - organized crime, often the same people as the former ruling personnel.

Interesting Reading

Thomas Hobbes - Leviathan - the classic account of the need for a State.

Léviathan (1re traduction française)



Possible Solutions

Are there answers to every problem? The reasons for the breakdown of authority and the outbreak of Hobbes' State of Nature are unclear and may well be different for every society which loses its cohesion. Thus in Lebanon there was: extreme variety of religious sects; foreign interference from Israel, Iran and Syria; no tradition of tolerance; a long (3000 years) imperial past as a subordinate territory.

In Somalia there is: economic collapse; end of Cold War support from the super-Powers; traditional clan rivalry and no tradition of state structure before the colonial period - and no source of wealth to fund a government.

In Liberia there is extreme hatred between individuals trying to gain power, and an underlying ethnic tension following the rule for a century by the aristocracy of Americo-Liberians.

Afghanistan has never had strong authorities. Since the invention of firearms they have been available to most men which means that government by force is impossible but, as in the United States, homicide is common.

In several African countries corrupt governments rule without the consent of many of the people. If such a government falls there is danger of complete lawlessness.

In Yugoslavia the situation has historical roots but may be being stirred up by a small number of intolerant politicians who have seized power over many more tolerant people. (That's the optimistic view; pessimistically, most of the people are intolerant.)

Is there a general cause in the economic collapse experienced in many parts of the world? If so, a worldwide "New Deal" is needed to end the extreme differences of poverty and wealth and to initiate workable economic policies instead of the present reliance on 18th century laissez faire. In western countries social breakdown occurs in places with high unemployment, the result of the abandonment by government in the 1980s of policies of Full Employment replacing them with the unrestricted Free Market.

Another possibility is that the historically very large human population may be a factor. Rats made to live in overcrowded conditions show greater agressiveness.

The pessimistic, such as Hans Magnus Enzensburger, suggest a general cultural breakdown throughout the world with the death of restraint on killing the weak, women and children - a sort of mass psychopathy reflected in the mainly American "video nasty" culture. Thus killing is mostly for its own sake. Dark thoughts!

Bad Government
Related to the collapse of government authority is the phenomenon of bad government - government structures that fail to serve people. Burma and Zimbabwe seem to be the most prominent of the current governments. In Zimbabwe the government of Robert Mugabe seems to have no other purpose than to retain office, while the state vanishes along with the economy and the population, as those who can, flee the country. In Burma the ruling military build palaces while totally failing to assist the victims of the disaster caused by a Cyclone (Hurricane) that probably killed over 100,000 people and made millions homeless. (But what about the failure of the US government to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans?).

The United States governmental system seems unable to respond to the economic crises caused by the failure of the banking system in 2008. Should it be regarded as a failed state?

Kurt Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle

Katzenwiege. Roman.
Le Berceau du chat

Fixing Failed States

Last revised 5/08/12


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