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THEORIES OF THE STATE

In modern political thought, three main theories of the state are a standard reference. The first is the Hegelian perspective which sees the state as the sublimation of human civilization and the embodiment of the highest good. Secondly, there is the Marxist, which ascribes a partisan role to the state in the ongoing class struggle between the ruling class and the ruled. Then there is the liberal, which views the state as a human artefact needed to prevent chaos and anarchy in society through the rule of law, which restricts absolute freedom but creates freedom within the law for all citizens. We can of course add a number of other theories of the state based on religion, of which the Islamic state is the most significant.


The Hegelian state was rooted in the Germanic tradition of respect for authority and a mystical belief in the state being somehow the embodiment of a universal spirit. Hegel himself was not an advocate of totalitarianism and made a strong case for civil society as one of three entities, besides family and state, constituting modern society and the three spheres of interaction. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the state as something mystical and the highest level of human organization created grounds for more extremist views of the state of which Nazism was the most grotesque outcome. One can say that in central and Eastern Europe, conservatism remained the dominant ideology until the World War I. The Hegelian view of the state fitted into that intellectual tradition rather easily.


The Marxist view of the state was the main intellectual counterpoint to 2,500 years of mainstream western political thought, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, which considered the state essential to the maintenance of order and civilization. Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels argued that the state emerged historically along with the division of society into a ruling class that enjoyed leisure and privilege, while the mass of people toiled to make a living and were exploited as slaves, serfs and proletarians in the overall evolution of society from the ancient period to the modern one. Marx and Engels were convinced that the state would be abolished when the proletariat win the final class struggle against capitalism. The triumph of socialism would lay the foundations of building communism based on international cooperation and peace.


However, history moved in a different way and Marxist teleology of capitalism being superseded by socialism and culminating in communism did not happen. Rather Communists led by Vladimir Lenin captured power in Russia, a vast empire ruled by the Czars over millions of poor peasants. The Soviet Union became a superpower but then disintegrated under the weight of internal and external problems, while the People’s Republic of China achieved a great metamorphosis by adopting capitalism and becoming the banker of the world, while simultaneously maintaining the total control of the Communist Party over politics.


In contrast to those two views of the state, the liberal state has proved to be more enduring because, unlike the highly intellectualised Hegelian and Marxist theories of the state, the main attraction of the liberal state has been its pragmatism. Therefore, it has adjusted to the changing times and in different contexts from as far away cultures as the Japanese and Hindu to within the very diverse western environments. Even in Muslim contexts, liberalism has on the whole had a benign influence to justify a free media, independent judiciary and the rule of law.


This brings me to consider the Islamic state model. In one sense, it is as ancient as the god-king theories and the Platonic idea of a perfect ruler to establish justice. Common to such theories of the state is the premise that the state has metaphysical functions that go beyond life on earth. The state is supposed to create conditions and maintain a social order that somehow ensure salvation after death. One can devote as much space as one wants to elaborate such promises beyond the grave, but from a practical point of view, a state is a secular institution, a human artefact that can only be assigned duties and functions that ensure some outcomes on earth. If laws are fair, a political system ensures a fair distribution of goods and services and political authority is kept in check; then most citizens, if not all, are likely to enjoy a good standard and quality of life.


In one sense, the Islamic state is a variant of the Hegelian theory of the state because of the mystical qualities that are associated with it. All such theories support a conservative worldview and ultimately, totalitarianism. What happens to the individual after death is a matter of belief. No state can test or verify that its policies ensured anyone entry into heaven or consignment to hell. Moreover, all this is supposed to happen at the end of time and that might be billions of years from now. Consequently, freeing the state and political authority from metaphysical, non-verifiable outcomes of public policy is necessary to make a break with folklore and mythology and enter the age of history. History is an account of what happened on earth and what its consequences were for people. The rest is all rhetoric.


In the case of Pakistan, there should be little doubt that the obsession with an ideal Islamic state has done great harm to its evolution as a normal state. Of course, being inspired by the great examples of the pious caliphs to establish good and honest government will always be part of the political culture of Pakistan, but it must not mean imitation lock, stock and barrel of the 7th century practices.


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