State Formation and Political Community in Heterogeneous Worlds

Dr. Anne Brown
Panel Code

There has been intense concern over some decades with state failure and fragility in post-colonial states. The weakness of post-colonial state institutions has been repeatedly taken by international policy-makers as a cause of, or framework for understanding, a wide range of forms of violent conflict and governance dysfunction. The approaches to political community that dominate international statebuilding, peacebuilding and governance interventions are shaped by a de-historicised, abstracted Weberian model of the state. Prevailing peacebuilding processes involve efforts to reproduce this generic model of the state as centralised, standardised political management. International governance interventions are homogenous technocratic exercises, driven by embedded imaginaries of the unitary sovereign state.

Such efforts have yielded disappointing results, feeding growing critique of statebuilding as the response to entrenched dysfunction, insecurity and civil war. Indeed, efforts to assert a centralised sovereignty, or to capture it, can be a factor generating conditions for conflict. Nevertheless, statebuilding remains the default mode for responding to dysfunction and violence in post-colonial countries. Alternative approaches to supporting – or even imagining – state formation or political community remain elusive or marginalised.

Given statebuilding efforts have so often failed, and have arguably been counterproductive, it is worth asking whether alternative approaches – different ways of making and being a state – could be more effective and legitimate. Rather than beginning from abstract models of the ideal state, actual governance practices in post-colonial regions could be taken as a starting point. Contemporary post-colonial states are often heterogeneous and fractured socio-political terrains. While often seen as a deficit, this heterogeneity could be understood as a starting point from which a different kind of political community and state might be imagined or crafted. Indeed, many people on the ground in post-colonial states struggle every day to make things ‘hang together’. Working against violence, too, requires crafting ways of working with difference. New, accountable forms of articulating the state, of meaningful representation, participation and legitimacy could develop from these struggles. This panel will address state formation and political community under conditions of heterogeneity.