By Neil Davidson
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‘Failed states’: a loaded term

This article is over 14 years, 6 months old
Yemen began to be described as a "failed state" almost as soon as a link had been established between the failed Christmas bomb attempt over Detroit and the existence of an Al Qaida cell in that country.
Issue 2184

Yemen began to be described as a “failed state” almost as soon as a link had been established between the failed Christmas bomb attempt over Detroit and the existence of an Al Qaida cell in that country.

At first glance the term seems helpful as a description of areas where law, order and the internal infrastructure have broken down.

In reality, it a major ideological weapon in the arsenal of the new imperialism. It is almost always deployed as a prelude to external intervention of one form or another.

What makes a failed state? According to the most common version of the argument, these states lack a tradition of good “governance”. This means respect for the rule of law, the existence of an impartial state bureaucracy, free and fair elections, toleration for minorities and so on.

On reading this list, one’s first thought is how unfortunate the Italians are to be living in a failed state. But despite the kleptomania of its political class, the corruption of its state managers, the close relationship of its institutions with organised crime and its persecution of migrants, Italy is not seen as a “failed state”. It is one of the states which decide which others have failed.

In fact, those states which are described as having “failed” are invariably to be found in the Global South. Here, failure designates a level of instability beyond what the Western powers are prepared to tolerate. In many cases their failure is a long-term consequence of earlier Western interventions. The process goes something like this.

A territory in Africa, the Middle East or the Far East is occupied and colonised by a Great Power in the 19th century. Over the decades its mineral resources are pillaged and the economy is wrenched into line with the requirements of the coloniser.


In order to help maintain imperial rule the population is classified into legally binding “ethnic” groups and privileges are granted to one of the minorities at the expense of the others.

Eventually, after a destructive struggle, a movement for national liberation succeeds. It inherits a devastated national territory which the new rulers govern on the basis of an authoritarian model of one kind or another.

Appalling levels of poverty and other factors combine to unleash desperate struggles for land and resources, often on the basis of the “ethnic” identities which were either created or at least given significance by the former imperial regime.

In particularly terrible cases, such as the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo, the state did not merely fail but virtually ceased to exist across whole territorial areas.

These are genuine examples of state collapse, but they are not the failures which interest the Western powers. Indeed, many of the states which are designated as having failed came nowhere near this level of disintegration.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was many things before 1991, including a murderous dictatorship, but it was capable of feeding and educating its population. The breakdown of this ability came as a result of Western sanctions, bombing and invasion.

Of those states which have suffered collapse, those blessed with Western military intervention to bring about “regime change” are not necessarily the most devastated. They are those that could not be allowed to disintegrate further as this would threaten Western interests.

What then is to be done? We must first point out where the term “failed states” is simply a label to justify Western political and military intervention.

And even in those cases where there has been a collapse of state structures, the answer cannot be found within each country’s borders alone.

One component of Leon Trotsky’s strategy of permanent revolution was recognition of the international nature of the struggle in an increasingly globalised capitalist system.

The countries that are more advanced in terms of the revolutionary movement will come to the aid of the weaker. We need to see the solution to the crisis in Yemen and Afghanistan as involving, for example, the workers’ movement in Egypt.

Ultimately, the salvation of failed states can only be the overthrow of a failed system.


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