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State vs virtual state

Wednesday, 4 November 2009 - 9:27pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
In Karl Marx’s vision, in the ultimate stage of Communism, the state is supposed to wither away. History has shown how wrong he was.

In Karl Marx’s vision, in the ultimate stage of Communism, the state is supposed to wither away. History has shown how wrong he was. Not only did Communism wither away first, the nation-state has stubbornly refused to follow suit. Even in the 21st century, we have seen the creation of new states, Kosovo being one of the latest.

But Marx was wrong not only in this sense. As the ideological progenitor of Communism — a revolutionary idea at that time — he should have known that states are born in the mind before they become politico-geographical realities. In the post-modern, post-internet world, many states exist more in the mind than in reality.

Take the Maoists. They are a state within a state. They may not control a territory entirely, but with their ideology and extended band of sympathisers they are able to make their writ run to quite an extent.

A state is not merely a historical or geographical entity; its defining characteristic is it ability to get its citizens to behave in a certain way, and when they don’t, it can penalise them. Put another way, there can be no state without the ability to deploy power. A democracy may project this power less coercively than an autocracy, but the power to enforce is the critical element in the making of a state.

If we take the two ideas together — that the idea of state is essentially in the mind, and that a state is not a state if it cannot project power — we come to this conclusion: we can have states that are territorial in nature, but others can exist virtually by colonising the mind.

Does Dawood Ibrahim run a criminal enterprise or a state? He may have fled the country, but his writ runs in some parts of India, with sections of Bollywood, the police and even politicians and businessmen dancing to his tune. He may be ruling his subjects through fear, but the fact that he can enforce many of his diktats makes him a virtual state, albeit a criminal one. Like D Company, al Qaeda is also a state. It may not control much territory, but it can enforce internal and external discipline in its troops.

The same applies to the Catholic church, or to any of the faith-related organisations of the world — whether it is the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind (JuH) or the Tabligh-e-Jamaat (TeJ), or the various Sangh Parivar entities. When the RSS says that all Indians must sing the Vande Mataram, it is essentially trying to imprint its idea of state in the minds of it followers. Ditto for the JuH, when it says Muslims must not sing the Vande Mataram.

Ditto for the Tabligh, which tries to systematically erase all syncretic practices followed by Indian Muslims. Ditto for the Vatican, when it says birth control or abortion is wrong.
All religious or quasi-religious entities are virtual states because they can get their followers (virtual subjects) to behave in specified ways even when they don’t rule territories. Religious power begins by addressing the mind with the help of ideology, and this is the base from which it acquires political power at some stage. Political power may also lead to the creation of a geographical state, as the creation of Pakistan or Turkish

Cyprus or the Vatican show. In Islam, this relationship is explicit, with religious power and political power going hand in hand with the idea of state. In western democracies, there is a theoretical separation of church and state, so we have two states residing in the minds of citizens — a geographical entity and an ideological one.

There are other kinds of virtual states, and corporations are one example. GE is a state more than a corporation. Every GE executive knows what its corporate culture is, and why he has to adhere to it if he is to rise in the hierarchy. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, in their book Built to Last, explain why every great company adopts cult-like practices for longevity.

Wal-Mart employees scream their Wal-Mart cheer (Give me a ‘W’, give me an ‘A’ and so on till the last letter ‘T’ in the Wal-Mart name is reached). The screaming ends with a question: “Who’s No 1?” (The answer, in case you are wondering, is “The customer”). Wal-Mart is thus a state of mind for its employees; those who don’t subscribe to it are usually weeded out. Precisely what a state tries to do with people who don’t want to belong to it.

The existence of virtual states within states is the reality we have to deal with. While legal legitimacy rests with the nation-state, the others exist in a kind of implicit power-sharing arrangement with it.

When power-sharing is explicitly rejected by states or virtual states, they have to be decided one way or the other, either through court battles or ideological compromises or armed conflict. The Maoists have so far rejected compromise. Whatever their reason for existence, they cannot coexist with the idea of the Indian state.

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