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Midterm Exam/Philosophical Chat (Comparative Politics, March 2014)

(Assignment: sitting around a café drinking lattes with three political philosophers)

MAX WEBER: Karl, Karl, you underestimate the power of the State, and always have. Look no further than the U.S.S.R. Lenin was one of your most ardent students, and believed as you did in a future run by the proletariat. But the revolution required a strong state to enforce its goals. And what is a state but an apparatus to organize the use of force within its borders? Lenin established a centralized state that may have declared itself to be the extension of the will of the working class, but in practice, the goal of the state was to perpetuate itself and retain the upper hand over the general population.

KARL MARX: I would have to write another book to explain what went wrong with “Communism” after my death, but as I just said, I was right about capitalism. My only mistake was not to expand my theories to the global capitalist system that chokes the lives of workers everywhere 150 years later! It was capitalism itself that caused the so-called Communist bloc to fall in the 1980s; the bourgeoisie is bigger than any one state as I pointed out long ago. Multi-national corporations call the shots, and states follow. There is an international market, but no international workers’ movement to counter it. It is not MY theories that failed!

JOEL S. MIGDAL: Business elites are one force that competes with state power, but not the only one. If everything was down to economics, it would be easier to effect change, but people are not so simple. There is a web of relations at work, what I refer to as the “mélange” model, where a multitude of spheres jockey for power within a nation-state. And the melange can be extremely different within each individual state. For instance, in many states, religious authorities have a great deal of power over the population…

MARX: Ah yes, one of the bourgeoisie’s many techniques, “the opium of the people”…

MIGDAL: Don’t underestimate the power of the opium trade, metaphorical or otherwise! Seriously, though, you must recognize the nature of state-society relations. The interests of an economic elite may meet their match in the religious authorities in many nations. Look at the situations in Afghanistan or Iraq; corporations definitely had their interests in those environments, but they have had more success doing damage than rebuilding those states in their own image. The top-down model is limited; if you go into the trenches, you can see clearly that the lowest-level authorities that have to work with the population do not carry out directives the way the authorities at the “commanding heights” imagine. The people getting their hands dirty are the ones who have to be pragmatic and adapt.

WEBER: Are you talking about traditional, charismatic, or rational-legal authority? The dynamics will be very different in each type of state. And if these other elements you’re talking about grow more powerful than the state itself, the result will be a loss of capacity and legitimacy, which will lead to a more authoritarian state!

MARX: And if the bourgeoisie stands to make a profit from this, it will happen. So it is abundantly clear who really pulls the strings!

MIGDAL: But how does that authoritarian regime sustain itself without ground-level support, I ask you? It will be undermined from within by competing parties. This is exactly how states fail in the end.

MARX: I still maintain the people will win in the end. They simply have yet to awaken to their power.

WEBER: We must keep ideals out of our observation. It’s the only way we can view the situation clearly.

ME: I think I need another latte. My head is spinning. More coffee for everyone! We need more than 50 minutes to figure this out!