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Bobbitt: China as 'market-state'

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17 September 2009 15:44

My friend Paul Monk has an essay in the latest issue of Quadrant that draws me back to a subject I had sworn not to revisit: the work of Phillip Bobbitt.

Bobbitt's central claim is that 20th century nation-states (devoted to territorial integrity and public welfare) are transforming into market-states (exploit globalisation; protect people rather than borders; welfare state gives way to a state that maximises opportunity for citizens). For Monk, this is the key to understanding the the modern world order, an order that statesmen and scholars have been fumbling around in since the end of the Cold War.

I struggled dutifully with both The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent, but finished neither. I think what bothered me most about both books was their meandering pace and structure, which made it extremely difficult to keep hold of the thread linking the various Big Ideas of both books.

But others have summarised Bobbitt's thought reasonably well, and if you're new to his work, Paul Monk's Quadrant essay is a fine place to start. For a contrasting perspective, the weaknesses of Bobbitt's argument are very effectively exposed in this rather remarkable review of The Shield of Achilles by Gopal Balakrishnan in New Left Review.

One of the key oversights noted by Balakrishnan is Bobbitt's lack of attention to China, something which Monk tries to address in his essay. Monk sees China emerging somewhat reluctantly as a market-state, and lists several emblematic changes: the demolition of China's cradle-to-grave welfare system, its mercantilist tendencies, its increasing soft power and the direction of its military build-up, which focuses on the vulnerable points of critical infrastructure that maintain globalisation.

But what undercuts this picture somewhat is the fact that China is presently rebuilding the cradle-to-grave welfare state, including universal health care, in part in so that it can reinforce the market-state economy (China needs domestic consumption to substitute for flagging exports, and to help unlock that spending, Chinese citizens must first be convinced to spend the money they currently save in case they get sick). This looks more like the emergence of a nation-state than a market-state.

Nor is it clear that we need the market-state concept to explain the other factors on Paul's list. The anti-satellite weapons Paul mentions in his essay are clearly a novelty, but the development of assymetric military capabilities is surely not. So can't we just chalk that up to the same offence-defence pendulum that has been typical of arms development throughout history? And Confucious Institutes are a sign of China's soft power ambitions, sure, but we've long had the Goethe Institute and Radio Free Europe as well.

Photo by Flickr user floratheexplora, used under a Creative Commons license.

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