The liberal state has changed profoundly with significant consequences for the type of society we have come to expect – whether in the rich democracies of the north or the struggling democracies elsewhere.
At the heart of this emergent transformation lies the historical reshaping, firstly of the relations between the three parts of the liberal state (the executive, the legislature/parliament, and the judiciary), and secondly of the relation between the state (especially the executive branch) and the citizens, with the latter losing rights and entitlements.
The United States is the most extreme case and hence also the one that makes these shifts most legible, though the Iraq war and its close cousin, the “global war on terror”, also brought some of these shifts about in the United Kingdom.
The privatising of the power of the government’s executive branch (or prime minister’s office) along with the erosion of the privacy rights of citizens is hollowing out the powers of the legislature. These shifts are no anomaly. These are systemic shifts. They transcend party politics and go beyond the much-discussed democratic deficits brought about by economic globalisation.
It will take much political work and innovation to address these shifts. The executive has become by far the most powerful branch of the US government: it has amassed undemocratic powers, become highly secretive, is increasingly a form of privatised power and has gained added control over public administration.
The “people’s branch of government” – the legislature – was never strong but has lost much of its power. Much of this loss is structural: when the state privatizes public sector firms and deregulates such major economic sectors as finance and telecommunications, the legislature loses part of its oversight and some of its law-making functions. This has had the indirect effect of weakening its authority vis-à-vis its constitutional role of public scrutiny of the executive. Today the executive essentially controls and uses the legislature. It is increasingly rare for the legislature to make new laws. The third branch, the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, is increasingly in charge of both – scrutinising the actions of the executive and making law.
Finally, US citizens have been losing “little rights” for the last decade, a processaccelerated by the “anti-terrorism” legislation. They range from the right to sue the federal government in a lower court around issues as diverse as immigration, tobacco companies, and environmental dangers, to such rights as declaring bankruptcy in order to use what money you might have to pay for your children’s food, rent, and the like. Now the first taker is the credit-card company.
Such events as the Iraq war and the global war on terror function as camouflage for these deeper transformations. In 2006 these trends will continue. We must develop innovative political strategies to get at the heart of the matter – the excessive powers, including war powers, of the liberal state’s executive branch.