Civilizing the State

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* Book: John Restakis’ Civilizing the State: Reclaiming Politics for the Common Good (2021)


"Civilizing the State displays three segments: how we got this systematic crisis from political and economic powers; what alternatives we can learn from divergent communities; and, finally, the inception of the Partner State". [1]


By Júlia Martins Rodrigues:

"Perhaps that Maya prophecy for the end of the world back in 2012 was correct. Since then, maybe we have all perished and have been experiencing the carcass of what the world once was. While experts on Mesoamerican culture still debate the ancient calendar, we can at least agree that the passing decade represented, at least, the death of an old cycle and the beginning of another. The post-apocalypse era became a mix of technological advances, groundbreaking discoveries in science, social movements, global pandemic, climate crisis, human rights crisis, surveillance, violent conflicts worldwide, the threat of far-right politics, oligopoly trends, and billionaire fortunes. This miscellaneous fate exacerbated our civilization’s most pressing dichotomies: hope and despair, democracy and authoritarianism, collective movements and rugged individualism, environmental safeguard and corporate greed (even flat-earthers and the globe), challenging the institutions to respond to the contradictions of our time.

What is the role of the state in this age? Can politics restore democracy and the commons? John Restakis, the author of Humanizing the Economy (2010), recently released his newest book, Civilizing the State (2021), inviting us to do something very different: i.e., to reimagine the state through the lens of cooperation, democracy, and solidarity.

His premise is bold and straightforward: while the liberal state has failed us, the state still has an institutional role to partner with citizen-powered movements towards the common good. Reading Civilizing the State is a reminder that as much as it feels the world is ending, civilization might not be on its deathbed yet — we have a choice.

Throughout ages, we have learned that the state is an instrument of domination, manipulated to advance the privileges of a powerful elite in control of central institutions. Each civilization has built particular creeds to justify non-egalitarian systems and social dominance hierarchies, including those of a divine will, lineage or economic power. Today, capital still plays a decisive role in measuring power and establishing the individual position within contemporary society. Critical decisions lay in the hands of a narrow group of billionaires in charge of enterprises with forces dwarfing that of entire countries.

Nevertheless, Restakis’ analysis challenges the state to be an instrument of liberation from poverty, oppression, tyranny, and institutionalized inequality. The state can nourish a sovereign society when guided by democratic values instead of sheer greed. After all, no government stands alone. Rephrasing Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish . . .” because it was subjugated in the hands of a few. That government of the people shall partner, not perish, with them.

Restakis’ alternative framework brings within it an act of radical hope, but it is far from a utopian vision. The author starts by recognizing society’s deep systemic issues and recovering old remedies for not-so-new pains. Rather than theorizing something completely new, he gathers the contributions built by generations of cooperative enthusiasts and democracy advocates, showing we already have all we need to collectively build a more equitable life and economy. His contribution lies in changing the narrative of the state as an obsolete institution in a globalized world, arguing that the state can be a cooperative actor, remaking politics as an emancipatory tool, and even capable of redesigning a better pathway for civilization.

Civilizing the State displays three segments: how we got this systematic crisis from political and economic powers; what alternatives we can learn from divergent communities; and, finally, the inception of the Partner State. The book forces you to stop and notice that the partner state is not the state we have, but urgently the one we need. In the author’s words, “the anguished calls for reform are not merely for changes of policy or political direction. They are the birth spasms of a new system of values and a vision of human community that are struggling to be born.”