Robert Bianchi, Unruly Corporatism: Associational Life in Twentieth-Century Egypt (Oxford, 1989.)

Joel Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton, 1988).

These two important new books address some of the central questions concerning state/society relations in a Middle Eastern and, more widely, a Third World context. Both are written from the statist perspective found in most contemporary political science, but manage to ask new questions of relatively familiar material.

The starting point for Migdal’s argument is the notion of states being defined in terms of their capacities to “penetrate” society, to “regulate” social relations, to “extract” resources and to “use them in a determined way.” For most Third World countries, efforts to utilize such capacities produce what he terms “paradoxical” results. They do not lead to the development of the economy and the transformation of society as their leaders intend. Indeed, in its encounter with society, it is the state which itself is changed, losing much of its coherence and its ability to shape events.

Why should this be so, and why do some states perform somewhat better than others? Migdal’s main explanatory concept is that of the struggle between society and state for social control” (defined here as the ability to deliver the key components needed for individual or group survival). Its outcome is determined by two factors. One is the pattern of local leadership which emerged in the early modern period as a result of the profound changes produced by the intrusion of world capitalism and European colonialism. As a rule, this led to the creation of a new strata of chiefs, landlords and bosses, who came to dominate their own districts. Migdal lumps these together under the general title of “strongmen.” In a few cases, this allowed the creation of a set of relatively centralized social institutions, as happened with the interaction between the British colonial authorities and the Jewish community in mandatory Palestine. The second factor is, quite simply, the necessity of political survival. In Migdal’s argument, the leaders of the new states often fail to create the strong institutions they need to dominate society, lest these become so powerful as to threaten their own positions.

Migdal works out the various permutations of the relationship between state strength and social strength in three different types of historical settings: in Sierra Leone, where the post-colonial state failed to establish its dominance over a “web-like” pattern of local strongmen; in Egypt, Mexico and India, where the state had only limited power to remodel a partially fragmented society; and in Israel, where a pyramid-shaped social structure with highly centralized institutions permitted the development of very strong state capacities.

These arguments are all set out with great clarity and are based on a formidable bibliography which includes not only works on the Third World but also on the central processes underlying the creation of the European nation-state examined by such writers as Nettl, Tilly and Michael Mann. It is a challenging and hugely ambitious enterprise designed, as Migdal notes, to assist our understanding of the capabilities of all modern states.

In the end, however, Migdal’s approach raises many more questions than it answers. I will have space to mention only four. First, it is doubtful if the notion of strength — defined in terms of capacities — is the best one to place at the center of a system of classification designed to embrace all modern states. There are many different types of strength, ranging from brute force and coercion to that embodied in a system of generally accepted rules, laws and arrangements — a spectrum which Weber tried to delimit in terms of his key distinction between power and authority. It is a moot point at which end of this spectrum real strength may be said to lie. There are many other ways of classifying states — in terms of economic systems, of available resources (for example, various types of rent), of historical trajectories, to name a few — which remain to be properly explored in a Third World context and which could well turn out to be much more useful.

Second, an examination of Western European experience suggests that not only did states and societies grow together over the past few centuries, but also that the way we think about this process is heavily dependent on the changing usage of the twin concepts of “state” and “society” themselves. None of this is well captured by the idea that states and societies are totally separate entities, acting and reacting upon one another. There is the even more complex question of how to analyze the situation brought about when aspects of the European experience were transferred to the Third World by regimes anxious to create modern mechanisms for rule-making, categorization and control. These were very different social contexts, and the outcomes were obviously quite different as well.

Third, while it is proper to assume that the rulers of newly independent countries quickly drew up projects for social transformation and planned development, it is unwise, as Migdal does, to take them so much at face value. Such projects were also a necessary part of an attempt to create new legitimacies based on relationships with their peoples quite different from those maintained by exploitative colonial overlords. At the same time, they provided an excellent justification for policies of centralization and of interference in existing social relationships, as well as endowing them with an aura of omniscience and scientific exactitude. Emphasis on the necessary coherence of the state and its major institutions was part and parcel of this whole process; we should note the obvious gap between rhetoric and actual practice.

Finally, the processes just described can best be studied as they worked themselves out in their historical context. The stress placed on the separateness and unity of the new state structure is obviously part of the story. But so, too, is the haphazard growth in the size of the bureaucracy, the hunt for new resources and the development of a host of particularist practices which immediately contradicted the universalistic, populist principles so often stressed in speeches and in the preambles to each five-year plan. Here again, the simple state/society dichotomy can be unhelpful. On the one hand, regimes tended to act as though the states they controlled stood completely apart from the societies they attempted to dominate. On the other hand, much of the reality of the process by which each administration set about extending its reach is better understood if we also pay attention to the ambiguous interests of the groups involved, the arbitrariness of most rules and regulations, and the day to day struggles over the classification of that which was public and that which was private.

Bianchi, writing mainly in an Egyptian context but with comparative reference to South Korea, India and the Shah’s Iran, fills in some of the details left out by Migdal’s more economical schema. He also goes on to examine the next historical stage, when the abandonment of a single, central project for transforming society, and the more obvious incoherence of the whole state enterprise in the 1970s and 1980s, makes analysis of the contemporary situation more difficult. To do this he takes as his central theme the continual formation of new associations and organized interest groups and the various attempts to mold them into some coherent, or at least manipulable, pattern of political representation.

One of the book’s great virtues is that it is written with a strong sense of history. Bianchi is clearly well aware that Egyptian contemporary practice is much influenced by the presence of actors and groups formed in the process of previous projects for economic development, and so by memories and expectations dating back to the Nasser and Sadat periods. In particular, such persons and groups (as well as the strategists of the Mubarak regime) are seen as highly sensitive to the huge political costs which would be involved, for example, in any attempt to return to Sadat’s 1977-1981 effort to fit Egypt into a much more tightly controlled system of corporatist supervision through the manipulation of the leadership of the professional syndicates and the creation of new institutions like the Maglis al-Shura. For all these reasons, Egypt has ended up with a situation in which, in Bianchi’s words, “a compartmentalized economy, a state bureaucracy riddled with special interests and a thriving Islamic counterculture have to serve as crude substitutes for a more inclusive system of interest representation.”

The result is a “strategic compromise,” a system of “unruly corporatism” (or corporate pluralism) involving endless bargains between the regime and the leadership of individual groups, leading to an increasing incoherence of policies and institutions but preventing the emergence of strong interest group coalitions or a united opposition. As for the future, Bianchi anticipates a period when, in an atmosphere of continuing economic crisis, it will be impossible to buy off demands for wider power sharing with the promise of greater material rewards. The best that Mubarak can hope for is the establishment of a set of practices by which an increasing number of organized groups are forced to share responsibility for policymaking and thus for the maintenance of a system which, though unsatisfactory, is infinitely better than the chaos which might follow its collapse.

This is a very useful starting point for an analysis of the contemporary Egyptian political economy, particularly when underpinned by an examination of major recent economic trends — the failure to deepen the industrial base since the Nasserist spurt of the early 1960s, the inability to establish a secure form of permanent cooperation between the state, multinationals and local private capital, and the subsequent demands for policies designed to protect various parts of the national economy. Nevertheless, the word “corporatism” comes with its own baggage of associated concepts and ideas, however much Bianchi tries to water it down to fit into the Egyptian context with his threefold division of what he calls “corporate,” “corporatized” and “hybrid” sectors. In addition, it contains the implication that one organized interest association is much like another, when in Egypt, as elsewhere, the character of the economic system does much to dictate that some are in a specially privileged position when it comes to access to power, the ability to influence the drafting of new legislation, and so on. This becomes very clear as Bianchi moves on to a discussion of the significant role of the new Egyptian Businessmen’s Association founded in 1982, but he insufficiently underlines it.

On top of this, Bianchi’s desire that Egyptian corporatism should have a history going back at least to the creation of the Lawyers’ Syndicate in 1912 encourages him to play down the pluralism of the pre-1952 period and to overstate what he sees as a state-led drive to organize associational life along corporatist lines from 1940 onwards. This greatly exaggerates the coherence of state policy before 1952 at a time when the relationship between politicians, civil servants and the leaders of major interest groups was one of such fluidity that to call some parts of the system “state” and the rest “society” is to beg all kinds of more basic questions. It may well be that one of the main aims of the Free Officers was to put an end to just this kind of ambiguity and incoherence.

Turning finally to the contemporary period, Bianchi’s central emphasis on corporatism leads him to downplay the role of the government party, the Hizb al-Watani, in organizing support first for Sadat and then for Mubarak, and so in providing a space for interest groups to influence policymaking and new legislation. He may be right to suggest that no further progress towards greater political pluralism is likely. But the present system contains enough of the trappings of democracy — a nearly free press, an independent legal system and regular general elections — for it to be taken seriously as yet another version of the government party system to be found in so many other parts of the Third World, and for some of the same kinds of questions to be asked of it. One which immediately springs to mind, apropos of Bianchi’s own observation of the links which some of the smaller parties, notably the Socialist Labor Party, are forming with various economic interests and religious associations, is whether this is not pushing Egypt some distance along the Mexican path, whereby a widening scope for opposition can still be reconciled with the continuation, even the strengthening, of one-party rule.

How to cite this article:

Roger Owen "Egyptian Political Economy," Middle East Report 169 (March/April 1991).
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