The Impotence of the State

1. Leadership in corona times: don’t show weakness.

Corona is a mirror that shows us who we are and where we are. Who our leaders are, and who we are as those who follow them, in the here and now. There are remarkable parallels with past pandemics that we are not aware of because a pandemic of this magnitude last happened a very long time ago. I want to go into that first.

The corona crises and the plague: parallels

Pandemics are pushing the state to the limits of its possibilities. Still, he doesn’t want to show any weakness. And so, he strengthens his powers. That is the core of a recently published article by the Freiburg history professor Volker Reinhardt. He sketches the parallels between the plague and Corona in colourful pictures. He claims that we can indeed draw parallels, although the comparison is flawed for several reasons. But it is particularly applicable when it comes to the behaviour of authorities.

The “experts” at the time of the plague, around 1347 – theologians, astrologers, and doctors – came unanimously to the diagnosis that the plague resulted from an unfavourable planetary constellation that sent poisonous fumes to earth. As a result, people died from fatal inhalation. The experts advised the citizens to sniff at fragrant essences, adhere to a strict, meat-free diet, and, above all, cherish positive thoughts.

Despite all this splendid advice, the kings and popes were de facto helpless in an epidemic that acutely threatened the lives of all. Their position, and worse, their legitimacy, were threatened. “Rulership,” says Reinhardt, “is justified at all times, albeit from very different sources, by the resulting advantage for the ruled, even if it has developed over centuries in the self-interest of narrow oligarchies.” With no demonstrably positive effects on the public interest, the state, therefore, lost its right to exist and became highly vulnerable, thus controversial, and ultimately replaceable.

This vulnerability of the state became evident during the great famine long before the plague. When the authorities failed to remedy a grain shortage that led to price increases and bread shortages, the masses viewed the pact with their rulers as violated and dissolved. They took matters into their own hands in the name of the natural right to survival. And they ransacked granaries and bakeries.

Do not show weakness

On the contrary: in times of crisis, the production of ordinances, decrees, instructions, and penalties increased enormously. The legislative machinery became more productive as infection and death rates rose. This led to an iron principle that all authorities must adhere to until today: Under no circumstances admit your despair and helplessness! In other words: determination at all costs was and is the motto. Don’t show any weakness! Show that you are active! Emphasise your great precaution and present figures that prove your success!

You can see striking similarities with the current Corona crisis, right?

The state can further tighten the rules for public spaces – as the Venetian aristocrats did at the height of the plague epidemic – and have compliance monitored more and more efficiently. No one will deny that specific basic safety measures such as hand hygiene, keeping your distance, and wearing masks, which they introduced in the spring of 2020, might be helpful and appropriate. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that the state, as in 1347, has reached its limits. It becomes clear that this pattern provokes angry counter-reactions: What we forbid outside of one’s own four walls is lived out even more unrestrained in the private sphere. Nobody wants a police state to peek through the keyhole, let alone a totalitarian state.

The question arises whether the state, which can ultimately only exist through democratic consensus, could not finally admit today that it has exhausted its resources. Perhaps even that is has gone too far. Maybe the honest admission of the heads of government and the various experts – that they did their best but are not sure – would encourage acceptance of the essential safety rules. What matters now is the responsibility of civil society and the individual’s common sense.

The pandemic is a mirror that shows the state of a state in times of crisis. Fortunately, it is an exceptional situation.

Or not?

2. The pretence/impotence paradox

There’s no denying that we’ve stumbled upon this mirror time and again lately. There are so many crises that mirror the state’s impotence: the refugee problem, the climate problem, the infrastructure of the railways, the new airport in Berlin-Schönefeld, and much more. There are more and more societal tasks to which the state appears to have no or only vague answers.

There is no point in looking at the inadequacy of the state in isolation or looking for culprits. We must look at the context, at the pattern. The corona crisis may be highly demanding due to its unique challenges as a government task. Yet it shows us the symptoms of a disease that plagued us for years. We need to talk about the pretence/impotence paradox.

The pretence/impotence paradox describes the contradiction that arises when the political primacy regarding the organisation of our societal coexistence only fakes its potency. While structurally, it is confronted with the reality of its impotence towards Corona and similar challenges, and that we signal this helplessness incidentally but fundamentally deny it.

Structural powerlessness is rationalised by emergency ordinances, new elections, a further subsidy, or a different law. Or we can appoint a new minister. Then everything will be fine.

All these phenomena show us how little control we have, that we have lost the big picture, are in survival mode and only drive “on sight”, on incidents.

The stereotypical answer is to have a commission of inquiry made up of experienced politicians, decision-makers, and highly decorated scientists first make a diagnosis and then an action plan.

That is just the problem.

We must slowly acknowledge that reality has outgrown political primacy.

And we need to recognise that we are all trapped in this paradoxical paradigm – politicians and their decision-makers, civil servants, and citizens. There’s no guilty party, and pointing fingers don’t make sense. But there are responsibilities, nevertheless.

What are the symptoms of the pretence/impotence paradox?

The execution of political decisions is politicised. The state can no longer control the implementation of its many measures properly because the volatility of the political dynamic is incompatible with the complexity of large administrative apparatuses. So, are we stepping up our implementation efforts? No, instead, we appoint more political-oriented managers on the management level of the public service, as if, when we would all use the political-administrative perspective to look at reality, it would automatically adjust. To put it mildly, that is very one-sided and not very practical.

The dialogue is polarised. When we analyse a dysfunctional system, we usually arrive at transformation through reflection and reorientation. But in a political system that is per definition a polar system (coalition/opposition), that has declared itself to be the highest order through the doctrine of political primacy, failure can, in principle, only be caused by the one side, or by the other. This system cannot perceive any reality that extends beyond this primacy. Consequently, there is only one way to go: perspectives are polarised. The centre disappears, and the centrifugal forces increase until we spin out of control.

Political correctness is the norm. Since the political pretence increases, and the administrative effectiveness decreases, the goal of malleability shifts from concrete administrative measures to an appropriate political language and appropriate political behaviour. We moralise. There is nothing against morality unless it is used as a defence mechanism.

Language is eroding: Ministers are increasingly using absolute terms such as “impossible”, “inadmissible”, and “unacceptable” and are increasingly saying sorry. You can use that kind of vocabulary a few times. But a minister is not a neutral observer but an authority; he is in charge. The constant use of these words makes ministers and the state untrustworthy.

Focus on details: State administration is different from management. State administration requires reflection, distance, overview, and vision. Leading based on day rates is fatal. Nevertheless, politicians, ministers, and top officials are increasingly “managing” media events (also note the semantics here) with a lifespan of a few hours to a few days. Attention to the acute incident is more significant than statistics, the long-term trend, because the media triggers our primary instincts more than our senses of proportionality, distance, and nuance.

The fear of risks is growing: the pretence/impotence paradox signals that we have arrived at a dead-end street. Economically, socially, politically, morally. Instead of creating, growing (sustainably), evolving, and adapting, we become defensive and backwards looking. We are afraid of losing what we have, and the idea of ​​social malleability shifts from creation to avoidance of risk and danger.

How did we get here?

3. Modernity and individualisation: the fragmentation of matter and spirit.

Complexity and loss of control

Government organisations have become very complicated over the past few decades. This is due to the ever-increasing social complexity, unstoppable digitisation, regular budget cuts and changing political priorities. In addition, government organisations cannot limit their responsibilities to the areas they control, as is possible in the business world. For example, the government cannot suspend youth care if it is becoming too expensive.

While earlier state institutions were at least partly guided by a planning and control approach, many large government organisations today have developed into so-called complex adaptive systems, to which chaos theory applies. These system types show a non-linear and, therefore, unpredictable behaviour. In some cases, they can no longer be controlled by common control mechanisms with the customary causality.

Most of us know the word complexity, but few understand the concept behind it and its far-reaching consequences for the governance of our country. How did this complexity come about?


We have analysed the world and broken it down into countless tiny pieces to understand it. With that understanding and knowledge, we made things, good things, but did not necessarily fully understand the nature of the universe. We called the era of these new insights Enlightenment, and it was necessary and valuable and brought us modernity. But now, this fragmentation threatens to turn into the opposite without a systemic perspective. We have created modern chaos that we can no longer control. Not with the mechanisms from the era of group consciousness, the gods, kings and prime ministers, the coalitions and opposition. And not even with the methods of modernity, neoliberalism, and science. In this complexity, we inadvertently lose control, not because we are stupid, but because we do not want to show weakness or powerlessness under any circumstances. This brings us to a modern twist on medieval mysticism: symbolism, visions of fear, politically correct language, and moralism.


What happened to our organisations and our society happened to us. We referred to the fragmentation of truths and opinions as individual freedom. Of course, it was a release from the chains of the group. But the euphoria of the individual threatens to turn into its opposite. If everyone is right, where are we going? If everyone is right, then what is the truth? If everyone is right, are there still any limits, or lies? If every joke harms someone, what else can we laugh about? We hypothesised that we would break free. We would transform the tyranny of the group into the freedom of the individual. However, the reality is often more trivial: we are moving from the dictatorship of the group to the dictatorship of the individual.

We perceive the fragmented matter as chaos. But chaos is manageable, not with our hierarchical political systems of the 19th century and not with mechanistic, modernist methods. It is controllable because it is a form of order, although we cannot fully fathom it. But when the spirit is also fragmented into individual fractions, a paradigmatic problem arises: chaos meets chaos.

Social media

At the same time, we are building social media that express this fragmentation. Fest of Freedom of speech, pillar of democracy, the whippet of news gathering, right? At first, these were promising developments. But with a few unexpected side effects.

The truth is eroding. The political right or left are not those responsible for fake news. Fake news is a symptom of the modern media society with its unimagined dynamic. This dynamic, the autonomy of the eroding truth, is more potent than we think. And a phenomenon has no morality.

In addition, these media trigger our instincts more than our reflection and our rationality. That is their business model. As a result, we reverted to an earlier stage of development of communication, have regressed from the rational to the pre-rational, instinctive, with the result: our attention is directed daily to individual and accidental dramas. As an act of desperation, we provide them with universal validity. Here, too, we repeat a medieval dynamic: every day, a different media victim is quartered on the marketplace by Twitter or Facebook.

4. Social malleability and consciousness

Complexity and social malleability are typical symptoms of modern consciousness, and they conflict with each other. Complex systems are not malleable; in a constructivist sense, they require a different way of navigating. The confluence of complexity and the idea of social malleability creates an impasse: the pretence/impotence paradox.

Our perspective on complexity is determined by the type of awareness from which we look at it, which has relevance to our assessment of complexity. We can define consciousness as how we look at, see, and perceive the world and ourselves and therefore experience it. And what we perceive and experience, we consider reality.

In the Middle Ages, everything that was incomprehensible and out of control came from God. So, we equated complexity with the divine, and chaos was a God-given fact.

Our current constitutional structures and principles date back to centuries when group consciousness was still widespread. Identity and social position were derived from the group to which one belonged. At that time, complexity was still a solvable problem left to engineers. It was certainly great to build the first railway line from Haarlem to Amsterdam and open it with a festive celebration. But with social legislation like the WAO (occupational disability pension), we did already arrive in a grey area. Politically and socially, this step was logical and sensible. From the point of view of complexity theory, however, it was already a risky step, as unexpected and undesirable side effects occurred, such as the abuse of the disability pension to get rid of unwanted employees.

When modernity broke its path collectively in the 1960s, such an enormous amount of individual creativity, energy, and ambition was unleashed that we were able to make significant social advances over several decades. Emancipation flourished like never before. It is not for nothing that this period is called “les Trente Glorieuses” (1945-75) in France.

When the euphoria of modernity was over in the ’80s, grain by grain, sand came into the machine. The best of all worlds, the Western, appeared to be imperfect, and that was unbearable. And that’s why we denied and misjudged this imperfection. If social malleability seemed limited, we assumed that the government was too small. It led to more money, and more civil servants. Compared to the mid-1960s, the government budget is 5.5 times its volume today. But between 2006 and today it has doubled.

From that period on the consciousness of modernity, the individual’s pretension and ego dominate in a wide circle. That consciousness leads to a much more general and reinforced illusion of malleability. In progressive environments, malleability is a product of the state, and in liberal environments, malleability is a product of the market. The fragmentation of political factions is increasing, but the diversity of political dogma is relegated to a single thesis, social malleability.

Based on this consciousness, we see complexity as mismanagement or a problem that we must leave to scientists. Chaos, Merriam-Webster teaches, is “confusion, disorder”.

Regarding the idea of ​​social malleability, politics lacks countervailing power. For this reason, no coalition of existing parties will be able to break the pretence/impotence paradox. And hence the dramas we describe above happen. And the consequences will be:

We will declare that we need more “state” because the state becomes more impotent. This impotence will escalate further. It will transpire even more presumptuous. When the impotence becomes unbearable for the state itself, it will eventually project it onto the citizen. If he shows the proper behaviour, everything will be fine.

And what now?

5. The end of the social malleability illusion.

If you look at the Corona crisis, it makes no sense to throw the next stone into the polarisation pond. Let us take a realistic look at the phenomenology of state and political action. The state has done what is expected in a risk-obsessed society infatuated with social malleability, if only because most of Europe has done the same.

I think we can also see that the state has overplayed its hand in the Corona crisis. He does so through interventions of great symbolic political value. We did not sufficiently consider the collateral damage of these interventions because the understanding is not there. And this collateral damage has reached far too great an extent in the Corona crisis. As a fundamental principle of the rule of law, proportionality threatens to be lost.

And so, the paradox of presumption and impotence arose. As we recall: a phenomenon that occurs when the political primacy regarding the regulation of our societal coexistence only fakes its potency, while structurally it is confronted with the reality of its impotence towards Corona and similar challenges, and we signal this impotence incidentally, but basically deny it.

Psychology has been an established discipline for analysing and supporting individuals and organisations for decades. However, we still hesitate to apply it to parliamentary democracy. And yet, in psychological theory, the disowning of this fundamental impotence is simply called denial. In psychology, the short-sighted and inadequate attempts to disguise the paradox with more control, more government, and more rules is called rationalisation. It is also a defence mechanism.

These fierce defence mechanisms are understandable. If we accept the paradox of presumption/impotence, look it in the eye, see what it is, we fundamentally question the political mandate itself. State and politics will never fundamentally challenge each other. But if the state is no longer effective, how is it still legitimised?

What is the solution?

In the classic sense of the word, there is no solution. Asking for a solution is an expression of the social malleability infatuation: problem > analysis >  plan > solution. However, with this classic problem-solving sequence, we extrapolate the genes of the problem into the future and create the same problems there.

How else?

Let us not propagate a naive ideology of prosperity, happiness and health for all, no revolutionary transformation strategies, and no populist or extremist theories of a right- or left-wing signature. The interests of millions of good people in Europe and the following generations are too significant. There are too many buccaneers off the coast who want to prey on the confusion of a weakened Western civilisation.

Perhaps there is a direction; there is a path that we can go when we gradually realise that we are dealing with a wicked problem. And possibly this impasse shows something else as well. Perhaps this society is facing a new phase of consciousness.

This burgeoning new phase is not the Great Reset, that much should be clear. That is the illusion of malleability 3.0, on the scale of the world elite. It is the flight ahead of the successful western modern man who has surfed on a progressive wave of consciousness for several decades and now thinks he is the sea. Tempting for those directly involved, because it seems to be an escape from impotence, but presumably, it is an overdose for the addict of malleability. It is the new business model of technocracy. It is the language of scale, capital, and pretension. We owe a lot to that language, but it is at the end of its life cycle. Let’s suppose it’s well-intentioned, but it’s the language of the invulnerable.

Like anyone who remembers what it was like to go from elementary to high school: we begin at the bottom and start over. In this way, a new phase of consciousness begins. The ancient Greek “chaos” means emptiness. We will have to learn to endure “not knowing” in a hectic world. This definitely does not mean “inactivity”. It means to act “sustainably”, determined by the phenomenology of the topic: pragmatic, measured and realistic, without pretending to want or be able to save the world, without being afraid. And let’s look at all the consequences of the measure and not just those that suit us. Let’s start like this.