How a State Collapses

“Who are you?" a prisoner of the Khiam jail in South Lebanon asked the stranger who was unlocking his cell. "What has happened? Where are the guards?” Not waiting for an answer, he tore out of the cell to look for his family, which he had not seen in the ten years he had been held there without charges. He was one of 140 freed this week as the South Lebanon Army lost control of the region and headed for the border to the cheers of the Lebanese people.

In an instant, a state had collapsed and 22 years of occupation came to an end. In an instant, all plans for orderly withdrawal were scrapped as hundreds of relieved young men and women headed home to the country they love and away from the one they reluctantly held by military force. How could it happen? The combined forces of public opposition in the occupied and occupying countries, along with a loss of will within the conscripted ranks of the army itself, finally came to a head, and a whole territory was suddenly free of the grip of an imperial power.

Just as the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe ten years ago lifted the hearts of freedom lovers everywhere, the spectacular meltdown of the SLA in Lebanon is yet more proof of the fragility of even a heavily armed government power. One day, the streets were crawling with troops in full command of the country, and the next day, these same troops are catching the fastest ride out of town, abandoning their posts and not even bothering to grab their personal effects.

In an instant, too, the political constellation has changed. Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak now speaks openly and rightly about the "tragedy" of Israel’s involvement in South Lebanon, and reminds the press that he had called for a withdrawal of troops last year. The recriminations will be felt in Israeli politics for many years. How many lives were lost in the battle to keep this territory? How much money? How much support has Israel lost in order to keep South Lebanon?

The press has cast the remarkable series of events only in terms of the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors. The people of Israel, more concerned about real and direct security threats at their borders than ancient dreams of manifest destiny, no longer support military rule in Lebanon, and that attitude spread to those on the front lines. As a result, a Hezbollah fighting force of 500 guerrillas, supported by the civilian population of the occupied area, defeated one of the world’s most powerful armies and its local allies.

The implications go way beyond the complexities and peculiarities of the Middle East political scene. It has a broader meaning for the ability of any state to rule when the consent of the governed is utterly lacking. The incident demonstrates that the state, when it is opposed by the people and is losing the will to power, can be reduced to nothingness. It is a lesson that has profound implications in our own country, where an overweening but widely despised government rules a recalcitrant population.

Looking back at the history of political philosophy, only a few geniuses have bothered to think and write about the dynamics of state collapse. Preeminently, in the 1550s, Etienne de la Boetie wrote Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, a tract emphasizing that "in order to have liberty nothing more is needed than to long for it."

This is because tyrants are "automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude."

What did Boetie suggest that a subjugated people do? "I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces."

Behind Boetie’s thinking was the assumption, later spelled out in great detail by David Hume, that states cannot rule by force alone. This is because the agents of government power are always outnumbered by those they rule. To insure compliance with their dictates, it is essential to convince the people that their servitude is somehow in their own interest. They do this by manufacturing ideological systems that seem to justify despotism, such as socialism (among a thousand other excuses). If a population comes to believe in one or another form of statism, their compliance with despotically coercive schemes is assured.

If, however, resistance develops and spreads among the subjugated people, the state must relent or step up its use of coercion and make examples out of the non-compliant. The risk of escalation is two fold: the forces of despotism may make martyrs of those singled out for malign treatment, and this can demoralize those within their own ranks who are squeamish about violating essential human rights. Once this dynamic of state collapse begins, it can be difficult to reverse, since further coercion only entrenches internal and external opposition.

This elementary dynamic culminated in the SLA leaving Lebanon. Political and military leaders were making plans for a smooth withdrawal, but in the end, none of them mattered. The will to govern and to submit was withdrawn, and the whole world was suddenly turned upside down. The bars of the prisons couldn’t hold back the crowds and the orders of military leaders fell on deaf ears.

Younger readers who do not remember the collapse of communism, and know little of history or Middle East politics, can get a hint of state collapse in the movie "Gladiator." Commodus was a military tyrant, but he was constantly aware of the need to shore up his rule by pacifying the civilian population with bloody entertainment and welfare provisions. But he could see the approaching danger when one of the gladiators gleaned larger cheers from the crowd than himself. He understood that his power rested on more than power alone. But in the end, he couldn’t even count on his own Praetorian Guards to defend his interests. His rule collapsed in rubble, because others had lost the willingness to obey him.

What about our own country? How secure is the imperial rule of Washington, DC? The ideology that supports big government has been undermined at the intellectual level and it is increasingly rejected at the public level. What the commentators decry as public indifference to public affairs is actually a reflection of widespread revulsion at the character and actions of the political class. Lacking a coherent ideological structure for their rule—most of the available ones are leftovers from the New Deal/Cold War period of American history—the political class flounders around demonizing civilian sectors that dare to resist its rule (e.g. Microsoft).

Polls consistently reveal that about one third of the American people fundamentally object to the political system as it currently exists and instead seek radical change. Even government officials themselves sense the deep lack of public support for their activities. They believe a fundamental disconnect separates them from the public. Washington, DC, has become an armed camp, not to protect itself against foreign attack, but to guard against citizen reprisal. The young and talented no longer aspire to political office or public service. Voters no longer have faith in the integrity of the system.

Most important for gauging our present historical moment, discontent is spreading within the rank-and-file of the nation’s military. They are outraged at the politicization of promotions, disgusted by the wild-goose chases and murderous expeditions that the commander-in-chief has foisted on them, and no longer believe the patriotic cliches that once put a moral gloss on imperial globe-trotting. Those who can flee for civilian sectors do so, while potential recruits are loathe to sign their lives away to people they no longer trust.

Indeed, the dynamic of state collapse is already set in motion right here in the US. There’s no point in making predictions about precisely when and how the process will end. All we know, based on the experience of the SLA in South Lebanon and every other occupying power in human history, is that the means and the shape of the restoration of liberty will surprise us all. At some point, the people will tell Caesar precisely what he is entitled to and claim the rest for themselves, while those in captivity will ask in bemusement: "What has happened? Where are the guards?"

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site,