How to Govern a Failing State

Imagine you are the emperor of a once-prosperous but now declining, struggling nation. This is a country of enormous expectations and dreams, a land where people believe, or used to believe, that they could accomplish anything if they only applied themselves to it. 

But now, the citizens are discouraged, divided, and angry. The land, air, and waters are polluted and exhausted. The infrastructure is crumbling. No one trusts anyone else. Most of the population is suffering from a declining standard of living, a negative net worth, and suffocating levels of debt. The health care system, except for the very rich, is on the edge of collapse. The education system, once lauded, has become a mere baby-sitting service for children of families whose parents both have to work to even hope to make ends meet. The transportation system is outmoded, unreliable, and unsafe. Politicians no longer even try to hide their corruptness, ignorance and heartlessness. Innovation has vanished as oligopolies shut down all competitors. 

What are you to do, as the emperor of this nation? You could of course abdicate — there are still a few New Zealand properties available to turn into large gated compounds that could serve you and your entourage, perhaps for years. 

But suppose you still cling to the belief that recovery of some kind is possible, and that, as part of the dynasty charged with running the nation, you feel it’s your duty to do your best to turn things around.

My guess is that there are five things you might be very sorely tempted to do:

1. Find or create a common enemy: This would provide a great distraction, and shift the citizens’ anger away from you and your fellow top caste members. You could even provoke (though not ‘declare’) a war or two, but you would have to ensure that it was far away from you geographically, and not entail putting any of your citizens in the line of fire, since that might be unpopular at home. False flag ( actions in faraway countries could also be helpful in shifting the blame for any war crimes you might commit, to the designated enemy.

2. Buy and use the media to propagandize the citizens into believing things are better than they seem and better than what “doomers” and “do-nothing critics” are saying. And certainly better than life is in the empire’s clearly-inferior vassal states and enemy states. You could stress that, in every sense, your country is and must always be ‘exceptional’.

3. Turn the angry citizens from the lower castes against each other, instead of against you. You might polarize the citizens into groups whose total attention is focused on the malfeasance and unacceptable beliefs of identified groups of “others” in their midst, instead of on you.

4. Hold ‘show trials’ that smear, vilify and imprison opponents, especially selected popular or influential second-caste-level people. You could choose those people carefully from among those who pose the greatest threat to you and your top caste colleagues. This would ‘prove’ to the citizens that law and order is prevailing, and that not even (some of) the powerful are above the law.

5. Beef up ‘security’, police and military forces. This could demonstrate to the citizens that large, disruptive protests and disobedience to your authority would not be tolerated, and would be dealt with harshly, and possibly arbitrarily. You might pass new oppressive laws that are nominally aimed at ‘terrorists’ but which intimidate anyone who might be inclined to foment unhappiness or anger at your regime. You could elect to spend lavishly on your military (and friendly corporate military suppliers) which, though ostensibly aimed at fighting foreign ‘enemies’, could be redirected internally to suppress internal dissent by ‘rioters’, ‘anarchists’ and other opponents as needed.

You could also choose to ramp up surveillance of your citizens, and encourage them to report other citizens’ disobedience to your authorities, but nowadays this is a costly and often ineffectual action. It might be more effective to hire security people to infiltrate opposing groups and disrupt and demoralize them from within. It would, however, probably be helpful to encourage and quietly promote, through your media, those who say surveillance is ubiquitous, so that most citizens would self-censor for fear of being singled out.

Of course, all of this is strictly hypothetical. This is not to suggest that there really are any failing states or empires that might theoretically choose one or more of these desperate actions. 

I would never suggest that.

image is Midjourney AI’s take on a “failed state”; not my prompt — apparently Midjourney associates failed states with big heads, for some reason

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4 Responses to How to Govern a Failing State

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    Soon enough all states will be failing and will eventually see conditions in which the scenarios you describe will be remembered with nostalgia. At least then there was enough to eat.

  2. Benn says:

    For the GCHQ employee who is monitoring this, I support my countries efforts to spread peace and democracy and appreciate a steady hand on the tiller in these troubled times. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a eco-malthusian malcontent communist who needs locking up. Everything is fine, just fine.

  3. Theresa says:

    Actually the health care system, in Canada anyway, IS already in a state of collapse – not on the edge of it. This was driven home to me when I read that nurses were quitting en mass only to go work for agencies that charge the same hospitals triple to be sent back the same nurses – at higher pay, fewer hours, and seemingly more flexible working conditions. The hospitals have no choice but to hire the agencies, all of which has a terrible “viscous circle” effect on the morale of the staff who didn’t quit. This is what collapse looks like – an impossible unravelling situation. This is how it differs from mere “disruption” of an industry or sector owing to change, technological innovation or temporary disasters that can be adjusted to. When I read the title, I thought this was going to be about how individuals could live through collapse. I certainly don’t have the answer and don’t know any precedent (except drinking, cheating, or substance abuse), but I’d reckon the first step would be to recognize the difference between when you are dealing with collapse and when you are dealing with disruption. Maybe you or your other readers have some ideas?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Benn, that’s priceless! Thank you. We have to laugh about this shit.

    Theresa, yes, for sure, the Canadian health care system is reeling. Too many problems (aging infrastructure, brain drain, inequitable politicized standards, incompetent senior management by lifelong bureaucrats, too easy to cheat and game the system, lousy morale, no emphasis on prevention or engaging the patient in health solutions, broken supply chains, and on and on). A former schoolmate of mine, Michael Rachlis, wrote a book ( about how it could (theoretically) be ‘fixed’, but implementing it would require collaboration, collective will, courage, patience, and competence, none of which are much in play in the current system.

    As for “how individuals could live through collapse”, Michael Dowd provides some good thoughts on this ( I think there are too many unknowns at this point for a prescription, so I’m just using my reminder list ( for now.

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