Discourses of Risk and Nationalism in the State Governance System

In the face of the visible progress of globalization, economic structural changes, and neoliberal reforms, the transformation of the state governing system emerged as a critical issue in the studies of politics in the 1990s. One of the theses highlighted in the debate was the ‘hollowing-out’ of the state, which posited the diminishing of the state’s capacity and power to govern vis-a-vis the development of transnational/regional governing authorities such as the EU, progress of delegation/devolution to local authorities and the rise of non-governmental actors (private sector actors, NPOs/NGOs, and so on) in the governing process.[1] The ‘hollowing-out of the state’ thesis was later countered by a series of scholars who regarded changes in state governance as qualitative transformations rather than quantitative reductions.[2] As Martin J. Smith has pointed out, the socioeconomic environment in contemporary industrially advanced countries differs greatly from that in early modernity when the foundation of the modern state system was established, as do citizenry interests and expectations to which the state needs to respond. Naturally, the state today operates in a different way with a more decentralized, flexible governing system. This, however, does not necessarily imply the withering away of the state’s capacity to govern.[3]

From this debate, the term ‘governance’ came to the fore. ‘Governance’ in this context refers to a flexible, decentralized, and network-type governing system in which a multitude of actors jointly operate to make and implement public policies. This particular model of governing needs to be differentiated from the previous system due to the role assigned to the national government: in the governance system, the national government is positioned as just one of several facilitators - albeit an important one - that stimulate national economic growth. It is not expected to ‘lead’ the political process but to ‘steer’ it in cooperation with other (domestic, international, or transnational) actors.[4] [5] [6] In other words, the term governance has offered a new cognitive framework for understanding the transformation of the state functions discussed above, as summarized by Bob Jessop: ‘from government to governance’.11

Smith observes that the notion of risk arises as ‘a mechanism for justifying intervention or lack of intervention by government’ over the course of the development of governance.1 He further points out that the increased presence of the notion of risk in the policymaking and implementation processes poses some serious problems concerning the ways in which the state exercises power. To start with, despite the claim that risk is scientifically measurable, the framing of the meaning of risk itself is often so politically contentious that the notion of risk has been used by the state as ‘a mechanism for controlling outcomes and assessing knowledge’[7]; in other words, legitimizing the state’s policy decisions. In addition, the notion of risk is presented as a reference point with which individuals understand the world surrounding them and continuously monitor their behaviours. Finally, through the notion of risk which projects the concerned matter through ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ language, ‘political issues are shifted into technical issues and depoliti- cized’.[8] By acknowledging these problems, Smith concludes that the term risk is not useful either as a policy tool or an analytical tool, since it is inherently political.

According to Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society, which made the term ‘risk’ a buzzword in social scientific research, however, the political nature of risk is not just problematic but rather destructive to the operation of the political system. The modern nation-state system, Beck argued, cannot effectively deal with contemporary imminent risks such as environmental risk and has hence become obsolete as a political system, generating a risk of ungovernability; therefore, a temporal shift to Risk Society where the conventional democratic political system is destined to be dysfunctional needs to be acknowledged.[9] Nation-states have responded to the risk of ungovernability by implementing institutional reforms that confer regulatory authority to non-governmental actors who are supposed to be equipped with sufficient expert knowledge and professional skills to manage the concerned risk. In other words, in the theoretical milieu of Risk Society, it is the requirement of governing risks that drives nation-states to move towards a ‘governance’ type of the governing system. Yet, according to Beck, this has resulted in developing what he calls ‘subpolitics’ outside the formal political institutions, further extending political uncertainty and thereby exacerbating the ungovernability of nation-states.[10]

One possible outcome of the increased sense of the risk of ungovernability, that is, loss of control in the political system, is, according to Beck, the ‘scapegoat society’. Once acknowledged, the risk of ungovernability needs to be displaced, as it otherwise stirs up insecurities and fears. This displacement is conducted by instilling particular groups of people with the perception of danger, and in this way, attention is diverted away from political inaction or the inability of nation-states to manage risk.[11]

Developing his discussion on population management in Liquid Society, Zygmunt Bauman supplements Beck’s discussion on the ‘scapegoat society’ with a more concrete picture. For Bauman, the quintessential social dynamics in today’s Liquid Society is the exclusion of ‘them’ from ‘us’: ‘them’ can be foreign people in the developing worlds on another continent, migrants, or asylum seekers flooding into ‘our’ land and threatening ‘our’ everyday lives, or simply social ‘deviants’ and outsiders (low-income earners, low achievers, gangs/‘yobs’, to name but a few), causing trouble in ‘our’ otherwise peaceful neighbourhoods. Simply put, ‘them’ is the Other who is perceived to pose risks and threats to the social order and the economic momentum. This urges ‘us’ to set up a ‘solidarity of dangers, risks and fears’ to protect ‘our’ world.[12] In this logic, as Bauman discusses, economic value according to capitalist principles functions as a crucial determinant separating ‘them’ from ‘us’ - ‘them’ occupying marginal positions in society as they produce little economic value, thereby labelled as ‘wasted lives’.[13] The fall into the category of ‘wasted lives’ can be fatal, as - according to Bauman - the channel through which these wasted lives are ‘recycled’ and returned to the industrial force is brief and narrow, forcing many to remain confined in the bounded areas of exclusion (urban ghettos, refugee camps, prisons, and so on).[14]

Beck and Bauman’s discussions suggest that ungovernability of risk, which exposes the ungovernability of today’s governance system, tends to drive society to become more exclusivist. This is indicative when we consider the fact that the spread of nationalistic discourses directed at ethnic minorities/foreigners and those who are socially excluded can be widely observed across industrially advanced countries; take as an example, much of the Leave campaign rhetoric in the Brexit referendum.[15] In such discourses, the target group (e.g. migrants, ‘dole-scroungers’, and delinquent youths) are accorded blame and are thereby cast out as the

Other while linked with social and economic risks (low wages, the worsening of working conditions, and a porous social safety net), namely, risks generally derived from structural problems in national and international political economy (globalized market competition, labour deregulation, reduced state welfare provisions, and so on). As a result, the state’s inability to govern those risks is not questioned, while the sense of solidarity among the included against projected risks and fears is facilitated. That is to say, nationalistic discourses need to be understood as an integral part of the operation of today’s neoliberalized governance system.

In the case of Japan, the acknowledgement of ungovernability exhibited by the nation-state system provoked debate among academics in the late 2000s over a question of whether or not nationalism can be revitalized and in so doing, employed as a political ‘technique’ to govern the Japanese state in a ‘better’ way. ‘Nationalism’ in this context is by no means fanatical immersion in the type of ultranationalist thinking observed in wartime Japan. Those who argued for the functional use of nationalism, summarized by a term ‘nationalism as a technique’ (hdhd toshite no nashonarizumu), were all well aware of the works of Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson that exposed the socially constructed nature of the notions of nationalism.[16] [17] Yet, inspired by Foucault’s discussion on govern- mentality, nationalism in the discursive framework of ‘nationalism as a technique’ was positioned as a device to mediate individuals with the nation-state system and thereby helps the state to maintain its sovereignty. For example, Nakajima Takeshi, an influential social critic and at the time of the debate, associate professor of politics at Hokkaido University, has explained his vision of ‘nationalism as a technique’ as follows:

I think nationalism has been a very effective technique to accrue a political

share, and it will continue to be so, because of its underlying notion that a

nation is sovereign with members who are equal in terms of having one



In this political environment where nationalism was promoted as a governing technique, the Japanese national government was faced with the challenge of post-3/11 food security.

  • [1] Rhodes, ‘The Hollowing Out of the State’; Strange, The Retreat of the State.
  • [2] Weiss, The Myth of the Powerless State; Gamble, Politics and Fate'; Jessop, ‘Capitalism and ItsFuture’; Jessop, The Future of the Capitalist State; Holliday, ‘Is the British State Hollowing Out?’;Piers and Peters, Governance, Politics and the State; Sorenson, The Transformation of the State.
  • [3] Smith, Power and the State, 101-108.
  • [4] Ibid., also see Bevir and Rhodes, Governance Stories.
  • [5] Jessop, ‘Capitalism and Its Future’; Jessop, ‘The Rise of Governance’.
  • [6] Smith, Power and the State, 199.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., 200.
  • [9] Beck, Risk Society, Chapter 8.
  • [10] Ibid.; Beck, World Risk Society, 5.
  • [11] Beck, Risk Society, 75.
  • [12] Bauman, Liquid Love, 128.
  • [13] Bauman, Wasted Lives, 39-46.
  • [14] Ibid., 67-89.
  • [15] For a brief discussion of the term nationalism from a perspective roughly similar to my own,please see Miroslav Hroch, European Nations, Chapter 1.
  • [16] Gellner, Nations and Nationalism; Hobsbawn and Rangers, The Invention of TraditionAnderson, Imagined Communities.
  • [17] Azuma et al., ‘Kokka, boryoku, nashonarizumu’, 20.
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