A Formalist Tale

The basic idea behind Formalism is that soft power and influence should be made explicit and turned into formal property rights in the government, which would be run as a joint-stock corporation. So if you, taking my hard and soft power together, have 50% control of the government, this should be recognised and made official, and you get 50% of the equity. Similarly for my 0.0001%. And therefore the whole system will run more efficiently, as all power will be explicit, recognised and indeed transferable. There are many objections to this as a system: that there will be no outside force to make sure the joint-stock corporation obeys the rules; that whatever new formal rules are set up will inevitably be gamed, and so there will be new soft power; and that the new government will not in fact be economically efficient.

Instead of debating these theoretical points, let me tell you how formalism has played out in practice.

When the Ottoman Empire ruled Iraq, all land belonged, in theory, to the Sultan. In practice, it belonged to the people living and working on it. So, in the late 19th century, His Imperial Majesty decreed that these informal property rights should be made formal, so that the economy could run more efficiently. This is exactly what Formalism envisages – a dictator overseeing a process of turning soft power into explicit property, with the intention of maximising economic growth. The only difference is that the Ottomans were doing this with land title, whereas Formalists would be far more ambitious, and try and do it with political power. But even land title was challenging enough – the process was not completed until Iraq had gained freedom from Ottoman rule.

What took place, however, was not simply a codification of existing effective title into legal title. Instead there was an orgy of corruption, as well-connected insiders sought to appropriate as much as they could. One story that played out again and again was tribal leaders registering on behalf of their tribes – but then putting all the land in their own name. These leaders then moved to Baghdad to be near the administration – as their power now derived from centrally enforced power. Meanwhile the tribes became angry, embittered and uncontrollable – the leaders who had previously been the negotiating points for the central government had forfeited their authority by their fraud. This is a large part of why the British were unable to deal with the uprisings in Iraq in the late teens and early 20s – the traditional structures had broken down in the face of widespread resentment of what was, in effect, mass expropriation. And this long-standing injustice was later used as justification for mass expropriation of landowners after the 1958 revolution.

Declaration of interest: I am told that my family neither gained nor lost in the land titling process. We were, however, expropriated by the communists.

So what we see is that the formalism did not codify the existing de facto rights, it changed them, with certain groups elbowing out others. As a sociological construct, property means stuff that my neighbour recognises as legitimately mine. By breaking the link between legally-enforced property and socially recognised property, it destabilised the country, in both the short and long runs. The reason this played out so disastrously in Iraq was that the government was not very efficient and was easily waylaid. But Formalism is being offered as a way to make the government efficient!

In other words, if we had a government that was able to register soft political power into legal title in an effective way, Formalism would be superfluous, as we’d already have a government that worked brilliantly. And if we didn’t have such a government, Formalism would be a disaster, as everyone would try to game the registration process and in so doing make it one not of registration, but expropriation, that would not afterwards be recognised as legitimate but would set off wave after wave of recrimination and unrest.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: