August 20, 2023


The Rise and Fall of the Project State: Rethinking the Twentieth Century: a review of The Project State and Its Rivals: A New History of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries by Charles S. Maier (Anton Jäger, Fall 2023, American Affairs Journal)

Maier's book offers a new solution to this enigma. In his view, all the classical categories used to describe the twentieth-century state miss its central feature: its orientation around the notion of a project, which could weld business interests, the general population, and state bureaucrats under a single, long-term time horizon. What united Roosevelt's America, Stalin's Russia, Attlee's Britain, Hitler's Germany, Mao's China, and Nkrumah's Ghana, then, was not a diffuse totalitarianism or developmental ideology. Rather, it was their status as project states, which all "had a transformative agenda . . . based on authoritarian and even totalitarian as well as liberal and democratic coalitions seeking to reform sclerotic institutions or societies that seemed unacceptably unequal." Project states thereby tended to "see society as a plasmic whole, sometimes in terms of elites and masses, knowable and controllable through statistical science, biological and legal interventions." The specimen did not come without ancestors, of course--in Maier's view, Napoleonic France and the wartime organization of the U.S. federal government in 1861 already exhibited embryonic signs of a later project state--yet "as a continuing and nonexceptional form of polity," the new creature only "came into its own in the twentieth century."

Maier's category thereby demarcates and unifies. The notion of a "project state" allows us to understand what Mao, Hitler, De Gaulle, Attlee, and Nkrumah had in common. Yet it also clearly separates the twentieth-century state from its pre-1914 antecedents. Although Maier's state never fully abolished capital, it did have a productively agonistic relationship with it: it was able to both discipline and repel those that controlled investment and to direct or claim those resources for itself. It was a state made for and by warfare, yet not exclusively so. To the disgust of neoliberals and New Leftists, it had an eternally uneasy relationship with the public-private divide, both on the social and on the economic front, encouraging higher birth rates while compiling calorific tables.

Above all, it was pitted against the nineteenth-century nightwatchman state, both as a reality and as a metaphor; public authority was to turn itself from a mere facilitator of economic commerce into an active choreographer of social movements. As Maier notes, the hustle and bustle of the traffic jam was replaced by the "ordered direction of the Riefenstahlian march"; under its baldaquin, masses would gather for coordination and instruction, in a rage for order that ran across the whole interwar period. Maier's concept does not rule out internal differ­entiation, of course: "creating the fascist man who would live as a lion and not as a jackal was a different project than raising out of poverty 'one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,'" and Stalin was surprised to see Churchill switch office with Attlee when negotiating the postwar order.

Still, all its forms took an energetic, even invasive interest in the populations that fell under their control: the project state built the National Health Service, transported prisoners to Kolyma, incinerated Dresden and Nagasaki, birthed cybernetics and nuclear power, reduced infant mortality, and cartelized the coal industries. Here was an entity "addicted to transformative agendas," with a lifespan as short as it was eventful: born somewhere between 1914 and 1929, gone between 1973 and 1991. By the close of the 1980s, Maier admits, the project state had given up on its project and was no longer capable of controlling the forces of private capital. It slowly gave up the role of sculpting society, instead leaving the field open to self-experimentation and the emerging entrepreneurs of the self. In the historian's view, its "audacity repelled many at the time and certainly social historians in the century since, but the ambitions constituted a major historical force and deserve empathetic understanding."

Above all, Maier shows, project states met a crisis of leadership. Max Weber, himself an uneasy prophet for the rising project state, already discerned this feature in the late 1910s, when he called on a newly republican Germany to face a "night of icy darkness" with heroism and the "slow boring of hard boards." He was hardly a lonely prophet. On a globe in which the oscillations of the market rather than the turning of the seasons governed an ever-larger portion of human life, "drift" inevitably gave way to "mastery," as Walter Lippmann noted at the dawn of the new age in 1914. Internally, project leadership sought to organize and stratify the suffrage expansion which capitalism had always contained as a promise, yet which made cohabitation between labor and capital difficult. Externally, project states were to guarantee commodity frontiers or what Maier terms "resource empires" that could support increasingly market-dependent metropoles.

Project states, Maier thereby argues, were a product of the First World War, turbocharged by the Second, only faintly surviving into the age of American world-hegemony, finally to teeter in the inflationary 1970s, and fully die out in the unipolar 1990s. Already in the late 1950s, "the poet Stephen Vincent Benet was no longer around to ask us, as he had queried the dead in the 1930s, why we were marching," Maier recollects. "We were being marched for the sake of a concept of citizen­ship that would largely dissolve by the 1960s. . . . [T]he project-state still imposed memories and set a cadence, but the urgency of its causes was weakening." While Maier's students marched against Vietnam, Milton Friedman proposed a marketization of the draft and a replacement of existing social security with a minimal cash grant. From the inside, plans for the silent execution of the project state were being composed.

Predictably, the delusion that you can achieve a project via the state persists only on the Right/Left.

Posted by at August 20, 2023 12:00 AM