By Ramsey Mansur
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the deficiency in many of our institutions, formal and informal, however we still act as if it is persons who are to blame or praise. In Jordan we are ardent followers of the person; we place blame and credit solely at the door of an individual. We look neither at the underlying institutions, nor at society as a whole. When a Prime Minister enters office, the government becomes named after him, its decisions or indecisions are attributed solely to him. We have the government of Razzaz, of Mulki, of Nsour and so on. Each of them we have blamed for failings in governance and the difficult times which have befallen the nation. While there have been some mistakes or misjudgments by each, is it possible that they and others before them alone can be blamed despite the different personalities, education, training, vocation, beliefs, and cabinets?
Each of the Prime Ministers of Jordan have been impressive personages with both personal and professional achievements. We see backgrounds ranging from government to the private sector and World Bank. Furthermore, the country does not possess a Prime Minister with absolute power; this is not a country where the prime minister’s whim becomes action or law. We have parallel governing institutions that overlook decisions. Constitutionally we have the legislature, we have the significant power of the Royal Court which has attracted some of our most impressive minds, and we have the security apparatus. In recent times we have witnessed the growing voice of civil society and the rise of the behemoth called social media. There is accountability and significant checks on the prime minister, though accountability flows are often skewed and flows in a not so democratic direction.
If the Prime Minister for the main cannot be even close to wholly faulted, then what can be? Even if one were to look outside, the main governance tool of the prime minister has always been the legislative bodies and most importantly a non-politicized bureaucracy. Institutions, political and otherwise, have been built over decades and centuries into something durable, resilient, and relatively reliable; and it is upon these institutions that governance has been based. What institutions have our prime ministers inherited? Has Jordan even fully escaped what is termed by Fukuyama the “tyranny of cousins” to form a modern state in the Weberian sense?
Firstly, the “tyranny of cousins” must be explained; according to Fukuyama earlier societies were too tight knit, creating kinship groups that served the interest of their kinship group at the expense of anyone else. This rationally stood in opposition to state creation. If one were to take the history of Jordan from the time of the British Mandate until now it is one of attempts of unification, and the breaking down of tribal isolation and practices, which it must be noted have permeated to those not originally from the tribes. The history of state building in Jordan is in reality an attempt to break down this “tyranny of cousins”, though it has only succeeded in coopting it for the most part and adapting it into something semi-manageable through serving its interests.
This “tyranny of cousins” is greatly tied into the second concept, the modern state in the Weberian sense. In simplest terms this type of state can be summed up by one based on impersonality and merit. This type of structure, and certain aspects of it, can be seen in modern examples as well as examples dating back to the bureaucracy created by the Zhou dynasty in China which ruled between (1046-256 BCE). It becomes immediately obvious that the terms of ‘kinship groups’ and ‘impersonality and merit’ are directly at odds with each other. Furthermore, as part of this state there is an impersonal, de-politicized, and merit-based bureaucracy. Though one may claim that we have little in the form of politics or political groups in Jordan, it has been argued by many that the institution of the ‘tribe’ is in many ways a surrogate political party, and consequently tribal institutions and practices, which have also become the modus operandi for non-tribal actors, do politicize the bureaucracy and eliminate any chance of it being impersonal and operating on a merit basis.
If we do not have a modern state, then what do we have? Again, I refer to Fukuyama. We have a neo-patrimonial state as defined by Fukuyama in his wonderful text named Political Order and Political Decay, whereby such a form of government would have “the outward form of a state, with a constitution, …, prime minister, a legal system, and pretensions of impersonality, but the actual operation of the government at core a matter of sharing state resources with friends and family” (Fukuyama, 2014: 287-288). In the case of Jordan, this sharing of state resources initially occurred, and was then maintained, as a method of ensuring the loyalty of specific personages due to their tribal standings, and their control of these tribes, and merchant elites.
We see this as a recurring theme throughout the nation’s history, in everything from agriculture, water distribution, land distribution, employment in the security apparatus, and most importantly in public sector employment (the bureaucracy). The scattered tight knit tribal coalitions necessitated cooption in order for there to be a Jordan, and in the processes has created a costly social contract buttressed by neo-patrimonial and rentier practices. The provision of public employment and state resources to specific groups, which for the most part are exclusive groups based on kinship, has been maintained through resilient institutions such as wasta. Maintaining it has proven costly and detrimental. Government employment has not been merit based and therefore is effectively but a tax.
So now we reach the crux of the issue, we maintain a skewed and unsustainable social contract. However, like any social contract it has its ardent supporters, and therefore all of us must pay the price. This social contract is an institution, wasta is an institution, a personal and non-merit based bureaucracy is an institution, familial and tribal values are an institution. These prime ministers inherit not just an abysmal bureaucracy, but a myriad of institutions that hinder and cripple attempts to create a modern state. We cannot reform without their being losers; losers and winners are the constant in any social change, or any change. We cannot demand the benefits of a modern state without adapting all our institutions to match its principles.
Creative destruction has its losers, but with an outcome of a greater good, an advancement, a leap forward almost. We cannot blame prime ministers, we must look at the underlying institutions, these institutions which our own behaviors and values create. When I do not pay my tax someone else must, when a connection is used for employment, another candidate, better or worse, is without employ, when the government hires more, taxes must rise. For the bureaucracy to improve rapidly, we must either clear out the deadwood, which in the end are people with families to support, or incentivize an improvement in performance and instill merit-based hiring practices.
What is obvious in all this is that there will be losers. These losers could be you or I, they could be tribal actors, beneficiaries of neo-patrimonial institutions, they could be government employees; but any social change or institutional change stipulates that there will be losers. The underlying institutions embedded in culture must be adapted or changed to facilitate the creation of a modern state. To rid ourselves of much of the inefficiencies and ineffective institutions we must relinquish the ‘tyranny of cousins’, we must do away with some of our own debilitating values and beliefs. Though external pressures can be pointed to, in the end our institutions were shown lacking by what befell the region and the ensuing influx of foreign populations in recent years and then the COVID-19 pandemic. What were cracks became chasms, and we can no longer point fingers at personages and the government. The system is glaringly flawed, and this system in created by myriad of institutions, and our actions and behaviors are what create these institutions. Perhaps a little introspection is needed, perhaps we should not shift all the blame to ‘someone’, and rather assume a portion of the blame.