State and society have long been at odds. Since the very birth of the state as a political construct, its relationship with societal elements has been marked by tension.
The sharp elbows of non-state actors are nothing new. Their elbowing is almost ingrained. Political philosophers have pondered the nature of the state, society, and their relationship for centuries. There can seem to be as many definitions and systems as there are people within them.
In most societies today, there are representative civil components such as tribes, sects, religions, unions, business associations, and political entities such as parties whose members are united by ideology or values.
Yet this almost inherent tension begs the question: does a state’s existence undermine the need to represent these groups? They are, after all, co-contributors to the state’s governance of society.
The relationship of non-state actors with states (and their institutions) changes over time.
In his seminal work Bandits, historian Eric Hobsbawm looks at how marginalised social groups go from state opposition to becoming part of the establishment.
The interplay between societal elements and the state —whether real or “imagined”, as political scientist Benedict Anderson thought — has profound implications for the world in which we live.
Non-state actors can shift from representing the interests of specific social groups, potentially through armed rebellion, to participating in organised or sporadic criminal activities — a transition referred to as the social bandits phenomenon.
For instance, the FARC movement in Colombia, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the legacy of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, was initiated as an armed insurgency in the 1960s.
However, it quickly diversified into drug trafficking and hostage-taking for ransom to raise revenue. It did so without fully relinquishing its political objectives.
In Jabal Amal, located in southern Lebanon, a "revolutionary" group came into prominence in the 1920s. This group of bandits, having been contacted by the Arab state under the leadership of Prince (later King) Faisal in Damascus, was persuaded to take up arms against the French occupation, positioning themselves as anti-occupation rebels.
Their role and impact remain contested even today.
The state as king
Throughout history, states have sought to limit or prohibit the presence and influence of such non-state actors. The French Revolution is a prime example.
The state was at odds with the Catholic Church and the nobility, so revolutionaries eliminated intermediary entities between the individual and the state, insisting on direct representation through the National Constituent Assembly.
This led to a ban on all professional, civil, and regional gatherings or groups, leaving only the individual and the state, with nothing in between. However, the utopian vision of this approach quickly dissipated.