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'Failed State': a destructive label

By Harry Throssell - posted Monday, 25 September 2006

How would Australians react if New Zealand’s prime minister or the president of Indonesia described Australia as a “failed state” because of its neglect of Indigenous health, the rights of David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay prison, the detention of asylum seekers? Would the “failed” label be welcomed or resented?

Labels can be powerful social and political weapons.

On ABC News on 24 August, 2006 Prime Minister John Howard called for two new battalions in the Australian armed forces, 2,600 extra troops at a cost of $10 billion, because of “failed states” close to Australia. The next day Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said 4,000 new troops were needed to replace those leaving the armed forces and to create the new battalions, again because there are “failing countries in our region”. The presumption is Australian soldiers and firepower will be needed in a show of strength to bring them to order.


But is the label “failing” or “failed” likely to make these countries more comfortable and friendly or more depressed and resentful?

There is a long history in sociology and psychiatry of the effects of derogatory labelling, with “scientific” diagnoses often used to justify social control. It’s only half a century since we gave people with intellectual disabilities such diagnostic tags as “idiot”, “mongol”, “cretin”, “imbecile” and “idiot savant” with punitive social consequences.

The diagnostic label “insane” meant you could be locked in an asylum more like a prison than a hospital for the rest of your life. There was a time when being unemployed, a prostitute or a destitute old person was enough to attract that label with confinement in a locked institution, perhaps even chained to a wall. The wrong label could mean spending the rest of one’s days on a “ship of fools” which never returned to port.

As a means of social control institutional psychiatry showed itself a worthy successor to the Inquisition, wrote Thomas Szasz. And for centuries the label “witch” - a supposedly scientific term - meant millions, mostly women, were burned to death as a danger to society, the evidence perhaps a mole on the skin diagnosed by a professional expert on behalf of the church, the government of the day. After this period there was no need for the label.

Half a century ago in an English junior school, a pupil who scored less than five out of ten in the weekly mental arithmetic test also scored a sore hand from teacher’s cane and a bruised ego to take home. Later results showed scoring badly in these weekly trials was no indication of mathematical ability, but of being a bag of nerves in anticipation of punishment.

In more recent purges, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union abandoned opponents of his regime to locked psychiatric hospitals. US President George W. Bush’s current mantra “you are with us or against us” is a sample of the same process.


Defining the other as “failed” is just the same old process in new form. Rich countries like Australia and USA have outbreaks of violence but do not attract the label. The definition applies to nations that are poor by objective standards like unemployment rates, family income and life expectancy.

United Nations and World Bank records have shown for half a century that wars and serious violence mostly take place in the poorest countries and the poorest neighbourhoods. People without employment are desperate for income, have time on their hands, become angry at seeing wealth flaunted in the media and every so often blow their top. Aggression may become focussed on another group, perhaps separated by ethnicity. On his recent visit to Australia former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said, “Poverty is the main stimulus for terrorism”.

And weapons are always available because manufacturers, chiefly in the US and UK, are ready to supply them.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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