The state, culture and the individual: who decides on the collective ‘good’?

Mayu Suzuki updated

by Mayu Suzuki, GLOBUS Correspondent

To what extent does the state have control over its people?

The state is defined as ‘the whole fixed political system, the set-up of authoritative and legitimately powerful roles’ [1]. Through the establishment of a set of institutions, the state looks to both structure society and create security to protect citizens within its borders. These institutions include the police, the army, the civil service, parliament and local authorities that help organise many economic, social and environmental aspects of the state. Development plans are executed for ‘the good of the economy’. Threatening criminal acts are punished. Thus, decisions made by the state may define and limit the set of choices available to individuals, yet without the state and these rules, modern society cannot function orderly.

So how many rights and freedoms do law-abiding citizens have?

As traditional burial practices are strongly dissuaded by the government, the prefecture of Shangrao, in the south-eastern province of Jiangxi in China, is a telling example. Since the change in leadership in 2012, a new governmental campaign has been put into action, physically confiscating and burning coffins from local villagers, for whom impeccable coffins and rituals indicate the popularity or status of the deceased. Many of China’s leaders have argued that coffin-making is a waste of resources, that it could result in arable land becoming even more scarce, and that lavish spending on coffins frustrates drives to eradicate rural poverty by 2020 [2].

The claims made by the government may sound logical for the nation’s economic, social and environmental sustainability in the long run. Nevertheless, their oppressive force violates basic human rights, cultural practices and property ownership. The conflict here, I believe, is caused by two different perspectives on what is ‘good’ for the people. Concerns over the scarcity of resources, as well as ensuring healthy livelihoods of people in the future, may sound like reasonable motives behind strict enforcement of the government’s anti-coffin stance. It is also true that, especially for urgent cases, attempts at informing and educating the general public can either take too long or have little or no impact in drives for sustainability.

However, in my view, people’s rights must be prioritised. The state should not have the power to undermine them. I would also like to mention that their unsustainable cultural practice may stem from a lack of knowledge regarding possible consequences such as the loss of arable land. This information should be shared widely but not coerced.

Another example that highlights the differing views of the authoritative power and the people is the agricultural method of slash-and-burn. It is often practised in central Africa, northern South Africa and Southeast Asia, where dense vegetation impedes farming. Primarily used by tribal communities for subsistence farming since the Neolithic Revolution, slash-and-burn is still used between 200 and 500 million people. However, there are a number of negative consequences of slash-and-burn: deforestation, soil erosion, gradual nutrient loss and biodiversity loss to name but a few [3]. These are not always immediately apparent to farmers. They should, therefore, be made aware by those who are more knowledgeable, such as those working for the state, for example. In  light of the need for farmers to eke out a living, the practice, no matter how unsustainable, should not be forcefully abolished. Instead, the public should be informed of the impact of their agriculture and alternatives should also be made accessible.

This also requires close examination of the forms of cultural imperialism that are prevalent in post-colonised countries. As some scholars argue, the introduction of Western industrial practices and technologies can destroy native culture in the rest of the world. Cultural transformations shook the Global North during Industrial Revolution, just like the Neolithic Revolution, and brought drastic changes to fundamental ways of living [4]. Before the eighteenth century, advanced economies featured a combination of skilled craft manufacturing and a large proportion of labour force was allocated to agriculture. Mechanisation thereafter undermined European culture to some extent, transforming the workforce, societal relations and the psychology of individuals. But then, the fact that the process arose in and through European culture suggests the change may not have been entirely alien to the society and the people it affected. For  countries outside of the origin of the Revolution, transformation forces people to submissively follow totally unaccustomed systems [5]. Even though positive spill-over effects of the Revolution have contributed to the development of European countries, the exact same outcome should not be expected in other areas with a different background.

The benefits of advanced technologies and science should be made available to everyone, but at the same time, people should still possess their right to autonomously choose their own paths.



[1] Robertson, D. (2002) ‘A Dictionary of Modern Politics’, Routledge.

[2] Anon., (2018). ‘A burning question’, The Economist, vol. 428, no. 9111, pp. 53-54


[4] Stearns, P. (2007). The industrial revolution in world history. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

[5] Ullrich, Otto. 2010. ‘Technology’. in Sachs, Wolfgang. (Ed). 2010. The Development Dictionary. New York: Zed Books. pp. 308-322.

Header Image: photo by sasint on Pixabay

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