There is little doubt as to the necessity of a civil government in order to protect the right and liberties of individuals. As long as the government remains loyal to its founding objective, namely that of serving the interests of the general population, its need and importance cannot be contested. On the theoretical front, there are many proposals and underlying rationales for structuring the government in a variety of ways. As early as the seventeenth century, nearly a century before the French Revolution, the British political philosopher John Locke had deliberated upon the function and role of government in civil societies. His Second Treatise on Government, in particular is a comprehensive collection of essays on various aspects of social organization. But theories do not always translate into practice and so governments always do not fulfill the purpose for which they were conceived and formed. We should also remember that electoral processes and democratic institutions that constitute modern governments are also beset by serious flaws. In the present global political scenario, as was the case during the period of European Imperialism, governments concerned themselves with matters way beyond the maintenance of civil liberties to its population. That is, governments have never been strictly political formations, but have always served vested commercial and class interests. A history of European Imperialism is full of such examples, where exploitation of commercial opportunities led to expansion of territories and colonies. It should also be noted that while governments are needed to maintain peace and order in civil societies, there have been plenty of instances in which they have abused their power in suppressing dissident voices and threats to power.
Writing his Treatises on Government toward the end of seventeenth century, John Locke could not have foreseen the scale and scope of abuse of power that governments have since exhibited. While this is not mean that Locke’s Treatises are impractical, they do point to the gap between what is real and what is ideal. Also, Locke’s Treatises focus on the interactions between government and the individual as well as the interaction between fellow citizens. There is a lacuna in Locke’s Second Treatise about the nature and dynamics of power relations between governments and how this could undermine the civil liberties domestically. The nature and complexion on demographics has altered considerably in the period since Locke’s analyses. In an increasingly multi-cultural and multi-racial world (especially in the United States and Europe), nation-states have claimed legitimacy to their causes using the language of rights. Although the merits of this phenomenon are yet to be validated, they do provide hope for erstwhile oppressed groups in the form of ethnic, racial and sexual minorities within these nation-states to also employ the language of rights to claim their legitimate share of opportunity, prosperity and privilege. While traditionally, notions of cultural identity held sway over other abstract categorizations, the world of neo-liberal economic globalization has given precedence to universal human rights and justice. So, the twentieth century world is undergoing an interesting political and cultural evolution that breaks away from conventional notions of rights and justice, something which John Locke did not foresee happening.
One of the significant contributors to this changing understanding of culture and identity, in the context of civil liberties in the modern world, is the discovery of new theories on human cognition and behavior. In other words, the field of psychology has brought a new synthesis to what used to be disparate and exclusive cultural and political realms. By pointing out to the universal pool of emotions, feelings and actions, psychology has dispelled many myths that were at the foundations of cultural hegemony. For instance, conditions such as oedipal complex, anxiety, sexual envy could affect a member of British aristocracy as much as a member of the Romany tribe. When such universality were put forth in scholarly journals, the reactionary elements in society were up in arms against these theories; mostly because they tend to undermine their comforting set of illusions. In this view, attachment to a political unit, be it the nation, the state or the region, is a fundamental desire, almost akin to a biological imperative. Just as individuals are keen to form personal bonds and relationships in order to feel good about them, they also look to political affiliations. In the realm of geo-political entities, citizens will identify with their governments (which manifest themselves as political parties) if it provides them a feeling of personal security and comfort and if it is able to keep alive comforting illusions about the past and present. According to this view, the scope and purpose of a national government has gone way beyond providing fundamental protections and rights to its citizens to fulfill psychological needs such as cultural identity, political organization and everyday reminders of the values that hold the community together. Those reminders will comprise anthems, currency notes and coins, flags, educational content, commemorations, monuments and so on, which become part of the political discourse. It is not an exaggeration then to say that the expansive reach of governments to perpetrate and maintain ideas and illusions make them susceptible to abuse their power.