Theory Bites: The violent origin of states

By Edvin Arnby Machata

The state is a key player in implementing successful development strategies. The state collects taxes and uses these for public investment like roads and schools, from which society will reap rewards in the form of a growing economy and better way of living. More fundamentally, the state provides the legal framework – courts, laws, and police forces – that shape economic activity in the country. A state that effectively maintains these functions is called a strong state.

Too many developing countries however have weak states, which instead of facilitating economic development are often inhibiting it through corrupt policies that only benefit a small part of the population. In the search for ways to improve the capacity of today’s weak states, it is useful to consider how today’s strong states emerged.

Historically, war is the single most important driver of political change. It is prominent in most national histories because of its transformative effects. Consider how the American Civil War strengthened the federal centre, how the Greco-Turkish War created the Turkish nation-state and how World War II laid the political foundation for the European welfare state.

Waging war has often helped strong states to emerge. War and coercion created more efficient social orders where only the strongest and most productive states survived. These then assimilated weaker ones to form larger and larger political units. The Duchy of Moscow’s assimilation of Tver, Ryazan & Novgorod as well as the conquest of the British Isles by England, are two of the purer examples.

This may seem like a morally repugnant trajectory to imitate, but it is undeniable that the political stability and prosperity enjoyed by developed countries is built on many injustices and much suffering in the past.

Consider the economic importance of slavery for the Greek city-states, the genocides of Native Americans enabling US economic expansion, and the near extinction of minority cultures in metropolitan France to create a strong nation-state, to name but a few examples. Merely 150 years ago, today’s rich countries were hardly bastions of human rights. Still, the logic of state violence and its funding has some unexpected effects on society, to which we will return at the end.

In spite of the violent and messy process of creating states, stories and legends of the founding of nations often include altruistic and patriotic kings who selflessly sought to bring peace and order to the land for the sake of its inhabitants. The reality is likely to be very different. So how can this be explained?

The ‘roving bandit theory’ articulated by Mancur Olson sees bandits freely roaming the land, robbing villages and farmers before moving on to the next one. However, eventually a bandit gets tired of living a nomadic lifestyle for whatever reason, and decides to settle down and rob (or tax) the same village and farmers continuously. After some time of recurring plunder, he becomes a ‘settled bandit’. As such, he must ensure that his subjects are safe enough to produce enough resources to pay the taxes he demands.

In this scenario, the bandit has to establish a monopoly of violence within his area of rule—that is, any other violence within the bandit’s boundaries must be approved of by him or be punished by him. This is enforced by his own brute force and/or ability to convince his henchmen to do his bidding. Without an effective, de facto monopoly of violence, roving bandits could steal from his subjects, thus diminishing the revenue expected by the settled bandit.

According to most theory, this monopoly of violence is a key feature of the state (first articulated by German political philosopher Max Weber). Without it, law enforcement is impossible. Think about it – who is the only actor in society legally allowed to be violent? The government’s military and police forces.

A monopoly of violence may sound threatening, but there is an important mechanism checking the power of the settled bandit and making his interests similar to his subjects’: if he would tax too much, his subjects would starve and he would loose his source of income altogether.

On the contrary, if the bandit assists his subjects to produce more, for instance through subsidizing new tools and techniques or making it easier to trade by constructing roads, they would have greater taxable income. Thus, the settled bandit is not a fox preying on chickens but a rancher sheltering his sheep from wolves and leading them to greener pastures.

In the end, while the bandit violently imposes himself and forcibly extracts resources, after a while, people become used to obeying his rules and paying taxes. As this habit is instilled, less physical and other coercion becomes necessary.

From this point, a bond of mutual obligations between the ruler/state and its subjects develops. The state ensures the provision of various public services, first and foremost security, and the subjects in turn support the state by paying taxes. Historically, this has been a slow process of small, cumulative changes.

As mentioned earlier, war has been fundamentally important in pushing and shaping this process. For example, states have often aggressively fought to conquer lands of their neighbours. As long as one state in the neighbourhood intends to do this, every state needs to have some kind of military force to defend their territory.

Armies are, however, very expensive to keep, especially as they do not produce any tangible goods. The state thus needs to be innovative in how it pays for its military. This leads to increasingly advanced civilian bureaucracies, centred on the tax authority, that are able to extract more taxes over a larger territory more efficiently.

This, in turn, enables the state to wage war more successfully and expand further, necessitating a further growth in the bureaucracy, while a large class of civilian bureaucrats emerge. This bureaucratic class has a direct interest in the state regarding their livelihoods and standard of living, claims that are rather unrelated to the armed forces it was created to support. Therefore the state becomes more and more directed towards fulfilling the civil needs of this bureaucracy: the militarization of the state thus leads directly to its civilianization.

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Edvin Arnby Machata is the regional editor for West Africa with Global South Development Magazine

For Your Reference:

Carneiro, Robert L. (1970) “A Theory of the Origin of the State.” Science 169, no. 3947: 733–738.

Leander, Anna (2004) “Wars and the Un-making of States: Taking Tilly Seriously in the Contemporary World.” In Copenhagen Peace Research: Conceptual Innovations and Contemporary Security Analysis, edited by Stefano Guzzini and Dietrich Jung. London: Routledge.

Olson, Mancur (1993) ”Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development” American Political Science Review, vol. 87, no. 3.

Tilly, Charles (1990) Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.


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