States start with violence and expropriation

By Lorenzo

I came across this passage in a collection entitled States and Development: Historical Antecedents of Stagnation and Advance (pdf):

A realistic, even if stylized, account begins with the coalition building in which the elites of an emergent state are likely to engage, both with other power holders and with economically successful interests (p.11).

It is in a similar vein to this from a working paper entitled The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy (pdf):

When the propertied elite can rule on their own they establish an autocracy that protects their (property) rights and little else. This has been the usual outcome throughout the long arch of history (p.2).

Mehmet II entering Constantinople 1453.

Friedrich Engels had a similar conception in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Chapter 9) 1884:

The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without … Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.

As conceptions of the alleged inherent nature and origin of states, they are nonsense. States were frequently “power forced on society from without”–every time a pastoralist people conquered a river valley people, for example. All the (broadly Germanic) states created out of the ruin of the Western Roman Empire were forced on the subjugated peoples. Islamic states regularly took the form of “power forced on society from without”. Any imperial conquest is “power forced on society from without”. Even if the conquest is from within the society, as with Leninist states (those that were not themselves creations of imperial conquest from without).

A mamluk.

An extreme case of a state not being a product of its society was medieval Egypt. From the Fatimid period (969-1171) onwards, the most significant persistent state in Islam until the rise of the Ottoman Empire, was based on the Nile valley. There was a state in Egypt, but there was not an Egyptian state; the state’s ruling elite was overwhelmingly foreign—Arabic-Berber under the Fatimids, Kurdish-Turkic under the Ayyubids (1171-1260), Turkic-Caucasian under the Mamluks (1260-1517). Indeed, the Mamluk elite was exclusively foreign, with the children of Mamluks being forbidden to hold tax-grant fiefs [at least in theory]. Moving into the local society moved them out of the state apparatus; at no stage during these centuries was the state in Egypt a product of the society it ruled.

For long periods, the state ruling Egypt was part of a larger empire originating somewhere else: Achaemenid (525-402BC & 343-332BC), Roman & Eastern Roman (30BC-620 & 630-641), Sassanid (621-629), RashidunUmayyad and Abbasid Caliphate (642-969); so very clearly not a product of Egyptian society. Even when the relevant state was centred in Egypt, the dynasty was foreign and deeply influenced by external models: notably the Ptolemaic dynasty (330-30BC) and Alawiyya dynasty (1805-1953). Egypt had not been under the rule of a local dynasty since the defeat of Pharaoh Nectanebo II in 342BC, nor would locals seize supreme power again until the Free Officers coup of 1952, over 2200 years later.

Expropriation first, other rules later
The origin of states starts with multi-generational authority and specialisation in violence — a ruler and a bunch of warriors (perhaps soldiers, if matters are sufficiently organised)* — able to expropriate local production. A process which was something of a series of political experiments until patterns and structures that worked could be developed.

The production of enough stored food able to be so expropriated is basic to the development of ranked societies, and social hierarchy more generally. Thus states evolved where (pdf) cereals (which are highly seasonal, so have to be stored, so can be expropriated) or seasonal tubers (potatoes, so ditto) dominated farming and not where non-seasonal tubers (which don’t have to be stored, so can’t be sufficiently expropriated) dominated farming. Hence also, for Malthusian reasons, such expropriation dominated the persistent creation of social surpluses (income above subsistence) until the outbreak of the Growth Revolution (aka Industrial Revolution), as noted in my previous post.

The state is the structure by which the ruler and warriors (or ruler and agents more broadly) routinely expropriate resources from those subject to their control. That is, subject to that routinised and expected control we call authority. There is nothing that requires any particular state to be, in any strong sense, a product of the society it rules. Nor is rule making other than a derivative function of the control and expropriation which makes a state, a state.

The first, and arguably greatest, of historical sociologists, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) defined royal authority as follows:

Royal authority, in reality, belongs only to those who dominate subjects, collect taxes, send out (military) expeditions, protect the frontier regions, and have no one over them who is stronger than they. This is generally accepted as the real meaning of royal authority (p.152).

Notice the total absence of any reference to making, or even enforcing, laws. Ibn Khaldun does discuss the preference of royal authority for social tranquility, but that is derivative of its nature, not central to it.

Cortez organising the replacement of the Aztec state.

Any rule-making engaged in by the state, including recognition of property rights, is dependent on the mechanics and exigencies of said expropriation. Thus, for example, whether farming was irrigation-dominated (so production was highly transparent to ruler or local elites) or rainfall-dominated (so production was much less so) directly affected who (pdf) was the effective owner of land: farmers, local elites or the ruler.

In Egypt, production was highly transparent to central authority (to the extent that revenue could be calculated by how high the annual flood reached on the Nilometer) so Egypt was a pioneer, and persistent example of, highly centralised state, with the ruler (and designated agents) being the effective landowner(s) because of their role in the state, not the other way around.

The degree of transparency of production to the state is a central dynamic. In the modern era created out of the Growth Revolution, increased transparency of production to the state, due to the rise of documented employment relationships, has greatly increased the state’s ability to expropriate, mainly via making every firm into agents of the expropriation process.

Rules applying to the wider society are so not basic to the operation of the state that in Islamic states, law was dominated by Islamic clerics (Sharia) and in Hindu states, it was dominated by Brahmins (Manusmrti). While the Chinese state developed a remarkably minimalist approach to law because of the limits on the number of officials (pdf) the ruler could usefully supervise by the command-and-control mechanisms which dominated the operation of the state after the Song dynasty‘s (960-1279) establishment of examination as the only route to office holding.

Again and again, the “class structure” of a society was driven by the dynamics between local geography (hence dominant mode of production), the demands of expropriation, the transparency of production to any state and enduring religio-cultural constraints. States were far more drivers of social structures than creations of them as expropriation so dominated the creation of persistent social surpluses. (Especially when we consider the role of states in spreading religions.)

Types of states
In terms of the locus of decision-making, states can be divided into three types.

(1) Apparat state: the locus of political decision-making is entirely within the state apparatus itself — any social bargaining is, at most, limited to the operation of state institutions, not their structure or form. Islamic states from the Abbasid Revolution until the later C19th, the Song, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasty states of China, and Leninist states are of this type.

(2) Bargaining state: bargaining with interest groups outside the state apparatus is extensive enough to affect the structure, form and operation of state institutions. Medieval and Early Modern European states were typically of this type.

(3) Participation polity: social bargaining has become so extensive as to dominate the state apparatus such that the key decision-making officers of the state are agents of the political nation. Functional democracies are of this form, but so were states such as the Serene Republic of Venice and many Greek polities.

The notion that the state is, by its nature, an instrument of the wider society (or the elite members thereof) is a product of a civilisation where the participation polity was either the dominant type of state in practice or normatively, the rest being bargaining states.

It is quite clear, reading Ibn Khaldun, that he has no such expectation whatsoever of the state being an instrument of the society it rules. Why would he? He lived under, and worked for, apparat states his entire life. Apparat states moreover whose standard pattern, which he brilliantly analysed, was of invading pastoralists conquering and ruling sedentary coastal and river valley dwellers, with the resulting state being their instrument of rule.

Laws and states
There were rules, even law (generally customary law), and property rights before there were states. But that rather reinforces the point; rules and the delineation of property rights are not basic to the operation of states. Typically, they are, at best, convenient for their operation. A state is not a rule-making club as implied by the above quotes, it is a structure of organised violence which supports itself by expropriation. Even in the modern world, the easier the expropriation, the larger the revenue of the state.

In his magisterial The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, constitutional law academic Philip Bobbitt writes:

Law cannot come into being unless the state achieves of a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (p.6).

Mathilda of Tuscany, presiding.

Which is simply false. First, because law need not be a product of the state; stateless societies can have laws, albeit of a customary nature. Second, because even if there is a state, use of violence by folk or bodies which are not agents of the state may still be accepted practice. Duels, self-defence, armed retinues are all features of those franchised warrior states we call medieval (or, rather unhelpfully [pdf], feudal).  Note that Ibn Khaldun does not assume a monopoly of violence by royal authority, merely dominance therein.

Any rule making, recognising or enforcing engaged in by a state flows from the state’s fundamental basis of a structure of organised violence which supports itself by expropriation. Historical images of rulers giving judgement usually incorporate some reference to their ability to wield organised violence. But it is the organised violence sufficient for routinised expropriation which makes a state a state, not “a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence” and not law making. Thus ibn Khaldun is far more correct when he refers to “no one stronger than they” — that is, being the dominant, as distinct from only, wielder of violence.

Stable social order is generally convenient for the expropriation of production by states–even preferable, as social stability generally increases the stream of resources available to be expropriated as well as the ease of expropriation. In particular, the more stably routine the expropriation, generally the better for the expropriators. (And the less overt the reliance on organised violence.)

Hence the paradox of politics or paradox of rulership:

We need the state to protect us from social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of social predators.

Which Ibn Khaldun was expressed as:

[The residents] are thus prevented by the influence of force and governmental authority from mutual injustice, save such injustice as comes from the ruler himself (p.97).

This nature as social-predator-which-also-protects flows from states protecting in order to expropriate. There has always been an implicit protection deal attached to state expropriation, as live-and-productive farmers provided so much more to expropriate than dead-or-devestated ones.

So state societies (societies with a dominant wielder of violence) were safer than non-state societies and societies where the state was the effective monopoly wielder of violence have tended to be safer still. Yet the protection originates in the extraction, not the other way around. Hence, the more unrestrained the state is, the more predatory it is.

States do typically concern themselves, directly or indirectly, with ensuring social order. But they do not exist to create or sustain social order; anything they do create or sustain such social order comes first out of the needs of sustaining themselves through expropriation. Nor are they inherently products of the society they rule.

Which is why it has been such a struggle to develop states which are instruments of their society and do (usefully, and particularly broadly) serve social order and the inhabitants thereof, rather than imposing whatever is convenient. But that is not where states start, and simply assuming such an endpoint is no way to analyse the operation of states. Doing so is a classic example of looking back without realising that the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. To usefully analyses states, one has to start with their core nature, their core origin; not some retrospective fairy tale about the same.

 

Warriors own their own equipment and owe personal service; their reputation is based around honour. Soldiers use equipment owned by whom they serve; their reputation is based around duty. Soldiers are thus armed employees and require more centralised logistics than do warriors. 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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