Thinking about states

By Lorenzo

While writing a paper on state dynamics in Latin Christendom, it was useful to try and think (think out aloud indeed) coherently about states as historical entities. State understood as an institutionalised structure of expropriation and coercion dominant in a particular territory.

The notion that a state has to have, or even aspire to, a monopoly of coercion does not make much sense in the context of medieval Europe. Indeed, for much of human history, the right to bear arms was a defining capacity of a free person. And even the notion of a state requiring to have a monopoly of organised coercion fails the medieval test. Though, as post-medieval states increasingly aspired to a monopoly of organised violence, there was a long-term decline in (pdf) private lethal violence.*

The OED definition of a state used by Wikipedia of:

an organized political community living under a single system of government

is both too abstract and assumes too much; a political community, according to Wikipedia is:

a geographic region accepted to be in the jurisdiction of a particular governmental entity

which constitutes a community, being

social unit of any size that shares common values.

This is way too touchy-feely. And inaccurate–how many empires were social units sharing common values? These definitions are too modern, too nation state, too Westphalian.

What do I mean by institutionalised? Wikipedia uses political scientist Samuel Huntingdon’s definition of an institution as:

stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour.

Which is a good short definition, though “valued” bothers me (valued by whom, how much?). Economist Douglass North defined institutions as:

the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human action (p.3).

Which, in the formal version, somewhat misses the stable, recurring element. Economist John Powellson defined institutions as:

an accepted mode of behaviour protected by the culture (p.9).

which also implies a bit too much social coherence. States only conform to ethnic or similar boundaries if the trade-offs of coercion, expropriation and dominance lead them to do so.

The key features institutionalised is trying to get at is persistent structure. That is, providing continuing and specific constraints on human behaviour. A street or criminal gang might be organised expropriation and coercion dominant in a particular territory, but it lacks the persistent structure of a state. Besides, such gangs are generally only dominant in a very narrow sense; much more narrowly than the persistent structure of a state provides.

Underlying these various definitions cited above tends to be some idea of states as epiphenomena of societies, as products of societies. That is fundamentally mistaken: societies with states are at least as much products of states as the other way around. Hence my first principle for thinking about states.

(1) State societies are significantly different from stateless societies.

State societies are larger in scale in almost every sense: including in population and production. They have less retail violence, but their organised violence is on a (typically much) larger scale. Their constructions are larger and more enduring. They are far more urbanised. They are more stably hierarchical. To have a state profoundly shapes and changes a society: in simplest terms, the state acts as a social multiplier compared to not having one.

(2) States depend crucially on the capacity to expropriate.

As this paper (pdf) by Mayshar et al points out, the notion that farming automatically produces a social surplus is fundamentally mistaken. All farming produces is more babies and somewhat more specialisation. The only way to produce a continuing social surplus is by expropriation. Which farming (specifically cereals farming, as cereals are less perishable) permits because then food is stored across seasons and so can be expropriated. But that creates a “chicken-and-egg” problem: the social surplus requires expropriation, the apparatus of expropriation requires a social surplus to support itself. This is a “chicken-and-egg” problem which the mere existence of cereals farming does not solve.

Which is why it took thousands of years for farming to produce states. Solving the “chicken-and-egg” problem requires a multi-generational authority with increasing coercive specialisation. The most likely way to produce that is by conflict, especially across an ecological frontier (pdf) (classically, river valley farmers versus oasis, savanna or steppe pastoralists). What historical demographer Peter Turchin calls (pdf) multilevel selection.

While priesthoods can provide multi-generational authority, coercive specialisation is also required to create and maintain a state. Hence hereditary autocracy is the simplest (and historically most common) form of the state–if a multi-generational authority has enough coercive dominance to establish and maintain state, then it will likely have enough coercive dominance to centralise power.


(3) The scale of state activity is primarily driven by its capacity to extract revenue.

The state is a structure of coercion, expropriation and dominance. The more revenue it can extract, the more it can do. It will tend to do so extract up to the level at which the trade-offs of capacity and consequence balance out for state agents. Remembering that all rulers confront principal-agent problems: indeed, these were plausibly central to dynastic cycles, particularly in China (pdf).

So, it matters how transparent production is to the state, because the more transparent, the easier it is to expropriate. Thus irrigation makes extraction easier because production is more transparent.

As the paper by Mayshar et al points out, Karl Wittfogel got it the wrong way around: irrigation favours state dominance not because the state provides irrigation (that is normally done locally and typically pre-dates the state, though the state may well expand its ambit) but because it makes production more transparent and so more able to be expropriated. Thus, given that production on the Nile was highly transparent (revenue could be predicted by how much the Nile flooded), Egypt was an early developer of a centralised autocratic state, despite being a relatively late adopter of farming.

Who said production was transparent to made a difference. In lower Mesopotamia, farming production was more transparent to local elites than any higher ruler. Moreover, unlike much of the Nile, everywhere in Mesopotamia was subject to pastoralist raids, requiring walled cities. The combination meant that the lower Mesopotamia was an early centre for urbanisation, yet its centralised (i.e. multi-city) states were more unstable than Egypt’s as production was less transparent to any regional ruler and resistance to such rule was easier.

Rainfall farmland is less transparent again, given that rainfall is more idiosyncratic than irrigation. So, in areas of rainfall farming, farmer-owners tend to be the pattern as the state does not know enough to reliably extract without providing the farmer with more incentive–such as owning their land. Egyptian and lower Mesopotamian farmers did not own the land they tilled: as the state in the first instance, and the local elites in the second, could reliably extract revenue without having to provide that much incentive. That Europe is overwhelmingly a place of rainfall agriculture was an important factor in its history.

In the modern world, the Industrial Revolution hugely increased the power of the state to tax. In the words of Mayshar et al:

We prefer to describe this increased efficiency of the tax technology as resulting from the increased transparency of production. The latter was due in part to the shift to mass production by hired labor in large corporations — a shift that was accompanied by a massive accounting paper trail (see Kleven, Kreinerand, Saez 2009). This paper trail exposed productive activity to the state and transformed the state’s ability to tax, among others by turning private companies into efficient tax collection agencies, and by facilitating the taxation of income (p.45).

(4) Level of social friction involved in the appropriation process is a major constraint.

A factor in the evolution of states evolve is responding to various forms of social friction the appropriation process has to deal with. Thus, Parliaments reduce social friction in revenue extraction: hence Parliamentary states tended to have higher tax rates than non-Parliamentary states. Which is a reason for rulers to have Parliaments. Indeed, that seems to be precisely why Alfonso IX (r.1188-1230) of Leon engaged in his experiment (1188) of asking merchants to send representatives to his court to discuss matters fiscal. It worked so well for him, he kept doing it. This was well before Simon de Montfort’s exercise of 1265, which had continuing historical significance because Edward I (r.1272-1307) repeated and institutionalised the arrangement.

While the notion of Parliaments being imposed on tyrannical monarchs makes for stirring historical narrative, monarchs were very actively involved in the development of Parliaments because it made the process of expropriation easier. It did so by:

(1) providing more information on the monarch’s own agents;

(2) alerting monarchs to potential problems; and

(3) allowing trade-off bargains which enabled more expropriation to occur.

Parliaments comprehensively reduced social frictions while making the political nation more transparent to the monarch. (Of course, whether the monarch made good use of that was another matter.)

Cultural homogeneity also reduces social friction in extraction (and state action generally) and it does so the more empowered folk are. Thus, the relatively culturally homogeneous Scandinavian states can manage a higher tax/spend equilibrium than more culturally diverse settler societies such as Australia or the US.

The Industrial Revolution’s explosion in technology (which only really took off in the 1820s with railways and steamships) increased the capacity of states, but also increased the capacity of organisations and individuals. Hence the Industrial Revolution resulted in much more pressure from upwards (nationalist agitation) and downwards (national identification and homogenisation) for states to conform to national boundaries. This was also an interactive process, as the power of states often determined the ethnic boundaries–if necessary, by massive processes of population shifts (some of which were population exchanges, some not: the Israel-Palestine conflict can be reasonably characterised as largely driven by an unresolved population exchange as the Jewish state integrated its refugees and the Arab states refuse to integrate theirs).

Strong kin networks increase social friction in extraction, as they provide ways for folk to organise to resist state power. Hence states in societies with strong kin networks (i.e. highly clannish societies) often make implicit or explicit trade-offs–they accept the clans’s internal authority in return for acceptance of the over-arching authority of state and ruler. Indeed, use of clan patronage networks can result in substitution of such patronage for the development of state institutions (as in Palestine under Arafat), as well as of more (pdf) general institutions of formal (non-kin) cooperation.

The anti-kin-network family rules of Christianity (monogamy, no divorce, no adoption, no concubines, no cousin marriage) tended to undermine clan networks, encouraging more formal arrangements for social cooperation.** In economist Avner Greif’s words (pdf):

The practices the church advocated, such as monogamy, are still the norm in Europe. Consanguineous marriages in contemporary Europe account for less than one percent of the total number of marriages. In contrast, the percentage of such marriages in Muslim, Middle Eastern countries, where we also have particularly good data, is much higher – between twenty to fifty percent. (Alan H. Bittles 1994.) Among the anthropologically defined 356 contemporary societies of Euro-Asia and Africa, there is a large and significant negative correlation between Christianization (for at least 500 years) and the absence of clans and lineages; the level of commercialization, class stratification, and state formation are insignificant. (Andrey V. Korotayev 2003.) (p.309).

The strong family networks of East Asia substituting for welfare provision likely has much to do with why East Asian states have a lower tax-spend equilibrium than other developed economies.

What might be called “the borough deal” was another way of increasing extractive capacity–in this case, over the longer term–by reducing social friction (specifically, fear of expropriation). A land-holding magnate wishes to encourage (taxable) commercial activity, so seeks to establish a local permanent market (fair or town). In the case of a town, it involves significant amounts of fixed capital, so increased risk of expropriation by said magnate. Thus the magnate grants a charter which allows the merchants of the town to make their own local laws, including regarding property rights, and build a wall around their town. That alleviates fears of expropriation and encourages local commercial activity, increasing the revenue of the magnate (including providing a local market for the products of his land).

(5) Social bargaining can increase or stabilise coercive capacity.

Mounted armoured warriors are expensive (the horse–i.e. war charger–alone could cost half the annual income of a large village), there are no significant economies of scale in their equipment or training (both of which are also very expensive), it is ideal for one generation to train the next and such a warrior can dominate local peasants. So, while having them extract their income directly from local peasants (by way of land-ownership or tax-collection grant) economises on extraction effort, it also leaves them significantly self-sufficient. So, some sort of implicit or explicit social bargain between ruler and warrior can usefully structure their relationship, providing the ruler more coercive capacity while economising on extraction cost. A franchising arrangement, if you like.

Suppose you have a large number of small city states in intense competition competition with each other. The geography is not very suitable for large-scale horse raising, so armies are dominated by (expensive to equip) heavy infantry which do have economies of scale in equipment and training. But the states are small and lack the coercive capacity to expropriate enough funds to equip large numbers of such folk. They are in a region of rainfall farming, and thus have lots of owner-farmers. So, how do you get said farmers and others to equip themselves and turn up for training? Give them a say in the running of the polity: or, more precisely, the polis. This allows you to have a larger and tougher army than your ordinary taxing capacity would provide: important in an intensely state-competitive environment. This would be the citizenship deal.

It does require a certain social stability to make work: hence the more socially unstable–yet highly commercial–cities of Sicily tended to end up with tyrants. But versions of the citizenship deal recur with the self-government cities of medieval Europe. Particularly (but not only) in Northern Italy and the Low Countries; both regions with lots of cities in intense competition, with each other and with landed magnates.

(6) Persistent constraints matter.

States may be central to the evolution of state societies, but that does not mean they do not face serious constraints. One is geography: until the technology of coercion and dominance developed sufficiently, it was difficult to stably project state power across ecological frontiers. As discussed above, whether the state operated in an area of rainfall farming or of mass irrigation also mattered.

As we saw in the matter of clans and Christianity, religion could also matter (both as constraint and as opportunity). That Islam, and India after the Brahmin resurgence, both operated on the basis of divine law (Sharia in the case of Islam, Manusmrti, the laws of Manu, in the case of Brahmin India) mattered because it foreclosed a great deal of social bargaining.

Parliaments, the borough deal, the citizenship deal, all required folk getting together and making laws, laws that entrenched various social bargains. If human law making (in practice, ruler decree issuing) was limited to the silences of divine law, then it simply was not enough to sustain that sort of social bargaining. Hence no more Kshatriya republics in India once Brahmin dominance of law provision was established.

An issue that very much still resonates in Islam (though not in India; given the demands of modern commercial society, bringing back Mansumrti is not even in the interests of Brahmins). Nowadays, opinion polls show Muslims as in favour of democracy; in some Muslim countries as much as Westerners (the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers). But central to the Salafi movement is re-establishing the primacy of Sharia. The movement comes in quietist (withdraw from corrupt world), activist (seek to expand the social reach of correct action) and jihadi (kill folk until they accept our version of Sharia rule) variants. Muhammad Nasir-ud-Din al-Albani (1914-1999) was widely regarded as the most important Salafi scholar of the C20th. An advocate of quietist Salafism, he had this to say about democracy:

Elections according to democracy are unlawful, and parliaments that do not govern in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunna [orally transmitted traditions of Muhammad], but rather on the basis of the majority’s arbitrariness, are tyrannical. Parliaments cannot be recognized and Muslims can neither seek nor cooperate to found them, for they contend (combat) God’s revelation. And they are a Western technique made by the Jews and the Christians, who cannot be legally emulated.

By unlawful and legally emulated, he means by the laws of Allah, the only true legislator. When the jihadis say they are fighting tyranny and injustice, tyranny includes any democracy (since it is illegitimate authority) and injustice means anywhere not under Sharia rule, because Sharia is the only justice. Remembering that, in mainstream Islam, ever since al Ghazali (1058-1111), revelation has been taken to be the limits of morality (a consequence of the defeat of Aristotelianism in the Islamic world). Moreover, since Allah is the sovereign of the universe, Allah’s law applies everywhere and to everyone.

Which is why Parliamentarianism and democracy struggle somewhat in the Islamic world. They are clearly outside imports (problematic in itself) and exist in a level of tension with religion that simply does not apply anywhere else. (Only the Islamic world, for example, felt a need to issue its own, adjusted, declaration of human rights.) There are functioning (even stable) Muslim democracies, but still the attraction of anti-democratic religious totalitarianism is enduring.

So, whether a civilisation accepted law as man made (as Christianity does) or not (as Islam and Brahmin India did not) was an enduring constraint that affected the evolution of states in the respective civilisations. Just as Christian doctrines undermining clan networks both encouraged and enabled the development of more formal institutions of social cooperation, affecting the evolution of states.

About the state

States–persistent structures of expropriation and coercion dominant in a particular territory–are not dependent products of their societies. The combination of coercive dominance and extractive-and-spending power makes them the most powerful element in their society–otherwise, you have a very weak state or no effective state at all.

States are not “instruments of the ruling class“: indeed, in historically typical autocracy, the “ruling class” (a deeply problematic term at the best of times) owed their social position to their position as superior agents of the state, they were not superior agents of the state because of their social position.

The central role of states in history is why the technology of coercion is such an important factor in history in its own right. Neither the hand mill nor the water wheel produces the knight; the technology of armoured horsed combat does. But how the knight’s–the armoured mounted warrior’s–social role was structured had a great deal to do with how widespread mills became.

States create societies (or at least social orders) at least as much as societies create states. This is blindingly obvious in the case of Leninist states, which literally created the social orders that (functionally) suited them. But even without that level of brutally socially pulverising social dominance, states are fundamental to the structuring and evolution of their societies. If we do not see that, we miss some fundamental historical dynamics. As well as much of the why of the passions politics can engender.


Economic theory does predict that monopolisation tends to lower output: though that is better described as its developing monopoly of violence increasing the capacity of the state to pursue its interest in not having its taxpayers kill each other.

** The persistence of clan in the Celtic fringe (Scotland–particularly highland Scotland– and Ireland) is likely a result of the Celtic requirement for kin loyalty–in contrast to the Germanic idea of freely chosen personal loyalty–somewhat exacerbated by the lack of urbanisation. One can see the tension between Celtic kin loyalty (the whole Mordred/Lot’s kin debacle) and Germanic freely chosen loyalty (embodied in the Round Table) in the Arthurian tales. 


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]


  1. Herding cats
    Posted July 10, 2015 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    So – where is your “mapping” of the ‘States’ in the Federated Commonwealth of Australia.?

    What does the “Commonwealth” of Australia actually MEAN?

  2. Posted July 11, 2015 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The Commonwealth of Australia is a state with major subordinate jurisdictions (known as States and Territories) who themselves have subordinate jurisdictions (local governments). But, in the sense meant here, it is a single state.

    ‘Commonwealth’ is a traditional English term meaning a political community founded for the common good. Various US States are officially Commonwealths (Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia).

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