Sunday, May 29, 2005
If the emergence of capitalism, often attended by vicious class struggle, provided sufficient conditions for the rise of the modern state to occur, it might be remarked that this did not rule out other sufficient conditions being available. But what I will say is that these conditions are not sufficient, but necessary. And I will argue that explanations revolving around politico-military pressures are inadequate.
Weber’s definition of the modern state is that it is “an administrative and legal order” which “claims binding authority … over the members of the state, the citizens … also to a very large extent over all action taking place in the area of its jurisdiction”, and with “the monopoly on the legitimate use of force”. It is characterized by bureaucracy, centralism and impersonal means of control which are supposed to safeguard the objectivity of decisions being made; although in practice the state is connected through various means to extraneous interests – political parties, NGOs, interest groups, businesses etc. Another feature characteristic of the modern state is that, although the nation-state does not usually coincide with a homogenous ethnic group, the state has often tried to legitimize itself through national identity, a suffusion of affect in the general population. (Max Weber, Essays in Sociology, H Gerth & C Wright Mills, ed.; Graham Gill, The Nature and Development of the Modern State, 2003; Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1991).
There were many competitors to the sovereign nation-state as capitalism was emerging. In particular, there had been Empire, the Church and feudal relations. Feudalism, emerging from the ruins of the Roman Empire, after it had finally been overrun by Germanic tribes, was a decentralized, fragmented mode of social organization. In it, families enjoyed personal rule over areas defined by manses and allods; land was generally inherited rather than sold; rank was gained by birth rather than earned by labour; and protection was sought – not from a centralized state, but from knights who had emerged from an earlier warrior elite and, being wealthy, could afford to buy horses. They were rewarded with land, which over time ceased to be a temporary reward and became part of the hereditary structure of rule. Serfs, tied to the land, owed obligations to the landlords, who also fulfilled juridical functions. According to Gill, the structure was “disarticulated, decentralized and cellular”. The power of the central monarch declined as feudal lords gained in power. (Guy Bois, The Transformation of the Year One Thousand: The village of Lournand from antiquity to feudalism, 1992; Gill, 2003).
The development of new technologies and a growing commercial economy saw payments in kind replaced by pay in money. The growth of towns, to paraphrase Fernand Braudel, both generated commercial expansion and was generated by it. (Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, 1981). Church power, often in the vanguard of the development of these new technologies (water mills, wind mills, new farming techniques) which allowed for a sufficient surplus to increase demand for new commodities, and therefore contributed to the rise of the towns and the merchants and artisans who worked in them, was one of the first institutions to suffer from this development. It was this social layer that was to lead the Reformation. In particular, the principle of ecclesiastical rule (Christendom) was to be supplanted by that of territorial rule (Europe) by the 18th Century. (Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, 1999; F H Hinsley, Power and the Pursuit of Peace; David Held, Democracy and the Global Order, 1995). As society grew more complex, new forms of rule were required. The alternatives to the nation-state embodied in Church and Empire had entered a period of serious decline by 1300. According to Spruyt, this was the outcome of a process of ‘survival of the fittest’, in which states unfit to the new market-based societies adapted, died or were subsumed.
Other alternatives were the city-state and the city-league. For instance, the Hanseatic League combined a number of German towns in an arrangement that had arisen out of agreements between merchants but by the 14th Century had become a relationship between towns, governed by regular assemblies. This arrangement, however, was rather loose. Of all the towns involved, only 20 sent delegates, with smaller towns often giving proxies to Hamburg or Lubeck. Its effectiveness relied on the commercial strength of one or two very large towns, and the only sanction available for those who did not acquiesce in its rulings was expulsion – largely unenforceable against the larger urban centres. By the end of the 15th Century, the assemblies were increasingly rare. (Denys Hay, Europe in the 14th and 15th Centuries, 1966). Spruyt suggests that such leagues became dysfunctional because the towns involved had no congruity and it was unclear where real power lay. There was no central authority, and these forms were eventually crowded out by more powerful states. Absolutist rulers, by contrast, were able to standardize currency, weights and measures, which made trade much easier. Although the Italian city-states were more like autonomous units, they tended to be fractious and weak in competition with more centralized states. Justin Rosenberg notes that “the citizen militias gave way earliest to the mercenary armies that would later characterize European absolutism; and … a population given over increasingly to commerce and manufacture elaborated new forms of class conflict”. (Rosenberg, The Empire of Civil Society, 1994).
IR theorists of the ‘realist’ school, as well as certain Weberian theorists, often assert that the primary force that convoked the modern state was military competition. According to Otto Hintze, the state is a form of organization for war, while Charles Tilly argues (and Michael Mann agrees) that the capacity and character of the state was determined in its formation by the kind of revenue needed to meet geopolitical challenges. Mann argues that this dictated the character of the states which emerged – while wealthier states were able to meet the costs of war without absolutist rule (England, Holland, the Italian city-states), those whose primary advantage lay in population numbers required a centralized, rationalized bureaucracy to mobilize its subjects (Russia, Austria). There are some crucial differences here, however. While Mann disaggregates military and political power, Hintze avers that “all state constitution is originally military constitution”. I would argue that Hintze is on the right side of this argument, though not for the reasons he thinks. In brief, while Hintze thinks that the state’s organized violence is directed toward external enemies, I shall argue that this capacity for violence is largely directed internally and insofar as it is directed externally, it is related to the internal interests of the polity which utilizes such violence. (Gill, ch. 5, 2003; Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, volume 1, ch. 13 and ch. 16, 1986; Gianfranco Poggi, Forms of Power, ch. 10, 2001).
Gill outlines some of the problems with the Weberian approach. It is of course true that, in the absence of an overarching Empire embodying Christendom, European states were drawn into struggle over territorial and ideological/normative rule. This none could opt out of, and the growing costs of war compelled governments to seek greater extractive powers in order to pay off debts incurred by battles and facilitate further investments in war. However, heightened geopolitical competition would often frustrate the process of rationalization and structural reform – war often left states so exhausted that they had to seek ad hoc measures for immediate results rather than long term efficiency. Only when wars were less significant was there a discernible improvement in administrative structures, in the 1300s and early 1400s. At the same time, the intense and sustained geopolitical competition of the 11th and 12th Centuries subjected all forms of polity to the same pressures – yet, once it had subsided, the city-states persisted in Italy, Germany remained disunited and the Hansa continued as a league of trading cities. (Gill, ch. 5, 2003).
Justin Rosenberg goes deeper in his critique. While for Weber, the state to some extent subordinates other social and economic relations (see Anthony Giddens, The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies, 1981), the realists have saw fit to treat state power as something that can be understood as ‘autonomous’ from other social forms – the state is an entity to be understood as being the same, sui generis, trans-historically. One thing that stands out about feudal society, however, is that the exercise of political power is not separable from economic activity. In various ways, the social structure of feudal societies determined the goals and modalities of war in the High Middle Ages: the role assumed by dynastic diplomacy; the recognition of private rights of warfare; the absence of international law as such. In fact, the development of capitalist society and what Giddens calls “the extrusion of the means of violence from the principal axis of class exploitation” were coterminous. The replacement of the “traditional state” in “class-divided societies” with the modern ‘autonomous’ state could not have taken place without the dissolution of feudal relations in which power was largely parcelled out and dispersed. Hence, Marx’s remark that “the modern state … is based on freedom of labour”. (Giddens, Power, Property & the State: A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, vol. 1, 1981; Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence, CCHM, vol. 2, 1985; Rosenberg, ch. 3, 1994).
Legality and rationality.
The Weberian definition of the modern state cited above is useful for designating what the modern state does, but it is less useful in designating what it is. Weber famously distinguished between the different modes of legitimacy of any state – traditional, legal and charismatic. In his own society, these three followed in close succession: Bismarck, Weimar, and then Nazism. However, the persistence of the legal form, the rationalism and impersonal forms of rule in capitalist society that Weber talks about demand explanation more than they explain. We can very well say what law does in a circular way – law is a system of rules governing conduct, enforced by the state with its monopoly of violence. But why law? Why not, for instance, religious injunction? If we can say why law is the universal mode of regulation in modern societies, we will come closer to an understanding of the modern state.
Gill notes that the law was important in that it enshrined the right of private property, and facilitated the use and mobilisation of those privately owned resources. (Gill, ch. 4, 2003). Yet, this just pushes the question back one more step. Law did do this, but why? According to the Marxist theorist, Evgeny Pashukanis, the legal form enters in precisely where isolation and opposition of interests begins to replace mutual obligation and fealty. He ties it conceptually to the commodity form, in which the very trade of various items as commodities involves the traders being bearers of rights rather than privilege. To make the distinction clear, while a feudal master ordering a peasant to go into town and buy some pepper is an expression of personal rule, the buying of the pepper involves him in an interface with a seller who is, in this exchange at least, no superior or inferior. In fact, for the commodity form to become the axis of economic activity, actors on the market must not behave in a manner so as not to appropriate the commodity of the other or alienate their own, without the consent of both parties. Law, backed up by a state with the monopoly of legitimate violence, pacifies and provides a kind of determinacy to an exchange that might otherwise be resolved with physical force or go on in endless haggling (more likely the former). Understanding law in this fashion helps to explain one way in which the nation-state as sovereign subject is constituted. The recognized unit of international law is the sovereign state, all of which are nominally equal. The sovereign state is a legal form, and law in this sense is a process of negotiation between these actors, albeit one without the determinacy provided at the level of the nation-state. As law is fundamentally a matter of coercion, or congealed violence, decisions reached are invariably coercive and stand or fall on the ability of those determining the decision to back it up. (China Mieville, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, ch. 3, 2005).
If this is correct, then the legalization and rationalization of the state can be accounted for in part by the development of capitalism and markets within feudalism. In particular, the precocious economic development of Italian Communes could partly explain the re-emergence of Roman Law, although – as Gill also notes – the precise form of law was less important than what it did. The rise of ‘law merchant’ since the 12th Century was a direct expression of the interests and sentiments of the merchants themselves, while maritime law emerged to serve the same interests. And it was mercantilism which first promoted a public economic policy on a national scale. States did create the merchant companies as legal entities, but in doing so they implicitly acknowledged the growing importance of commodity exchange, which itself had been facilitated by the extraordinary dynamism of feudalism. (Gill, ch. 4, 2003; Mieville, ch. 5, 2005; Harman, 1999).
Another problem thrown up by Weber is the territorially bounded nature of the modern state. The state claims legitimate rule over a geographically defined territory, and in that space citizens are subject to the state’s laws. But what explains the ‘nation-ness’ of the modern state? The answers offered by Spruyt, Hintze and others revolve around the ‘sovereign-ness’ of the state, which is moulded by military competition. The nation-state involved both the right scale, and the internal cohesiveness to survive intense geopolitical struggle. This certainly accounts for one aspect of appeals to nationhood, inasmuch as it was necessary to win support for domestic populations, and wars based on dynastic claims were often far, in all senses, from home. The emphasis of common ‘national’ characteristics evoked an imaginary community which people could identify themselves with (Gill, ch 5, 2003). But this is in itself inadequate. It explains part of the reason why states legitimized themselves in this way, but it does not completely explain it or the reason why it was successful.
Benedict Anderson argues that populations were receptive to nationalist ideas in part because of the way in which the invention of print and the penetration of markets into most walks of life had forged national languages with much more homogeneity than had previously persisted. At the same time, the ‘imagined community’ that preceded the nation-state, Christendom, was eroded from several quarters, not least the Reformation which in attacking the papacy and asserting the direct relationship between man and God undermined the idea that a polity could be based on a community of faith. (Anderson, 1983; Gill, ch. 3, 2003). There is also a sense in which nationhood is forged and reproduced through the standardisation of currency, weights, measures and education. These, as Anderson argues, have been partially state-driven, but have also arisen from the needs of the developing capitalist economy. But the ‘national’ character of the modern state is also overdetermined by its relationship to capitalism: the overthrow of feudalism, in Marx’s words “set free the political spirit, which had been, as it were, split up, partitioned and dispersed into the various blind alleys of feudal society … and established it as the sphere of the community, the general concern of the nation”. (Quoted, Rosenberg, 1994).
The modern state is a capitalist state; its key characteristics cannot be disarticulated from the social processes from which it emerged. In no way need this invite a view that reduces the state to being a mere 'instrument' of the bourgeoisie, but it is thoroughly constituted by social and economic relations that it supervises and reproduces.
References, quibbles, corrections and supplementary argument are all very welcome.