A few unconnected recent happenings have reminded me that I’ve meant to do a short post on Charles Tilly, bellocentric (or “bellicist”) theories of state formation, and where all of this stands in 2013.
If you mention “Charles Tilly” and “state formation” to knowledgeable social scientists, their first association is almost always his famous line “war made the state and the state made war” (PDF). Scholars most frequently cite his work on state formation in the service of this line of argument.* Indeed, Tilly’s argument also invariably gets translated into “more war, more state.”
This strikes me as a plausible reading of Tilly’s early work on the subject, but not of Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990 — let alone his later scholarship. Moreover, I contend that even if Tilly does make something akin to that argument, it isn’t what we should take away from it.
What does Tilly argue in Coercion, Capital, and European States? He sets forth a particular “double question”:
What accounts for the great variation over time and space in the kinds of states that have prevailed in Europe since AD 990, and why did European states eventually converge on different variants of the national state? (p. 5, emphasis original).
He contends that:
Most available explanations fail because they ignore the fact that many different kinds of states were viable at different stages of European history, because they locate explanations of state-to-state variation in individual characteristics of states rather than relations among them, and because they assume implicitly a deliberate effect to construct the sorts of substantial, centralized states that come to dominate European life during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (p. 11).
It should be immediately clear that Tilly’s approach cannot support a formulation along the lines of ‘more war, more state.’ Tilly’s analytics make it extremely difficult to speak of ‘more’ or ‘less’ stateness — although he does have an unfortunate tendency to undermine this point by using phrases such as “growth of states” as a shorthand for the extension and intensification of centralized control.
Indeed, Tilly would often lament that he should have called the object of analysis “state transformation” rather than “state formation” for precisely this reason: there’s an strong disposition among academics to (1) conflate the Weberian ideal-typical definition of the modern state with the concept of ‘state’ and (2) read the literature exclusively with an eye toward asking when, if, and how particular polities crossed some imaginary threshold into ‘stateness.’ Thus, Tilly referred to the modern state as the “national state” and saw it as a particular configuration of the capitalized-coercion model.
Tilly’s summary of his key claims takes more than a page (pp. 14-15). But I want to highlight a few of them:
War and preparation for war involved rulers in extracting the means of war from others who held the essential reources — men, arms, supplies, or money to buy them — and who were reluctant to surrender them without strong pressure or compensation.
Within limits set by the demands and rewards of other states, extraction and struggle over the means of war created the central organizational structure of states.
The organization of major social classes within a state’s territory, and their relation to the state, significantly affected the strategies rulers employed to extract resources, the resistance they met, the struggle that resulted, the sorts of durable organization that extraction and struggle laid down, and therefore the efficiency of resource extraction.
The organization of major social classes, and their relations to the state varied significantly from Europe’s coercion intensive regions (areas of few cities and agricultural predominance, where direct coercion played a major part in production) to its capital-intensive regions (areas of many cities and commercial predominance, where markets, exchange, and market-oriented production prevailed)….
Tilly concludes his list by noting that:
Nevertheless, the increasing scale of warfare and the knitting together of the European state system through commercial, military, and diplomatic interaction eventually gave the war-making advantage to those states that could field standing armies; states having access to a combination of large rural populations, capitalists, and relatively commercialized economy won out. They set the terms for war, and their form of state became the predominant one in Europe. Eventually European states converged on this form: the national state.
This last claim encapsulates the line of argument that leads many scholars to read Coercion, Capital, and European States as essentially a continuation of the ‘more war, more state’ hypothesis. But this is not a nomothetical statement about state transformation in general. Rather, it is a particular claim about the trajectory of European state transformation. Tilly reiterates this point in his concluding chapters.
Thus, it makes little sense to argue that, in essence, ‘Tilly is wrong because warfare can also undermine state capacity.’ The fact that warfare might rearrange social and political relations is perfectly consistent with the proposition that “major moments in the growth and transformation of particular states, and of the European state system as a whole” corresponded “to war and preparation for war” (p. 35). Given particular configurations of social classes, military technology, interstate relations, and so forth we should expect that “war and preparation for war” might undermine the capacity of the central organs of the state. Compare Elias’ account of the centripetal and centrifugal cycles of large-scale polities during the so-called dark ages — cycles in which the conditions of mobilization laid the seeds of decentralization via the distribution of land to violence specialists, e.g., armed men on horseback.
Now, if we can demonstrate that the net impact of warfare and mobilization for warfare in Europe during the period in question was primarily an occasion for the weakening of centralized state capacity — such that these processes worked against the historical transformations of interest to Tilly, then he does have a problem. But specific examples of warfare undermining central authority do not necessarily create difficulties for his thesis. And examples of such ‘state deformation’ (meh) from outside of Europe actually work in favor of the broader point: that warfare and mobilization for warfare provide the pivotal moment for transformation in state modalities.
I should also note that even a cursory reading of this summary should devastate the argument that Tilly downplays economic forces in European state transformation. Indeed, economic processes play a crucial role in structuring opportunities and constraints for those bargaining over demands associated with warfare. Thomas Ertman makes this point well:
[Tilly] calls into question the tight link between the degree of military pressure experienced by a given country and the size and bureaucratic character of the state apparatus built in response to that pressure…. Tilly’s argument… provides a more sophisticated explanation… by brining together both geopolitical and economic factors…. (p. 14)
None of this implies that Tilly’s account floats above criticisms. For example, there are some serious difficulties, as Ertman notes, with underlying assumptions about the relationship between distributions of capital and effective revenue extraction. Ongoing work by Deborah Boucoyannis raises doubts about significant increases in European ruler’s capacity to extract revenue during the 16th-17th centuries. Prior institutional characteristics unrelated to the distribution of “capital” may, as she also argues, account for the rise of the capitalized-coercive trajectory. Post-1066 England, most notably, was undergird by a functional Germanic kingdom and, in part as a consequence, enjoyed the advantages of greater state capacity than, say, Capetian France. Indeed, this advantage helped push Philip Augustus to reform French political institutions in ways that expanded its ability to wage warfare.
This leads me to my point about what we should take away from Tilly’s theories of European state transformation.** I see this second kind of argument (much like that of Phil Gorski) as part of the ongoing reformulation of Tilly’s insights. In particular, the introduction of different explanatory accounts of variation in the European topography within which bargaining around warfare and the mobilization for warfare took place.
Indeed, Tilly’s framework also allows more room that critics often recognize for cultural forces and other non-material processes. Tilly may occasionally suggest instrumental explanations for such phenomena, as he arguably does in his discussion of the emergence and diffusion of nationalist ideology. Such intermittent claims should not blind us two important dimensions of the account of European state formation he provided in Coercion, Capital, and European States. Socio-cultural forces play an important role in the processes of claims-making, resistance, bargaining, and legitimation that often determine how pressures associated with warfare translate (or fail to translate) into transformations in the character of states. But these forces remain almost completely under-theorized in Coercion, Capital, and European States — a condition that Tilly started to correct in his later work.
Coercion, Capital, and European States also makes two often-neglected interventions in the study of state transformation that extend well beyond the specifics of European state formation.
First, Tilly’s critique of unilinear approaches to state formation. Not only does this receive less attention than it should, but too many of its invocations are little more than perfunctory in character. In some ways, the study of state formation remains wedded to the fundamental question of the social sciences—the problem of modernity. European social scientific inquiry, at least in its current form, developed out of attempts to make sense of profound changes in social, political, and economic life that accelerated during the long nineteenth century. The emergence of the so-called “modern state” was one important component of those changes, and thus the notion of the “modern state” as an analytic endpoint remains deeply ingrained in social-scientific inquiry. As I argued above, this bias helps explain the ‘more war, more state’ mis-formulation of Tilly’s claims in Coercion, Capital, and European States.
Second, his use of increasingly relational analytics to resolve problems and lacunae in the state-transformation literature. I’ve already touched on one aspect of this: the significance of diplomatic, military, and commercial relations to his account. Although Coercion, Capital, and European States largely predates Tilly’s explicit adoption of “relational realism” as a mode of analysis, it contains important traces of that turn. In it, he resolved a series of important methodological and social-theoretic problems:
- how to engage in comparative analysis in the face of instability in the boundaries of units themselves — both in territorial and social terms;
- how to treat institutions as simultaneously structures for political action and subject to alteration by that political action; and
- how to treat political communities as both actors in international politics and structures subject to change via those interactions.
Tilly tackled each of these problems by adopting, in effect, an understanding of the state as a relational configuration of various transactional processes. He did so at both very abstract levels—“coercion” and “capital”—but also in more concrete ways when discussing the various relations—of negotiation, coercion, extraction, and so forth—that produced, undermined, absorbed, destroyed, and reconfigured political communities in Europe over the course of a millennia.
*At least according to anecdotal evidence and that of an incomplete database. [back]
**I am setting aside his later work (e.g.) in which he added “commitment” to coercion and capital. [back]
I think CC&ES’s final chapter lends a lot of support for the idea that Tilly did not see the formation of “national states” as a determined result of competition over coercive capacity. I also think your argument that Tilly incorporates the effect of economic modernization into his theory is a point well taken. The political-economic context helps determine which organizational forms are best suited for competition over social control.
That said, I do think that Tilly’s insights should lead to a considerably constrained view of the path of state development in the long run. An ecosystem of organizations seeking social control will ultimately advantage those organizations most able to perform a variety of tasks that ensure survival and expanding influence (many of which Tilly describes). The attempt to refute Tilly on the grounds that war can undermine state capacity *are* wrong, even in the context of European development, because the undermined state capacity was redistributed among other types of organizations. That’s like arguing that “survival of the fittest” is wrong because a species that was once well-adapted loses ground to an emerging competitor.
Joel Migdal argues that citizens of weak states aren’t ungoverned, they are simply governed by a melange of actors with varying capacity to exert social control in different arenas. Tilly describes a process by which the capacity for social control was significantly centralized and homogenized because a certain type of organization survived better as modernization progressed. The fact that the myth of the all-powerful state is even more strained in the developing world doesn’t undermine Tilly’s point, it supports it. We see more clearly the competition between state and society, and how social groups with state-like functions can benefit from state weakness.
In my opinion, Tilly’s mechanism appears not to be at play in the developing world due to a very specific intervening process, without which the slow march to nation-state style democracy might continue. Colonialism, partial modernization and continued efforts at peace-keeping have substantially altered the rules of competition between states and other competitive social actors, constraining the outright violent competition that forged nation-states in Europe. Does this mean that the political-economic context has shifted in ways that undermines the relative performance of the nation-state form of organization? Or have more powerful actors simply decided that the price of localized political development is too high for the advantages in brings?
“War made states and states made war” is a great slogan – but it is not universally true. War long predated the state. And it looks like the state is going to outlive war, which is in perhaps terminal decline in much of the world. So it applies from about 5000BP to about 1945 or 1989. But that’s not bad coverage!
If you step back and ask what kind of theory is Tilly’s non-unilinear, relational, bellocentric theory, it looks very much like a special case of group selection theory.
The theory of group selection aims to account for the trend of upscaling in social
cooperation: essentially, the less cooperative were selected out. Likewise,
Tilly aimed to account for a particular upscaling in cooperation from the petty
states, cities, and tribal chiefdoms of the early middle ages to the national
states of European modernity. He invokes a similar mechanism: competition
selected out the less cohesive.
(Meanwhile, Asian states in same period Tilly covered (medieval-early modern) went through a greater upscaling into large empires. Why? They were in striking range of nomadic horsemen. There was nowhere to hide in the fierce selection cauldron of nomad geopolitics.)
As a zillion sci-fi stories have correctly pointed out, a further upscaling of
cooperation to a world government is most likely when an alien military force
Currently, in the belt going from the Sahara to Afghanistan, we are seeing a case of “war made clans and clans made war.”
In short, Tilly’s largely right, but his approach is a form of group selection theory.
While I’m commenting, I though I’d take issue with this:
“…the fundamental question of the social sciences—the problem of
I think it is sociologists who are concerned with modernity who tend to claim that what they happened to be interested in is the fundamental question of the social sciences.
That’s never been the basic question of philology or archaeology or anthropology or geography, and nor the basic question of political science or IR.
The social sciences are organized curiosity — and that curiosity has many targets, not one “fundamental” one.
A prefatory note: I am willing to concede, ad arguendo, that what I am about to say may be more true of Political Science, Economics, and Sociology than, e.g., archeology.
First, I think that you may be using “fundamental” in a somewhat different way than I am. From Miriam-Webster: Fundamental ˌfən-də-ˈmen-təl a : serving as an original or generating source : primary ; b : serving as a basis supporting existence or determining essential structure or function : basic
Second, The fact is that most, if not all, of the canonical theorists of the social sciences — Smith, Weber, Marx, Mill, Tocqueville, Durkheim, and Weber, to name but a few — were all fundamentally concerned with the origins, nature, and trajectory of modernity.
Third, most of the major questions posed in various social-scientific disciplines revolve around the same issues at the heart of the early articulations of this “problem”: democratization and its effects, the great divergence and development, social differentiation, revolutions, etc. Even our subsidiary inquiries are caught up with theories constructed in light of the problem of modernity.
Now, other disciplines are interesting in this respect. Why was it, after all, that folklorists and philologists were running around collecting data from peasants in the 19th century? What were the central operating assumptions of European anthropologists studying “primitive” tribes? I think you’ll find much more widespread tendrils of the modernity problematique than might be evident at first glance.
Dan, how do you define “modernity”? Are you operating with something along the lines of the classic Weberian definition?
I would certainly agree that “modernity” is at the centre of the social sciences insofar as it is defined as a native category – “the contemporary condition” or something to that effect. Italian political philosophers in the 16th century, English theorists of statecraft in the 17th, French physiocrats of the 18th century, and German sociologists of the 19th were all occupied by what made their own situation different from the past, even as they drew on that past to make universal claims or teach historical lessons.
But defining “modernity” as something we can locate in a given historical time and place, and which is definitively and distinctly (objectively?) different from whatever the opposite of the modern is seems more problematic. I’m with Frederick Cooper when he argues that the multiplicity of uses leaves the category stripped of most, if not all, analytical value. It also runs the risk of leading to an unhelpful obsession over key events that somehow heralds the arrival of modernity into the world. “Behold, I have located the first modern XYZ.”
By the way, I think the post is terrific and will reread CCES with it in mind.
Points well taken. Three reactions — and more reactions than arguments, I should have:
1. I’m not sure that saying ‘modernity is very hard to define’ and pointing out that you can’t say ‘behold, I have located the first modern XYZ’ evades the problem of modernity rather than reflects an evolution of thinking about it.
2. Yes, the sense that things have changed (usually for the worse) pervades European thinkers going back further than the 16th century.
3. I do think that there’s something really very different about the scope and pace of changes associated with this slippery things we call ‘modernity.’ It is one thing to say “hmm, things are different” and another, more or less, “holy shit, our world looks *nothing* like that of our grandparents and we’ve got to figure out the implications of these changes.”
PS: thanks for the nice words.
Can you clarify what you mean by the problem of modernity? I think of it as: the challenge of ascertaining and evaluating the modern condition as a whole, including its origins, its causes, its bugs and its features, its novelties and its continuities (among other things).
Not to butt into a conversation among my betters (betters who have confusingly both chosen rubber ducky logos), but I’d always understood the “problem of modernity” in political science to relate primarily to the question of relation and causation among the great “modernizing” processes that occurred (particularly in Europe) over the last thousand years, including democratization, the emergence of capitalism, industrialization, the scientific revolution and the emergence of nationalism, bureaucracy and national states.
Tilly attempts to solve the problem of causation by arguing that shifts in the political economy that allowed for capital accumulation caused a sea change in the way that organizations could accumulate and deploy coercive force. These shifts in the political economy made national states, particularly bureaucratized, democratic ones, better fit to compete in the game of concentrating coercive power and legitimacy.
It bears mention that the importance of Tilly’s theory among political scientists weighs heavily against the idea that the field of IR is not concerned with modernity. If the international system with which classical IR is so concerned only evolved from a specific political economy, then as the political economy moves toward post-modernism, the concerns of IR will have to change, as well. Already we have arguments that in a globalized economy, non-state actors should be included in IR calculus. Whether you agree that states have ever been preponderant actors or that globalization is eroding that position, the question of whether a particular political economy supports states as we know them is central to understanding what form IR should take as the landscape of political economy changes.
From Dan’s post:
“Tilly tackled each of these problems by adopting, in effect, an
understanding of the state as a relational configuration of various
transactional processes. He did so at both very abstract
levels—“coercion” and “capital”—but also in more concrete ways when
discussing the various relations—of negotiation, coercion, extraction,
and so forth—that produced, undermined, absorbed, destroyed, and
reconfigured political communities in Europe over the course of a
Absent, it seems to me, from the above-quoted passage is the recognition that negotiation, coercion, and extraction are not only “relations” or “transactional processes” but also actions or activities. I would venture to suggest turning the nouns into verbs — to negotiate, to coerce, to extract, to bargain are actions engaged in by agents/representatives of organizations or of groups. Tilly’s definition/description of “national states” in CC&ES uses the word “organizations”: “…relatively centralized, differentiated, and autonomous organizations successfully claiming priority in the use of force within large, contiguous, and clearly bounded territories….” (p.43) One can quibble with pieces of this definition (and frankly I don’t remember the rough time at which he says that the “national state” so defined finally becomes the dominant European form), but it seems fairly clear, at least to me, that this definition is “entity-focused” more than “relational”. I’ll stipulate that there is probably a “relational” undercurrent in the book, which I read quite a long time ago and a lot of whose details I don’t remember well, but I think it probably remains an undercurrent. And from my standpoint, that’s not really a bad thing. Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough.
“Absent, it seems to me, from the above-quoted passage is the recognition that negotiation, coercion, and extraction are not only ‘relations’ or ‘transactional processes’ but also actions or activities.”
Yes, that would be a lacunae if the word “process” did not mean “a series of actions” and was not a recognized synonym for “action.”
I’ll reiterate that CC&ES is best seen as transitional, although I’d be careful about positing a dichotomy between such concepts as “organizations” and “relations.” The issue is the underlying scientific ontology of entities, not their (non-)existence.
Point taken on the meaning of “process”; I guess sometimes even synonyms have different resonances for me, but that may well be just a quirky thing on my part.
I’ll think about the second point.