Many people with whom I talk think that the political system of the centralized State is with us since time immemorial; that this system is going to be with us forever, and we can’t do anything about it. They held such false notions because they haven’t looked into the human history, especially the history of the state. If they studied the political history then they would have known that the state is not with us since time immemorial. In fact, the state is with us only since last 500 years or so! Knowing its history also tells us that it is not going to be with us forever. Things always change, and this time it won’t be any different.
Military historian Martin van Creveld in his important book, The Rise and Decline of the State discusses the past, present and future of the state. In particular, he addresses the following questions: How the state arose in the middle of the seventeenth century? How it consolidated power? How it achieved its apotheosis and went berserk? and How it is in decline in present time? In this article I will briefly review Martin’s discussion of the rise and the consolidation of power by the state.
The Rise of the State
Before tackling the history of the rise of the state, it is important for us to define what state actually is. Martin defines the state as following:
The state, then, is an abstract entity which can be neither seen, nor heard, nor touched. This entity is not identical with either the rulers or the ruled; either President Clinton, nor citizen Smith, nor even an assembly of all the citizens acting in common can claim that they are the state. On the other hand, it includes them both and claims to stand over them both.
This is as much to say that the state, being separate from both its members and its rulers, is corporation, just as universities, trade unions, and churches inter alia are. Much like any corporation, it too has directors, employees, and shareholders. Above all, it is a corporation in the sense that it possesses a legal persona of its own, which means that it has rights and duties and may engage in various activities as if it were a real, flesh-and-blood, living individual,. The points where the state differs from other corporations are, first, the fact that it authorizes them all but is itself authorized (recognized) solely by the others of its kind; secondly, that certain functions (known collectively as the attributes of sovereignty) are reserved for it alone; and, thirdly, that it exercises those functions over a certain territory inside which its jurisdiction is both exclusive and all embracing.” (p. 1)
It is important to differentiate between government and the state because both are not same. There can be – and were – governments without any kind of centralized all powerful states of today’s time. We loosely use both terms interchangeably today, but in a strict technical sense they both are very different concepts. Even stateless societies are governed by its own people i.e., they are self governed. We can’t say that such societies are not being governed. People can self govern themselves or can be governed and ruled by the centralized state.
Now, before the State arose from the absolutist monarchies in the middle of the seventeenth century, there were many different political societies in place like tribes without rulers (the so-called stateless societies), tribes with chiefs (chiefdom), independent city-states, empires etc. In some societies, mainly in Western Europe, the state arose slowly defeating all these preceding societies. The Monarchs ruling the Western European countries defeated all other competing institutions like Church, nobility, empires and independent city-states – in between AD 1300 to 1648 – to build their absolutist monarchies. Once these absolutist monarchies were in place, the circumstances were ripe for the state to take over the control of the society from the hands of these monarchs. Martin sums up this whole process:
other things being equal, the more absolute any monarch the greater his dependence on impersonal bureaucratic, military, and legal mechanisms to transmit his will and impose it on society at large. In the end, those mechanisms showed themselves capable of functioning without him and were even destined to take power away from him. (p. 125)
Once these absolutist monarchs came in power, they faced a problem of ruling and administering their subjects from the center. Because they didn’t share their power with any other competing institutions, it was necessary for them to centrally administer their territories. No monarch can alone rule over its subject citizens for sure. For this reason they started forming different bureaus, which gave rise to dreaded bureaucracies with their dangerous careerist professional bureaucrats. Over a period of time, as these bureaucracies became institutionalize, these bureaucrats became so powerful and organized that they freed themselves from the control of their master monarchs and, instead, started ruling citizens in the name of the impersonal state. Here’s Martin again:
In the long run, this kind of bureaucratic expansion itself made it necessary for officials to operate according to fixed rules. The latter governed entry into the service, working hours, division of labor, career management, and the modus operandi in general. Party in order to break the control of the local nobility over appointments, partly under the influence of the chinoiserie that was fashionable at the time, Frederick II in, 1770 instituted a system of entrance examinations. His example was soon followed by Bavaria, which during he third quarter of the eighteenth century developed one of the world’s most advanced administration. In 1771 it was to became the first modern country to take a nationwide census, albeit the work was done in a rather desultory way and took ten years to complete. Thus officials begot paperwork, and paperwork begot officials.
The purpose of the various measures was to ensure uniformity, regularity, and reasonable standard of competence, and in this they were generally successful. On the other hand, every step taken toward professionalism also brought with it a reinforced esprit de corps. Already the introduction of entrance examinations meant that monarchs were no longer free to decide whom to take into their service; it was found that the more centralized any government the more indispensable the officials who ran it on the monarch’s behalf. This in turn translated into an ability to insist on their rights and enforce them even against his will, if necessary. Among the most important such rights were freedom from arbitrary dismissal, acceptable pay, a regular promotion ladder based, for the most part, on seniority, old-age pensions, and a certain dignity which they shared with the king…
By this time officials, who for centuries past had been the king’s men, were beginning to think of themselves as servants of an impersonal state…However, the more powerful and the more centralized the bureaucracy rulers needed in order to control their states, the more it tended to take that control out of the rulers’ hands and into its own. (pp. 136-142)
Because these bureaucracies required lots of information to function, they immediately started collecting data relating to state’s territories, number of citizens, citizens’ income, property etc. Many of these states started taking censuses. Many of these states established statistical offices for the first time (the word statistics, in fact, comes from the word state itself. Here is the origin of this word: “science dealing with facts of a state”: via German Statistik , from New Latin statisticus concerning state affairs, from Latin status state). And to what use these statistics were put to use? von Creveld again:
The most important use to which statistics were put – and which explain why, from the time of King David on, attempts to gather them often gave rise to a storm of protest – was taxation. (p. 147)
No wonder. And the same goes on today! Once centralizing powers in its own hands, the state also monopolized the use of violence via creation of centralized permanent military forces. Before the advent of state wars, kings and nobles use to fight their own battles with their own resources. But with the rise of the state the entire structure of war, which hitherto had been waged for personal reasons, was beginning to change in the direction of the impersonal state. It also centralized and monopolized the police force and the use of prisons for the state criminals.
During this time many political theorists also came to help the state consolidate and strengthen its powers. I won’t discuss these theorists here, but the important ones among them were, Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Fichte and Hegel. Here’s Martin again:
Between Hobbes and Locke, the theoretical structure of the modern state was substantially complete. Basing themselves on the separation between public rule and private authority – a distinction that had escaped both Erasmus and Machiavelli, and whose real founder in modern Europe had been Bodin – they set it up as an abstract entity separate from both ruler (the sovereign) and the ruled (civil society) but including them both. (p. 183)
As time went by, the state combined itself with rising nationalism in Europe and became ever so powerful God like entity, which we see it to be today.
Rising to the challenge, the state, embracing nationalism, deliberately sought to turn the situation to its own advantage and began to sing its own praises by every means at its disposal. Gone were the days when such things as national food, national costume, and national habits could be left to the care of mere patriotic societies; by means of its education system, to be discussed in greater detail in the next section, the state sought to harness not only them but also “culture” in the form of history, painting, sculpture, literature, drama and music. All these ceased to be either a matter for lone individuals or part of the common human enterprise. Instead they became compartmentalized into English, French, German, or Russian as the case might be; often coming under the auspices of some ministry of culture (which might or might not be the same as the ministry of education) they were subsidized and studied primarily as a means of glorifying the national heritage. (p. 201)
Once in power, the state not only wanted to rule over the bodies of its citizens, but also their minds. As Martin Creveld explained, the state’s transformation from an instrument into an ideal could never have taken place if it had not also reinforced its grip on society far beyond anything attempted by its early modern predecessor. To do that it monopolized the education and welfare system. Here is Martin again:
Even as its police forces were imposing acceptable standards of behavior on the people, the nineteenth-century state felt that the time had come to invade their mind as well. During most of the history, education had been left almost entirely to the family and to the established church…Proposals aimed at setting up a state-run education system may be found in the works of such seventeenth-century utopian writers as Valentine Andrea and Gerrard Winstanley, whom we already met as an advocate of a national information-gathering apparatus….Andrea wanted children of both sexes to be taken away from their parents at the age of six and raised in dormitories…Winstanley suggested that the ‘commonwealth’ assume responsibility for ensuring that no future citizen should be without the requisite moral and professional education needed for making a living, thought just how this was to be done he did not explain. As the eighteenth century progressed schemes of this kind multiplied. All wanted to see education taken out of the hands of the church; but while some were motivated by what we today would call patriotic and national considerations, others merely reflected the desire to provide the nascent bureaucracy with a steady stream of compliant penpushers.
The first ruler to take a practical interest in the education of his subjects was at large Prussia’s Frederick William I…
While Prussia dawdled, Bavaria acted…in 1802, the Council for Ecclesiastical Affairs was abolished and a Ministry of Education, the first of its kind in any country, founded. Besides making entry into the civil service conditional on the completion of high school, as in Prussia, the Bavarian authorities instituted compulsory schooling for all children, compliance to be secured by issuing a school-leaving certificate that would be required for permission to purchase real estate, practice a trade, or marry.
Whereas, except in Totalitarian countries, universities were for the most part given license to determine their own curriculum, the same was not true of secondary and, a fortiori, elementary schools. Consequently the instruction that they offered often became subject to the political demands of the moment; depending on how much states feared their citizens or trusted them, now practical subjects were emphasized, now more theoretical ones. (pp. 210-217)
As it was brainwashing the future citizens inside its public school classrooms (as it does today), the state also monopolized the function of ‘public welfare’. It destroyed all old support systems via force, and established itself as the sole source of support and welfare for the population. All these it did only to increase its power; it has nothing whatsoever to do with public welfare, as we all experience today.
And, for the state to monopolize all these functions, it required huge amount of resources. To acquire those resources the state also monopolized money. I let van Creveld speak:
The extension of the states’ control over society, which is the most prominent development of the years 1789-1945, could never have taken place had it not also acquired unprecedented financial means to back up its claims. Previously the people and institutions that ruled society, such as nobleman and the church, had often possessed their own independent sources of revenue in the form of land and the serfs who worked it…to make such payments possible the state not only had to raise more money than ever before but to redefine the very meaning of that commodity. Once it had done so the financial constraints that had often held previous polities in check fell away, and the state’s road toward war and conquest was opened. As best we know, the first coins were minted in Lydia during the seventh century BC, though the use of gold bars of a set weight was known in ancient Egypt and is much older…
In fact, the earliest coins seem to have been minted by private individuals, such as wealthy merchants, who used them for making payments among themselves. During sixth century BC, control drifted into the hands of the temples which, in these as well as other societies, acted as banks; only during the fifth century did city-states assert their own control. (pp. 224-225)
And the moment these rulers and states gained control of money supply, they started experimenting with paper currencies to finance, mostly, their wars. And, and this we all must keep in our mind, these all experiments failed spectacularly. Martin van Creveld again on these disastrous fiat paper currency experiments:
Apparently the first rulers who tried to produce paper money, i.e., a medium of payment that would not be dependent on precious metal and thus entirely under their own control, were some Chinese emperors between about AD 800 and 1300. The last of these attempts was made by the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-94). It became the subject of an enthusiastic description by Marco Polo who lived in China from 1275 to 1292.; like its predecessors, though, it was destined to end in monumental inflation as too large a supply caused the value of the currency to fall. Apparently influenced by the Chinese example, the shah of Iran tried to imitate it in 1294, issuing paper money known as ‘chao’ and imposing death penalty on those of his unfortunate subjects who refused to accept it. The experiment, which was limited to the city of Tabriz, was a complete disaster and had to be ended after just two months. (p. 226)
And, during those times, common wisdom held that, whereas merchants could be trusted with money, kings could not. Concentrating both economic and coercive power in their own hands, all too often they used it either to debase the coinage or to seize their subjects’ treasure.
The earliest modern attempts to create a paper currency, thus dissolving the link between money and bullion and theoretically putting unlimited sums at the disposal of the government, were made in Spain and Sweden. In Spain during the 1630s the duke of Olivares, desperately in need of money to pay for the country’s involvement in the Thirty Years war, confiscated consignments of silver arriving from overseas and compensated the merchants by means of juros or interest-bearing letters of credit. As might have been expected, their value depreciated rapidly. The result was financial chaos as well as the collapse of Spanish trade with the New World…Olivares’ failures did not prevent Sweden from imitating his example in 1661. Finding the treasury empty and the country exhausted by decades of war (1631-60), the government made a serious attempt to create a negotiable paper currency backed up not by gold and silver, which it did not have, but by copper. Again, however, overproduction resulted in inflation, causing the attempt to end in a failure that was as spectacular as it was rapid. (p. 227)
Not discouraged by these paper currency experiment failures, the state continues to experiment it on us even today e.g., since 1971, the whole world is on a fiat paper currency monetary standard, which now is ripe for a spectacular failure.
And, once it gained all the control of societal resources, the state started waging its bloody total wars, which we are witnessing since the beginning of the twentieth century.
This is the brief story of the rise of the state to total power. In present time the state is in decline everywhere after achieving its apotheosis in the twentieth century. The story of the decline of the state I will discuss in my future article. Suffice it to understand here that the state is an evil institution which is with us since last 500 years or so only. And, as my next article will show, it is not invincible; it is not going to be with us forever. It is already declining and in future it will become history.