Friday, March 9, 2012

Forgetting Our Own History - The Messy Process of Modernization

I had the opportunity to do an interview with Robert Tollast on some issues with the transition in Iraq for Global Politics this week.  I'll let you know when he publishes it.  I found myself coming back again and again to the theme that our surprise with the way things went there owes more to a lack of understanding of our own western history of state formation than it does to some cultural peculiarity of Arabs.  To back that up, I offer an excerpt from my forthcoming book, War, Welfare, and Democracy: Rethinking America's Quest for the End of History, (Potomac, fall 2012).

The lofty discourse of philosophers and other intellectuals has too often ignored the sordid reality of state making.  Charles Tilly, the preeminent historian of state formation, has compared the process to the protection rackets of organized crime.  Local warlords provided protection for merchants and farmers in turn for rents, later taxes.  They vied with rivals, each seeking to expand their territory and their revenues.  Certain conditions, noted by anthropologist Robert Carneiro among others, brought people together and forced them into competition over resources, yielding the wars that produced the state:  competition drove the creation of militaries, internal security, bureaucracies and taxation mechanisms, and campaigns to create allegiance to the ruler and the nation.[1]  Over centuries, with no world public opinion to judge them as criminals, warlords became monarchs, created state governments, and cobbled together empires.  The process of Western state formation was morally dubious, but there was no international community to judge and intervene as there is today.  Only the strong survived, forcing competitive development of state capacity.  While the foibles of developing states today evoke exasperation, they should not be surprising when considered against the long road of European state development.