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.  

It is important to briefly note here that the recent rash of insurgencies and warlordism can best be understood in this light.  Insurgency is aptly described “as a process of competitive state building.”[2]  The illusion of a singular insurgency in a given country often obscures the fact that different groups and warlords are fighting various local campaigns.  The local nature of power and the lack of a coherent statewide program on the part of either the insurgents or counterinsurgents indicate the length state-building has to go in these areas.  While the form of state-building in these places will be different than in the west, we should remember the long and ugly process today’s most advanced states went through before condemning the failures of our most troubled states.
The major turn in the development of the nation-state came in the eighteenth century.  Until that point, kings used feudal lords or mercenaries to wage war, funding them with feudal levies, tax farming, or loans from key banking families, such as the Medici.  In the eighteenth century, states began to levy mass armies from their own populations.  Rulers and their newly created administrations took responsibility for levying and controlling the military and the mechanisms of revenue production and taxation in this period.[3]  Once the citizen was recognized as part of a nation, an integral part of the process of war-making and state-making, the state began to take on many more functions.   
It is at this stage that the modern state really began to emerge and where today’s developed and developing world diverge.  The state has increased in industrial and economic sophistication.  It increased its claims on its citizens both in terms of taxation and manning factories and military formations.  This great transformation bound society, economy, and politics ever more tightly, creating irreversible changes in the fabric of life.  Prior to this transformation, the state was the tool the rulers used to extract profits from society and economy.  We see the same behavior in many developing states that have not yet made this transition.  The most developed states are increasingly beholden to the society, with the government responsible for providing services, caring for the welfare of citizens, and redistributing its income to particular sectors of society.  The logic of the state has been turned on its head in the development we call “modernization.”[4]
While state and economy were significantly affected by the Industrial Revolution, the changes had the most resounding effects on society.  The draw of industrial centers began to tear people from the villages and fields that had defined them since time immemorial to fill factories and march in army ranks far from their ancestral home. Industrialization and capitalists’ need for mobile labor broke up the controls that kept sedentary populations of peasant farmers rooted in place.  Feudalism was supplanted by industrial capitalism with its working class and labor market.[5]  Up to this point, the economy was not a distinct thing for most people.  It was embedded in feudal life and subsistence farming.  The transition to a modern industrial economy “dis-embedded” the economy from society, giving the market a newfound power over people’s lives.  They uprooted themselves from their age-old surroundings and offered their labor as a mobile commodity, transforming society from a traditional collective to an “atomistic and individualistic” order, in the words of the famous economist Karl Polanyi.[6]  This striking change worked with concepts of individual freedom championed by the Catholic Church[7] (in part to weaken traditional control of land and money to their advantage) to fundamentally transform society in advance of political reforms. 
This process of modernization is still playing out across the world today as old markers of identity – religion, family, tribe, race – are replaced by an allegiance to a national political will.[8]  It is a messy and destabilizing process, especially when weak rulers manipulate and re-invent these identities to divide and control populations and to provide outlets for discontent.  This very disruptive groundwork is today taken for granted by the societies of most leading democratic states.  Similar changes have not fully reached many of the world’s societies today, however.  The results are wide differences in how we perceive and understand freedom, decision-making, and group versus individual will and interest. 
In the west, the course of modernization and the process of state building described by Tilly gave citizens a greater voice in government over time.  As the state increased demands on citizens in the form of taxation, military service, and economic mobilization, it ultimately had to accept their voice in deciding policy.  Increased military and economic competition and the broadened role of the citizen resulted in a wide range of other state activities, from education and infrastructure development, to social security and the welfare state.[9]  At the same time, foreign policy and warfare transformed from an affair between monarchs and their feudal or mercenary levies to contests between entire populations.[10]  With this development, wrote Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, “war, untrammeled by any conventional restraints, had broken loose in all its elemental fury.”[11]  These changes came incrementally over the course of a century.  All this time, the social, political, and economic changes built pressure under the domestic and international systems of the old world order, the ancien régime.  This pressure exploded in the cataclysmic world wars of the twentieth century.

[1] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1992, (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), 28. Robert Carneiro, “A Theory of the Origin of the State,” Science 169, (August 1970):  733-738. Tilly’s work builds on Frederic C. Lane, “Economic Consequences of Organized Violence,” The Journal of Economic History 18, no. 4 (December 1958): 401-417, and “The Role of Governments in Economic Growth in Early Modern Times,” The Journal of Economic History 35, no. 1, (March 1975): 8-17.  See also Barry R. Posen, “Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power,” International Security 18, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 81-85. Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), especially 3-80.
[2] Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), 218.
[3] Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, 28-29.  See also Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169-191.
[4] This term is problematic in that it implies that all else is antiquated, hence the quotes.  This term in itself demonstrates the dominance of teleological conceptions of history, but I can think of no more appropriate term, so I will use the imperfect label without quotes from here on.
[5] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957 (1944)), 78-80, 83.
[6] Polanyi, Great Transformation, 71, 163.
[7] Fukuyama argues that “social development preceded political development in Europe,” that this was driven by the Church in its prohibitions on close family marriage, adoption, marriage to widows of relatives, and divorce, and that the logic behind these strictures was for the material interests of the church.  By weakening the hold of the family on wealth, the church was more likely to benefit from endowments.  Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, 227-241.
[8] Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), 34-35, 37. See also Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, (New York: Vintage, 1987), 148-155 and Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 56ff, 71-72, 84.
[9] Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, 53, 172-176, 181-184.
[10] The limited means at the hands of monarchs limited the ends they sought.  When means expanded, so did warfare.  On this, see Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 586-593 and Hans Delbruck, History of the Art of War, Vol IV: The Dawn of Modern Warfare, trans. by Walter J. Renfroe, Jr. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 108-109, 294-298, 396ff, 442. Barry R. Posen, “Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power,” International Security, 18, no. 2, (Fall 1993): 81-85. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 7th ed., revised by Kenneth W. Thompson and W. David Clinton, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2006), 116.
[11]  Clausewitz, On War, 593.


  1. Great post. The most common complaint I'd get from Indian relatives when I might complain about Indian governance was, "what were you like fifty years after your independence?" Meaning, "sure we have a long way to go. We KNOW that."

    Really excellent. Blogger Pundita makes an interesting point regarding the post-independence governance of India versus Pakistan which is that in Pakistan governance remained frozen in a kind of "American raj" because we took over the British role, in a manner of speaking. Especially if you include the World Bank and the like. What we viewed as development, they viewed as tribute. I believe the retired Indian general who posts at SWJ has made similar comments.

    I guess what I never get is how the foreign policy world constantly talks in abstractions when the world is specific. Granular. Particular. Detailed. You know?

    - Madhu

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