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Aug 10, 2018

Understanding the Modern State

The modern state is a contingent historical development, born in blood—not a permanent or inevitable feature of human society.

We have previously considered the defining characteristics of the modern state within the context of discussing the pre-modern political and social institutions today associated with feudalism. The state itself1 is relatively new to the scene of human affairs, having arisen at some point perhaps 6,000 years ago.2 Humankind as we know it today has existed for approximately 200,000 years, though, it should be noted, evidence more recently discovered suggests that human beings could be much older, even as old as 300,000 years. If we have contended with the state for a mere three one-hundredths of humanity’s life to date, then we have had the modern state for a period still shorter—vanishingly short, in fact. And yet few can imagine human society without it, for its centuries look longer than they really are next to one lifetime.

What, then, is the modern state? The modern state consolidated into one entity social, political and economic functions once located in several separate institutions; its story, as we shall see, is one of centralization, concentration, and absorption. Nothing like the sovereignty of the modern state had been contemplated by the social and political systems that formerly prevailed in Europe, in which three estates, each with its own powers and prerogatives, checked the power of princes. The Church, the nobility, and the peasantry all enjoyed certain more or less well-articulated traditional rights, many of these appearing to modern eyes to be the stuff of statehood. Modern European nation-states emerged from and replaced a fragmentary order in which numerous small and overlapping jurisdictions and foci of power coexisted and competed. Even to speak of Europe during the period is to elide important details that undermine the picture of the continent as in some way a unified, coherent political or cultural entity. Likewise, many of those places we now treat as distinct nations, thought to be well-defined by a shared history and culture, were actually quite internally diverse.

Libertarians, perhaps, are more careful than others to avoid the temptation of treating the modern nation-state, presumed to be the vehicle for a people’s political self-determination, as a positive good merely because it replaced a system of, for example, empires spanning multiple linguistically- and culturally-distinct nations, and of other such polities that appear to contemporary eyes undemocratic. Libertarians are right to be careful. As Tom Mertes writes in his article “Grass-Roots Globalism,” “The modern state—born as a counter-revolutionary, absolutist response to Renaissance humanism, boosted with the toxic ideology of an exclusionary, homogenizing nationalism—has always been a tool for repression, even when posing as the champion of anti-colonial liberation.” Similarly, the modern state was, for Kropotkin, the group of “barbarians” responsible for decelerating the rich civilization of the Mediaeval cities, for depriving the individual of his liberty and destroying “unions which formerly were based on free initiative and free agreement.”

In concentrating decision-making power, the state divests citizens and society of agency, of the very self-determination that the nation-state is thought to represent. This inequality of decision-making capacity both creates and sustains “wider patterns of inequality,”3 quite contrary to the idea that the modern state acts as a check on the economically powerful. Further challenging its reputation, the appearance of the modern state would seem to make the totalitarian socialism of the twentieth century a foregone conclusion, if we may indulge in such a fallacy. For once sovereignty of such an absolute and concentrated kind was conjured from the messy farrago of institutions previously jockeying for position, the obliteration of the individual seems inevitable. But neither the modern state in general nor its most depostic examples in particular were preordained.

Today, the world is blanketed by nation-states that imitate a distinct European model, one invented only relatively recently.4 In his Essay on the Modern State, Christopher W. Morris calls our attention to the history of the modern state—largely and unfortunately neglected, he argues, by Anglo-American political philosophers—and to the important fact that “our state system has not always existed.”5 Morris is concerned with distinguishing the modern state from other forms of governance, both those historical and those merely possible. And if total-state socialism was not really inevitable, always there, latent in the DNA of modern statehood, then neither was the modern state a necessary and unavoidable result of the conditions of the Middle Ages. Apart from the modern nation-state, the political form that ultimately triumphed, Charles Tilly identifies no less than five outcomes that arguably remained possible in the 1200s, among them, an only loosely-united empire or political federation; a theocratic commonwealth, bound by the Catholic church; a network of trading partners lacking centralized political power; or the continuation of feudal modes of governance.6

Indeed, we might think of the constitutional separation of powers as an attempt to recreate the highly fragmented political structures of pre-modern European societies. Economist Eric Chaney argues that this balance of power (the pre-modern separation of powers, as it were) between the crown, the great titled landholders, and the church created conditions ripe for “growth-enhancing institutional innovation.”7 Both the sheer number of European political bodies—and the competition arising therefrom—and the “sovereign-constraining institutions” of Medieval Europe prepared the ground for the growth of the modern age. How, then, did the modern state appear at just this moment?

European states, beginning with France and Spain, developed methods and apparatuses of warfare that catalyzed the emergence of the features we now associate with the modern state. The technologies of war (and really war itself) and the modern state are bound together in the historical record. Arguing that war-making and state-making are “our largest examples of organized crimes,” Tilly, hardly a radical libertarian, underscores the value of that analogy, especially by comparison to rival narratives (he identifies social contract theory; the idea of militaries and states as service providers, catering to demand in an open market; and the more abstract notion that society’s “shared norms and expectations” gave rise to the state as we now know it).8 Tilly argues that even if we reject the strong claim, widely accepted among libertarians, that the authority of the state “rests ‘only’ or ‘ultimately’ on the threat of violence,” we cannot attain a complete understanding of the growth and transformation of political forms without recognizing “the centrality of force.” Tilly’s work demonstrates, moreover, that we needn’t venture deep into the mists of long-gone millennia to uncover the truth of the state’s origins in war. Comparatively recent history, just the past few centuries, lays bare the decisive role of war-making—of massive-scale organized crime—in the creation of the state. Political power seems always to be recreating and reincarnating itself through war; the emergence of the modern-state (from the various extant pre-modern forms of political power) gives us a recent example of this process. Political power adapts to changing social and cultural realities, but ever does it remain fundamentally a creature of unjustified violence.

Even after the modern state emerges triumphant, it remained comparatively weak for a time, growing slowly stronger over the centuries through a process of ossification that brought “lukewarm loyalty up to the white heat of nationalism.”9 Just as the modern state arguably carried within it the germ of twentieth century totalitarianism, so too was the modern state as an idea inherently nationalistic. Finally, fortified by nationalism, the state becomes, in Hegel’s words, a “secular deity,” worthy of veneration. Max Stirner offers us an interpretation of this idea:

State! State! So ran the general cry…. The thought of the state passed into all hearts and awakened enthusiasm; to serve it, the mundane god, became the new divine service and worship. The properly political epoch had dawned. To serve the state or the nation became the highest ideal, the state’s interest the highest interest, state service (for which one does not by any means need to be an official) the highest honor.

Libertarians of all stripes have responded to the advent and growth of the modern state, its consolidated power, with attempts to nurture and keep a competing narrative, a narrative to compete with a recounting of history “that would rather forget about war and shower the sovereign in glory.”10 We insist that even in the modern state, in which it is supposed that all people are equal before the law, free, and possessed of certain rights, “law and political institutions were simply an encoding and crystallization of previous conquests and dominations.”11 The history of the modern state seems to vindicate libertarian worries about its exercises of force, in particular, the worry that they may be significantly more arbitrary than the state’s supporters would like to believe—indeed, that they are inherently criminal in a rather literal sense. Quite apart from the picture of the state as an artificial man installed to impartially serve law and order, the modern state was merely the strongest (and often the most unscrupulous) among the competing gangs sullying the lands of Europe at the time.

In its reduction of effective war-making to a science, in its gathering together of previously scattered powers to employ violence,12 the modern state distinguishes itself from other political forms; its centralization and monopolization of violence are revolutionary, fixing the origin of legitimate force in the state, an abstraction, a legal fiction, rather than in any number of armies loyal to any number of lords, who were, in a certain sense, private parties. Thus was the disarmament of the landed nobility necessary to secure the position of the modern state as the sole lawful perpetrator of violence, that is, to secure its monopoly. As the war-making apparatuses and the technologies of violence and control became more sophisticated, the state in its modern incarnation became possible. Complete control, of course, remained impossible even after the arrival of the modern state, as it still does, but its control has more closely approached completeness in the succeeding centuries. Today, so definite are the borders of the nation-state and so comprehensive is the available data on citizens that the dystopian nightmares of fiction, depicting total control of all aspects of life, are feasible, even (arguably) probable.

It is important to note here that the bureaucrat is in many ways also a unique, distinguishing feature of the modern state. In Partisans of Freedom, William O. Reichert writes of “the modern state with its omnipresent evils of power and coercive authority in the hands of a professional bureaucracy.” The modern state, through its bureaucrats, is particularly preoccupied with compiling data and leveraging them to perfect its control. Take the word “statistics,” derived from the German statistik (the “study of political facts and figures”), which was itself born of the New Latin statisticus (“of politics”) and ultimately from the Latin status (“state”). Statistics as we know it is a language of government—and so of supervision, control, and domination. In The Modern State, Christopher Pierson observes “the coincidence of the coming of the modern state with the rise of statistics (in origin, ‘state-istics’),” and statistics’ role in “managing, shaping, even creating” governed populations.

But if libertarian cynicism about the modern state is so well-supported in the literature and the historical record, why are our ideas so roundly rejected among scholars and the chattering classes? Because they constitute, in short, the retinue of the ruling class, the state’s secular priesthood, charged with rationalizing its behaviors. Power is alluring; to furnish its apologies and justifications is easier and, importantly, more remunerative than to criticize it. Further, as Ludwig von Mises observed, rare is the person who undertakes to study social problems “without being led to do so by the desire to see reforms enacted,” without, that is, something new in mind for the state to do. An extraordinary amount of energy and effort goes into developing this pretense: that the state is something other or, at the very least, more than organized crime. As a matter of fact, developing this pretense along the most convoluted, even ridiculous, lines seems to be the principal function of political philosophy—almost all of it from its start until this moment. This approach is a good way to get bad public policy. A more realistic approach might instead simply admit that the state is an entrenched criminal conspiracy, a tool of violence, and pivot to the question of what kinds of tasks we really want such a dangerous concentration of power to perform. Merely to begin with assumptions that acknowledge the historical and empirical record of the modern state would shake political philosophy at its foundations, as we’ve discussed elsewhere. Thus is a deeper understanding of that record indispensable to libertarians. We can’t hope to replace the modern state with something better, more conducive to human freedom, if we don’t know what it is.


  1. That is to say, the state in a general sense, not just in the particular form we will discuss here, the modern state.
  2. Robert Graham, Preface to Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas (Black Rose Books 2005, page xi.
  3. David J. Bailey, The Political Economy of European Social Democracy: A Critical Realist Approach (Routledge 2009), page 37.
  4. See, for example, Christopher W. Morris, An Essay on the Modern State (Cambridge University Press 1998).
  5. Id. at 3.
  6. Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making,” quoted in Morris, page 51.
  7. Eric Chaney, “Separation of Powers and the Medieval Roots of Institutional Divergence between Europe and the Islamic Middle East,” page 2.
  8. Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge University Press 1985), page 169.
  9. Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton University Press 1970).
  10. Saul Newman, “Research Methods and Problems: Postanarchism” in The Continuum Companion to Anarchism, edited by Ruth Kinna, page 44.
  11. Id.
  12. Asks Tilly, “What distinguished the violence produced by states from the violence delivered by anyone else? In the long run, enough to make the division between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ force credible…. Early in the state-making process, many parties shared the right to use violence, the practice of using it routinely to accomplish their ends, or both at once.” Tilly observes that for centuries, bandits (or pirates) and troops were very often one and the same, their practices of “commandeering, raping, looting, [and] taking prizes,” spilling from times of war into times of peace and back again. “A king’s best source of armed supporters was sometimes the world of outlaws.”

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