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Origins of the European state system

Reading Charles Tilly’s classic Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1992 (1992). Taking notes on it for myself, but also for any interested readers. It’s an influential account of how and why Western and ultimately global civilization took the political form it had achieved by the late twentieth century.

The book is structured in part around the dualism or dialectic between cities and states, or, more exactly, “capital” and “coercion.” (But also, more memorably, the importance of war as a factor in state formation.) As Tilly says,

Over the eight or ten millennia since the couple first appeared, cities and states have oscillated between love and hate. Armed conquerors have often razed cities and slaughtered their inhabitants, only to raise new capitals in their place. City people have bolstered their independence and railed against royal interference in urban affairs, only to seek their king’s protection against bandits, pirates, and rival groups of merchants. Over the long run and at a distance, cities and states have proved indispensable to each other.

Why did national states and national armies eventually win out in Europe over other forms of state organization, such as regional empires, city-states, and federations of cities? “Surely part of the answer lies in the dialectic of cities and states that developed within a few hundred years after 990… Behind the changing geography of cities and states operated the dynamics of capital (whose preferred sphere was cities) and of coercion (which crystallized especially in states). Inquiries into the interplay between cities and states rapidly become investigations of capital and coercion.”

“…Only late and slowly did the national state become the predominant form. Hence the critical 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? Why were the directions of change so similar and the paths so different? This book aims to clarify that problem, if not to resolve it entirely.”

After summarizing the perspectives of other theorists, Tilly gives a useful general statement of his argument:

This book takes up the problem where Barrington Moore, Stein Rokkan, and Lewis Mumford left it: at the point of recognizing decisive variations in the paths of change followed by states in different parts of Europe during successive epochs, with the realization that the class coalitions prevailing in a region at a given point in time strongly limited the possibilities of action open to any ruler or would-be ruler, and with the specific hypothesis that regions of early urban dominance, with their active capitalists, produced very different kinds of states from regions in which great landlords and their estates dominated the landscape. It goes beyond Moore, Rokkan, and Mumford most emphatically in two ways: first by placing the organization of coercion and preparation for war squarely in the middle of the analysis, arguing in its rasher moments that state structure appeared chiefly as a by-product of rulers’ efforts to acquire the means of war; and second by insisting that relations among states, especially through war and preparation for war, strongly affected the entire process of state formation. Thus in this book I derive alternative histories of state formation from continuously-varying combinations of concentrated capital, concentrated coercion, preparation for war, and position within the international system.

There follows a more detailed and lengthy statement, which I might as well quote here too:

Men who controlled concentrated means of coercion (armies, navies, police forces, weapons, and their equivalent) ordinarily tried to use them to extend the range of population and resources over which they wielded power. When they encountered no one with comparable control of coercion, they conquered; when they met rivals, they made war.
Some conquerors managed to exert stable control over the populations in substantial territories, and to gain routine access to part of the goods and services produced in the territory; they became rulers.
Every form of rule faced significant limits to its range of effectiveness within a particular kind of environment. Efforts to exceed that range produced defeats or fragmentation of control, with the result that most rulers settled for a combination of conquest, protection against powerful rivals, and coexistence with cooperative neighbors.
The most powerful rulers in any particular region set the terms of war for all; smaller rulers faced a choice between accommodating themselves to the demands of powerful neighbors and putting exceptional efforts into preparations for war.
War and preparation for war involved rulers in extracting the means of war from others who held the essential resources—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 structures of states.
The organization of major social classes within a state’s territory, and their relations 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). The demands major classes made on the state, and their influence over the state, varied correspondingly.
The relative success of different extractive strategies, and the strategies rulers actually applied, therefore varied significantly from coercion-intensive to capital-intensive regions.
As a consequence, the organizational forms of states followed distinctly different trajectories in these different parts of Europe.
Which sort of state prevailed in a given era and part of Europe varied greatly. Only late in the millennium did national states exercise clear superiority over city-states, empires, and other common European forms of state.
Nevertheless, the increasing scale of war 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 economies won out. They set the terms of war, and their form of state became the predominant one in Europe. Eventually European states converged on that form: the national state.

In another publication Tilly makes the point that states are little more than protection rackets, like the Mafia. Rulers or would-be rulers come in and say, “Submit to my rule, give me tribute (or taxes or periodic forced labor or something), and I’ll protect you from bandits and other people or armies like me. If you don’t submit, I’ll punish you or kill you.” Historically, the central activity of states has been war or preparation for war. Which, in a sense, includes “war” against their own population. Even today, the coercive apparatus of the state is overwhelming, however much states have acquired other functions like administering social welfare programs and public goods such as education.

Another “theoretical” statement:

The story concerns capital and coercion. It recounts the ways that wielders of coercion, who played the major part in the creation of national states, drew for their own purposes on manipulators of capital, whose activities generated cities… Although states strongly reflect the organization of coercion, they actually show the effects of capital as well; as the rest of this book will demonstrate, various combinations of capital and coercion produced very different kinds of states. Again, cities respond especially to changes in capital, but the organization of coercion affects their character as well; Lewis Mumford’s “baroque city” lived on capital like its cousins, but showed a clearer imprint of princely power—in palaces, parade grounds, and barracks—than they did. Over time, furthermore, the place of capital in the form of states grew ever larger, while the influence of coercion (in the guise of policing and state intervention) expanded as well.

Capital defines the realm of exploitation (relations of production and exchange produce surpluses that capitalists capture), while coercion defines the realm of domination. “The processes that accumulate and concentrate capital also produce cities,” where trade, warehousing, banking, and in some respects production go on. Coercion has to do with armed force, incarceration, expropriation, and so on. “Europe created two major overlapping groups of specialists in coercion: soldiers and great landlords; where they merged and received ratification from states in the form of titles and privileges they crystallized into nobilities, who in turn supplied the principal European rulers for many centuries.” Coercion and capital can certainly merge, but, on the whole, they’re sufficiently distinct that they can be analyzed separately.

“Efforts to subordinate neighbors and fight off more distant rivals create state structures in the form not only of armies but also of civilian staffs that gather the means to sustain armies and that organize the ruler’s day-to-day control over the rest of the civilian population.” Of course, as a state builds up its extractive and administrative infrastructure, different groups acquire power and interests of their own, and they may limit the character and intensity of warfare the state can carry on. Over time, rulers have to bargain with their subjects to get the resources they need for war-making and control of the subject population, and the latter can thus acquire greater rights and powers. This process grew more pronounced especially after the long centuries of “indirect rule,” in which states (empires, city-states with sway over large hinterlands, etc.) generally had to rely on cooperation from and bargaining with local authorities who paid tribute to the “state.” It wasn’t until the era of the French Revolution that most European states really began to institute direct rule from top to bottom, a type of rule that necessitated much greater financing and larger administrative apparatuses.

“The transition to direct rule gave rulers access to citizens and the resources they controlled through household taxation, mass conscription, censuses, police systems, and many other invasions of small-scale social life. But it did so at the cost of widespread resistance, extensive bargaining, and the creation of rights and perquisites for citizens [such as the beginnings of representative democracy]. Both the penetration and the bargaining laid down new state structures, inflating the government’s budgets, personnel, and organizational diagrams. The omnivorous state of our own time took shape.”

The book is dense with empirical detail that isn’t easy to summarize, but now and then there are points of general interest. Here’s an interesting paragraph, for example, even more interesting if you know how important the French intendants were to the rise of absolutism and a relatively centralized state structure:

No one designed the principal components of national states—treasuries, courts, central administrations, and so on. They usually formed as more or less inadvertent by-products of efforts to carry out more immediate tasks, especially the creation and support of armed force. When the French crown, greatly expanding its involvement in European wars during the 1630s, stretched its credit to the point of bankruptcy, the local authorities and officeholders on whom the king’s ministers ordinarily relied for the collection of revenues ceased cooperating. At that point chief minister Richelieu, in desperation, began sending out his own agents to coerce or bypass local authorities. Those emissaries were the royal intendants, who became the mainstays of state authority in French regions under Colbert and Louis XIV. Only in faulty retrospect do we imagine the intendants as deliberately designed instruments of Absolutism.

Most far-reaching innovations like this emerged as ad hoc means to achieve immediate goals. Meanwhile, through all these processes of extracting resources from populations, a society’s class structure significantly affected the state’s organization, “and variations in class structure from one part of Europe to another produced systematic geographic differences in the character of states. Not only the ruling classes, but all classes whose resources and activities affected preparation for war, left their imprint on European states.”

Different paths to state formation

Tilly argues that there were, broadly speaking, three major paths to state formation: coercion-intensive, capital-intensive, and capitalized coercion. The differences resulted from rulers having to adapt to very different environments and class structures. Here’s another long quotation from the first chapter:

In the coercion-intensive mode, rulers squeezed the means of war from their own populations and others they conquered, building massive structures of extraction in the process. Brandenburg and Russia—especially in their phases as tribute-taking empires—illustrate the coercion-intensive mode. At the very extreme of the mode, however, armed landlords wielded so much power that no one of them could establish durable control over the rest; for several centuries, the Polish and Hungarian nobilities actually elected their own kings, and struck them down when they strove too hard for supreme power.
In the capital-intensive mode, rulers relied on compacts with capitalists—whose interests they served with care—to rent or purchase military force, and thereby warred without building vast permanent state structures. City-states, city-empires, urban federations, and other forms of fragmented sovereignty commonly fall into this path of change. Genoa, Dubrovnik, the Dutch Republic, and, for a time, Catalonia, exemplify the capital-intensive mode. As the history of the Dutch Republic illustrates, at the extreme this mode produced federations of largely autonomous city-states, and constant negotiation among them over state policy.
In the intermediate capitalized coercion mode, rulers did some of each, but spent more of their effort than did their capital-intensive neighbors on incorporating capitalists and sources of capital directly into the structures of their states. Holders of capital and coercion interacted on terms of relative equality. France and England eventually followed the capitalized coercion mode, which produced full-fledged national states earlier than the coercion-intensive and capital-intensive modes did.
Driven by the pressures of international competition (especially by war and preparation for war) all three paths eventually converged on concentrations of capital and of coercion out of all proportion to those that prevailed in AD 990. From the seventeenth century onward the capitalized coercion form proved more effective in war, and therefore provided a compelling model for states that had originated in other combinations of coercion and capital. From the nineteenth century to the recent past, furthermore, all European states involved themselves much more heavily than before in building social infrastructure, in providing services, in regulating economic activity, in controlling population movements, and in assuring citizens’ welfare; all these activities began as byproducts of rulers’ efforts to acquire revenues and compliance from their subject populations, but took on lives and rationales of their own…

I’m starting to think my “summary” of the book will consist almost entirely of lengthy excerpts. I doubt these will be of much interest to anyone.

Over Europe as a whole, alterations in state control of capital and of coercion between AD 900 and the present have followed two parallel arcs. At first, during the age of patrimonialism, European monarchs generally extracted what capital they needed as tribute or rent from lands and populations that lay under their immediate control—often within stringent contractual limits on the amounts they could demand. In the time of brokerage (especially between 1400 and 1700 or so), they relied heavily on formally independent capitalists for loans, for management of revenue-producing enterprises, and for collection of taxes. By the eighteenth century, however, the time of nationalization had come; many sovereigns were incorporating the fiscal apparatus directly into the state structure, and drastically curtailing the involvement of independent contractors. The last century or so, the age of specialization, has brought a sharper separation of fiscal from military organization and an increasing involvement of states in the oversight of fixed capital.
On the side of coercion, a similar evolution took place. During the period of patrimonialism, monarchs drew armed force from retainers, vassals, and militias who owed them personal service—but again within significant contractual limits. In the age of brokerage (again especially between 1400 and 1700) they turned increasingly to mercenary forces supplied to them by contractors who retained considerable freedom of action. Next, during nationalization, sovereigns absorbed armies and navies directly into the state's administrative structure, eventually turning away from foreign mercenaries and hiring or conscripting the bulk of their troops from their own citizenries. Since the mid-nineteenth century, in a phase of specialization, European states have consolidated the system of citizen militaries backed by large civilian bureaucracies, and split off police forces specialized in the use of coercion outside of war.
By the nineteenth century, most European states had internalized both armed forces and fiscal mechanisms; they thus reduced the governmental roles of tax farmers, military contractors, and other independent middlemen. Their rulers then continued to bargain with capitalists and other classes for credit, revenues, manpower, and the necessities of war. Bargaining, in its turn, created numerous new claims on the state: pensions, payments to the poor, public education, city planning, and much more. In the process, states changed from magnified war machines into multiple-purpose organizations. Their efforts to control coercion and capital continued, but in the company of a wide variety of regulatory, compensatory, distributive, and protective activities.

I’m not summarizing all the empirical details of the book, since I think the book’s main interest is in its general theses. At the end of the second chapter Tilly states several of these, in fact partially answering the big question he started with (italicized near the beginning of this blog post). He’s been describing the great variations over the millennium in states’ access to capital, their proximity to important cities, etc. So then he says, “There are three answers [to the question about the great variation of European states over the last millennium and their eventual convergence on the national state]: the relative availability of concentrated capital and concentrated means of coercion in different regions and periods significantly affected the organizational consequences of making war; until recently only those states survived that held their own in war with other states; and finally, over the long run the changing character of war gave the military advantage to states that could draw large, durable military forces from their own populations, which were increasingly national states.” So, much of it comes down to the imperatives of war, and the socioeconomic environments in which states had to make war. Needless to say, this analysis is rather simplified.

He also gives broad answers to some smaller questions. For example:

Why, despite obvious interests to the contrary, did rulers frequently accept the establishment of institutions representing the major classes within their jurisdictions? In fact, rulers attempted to avoid the establishment of institutions representing groups outside their own class, and sometimes succeeded for considerable periods. In the long term, however, those institutions were the price and outcome of bargaining with different members of the subject population for the wherewithal of state activity, especially the means of war. Kings of England did not want a Parliament to form and assume ever-greater power; they conceded to barons [like with the Magna Carta of 1215], and then to clergy, gentry, and bourgeois, in the course of persuading them to raise the money for warfare.

Incidentally, this trend continued into the twentieth century. As the research of Göran Therborn, for instance, has shown, the culminating, universal expansions of the franchise in most Western countries were achieved in the twentieth century in the context of the First and Second World Wars. Admittedly, it wasn’t only because of nations’ need to finance the wars; it was also because of the sheer scale of mass mobilization, and the unleashing of popular democratic energies (especially during and after World War II).

A couple more questions and answers:

Why did city-states, city-empires, federations, and religious organizations lose their importance as prevailing kinds of state in Europe? Two things happened. First, commercialization and capital accumulation in the larger states reduced the advantage enjoyed by small mercantile states [like in Italy], which had previously been able to borrow extensively, tax efficiently, and rely on their own seapower to hold off large landbound states. Second, war eventually changed in a direction that made their small scale and fragmented sovereignty a clear disadvantage, and they lost to large states. Florentine and Milanese republics crumbled under the weight of the fifteenth and sixteenth century’s military requirements…
Why did war shift from conquest for tribute and struggle among armed tribute-takers to sustained battles among massed armies and navies? For essentially the same reasons: with the organizational and technical innovations in warfare of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, states with access to large numbers of men and volumes of capital gained a clear advantage, and either drove back the tribute-takers or forced them into patterns of extraction that built a more durable state structure. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Russian state made the transition as Ivan III and Ivan IV used awards of land to tie bureaucrats and soldiers to long-term service of the state. During the eighteenth century, the ability of populous states such as Great Britain and France to draw mass armies from their own citizens gave them the means to overpower small states.

How war made states, and vice versa

In the third chapter he gets into more detail about the subject of war and state formation. Since the seventeenth century, European states began to disarm their populations, including rival powerholders like great landowners. Disarmament took place in many small steps, such as seizures of weapons at the end of rebellions, prohibitions of duels, introduction of licensing for private arms, and so on. “In England, the Tudors suppressed private armies, reduced the princely power of great lords along the Scottish border, contained aristocratic violence, and eliminated the fortress-castles that once announced the power and autonomy of the great English magnates. Louis XIII, the seventeenth-century monarch who with the aid of Richelieu and Mazarin rebuilt the armed force of the French state, probably tore down more fortresses than he constructed. But he built at the frontiers, and destroyed in the interior. In subduing magnates and cities that resisted his rule, he commonly demolished their fortifications, reduced their rights to bear arms, and thereby decreased the odds of any serious future rebellion.”

In urban areas, the installation of routine policing played a part in civilian disarmament, while in regions dominated by powerful landlords it was necessary to dismantle private armies and eliminate walled and moated castles. Rulers’ simultaneous creation of armed force generated durable state structures not only by making armies significant organizations within the state but also by bringing forth treasuries, supply services, mechanisms for conscriptions, tax bureaus, etc. In the late seventeenth century, for instance, England’s governments built royal shipyards into the country’s largest concentrated industry. (One of the innumerable examples in recent centuries of governments, not “the free market,” being responsible for industrial development.)

Over the last millennium, war has been the dominant activity of European states. Even state finances reflect that fact. “From the late seventeenth century onward, budgets, debts, and taxes arose to the rhythm of war.” In France, borrowing for eighteenth-century wars overwhelmed the state, ruined its credit, and led to the calling of the Estates-General in 1789 that began the French Revolution. Britain, too, acquired huge state debts, which signified the expansion of bureaucratic state capacity largely under the impetus of war. (Of course, this tendency continued into the twentieth century, as the two world wars, for example—especially the second—stimulated gigantic growth of governments. In the U.S., the New Deal had already enormously expanded state capacity, but the war increased the federal budget tenfold and was fantastic for economic growth. War is great business! And it has been for well over five hundred years, since the long era of mercenary forces crisscrossing Europe.[1])

In fact, major war efforts usually produced a permanent expansion of the state apparatus. “When Holland and Spain reached a truce in their draining war over Dutch claims to independence in 1609, many observers on both sides expected relief from the extraordinary taxation that had beset them during the previous decade. As it turned out, debt service, building of fortifications, and other state activities easily absorbed the revenues freed by military demobilization. Taxes did not decline significantly in either country.”

The struggle for maritime empire also helped shape different kinds of states, though not as much as land warfare.

The connection between state and empire ran in both directions: the character of the European state governed the form of its expansion outside of Europe, and the nature of the empire significantly affected the metropole’s operation. Capital-intensive states such as Venice and the Dutch Republic reached out chiefly by the ruthless pursuit of trading monopolies, but invested little effort in military conquest and colonization. Coercion-intensive states such as the Norse and the Spanish devoted more of their energy to settlement, enslavement of the indigenous (or imported) labor force, and exaction of tribute. The in-between states, such as Britain and France, entered the imperial game relatively late, and excelled at it by combining the capitalist and coercive strategies.
The capitalist strategy added relatively little bulk to the central state, especially when conducted through essentially private organizations such as the Dutch East India Company. These commercial megaliths, however, became political forces to be contended with in their own right; thus privatization pushed the state toward bargaining with its subject population, or at least with the dominant commercial class. The strategy of conquest and settlement, which inevitably called forth durable armies and navies, added to the central state bureaucracy, not to mention the world-wide web of officialdom it called into being. Where it brought in riches—especially in the form of bullion, as in Spain—conquest created an alternative to domestic taxation, and thereby shielded rulers from some of the bargaining that established citizens’ rights and set limits on state prerogatives elsewhere. [So that’s one reason Spain, for example, remained relatively politically backward in the following centuries.]

It seems to me that Tilly’s distinction between capital and coercion bears on the old debates about the nature of “Oriental despotism,” states like Russia, China, ancient Egypt, and the like. As he says, “We might imagine a continuum from an imperial Russia in which a cumbersome state apparatus grew up to wrest military men and resources from a huge but uncommercialized economy to a Dutch Republic which relied heavily on navies, ran its military forces on temporary grants from its city-dominated provinces, easily drew taxes from customs and excise, and never created a substantial central bureaucracy.” Many of these “Oriental” states throughout history were coercion-intensive because of their largely uncommercialized economies, and they needed cumbersome political structures to extract taxes and other resources from a peasant social base that didn’t have a widespread money economy.

Bargaining and direct rule

As stated earlier, all the (very brutal) processes of state formation over many centuries[2] necessitated that rulers engage continually in various forms of “bargaining” with their subjects, which over time gave the latter durable rights but also imposed obligations on them. “The core of what we now call ‘citizenship,’ indeed, consists of multiple bargains hammered out by rulers and ruled in the course of their struggles over the means of state action, especially the making of war.” Through these processes of “struggle, negotiation, and sustained interaction with the holders of essential resources,” states came to reflect the class structures of their subject populations.

“Bargaining” could itself be brutal, as when rulers sent in troops to crush a tax rebellion or a capture a reluctant taxpayer, but it also took more peaceful forms: “pleading with parliaments, buying off city officials with tax exemptions, confirming guild privileges in return for loans or fees, regularizing the assessment and collection of taxes against the guarantee of their more willing payment, and so on.” Means were set up by which citizens could seek redress, such as through petition and representation in local assemblies. Later, in the last couple of centuries, workers, bourgeois, and others took advantage of these means to press for more expanded rights such as direct representation. Eventually states responded to the population’s demands by creating programs like social insurance, public education, veterans’ pensions, and housing, which cumulatively changed the character of government so that it became even more bureaucratic and civilian.

It’s probably superfluous to note, by the way, that “bargaining” goes on up to the present and never stops. The state always has to try to keep its citizenry—its main enemy, to quote Chomsky—sufficiently pacified so that they won’t rebel en masse. Both repression and more constructive kinds of bargaining are essential to this. In recent decades, the state has fused especially closely with the most exploitative and predatory sectors of the ruling class, so the constructive forms of bargaining have tended to wither. Which explains rising mass discontent, and in fact the slow-moving collapse of society itself.

Anyway, for most of the last millennium, microstates like city-states and petty principalities ruled in a relatively direct way, but larger states didn’t. They had to deal with powerful intermediaries (clergy, landlords, urban oligarchies, independent warriors) who had a lot of autonomy and could hinder state demands that weren’t in their own interest. This reliance on indirect rule began to change in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as “the nationalization of military power” (shifting from the hiring of mercenaries to the recruitment of soldiers from their own populations) occurred, to deal with the increasing scale of war and for other reasons. Having to work through intermediaries had never been ideal: it set serious limits on the quantity of resources rulers could extract from the economy. By the eighteenth century, “as war demanded greater resources, emphatically including manpower, and as the threat of conquest by the largest states grew more serious, ever more rulers bypassed, suppressed, or co-opted old intermediaries and reached directly into communities and households to seize the wherewithal of war. Thus national standing armies, national states, and direct rule caused each other.”

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire greatly accelerated the shift to direct rule, both because other states emulated the French model of centralized government and because France imposed that model wherever it conquered. Tilly’s discussion of the Revolution is very good, if necessarily simplified, and worth quoting at obnoxious length (among other reasons because it gives the lie to revisionist historians who have resisted the traditional Marxist description of the event as a “bourgeois revolution”):

The lawyers, officials, and other bourgeois who seized the state apparatus in 1789-90 rapidly displaced the old intermediaries: landlords, seigneurial officials, venal officeholders, clergy, and sometimes municipal oligarchies as well. “[l]t was not a rural class of English-style gentlemen,” declares Lynn Hunt, “who gained political prominence on either the national or the regional level, but rather thousands of city professionals who seized the opportunity to develop political careers.” At a local level, the so-called Municipal Revolution widely transferred power to enemies of the old rulers; patriot coalitions based in militias, clubs, and revolutionary committees and linked to Parisian activists ousted the old municipalities. Even where the old powerholders managed to survive the Revolution’s early turmoil, relations between each locality and the national capital altered abruptly. Village “republics” of the Alps, for example, found their ancient liberties—including ostensibly free consent to taxes—crumbling as outsiders clamped them into the new administrative machine. Then Parisian revolutionaries faced the problem of governing without intermediaries; they experimented with the committees and militias that had appeared in the mobilization of 1789, but found them hard to control from the center. More or less simultaneously they recast the French map into a nested system of departments, districts, cantons, and communes, while sending out représentants en mission to forward revolutionary reorganization. They installed direct rule.
…By and large, the Federalist movement, with its protests against Jacobin centralism and its demands for regional autonomy, took root in cities whose commercial positions greatly outpaced their rank [in the new administrative system]. In dealing with these alternative obstacles to direct rule, Parisian revolutionaries improvised three parallel, and sometimes conflicting, systems of rule: the committees and militias; a geographically-defined hierarchy of elected officials and representatives; and roving commissioners from the central government. To collect information and gain support, all three relied extensively on the existing personal networks of lawyers, professionals, and merchants.
As the system began to work, revolutionary leaders strove to routinize their control and contain independent action by local enthusiasts, who often resisted. Using both co-optation and repression, they gradually squeezed out the committees and militias. Mobilization for war put great pressure on the system, incited new resistance, and increased the national leaders’ incentives for a tight system of control. Starting in 1792, the central administration (which until then had continued in a form greatly resembling that of the Old Regime) underwent its own revolution: the staff expanded enormously, and a genuine hierarchical bureaucracy took shape. In the process, revolutionaries installed one of the first systems of direct rule ever to take shape in a large state.
That shift entailed changes in systems of taxation, justice, public works, and much more. Consider policing. Outside of the Paris region, France’s Old Regime state had almost no specialized police of its own… The revolutionaries changed things. With respect to ordinary people, they moved from reactive to proactive policing and information-gathering: instead of simply waiting until a rebellion or collective violation of the law occurred, and then retaliating ferociously but selectively, they began to station agents whose job was to anticipate and prevent threatening popular collective action. During the Revolution’s early years, Old Regime police forces generally dissolved as popular committees, national guards, and revolutionary tribunals took over their day-to-day activities. But with the Directory [1795-99] the state concentrated surveillance and apprehension in a single centralized organization…
Resistance and counter-revolutionary action followed directly from the process by which the new state established direct rule. Remember how much change the revolutionaries introduced in a very short time. They eliminated all previous territorial jurisdictions, consolidated many old parishes into larger communes, abolished the tithe and feudal dues, dissolved corporations and their privileges, constructed a top-to-bottom administrative and electoral system, imposed expanded and standardized taxes through that system, seized the properties of emigrant nobles and of the church, disbanded monastic orders, subjected clergy to the state and imposed upon them an oath to defend the new state church, conscripted young men at an unprecedented rate, and displaced both nobles and priests from the automatic exercise of local leadership. All this occurred between 1789 and 1793… What is more, the new state hierarchy consisted largely of lawyers, physicians, notaries, merchants, and other bourgeois…
[Counterrevolutionary resistance in the west of France] grew directly from the efforts of revolutionary officials to install a particular kind of direct rule in the region: a rule that practically eliminated nobles and priests from their positions as partly autonomous intermediaries, that brought the state’s demands for taxes, manpower, and deference to the level of individual communities, neighborhoods, and households, that gave the region’s bourgeois political power they had never before wielded. In seeking to extend the state’s rule to every locality, and to dislodge all enemies of that rule, French revolutionaries started a process that did not cease for twenty-five years. In some ways, it has not yet ceased today…[3]

As he sums up, “the revolutionary transition from indirect to direct rule embodied a bourgeois revolution and engendered a series of anti-bourgeois counter-revolutions.” But the changes, even across Europe, couldn’t be wholly reversed. And they led to further changes, such as the rise of nationalism. “Direct rule and mass national politics grew up together, and reinforced each other mightily.” Over the course of the nineteenth century, states imposed national languages—for ease of communication and administration—created national education systems, controlled movement across frontiers, and generally tried to homogenize conditions within their borders. Which led to rebellious nationalisms among minorities.

Thus, in the “dialectical” logic Marxists love to invoke, as states built up their capacity, they found they had to deal with new, unanticipated burdens. For instance, new organizations to make war or draw the requisites of war from subjects—including customs services, treasuries, and regional administrations—developed their own interests. With regard to Brandenburg-Prussia, which became famously bureaucratic by the eighteenth century (leading to the infamously bureaucratic structures of Germany later on), Tilly quotes another historian: “the bureaucracy acquired an esprit de corps and developed into a force formidable enough to recast the system of government in its own image. It restrained the autocratic authority of the monarch. It ceased to be responsible to the dynastic interest. It captured control of the central administration and of public policy.” This is just one example of a much broader trend.

Another ironic result of direct rule and the expansion of government capacity was the civilianization of government. The state had always been an essentially military institution, but in the process of creating structures to support an expanded military force, more and more resources were devoted to non-military purposes like a larger civilian bureaucracy and growing the civilian economy (which in the later nineteenth century far outstripped military expansion, thus further reducing the social and political dominance of the military). By the late twentieth century, in nearly all Western countries very small proportions of the population were under arms, small proportions of state budgets were devoted to the military, and small percentages of national income were spent on soldiers and weapons.

Lineages of the national state, and thoughts on the Third World

In the fifth chapter, Tilly goes into greater detail about the three paths to state formation mentioned above. He starts with the coercion-intensive one, focusing on Russia and Eastern Europe. It’s a pretty impressive capsule history he provides, from AD 1000 to the nineteenth century, but here’s the main point:

In broadly similar ways, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Serbian, and Brandenburger states formed on the basis of strong alliances between war-making princes and armed landlords, large concessions of governmental power to nobles and gentry, joint exploitation of the peasantry, and restricted scope for merchant capital. Repeatedly, leaders of conquering forces who lacked capital offered their followers booty and land, only to face the problem of containing the great warrior-landlords they thereby created…
Although the relative weight of crown and nobility (and therefore the extent to which warfare created durable state structure) varied significantly from state to state, all these states stood out from their European neighbors by heavy reliance on brute coercion. When, in the sixteenth century, large volumes of eastern European grain began to flow westward, the existing structure of control permitted great landlords to profit directly from those shipments; they used state power to contain merchants and coerce peasant producers, building a new serfdom in the process [even as the old serfdom in the west was ending]. In that balance of power, even extensive commercialization did not build cities, an independent capitalist class, or a state more greatly resembling those of urban Europe.

So, because there were so few cities and such little concentrated capital, it was, typically, necessary to create enormous coercive apparatuses to squeeze and control the peasantry (and also to fight and control the nobility). The main difference is that in some of these states, like Russia, one armed landlord early on established supremacy over his rivals, while in others, like Poland, the multitude of armed landlords were able to prevent any one of their own from achieving such supremacy. (Which led to a weaker Polish state and its dismemberment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.)

Let’s skip the history of capital-intensive states like Venice and go straight to the capitalized-coercive Britain. I’ll revert to quoting, once again. Not everyone knows much about the Magna Carta—which, among other things (such as protecting peasants’ right to the commons), helped set a precedent for a degree of political representation—so here’s something about that:

In the process of making war and intervening in dynastic rivalries, the barons on whom English kings relied for their wars acquired enough power to fight the king as well as each other, exacting chartered concessions—most dramatically in Magna Carta—from the monarch. The Great Charter of 1215 committed the king to cease squeezing feudal obligations for the wherewithal to conduct wars, to stop hiring mercenaries when barons would not fight, and to impose the major taxes only with the consent of the great council, representative of the magnates. The council started to wield durable power, reinforced especially by its place in the approval of new taxation. Later kings confirmed the charter repeatedly. Nevertheless, the continuing efforts of English monarchs to create armed force produced a durable central structure: royal treasury, courts, and domain.

The Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), a result of English kings’ efforts to hold onto their French possessions, required such exorbitant finances that Parliament was able to consolidate its position. Even for more than a century afterwards, wars with France and Scotland involved Parliament in royal fundraising and established its right to consent to taxation. The House of Commons, meanwhile, “came increasingly to represent a tight alliance of merchants and cash-cropping landowners” who, aided by legally sanctioned enclosures of open fields and common lands, grew heavily involved in the marketing of grain and wool.

The Stuart kings of the seventeenth century made the mistake of disrespecting the prerogatives of this rising capitalist class (the merchants and landowners represented in the House of Commons) in their struggles for money to fund yet more wars. The agrarian and mercantile bourgeoisie didn’t look fondly on kings’ attempts to tax without Parliament, or, more generally, to construct an absolutist state in which the bourgeoisie was very definitely politically subordinate. Charles I, especially, let power go to his head, and as a result he lost it (his head). In the 1630s his credit with financiers failed, “and his demands for loans and taxes only sharpened conflict with Parliament and its financiers. By 1640 he was seizing the gold and silver left in the Tower of London for safekeeping, and bargaining with the goldsmiths and merchants who owned it for a loan secured by customs revenues. Charles’ attempt to raise and control an army to put down rebellion in Ireland and resistance in Scotland did him in.”[4]

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the renewal of British military involvement on the continent, “Britain started to form a substantial standing army, an effective central bureaucracy took shape, and the tax-granting House of Commons gained power vis-à-vis the king and his ministers.” Basically, a bourgeois revolution had occurred over a long period, from the mid-sixteenth century (when enclosures began, Henry VIII suppressed the Catholic Church and seized its revenues while expropriating monasteries, and England commercialized at the same time as much of its peasantry was proletarianized) to the late seventeenth century. Absolutism had been defeated, a capitalist—though not yet industrial capitalist—economy had spread, and various types of capitalist class had secured political power. In the next two centuries, political centralization and direct rule deepened, incrementally, as capitalism advanced and matured.

Moving ahead to the seventh and last chapter, Tilly wonders why Third World governments tend to be quite different from those of the West, and not in good ways. In particular, why is the place of the military so different, so overwhelming? “On the whole, [militaries in the Third World] intervene in domestic political life far more directly and frequently, and with more obviously damaging consequences for rights of citizens. Why should that be?” It’s certainly an important question. There are many answers to it, of course, but Tilly focuses on those his earlier analysis bears on. Here’s a useful review of that analysis:

Think back to the central paradox of European state formation: that the pursuit of war and military capacity, after having created national states as a sort of byproduct, led to a civilianization of government and domestic politics. That happened, I have argued, for five main reasons: because the effort to build and sustain military forces led agents of states to build bulky extractive apparatuses staffed by civilians, and those extractive apparatuses came to contain and constrain the military forces; because agents of states bargained with civilian groups that controlled the resources required for effective war-making, and in bargaining gave the civilian groups enforceable claims on the state that further constrained the military; because the expansion of state capacity in wartime gave those states that had not suffered great losses in war expanded capacity at the ends of wars, and agents of those states took advantage of the situation by taking on new activities, or continuing activities they had started as emergency measures; because participants in the war effort, including military personnel, acquired claims on the state that they deferred during the war in response to repression or mutual consent but which they reactivated at demobilization; and finally because wartime borrowing led to great increases in national debts, which in turn generated service bureaucracies and encouraged greater state intervention in national economies.

Given this analysis, one possibility is obvious: since Third World states have largely acquired and built up their militaries from abroad, through military aid from great powers, it hasn’t been necessary to undergo a long process of “bargaining” with the civilian population. There hasn’t had to be “the same internal forging of mutual constraints between rulers and ruled,” as Tilly says in the article linked to earlier. Nor have several other of the above conditions applied.

When you have the U.S and other powers giving extreme support to military organizations in the Third World or the Global South, it isn’t surprising that such organizations become dominant over civilian competitors. Or that they use their dominance to seize power repeatedly, whenever the civilian government is failing or doing something they don’t like. And the government will, indeed, often fail or become dysfunctional in an international context of subordination to the interests of the West (as in the frequent inability to have an independent tariff policy to protect domestic industry, or the necessity to apply for loans from an IMF that attaches such onerous conditions to the loans that society partially breaks down and the population rebels). Since there isn’t much need to protect borders anymore or, usually, engage in external wars, armies develop great power internally that they may use to influence domestic politics.

In any case, one thing does come out very clearly from the book: states are in the business of coercing, and are formed in profoundly morally illegitimate ways. Primarily through war: war against internal and external enemies. In this respect, Tillyism is quite friendly to anarchism and the left. The real question, especially in our dangerous era today, is how to get states away from the business of making war. Presumably the only way to do that is through mass popular movements to pressure leaders and to elect leftists to political office.


[1] On mercenaries: “The peculiarity of the system became clear early on, when in 1515 ‘two Swiss armies, one in the service of the French king and one in the service of an Italian baron, met on opposing sides in a battle at Marignano in northern Italy and almost completely annihilated each other.’ The event helped persuade the Swiss to avoid wars of their own, but it did not keep them from shipping mercenaries to other people’s battles.” The dominance of mercenary armies didn’t completely end until the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire, which were fought by ordinary French citizens.

[2] “From the short-run perspectives of ordinary people, what we in blithe retrospect call ‘state formation’ included the setting of ruthless tax farmers against poor peasants and artisans, the forced sale for taxes of animals that would have paid for dowries, the imprisoning of local leaders as hostages to the local community’s payment of overdue taxes, the hanging of others who dared to protest, the loosing of brutal soldiers on a hapless civilian population, the conscription of young men who were their parents’ main hope for comfort in old age, the forced purchase of tainted salt, the elevation of already arrogant local property holders into officers of the state, and the imposition of religious conformity in the name of public order and morality.”

[3] For a very brief summary of the contours of the French Revolution, see Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, chapter 3. He notes that the large majority of representatives of the Third Estate in 1789 weren’t bourgeois in the sense of being actual capitalists (merchants, etc.), and they weren’t even particularly revolutionary. In the beginning, they only wanted to create a constitutional monarchy and eliminate the privileges of the nobility. It required continual interventions by the more radical populace, in the succeeding years, to force the leaders to become truly revolutionary. –Nevertheless, in its outcomes and its guiding values, I’d say the epochal event certainly qualifies as a “bourgeois revolution.”

[4] Again, for a short summary of the main issues involved in the English Civil War, see Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, chapter 3.


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