a northerly anarchist's ranting space

©2015–2017 Herbert Snorrason

Drafts of a Theory of State


The origin, structure and development of the institution typically known as “the state” is my chief interest. This is not because I consider the state to be a particularly worthy institution; quite the contrary. Every indication is that the state arose from violence and represents nothing whatever except the efficient organisation of exploitation. It is not necessary, and its abolition is vital for the progress of humanity. This is not a view shared by the mainstream of academics, whether their discipline of choice is history, sociology, economics (although they will claim otherwise, the bastards), or something else relating to studying the social structure we live in. Political science is perhaps the worst of the lot: Although questions regarding the nature of the state should be at that discipline’s foundational base, they are conventionally just assumed in favour of the state. I’d like to construct an alternative theory that I believe to be rather more in keeping with the empirical evidence than standard accounts of the origin of the state.

A related concept is that of nation; a construct that became the gold standard for the validity of states following the first world war; just over a hundred years after the first states claiming to represent nations came into existence. Nations have been described as Imagined Communities by political scientist Benedict Anderson; a description that I feel can barely be improved on. The current states system, predicated as it is on the nation-state, cannot be understood without also understanding what the nation is or can be — another question of origin.

In addition to the origin of the state, it’s pretty important to understand the dynamics driving its development. The unfolding of those dynamics is extremely complex in each individual case, but complex behaviours can arise from simple rules. Can we map the structure of society and state and find a way to explain how the state comes to dominate so utterly over alternative forms of organisation? Can the same dynamics perhaps even explain the transition from state-less to state-dominated societies, turning our origin theory into simply a special case of the more general theory of state dynamics?

This is an ambitious project, but I believe many, if not most, of the components are in place, needing mostly to be assembled. Fundamentally, there is nothing conceptually new involved, but perhaps some work in welding together structures and ideas from different backgrounds, that haven’t shared a language before. And some of those ideas may need a bit of dusting off; their obstinate failure to be of use to capitalism and non-threatening dissent has in some cases relegated them to the shelves, overlooked by most. Others have perhaps been rather too esoteric to be taken up by academics from distant fields — let alone non-academics devoting their free time to trying to understand what’s going on.

What’s the point of it, you ask?

Firstly, I suppose it’s a morbid fascination with the tools used to subject us all. (Also known as “academic curiosity”.) Secondly, the conviction that a solid understanding of the issues involved will have political implications; implications that will strengthen the hand of those arguing in favour of radical change — and make it clear what pitfalls to avoid in that change.

So here’s a basic sketch.

The ways of obtaining the requirements of life can be divided into two spheres, the political and economic. The economic means consist of resource gathering, production and uncoerced equal exchange. The political means consist of appropriation by force, direct or indirect, of the products of the economic means.1 The political means cannot be used before the economic means have developed to an extent where there is a surplus of goods beyond subsistence. Once such a surplus exists, however, the political means become a viable way of obtaining goods. At this point, the capital base of society can be divided into two rough categories: Economic assets, used for production and distribution; and political assets, used to coerce others to act in accord with the holder’s requirements. Society is a network of individuals sitting atop these capital assets. This network contains control mechanisms elaborating who has access to the economic and political assets, and who directs the use that is made of them.2

But what is the state? We can adopt the definition proposed by Max Weber: The State is an institution that successfully claims monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a bounded geographical region.3 Although not perfect, it has the dual advantages of not presupposing any specific institutional structure and not specifying a purpose for the uses made of this monopoly. An equivalent statement, using terminology consistent with that introduced above, is that the state holds a monopoly on the permissible use of the political assets over a specific area. The question of the origin of the state then resolves into the question of how political assets come to exist, and then become monopolised by a single institution.

The dynamics of the state’s development are also bound up with the social network and its structure. The driver here is the interest of actors within the control mechanism of the political assets; those tasked with maintaining and controlling the state.4 This group is in a unique position within the system, in that its control over the political assets makes it able, to the extent that control is real and the political assets sufficient to the purpose, to enforce adherence to its views.5 Historically, this group appears initially to have developed through gradual differentiation from a similar group in control of the economic assets; that is, the state seems to have originated as a mechanism to protect the interests of the wealthy.6

As stated, this is just a rough initial sketch. Certain aspects need to be filled out; in particular, the interaction between multiple state structures (and associated economic elites) becomes more complicated on this explanation than most theories in international relations today would contend. The theory also depends implicitly on an understanding of the political utility of violence that is significantly broader than is usual today; on the score of this understanding of state, it is little other than the effective organisation of political violence, and the groupings we more traditionally associate with political violence are not fundamentally different from the state, but are instead simply its less successful cousins.

I think it’s a model worth pursuing and elaborating. Missing from this sketch are two significant segments; nationality and the economic control mechanism. They are related to the scheme in a slightly non-obvious way, and will be elaborated on alongside later clarifications of this model. I welcome any comment or question regarding the subject, whether through this site or any other way of contacting me you may find.

  1. Franz Oppenheimer, The State, p. 13–14. [return]
  2. Alan Carter, “Analytical Anarchism” constructs a similar system, with references to Marx’s previous scheme of superstructure and base. The structure here is inspired by Carter’s analytical anarchism, but in my opinion goes further in some respects. The fundamental idea, that economic considerations do not determine political questions, is in many ways a common theme of anarchism stretching all the way back to Proudhon.

  3. Max Weber, Politik als Beruf, p. 4. The translation is rough, but retains all the critical claims made.

  4. This group can be difficult to define. It consists of the upper levels of the state hierarchies, which vary with time. In the western democracies today, this is the bureaucracy: High-level ministry functionaries and permanent staff at military and police agencies.

  5. This is the basic logic behind Carter’s state-primacy thesis, which I share.

  6. Oppenheimer’s account of the development of the state, which shows more than one elaboration of the way this happens, is well worth investigating; I intend to do so in a later post.