Creveld holds that the state is a purely modern phenomenon
which came into being around the end of the 15th
century. It is distinguished from mere government,
which has existed since about 3000 BC, by virtue of
being an abstract, corporate, legal person, which
has an ongoing existence separate from that of its
personnel or even a titular "sovereign"
such as king or emperor (p. 1). Traditional governments
did not enjoy this exalted juristic and theoretical
were the first form of government able to tax (p.
17). Their successors in the Ancient World, city-states,
empires, and other large territorial states were limited
both in their claims and in their ability to get things
done. Most importantly, perhaps, such governments
were not conceptually separate from the sovereign.
Royal bureaucrats were the king's servants; in republics,
magistrates were servants of the citizenry.
contrast between government and state, it might be
noted, can also be found in the writings of the sociologist
Franz Oppenheimer and the American libertarian literary
figure Albert Jay Nock. There is more than echo of
it in the work of British sociologist John A. Hall,
who writes that pre-modern governments were "capstone
states" which sat lightly on top of society and
lacked the power to attempt grandiose social reconstruction.
One might wish to quarrel a bit with Van Creveld here,
but if we understand him to mean "states since
1500" whenever he uses the term "state,"
there is little room for confusion. At this late date,
a return to mere "government" would be a
RISE AND FURTHER RISE OF EUROPEAN MONARCHIES
Creveld discusses the two-front struggle waged by
late medieval kings – from about 1300 against the
Church and the Holy Roman Empire, both of which sought
to limit kingly authority (pp. 59-87). The Reformation
afforded the monarchs a chance to subordinate the
clerics within their dominions, an opportunity seized
by Protestant and Catholic ruler alike (pp. 69-70,
73). To the extent that they succeeded, such kings
effectively turned their "national" churches
into departments of state.
of course the Church and the Empire were not the kings'
only opponents. To secure power at home, monarchs
had to bring to heel their over-mighty subjects, the
nobility, and deal as well with that "rising"
new phenomenon, the merchants or "bourgeoisie,"
who in Italy and northern Germany had revived the
city-state form of government on a basis of commercial
capitalism. For a time, leagues of these wealthy city-states
posed a serious threat to the consolidation of kingly
AND MONARCHICAL TRIUMPH
Creveld devotes much space to the kings' triumph over
the nobility (pp. 87-103 and passim). One tactic,
made possible by the Reformation and perhaps perfected
in England, was to win over nobles with grants of
confiscated church lands. French monarchs gradually
made good the claim that noble titles were only valid
as grants from the king. As for the towns, even where
kings played townsmen off against the nobles, they
dealt with the towns later. Town fortifications were
destroyed. "The population was disarmed and the
'bourgeois' and the 'warlike' went their separate
ways" (p. 117).
the struggle took many decades and the details varied
greatly. At the end, with the exception of the Netherlands,
kings stood triumphant, even if their rivals' defeat
was incomplete and the burghers' new economic activities
were allowed to flourish.
OF THE PROPER STATE
(or perhaps "co-evil") with the kings' successes,
warfare became less personal and more bureaucratic.
No longer must the king command in person and risk
death or injury. Now he had to command from behind
a desk. At the same time, government was becoming
"sedentary" and permanent (p. 120), as noted
in last week's not entirely serious column.
to what end had the kings triumphed? Presumably to
be better able to fight neighboring states organized
along the same lines. Increasing, they thought of
their people as sheep to be managed and took over
the symbols of Roman imperial authority. One symptom
was their promotion of "the ideology of resignation
and service… known as neostoicism" (p. 127) –
a sort of Western Confucianism!
1648-1789, monarchs built up bureaucracies separate
from the older "king's household" and capable
of surviving the end of personal sovereignty. In other
words, the managerial apparatus shaped by the triumphant
kings was already emerging as their potential replacement.
The abstract modern state was being born. There is
plenty of blame to go around, with differing countries
pioneering various aspects of bureaucratic statism.
In England, wealthy nobles and gentry controlled a
rather minimal bureaucracy but gave us the Bank of
England, the successful model of central banking (i.e.,
the "state-financial revolution"). In Prussia
and Russia, rather poor nobilities were attached to
the monarchy as bureaucrats.
MAPPING, INTERNAL POLICE
the emerging states needed information about boundaries,
population, resources, and much more. They wished
to know everything which might be useful for maintaining
internal control and for preparing wars against their
neighbors. States needed "information" and
they couldn't get it off the Internet (Al Gore's birth
being far in the future). Getting the information
required to maintain order and prepare for war, and
those two tasks themselves, required more money (taxes)
and personnel, getting more money (taxes) required
more personnel, who had to be paid, which required
more money (taxes), and so on. Hence, an upward spiral
which will at least seem familiar.
increased fiscal demands of states set off a series
of reactions – Fronde, Puritan Revolution, War of
Dutch Independence, etc. – which, taken together,
constitute the General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century.
Some states came out of it all with new paper limits
on their power – to be overcome later.
IN THE HEAD AND REVOLUTIONARY MISFIRE
gotten through the 17th century, the major
states were soon fighting one another all over the
globe for imperial/commercial advantage. The short
version involves the decline of Spain and the edging
aside of France by Britain. Sweden had already yielded
regional power to Russia.
Creveld does not neglect the realm of ideas in all
this, however. His insights here are very interesting
indeed. He argues that Thomas Hobbes "invented"
– or first theorized – the true (modern) state,
precisely as the abstract, immortal, corporate Leviathan
we have come to know and love. Unfortunately, later
writers like John Locke accepted the essentials of
this model and sought only to justify or limit such
states. This may have been a real mistake.
new intellectual climate emptied discussions of war
and peace of older, personalistic notions attached
to medieval just war theory. War was now a "public"
activity of the state, which could potentially demand
the sacrifice of anyone and anything within its territorial
limits to achieve victory. It was the French Revolution,
undertaken in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity,
which helped states overcome their practical and ideological
limits. The new French "liberty" was in
fact the freedom of the French state, free of its
royalist backwardness and inhibitions, to demand that
everyone show up to get himself killed in far-off
campaigns that few monarchs would have ever undertaken.
WAR ON THE HORIZON
French "success" with mass conscription
and new tactics forced other powers to keep up. While
this had the happy effect of ending serfdom in Prussia
and even, finally, in Russia – since serfs aren't
"free men" subject to conscription – the
downside was larger armies, higher stakes in future
wars, greater destruction, and over time the elimination
of evolved rules which had made wars at least bearable.
The 19th century witnessed the beginnings
of Total War with its ideological passions and apparently
endless demands on civil society. Have I mentioned
20th century consummated the process. What
is striking about Van Creveld's analysis of the bloody
20th century is precisely his ability to
reach to the institutional, structural basis
of the problem. Whatever the exact distribution of
evil or merit between the coalitions which fought
the two World Wars and the Cold War, both sides fought
them as states and in a state-like fashion. Unprecedented
destruction and mass murder were the logical outcome.
The logic of Total War, as developed by Van Creveld
for the 20th century, seems so important
to me that I intend to devote another column to it.