NON-STATES, AND HISTORICAL METHOD
Sovereign State and Its Competitors (Princeton, 1994) is
a very stimulating account of how modern states came to be and,
perhaps more importantly, why competing forms of governance fell
by the wayside. It is a sweeping book which attempts to theorize
the political main drift from the late Middle Ages into the 17th
century. As a critique of existing accounts, it is rather successful.
Spruyt, what was new about the modern state was that
it was "sovereign," territorially bounded,
and internally hierarchical. Equally important, a
state was a state precisely because it was accepted
as a juridically equal member of a state system
by existing states. This reflected institutional "copying"
or "mimicry," as well as the fact that existing
state "actors" were better able to deal
with like entities and deliberately sought to eliminate
competitors grounded on other "logics."
concedes that military factors played a role in state
emergence, as Martin Van Creveld and Charles Tilly
say, but he believes that internal institutional arrangements
were of primary importance. After all, one has to
explain how territorial states eliminated other competing
systems city leagues, city-states, and "capstone"
empires when at least the first two of these
showed just as much mastery of existing military technologies
as did the emerging states. In his view, the first
important state, the French kingdom was fully formed
before any revolution in military technique
had set in.
makes his case using a combination of game-theoretical,
economic, and neo-Darwinist arguments. He regards
his method as a methodological individualism which
attributes rational calculation to historical actors,
insofar as we can reconstruct how they viewed their
situation and the given structure of incentives. I
could have done without the frequent references to
Darwinism and punctuated equilibrium, but I suppose
an author’s metaphors are his own business.
BREAKDOWN, NEW FORMS OF GOVERNANCE
sketches out the institutional logic of feudal society
as it existed in what are now France and Germany.
This allows him to ignore the exceptional development
of English history, which one reviewer considers a
major flaw in the book. Feudalism allowed for "crisscrossing"
jurisdictions based on personal contractual relationships
between lord and vassal and precluded claims to final
territorial sovereignty on the part of any actor in
was not confined to bounded territories. In addition,
the competition between the Papacy and the German
Emperor, both of which made universal claims, worked
to reinforce the multiplicity of jurisdictions. Clerics
theorized a three-caste model of society priests,
warriors, and producers in an interesting reinvention
of an Indo-European theme. As in Hindu society, the
commercial classes were outside the logic of the system.
It was the revival of trade from the 11th
century on which brought into being a class of merchants
and town-dwellers who would, in time, seek protectors
for their interests. These economic changes are the
"endogenous variable" which Spruyt says
set off political innovation in feudal society.
COMPETING MODELS OF EARLY MODERNITY
holds that the relative size and strength of towns
explains the political coalitions which came into
being. In France, which became the model of the victorious
state system, towns were small and the bourgeoisie
accordingly entered into alliance with royal power
against local nobles and bishops. In northern Germany,
towns were more significant. Their Baltic and North
Sea trade was in bulk products with low profit margins.
The central power having weakened itself in futile
attempts to control Italy, power had devolved to the
German princes. There was no real central power with
which the commercial classes could ally themselves.
Not wishing to be subject to the princes, the North
Sea towns banded together in city leagues, the most
famous of which is the Hanseatic League, to provide
for their common defense and assert political control
over their markets.
Italy there were other variables. Cities had never
disappeared there, nor was the nobility exclusively
rural. Merchant oligarchies sprung up on the basis
of long-distance trade in luxury goods with high profit
margins. This made the towns more competitive and
less likely to band together, except when temporarily
allied with the Papacy against intrusions by the German
Empire. Indeed, the towns fought one another continually.
Some became local territorial states in a sense, but
never achieved internal politically stability based
on an accepted hierarchy.
OF THE TERRITORIAL STATE
believes that the territorial state prevailed in this
competition, not because it was militarily superior
but because its institutional logic made it a more
reliable protector in the eyes of the pivotal social
force, the new commercial classes. Continual city-state
warfare in Italy created an opening for foreign encroachment
by Aragon and France. The Hanseatic League was plagued
by "free-rider" problems the inability
of the League to make its constituent town governments
keep agreements made in the name of the whole body.
Finally, once the state form spread, states found
it easier to deal with similar organizations with
fixed boundaries and the power to make their citizens
answerable for international agreements made by the
this new power field, the German princes remodeled
their domains into small-scale territorial states,
as did the surviving Italian city-states, in order
to play the new game. The German towns, unable to
remodel themselves into a Low German version of the
Dutch Republic, fell under the sway of the princes,
although Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen lasted a
while longer as micro states. Everywhere, "international
relations" came into being, resting on fixed
boundaries. People were either inside or outside of
borders, but they were under the rule of some
sovereign. The citizen/alien or friend/foe distinction
came into full play.
EXTREME CURE FOR A LITTLE ‘FREE-RIDING’?
at the European state system from the other end of
the telescope, one can only wonder if our ancestors
didn’t pay an excessive price to deal with a little
free-riding. That merchant capitalists in France and
elsewhere looked to territorial monarchs to reduce
their "information" and other costs with
standard weights and measures, predictable taxation,
and provision of justice which bypassed local feudal
magnates may well explain much of what happened. The
possibility remains that even those merchants who
benefited substantially from central administration
made a serious mistake which their descendants had
reason to regret.
COMPETITION: ROUND TWO?
this late date, we might wish to savor the classical
liberal insight that all politics is about plunder
("rent-seeking"). Certainly, this insight
gave content to many battles later fought out within
the victorious territorial states. Unfortunately,
liberal victories were cut short, to say the least,
by the consequences of battles fought between these
same states. Hence our departing 20th century
and hence the hope, or fear, that the state
system as we have known it may be unraveling.
states have suffered a certain decline in respect
related to the criminal demands they made on their
societies in this century. This goes well beyond conventional
distinctions about ideologies or good and bad nations.
It goes to the heart of the institutional form. Are
people prepared to continue paying the costs in blood
and treasure of this political form, whatever its
possible efficiencies four centuries ago? We know
now what it can cost.
PHILANTHROPIC EMPIRE, CITY-STATES, OR WHAT?
one were Oswald Spengler, one might say everything
is once again up for grabs, that the next century
will go to those who have the courage to throw the
historical dice. There would be references to Caesar,
the Rubicon, and so on. Unfortunately, I am not up
to Spengler’s level of pessimism, or optimism.
the bipolar Cold War system gave a Europe break from
state-level warfare. Elsewhere, a lot of people were
killed. And now the costs of the Cold War can be reckoned.
But the Cold War raises another alternative: universal
empire. With the Soviet claimant gone, only the US
Empire has the resources to bid for universal rule.
But claims that US rule is necessary to make the global
economy go, to make it more efficient, ecologically
friendly, and all the rest, or to prevent disorder
and disruption, seem rather weak and thin compared
to earlier imperial doctrines. This may explain the
"ideological turn" in US policy in recent
years: the US Empire will uplift the downtrodden,
enforce Universal Human Rights, implement sundry Humanist
Manifestos, wash and wax your car, and realize the
Kingdom of God on Earth, all at an affordable price.
suspect that the crazed attempt by existing US political
elites to make the world safe for social-democratic
ideals and state-connected profits for the right sort
of capitalists will fail in the long run. (God help
us, if it "succeeds" and what could
that possibly mean?) But it could prove quite costly
and might make us almost want those competing states
to come back. Spruyt wonders if the European Union
constitutes a sort of modern Hanseatic League, since
it is not exactly a state but can rely on existing
states to carry out its policies. Maybe it is and
maybe it isn’t. Given the character, so far, of the
EU and its policies, one can only hope that it does
not become a proper state. I say this, not because
it might challenge the US Empire, which would be laudable,
but because of what it will do to Europe. There must
be some other way for Europeans to be prosperous and
Spruyt’s book is both interesting and important. The
analogy between the Hansa and the EU also brings to
mind what may be the biggest problem in Spruyt’s account.
Nowhere is a clear distinction drawn between trade
and political capitalism. But surely there
is a difference between traders who use political
means to wealth and those who do not, just as there
is a difference between the incentives on which merchants
act and those on which politicians act. The drive
of the latter for power, wealth, and fame might reflect
antisocial incentives and calculations. This bears
addressing in any reconstruction of the rise of states.
In particular, as Guido Hülsmann points out,
there may be another "logic" at work, whereby
rulers who have plundered their existing territories
to their economic limit seek wider fields of political
profit.1 One doubts that an overriding
concern to reduce people’s information and judicial
costs would drive the process.