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Friday, 12 March 2021

The Theory of the State

[As anyone who has followed this blog since its inception (has anyone?) will know, I have long been interested in the issue of the post-imperial state in the West, and indeed whether or not the polities that existed in c.650 can be considered to be states. Having wrestled with this issue for a decade, I have finally come up with a discussion and definition with which, provisionally at least, I am pretty happy and which I can use to gove focus to the chapters (some of which I have written) on administration, taxation, military service, the law and so on. So far it is under-referenced and the text itself doubtless needs revision and more depth and detail - it is very much a first draft, even if - I hope - a first draftof the final version, but I hope it might be of interest and possibly provide a basis of discussion. My plan is that Part 2 of the book (The End of Western Antiquity: The Transformationsof the Year 600) will pick up on some of these points to reconsider a more idealist explanation, that will stress the elements of the performative, and subjectification more heavily, and so revise the materialist explanation provisonally set out at the end of part 1.]

The first part of this book concerns the changing relationships between those who held political power at the centre – kings and their senior palatine officials – and people in the myriad local and regional communities, often nested within each other, that made up post-imperial western polities. This is a dynamic relationship that must be looked at from the perspective, or perhaps cluster of perspectives, of both core and periphery. On the one hand a polity needs to be able to make its writ run throughout its territory, at least to some extent, if it is to have any claim to a real existence as something more than a convenient geographical description. On the other hand, the local communities cannot be held in place within a polity by force alone. The consent of those communities to their incorporation in the state is at least as important. The relationships between central and local society can be seen as a tension between the ‘top-down’ – the government’s ability to, in Jan Glete’s words, ‘penetrate local society from above’ – and the ‘bottom-up’ – the desire, or even need, of local communities to be incorporated in the polity.[1] We will see that fairly profound changes in these relationships occurred in western Europe between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

The existence, or otherwise, of states in the early medieval West was much debated around the turn of the second millennium. That debate now seems generally to have subsided, having resulted in its seeming settlement in favour of the proposition: there were states in the west. This book argues against this consensus. The idea that early medieval polities can be classed as states seems to result from some rather muddled thinking and unhelpful basic assumptions, and frequently contradicts the definitions of a state offered, where they have been proposed. It seems reasonable to suspect that a principal reason for the popularity of the notion that early medieval Europe was a region of states is to be sought in justifiable opposition to the persistent idea that the early middle ages were a period of backwardness, lawlessness and anarchy: the Dark Ages. On the contrary, runs the argument, early medieval kingdoms were often complex and cohesive political units. There will be no dissent from that proposition here. However, political complexity and cohesion are neither the exclusive preserve nor the sufficient definition of a state.

As we will see, it is easy to overemphasise the role of coercion and force in the creation of a state. Indeed, a government’s reliance upon coercion and military action to prevent the break-up of its territorial jurisdiction is usually held to be symptomatic of its failure. As Cicero had said, many centuries earlier, ‘nor is there any military power so great that it can last for long under the weight of fear’.[2] However, more recent scholarship has in some regards gone to the other extreme and laid too heavy an emphasis upon the ‘bottom-up’ aspect mentioned: the willingness of local elites and others to ‘buy into’ incorporation within a realm. As mentioned, such consensus is essential and as Braddick has argued in a discussion of the early modern English state, emphasis on the ‘top-down’, on state institutions, on coercion and imposition masks much of the historical reality or lived experience of states.[3] The success of early medieval regimes in ensuring that local holders of power bought into their legitimacy surely produced politically coherent kingdoms or polities (to use more descriptively neutral terminology) but – as mentioned – a politically coherent polity is not necessarily a state. Nor is the eternal retreat of the term down the political chain of command – to lordships[4] – a solution; logically we could retreat yet further, ultimately to Germanic Hausherrschaft or Roman patria potestas.

Defining and debating the State

Obviously, this discussion hangs on the issue of what one means by the term ‘state’. Why does it matter if a late antique polity was or was not a state? After all, the concept of the state, in a recognisably modern sense, did not exist in late antiquity. This is not in itself a strong argument; after all most of our modern analytical concepts – gender being the most obvious example – would be alien to systems of thought in the period under discussion, without them thus being rendered analytically worthless. The question nevertheless remains as to whether the concept of the state has similar analytical value. My contention is that, if rigorously defined, the term does allow us to distinguish some polities of a particular type – of a certain governmental complexity – from others. This in turn helps in thinking about change over time. Use of the term ‘the state’ has semantic baggage, which cannot be avoided. Whether one likes it or not, the term is haunted by the concepts encapsulated in its usual definition, and this makes it difficult to use in situations where the images it conjures are incongruous. The term ‘state’ also implies the concept of ‘not-a-state’. This is a problem for those who have wanted early medieval kingdoms to be classified as states for in most cases it is difficult to imagine what sort of polity would not count as a state if western European realms after 600 do generally qualify as such.

My concern is not to create a typology of different types of political organisation, or sub-types of generally-used terms. Past discussions have created such sub-categories as stages in political development – tribe, chiefdom, state – through which societies have moved. Others have proposed essentially teleological sub-categories such as ‘proto-state’ or ‘early state’. I wish simply to delineate a broad category of ‘the state’, into which states of all types might be grouped, in distinction from an equally broad, if not broader, set of polities that are not states. I will then use the category as a means of describing what, in my understanding, happened to western European government between c.550 and c.650. It should not be imagined that I invest the term with ethical or moral significance.

Such an agenda brings us to the problem of definition. Within the voluminous scholarly literature on the nature of the state, most definitions converge on a number of issues. Michael Mann defined a state thus:

The state is a differentiated set of institutions and personnel embodying centrality, in the sense that political relations radiate outwards to cover a territorially demarcated area, over which it claims a monopoly of binding and permanent rule-making, backed up by physical violence.[5]

Mann also argued that a state had to control all four of his sources of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political. He also, interestingly, completely skipped over the period that concerns this volume. Nevertheless, he does say that some post-imperial states existed but that they were small and short-lived.[6]

By comparison, at the heart of John Haldon’s definition, taken from a work written at least in part explicitly to counter Mann’s modified Weberianism from a Marxist perspective, is:

[A state is] ‘a set of institutions and personnel concentrated spatially at a single point and exerting authority over a territorially distinct area.[7]

To take a third definition, Chris Wickham’s definition of the state turns on five things: [8]

1.      The centralization of legitimate enforceable authority (justice and the army)

2.      The specialisation of governmental roles with an official hierarchy which outlasted the people who held official position at any one time;

3.      The concept of public power …;

4.      Independent and stable resources for rulers;

5.      A class-based system of surplus-extraction and stratification

This definition tallies reasonably well with those of other thinkers, including those who work on the middle ages, such as Susan Reynolds. It is broad enough to encompass a range of state forms, but also strict enough to rule out other forms of complex political organisation. Yet, if the definitions given by Mann, Haldon and Wickham are uncontroversial, they apply badly to western Europe after c.600, as will be seen in the succeeding chapters.

However, rather than employ a single definition based on a series of attributes, in a ‘check-box’ fashion, I will use some of the issues around which discussions of the state tend to converge as what one might call ‘discursive spaces’. Partly this is to avoid the problems involved in all ‘criterion-bundle’ types of definition, of whether all or, if not, how many of the criteria need to be satisfied for a polity to qualify as a state, or of whether all are of equal weight, and so on. It evades a potentially Manichaean dualism between states and non-states. Partly, too, this is because these areas of discourse were, insofar as I can determine, spaces of the political in late antiquity as in other periods and did not stop being such when a polity reached a particular level of governmental complexity. In other words, the state is always in tension. They do not define a state but they are the conditions of its possibility. The state is – to some extent at least – in perpetual renegotiation and constituted by that renegotiation. A polity might be counted as a state as and when the various areas of discourse tend towards acceptance of, or acquiescence in, government and administration of a particular sort.

Subjectification: circuits of the political

This feature will be dealt with in more depth in the second half of the present book but it needs some preliminary introductory discussion here. Most crucial in defining the existence of the state is the way in which, the regularity with which, and how far down into society, people are called into being – or interpellated – as subjects of a particular government. What interpellation means is the process by which a person is identified as occupying, and compelled to take up or speak from, a particular subject position, in our case as a member of a polity. Such interpellations are inevitably political, whether the person in question is summoned before a court, called upon to pay imposts to, or to perform services for, the state or required to enact the state’s justice, collect dues, or organise requisitions of goods or labour. When communities assemble – or are assembled – in the course of a polity’s governance, their members are interpellated into a specific political position. In all such situations, we are confronted with the negotiation of the relationships between the polity’s citizens (constituted as such) or between the government and officers of the polity and those citizens.[9]

The different ways in which these subject positions are created, called forth, or interact can be called circuits of the political: they are the conduits through which political power flows. They are the means by which communication and negotiation take place; they are the arenas within which political acts take place. They can run ‘vertically’ down from the central government, via its officers to the ordinary citizens in its different regions or localities, or they may operate in a more ‘horizontal’ fashion within the communities of various types and levels within a polity. A rural community within which taxes or other dues are paid and perhaps organised – which might, indeed, be defined by its fiscal obligations – could form such a circuit. The wealthier land-owners or aristocracy of a region might form another, as might the community of state officers. Other circuits might be configured slightly differently, such as between the local representatives of the government and the people they govern (envisaged here as all being part of a particular political community), or between wealthy patrons and their clients, or between a polity’s officers and the aristocracy of an area. The key issue is the way in which their position as the member of a polity determines the subject position taken by the individuals involved in these circuits. One might suggest that such circuits are most extensive and are activated most frequently in polities that we might categorise unproblematically as states. We might, furthermore, propose that in those circumstances, while the legitimacy of state power is constantly negotiated, it is generally accepted.

Office-holding and local government

Though often seen as less important than the control of force or legitimate violence, the issue of the role of office-holding in the establishment of legitimate local authority is possibly more central to the definition of statehood. On what basis is legitimate power exerted in the localities? In some ways the basis of the authority is more important here than its effectiveness. It is really in this area of local government that the intersection of different circuits of power is located. It would not be controversial to argue that, in a state, legitimate authority belongs to the office and not to its holder, and that the deployment of the power invested in such an office for an official’s personal ends is frequently decried as an abuse. In practice, this might be tolerated to a certain degree; indeed the opportunity to benefit personally from office-holding is frequently what draws people to seek such positions in the first place and can thus be the glue that holds a state together. Nonetheless, the more important point is that when this behaviour appears in political discourse, the rhetorical vocabulary employed is that of malpractice and corruption. It is in this area of the political that the importance of the existence of a public sphere, separate from the private,[10] is made manifest. In this context, the tenure of these positions and the systems whereby appointments to posts are made are of crucial significance. Ideally, tenure of office and the personnel involved should be determined by the state. Where an officer cannot in practice be removed from a position or where the central government in effect has no say over who is appointed to specific posts in its administration, the extent to which that polity can be considered as a state would seem to be limited. In those situations the ability of the government, not simply to have its writ run into the localities but also to involve the inhabitants in political discourse, would be seriously curtailed. To use electronic circuitry as a metaphor, important resistors have been placed in certain points of the political wiring. The flow of political power into certain parts of the circuitry is controlled or even terminated at the level of the administration.

Force and violence

Many discussions of the state, like Mann’s and Wickham’s, rest in part upon the Weberian notion of a monopoly of legitimate violence and the capability of backing up its jurisdiction with force. A polity within which the central government did not ultimately have the sole power to determine which acts of violence were legitimate and which were not, or which lacked the capacity to punish actions which fell into the latter category, would have difficulty qualifying as a state by anyone’s definition. It would also seem perverse to regard as a state a political unit which had no legitimate access to an armed force with which to pursue its goals in foreign policy or combat rebellion at home.

Nevertheless, too much weight has been laid on these issues. The imposition of governmental writ can only ever be a small part of the definition of a state. After all, a government whose presence is felt in the localities primarily through the mechanisms of punishment or repression would today be classed as ‘failing’. Certainly, it would seem to be losing the consent vital to its cohesion. At the same time, though, the presence of such coercive force does not in and of itself guarantee the ability to use it. If an army stands aside in the face of a political coup, or sides with the rebels, we may witness the failure of a regime – even of a type of regime – but not necessarily the end of a state, unless the institutions that govern the existence of the army collapse with it. The latter point has been central to numerous analyses, such as Althusser’s,[11] and is one reason for my rejection of definitions based upon the possession of particular attributes in favour of a discursive definition. Taken together, these two points highlight the importance of the acceptance of the government’s legitimacy by its constituent communities, and thus of the discursive approach to the definition of a state. Nonetheless the potential for the use of such force is surely a vital area in distinguishing polities that might be classified as states from those which might not. Even where the subjects of a realm restrain themselves from certain actions out of fear of the retribution that the state might (though rarely, if ever, does) visit on them, that self-governance cannot long exist where the possibility of such punitive action is absent. Consequently, military service and the raising of armies will be the subject of one of the following chapters.

Perhaps more importantly than those of legitimate force and coercion, however, the issues that surround the raising of an army are very significant in making the existence of the state felt in the localities. This is so whether we are talking about the levying of manpower by way of conscription, or in the exaction of military service from those who are held liable to perform it, or in the extraction of surplus to provision or equip armed forces. In all of those areas we can see the involvement of the officers of the state in local communities, making demands upon their manpower and produce. Whether such processes ran smoothly or not – and perhaps at least as much in the latter case than the former – they were the focus not simply for the exercise of power by the state’s officials but for the renegotiation of that power. They could be an opportunity for officials to exploit their power through ‘bribery and corruption’ but could equally be occasions when they could act as spokesmen or intermediaries for the people placed under their jurisdiction and thus extend their patronage and personal prestige in other ways. In all such situations and especially when local contingents assembled or when supplies were gathered at a particular point, the state made itself felt in the lives of its constituents. Such processes are essential to the flow of power through the ‘circuits of the political’ discussed earlier.

Taxation and justice

The same points can be made at least as strongly in relationship to the levying of taxation in its various forms.  The precise nature of the revenue of the state, whether from taxation or from other, more directly controlled fiscal resources, seems to me to be less important than the fact that a concept exists of the state having its own revenues, separate from the private resources of those that hold power in its name. Where systems of imposts exist, however, it might be argued that their importance to the definition of a state consists less in the value or quantity of resources raised than in the process of their levying. As we shall see in chapter 5, a case can be made that in many ways the systems of taxation that persisted after the disintegration of the Western Empire were valued precisely as mechanisms for maintaining the circuits that connected the centres of power with local communities and that this might have been important than their role in the collection of revenue. As will be argued, the raising of taxes opened channels of communication between government and the governed. It presented opportunities for the renegotiation of obligations and privileges, for the demonstration of the ability to intercede with a kingdom’s officers on behalf of a community, or for the manifestation of political grievance, as well as for the simple operation of legitimate authority. Frequently, as with the summoning of those liable to military service, in the collection of fiscal imposts royal government was performative; state power existed in the process of exaction rather than in the sums produced.

Perhaps more than anything, though, the operation of the law and justice are crucial points in the working of the state as envisaged here and illustrate the importance of the performative[12] aspect of state power which I am stressing. The assembly of the law-court is a classic instance of interpellation. Everyone there occupies a particular subject position: judge, plaintiff, defendant, third parties, witnesses, or oath-helpers: even the people who have come merely to watch. Ultimately those subject positions are defined with reference to the law, manifest in the person of the judge, and the sources of the judge’s legitimacy: the power vested – clothed in the person of – the presiding figure. These are the moments of the formal activation of particular legally-recognised identities and of all sorts of social relationships – not least kindred relations – that might otherwise remain dormant. The lawcourts and the administration of justice are, then, possibly the best laboratory within which to study the operation of our ‘circuits of the political’ and the extent to which public, state power reaches into local communities.

Knowledge and state power

The issue of knowledge might at first sight seem like a strange category with which to think about pre-modern state power. The flows of knowledge and information are, however, a crucial element within, to continue my electrical metaphor, the currents of power that run in both directions around the circuits of the political. State governments are, however, very often concerned with the collection of information about persons and communities within their bounds and this can be seen in antique and medieval contexts, around the globe, as well as in more recent periods. Under the heading of knowledge, however, I want to include more than simply the collection of census data or similar. What sorts of knowledge – if any – does a government require of its officers, and how, if at all, does this a direct bearing on government? It also matters to consider the uses to which such knowledge is put. In this regard I cast the net fairly wide: food-provision during famine; water-supply; emergency relief; feeding the poor; caring for the needy; the provision of entertainments; and so on.[13] The other key aspect of this, clearly correlated with the others, is that of what we might think of as publicity, openness, and access, on the one hand, and secrecy on the other. What are the limits to the government’s knowledge of its people, or the people’s of its government? This has become one of the key aspects of the state in the contemporary world;[14] does it help us think about pre-modern state governments?

The Agenda of Part 1

The first part of this book explores the issue of whether the polities that existed during our period can be considered as states and the extent to which change over time, as well as variety across space, can be detected in this sphere. It does this first of all by considering the ways in which the circuits of the political can be detected in the areas discussed: administration, taxation and the fisc, military service and the law.  After a discussion of the arenas within which political events might take place the attention moves to consider other circuits of the political by considering the arenas within which social exchange took place and a wide range of social relationships and practices. The focus then moves to religion and the circuits of power that ran through the church. In the end an image ill be presented of an important period of change in which, to continue our metaphor, the wiring of western European polities was crucially altered so that the flows of power that had connected some areas with the central government were now crucially interrupted or even broken altogether. Finally provisional explanation will be offered in terms of. competition for the material resources upon which local and regional power depended.

[1] J. Glete, ref.

[2] On Duties, 2.26.

[3] M.J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, 1550-1700 (Cambridge, 2000). My great thanks to my former student Laura Salvage who drew my attention to this, in the course of an undergraduate essay that was a far more hard-hitting critique of my ideas on the state (as they were at that point) than anything I had received from established scholars!

[4] Reference

[5] M. Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol.1, p.37.

[6] Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol.1, p.390.

[7] J. Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production, pp.32-33

[8] C.J. Wickham, The Framing the Early Middle Ages

[9] I use citizen here in a loose sense to mean all subjects of the state.

[10] As in Wickham’s definition.

[11] L. Althusser, On Ideology

[12] Explain performativity. Ref Loxley.

[13] This aspect of my project is influenced by James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, and also G.R. Trumbull IV, An Empire of Facts.

[14] In this regard I have been strongly influenced by C. Barbour’s Derrida’s Secret: Perjury, Testimony, Oath.