The Pathos of Politics (9) Statehood


The state evolved because society had a practical need for it. ~ American political scientist Leon Baradat

All political regimes have been elaborate expressions of human territoriality. Governance has always been an exercise in resource apportionment.

Historically, the surpluses that support civilization have been agricultural: the toil of peasants and slaves in the fields, propping up urbanity. Only since industrialization has ingenuity played an especial role in producing economic surplus outside of food production.

In the infancy of societies, the chiefs of state shape its institutions; later the institutions shape the chiefs of state. ~ Montesquieu

The term pristine is used by archeologists for the initial emergence of a state from a tribal society. In contrast, competitive state formation involves the takeover of territory from a tribe or other state.

Pristine state formation occurred when a confluence of factors arose. First there must be a surfeit of resources to create surpluses above subsistence.

The abundance may natural. The Pacific Northwest was so well stocked with fish and game hunter-gatherer tribes generated chiefdoms, if not states, in prehistoric times. These are rarities. Surpluses were typically generated through technological advances, primarily agriculture.

Surpluses alone were insufficient. They must also have been extensive. Despite possessing surpluses, tribal societies long persisted in parts of the world for geographic reasons.

Africa illustrated how difficult it is to project authority over inhospitable, sparsely populated territories. In exceptions to this generalization, such as the fertile Great Lakes region and Rift Valley, centralized states emerged early.

Africa also has few navigable rivers over long stretches, making the projection of power difficult. The exception to this – the lower Nile – was home to one of the world’s fist states: Egypt.

Oceania is a region of mountainous islands. While agriculture developed early there, only on the larger islands with extensive fertile plains, such as Fiji and Hawaii, did chiefdoms and states emerge.

Mountains also explains the persistence of tribal societies in Asian upland areas, including Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Laos, and Vietnam. Mountains make it difficult for armies to conquer and hold territory.

Second, a society’s size must be sufficient that material inequality occurs: a division of labor between peasant and ruling elite. For this to occur, people must be geographically constrained such that population density increases rather than subjugate subjects running away when coerced.

Finally, tribes must be motivated to give up their relative freedom to state authority. Such persuasion typically came about under threat of extinction by a more powerful group. This is how the Egyptian state emerged in the Nile Valley ~3000 BCE.

In the rarest of instances, such as Islam under Muhammad, a charismatic religious leader is convincing in cajoling a state into existence.

States are typically better organized and more powerful than neighboring tribal societies, so they conquer and absorb nearby tribes. The relatively few exceptions have been in emulation: where tribes managed to organize and fortify themselves.

Japan was already a state in the 19th century as it watched neighboring China carved up by Western imperialist powers. The ominous prospect was driven home when a small fleet of US naval ships sailed into Yokohama harbor in 1853 and forcibly demanded trading rights.

Wishing to avoid the same fate as China, Japan abandoned its torpid feudal system and harnessed its collective will on modernization. Within decades Japan was indulging in imperialism.

Despite the continuing influence of tribes, state-level societies differ from tribal ones in several significant aspects.

Whether king, president, or prime minister, states possess a stronger central authority than tribes. This authority trumps all others, and so is sovereign.

Whether police or other armed forces, sovereignty is always backed by a monopoly on the legitimate means of coercion. State power is typically sufficient to prevent succession. In multicultural societies, instances to the contrary commonly lead to civil war, given a wedge conflict of serious economic import.

The American Civil War (1861–1865) of disunited states was spawned by a weak federalist government presiding in a society socially rent over slavery. The internecine outcome was over 1 million casualties among a population of 31 million (>3.2% of the people). Reverberations of racism and cultural disharmony continue to the present day.

The authority of a state is territorial rather than clan based. Thus, with its fluctuating borders, Francia was not really a state under the Frankish kings in Merovingian times (457–751), compared to the Capetian dynasty (987–1328) which ruled geographically-delineated France.

States are far more stratified, with much greater inequality, than tribal societies. The head of state and his administration are often separate from the rest of society. This has often led to a hereditary elite. The social isolation of royalty has repeatedly instigated simmering insurrection: typically, over the course of centuries, albeit abruptly with especially inept leadership.

The opportunities for egregious exploitation of others is limited in both scope and duration in tribal societies. Slavery and serfdom scale up under the aegis of states, especially under governments endeared to cronyism or corruption, but arising even in those that are laissez-faire.

Modern democracies tolerate vast socioeconomic inequalities and exploitation by employers. Money talks while politicians listen, begging bowl in hand.

Finally, states are legitimized by more elaborate forms of religious belief: a priestly class as cultural guardian of the status quo. Sometimes priests take power. In modern governments, a constitution may serve as official religious dogma, with constitutional jurists as the overclass of priests.


Iran hosts one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Since 1979, Iran has been a Shiite Islamic theocracy, with a mind-set that would not have seemed out of place in the 9th century.

In a nod to modernity, Iran’s unique polity has an overlay of parliamentary democracy. An unelected “guardian council” of 6 theologians and jurists, all beholden to the Supreme Leader, must approve all candidates for public office. Iran’s armed forces answer to the Supreme Ruler.

Bickering from the mid-1990s between elected reformists and the conservative establishment was subdued by hardline conformists regaining firm control a decade later. Absent a revolution, those succoring stagnation typically triumph. The US is like Iran in having a reactionary theocracy, with corporate capitalism as the creed.


Societal norms ensure stability to political systems and creates emotional investment in the belief system underlying a particular polity. Whether religious or secular, this investment in custom and tradition creates a conservative crustation that can be non-responsive to changes in societal circumstance, or even the needs of its citizens. The conservatism of societies thus becomes a source of political decay.

Institutions created under certain circumstances become dysfunctional, but do not change because of emotional investment by a powerful faction. This creates a ratchet effect to social change.

Because incremental adjustments to institutions do not occur, prolonged stasis is followed by catastrophic change. This explains why violent upheaval has been so central to political evolution.

Polity evolved as a mechanism for maintaining the status quo via a state monopoly on violence, yet the potential for revolution constantly lurks as the only means to effect political change. Societies become stuck in a dysfunctional stasis because stakeholders in the status quo veto institutional reform. Violence becomes the only means to break the inertia.

A desire for recognition is another driver of politics. Political power rests upon social status: the degree to which a leader or institution is regarded as legitimate and commands the respect of vital constituents.

The building blocks of political evolution are born of biology. Human nature remains a constant regardless of environment or culture; hence it is unsurprising that widely separated societies have often come to strikingly similar solutions to the problems facing polity. Societal rules evolved from those based upon kinship, increasing steadily in complexity as relations became more distant and trust less sure.

Societies went on to develop impersonal institutions of political administration. Across the globe, all developed centralized bureaucracies have a single leader, however powerful or titular in practice. Comparable institutions arose in countries with divergent cultures because the concepts behind our sociality are universal.

Historically, an elitist monopoly of power gave way to democratic ideals as those who gained economic power became decoupled from the political power base. China, with millennia of centralized authority, is presently struggling to retain the status quo while giving passing semblance of democratic response to popular will; an impetus resulting from economic ascendance and a burgeoning middle class.

That social needs and wants are similar, regardless of culture, explains why societies with distinct cultures have commonly converged in their institutions and political outlooks. Differences are almost always only by degree, even when political leaders advertise themselves as revolutionary in political thought.

The universal role of government is to maintain social order. As all human societies are strongly materialistic and territorial, enforcing property rights is a central concern.