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Review: Richard Lachmann's 'States and Power'

Updated on March 31, 2017
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The Rise of the Western State

Richard Lachmann, through his book, States and Power (2010), gets to the heart of what transformed the way societies were organized throughout history and brings to the forefront the key influences that reshaped them into what we recognize today. This article aims to summarize and track a few of these aspects in the evolution of state formation, with particular attention paid to how the West developed its modern state form. The thesis is that states were heavily affected by conflicts between elites, the collapse of support mechanisms for earlier systems, increased bureaucratic management and the “appropriation of resources through taxation” (ix), as well as by the introduction of technologies that redistributed power between societies and by the creation of national identity.

Lachmann starts his analysis with the Roman Empire, giving us insight into what a bureaucratically weak state looked like. Yet, he also describes a system that “made the property of local elites and the loot of army officers into genuine private property” (11). With the fall of the Romans and the introduction of feudalism, “local autonomy was institutionalized […] by parallel legal systems, hierarchies of authority and privilege, and by multiple armed forces” (18), meaning that elites and ordinary people believed that their government would be able to defend their rights to the land that they owned. Catholicism itself fueled this through its “courts, tithes, estates, and even armies” (18). While rural Europeans in the mid-sixteenth century were left mostly to themselves because of their distance from urban areas, city-states started to become more and more autonomous by taking advantage of fighting feudal elites, who themselves were fruitlessly trying to expand their control through wars that led to further “subinfeudation” (16). Indeed, “towns won whatever power they had by defeating or outmaneuvering fragmented and conflicted feudal elites” (21) and “states were formed […] only when one elite was able to defeat and appropriate powers from another elite” (63). Yet, alliances between kings or Popes and merchants only lasted as long as they were both in those positions.

With the instability of and fighting within the feudal system, monarchs were prone to change and so were these relationships. As some merchants became more secure in their positions and power, they became determined to “undercut the collective power of the urban commune, which threatened to regulate […] their familial interests” (24). These feudal city-states, with conflicts between elites and between merchants and non-elites and with the “demographic catastrophe” that followed the Black Death of the 14th century (34)—which heavily reduced the number of peasants available to rule and exploit, according to Perry Anderson, were therefore not sustainable or viable states and “were able to command little of their subjects’ incomes, labor, or attention” (25). This is partly what influenced elites and churches and communities to “bring ever more of their resources and powers within states” (25). With lower ability to control peasants, feudal lords had to look up the hierarchy instead and, out of dependency “for the power and legal legitimacy necessary to extract resources from peasants,” colluded with a “centralized, militarized summit—the Absolutist state” (34). Through this collective action, feudal lords would hand over their power to their ‘king,’ who would then use military force to ensure tribute from peasants; with a bourgeoisie class resulting as well. The next step to capitalism is thereby taken with conflicts between elites and classes. Lachmann himself quotes Max Weber in saying that “power is the ability to make others do what you want them to do and what they wouldn’t do otherwise” (vii).

Indeed, Lachmann draws further from Weber by commenting on his notion of how state formation links with “the emergence of rational action in the Protestant Reformation” (26). Because Weber viewed the feudal system as instable and temporary, he explains that the new mentality needed to transcend feudalism came with the “psychological shock that disrupted old ways of thinking” (26), and took the form of capitalism spurred on by Calvinism—an ideology that began to refute claims made by the Catholic church. Weber contends that this Protestant Reformation also spurred on political reformation, with “bureaucratically organized states with a monopoly of legitimate authority in a defined territory” (27) being a prime directive. He argues that through it states were now able to more effectively collect taxes, administer regions, and mobilize their armies, which led to other communities either mimicking the system due to its efficiency or being eliminated by competition or absorption—by the “iron cage” (27). He claims that it was this competition that maintained this system and that kept governments bureaucratic.

However, Lachmann refutes these notions by citing scholars who have uncovered evidence uncited by Weber, such as Christopher Hill’s belief that “Protestantism gave rise to a libertarian communism, as well as to a politically repressive […] ideology,” and by noting that “the Protestant calling inspired varied political programs, while European Catholics and Japanese Shinto-Buddhists pursued similar schemes of state-building, conquest, and imperialism” (28). Lachmann makes clear that the state forms that followed the Reformation did not correlate with religious tenets and that there was no link between the two and rationality. He uses modernization theory to explain away the effects it had by referring to how any improvement in the lives of others will motivate people to implement the same structure for their own benefit. Moreover, he mentions Philip Gorski’s understanding of Calvinism as playing a more minimal role in state formation and having instead a more influencing role in discipline for government officials over their subjects through Calvinist doctrine. Although Lachmann credits Gorski’s work as a model, he still notes that he neglects, as Weber did, vital evidence that makes his thesis incomplete with regards to the non-cultural factors of the time.

Even though the Protestant Reformation is seen as slightly insignificant by Lachmann, he remarks on Marx state theory that, with the development of capitalism, “capitalists come to rely ever more on the state to guard their property rights, control and train workers, reproduce the means forces of production, and gain access to resources and markets throughout the world” (32); this is something observed in the Roman Empire, and perhaps one of the factors that made it so long-lasting. In particular, Lachmann observes that the secession of power by capitalists to politicians, organized into states, was meant to safeguard three main issues: “the development of settler colonies beyond Europe; slavery […]; economic nationalism …” (33).

Charles Tilly’s model of state fusion helps to identify further the way in which hundreds of small states, over time, merged and allowed “existing, relatively autonomous local and regional authorities to collect taxes, gather troops, administer justice, and maintain order” (37). Rulers would make deals—ones that would continue to shape their political systems—that increased their capital, which was then use to amass weapons, mercenaries and bureaucrats, and would take over neighboring polities. With this strategy, “dominance passed to states that combined capital and coercion, most notably France and Britain,” with “new military technologies,” such as more powerful artillery, “[making] conquest easier” (37-38). This divide-and-conquer strategy by Tilly is, therefore, a rebuttal to Weber’s theory on the Protestant Reformation’s influence on state formation. Yet, Lachmann still finds flaws in his arguments and states that not “all revenues collected by state officials were used for ends desired by the monarch” and that “armies didn’t fight in unison” (40). In fact, he explains that “state formation was contingent and reversible,” and that the biggest territories were often “less able than smaller or poorer states to increase their capacity to tax subjects and enforce laws” (41). He states that the Reformation itself was less about bureaucratization but more a disruption in elite relations that initiated series of elite and class conflicts, affecting the Catholic church in particular as it decided to “surrender Church powers within securely Catholic lands in order to enlist Habsburg help in recovering ground in Protestant areas;” “aristocracies gained at the expense of clerics” (50).

Taxes were indeed one of the biggest preoccupations of early states because they allowed them to finance potentially profitable wars, which made them even more powerful. Lachmann refers to Kiser et al. in describing how rulers would consider the risks of rebellion when contemplating tax increases, as well as how taxpayers themselves would evade it due to poor bureaucratization. He also describes how revolts caused by tax hikes, such as the Communeros revolt of 1520-1, led to devastating results for the opposition, and also sometimes positive ones in the case of the Great Revolt of 1381, which defined the taxation paths that states took from then on. Kiser and Linton argue that by collaborating on tax collection, there was less corruption and lower collection costs, which made the states seem like “safer places to make loans, reducing interest rates” (43). Indeed, where “kings took a constitutional path, granting capitalists parliamentary representation in return for higher taxes” (46), collaboration between elites and monarchs in parliamentary environments about raising taxes to go to war, as well as making deals about its spoils, led to more state harmony. However, Lachmann draws issues with these arguments by noting the effect of timing in these developments and the lack of explanation of “why elites […] became more willing to surrender money and power to a central political institution” (44). In particular, he comments that both the Marxist and rational choice theories “fail to capture the actual relations among power-holders and the masses they dominate” (47).

As such, Lachmann defines elites as “similar to ruling classes in that both live by exploiting producing classes” (48), but with the caveat that elites are interconnected in their relations of production and that they still try to extend their power over other elites. Thus, elites’ capacities are contingent upon the amount of conflict present. As aristocrats in Spain combined their assets with the king, “they came to share an interest in […] taxing and controlling the mass of Spanish subject” through the state (52). In France, the Reformation caused Catholics to fight Protestants and the kings used this to turn rival elites against each other, giving them support in their provincial authority in a form of vertical absolutism that resulted in permanent claims on revenues. In the Netherlands, it pushed urban merchants to unite, rebel and form a state. In England, where the two sides were killing each other, the Crown colluded with the lay landlords to absorb the power of the Catholic Church, but this dual-structure was one unable to be broken and all royal initiatives “required consent from the Members of Parliament,” who represented landowners and merchants and who then determined the form of British state (56; 64). In contrast, with the Reformation in the East, there was no need for the Catholic Churches to ally with the government for protection. What we observe, then, is that states formed in “instances of elites centralizing themselves” in order to seize power from other elites, maintain control over peasants, collect taxes and launch wars, and to protect themselves against religious and foreign invasions. The Protestant Reformation was also less about religion than it was about secession of clerical power.

Democracy was a byproduct of elites’ desires to “create and deepen loyalty to the state” (66) to protect their newfound interests, in particular those to collect taxes; the kings and elites wanted them and subjects wanted to avoid them. But where rulers had the personnel and leverage to demand information on subjects’ assets, as well as the capacity to track income and assets, they managed to put tax mechanisms in place. Charter towns, which were “granted political and commercial freedoms in return for tariffs” and where merchants moved to find the lowest tariffs, quickly sprang up and were the primary source of royal revenues up until the 19th century when “Britain became the first European state to institute an income tax” (69-72). By paying these taxes and fighting for their state, subjects came “to see themselves as citizens,” which led states needing those two things to offer the democratic franchise, which included welfare benefits and political rights (73). With the ability to track came the bureaucratic offices. These, alongside national currencies, were fundamental in generating government revenues.

The US’s 1778 draft changed the game entirely for formerly dynastic states with regards to citizenship. Nations were now more willing to provide it to subjects in exchange for their military devotion, and soldiers took on a new level of pride from serving ‘their’ country. Citizens now “felt themselves members of a collectivity that extended beyond lineages, occupational groups, religious communities, and localities” (81). Along with “print-capitalism” and the concentration into a few national languages, which were indeed simply dialects, or “administrative vernacular,” used by kings, national literature, art and educational tools were born and used to brainwash subsequent generations. These, alongside citizenship tests, artificial borders, propaganda and forced assimilation all fostered national allegiance, and so did the intellectuals that made nationalism their projects. Stopping immigrants from coming and spoiling that image was the next step, involving alcohol prohibition and immigration policies. A culture therefore developed, bringing equal citizenship to all those involved and creating an unlimited supply of men available for conscription. This affected the way wars themselves were fought, moving away from tactical maneuvers to mass production of firearms and bombs and missiles designed to wipe out large numbers of enemies. The technology changed along with the perception of nation states and created a pathway that led to the development of WMDs; a pathway that still mirrors our modern states today. It is through these governmental, societal, educational, cultural, religious, fiscal, and military reforms, as well as by “human will” (207), that the West rose to undertake the state formation that it has today.

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