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Did War Really Make the Modern State?

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lazybum writes historical and political articles surrounding war.

Image couresty of Real Future

Image couresty of Real Future

War Created the Modern State

The idea of the modern state that exists today never attained fruition until perhaps the 18th century. The modern state and its accompanying instruments, institutions, and mechanisms that we know of and take for granted today were wholly and brutally created by the activity of war-making. Charles Tilly first proposed this theory in his writing, 'Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD990-1992' under the third chapter, 'How War Made States and Vice-Versa'. His theory is based on empirical evidence from Western Europe.

Prior to the 18th century, European civilisations were either subsumed under an empire or were city-states. Charles Tilly argued that wars and the activity of war-making were both the recursive primer and catalyst for transforming patrimonial states into the modern states we know today.

The Modern State

There are three defining characteristics of the modern state. The modern state is:

  1. Regulative and Intrusive
    • The modern state restricts the individual freedom of its citizens. For example, the physical movement of its citizens into another country is prevented by the erection of international borders and the creation of the passport.
    • The modern state aims to control the lives of citizens everywhere at every far-flung corner of the land.
    • The modern state is an omnipresent busybody. It seeks to constantly update itself and interfere with the affairs of its people.
  2. Extractive
    • The modern state has instruments that enable it to extract various resources from its people. Taxation would be a good example of how monetary resource is extracted from its citizens.
  3. Coercive
    • The modern state is coercive. It enacts legislation that allows it to punish its citizens when they do not comply with the rules it has set up.
    • The modern state (in most countries) has a monopoly over violence. Ordinary citizens are stripped of the right to bear arms and the means to violence is concentrated in the state's militia.

Modern states worldwide share these characteristics and differ in degree rather than kind.

Before the Modern State

Most countries in the world today are modern states or at the very least, possess the characteristics of what is commonly referred to the modern state. Things we take for granted today, like voting, taxation, birth and death certificates, national census, etc. were revolutionary ideas at the dawn of the 15th century.

Prior to the nation-state, the classic non-national states were multi-ethnic empires such as the Russian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The ruling elite consisted of the monarchy and aristocrats and the in these empires usually one ethnic group and language were dominant.

As subordinates and subjects of a multi-ethnic empire, peasants rarely felt an attachment to empire they "belonged" to or were assimilated under. Wars were fought by mercenaries for hire and came under the tab of the empire. They were getting more frequent, lethal and destructive and rules lived in constant fear of being invaded by outsiders. This environment of fear and uncertainty created the imperative for them to not only prepare and amass resources for war but to emerge from them victorious as well.

What then, were necessary to ensure victory? A large well-equipped standing military and the resources to support one.

Rise of the Modern State

As empires feuded with each other more often, more wars broke out. With more wars, more mercenaries needed to be hired to fight these wars. As such, the empire's expenses started to pile up and money was borrowed from capitalists, wealthier classes or even other countries. Debt was incurred, including interest. An even more pressing problem was that more often than not, these hired guns were ineffective on the battlefield for the simple reason that they are not obliged to be effective. Their loyalty was to their salary, not the country or empire that hired them to fight in the first place. In addition, the pool of available mercenaries were shrinking due to the hazard of the job as well as the amounting casualties on the battlefield. Wars created one main problem - the lack of resources. This lack of resources can be divided into two categories which were Money and Manpower. As a result, Charles Tilly argued, rulers found it necessary to replace the system of mercenaries and loans that once fueled their war efforts with a large well-equipped standing army. In order to do that, they erected two fundamental policies which laid the foundation for the modern state as we know it today.

In order to tackle the problem of a lack of monetary resource, ruthless and systematic Taxation was devised. Tax is the financial charge imposed by the state on the individual or group that is deemed as a taxpayer. Various forms of taxes were enacted such as land tax, property tax and income tax. Effective taxation meant that the inflow of revenue to the government must be prompt, regular and be inclusive of the total population.

In order to tackle the problem of manpower, Military Conscript was created to mobilise people, especially peasantry, throughout the territory to fill the ranks of the standing army.

To ensure effective taxation and military conscript, rulers needed to be able to know exactly how many people lived in every village in his territory and exactly where they lived. They also must be able to extend their power over long geographical distances. To fulfill these requirements, rulers created a multitude of state instruments and institutions that were designed to count, monitor and regulate the whole population.

  1. Monopoly on Violence
    Effective taxation cannot be carried out when the peasantry were capable of violent rebellion. Hence, an obvious counter-measure was to ban all peasantry from bearing arms. In sharp contrast, the balance of violent power shifted to the state by setting up specific armed groups who were allowed to carry arms for the purpose of coercing uncooperative citizens. As time progressed, a distinction was made between internal patrolling troops and those who were designated to external campaigns as the police force and the army respectively.
  2. Roads
    Roads are political tools of state penetration into far-flung corners and are infrastructures of state power and are not politically neutral means of public transportation. They allowed citizens to be tracked and monitored and access for agents of the state to bend uncooperative ones into compliance with state laws.
  3. Names and Numbers
    Everyone and everything in society were assigned names and numbers. Roads were assigned names and citizens were assigned unique national identification numbers. Home addresses were tagged to their owners. As a result, the process of tracking citizens down became grossly simplified.
  4. Census
    Annual census was a way the state measured and profiled its population. Birth, death and house registration were all by-products of the census instrument to extract maximum taxes and the necessary manpower for a standing military.
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Read More From Owlcation

There were considered part of a series of historically novel practices which we consider mundane today. Many more practices were put into a place that are not mentioned here. Just look around your own society today to "discover" more of these normal practices. These practices slowly became entrenched as state mechanisms and institutions were created to run, maintain and streamline these mechanisms and eventually became the state bureaucracy was know today.

Image courtesy of Royal Execution

Image courtesy of Royal Execution


The big problem with the expansion of the modern state is that nobody wants to:

  • be regulated
  • pay taxes
  • join the army and risk being killed

As such, brewing discontent among the people led to open rebellion against the rulers. To obtain the voluntary or grudging compliance with taxation and military conscription from the people, rulers dished out both sticks and carrots.


  • devision of punitive laws
  • creation and enlargement of judiciary at every level of society
  • creation and enlargement of police at every level of society
  • prohibition of private ownership of weapons
  • creation of state institutions of physical and moral coercion to catch and punish non-compliant people


  • concessions such as higher wages for workers, social welfare benefits and production subsidies for capitalists
  • political representation and rights
  • universal suffrage
  • democracy

Various other policies were created by the rulers to appease and draw compliance from the people. Eventually, democratic breakthrough swept through the France, England, the United States and around the world.

Charles Tilly

Image couresty of Columbia University

Image couresty of Columbia University


Charles Tilly argued that states that were successful in the activity of war-making survived and those there were not eventually perished or were assimilated under other states. Another argument he put forward is that coercion works. The trivial and mundane things we take for granted today like roads, names, numbers and our census are actually instruments of the state in controlling its population and consolidating its power.


NT on October 07, 2017:

This is perfect explanation, very brief and useful

Arwa on October 07, 2016:

This summary is really great!

tingting on October 08, 2015:

nice summary

AKLILU on December 30, 2012:


anon on July 26, 2012:

a clean concise summary of a really chunky reading. it's great! thanks a lot! :D

mac on May 16, 2012:

very useful!

anugraha on April 22, 2012:

helpd me a lot !! TQ...

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