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Did War Really Make the Modern State?

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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 book, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, 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 today are modern states or, at the very least, possess the characteristics of what is commonly referred to as 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.

Before 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 in these empires, one ethnic group and language were usually 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. These wars were getting more frequent, lethal and destructive, and peasants 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, was 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 were 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 was shrinking due to the hazards of the job and mounting battlefield casualties.

Wars created one main problem—lack of resources. This lack of resources can be divided into two categories: 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 resources, ruthless and systematic taxation was devised. Tax is the financial charge imposed by the state on the individual or group deemed as a taxpayer. Various forms of taxes were enacted, such as land tax, property tax and income tax. Effective taxation meant that revenue inflow to the government must be prompt, regular and inclusive of the total population.

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

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

  1. Monopoly on violence
    Effective taxation could not be carried out when the peasantry was capable of violent rebellion. Hence, an obvious countermeasure 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 that 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 was 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
    An 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.

There were considered part of a series of historically novel practices which we consider mundane today. Many more practices were put into 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 voluntary or grudging compliance with taxation and military conscription from the people, rulers dished out both sticks and carrots.


  • division of punitive laws
  • creation and enlargement of the 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 courtesy of Columbia University

Charles Tilly — image courtesy of Columbia University

Coercion Works

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 the state uses in controlling its population and consolidating its power.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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...