The Rise of the Modern State

Just as the concept of “state” remains central to the political analysis, it is important to differentiate a set of factors that influenced the formation of a modern state. This differentiation will remain essentially detached from any suitable interpretation and analysis unless an appropriate definition of what qualifies as a “state” is applied for the purpose of context. The search for a universally accepted denotative definition from which such context can be extrapolated is likely an exercise in futility, so for the purposes of this paper, it has been decided that charting those aspects which can be somewhat universally accepted as essential in the formative process of the modern state will be applied to the following connotative framework for a useful classification of the “modern state”:

“the genuinely modern state further requires that those who fall under its authority be united themselves that they form one people, one nation, morally bound together by a common identity. With some notable exceptions, the modern state is of its essence a , in which nationality is defined politically and political power is held to express the nation’s will” (Wokler).

A variety of explanatory narratives can be found in the literature which can be appropriately applied to the definition of a modern state which falls suitably within the purview of this characterization. This paper provides an account of several views found in the scholarly literature.

Poggi (1990, p.98) sees state as itself “constituting a distinctive social force, vested with interests of its own, which affect autonomously and sometimes decisively the state’s own arrangement and policies.” In order for a state to shape, the interplay of the following factors had to be present: territoriality, impersonal sovereign power, monopoly of the lawful means of coercion and taxation, professional bureaucracy, and legitimation. Poggi (1990) also believes that the important role in the formation of any state was played by war. War created the state by destruction of the parcelized feudal authority, and creating centralized, rationalized authority through monopolization of coercion, nationalization of taxation, and bureaucratisation of administration Poggi (2004).

While in his seminal work “Coercion, Capital, and European States, 990-1992 AD” Tilly (1992) notes that the attempts to build state had failed throughout Europe, he also delineates several basic aspects which influenced the formation of the state: the availability of the sources that were possible to extract, a continuous supply of various political entrepreneurs, a relatively protected geographical position, success in war, homogenization or homogeneity of the population, and, finally, the strong coalition between the central power and peripheral landed elites. At the same time, preparation for war was the major state formation activity (Tilly, 1992). In his earlier work “Reflections on the History of European State-Making” published in the volume “The Formation of Nation States in the Modern Europe”, Tilly (1975) explains that war the element that connected as well as aggregated the remaining elements. The process of constructive and highly effective military machine generated arrangements, institutions, as well as processes that remained across time and could be well used for other state purposes. Preparation for war fostered territorial consolidation as well as centralization. It fostered the monopolization of coercion means and boosted all fundamental state-making processes. To describe his vision of the key role of war, Tilly coined a widely cited expression “war made the state, and the state made the war” (1975, p.42). In Tilly (1992), one may find an expanded view of the issue. For instance, as Tilly (1992) theorizes why various states have acquired different forms, he comes the conclusion that two major factors were responsible for that: first, the concentration as well as combination of both capital and coercion and the interplay in the international arena of the war-waging states.

Likewise, Thomson (1994) believes that prior to the nineteenth century war as well as preparation for war had played a significant part in the formation of states in Europe. War was operating in contradictory fashion as it created similarities in the organisation of a state and dissimilarities in international power. In this way, war also impacted the creation of the state as an external factor.

Francis Fukuyama (2001) in his work “The Origins of Political Order” also gives great prominence to war in the formation of a state, yet he also sees the formation of the state as a result of the social groups interaction within the society and states’ interactions among themselves. In particular, according to Fukuyama (2011) the threat of war and the war itself was the focal element in the process of state formation, because it led to greater centralization, bureaucratisation, and radicalisation. In those societies which did not experience military competition, the formation of the state occurred later. With regard to the factor of the interaction of various social groups and a center, the social groups that interacted within the society included the upper nobility, the Third Estate, and gentry. The upper nobility was the player with his own army, land, and resources. They governed their territories. The Third Estate comprised tradesmen, merchants, free serfs, and people who lived in cities and towns. Fukuyama (2011) describes them as incipient bourgeoisie. Gentry was another important player in the state formation process and comprised lesser elites, including knights, small landowners, and other individuals. It was the political group that had a privileged social status but owned only limited resources and land. Fukuyama (2011) does not regard peasantry, which made up the biggest proportion of the population, the significant political actor in the process of state formation.

Tallett (1992) critiques the role of coercion in the intra-state formation process. He reasonably suggests that although in some states the accumulation of great military authority in the hands of a king was an important factor, since the royal power was then able to coerce landowners and dominate over them as well as won the status of the major military player against the external forces, it was not the tool of state formation in others. In England, as Tallett (1992) points out, the nobility were made to leave their fortified castles, refuse from great private armies by means of fines, legal process, attainders, greater dependence on the courts, and a shift towards more pacific lifestyle.

In this way, while war is still believed to play a prominent part in the state formation, a set of other factors are believed to play a great role. Synthesizing the views of various scholars helps construct a balanced picture of the issue.

While it must be admitted that changes in the structure and function of authority which has been relieved from an overweening sovereign are primary components in the transformation of the old order into modern state, many others share the perspective of Thomas Hobbes that primary concern of the modern state is no longer “the pursuit of warfare, but rather the maintenance of security…since international society is not subject to such an overweening sovereign, it remains subject to all the threats and vices that arise from the natural human condition” (Pierson 2004). This provision of security based on the tenuous legality of authority allegedly conferred upon a king by divine power would undergo significant alteration in the rise of the modern state due in large part to the vigorous efforts of philosophers displace the divine with legitimacy of contractual agreement and acceptance of rights and responsibilities.

The realization of this contractual model of the shared responsibility for the securing the state that paves the way for the revolutionary concept of the body politic would draw much of its foundational thesis from the tenets outlined in the social contract forwarded by another philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Many of those actually living under the reality of a state Rousseau could only theorize have come to perceive a foundational element of that social contract with suspicion. Namely, that so “the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body” (1950).

Hobbes is far more indirect than Rousseau in his ideation of the contractual necessity of the modern state, even going so far as to intimate that in the face of an apathetic citizenry willing to sacrifice their rights and shirk their responsibilities there remains open the possibility of accepting a tyrannical sovereign on the basis that even such sacrifice and shirking remain actionable within the terms of the contract (1949). On the other hand, the writings of both Locke and Hobbes reveal a mutual agreement on the idea that the individual is utterly capable of arbitrating conflicts that arise between them, thus implicitly rejecting Rousseau’s conception of man as a noble savage in his natural state.

That rejection of inherent savagery might well have become a central tenet of the modern state were the communal foundation of the social contract extended to the existence of private ownership. According to Karl Marx, the insistence on the mythic absolute of private property is the quintessential element one needs to apprehend how the “beginnings of the modern state lie in ‘the expropriation of the autonomous and private bearers of executive power who in their own right possess the means of administration, warfare, and financial organization’” (Sayer).

Marx’s justification this perspective is that since the ruling class owns all the means of production and the private property, the “noble savages” seeking to become more active agents in the exercise of their rights and responsibilities must accept that acquisition of ownership is the key that opens the door to all power. This acceptance in turns assures the reproduction of that ideological underpinning of the modern state. From this reproduction is borne the conflicts which has accorded the modern state very much the same history of warfare and bloodshed which had in the old order been instrumental in reproducing the ideology of sovereigns accorded absolute authority directly from a supreme being.

And so the modern state, while inarguably an improvement over that which preceded it, also exists in a state of suspended animation, caught halfway between the outmoded system while still waiting for the necessary adjustments to transform itself into a post-modern state that caters to the higher ideals of the social contract by removing the conflict inherent in such notions as private ownership and a distinction between ownership and workmanship. Rousseau’s suggestion that the evils of society can best be defeated or at least contained through a collaborative process has come to be viewed through an ideological lens has come to equate the power of the cooperative with the degradation of the individual. Oddly, this deep-seated suspicion of the power of the cooperative remains firmly in place even in the face of mounting evidence of the denigration of the power of the individual to effectively combat the overweening sovereign leading the rise of what might be termed the post-modern state: the Corporation. “As private actors acquire the resources and the motives to contract for security services at home and abroad, for both defensive and offensive purposes, they acquire the capacity to back “private authority” with physical force. The implications of such developments for the Westphalian conception of state sovereignty are sobering” (Hall & Biersteker, 2002).


Fukuyama, F. (2011). The Origins of Political Order – From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hall, R. B., & Biersteker, T. J. (2002). 1: The Emergence of Private Authority in the International System. In R. B. Hall & T. J. Biersteker (Eds.), The Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance (pp. 3-18). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Hobbes, T. (1949). De Cive; Or, the Citizen (S. P. Lamprecht, Ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Pierson, C. (2004). The Modern State. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Poggi, G. (1990). The State, Its Nature, Development, and Prospects. Stanford University Press.

Poggi, G. (2004). Theories of State Formation. In Kate Nash and Alan Scott (eds.) Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. The Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology, pp.96-105.

Rousseau, J. (1950). The Social Contract and Discourses (G. D. Cole, Trans.). New York: E. P. Dutton.

Sayer, Derek. Capitalism and Modernity: An Excursus on Marx and Weber. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Tallett, F. (1992). War and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1495-1715. London.

Tilly, C. (1992). Coercion, Capital, and European States, 990-1992 AD. Wiley & Sons.