Posted by: hobbesonafob | April 21, 2009

First Premise: The Nature of the State

Before we can accurately discuss state-building and a myriad of other topics, we must first depict what the state actually is. The following is an excerpt from my honours thesis:

Max Weber famously defined the state as an organization with the following characteristics:

“It possesses an administrative and legal order subject to change by legislation, to which the organized corporate activity of the administrative staff, which is also regulated by legislation, is oriented. This system of order claims binding authority, not only over the members of the state, the citizens, most of whom have obtained membership by birth, but also to a very large extent, over all action taking place in the area of its jurisdiction. It is thus a compulsory association with a territorial basis. Furthermore, to-day, the use of force is regarded as legitimate only so far as it is either permitted by the state or prescribed by it…The claim of the modern state to monopolize the use of force is as essential to it as its character of compulsory jurisdiction and of continuous organization.” (1)

Although Weber’s contribution to defining the state is important, the quote itself does not explain the fluctuation the state experiences with its supposed monopoly of violence and its legitimacy. Portraying the state as having a steady monopoly of violence in a given territory is inaccurate: in actuality, this is a historical rarity.

Secondly, Weber’s definition implies that the relationship between the state and a non-state actor is static. On the contrary, the current list of member states of the United Nations reveals a whole host of states that do not maintain a monopoly of force — let alone a monopoly on legitimate force — in their respective territories.

Another point of contention in Weber’s characterization of the state is that the legitimacy of the state’s ability to use violence is permitted or proscribed by the state. Other scholars have contributed to the idea of the modern state by having even more features than Weber’s characterization of the state. Christopher Pierson, a Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham, lists what he believes are the “most important (if contested) features” of the mechanisms of the state:

  • control of the means of violence;
  • territoriality (the state occupies a clearly-defined and demarcated territory);
  • sovereignty (“within the limits of its jurisdiction…no other actor may gainsay the will of the sovereign state”);
  • constitutionality (by defining under what conditions the state may change the law, a state is considered more modern);
  • impersonal power (the ideal that the state is an impersonal power based on the idea of the rule of law);
  • the public bureaucracy (the administration of the population within the state);
  • authority/legitimacy (“the actions of the state and its demands upon its population will be accepted or, at least, not actively resisted.”);
  • citizenship (a status of an individual in a state); and
  • taxation (which is considered modern when “It is systematic, continuous, extensive, regularized and bureaucratized”). (2)

These characteristics are accurate, if not ideal, attributes of the state, but the same criticisms leveled at Weber’s primary characteristic of the state can be applied to Pierson’s characteristics: there are polities lacking the aforementioned nine characteristics, yet they are considered states by the international community. Vice versa, there are polities that are not considered states, yet demonstrate these nine characteristics.

If one accepts Pierson’s characteristics, it can be concluded that in actuality there are only — at the most — 29 states out of the 177 different polities throughout the world. The United Nations recognizes 192 different polities, which means only 15% of the U.N.’s members are considered “stable” or “most stable” states. (3) For these reasons, a more accurate depiction of the state is needed. For this, we can turn to Charles Tilly’s characterization of the state for an inclusionary and descriptive definition. According to Tilly, the state participates in four main activities:

  • WARMAKING: eliminating or neutralizing their own rivals outside the territories in which they have clear and continuous priority as wielders of force;
  • STATEMAKING: eliminating or neutralizing their rivals inside those territories;
  • PROTECTION: eliminating or neutralizing the enemies of their clients; and
  • EXTRACTION: acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities: warmaking, statemaking, and protection. (4)

The obvious question that follows this definition is, are there not other agents or entities that have the ability to make war, eliminate or neutralize rivals and the enemies of their clients, and able to extract resources? Undoubtedly, there exists other entities that participate in these state-defining activities. These agents are usually referred to as warlords, crime bosses, street gang leaders, and even private military companies; for the purposes of this essay they will be classified as “coercive nonstate actors” (CNAs) because of their ability to wield coercive power — the characteristics Tilly attributes to the state. (5)

Each characteristic that Tilly attributes to the state will be examined more closely in upcoming entries.


1. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, trans. A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 156.

2. Christopher Pierson, The Modern State (New York: Routledge, 1996), 9-34.

3. This list is based on the current list of members of the United Nations and cross-tabulated with the “Failed State Index” fromForeign Policy. “Failed States,” 2008. & United Nations, “List of Member States,” 2008.

4. Charles Tilly. Warmaking and State Making as Organized Crime (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1982), 15.

5. It should also be noted that CNAs sometimes act in the interest of the state



  1. […] has led me to conclude that the Westphalian state or the Weberian concept of the state (see here) is currently an anomaly in the international system and has historically been a rarity. Although […]

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