A Return of Barbarism

18 december 2014

Is the State Not a Dogma?

Nikolai Silayev is a senior researcher at the Center for Caucasian Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and head of the politics section at Expert magazine. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Resume: Absence of a state entails a lot of trouble, but it also offers certain advantages, the main of which is that there is no need to pay for a complex and very costly institutional system. This relieves the ruling groups of a tremendous burden of chores and gives them a free hand.

In his recent book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist Theory of Upland Southeast Asia, sociologist James Scott rearranged the key points in world history. With reliance on research into the economic and social practices of upland territories in Southeast Asia, where the influence of surrounding countries was minor or non-existent, he concluded that the state as a form of political organization of society was not unavoidable. It is not an inevitable outcome of evolution in any society. Most of humankind throughout a greater part of its history remained stateless, which was a result of conscious political choice and not of “backwardness.”

Scott remarks that the very terms “backwardness,” “primitiveness” and “barbarism” are the product of ideological self-assertion of states, while the phenomena they denote constitute strategies for societies’ existence outside of the state. Farming and agricultural practices, political organization, and religious cults in stateless societies were purposefully arranged in a way that allowed them to keep the state at a distance. The reason is simple: the state, even though it imposes taxes, forced labor and military conscription, provided worse living standards than a stateless entity.

In Southeast Asia, life in the mountains had been historically healthier and wealthier than on lowlands under aegis of the state. Up to the technological revolution of the 19th-20th centuries, when the advent of railways, telegraph, telephone, motor vehicles and aircraft technologies enabled the states to effectively exercise power in remote territories, a considerable part of humankind tended to evade this “lowland” form of political organization.

Scott acknowledges that in the 20th century the stateless space shrank dramatically and states came pretty close to ousting all alternative forms of political organization. However, half a hundred pages down he quotes a report by the U.S. commission that investigated the September 11 terrorist attack which pointed to the threat concentrated in “unpoliced” territories, and Afghanistan was named the first such country. From this perspective, the most remarkable feature of the modern globalized world is that the process of states taking over stateless territories has stalled, if not reversed, considering the current state of affairs in Iraq and Libya, the split of Ukraine, the proliferation of unrecognized or partially recognized states, whose capability is dubious but dependence on external support is more than obvious.

“Barbarism” as a mode of existence outside of the fold of the state is making a comeback, and the range of political organizations operating on the global scene is expanding. Really one can state that globalization, which was thought to erode the states’ sovereignty, has produced a rather surprising effect: the erosion of sovereignty is occurring there where it was least expected.


The Weberian concept of the State understood as monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory is very useful in many respects, but very abstract as well. Weber describes an ideal, not an existing political practice: to be more precise, a benchmark that practice sought to achieve in his day. He also had in mind the sociological projection of the Westphalian System, which formalized not so much the political reality as the agreements on it.

The state has always had to assert and fight for sovereignty and its exclusive authority to use force in relations with both external and internal competitors. These competitors and the forms of political organization they represented could vary – from feudal barons to crime lords and from anti-government plotters to religious sects – but they never disappeared altogether. However, the scale of problems they were capable of posing to the state decreased with time (in some regions of the world). The state is not a given but a result of struggle and negotiations, and it has to constantly prove the legitimacy of its right and exclusive authority to use force and coercion. It is immersed in different, non-bureaucratic, irregular and non-legal practices, probably not so much suppressing as disguising them with a fine coat of legal procedures.

Besides, the modern state, which Weber described as an ideal type, is a historically new institution. In Europe, such a state, capable of running its entire territory without mediators and of effectively tapping that territory’s resources to remain self-sufficient, appeared as late as in the 19th century. Moreover, the emergence of modern national democratic states with what Michael Mann termed as “infrastructural” power, meaning the capacity of the state to penetrate civil society and to use this penetration to enforce rule and regulate more and more aspects of life, thereby ousting all other regulatory mechanisms, is an achievement of the 20th century.

This is a rather costly endeavor. Its availability gives lots of advantages, from military opportunities unimaginable previously to various social guarantees. Yet these advantages have to be paid for. In Germany (we intentionally take the example of an industrialized country without excessive foreign policy ambitions) the state costs a hefty 20 percent of the GDP – approximately U.S. $720 billion, public investment excluded. Many countries in the world would prefer to have something less costly and not so exquisite, but the price has to be paid anyway. Now, let us look at an opposite example: Tajikistan spends a little more than one billion U.S. dollars on the state; clearly, a decent bureaucratic machinery is worth a whole lot more. One can presume that there is a certain poverty threshold and the countries below it just cannot afford to maintain a more or less effective state.

But the costs include more than just money expenses. There are quite a few examples of how an influx of money not only failed to improve government but actually made it more corrupt. The main investments should focus on such intangible assets as the social and human resources of universities, bureaucracy, political parties, the press, and business associations. These assets build up very slowly and inconspicuously and are practically impossible to transplant (for this reason the calls for institutional reforms by European standards deserve skepticism).

There are quite interesting historical coincidences. The peak of the growth of the global power of European states in the second half of the 19th century, when they literally subjugated the whole world, coincided with the economic boom spurred by the industrial revolution. The worldwide expansion of the state as a form of political organization, in other words, the period of massive emergence of new states in the liberated colonies, took place during the two decades of the rapid industrial development that followed World War II. The historical citadel of capitalism has seen nothing like postwar growth rates ever since. And the state as a form of political organization has begun to decline on the global scale.

The West is complaining that the state has lost much of its original power as a result deregulation and liberalization reforms initiated by Reagan and Thatcher. The nation-state projects in the former colonies have been failing one by one. Secular dictatorships in the Middle East are crumbling down under the attacks from Islamic street protesters and U.S. missiles. If there are places where the Weberian ideal can still be found, these are China, India and Brazil – the leaders of industrial growth in this century. But would it be right to call this ideal Weberian?


States are coming apart like a wet newspaper sheet. Since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi Libya has failed to reintegrate as one country, and nobody seems to care. Its most valuable assets – ports and oil fields – have been seized by armed groups of different political and tribal shades. The new masters seem to feel no need for restoring an integral state at all. Gaddafi’s fall paved the way for a successful rebellion by the Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith) group in Mali. The civil war in Syria is not over yet, and the central government is very far from regaining control of the entire territory. The regions abandoned by the government forces have become an incubator for Islamic armed groups currently in control of a large part of Iraq.

There is a great temptation to blame this on the chain of U.S. foreign policy mistakes and setbacks and on the ideological and military expansion of radical Islam. This would partially explain the collapse of states: after all, the People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya would have been doomed to fail in confrontation with the combined military might of the West. But this does explain why no attempts are being made to consolidate states within new borders, with new constitutions and ideologies and why any steps taken along these lines invariably fail. A great deal has been said about the artificial borders in the Middle East in the post-colonial era. These borders (post-colonial?), controlled by certain political organizations, may better match the existing ethnic, confessional and other dividing lines. But the organizations that control or seek to control these territories are not eager to pursue the Weberian ideal. In a large part of the world the Weberian state has proven irrelevant. Time is ripe to ask if the world has really changed so much in the industrial era and if its inherent “statization of the world” has no alternative.

Scott maintains that the cost of keeping a territory under control is one of the reasons why stateless territories have existed for so long. A brief survey of the landscape and economic resources and simple calculations show that many areas were basically inaccessible for the authorities of pre-industrialized states. The armies that might have been dispatched for conquest would have been unable to remain self-sufficient away from home. The industrial revolution and the emergence of railways, telegraph, motor vehicles and aircraft pushed down the cost of controlling territories. This, according to Scott, was the main reason why some stateless territories shrank in area and others disappeared altogether. Yet of principal importance for the modern word is that although the costs were cut, they were never reduced to zero.

The value of territory has changed, too. Cereals and workforce were the main resources for pre-industrialized states. In some cases they were complemented with control over trade routes. But during long periods of history the states that controlled vast areas of arable land and had large populations turned out to be the strongest. An industrialized state is sustained by capitalist profit, not its peasants’ hard physical labor. To carry on, it critically needs territories where this profit is generated; and these include former stateless areas, provided they have extractable natural resources. A territory that generates no profit is of little value. Industrialized territories are hard to conquer, because hostilities ruin their industrial potential and the cost of integration with the victor state may be prohibitively high. As for individual profit-generating spots, for instance, oil fields, they do not require investment into statehood infrastructure on vast areas. It is just enough to ensure the security of the personnel who service the oil rigs.

Importantly, profit-generating centers are located around the world unevenly. There are highly industrialized territories, and there are tiny havens of capitalism surrounded by vast expanses that bring practically no profit. During the era of liberation from colonial dependence profits from natural resources production inside such enclaves could be used for the industrialization and development of surrounding territories especially as the global rate of return in industry allowed for that. Many countries have managed to clear the threshold beyond which the modern state begins to repay the costs crucial to its creation. The less fortunate ones will never be able to do so in the current economic conditions. In other words, the Weberian ideal will remain a basically unachievable goal for a large part of the world.


Absence of such a state entails a lot of trouble, but it also offers certain advantages, the main of which is that there is no need to pay for a complex and very costly institutional system. This relieves the ruling groups of a tremendous burden of chores and gives them a free hand. The seven billion dollars – the budget of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – is barely enough to pay civil servants’ salaries in most of the countries equivalent in area and population to the territory under the ISIL control. Yet with a budget like that the ISIL is becoming a global player.

The ruling groups will not regard the dwindling level and quality of life in such territories as politically significant risks. Many regions of the world in their history have never seen anything like modern economic growth, and it takes decades to achieve a situation where the rollback into the stateless condition will be perceived as a tragedy. The angry ones will almost always have a chance to go to places with better conditions, for harsh immigration restrictions will never outweigh the threats migrants have to put up at home.

Not all stateless territories pose terrorist and drug trafficking threats. Most of them are just poorly developed regions with pre-industrial economic and geographic dynamics. They are a challenge to the moral sense of people living in advanced states (so the flow of humanitarian aid to such regions of the world will never run dry), but not a menace to international security. Threats arise from the strife for resources or clashes of geopolitical interests of strong states. In this sense the states themselves contribute to the emergence and expansion of stateless zones by encouraging and arming all sorts of rebels and insurgents.

If there is anything stable about stateless territories, it is their instability. In the foreseeable future they will remain conglomerates where power is continuously redistributed and drifting among clans and tribes, armed gangs, and religious and ideological groups, and the borders separating these political entities are blurred and pregnable. One should expect the ties between stateless territories – some have already been established in various parts of the world – to grow stronger.

It is in the context of global statelessness, a sort of a global favela, that the political role of Islam should be discussed. Apparently, the issue at hand is not the preaching of jihad as such, conducted by more or less radical (in European parlance) theologians. This preaching has never ceased. The distinguishing feature of the modern world is that such sermons provide the most adequate ideological framework for a stateless environment, and that environment in turn furnishes the social order where the slogans of jihad fall on fertile soil.

The jihadist ideology allows for formatting society at one’s own discretion, for classifying its members as friends and foes and for pulling down the social borders standing in the way of the dominating groups. It opens up a very wide base for mobilization and creation of a global network that may incorporate representatives of very different regions and ethnic groups. Inside the network its members are awarded special, highly rated positions and titles. The career ladder is open to “grassroots talent:” it is quite noteworthy that a former Georgian army officer has become a prominent ISIL field commander. The jihadist ideology gives its adepts an elementary quasi-legal system (vulgarized sharia), which is employed to govern the territory that has been taken over. Lastly, this ideology is fundamentally irreconcilable with the Weberian concept of state. Its advocates are in fact vaccinated against traditional statehood.


It looks like at the new stage of world history states have proved unable again to capture and reformat the stateless zones. The United States and its allies have squandered mammoth resources on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to little or no avail. True, modern technologies allow for airlifting troops to other continents virtually in no time, but when it comes to ensuring effective occupation, the balance of force between the army and the rebels promptly gets back to the pre-industrial condition. Situations where rebels prove stronger than the great powers’ regular armies are by no means a phenomenon of the 20th century. They occurred in all historical epochs, the sole distinction being that industrialized states really managed to “discover” certain territories – some, but certainly not all.

Successful democratization of Germany, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Eastern Europe after the breakup of the Warsaw Treaty Organization instilled confidence in the West that its social engineering capabilities were limitless. Apparently, the firm belief in these capabilities was one of the root causes of the catastrophe in Iraq. In reality the export of democracy succeeded only in those places that had a social order more or less resembling the Weberian state and where their sovereignty was suppressed. But Western interference as a rule caused chaos where no social capital crucial for effective statehood had been accumulated..

Therefore, the state as a form of political organization is unlikely to resume expansion, at least until another prolonged global industrial upturn begins. One must accept the fact that the world, as always, consists of states and stateless territories, and the border separating them is highly volatile.

The analytical framework of modern political science should be adjusted to make new statelessness more open to understanding and forecasting. There have been attempts to rate failed states. The United States’ Fund for Peace makes such ratings every year. The Political Atlas of Modernity compiled by the MGIMO University of International Relations includes the Statehood Index – a parameter showing the ability of states to maintain their existence, ensure independent development and address internal and external problems. Although this type of rating puts emphasis on the sovereignty of states, it reflects the correlation between the existing statehood and its Weberian ideal.

It remains unclear, however, how effectively one can apply the attributes of statehood (state borders, for instance) to the regions and territories where government systems are non-existent or imitated. Ratings are of little help in drawing a line between states and stateless territories. All they can offer is the failed state index, which appears to have little analytical value. Indeed, is it really important to compare the capability of the United States and Germany or the incapability of Somalia and Afghanistan? Besides, the ratings do not take into account sub-national failures of states when a generally successful state loses control over part of its territory. In the meantime, these zones may play an important role in global statelessness. Suffice it to mention EU citizens from immigrant communities who are now fighting in the Middle East under the banners of the Islamic State.

In the future we may see a recurrence of the era when the knowledge of anthropology and information gathered by scientists, the military and merchants about remote non-European peoples played a significant role in foreign policy planning. The sole difference being that a hundred or two hundred years ago the “civilized world” studied the stateless world in order to conquer it, while now, in view of the obvious inability to do that, it will be seeking ways of ensuring safe coexistence with those who have preferred or been forced to exist outside of the state. Other, “barbarian” forms of political organization, self-identification and law are becoming important factors of international politics and must become a separate subject of analysis, irrespective of their formal affiliation with this or that U.N. member “state.”

The divide between statehood and statelessness is more fundamental than any other international discord. The first fifteen years of the new century should have taught world policymakers that a bad state is better than a good tribe; at least because it is an entity that can be negotiated with and a party to more or less formalized agreements; because it can serve as an instrument of governance and development on vast territories which otherwise may be swept by chaos. Even a very unappealing state regime provides far more security for its citizens than the most romantic-looking insurgents – the statistics of population exodus from prewar and postwar Iraq serve as the best proof of that. If there is any chance to preserve statehood, it is better to do so.

The condition of the global economy is such that many states are running the risk of going bankrupt, both literally, in financial terms, and figuratively, in the political sense. In some cases the existing borders are prone to change. The list of breakaway territories, irrespective of how international law assesses them, has grown considerably over the past decades, while successful attempts to re-incorporate them into the states they have broken away from are scarce. Incidentally, one of the few examples, if not the sole one of the kind, is Chechnya: its example is a bright illustration of how long, twisted and unpredictable the way back to statehood can be.

If a breakaway territory demonstrates some attributes of statehood, this is a good enough reason to recognize its right to independence, especially if there are those who are ready to pay for its movement towards the Weberian ideal. The proposal to formulate international criteria for such recognition, put forth before the West recognized Kosovo, still remains relevant. True, independence may be conditioned on a set of requirements reflecting the concerns of the conflicting parties, for instance, rehabilitation programs for the victims of ethnic cleansing and special effective guarantees of interethnic peace. But reducing the gray zone of statelessness wherever possible is still more important than some fundamental political positions.

Lastly, states should refrain from exploiting stateless territories or stateless forces for the sake of their own time-serving interests. However terrible it may sound, a conventional war between states is more preferable than an armed insurgency of the sort the United States has been conducting in Syria. The former can at least be brought to an end through clear procedures, while the latter, as the experience of the past thirty or forty years shows, almost never end but involve ever more people, sprawl to ever more regions, adversely affecting people’s lives in ever greater territories. It has to be acknowledged that we and the world have changed for the better very little over the past 150 years, and stop veiling crimes committed by hired cutthroats with rhetoric about non-use of force in international relations.

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