The main task of Janice Thomson’s Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns is to reveal how non-state violence became monopolized in its legitimate form by the state. How did the state achieve exclusive claim to the external purveyance of violent force? For the six centuries before 1900, she notes, “global violence was democratized, marketized, and internationalized… Individuals and groups used their own means of violence in pursuit of their particular aims, whether honor and glory, wealth, or political power” (3). Through an ad hoc and largely inadvertent process, Thomson argues that non-state transnational violent actors were effectively disarmed through the (mostly) mutual accord of states themselves.
The book follows a logical sequence: She begins by critiquing Weberian notions of the state. She does so, not by questioning the definitional statement itself, but by critiquing the fact that most Weberian and world-systems theorists have failed to distinguished between the internal (domestic) and external (international) exercise of violence. Her focus is clearly much more on the external deployment of violence. Throughout the book, her arguments are made through historical examples of three non-state forms of globalized violence: mercenarism, the mercantile company, and piracy. The transition toward disarming these forms of violence was incited by the state’s inability to control those whose violence it authorized, while authorized forms forms also gave rise to unauthorized forms (6). “Most importantly, nonstate violence was often turned against the state itself” (6). The nonstate violent actors and their practices were increasingly delegitimized and eventually banned and eliminated.
The process “consolidated the territorial basis of state authority and the boundary between domestic and international politics. The national state, then, is defined as a polity consisting of people who live within geographical borders and whose exercise of violence is subject to exclusive state authority” (6). In somewhat circular form, Thomson repeatedly poses “state building” as both the cause and the result of nonstate violence coming under increasing hegemony of the state (54, 67, 86, 142, 145), but one in which, confusingly, “the production of violence is not a dialectical process” (146). In terms of piracy for instance:
The state would authorize privateering, which was legalized piracy, during wartime. When the war concluded, thousands of seamen were left with no more appealing alternative than piracy. The state would make some desultory efforts to suppress the pirates, who would simply move somewhere else. With the outbreak of the next war, the state would offer blanket pardons to pirates who would agree to serve as privateers and the process would start all over again…. At the heart of these matters was the process of state-building. Privateering reflected the rulers’ efforts to build state power; piracy reflected some people’s efforts to resist that project. (54)
Non-state actors are repeatedly relied upon by states to fulfill violent state-like roles (pirates as navies and mercantile companies as colonial governments), but then those same roles become increasingly consolidated under the formal rule of the state itself. “To attain the wealth and power promised by overseas expansion, states empowered nonstate actors to exercise violence. State economic and military capabilities alone were insufficient or their use and expansion politically constrained” (67). In the meantime, however, particularly with the fighting-trading mercantile companies, “all analytical divisions—between the economic and the political, nonstate and state, property rights and sovereignty, the public and the private—broke down” (32).
Authorized nonstate violence was eliminated in an ad hoc, piecemeal fashion. There was no generalized assault on nonstate violence per se, much less a single method for ending those practices. Privateering was eliminated through a formal international agreement. Mercenarism’s demise came through changes in municipal law…. The mercantile company, as an institution with coercive power, was never formally banned; the individual companies either went bankrupt, were taken over by the state or, in one case, were converted into a purely economic enterprise. (105)
Nonstate violence, with its explicit genealogy of plausible deniability, is eminently useful to states, particularly those reflexively defined by deficiencies. Thomson says this means that they were rather reluctant to see its supposed “demise”; more often, they were passive or, at most, advantage-takers of these authorized forms of violence. It is only when such practices begin to exceed their usefulness, even becoming counter-productive, that states bound together in stamping it out: mercantile companies began to upset the colonial and European balance of power, pirates became counter-productive to the imperatives of capitalist accumulation, etc.
Thomson sees this as a process or a “series of stages in the evolution of state authority and control” (145). These developments cannot be solely attributed to the growing coercive capacities of state institutions proper—namely, the military; the state is simultaneously taking on an expanded range of activities over which it aims to exert its control. Nonstate violence may have been consistent with state aims of sovereignty, but it was not compatible, says Thomson, with republican forms of sovereign government and the ways in which its state-society relations are institutionalized (147-148).
Her main final points are about sovereignty itself: that it should not be taken as a given, that it is variable, and should be subject to empirical study: “Sovereignty is not an absolute, timeless, and invariable attribute of the state. Authority over the use of violence is generally presumed to be a state monopoly and that monopoly the hallmark of the state. If, however, authority over violence has varied so enormously, it is clear that sovereignty is far from fixed” (151).