State Formation as Organized Crime

Tilly, Charles. 1985. “State Formation as Organized Crime.” In Evans, Peter, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol eds. Bringing the State Back In Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Charles Tilly draws an analogy between organized crime, with its practices of “protection,” and state making. He makes a direct causal, sequential link between war-making and state-making in European history. Tilly writes: “A portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives”—most of all, the illusory social contract (169). He flatly adds, “War makes states” (170). His argument is that states organize violence in ways similar to organized crime; states simply do it on a larger scale. His basic argument is as follows:

Power holders’ pursuit of war involved them willy-nilly in the extraction of resources for war making from the populations over which they had control and in the promotion of capital accumulation by those who could help them borrow and buy. War making, extraction, and capital accumulation interacted to shape European state making. Power holders did not undertake those three momentous activities with the intention of creating national states – centralized, differentiated, autonomous, extensive political organizations. Nor did they ordinarily foresee that national states would emerge from war making, extraction, and capital accumulation. (172)

He notes how governments often had an array of violent-capable groups to deputize for wars when it was necessary or convenient: bandits became troops; pirates became sailors. These groups were reconsidered illegal once they no longer served their purpose. The goal of power holders was to hold on to their turf—and, if need be, expand it. The turf wars encouraged governments to consolidate their territories both internally and vis-à-vis external actors. Internally, governments sought to excise violence from the social body, concentrating it in monopolized and legitimized form with a central authority. Accordingly, governments sought to displace forms of indirect rule (lords and other local potentates) and created internal security forces such as police (175). External processes such as war and competition are also important drivers of the process.

Tilly identifies four different ways in which states (in formation and otherwise) organize violence: war-making, state-making, protection, and extraction.

In an idealized sequence, a great lord made war so effectively as to become dominant in a substantial territory, but that war making led to increased extraction of the means of war – men, arms, food, lodging, transportation supplies, and/or money to buy them – from the population within that territory.  The building up of war-making capacity likewise increased the capacity to extract.  The very activity of extraction, if successful, entailed the elimination, neutralization, or cooptation of the great lord’s local rivals; thus, it led to state making. As a by-product, it created organization in the form of tax collection agencies, police forces, courts, exchequers, account keepers; thus it again led to state making. (183)

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