Defining the State

A “ruling organization” will be called “political” insofar as its existence and order is continuously safeguarded within a given territorial area by the threat and application of physical force on the part of the administrative staff.  A compulsory political organization with continuous operations will be called a “state” insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.  Social action, especially organized action, will be spoken of as “politically oriented” if it aims at exerting influence on the government of a political organization; especially at the appropriation, expropriation, redistribution or allocation of the powers of government.  (54, emphasis in original)

The second sentence of that quote is probably the most well known and regularly quoted of all of Weber’s work.  I’ve often heard it shortened to not include the word “legitimate,” which is quite unfortunate, as that substantially changes the definition.  It’s not that the State is an organization that has a monopoly on physical violence altogether in a territorial area.  It’s that it successfully claims to be the only organization that can legitimately use physical violence.  This concept goes to the core of the standard “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” reasoning that most states have resorted to at some point.  Beyond tactical considerations, such an action would be a recognition by the State that the organized ‘terrorist’ group’s use of physical violence was indeed legitimate, since it enabled that group to take politically oriented action based on physical force, which was outside of the processes established by the ruling organization, and yet still was able to get some kind of ability to negotiate.  The only substantial difference under this understanding then between terrorists and the State is that terrorists don’t effectively control the use of legitimate physical force in a territorial area.

Overall I like this definition, but it remains somewhat lacking.  One issue has only become more readily apparent in the last decade or so: the emergence of hollow states.  This is where a government still exists and can function on an international level (as in it still is an internationally recognized government and territorial borders), but in practice doesn’t control large areas of its territory.  In the past decade, examples of this would be things like the large amounts of territory ISIS holds in Iraq and Syria, the little control the Afghan government has over its theoretical territory outside of the capital and a few regions, and many northern Mexican border cities.   This is different than a failed state, where a government has completely collapsed and almost no services are being provided.  The hollow state phenomenon isn’t actually that new; it’s just much more apparent in recent years given changes in technology and international norms (in particular the increased accessibility of small arms to non-State actors, combined with the relatively strong post-WWII norm against State-based territorial conquest).  But this has definitely happened in the past as well.  Think of the expansion of the United States westward, and the large sections of the west that were not effectively under the control of the government; the US controlled that territory on paper (at least as recognized by the Europeans), but could not successfully uphold the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.  It seems that there should be a some sort of taking into account of the degree of control of this idea of legitimacy on physical force that an organization must have in a territory to be considered the State, but that would potentially have Weber’s definition leaving us with a strange looking map of the world where instead of uniform blocks of colors to designate particular territories, we would have to shade areas within them based on some sort of “degree of perception of effective control over legitimate use of physical force” in their territory.  This would be especially confusing when we would try to map this and find the extreme variation in small territorial areas, from city blocks run by organized crime to small rural separatist communities, and so on.  Interestingly, The Atlantic recently tried to do just this with ISIS:

ISIS control

While this is an attempt to make visible the pockets of control in a hollow state, it still doesn’t even approach the complexity of what a map like the one I described above would look like, where different levels of State power may actually vary on the level of city blocks.  Maybe this is more like how the world actually is, but beyond the complexity of making such a visualization, those who cartographers traditionally served don’t want to make this apparent in their ‘political’ maps.

Trying to relate this definition to intentional communities is quite tricky.  If the State does have a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, it would follow that the State can also decide to limit the amount and types of physical force that will be allowed in the area it controls (torture, summary executions, etc.), and no organization (including itself) could have the legitimate ability to do this in that area.  But what if a territorial organization completely excludes the possibility of physical force, such as the many intentional communities that are non-violent as a core value?  For the purpose of trying to better understand Weber’s definitions, I’m theorizing here that there would be no larger State-like entity above the community itself, mainly in order to see if we can apply the this definition of the State to a non-violent community (this isn’t that far-fetched of a thought experiment, especially considering that many of these communities already try to interact with the government as little as possible, although of course there are plenty of instances where their social forms adapt to this necessity).  It seems to me that Weber’s definition falls apart if physical force is excluded entirely.  Such as organization would not be a State, and would not be a “ruling organization” either according to how he has set these terms up.  We could perhaps salvage his concepts by arguing that the ruling organization of such a community does indeed claim that it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, and it is using that authority to disallow any person from using it at all, including those working for the organization.  This seems like quite a stretch though, and is fairly self-contradicting.  More importantly, this isn’t how anyone I have interacted with at these communities has conceived of the foundation of their non-violence principles.

Why am I attached to applying Weber’s definition of the State to intentional communities?  Couldn’t we just accept that such communities don’t have anything that could be called a State?  There are a few reasons I am trying to do this:

Weber gives us many different ways to analyse many different types of organizations.  However, the communities that I am writing about don’t fit well into just one or even a small number of these organizational types, but instead are a collection of different forms of organizations whose number approaches that of a small town.  This is especially true in the larger communities that I am familiar with like Twin Oaks and East Wind, and that doesn’t even take into account historical intentional communities in the United States like the Harmony communities.  It seems to me that there needs to be some way to account for the central political system that holds these organizations together, and it’s hard to see what can do this besides a “ruling organization.”

As I’ve written before, intentional communities in many ways appear to be small societies onto themselves.  The larger of these have decision-making frameworks that could still operate relatively unchanged if they had a massive increase in size.  Derived from Skinner’s outlines in Walden Two, Twin Oaks’ planner-manager system was intended to function with ten times the population of the current community.  However, the larger the population, the more complex the series of social relationships become.  While there would of course be no way to know this unless it actually happened, I think the decision-making systems would function significantly differently with a much larger population, even if they had the same formal organization.  The Community Planners would almost certainly be a full time job, as well as many other ‘executive’ positions.  The number of positions necessary for administrative tasks would expand as well.  This would potentially lead to certain people spending most or potentially all of their time on administrative tasks.  At the rate things are going in the community now, we could expect an corresponding increase in the number and complexity of policies.  Eventually, we would need people who spend a significant amount of time focusing on interpreting and arguing about policies and decisions, a sort of nascent class of lawyers and judges.  It seems to me that at some point, we need to call this thing a ruling organization or a State, and I don’t think the point that happens is when such a community builds a jail or allows certain people to carry around weapons to enforce decisions.  But where exactly does this transition happen then?  Could we then consider the existing organizational forms a proto-State?


~ by Ethan Tupelo on 02015.02.06.

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