This Week’s Special: Charles Tilly’s “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”

Michael Boyle

Tony Soprano and the Nation State: Charles Tilly’s “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”

One of the most significant sociologists of the 20th Century, Charles Tilly (1929-2008) is best known for his linkage of war and war-making with the appearance of the nation-state in Europe, especially in his 1990 book, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990. Five years earlier, Tilly published an essay he’d been working on since at least 1982 entitled “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in which he argued that the emerging nation state established itself by acting, essentially, as a racketeer (in terms of the interrelated activities of war-making, state-making, protection, and resource extraction via plunder, taxes, etc.):

But consider the definition of a racketeer as someone who creates a threat and then charges for its reduction. Governments’ provision of protection, by this standard, often qualifies as racketeering. To the extent that the threats against which a given government protects its citizens are imaginary or are consequences of its own activities, the government has organized a protection racket. Since governments themselves commonly simulate, stimulate, or even fabricate threats of external war and since the repressive and extractive activities of governments often constitute the largest current threats to the livelihoods of their own citizens, many governments operate in essentially the same ways as racketeers.

The prosecution of war and its necessary correlates of resource extraction and the building of capital had, argues Tilly, the unforeseen effect of creating the modern nation-state, notwithstanding his admission that government fulfills other roles and has other justifications besides those related to violence. Part of what Tilly seeks to accomplish is, by a materialist investigation of the historical sociology of state formation (a weakness for those who believe ideology is crucial) to get at a description of how European nation states formed that is more relevant and illuminating than the model of a social contract.

Tilly also describes a key development in the protection racket as being the slow and gradual establishment of the line between legitimate and illegitimate violence. Through a number of developments over several hundred years, the state accorded to itself a monopoly of violence. That meant that local leaders, responsible for enforcing the peace ever since ancient times, were eclipsed by the greater presence of officials directly answerable to the state. It also eventually saw the emergence of what we know as police forces. In terms of military technology, sometimes adduced as a key to nation-state formation, Tilly is skeptical that the technological side was the crucial factor but acknowledges that this is connected to organizational transformations in making war which made it too expensive for all but the largest players. He also highlights the importance of access to financial resources for things like the growing national debts tied to the prosecution of conflicts by the state. In terms of war-making, state-making, protection, and extraction, all are tied to different implementation frameworks: war is tied to the growth of a military complex, the growth of the state to domestic intelligence and enforcement, protection is linked to assemblies who desire it, and extraction to the emergence of national financing configurations.

The balance between these four violence-based frameworks (derived from war-making, state-making, protection, and extraction) helped decide the respective governing structures. Furthermore, when there was opposition from the people (as for example, in England) substantial concessions could be wrung out of the racketeers. There are also a number of interstate factors discussed by Tilly, including the idea that the same mechanisms of violence monopoly that helped states control domestic territory made them effective prosecutors of war, forcing others to adapt and follow suit or perish. Our current international system, says Tilly, is merely a global extension of that very same dynamic.

Separate from the historical usefulness of Tilly’s model, he is the scholar most identified with bringing to the forefront the ties between the emergence of the Western nation state and warfare, now a substantial topic in historical sociology. Aside from this, his description of the state as a racketeer who often creates the enemies its protection racket is designed to oppose has eerie resonances with contemporary politics, particularly the problem of the blurring of authority and power. This, caused in part by endless Wars on Terror and Drugs, have resulted in diminished civil liberties, the rise of a carceral surveillance state (particularly in our education system), and questions from those on the left and the right regarding whether at least some of these alleged protections are really worth the cost. Have we created much of the drug violence by our draconian narcotics laws, laws which are then enforced via the erosion of Posse Comitatus, paramilitary police, the omnipresence of SWAT teams, and diminished civil liberties? Are we contributing to the creation of terror and the loss of freedoms in order to fight it through our unrestrained drone strikes, support of corrupt regimes like Saudi Arabia, and our own government’s domestic drumbeat of fear a drumbeat so effective that a small bipartisan filibuster (of sorts) spearheaded by a young Kentucky conservative barely slowed down the USA Freedom Act (although the renewal did remove phone collection and put in more rules re: approved surveillance)? This is why Tilly matters.


  1. Well put on the first part of the last paragraph, which would also tie to some issues behind Black Lives Matter and more. Connecting this to Steve Pinker, some have argued that the violence behind internal policing is one thing he failed to consider in his book.

  2. Just started reading Tilly, but I have noticed this: “Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making all belong on the same continuum – that I shall claim as well.” If there is truth to this – and I believe there is – that is pretty strong evidence against any ‘bio-criminology’ claim that there must be some genetic component to criminal behavior. Perhaps a genetic tendency towards violence per se; but criminally transgressive behavior has to be defined through a state apparatus, and if the state arrives in history through violence, then such definition is naturally suspect – (‘who benefits?’).

    This also emphasizes the danger of believing that ethics resolves into some evolutionary/genetic tendency toward sympathy for others that will eventually subsume our more violent impulses. How can it, if the very organization of our society depends on such impulses to some degree?

    (I’ve long suspected this, but it’s not a new idea, really – Tilly seems to be writing like a better informed Hobbes, and a more pessimistic Marx. – But I’ll reserve judgment till I complete reading.)

  3. Hi Michael, interesting read and perspective. I can’t believe I’m going to argue against Tilly’s position but I will. I think his argument is plausible and perhaps in many cases true, but it seems hyperbolic to view all war-making or state-making as involving racketeering. Some people actually are put upon from inside or outside their community and need to organize to remove such threats. The problem comes with how it gets institutionalized in any state, and how that state ends up dealing with threats posed by the surrounding mafia-states. The hoarding of violence by the state is of course problematic.

    What about rebellions to throw off such corrupted governments? Those people must get organized and create a state of their own, or what?

    It does of course dove-tail nicely with Chomsky.

  4. @dbholmes:

    Tilly does point out that the authority of government is not solely bound up with violence, which is what I was referring to when I said that for Tilly, government has other roles and justifications besides violence. But, he thinks violence is the most important, especially in terms of explaining the dynamics of European state making in opposition to social contract narratives.

    In terms of rebellions, he specifically references the English Civil War, noting that the aftermath resulted in significant changes re: power distribution and that this rebellion succeeded partly through the connections with the existing structure (e.g., nobles).

  5. @ejwinner:

    “How can it, if the very organization of our society depends on such impulses to some degree?”

    I’m not sure Tilly is making such a universalist claim that this is the only way to set up a society, just that that’s how Europe did it and then, since the West became the dominant global civilization, it exported that model.

  6. Michael Boyle,

    I have not yet finished reading Tilly, but it is not clear to me how his general claims can be limited within European borders.

    The Modern State has its clear antecedents, especially in China.

    At any rate, the claims of ‘socio-biology,’ ‘bio-criminology,’ ‘evolutionary psychology,’ and similarly well-funded (pseudo)sciences, not to mention vacuous evolutionary based meta-ethics like emotivism, are all themselves universalist claims (concerning the human organism). Any major counter-example undoes them (and I can’t think of a larger counter-example than the history of Europe). So my point stands.

    Hobbes was more right than Rousseau or Hume.

    (Most people forget that Kant’s de-ontological ethics are grounded in a presumptive theory that human nature is inherently “radically evil” – i.e., selfish, greedy, violent and cruel.)

    As Modernists, that’s our curse; but it may also be our cure….

  7. Ejwinner,

    Yes, Europe is a counterexample (Imperial China gets a mention, BTW, and given its own emergence out of the Warring States period, Tilly seems to fit here, too). I agree. My point was simply that I’m not sure Tilly thinks this path is one that is necessarily inevitable for everyone, which I don’t mean evolutionary empathy, etc., but one that takes violence into account in some other way than channeling it in the way he describes.

  8. That is a terrific article by Tilly. Every New Atheist should be compelled to read it so that their facile claim that religion is the cause of war can be forever laid to rest. Of course rulers use more than just force to secure the acquiescence of their subjects. They will use ideologies and bend the social contract to that end. Willing submission is far cheaper than coerced submission but the end remains the same – extraction of wealth.

    is best known for his linkage of war and war-making with the appearance of the nation-state in Europe

    This statement seems inaccurate. War making has been a continuous feature of our entire recorded human history. One need only read Julius Caesar’s Commentaries to see that he was continually involved in war. He began his wars as an impoverished noble and came out of them as a wealthy man.

    the rise of a carceral surveillance state (particularly in our education system), and questions from those on the left and the right regarding whether at least some of these alleged protections are really worth the cost. Have we created much of the drug violence by our draconian narcotics laws, laws which are then enforced via the erosion of Posse Comitatus, paramilitary police, the omnipresence of SWAT teams, and diminished civil liberties?

    I suggest instead that the state is confronted by wholly new challenges and this is the cause of the symptoms above. Dan-K put his finger on the issue when he wrote(in an earlier essay):

    “Every individual has a given role and status within a well-defined…system of roles and statuses…In such a society, a man knows who he is by knowing his role in those structures…” (MacIntyre: 1984)) In the modern era, however, personal identity came to be internally defined and was thereby individualized. Indeed, the transition from pre-modern to modern civilization is marked, in large part, by the emergence of this individualistic, interior conception of the Self, which was a product of the Reformation—and especially Luther’s rarefied Paulinism, with its intense focus on the soul—and of modern secular philosophy, most significantly, the philosophy of Descartes, who conceived of the conscious Self as privileged in the order of both knowledge and being. (Descartes: 1641)

    The transition from role-defined identity to internally defined and individualised identity is a strong challenge to the state. It weakens cohesion, increases dissent and results in corrosive questioning of the assumptions that support the state. The state is reacting to the dissent and corrosive questioning by implementing the coercive measures you describe above. Strangely enough, China is experiencing this process in an even more severe form.

  9. I should have added that the way Tilly frames the matter allows us to see the ferment in the Muslim world in a new and far more useful way, free of religious prejudices. Dawkins should be compelled to read Tilly’s article, memorise it and recite it every morning before breakfast.

  10. @Socraticgadfly

    I believe the main cause of the blacklivesmatter movement is a sort of blind reaction to city planning—which in St. Louis you will find the neighborhoods to be nearly perfectly distinguishable between either white or black. Where the city in the hypothetical is self regarding as its own only enforcer but is not self admitting that its policies or laws don’t reflect its subparts, namely the marginalized ones.

    I think the feudal part of this response is in the policy legislating part, those who write the laws I find are largely insular from ghettos or the like because they have no sense of living a day in there.

  11. Maybe it’s more a question of whether war is still profitable. Up until the 20th century, it seems to me that a state could make a net profit by conquest and colonization. With added complexity of civilisation, there are fewer valuables that can survive warfare – eg Avdiivka Coke and Steel in eastern Ukraine, though compare mineral resources in African civil wars.

    As to human universals and individual differences, I think we can assume there will always be a proportion of men in the population who need to ascend the within-group hierarchy and then retain power for their family, and a larger proportion who would find it too much work. And 1% psychopaths. Without a complicated administration, a paramount leader can only control one day’s walk, but in our era he can aspire to running Microsoft or Russia. A recent documentary I saw was on the Incan empire – they expanded very quickly to encompass a population of 8-9 million, but by a mixture of marriages, alliances, offering agricultural improvement (warmer weather helping too) as well as warfare (the impression I got was a lot less of the latter than the Romans, though one reason for the Spanish success was a recent coup attempt and a grumbling Northern revolt).

  12. @Labnut:

    “‘is best known for his linkage of war and war-making with the appearance of the nation-state in Europe”

    This statement seems inaccurate. War making has been a continuous feature of our entire recorded human history. One need only read Julius Caesar’s Commentaries to see that he was continually involved in war. He began his wars as an impoverished noble and came out of them as a wealthy man.”

    Tilly is not arguing that war was invented by the nascent European nation-state, simply that it was built with violence at its heart. My fault for the ambiguity of the sentence.

    “I suggest instead that the state is confronted by wholly new challenges and this is the cause of the symptoms above.”

    One of the questions people are asking here in the US is whether those challenges aren’t at least sometimes created/invented by us. Hence the relevance of Tilly to things like the War on Drugs.

  13. Kouts, I used to live in St. Louis. Those northside suburbs weren’t a ‘blind” reaction at all; they were a quite conscious one of white flight. And, if we can talk about “fiscal violence” their court fines were quite conscious too.

    (I don’t know how much of a libertarian Tilly is or is not, but I think “fiscal violence” is a useable phrase.)

    That said, conscious, or subconscious, police violence carried over on top of this.

  14. @ gadfly

    The blind reaction I’m referring to is over the Ferguson protest, I assume that is what you’re referring to as well. And the blind reaction is really beside the point of Tilly’s argument. Largely in Ferguson during the tumult there was undeniable sentiment of injustice, I’m not disagreeing with that, but there was inarticulate recognition by the community to recognize what they were mad at, or who specifically they should be mad at. Over and over again they hounded Darren Wilson, who was a blip of an otherwise much larger and systematic problem. So their rage focused into a blind reaction, e.g. burning down a gas station. Apologies for being a bit coy.

    As for fiscal violence I think that fits into being another part of the systematic problem.

  15. Having read through Tilly’s paper, a number of questions:

    1. Were the processes Tilly describes historically inevitable (in the sense that political-economic trends will continue until they are recognized and counter-acted)? Answering this question is complicated by regional and global pressures that generate other trends, such as the construction of artificial states in post-colonial territories, or the demand by the powerful on internal structures of client states.

    2. Does Tilly’s theory have enough predictive power to indicate means of halting or redirecting the processes it describes?

    3. There are clear indications among established Western states that economics is not only complimentary to military or paramilitary threat or engagement, but in many ways replacing it. For instance, we should admit that the policies of the government of Greece are largely determined by financiers in Germany. We should like to say that, at least, the government of Germany could intervene in this, but we all know it won’t, since the policies of the German government are also determined by these financiers, albeit, less obviously, in a way that maintains the illusion that the interests of the German people as a whole are somehow still represented. The point is, do economic-political transformations like this rob Tilly’s theory of it’s predictive power? I think not. If racketeering can take on the mantle of state government, it can certainly do so in the guise of finance institutions. However, this may mean that the predictive power of the theory is has to be reconsidered, especially in terms of the responses we can make to the predictions unfolding. Unfortunately, we have to accept the possibility that social systems under study may be capable of mutating more rapidly than we can respond to them, that the trends implicated are simply unstoppable.

    OT, but not unrelated, I recommend an excellent article by Timothy Snyder, on the historical implications of Nazism as state ideology. It’s by far the most sophisticated and best informed brief discussion of its kind I’ve seen:

  16. 1. Tilly is in part expanding on the ideas of people like Frederic Lane, concerning which he notes: “Lane argued that the very activity of producing and controlling violence favored monopoly, because competition in that realm raised costs, instead of lowering them. The production of violence, he suggested, enjoyed large economies of scale.” Tilly says concerning this idea that the phenomenon of a single power squashing everyone else “…followed almost ineluctably from the logic of expanding power.” [p. 175]
    At least from about 1500 then, Tilly seems to think nation-state development in Europe was inevitable. In terms of globally, given that the nation-state model is the dominant one, he at least thinks that non-Western areas who try and develop themselves to imitate Europe will be better able to function in the global system.

    2. Certainly resistance can force powers-that-be into a bargaining position where they’re compelled to let go of some of their power. Hence, his example of the English Civil War and the aftermath in terms of crown vs. parliament. Whether technology makes such resistance almost impossible today is another question.

    3. The lines between financial institutions and government have been blurry for many years. Just look at the role of JP Morgan after the Panics of 1893 and 1907. Given the revolving door of Washington’s political movers and shakers, the line still seems pretty blurry much of the time.

    Thanks for the link! FWIW, I think anyone who believes citizens of the West are immune to committing large scale acts of brutality needs to review Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo.

  17. It is an excellent essay, and I have never seen it before. It helps crystallise some ideas I have had myself, but not had time to think about properly.

    In my more cynical moods I might have no argument with it. But we are obliged, by virtue of the kind of being we are and the kind of world we inhabit, to organise in order to handle the issues of need and scarcity.

    It may not be that there is an objective fact about there being a right way of doing this. But I think there are better and worse ways of doing it and that, by and large, people are motivated to find the better way of doing this, however badly the intention is usually put into practice.

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