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.