The Making of the Modern State

Brian Nelson’s book, The Making of the Modern State (Palgrave 2006) seeks to illuminate the specificity of the modern state by charting out its historical evolution. The strengths of the book, aside from its brevity and clarity, reside in its comparative historical approach to the subject matter and its emphasis on the significance of class inequalities on the institutional development and evolution of the state. Beginning with the historical formation of states out of the development of social inequalities emerging within kinship and tribal based societies, Nelson traces the long historical processes of state formation from the Archaic Near East, to the city-states of Ancient Greece and Rome, up through the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent rise of feudalism to the construction of absolutist and constitutional states in the Renaissance and modern periods. Relying on a Weberian conception of the modern state, Nelson takes the reader through centuries of political theorizing regarding the nature of state power and theories of legitimacy: from Plato to Marx and every canonical thinker in between. The significant development in the conceptualization of the modern state is the passage from ruler-based to state-based conceptions of sovereignty and the differentiation of the state from civil society.
Yet Nelson never really attains the degree of historical insight that he seeks. Or, to put it another way, his attempt to trace the theoretical evolution of the modern state has a tendency to gloss over some important conceptual problems for historians of political thought that pertain to the historical and social specificity of theories of the state. The problem here is that, despite his recognition of the importance of class inequalities for the development of states, class relations are merely treated as a backdrop to the development of the state and state theory. While the chapter on the Greco-Roman world emphasizes the protracted class struggles that made the state an object of continuous and constant contestation by antagonistic social classes, the significance of class tends to diminish as the narrative progresses historically. The class structure within which the state exists remains, but the class struggles and the social conflicts that relate to political theory and the state disappear as the timeline develops. This raises questions about context and the way contextualization can help us understand the meaning of political theory. Can we simply read-off the developments in political theory from the changes in the class structure? Or, is the relationship between political theory, the state and social class more complicated, mediated by social struggles?
An example of this problem emerges when Nelson discusses the development of the modern state and modern state theory in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. Here, Nelson situates the development of the modern state within the context of the rise of the bourgeoisie, emphasizing the specific interests that the bourgeoisie had in the development of state sovereignty. The problem, however, is that, as Nelson recognizes, the rise of the bourgeoisie seems to be akin to waiting for Godot: always on the march, but never appearing. From late medieval Italy to nineteenth century Western Europe, the bourgeoisie is perpetually rising. But this then raises questions regarding the relationship between the alleged rise of the bourgeoisie and the processes of modern state formation: does the bourgeoisie need a modern state in order to pursue its own interests? What are the interests of the bourgeoisie? What took so long for the bourgeoisies of Europe to establish their modern states? How do we account for the divergent trends in state formation in the early modern period? Nelson recognizes that the bourgeoisie ‘supported whatever was in their economic interest’; thus, whether ‘supporting the centralizing monarchs of England and France, or the city-states of Italy and Germany, the emerging middle classes were able to assert their independence from the nobility (2006:  147).’ The development of modern state theory is related to the functional requirement of a modern state for the economic interests of an increasingly powerful bourgeoisie—a bourgeoisie that can co-exist within a variety of historically different state forms. Yet, this hardly resolves the problem.
The early modern period is more complex than Nelson presents it. This period is characterized by divergent processes of state formation in which the bourgeoisie exists in a variety of different state forms—from commercial republican city-states of Northern Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, to the absolutist monarchies of France and Spain, the imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire, to the constitutional ‘capitalist’ state of England. These differences were not mere differences of institutional design, but rather, differences of the social constitution of political and state power. Nelson seems aware of this, yet the implications that this has on the way we approach the context of early modern political theory is never explored or interrogated in any substantive way.
The relationship between political theory and social structure remains problematic: if divergent processes of state formation have no impact on the development of theories of the state, then why bother situating political theory within the context of class inequalities in the first place? Surely, the development of class inequalities plays a more active and persistent role in defining the historical processes of state formation, and, as a corollary, influencing the agenda of political theorizing. By neglecting to recognize the divergent processes of state formation in the early modern period, Nelson treats the political theory of this period as if it were a pan-European dialogue in which each participant is grasping at a modern conception of the state. In this sense, we have a progressive narrative of emerging modernity, in which Rousseau represents a modern synthesis of Lockean and Hobbesian theories, rather than an innovative rebirth of classical republicanism that relates to the specific socio-political problems of an Absolutist France characterized by the persistence of parcellized sovereignty between a centralized state and a provincial aristocracy typical of the feudal period. What we are left with is a rather conventional account of the history of political thought as well as the development of ‘modernity.’
Part of the problem here is the way Nelson relates political theory to its social context: political theory is considered to be a reflection of a conventional and simplified understanding of social and political change—hence the importance of the rise of the bourgeoisie. While it certainly is true that political theory is related to the social and political developments of its own context, it is not a simple reflection, an intellectual articulation of things that are in fact happening on the ground. The relationship between political theory and social context is much more complicated, and often has as much to say about the real social, political and economic absences that define a social context than it does mirror developments that are actually occurring ‘on the ground.’ To characterize political theory as ideology is not merely to present it as a series of ad hoc attempts to legitimize actually existing states. Political theory as ideology can also be related to the various forces that are contesting the nature of state power within the historical processes of state formation itself and proposing alternative political arrangements. The case of England and France is instructive in this manner. The presence of a well-defined conception of absolutist state sovereignty at the hands of Bodin may say more about the absence of a real sovereign—and therefore ‘modern’—French state; and conversely, the absence of any well-defined conception of sovereignty in England prior to the Civil War may say more about England’s precocious centralization, its distinctive pattern of socio-economic development and its early differentiation between ‘state’ and ‘economy.’
To be sure, Nelson’s book is ideal for undergraduate courses on the history of political thought and should be applauded for putting the state back on to the agenda of the study of political theory. However, Nelson’s book would benefit from an engagement with recent revisionist accounts of the history of political thought and historical sociology that have moved beyond the conventional ‘bourgeois paradigm’ of the development of modernity that is typical of ‘Whig’ conceptions of historical development and political theory. In particular, no historical narrative of the development of modern state theory can ignore the challenge posed by Cambridge School historians like Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock. Pocock’s insistence that the early modern period represents an era characterized by the persistence of pre-modern languages of civic humanism and republicanism that are antithetical to the development of ‘modern’ commercial society has significant implications for a narrative that situates the development of the modern state within the context of the rise of an early-modern bourgeoisie. Similarly, the Marxist revisionism of Ellen Meiksins Wood presents a powerful challenge to the conventional bourgeois paradigm that seeks to explain modern state formation as a consequence of the revolutionary interests of the rising bourgeoisie.



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