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1: States, Nations, and Political Development

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    Facts, Theories and Case Studies

    In the study of Comparative Politics, we use evidence and theory to explain diverse political behaviors and outcomes. The social sciences try to identify patterns and develop generalizations for human processes which are in themselves always unique. In that way, these theories help us better understand what is similar in these processes even as we recognized that no new political processes are exactly the same. The challenges in political science are shared by all the social sciences. No two individuals are exactly the same and yet that does not render psychological theories of human development meaningless. More specific forms of theorizing—related to gender or racial identity— also seek to identify patterns and generate understandings about what is common in a particular experience of identity even though each person's genes, perspective, and experience are distinct.

    So, in political science, we look to develop theories about the impact of particular kinds of electoral systems, or why policies to promote economic development work more or less successfully, or why democratic institutions succeed or fail, or when and how new rights claims get recognized and addressed or not. We will examine questions such as these by looking at some of the theoretical concepts political scientists use to analyze them and then applying those theories and concepts to a series of case studies. The particular case studies will vary with the topics we study, but 9 countries will receive more sustained attention: United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, China, India, Nigeria, Brazil, Iran and the United States. We will begin by analyzing their histories and learning how each nation took its modern form. In the process, we will see that while each state has a unique history, the challenges they have faced are similar and their outcomes can be compared to better understand politics as a realm of human experience that we all encounter one way or another. The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky said “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” A famous Prussian diplomat, Carl Von Clausewitz called war “the continuation of politics by other means”. And indeed, political systems—states—are interested in you, whatever your own personal views might be.

    What are Nation-States?

    In this way, our unit of analysis is something that has come to be called the modern nation-state. To approach our topic, we must first ask, what is a nation-state? And, what makes it modern? While these seem like simple questions, they raise deep and complex historical issues and if we are to answer them well, we must grasp some of that complexity. We will speak of each country as a single unit, but each has a long and complex history. Some cases are really multiple cases because the state in those places has undergone radical changes. China has been an imperial dynasty, a one-party capitalist state, and a one-party communist state. Germany has been a strong democracy, a weak democracy, a constitutional monarchy, and, of course, the fascist state created by the Nazis.  We cannot understand the present political system in each country without understanding how the political systems of the past rose and fell. In this way, we will be studying processes rather than simply analyzing a photograph of the present. The goal is to understand how the present state in each place took the form it has, what were the political conflicts and processes that generated that form, and how, based on our understanding, might it change in the future? With each system we will ask: What was the problem for which a particular system seemed the solution? Then, we can analyze how particular political systems were able to either maintain power or were transformed and replaced with a new system.

    We have to begin by taking apart the term “nation-state” and analyze its components conceptually and historically. This is a form of political organization that is just over 200 hundred years old.  The terms nation and state are much older; how did they get fused in this particular manner? Humans have developed and evolved in social groups. But the form these groups and communities have taken have varied widely across space and time. While we may be wired for group attachment and identity, no particular form is inscribed in our genes.

    So, how did membership in a nation-state come to seem so fundamental to a modern sense of political identity? What made it a force that political leaders could use to generate a sense of nationalism and shared identity that made its members willing to sacrifice their lives and in the process produce some of the bloodiest conflicts in human history?


    The Emergence of the Modern State in Europe


    What we call the Modern State is a new form of a very old kind of political structure which began to emerge more than 5000 years ago among human communities. The principal features of what social scientists call a state is the capacity to administer and create structures of governance for a particular territory and its inhabitants. States have varied in their size and the mechanisms of rule. They have also differed in the extent of actual control they exercised over the people they claimed to govern. Prior to the 19th century, larger and more powerful states were universally hierarchical and authoritarian in their political structure. Even when conceptions of citizenship existed, such as in ancient Greece and Rome, those rights were limited and coexisted with various forms of slavery.

    The form of state which emerged in Europe in the 17th and 18th century built upon the legacy of previous states but gradually developed a far greater level of centralization and administrative reach.  Why did it emerge in Europe and how did a few of these states become global powers which have shaped the structure of the modern world so powerfully? Europe in the middle ages was a collection of largely decentralized states whose leaders’ power over their “realm” or  “subjects” often diminished quickly the further one lived from the seat of royal power. During the so-called “dark ages” of European history, far more centralized and powerful states emerged in China, India and the Middle East. From 1000-1800 AD, China and India accounted for roughly two-thirds of global GNP. Some medieval cities in Europe and elsewhere developed conceptions of civic virtue and citizenship, but operated within geographically limited areas.

    What happened? One version of western history celebrates the rise of the enlightenment, capitalism, and the technological progress each made possible. But, other regions were not lacking in the conditions, practices, and technologies which we associate with modern developing nations. They had extensive trade relations with other regions of the globe and had long had their own centers of science, knowledge, and commerce that surpassed Europe for most of the past thousand years. To understand why Europe became the center of political and economic processes which transformed the world and made it, along with its former colonies in the United States, the dominant global powers, we need to understand what happened in Europe, how other regions responded, and what the consequences of those interactions were for political development in all these regions

    Historian Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argues that the conditions that kept Europe a region in which no one state could conquer and govern as wide a territory as rulers in India, China, or the Middle East (under the Ottoman Empire) also contributed to its rise to global power and dominance. Kennedy argues that European geography made conquest of the entire continent difficult. Europe’s climate made it possible for a wide range of products to be produced while sea and river travel facilitated the expansion of trade. This, in turn, propelled the development of shipbuilding that eventually enabled Europeans to explore, conquer, and exert control over markets and labor from Southeast Asia to the Americas.


    War, Wealth, and the European State System


    This process generated new wealth as well as new competition for control that in turn generated almost constant military conflict. From the beginning of the 16th to the beginning of the 19th century, European states were constantly at war. This generated enormous new fiscal pressures on states as European politics became very much a “pay to play” system. Rulers who could maintain the wealth necessary to keep their armies of mercenaries supplied with weapons and food gained in power. Those who could not saw their power diminish and were often dependent on alliance with a more powerful state.

    In this very competitive environment, control of territory, through military victory and administrative development, became a central priority. One could no longer claim control over a realm or kingdom unless he or she could actually control that territory from the capital to the border. To do so, required the capacity to tax the population while able to maintain and upgrade military capacity. This, in turn, required a more developed bureaucracy to carry out the policies of the state—particularly taxation and military conscription—in an effective and consistent manner.

    The most successful European states such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands also provided greater opportunities for the emergence of more commercial and fully capitalist economies. Simply put, a state could gather more taxes from a wealthier population and its economic base was more stable the more diverse its commerce. While the Catholic Church had long taken a negative view of commerce and finance, the Reformation generated what German sociologist Max Weber termed the Protestant Ethic—a set of spiritual values which viewed wealth and prosperity, and the financial discipline and skill to acquire them, as a sign of God’s favor.

    At the same time, the rulers of other more centralized regions felt less pressure to innovate and were more able to place limits on commercial expansion. This had particularly important consequences in China when the Ming rulers very deliberately turned inward and sought to limit internal commerce and keep western commercial expansion away from their shore. As we will see, by the 19th century, China fell behind the West in its economic and military stature and was forced to open its economy on very unequal terms, leading to what the Chinese refer to as the “century of humiliation.”

    Thus, at the eve of American and French Revolutions, a collection of more centralized and powerful states emerged in western Europe. Its central features were territorial control and a priority placed on maintaining its sovereignty over that territory. But while these are the first “modern states” there are still some important points to keep in mind. None of these states are democratic or based on a notion of popular sovereignty in the modern sense. The people these rulers’ control were subjects, not citizens. Also, the competition that gave rise to these more powerful centralized states was by no means over. The borders of these countries would continue to shift well into the 20th century and it was war that determined where those borders were.

    This last point is worth further reflection before we move to discussion of the emergence of nationalism and popular sovereignty. The map of Europe in 1945 was the product of two terrible world wars but also the culmination of centuries of conflict. In other words, it was a map built, to put it bluntly but accurately, by Europeans killing other Europeans. Wars were won and lost and borders were set by the terms of peace treaties negotiated between the warring leaders. The maps of other regions, and particularly Africa and the much of Asia were not made in the same way. Colonial powers defeated local rulers and established borders that served their interests but did not correspond to the boundaries of previous kingdoms and states. When colonial powers left these regions, the leaders of the newly independent countries were often given sovereign control over countries which were culturally and politically diverse and not based on pre-colonial borders or identities. Put another way, without Western colonialism, the maps and political boundaries of all of these regions would look quite different.


    From Empires and Kingdoms to Nations


    So, how did the modern state become the modern nation-state? To answer that question, we must start with one of the most important concepts in political science: legitimacy. Simply defined, this is the idea that a given set of rulers in a particular state are viewed as having a right to rule by most of its residents. This does not mean they agree with all the state's decision. A classic illustration of the concept is the result of the 2000 presidential election in the United States. After lengthy discussion, the Supreme Court ruled that a recount of the ballots in Florida would end and George W. Bush became the President-Elect. His opponent, current Vice President Al Gore accepted this ruling saying that while he fundamentally disagreed with the decision, he recognized the authority of the Court as the final arbiter of the matter. In other words, he accepted the legitimacy of the system and thus accepted this outcome.

    While every state uses some coercion, even the most repressive authoritarian ruler has sought to establish the idea that their rule is based on more than might alone. Over the past two centuries, the claim that a given government represents “the people” has been the dominant way that states have legitimated their authority, but this is a quite recent development. Prior to the late 18th centuries, most forms of legitimacy were rooted in other claims—tradition, religion, reputation of the leader, legal traditions, historically rooted practices, etc. What all of these shared in common was a hierarchical conception of authority.

    These conceptions of authority came under increasing challenge in the 17th and 18th century by political philosophers who argued that legitimate authority came from the consent of those being governed by that authority. The most famous articulation of this view came from John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government. Locke argued that all humans had a natural right to life, liberty and property. Legitimate authority grew from a social contract among the members of a given community to establish a government to project those rights. The notion that legitimate authority was grounded in a contract among equal members of a community challenged the previous basis for a ruler to claim sovereignty over a territory. It was not enough that other rulers recognized your authority, yours own subject had to as well.

    Once the idea of popular sovereignty took hold, the basis for legitimate authority was transformed. The French and American Revolutions challenged a continent of monarchies and empires by making subjects into citizens. We will see, however, that this by no means resolved the question of precisely who could be a citizen, and what rights he or she possessed. Those questions defined much of political conflict in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the 21st century will be no different.


    Nationalism and the Age of Popular Sovereignty


    Of all the “isms” that have dominated global politics for the past two centuries, nationalism is by far the most powerful and yet the most difficult to define precisely. Unlike liberalism, Marxism, fascism, or theocracy, there is no deeply developed philosophical foundation to nationalism. There are no theorists akin to Karl Marx, John Locke, or John Stewart Mill who have articulated sophisticated defenses of communism or liberal democracy,At the same time, virtually every modern government, regardless of its views on rights, levels of representation, or the relationship between states and markets, seeks to legitimate its authority by claiming to protect and defend a distinct nation’s right to exist.

    The first important example of nationalism in action is France under Napoleon. The French Revolution destroyed the old order and sought to create a new one based on the principles in the Declaration of the Rights of Men: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. This required changing the way in which people thought about their political identity. What did it mean to be a “citizen”? For most people in most places including France, this was a radical new idea. What did it man to be “French”? If you had asked a person living under the reign of Louis XIV in the middle of the 17th century—who are you? –they might have referred to their family, parish, region, the monarchy, or their professional status. Few would have said they were “French” in the modern sense of the term. The idea of membership in a “nation” as politicall simply did not exist beyond a tiny elite.

    So, how were people to come to see themselves this way? After the modern nation of Italy was unified in 1861, one of the leaders of that movement, Massimo D’aseglio asserted that “we have made Italy, now we must make Italians.”  His statement clearly illuminates the difference between state and nation. Italy was now an internationally recognized state; but internally it was a collection of regional identities, and after the revolution the same was true in France, especially outside Paris.

    One of the most famous and influential definitions of nationalism was provided by Benedict Anderson. Nations, he argued, were “imagined communities” in which millions of people felt themselves connected to fellow citizens most of whom they would never meet but for whom they would be willing to make sacrifices. Anderson argued that while these nations were modern political constructions shaped by state policy, their political power derived from their ability to marshal loyalty and sacrifice. “If nation-states are widely conceded to be “new” and “historical,” the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and still more important, glide into a limitless future” (1983: 19). Political leaders quickly realized that the sense of belonging to a larger community, regardless of the political ideology, provided a powerful basis for political mobilization.

    Napoleon was the first to realize the power that war could have to create this sense of national identity. In sending peasants off to fight and quite possibly die for “France”, the state was imprinting that identity more fully into the mind and heart of each soldier. By creating a state which gradually was able to enforce the same laws, teach in the same version of French across the whole of the nation, and educate its young in the laws, history, and common culture of that nation, the state was constructing a modern French identity but rooting it in symbols and narratives that made it seem much older.  Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Moliere—all were folded into the story of France as something that was both new and very old. It was a story, a political construction; but it was very powerful. This process became one of the fundamental templates used by political leaders across the globe over the next two centuries. In fact, everywhere European nations sought to build their national power by extending their colonial influence, the result was usually to inspire nationalist movements in response, from Mexico to China and everywhere in between.


    What kind of nation? Civic and Ethnic Nationalism


    It was previously noted that nationalism has not had a Karl Marx or John Locke to articulate a distinct ideological or philosophical rationale. All of the states we will study this semester have sought, regardless of the political ideology of the state, to foster a strong sense of nationalism. While Marx, Lenin, and other communist theorists were hostile to nationalism and considered themselves "internationalist,"  communist parties survive in power today in places where the they have fused communism and nationalism. In the modern world, legitimacy has been most powerfully grounded in the claim to represent a nation.

    Popular sovereignty and nationalism emphasize membership in a particular community. What is the basis of that national identity? Some states have articulated a vision of “civic” nationalism in which membership in the community, at least in principle, is based on adherence to a particular set of political values embodied in the laws of the country. Alternatively, “ethnic” nationalism grounds membership and belonging in ancestry, descent, and blood.  As we shall see, when we discuss race and ethnicity, these definitions seem clear cut in theory, but political reality can be much more blurred. Recall that modern states were built from diverse political kingdoms and realms. In this way, virtually every modern state contained people with distinct regional and cultural identities.  They were, to use a modern term, multicultural. The rulers usually represented particular groups but then sought to foster a more unified national identity.

    Consider the United Kingdom: it built a civic nationalism around membership in a state that combined English, Scot, Welsh, and Irish under the rule of the a single state nby early in the 18th century. Yet, all the non-English regions have sought autonomy and independence from the UK. The civic identity of Britain has been further strained by immigrants from former British colonies such as Jamaica, Nigeria, and Pakistan. For some modern nationalists, this is too much cultural diversity. Clearly for some citizens of the UK, being British means being Protestant and White. Similar views have become political potent in France and other European countries in response to immigration from Africa and Asia. The political rise of Donald Trump has been interpreted to reflect similar tensions between civic and ethnic nationalism in the United States.

    As noted, we will look at these issues in more depth later, but for now can note that they demonstrate one of the fundamental lessons of comparative politics: the legitimacy and stability of any political system, however old, is never fixed, never “once and for all.” If the conflict over Brexit teaches anything, it is that no system is immune to the political pressures caused by change. As the conditions which allowed one system to flourished are transformed, new political responses emerge to challenge old ones. This process is never ending.


    1: States, Nations, and Political Development is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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