The Nation-State and Violence

Volume Two of A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism

Anthony Giddens

Polity Press

Copyright © Anthony Giddens, 1985

First published 1985 by Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd

First published in paperback 1987

Reprinted 1992, 1996, 2002

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1  State, Society and Modern History

Power and Domination

The Concept of the State: Preliminary Remarks

State, Nation-State and Military Power in Social Theory

A Discontinuist Interpretation of Modern History

2  The Traditional State: Domination and Military Power

City and Countryside in Traditional States

Surveillance and Administrative Power

Territoriality, State, Society

Military Power in Traditional States

3  The Traditional State: Bureaucracy, Class, Ideology

Bureaucracy and Class Domination

Ideology and the Modern State

State Systems

4  The Absolutist State and the Nation-State

The System of Absolutist States

The Absolutist State as an Organization

Military Power from the Absolutist to the Nation-State

Nation-State, Nation, Nationalism

5  Capitalism, Industrialism and Social Transformation

What is Capitalism?

Capitalism and Industrialism

6  Capitalism and the State: From Absolutism to the Nation-State

Commodification and State Development

Capitalism and World System Theory

7  Administrative Power, Internal Pacification

Administrative Power I: Communication and Information Storage

Administrative Power II: Internal Pacification

Urbanism, Regionalization and Sequestration

8  Class, Sovereignty and Citizenship


Polyarchy, Citizenship

Citizenship, Ideology and Nationalism

9  Capitalist Development and the Industrialization of War

The ‘Long Peace’

Warfare and Social Change

The World Wars

The Nation-State, Industrialism and the Military

10 Nation-States in the Global State System

The Nation-State and the Invention of ‘International Relations’

Types of Nation-State

The World Capitalist Economy

International Orders and the Sovereignty of States

Capitalism, Industrialism and the State System

11 Modernity, Totalitarianism and Critical Theory

Totalitarianism: Surveillance and Violence

Dimensions of Modernity

The Need for a Normative Political Theory of Violence

Critical Theory in the Late Twentieth Century





This book is the second volume of three, all concerned with the relevance of historical materialism to today’s world. The trilogy is not intended, however, as another contribution to the endless critical dissection of Marx’s writings. Rather, it is an attempt to explore the contours of a post-Marxist analysis of contemporary society and politics. Marx’s writings are of signal importance for understanding one of the most pervasive influences moulding the modern world. This influence is of course capitalism, regarded as a mode of economic enterprise that has a dynamic tendency to expansion far greater than any prior type of productive order. But capitalism is not the only force which has shaped modernity, and there are in any case cogent reasons to be dissatisfied with some of the main perspectives of Marx’s portrayal of capitalist development.

Marx’s discussion of the past origins and future fate of capitalism is part of an overall historical scheme the explanatory power of which is limited. The insights he provides about the nature of capitalist enterprise have to be prised free from the general framework of historical materialism, and integrated with a different approach to previous history and to the analysis of modern institutions. Treating modern societies as the culmination of a process of progressive expansion of the forces of production fails to disclose how different they are from all forms of traditional order. Modern ‘societies’ are nation-states, existing within a nation-state system. Traditional states – or what I call ‘class-divided societies’ – contrast very substantially with these, both in their internal characteristics and in their external relations with one another. Social scientists are accustomed to thinking of ‘societies’ as administrative unities with clearly defined boundaries. Class-divided societies were not like this, and if modern ones are, it is not because of anything intrinsic to social association in general, but a result of distinctive forms of social integration associated with the nation-state.

Historical materialism connects the emergence of both traditional and modern states with the development of material production (or what I call ‘allocative resources’). But equally significant, and very often the main means whereby such material wealth is generated, is the collection and storage of information, used to co-ordinate subject populations. Information storage is central to the role of ‘authoritative resources’ in the structuring of social systems spanning larger ranges of space and time than tribal cultures. Surveillance – control of information and the superintendence of the activities of some groups by others – is in turn the key to the expansion of such resources.

In this book I also place a good deal of emphasis upon the role of military power in the organization of traditional and modern states. Who controls the means of violence, how complete such control is and to what ends it is deployed are plainly matters of significance in all societies with ‘armed forces’. Surveillance and control of the means of violence are, however, phenomena that largely escape the purview of the most influential schools of social theory, including Marxism, both in the nineteenth century and today. They have to be studied in relation to the main preoccupations of Marxism – capitalism and class conflict – but they stand alongside them as independent influences upon the development of modernity.

There is a fourth ‘institutional cluster’ relevant to modernity the impact and consequences of which is largely obscured in Marxist thought. This is industrialism. One of the main debates in social theory has been between those who regard capitalism as the ‘maker’ of the modern world, and those who accord this perhaps dubious honour to industrialism. Thus to the Marxist interpretation of the spread of capitalism and its transcendence by socialism, there stands opposed the ‘theory of industrial society’, according to which both capitalism and socialism are minor variations on a major theme, the fashioning of modern social life by industrial production. This opposition is in large part a mistaken one because, although industrialism developed under the stimulus of capitalism, in various respects the two are distinct in their nature and their social consequences.

The twentieth-century world is a bloody and frightening one. I think it fair to say that Marx anticipated fierce class struggles and dramatic processes of revolutionary change – in which he was not wrong – but not the appalling military violence that has in fact characterized the present century. None of the major figures now commonly accepted as the main founders of modern social theory, including Max Weber, foresaw quite how savage and destructive would be some of the forces unleashed in current times. Weber lived to know of the carnage of the First World War, but could hardly have seen how rapidly it would be succeeded by a second war and by totalitarianism. No one could have foreseen the coming of the thermonuclear age, even if the trends that eventually led to it were well under way in the nineteenth century. These trends are to do with the development of the means of waging industrialized war. The merging of industry, technology and the means of waging war has been one of the most momentous features of processes of industrialization as a whole. But its importance has never been adequately analysed within the major traditions of social theory.

Having made such an analysis, as I attempt to do in the bulk of this study, where does it leave us in respect of the critical aspirations of which Marxism has been the main bearer? At a minimum, one must conclude: at a vast distance from the future anticipated by Marx, with few obviously available paths of moving towards it. Certainly ‘the dialectical movement of history’ will do nothing for us, in the sense of guaranteeing the transcendence of the problems which, as members of a global human community, we face today. We live in a world riven between extraordinary opportunity and wholesale disaster, and only the most foolishly optimistic would suppose that the former will necessarily triumph over the latter.

In order to provide systematic form to a text that spills out over large tracts of world history, I shall summarize the main claims of this study in the shape of number of basic observations. I imagine that most readers will regard some of these as contentious, but I trust that they will also find others illuminating. Of course, their meaning will only become fully clear during the course of reading the book, and they should be referred back to.


I   Traditional states (class-divided societies) are essentially segmental in character. The administrative reach of the political centre is low, such that the members of the political apparatus do not ‘govern’ in the modern sense. Traditional states have frontiers, not borders.

II   In the absolutist state we discover a break-away from traditional state forms, presaging the subsequent development of the nation-state. The concept of sovereignty, linked to the notion of impersonal administrative power, together with a series of related political ideas, become in some part constitutive of the modern state from absolutism onwards.

III  The development of nation-states presumes the dissolution of the city/countryside relations basic to traditional states and involves the emergence of administrative orders of high intensity (associated with borders).

IV  Nation-states are inherently polyarchic, in a sense of that term specified below. Their polyarchic character derives from their administrative concentration (achieved via the expansion of surveillance) and from the altered nature of the dialectic of control which this produces.

V  Nation-states only exist in systemic relations with other nation-states. The internal administrative coordination of nation-states from their beginnings depends upon reflexively monitored conditions of an international nature. ‘International relations’ is coeval with the origins of nation-states.

VI  Compared with traditional states, nation-states are for the most part internally pacified, such that monopoly of the means of violence is normally only indirectly the resource whereby those who rule sustain their ‘government’. Military governments in modern states are quite different from traditional modes of rule in this respect. This is the valid element in the contrast between military and capitalist industrial societies drawn in nineteenth-century social theory.

VII The spread of capitalism is of fundamental importance to the consolidation of a novel world system from the sixteenth century onwards. Both capitalism and industrialism have decisively influenced the rise of nation-states, but the nation-state system cannot be reductively explained in terms of their existence. The modern world has been shaped through the intersection of capitalism, industrialism and the nation-state system.

VIII The industrialization of war is a key process accompanying the rise of the nation-state and shaping the configuration of the nation-state system. It has led to the creation of a world military order that substantially cross-cuts the divisions between ‘First’, ‘Second’ and Third’ worlds.

IX  The development, in the twentieth century, of an ever-increasing abundance of global connections stretching across the borders of states should not be regarded as intrinsically diminishing their sovereignty. On the contrary, it is in substantial part the chief condition of the worldwide extension of the nation-state system in current times.

X  There are four ‘institutional clusterings’ associated with modernity: heightened surveillance, capitalistic enterprise, industrial production and the consolidation of centralized control of the means of violence. None is wholly reducible to any of the others. A concern with the consequences of each moves critical theory away from its concentration upon the transcendence of capitalism by socialism as the sole objective of future social transformations.

Some comments should perhaps be registered about the nature and scope of these arguments. The main emphasis of this book is upon providing an interpretation of the development of the nation-state in its original, i.e. ‘Western’, habitat. Prior to the concluding three chapters, whenever I speak of ‘the nation-state’, the reader should understand ‘Western nation-state’ and, most often, ‘European nation-state’. In those final chapters I try to trace out how and why this political form has become generalized across the globe; but I make no claim to offering an exhaustive analysis of variations among states in today’s world.