Since the time of Herodotus, some historians have followed that rule usually attributed to journalists: ”Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”. The danger behind that principle is that tends to cover up reality and is likely to lead us astray.
The history of political institutions provides a perfect example of such a tendency. The story of how the idea of the state emerged first in Europe and then spread to the rest of the world is still told. Yet, if, following Max Weber, we understand a state as a “centralized, uniform system of bureaucratic administration that governs a large population and territory”; the historical evidence indicates that we should look for its origins somewhere else. That other place is China and the time was the period between the eighth and the third century B.C.
Francis Fukuyama has carefully analysed the evidence in his ambitious book “The Origins of Political Order”. Unlike Greeks or Romans, the Chinese created a uniform, multilevel bureaucracy with “an explicit antifamilistic political doctrine, and (…) sought to undermine the power of entrenched families and kinship groups in favour of impersonal administration”.
Even more interesting is how Fukuyama responds to the question of the primary driver behind the development of the Chinese state. Through the centuries, philosophers, anthropologists and political scientists have suggested multiple hypotheses to account for the creation of the state:
a) A social contract whereby individuals give up their ‘natural’ and unlimited freedom to the state, which, in return, provides basic security and protects their property through the monopoly of force.
b) The need for large-scale irrigation that could only be provided by a centralized entity led to the creation of the first states in China and Egypt. That hypothesis, also known as the “hydraulic” theory of state was proposed most notably by Karl Wittfogel.
c) Substantial increases in population density led to state formation by allowing “specialization and a division of labour between elites and non-elites”.
d) A charismatic leader that asserts authority because he is believed to have been chosen by a deity.
e) Violent conflict among tribes led to the establishment of centralized repressive institutions to keep in check the defeated rivals. Even the threat of conquest by a foreign group would easily lead to more permanent and centralized mechanism to control and exercise power.
The case of China, which is the best documented, makes clear that violent conflict was indeed the underlying force behind the creation of the state. As Fukuyama points out “it was war and the requirements of war that led to the consolidation of a system of ten thousand political units into a single state in the space of eighteen hundred years, that motivated the creation of a class of permanent trained bureaucrats and administrators, and that justified the move away from kinship as the basis for political organization”.
The relentless state of war among the Chinese of the period transformed not only their armies but the very foundations of their society. New military strategies were developed, conscripted armies organized in administrative units became common practise and promotion on the basis of merit evetually prevailed over other considerations. In addition, a thorough restructuring of the rural households was undertaken to increase social control and facilitate the taxation needed to fund the war. Furthermore, highly structured ideologies for the proper ordering of government (like the Confucian doctrine and Legalism) date from this period and were directly influenced by the armed conflicts.
When millions of people are struggling to establish safe states (e.g. Iraq) and consolidate new political forms (e.g. EU), success will depend on the willingness to cope with unpleasant historical facts and an acute awareness of the dangers inherent to the process. If we want to avoid the old path and look for more humane ways of state-building, we will do well learning from history rather than from reassuring stories, however good…