The Rise and Decline of the State | Martin van Creveld

Summary of: The Rise and Decline of the State
By: Martin van Creveld


Delve into the intriguing world of the state in Martin van Creveld’s book, ‘The Rise and Decline of the State’. This comprehensive summary brings to light the evolution of the state as an abstract entity possessing unique powers that sets it apart from rulers and the ruled. Discover how humans were governed before the state, how it monopolized violence and transformed warfare, and how political theories emerged alongside it. You’ll also learn about the ties between nationalism and statehood, the decline of the welfare state, the impact of technology, and the uncertain future of this colossal institution.

The State as a Corporation

The state is an abstract entity that stands separate from both its rulers and the ruled, similar to a corporation like a university, trade union, or church. It has certain exclusive functions that it reserves for itself and exercises in a specific territory. This concept was recently invented, which differs from the traditional definition of a state.

The Evolution of Government

Humans were once governed by tribes without rulers, tribes with rulers, city-states, and empires. The state, an offshoot of bureaucracy and autocracy, gained power through taxation and privileges. Among these, empires were the only form capable of significant expansion. Emperors were absolute rulers, combining all government functions while controlling the wealth of the empire. Nevertheless, the empire’s power was limited as its army and bureaucracy were not as strong as their modern counterparts and couldn’t rule by force or finance themselves effectively.

The Rise of European Monarchies

In medieval Europe, the emperor was considered divine, but in Christian Europe, the emperor’s power was limited, and the Pope was the spiritual leader. A power struggle between the empire, the church, the nobility, and the cities allowed monarchies to arise and evolve into states. The Reformation opened the door for princes to gain control of the church, and the Thirty Years’ War was a failed attempt to restore the power of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 sealed the monarchs’ victory over the church and the empire. As the kings centralized more authority, the nobility surrendered their independence in exchange for privileges, and the cities became the main supporters of the new capitalist system fostered by the monarchies.

The Emergence of the Impersonal State

The rise of the modern state separated the ruler from the state, granting the state more power, and bureaucracy fueled its growth. As bureaucrats gained more power, they began to see themselves as servants to an impersonal state. The state monopolized all forms of violence, including the army, police, and prisons, and emerged as the most powerful political construct. In the process, the ruler’s significance faded as the state gained new financial resources. New political theories were born, leading to the rise of abstract “commonwealths,” and the state’s first allegiance became its citizenry’s priority. The political construct became so strong that only another state could oppose it.

The Rise of Totalitarianism

Nationalism transformed the state from a means to impose law and order into a living god. The state stepped in to elevate itself as intermediary of modern life, extending its reach into every aspect of life. With the development of news media, public affairs became a mass obsession and the state gained total control. To fight bigger and fiercer wars, states gained a monopoly over money. Total war broke down the trinity of government, army, and citizenry, culminating in the era of totalitarianism.

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