The concentration of manpower was the key to political power in premodern Southeast Asia… This overwhelming concern for obtaining and holding population at the core is shot through every aspect of precolonial statecraft. What Geertz says about Balinese political rivalries—that they were “a struggle more for men than for land”—could apply equally to all of mainland Southeast Asia. This principle animated the conduct of warfare, which was less a grab for distant territory than a quest for captives who could be resettled at the core… Early European officials were frequently astounded by the extremely vague demarcation of territories and provinces in their new colonies and puzzled by an administration of manpower that had little or nothing to do with territorial jurisdiction… As Thongchai Winichakul’s insightful book shows, the Siamese paid more attention to the manpower they could summon than to sovereignty over land that had no value in the absence of labor.
That’s from Chapter 3 (pp. 64-68) of James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. To an inhabitant of the “modern” world who studies international politics, Scott’s description of powerful states that only vaguely demarcated and policed their putative territorial boundaries serves as an intriguing reminder that the fusion of territoriality and political sovereignty we now take for granted is not inevitable. Organizations can and have exercised substantial authority over human society without husbanding exclusive control over specific patches of land. Scott sees similar processes at work in nineteenth– and twentieth-century sub-Saharan Africa:
The theme of manpower concentration permeates the literature on indigenous politics: “The drive to acquire relatives, adherents, dependents, retainers, and subjects and to keep them attached to oneself as a kind of social and political ‘capital’ has often been remarked upon as characteristic of African political processes.”… As in Southeast Asia there was little emphasis on sharp territorial boundaries, and the important rights were over people, not places, except for particular ritual sites. The competition for followers, kinsmen, and bondsmen operated at every level.
In fact, I’d say there are at least three interconnected but distinct spaces in which political authority can be organized—physical (territory), social (people), and economic (trade)—and the three don’t necessarily have to hang together. Scott has already described for us states whose sovereignty was rooted primarily in the social and economic realms with less attention to territory.
Contemporary drug cartels arguably exemplify the possibility of organizations that compete for power in trade space without asserting sovereignty over territory or society in the way that modern states do. Large cartels sometimes attempt to establish territorial zones of impunity or even governance, but those efforts often come in response to rivals’ attempts to quash their power in trade space. More important, the point of that territorial control is usually to gain freedom from interference in their economic activities, not to assert the full panoply of political authority we attach to the modern idea of sovereignty. As John Sullivan says of contemporary “criminal insurgencies” in Mexico and elsewhere,
Organized crime groups (gangs and cartels)…usually seek to elude detection and prefer co-opting (corrupting) the instruments of state rather than engaging in direct confrontation… Yet as the current crime wars illustrate, these actors can directly confront the state when their interests are challenged (Bailey & Talyor, 2009). Criminal insurgency is the mechanism of the confrontation with the state that results when relationships between organized crime and the state fall into disequilibrium.
Criminal insurgency presents a challenge to states and communities. Criminal insurgency is different from conventional terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy and economic control over territory. They do so by hollowing out the state and creating criminal enclaves to secure freedom to maneuver.
It’s harder for me to think of an organization that competes for sovereignty in the social realm without seeking control over territory or trade. I suppose organized religion comes closest. Although some hierarchical religious organizations historically have also pursued control over land and trade, in ideological terms, their main claim attaches to the souls of their adherents and nothing else. Ethnicity might fit the bill, too, insofar as leaders of these communities of putative kinship claim authority over members wherever they may be and whatever trade they might take up. It’s also interesting to think about whether or not cyberspace is emerging as a fourth realm for political organization, intertwined with but at least partially independent of the other three, but that’s a question for another day.
What’s confusing to modern ears, I think, is the application of the word “state” to these other things. Scott explicitly did so, and I’m implicitly doing so here. My point in doing so is to highlight that the constructs we call “states” are just one of many organizations constantly competing for power in these various spaces. What’s unique about the modern state is its explicit claim to dominion over all three of those spaces—physical, social, and economic—within a particular set of sharply demarcated borders.
So, let’s flip it around: instead of calling all of these organizations states, let’s reserve that term for the modern thing, but let’s allow Scott’s passage to remind us that states are neither as inevitable nor as successful in their efforts to establish that dominion as we often assume. Instead, they are just one organizational form competing for sovereignty in these various realms, and their success in those struggles is neither as complete nor as final as they would like it to be. The fusion of sovereignty in the modern state is a specific idea, not a natural fact, and a self-serving one at that.