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A Look at the Creation of Modern State

When we think of the term “state” we recall uniter and powerful entities that have power on a certain territory. These uniter entities appear with their own defined nation and sovereignty. This idea that comes to our minds when we think about the term “states” is a definition of the modern states. However, states have not always been the same throughout history. Ottoman Empire’s way of imposing its sovereignty and ruling the country has been very different from what we have today. In this article, we will look at how the notion of states changed throughout history by looking at their main elements.


To truly understand the evolution of the notion, we should first look at what exactly a state is and examine what is considered a state and why. Perhaps one of the most renowned definitions of what a state is comes from Weber. He defines states as the only organ that monopolizes the legitimate use of force. It is generally accepted that states have three main elements that make them a state: nation, sovereignty, and territory. So, if an entity can truly fulfill all those three properties, it can be considered a state according to constitutional law. Note that terms like flags, national anthems, or constitutions themselves are not an obligation for an entity to be considered a state. To better understand the concept let’s examine Sealand.


Sealand is set off the coast of the UK. People who live in there claim that it is their own sovereign country as it is situated in international waters. When we examine Sealand’s status from the aforementioned point of view we can definitely call it a state. It has its own people (nation), own territory (these platforms clearly make up an island-like structure) and also an entity that has legitimate sovereignty (people who live in there accept Roy Bates as their rightful ruler, though they are his family members in general.) Whether international recognition is needed for something to be considered a state or not is a very disputed topic. I believe international status lose their importance in cases where practical application clearly contradicts with them. They are left as some principles that are applicable on paper, in theory, but not in reality. Think of the case of Crimea: As long as it has Russian rule of law on it, the fact that it belongs to Ukraine in international treaties, on paper, does not matter.

by Didem ÖZÇAKIR


Now that we have looked at what a state is, let’s start examining how it was first created. The notion of state clearly came into existence at some point, it is not logical to assume that stone age people naturally created state without an explication. We will look at how people lived before states and what might have created the need to form the first states.


Primitive societies are societies that existed before the creation of states. We still have the chance of examining them in the form of indigenous people of Amazon, Africa or Pacific. When we think of primitive societies, we are inclined to define them through what they lack. We see that although our societies right now have a definite history, state system, or use writing systems, these societies do not have such properties. As all those properties were created later in time, we are again inclined to think that societies evolve just like biological creatures, and those primitive societies are at the beginning of their evolution. This way of thinking means having a state is a must for every society, and they will somehow reach our modern state in their evolutionary timeline, this way or that way. However, some of the anthropologists of the 20th century argue that this is far from the truth. They say that if having a state was the ultimate destiny of every society, it would be impossible to explain the existence of indigenous people in the 20th century, who managed to preserve their stateless structure for thousands of years.


Therefore, we should not think primitive societies as being in the starting point of their evolutionary journey and define them through their lacks. Instead we should see them as a different way of organizing a society and constructing a living. In primitive societies there were no organs that represented the rule of law; thus, people were free in choosing what they do. They had zero motivation of producing more than they needed, so no surplus/oversupply was created. As people did not have any motivation for overproduction, they had much free time and total freedom in choosing what to do with it. No surplus meant no need for inequalities and different societal classes, so the whole system was based upon equality. There was a chief for the tribe, however he did not have decision making powers, at least in the time of peace. Instead he worked as a consultancy body. If his wills were overlapping with that of the general of the tribe, the people made sure that he would not be able to execute political power on them and take their freedom, by straightforwardly killing the chief in such a case. The fact that states or political power did not exist in such societies does not mean that they had no rules. To keep societal order, they had rules and they came in the form of customs and traditions.


How come the primitive societies accept the creation of states at the cost of their freedom and equality? The answer to this question is still disputed among social scientists and will not be concluded any time soon. The answer to this question also points out to the creation of the first element of a state: sovereignty. Increase in population is a defining factor for this kind of society not being sustainable as it gets harder to control a bigger population only by the power of societal norms. Population increase could be controllable, in fact there are theories which suggest that wars were actually used to control unprecedented increases in population. However, this system also eventually collapsed, meaning that people needed a higher authority to control bigger populations with no chaos.


Some can think that agriculture is a defining factor in the creation of states, as we are transforming to permanent settlement from hunter-gatherer tribes. However, there are evidences which suggest changes in economic life of a society are not necessarily reflected in their political order. Still, creation of the need of protection of private property that was created by agriculture can be a factor in defining the creation of state.


There are also some theories which suggest that religion was a defining factor in creating political rule successfully. People would give up their freedom, equality and self only if they believed in a supreme, mystical power. This can also explain why religion is inclined to show itself as a political power throughout history.


First states were very different from what we know today. Of course, this difference is not only specific to the first states as well. Modern states as we know it today only came into existence after the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. The biggest empires that we learn about in history classes did not execute their political power like today, they were pretty different entities. For example, in high school history classes, we learnt that the Ottoman Empire ruled in 3 different continents, in a fairly big territory, with countless different ethnic groups. We were thought how this empire was flawless and one of the biggest powers on earth that made the enemies shiver in fear. However, when we think about it, how can it be possible for just one sultan to rule all those different ethnic groups and all that territory, in a world where there are no advanced communication and transportation technologies?


We should think of the political power of such empires differently. They did not have direct control over most of their territory. Instead, they appointed leaders for their different districts. Think of Mehmet Ali Pasha of Egypt or think of administrative regions like Moldavia and Wallachia (Eflak and Boğdan in Turkish). Most of the control was attained by governors in such regions. Besides, there was no sense of belonging to “Ottomans” like a nation. This belonging to a group was created via different religious groups, not ethnic groups. There was basically nothing common in the daily lives of two people from Balkans and the Arabian Peninsula apart from their religion.


Then why did we learn Ottomans as a uniter and powerful state? This is closely related with the concept of artificially creating nations. The reason why we are taught of the victories of the Ottomans and the Turkic states of central Asia is to give us a sense of having common roots. To unite 80 million people, you need to create some ideas that unite them, and history serves as a basic unit in this. We all have a sense of having our roots in some Turkic region thanks to our history lessons. Having a unified nation is a very important issue for the unitarian modern state, as it is impossible to have the same rules all across a territory if people believe they have nothing in common.


It is not a hard thing to see why nationalism and modern state comes hand in hand. When people start to realize that they have nothing in common with people that they share the same government with, they start to want their own governments. Smaller new states based on nations are created instead of multinational empires. Through constitutions, same rules are applied everywhere in a smaller territory in which people see the government as the legitimate body to use political power. States have had very different shapes throughout history. It is with the idea of nations and national sovereignty that we have come to the point where we are today.


(1) Clastres, P., Sert, M., & Demirtaş, N. (2011). Devlete karşı toplum. İstanbul: Ayrıntı Yayınları. s.155-156

(2) Harris, Marvin. Yamyamlar ve Krallar: Kültürlerin Kökenleri (Çev. F. Gümüş), İmge Yayınevi, Ankara, 1994, s.9, s.107-108.

(3) Uygun, Oktay. (2015). Devlet teorisi. İstanbul: Levha Yayıncılık, s. 18-17.

(4) Giddens, A., Altaylar, G., & Köseoğlu, S. (2014). Sosyoloji: Başlangıç okumaları. İstanbul: Say Yayınları. s.379.

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