Interrogating the Theatre State
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In an earlier post , we outlined Clifford Geertz’s theory of the Theatre State in 19th-century Bali. Put simply, Geertz argued that the state was not about power and extraction it was about symbols and theatrics.

But all states are heavily into theatrics and into tactics that justify and legitimize rule. The British state loves theatrics, royal weddings, crimson velvet ropes and ermine capes, and of course photo opportunities on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with guards clad in red with bearskin hats. If you get invited to tea in the garden for some cucumber sandwiches with a member of the royal family or even if you just make it to the House of Lords, all of that theatrics will be quite memorable.

So is it any different than in 19th-century Bali?

Geertz essentially claimed that it was different. Bali’s state and rulers were divorced from society and floated above it. That theatrics was all there was.

An interesting story. But according to historical anthropologist Henk Schulte Nordholt, it may have been just that. A story.

Schulte Nordholt, in his book The Spell of Power: A History of Balinese Politics 1650-1940, argues that Geertz got it largely wrong.

The book provides a history of Mengwi, one of the historical states of Bali, which emerged in the 18th century. The evidence that Schulte Nordholt produces is inconsistent with the image of Balinese states that Geertz portrayed.

Schulte Nordholt starts by posing some important questions. He asks:

the `power’ that upheld the splendor of the theatre state remains an enigma: from where does it emanate, how is it organized, who controls it? (p. 7)

He answers it simply (p. 7):

the more successful of the Balinese rulers were anything but anonymous objects of ritual; they were clearly leaders who survived by commanding the respect of those around them.

Moreover, rather than floating over a self-organizing society, the Negara was heavily involved in it.

Take the salient issue of irrigation. Schulte Nordholt shows that the rise of the Mengwi state coincided with a large extension of irrigation in the area. Schulte Nordholt described this as (pp. 55, 56)

The irrigation order, then, can be understood only in connection with the royal hierarchy … the Mengwi dynasty, was directly engaged in the building of the larger irrigation systems. One may deduce from this that the rise of the Mengwi dynasty went hand in hand with a sizeable expansion of irrigated sawah fields in the region.

It is certainly true that, as Geertz was keen to argue, irrigation in itself did not give rise to large autocratic bureaucratized states in Bali. But his characterization of the relationship between the irrigation societies and the state seems to have been incorrect.

This wasn’t the only thing that Geertz got wrong, according to Schulte Nordholt. 

One important case is the nature of landholding by people and the extent to which the state exercised authority over it. He writes (p. 60):

On this point Geertz presents a contrasting view, writing that in pre-colonial southern Bali there was no ‘systematic congruence … between the structure of political authority, the structure of land tenure, and the distribution of land tenancy’. All the data I was able to gather during my fieldwork, however, indicate the opposite.

In the end the argument of Schulte Nordholt is that Balinese polities had very weak states. The dynasty at the center of Mengwi never controlled the peripheral areas of the state which was ruled by independent lords with their own private armies. Power was continually in flux and negotiated. He argues (p. 130):

These data … allow us to conclude that the Mengwi dynasty’s grip on the Negara was incomplete and unstable. The royal center lacked a bureaucratic apparatus capable of properly controlling the available manpower and effectively insisting on its share of the agricultural surplus. The center depended greatly on countless vertical relationships in which commoner loyalty was a fairly expensive commodity.

A good one-sentence version of his non-Geertzian argument is (p. 114)

ritual alone doth not a ruler make

How did Geertz get it all so wrong? Schulte Nordholt doesn’t dwell on this, but his analysis suggests a possible explanation.

When the Dutch took over all of Bali between 1906 and 1908 they had to come up with a way of administering it. They brought with them a stylized view of Balinese society that was seriously erroneous. It was based on the idea that the monarchies and aristocracies were largely alien invaders from Java ruling over autonomous ‘village republics’ of stoic Balinese peasants. The Dutch acted to put this vision into action, largely stripping the old state aristocracies of power and replacing them with appointees, often commoners. They also decentralized instruments of control to the village level – where they thought they belonged. In 1938 they relented and re-instated the monarchies, although not that of Mengwi but almost as parodies of their original selves.

In Schulte Nordholt’s telling (p. 334):

The ultimate result of this was that ‘restored’ old dynasties put a Balinese face on colonial rule. If the term ‘theatre state’ is to be applied to Bali, then the ‘restored kings’ of the 1930s fit the bill.

Thus many of the features that Geertz, researching in the 1950s and afterwards, had seen as being characteristics of traditional Balinese society were in fact figments of colonial rule.

This all suggests that we don’t need a separate theory of why the state was an entirely different animal in Bali than everywhere else. But we might still need an explanation for why all states love theatrics.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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