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The Coatsworth Thesis

The reactions of the campesinos in Chachapoyas to the state might not have been completely surprising to people who had read the work of the historian John Coatsworth. In Chapter 1 of Why Nations Fail we present a comparative economic and political history of the Americas showing how the very different institutions that got set up in colonial Latin America led to its long-run development. In characterizing these institutions as extractive on the one hand we focused on economic institutions, such as systems of labor coercion, designed to exploit indigenous peoples to the benefit of colonists. Lying behind these extractive economic institutions were extractive political institutions, political power concentrated in the hands of the elite and a weak state. Yet why was the Latin America state weak? John Coatsworth has persuasively argued that to understand the institutional path of Latin America it is important to understand the structure of the colonial state which involves an interaction not just between the elite and society, but between society, the Spanish settler elites and the Spanish state. For example, the colonial state often intervened to protect indigenous peoples from exploitation by the settlers. One reason of course was that the colonial state wanted to exploit the indigenous peoples itself (something which comes up in Melissa Dells’ path-breaking study of the impact of labor coercion in colonial Latin America - The Persistent Effects of Peru’s Mining Mita).

But it also wanted to weaken the power of these settler elites because it was also afraid of them declaring independence or refusing to pay taxes. A particularly interesting example of this is attempts by the Spanish crown to rescind grants of encomienda, the earliest system of labor coercion implemented in the Americas. Coatsworth also points out that this is a reason why property rights were ill-defined and insecure in colonial Latin America, by not giving settlers well defined and secure rights the colonial state made them more dependent on it, thus weakening their autonomy and power.

Thus the idea that Peruvians might appeal to the central state to help them fight against the tyranny of local elites was not a new one in the 1930s. It had actually been going on for a long time.

A good place to read his views is in his paper “Institutions and Long-Run Economy Performance in Mexico and Spain, 1800-2000” co-written with distinguished Spanish economic historian Gabriel Tortella.


Do People Really Dislike the State So Much? (with thanks to Joshua Walker)

Scott’s work emphasizes the fact that people don’t really like living in states and they get away from them if they can. This argument certainly mirrors a great deal of anthropological evidence from small scale and stateless societies and it is certainly true in some cases as our last several blogs (here and here) suggested. But our argument has a logical corollary which ends up looking like the opposite of Scott’s thesis: if people think they can control the state and use it in their interests, then they will demand that it takes action and expands.

This argument has been developed in a series of brilliant works by the anthropologist David Nugent, most centrally his book Modernity at the Edge of Empire with a summary of some of the key ideas being presented in his article “Building the State, Making the Nation: The Bases and Limits of State Centralization in “Modern” Peru”.

Nugent presents us with a detailed history of the department and city of Chachapoyas in Northeastern Perú over the past century. Early in the 20th century the national capital in Lima exercised little direct authority over the department given its physical isolation and the fact that it was not connected by a proper road to the rest of the country. Instead, the department was controlled by a group of powerful families, castas, who controlled not land, but local politics. They used this political hegemony to staff and control all the positions of the state, most importantly the police force. Their main source of income was the taxes that they were able to extract from the population. The castas ruled, but they did so by occupying the positions of the state that in the early 1930s began to change its relationship to these local elites. In 1931 the National Election Law introduced a secret ballot, extended the franchise and made voting obligatory and generally weakened the control of the castas over local elections. In 1933 the local police force was abolished and a well-trained Guardia Civil composed of people from outside the region took its place. The national state began to exert its control over local administrative appointments and particularly the collection and allocation of tax revenues. Also important was educational transformation. Prior to 1930 the castas had appointed all the teachers in the department and did so as part of a clientelistic political strategy to keep power. After 1930 the national Ministry of Education gradually began to exercise control over appointments.

Clearly what was going on here was the extension of state authority and power to integrate Chachapoyas more firmly into the Peruvian state. Nugent shows that though this might have been highly adverse for the castas, it was not so for everyone. Most important, what put this dynamic of expansion into motion was not some autonomous impulse from Lima coercively imposed, but local demands from Chachapoyas.

Chachapoyas was the fiefdom of the castas, but Perú had a constitution which enshrined things like the rule of law, security of property. During the 1920s Nugent shows how social mobilization in Chachapoyas, mostly started by a few elites who had got an education in Lima, began to demand the end of casta rule. Critically, they demanded the expansion of state power as a tool to free the society from the rule of the castas who they saw as violators of their basic rights as Peruvian citizens. As Nugent puts it

In the first phase (in the 1930s) the state was proclaimed the legitimate protector and potential liberator of a self-defined “moral community” – a local, marginalized group that sought to free itself from the control of local powerholders – who actively assisted the state in effecting a more complete integration of regional territory and nationalization of regional population.

So this is James Scott’s thesis upside down! Rather than fleeing from the state and resisting it, ordinary people are demanding the expansion of its authority in order to attain freedom from arbitrary and coercive local elites.

As we have already argued and will continue to argue in the next post, this underscores the necessity of a conceptual framework in which the politics of state formation, and in particular whether different groups expect to be able to control the state, is at the center stage.


Shakespeare in the Bush

Though it is a bit of a distraction from the theme of state formation, we can’t mention the Tiv and the work of Paul and Laura Bohannon without mentioning Laura Bohannon’s wonderful story published in 1966 “Shakespeare in the Bush”. Here she relates the problems of telling the story of Hamlet in a completely different cultural context.

You can read the story here:



Why Didn’t the Tiv have a State?

The lesson we learned from the Lebanese case is a general one. Here is a seemingly unlikely case, which we would argue is very similar.

The Tiv are a pre-colonial society of Southeastern Nigeria. You can see Tivland on the next map.

The Tiv were a stateless society but lived in villages of extended kin. The next photograph illustrates how these villages looked like from the mid-1940s onwards when the anthropologists Paul and Laura Bohannan studied them.

There are many interesting things to say about the Tiv but here we make only one point building on Paul Bohannan’s 1958 paper “Extra-Processual Events in Tiv Political Institutions”.

During the summer of 1939 the colonial government and most social and economic activity came to a standstill in Tivland because of a cult called Nyambua. At the heart of the cult was a shrine and a man called Kokwa who sold charms to provide protection from mbatsav or “witches”. Tsav means “power”, particularly power over others. A person with tsav (it is a substance that grows on the heart of a person) can make others do what they want and kill them by using the power of fetishes and tsav can be increased by cannibalism.

Bohannan explains this as follows:

A diet of human flesh makes the tsav, and of course the power, grow large. Therefore the most powerful men, no matter how much they are respected or liked, are never fully trusted. They are men of tsav — and who knows?

 The people will tsav belong to an organization — the mbatsav.

Mbatsav has two meanings:

 -   Powerful people (it is the plural of tsav)

 -   A group of witches organized for nefarious purposes (robbing graves to eat the corpses)

Now this is a pretty interesting double meaning. Imagine if in English the word “politicians” simultaneously meant “people who contest for or control political offices” and “A group of witches organized for nefarious purposes (robbing graves to eat the corpses)”!

People initiated into the Nyambua cult were given a leather covered wand and a fly-whisk. The whisk allowed one to smell out “counterfeit” tsav — created by cannibalism. In 1939 the whisks were pointed towards the ‘chiefs’ created by British indirect rule (the Tiv had no chiefs prior to the colonial period and in consequence the British colonial government imposed them from the outside). But historical evidence shows that the roots of these practices ran much deeper. According to Akiga’s Story: The Tiv Tribe as Seen by One of Its Members:

When the land has become spoilt owing to so much senseless murder [by tsav] the Tiv have taken strong measures to overcome the mbatsav. These big movements have taken place over a period extending from the days of the ancestors into modern times.

In essence these religious cults were a way of stopping anybody from becoming too powerful. Bohannan explains this as:

Men who had acquired too much power … were whittled down by means of witchcraft accusations… Nyambua was one of a regular series of movements to which Tiv political action, with its distrust of power, gives rise to that the greater political institutions - the one based on the lineage system and a principle of egalitarianism - can be preserved.

But to have a state someone has to become powerful, start giving orders to others who accept their authority. Witchcraft accusations were therefore not just a method of stopping someone becoming too powerful but simultaneously stopped in its tracks a process that could have culminated in state formation.

Hence the Tiv were a stateless society in the pre-colonial period. To our reading of Tiv history this is a quite similar situation to what we find in modern Lebanon, though obviously Lebanon is not a stateless society. The Tiv feared that if people became too powerful they could not be controlled, and the only solution was to block power accumulation. They did not get as far as institutionalizing a state and then keeping it weak, like in Lebanon, but the mechanisms are very similar.


Why Lebanon Has a Very Ineffective State (with thanks to Ishac Diwan and Danyel Reiche)

In our last post we argued that a problem with the approach to state formation pioneered by James Scott is that he takes it for granted that states want to expand and dominate society. It turns out that this is not true in much of the world.

Still in other dimensions we think that he actually undersells his ideas. For instance in the Art of Not Being Governed he states that the analysis is of historical importance mostly and not relevant to the recent past.

Scott rules out the applicability of his ideas to modern times because he does not consider the possibility that people can sometimes politically control the state and its functionaries —a possibility which we will discuss extensively in the next few posts. His main argument is that people mostly resist the state and flee from it because they see it as tyrannical. But what happens if society could control the state? If it could, maybe they could tolerate it, and even under some conditions they would be happy to see it expand. Therefore the governance — the politics — of the state is critical.

This perspective then suggests that we should try to link resistance to the expansion of the state to the inability of the people to control it. This is exactly the lesson one can draw from the Lebanese case.

In Lebanon there is a state but it is very ineffective. The parliament has not voted on a budget for eight years, letting the Cabinet write its own. The country’s lawmakers and politicians took nearly a year to agree on a new government after the prime minister resigned in March 2013. Since the current parliament of 128 lawmakers was elected in June 2009, the lawmakers have met 21 times — an average of 4 times a year. In 2013, lawmakers met only twice and passed two laws. One of them was to extend their mandate for 18 months, pushing back elections. The last time Lebanese parliament ratified the budget set by the government was in 2005. Lawmakers have never met to discuss government policies to deal with the refugee influx from the Syrian civil war that has strained social services including education, health and electricity to their limit.

So the Lebanese legislature and executive is pretty inactive to say the least. But there are deeper problems with the Lebanese state, to get an idea of this have a look at the following picture.

From the picture, it looks like Lebanon at least has a serious army with well-dressed and armed soldiers. But look closer, that flag doesn’t seem to have the cedars of Lebanon on it. What is it? In fact it is the flag of Hezbollah and these soldiers are not the Lebanese national army, they are the army of Hezbollah. So the Lebanese state does not have the most basic characteristic of a state — the monopoly of violence (and perhaps even the monopoly of legitimate violence, since Hezbollah is viewed as legitimate by a significant fraction of the Lebanese population.

Lebanese society is divided into 18 recognized communities, mostly along religious lines, of which the largest are the Sunnis, the Shias, the Druze, the Maronites and the Orthodox Christians. An agreement reached after Lebanon’s independence in 1943 ensures that the president is a Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim. This agreement and the underlying distribution of power in the electoral system is so brittle that Lebanon has not conducted a census since 1932 since learning that the distribution of population between the different communities has changed could destabilize the whole equilibrium. So there is a huge lack of “legibility” in Lebanon because of the politics of state formation.)

The state does not have a monopoly of violence and most communities used to have armed militias, though they are demobilized now except for Hezbollah. Each community taxes its members, but Lebanon itself has no income tax system. There is no national health care plan and no nationwide electricity grid, because each community provides health care and electricity to its members. The nature and politics of all of this is analyzed in the new book by Melani Cammett Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon.

The main point we are emphasizing is that in Lebanon society is well organized and the society does not seem to demand a strong state because it is worried about not being able to control it once this state is in operation. And if in fact people cannot control the state, then it will be constructed and used in ways that are inimical to their interests, just as Scott envisaged it.

At the root of this is the fact that the different Lebanese communities have never been able to agree on an institutional architecture that generates enough consensus to implement a program of state building. Despite the parallels with Scott’s emphasis, politics, largely ignored by Scott, is also key: the demand for a state and the services that it provides is conditional on the governance structures that will be in place.