One thing is evident from both Geertz’s work and Schulte Nordholt’s book The Spell of Power: A History of Balinese Politics 1650-1940, which we discussed in our previous post: Balinese states endlessly fought each other from the 18th century right down to annexation by the Dutch in the early 20th century.
Mengwi were at the brink of annihilation at the hands of the Dutch in 1891 (as they did earlier in 1823 when, somehow surreptitiously, the ruling dynasty managed to bounce back). Faced with the threat of annihilation, the dominant theory in social science, espoused in Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States , suggests that the Balinese polities ought to have developed much more effective states in defense. But they did not.
As Schulte Nordholt notes (p. 331)
A history of two centuries did not provide the Mengwi dynasty with a state, because the fragmented nature of the political system was too stubborn to adapt to permanent centralized control.
The truth of the matter is that all polities fight wars, and some centralize while others do not.
Looking at centralized ones and observing that they fight wars, therefore warfare creates states does not seem very sensible empirically — hugely popular do it may be in social science especially in political science.
Schulte Nordholt doesn’t elaborate on “the fragmented nature of the political system”.
One important idea implicit in his account is one we will come back to at a later point when we talk about some new work of ours: trying to consolidate power is risky.
Schulte Nordholt, in particular, suggests (p. 333)
expansion was easier than consolidation; growing power of a royal centre went hand in hand with increasing tension with various satellites, which led to violent confrontations threatening the continuity of the negara.
But when you read his book, you also get the idea that the very fluid and flexible relationships between a Rajah and the large lords in his territory might have had some advantages.
For someone looking at this from a Weberian mode, the Balinese states look like failures. The Rajah of Mengwi never dominated the regional lords and never had a monopoly of violence. But after the military defeats and occupations that led to the collapse of the state in 1823, these fluid informal relationships were quite easy to reconstruct, perhaps more easy than a Weberian state based on more formal rules. Indeed, Schulte Nordholt gives quite a few examples where the Rajah of Mengwi militarily conquered regional lords and could have tried to integrate them in a different way into the state but did not. Ultimately then, Mengwi was not a Theater state but neither was it a Weberian state. Instead it was a different type of state based on a different type of politics.
That this type of informal organization might be more enduring, or perhaps more robust with respect to certain shocks or challenges, is quite plausible to us and probably has wider application than in Bali.
Consider an apparently very different but we think related example. In most part of rural Colombia people do not have proper written titles to their land. Instead they have informal titles; everyone knows that Daron owns the land between the river and the mountain because his father bought it from James’s father in 1940. He has no written legal title, but everyone in the local community knows it is his land and respects that.
Now imagine some paramilitaries turn up with guns. If you have a written title, it is easy for them to put a gun to your head and say “sell me this land for $1 per hectare” and then they have the title. You can’t do anything like that with an informal title. So perhaps, counter-intuitively, in some situations an informal title may be more secure than a formal one.