The Theatre State

In earlier blog posts, we have taken issue with the dominant ideas about the state in the social science literature. For instance, we looked at Berber society through the lens of Ernest Gellner’s book Saints of the Atlas and showed that contrary to what Max Weber had suggested, it was not the state that had the legitimate monopoly of violence,” but society.

A different powerful critique of central notions of how states work is due to another social anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, and in the next several posts we will discuss Geertz’s ideas and use them as a steppingstone for thinking about state-society relations.

Geertz’s seminal studies of Indonesian society and politics are rich in insights about the types of problems we examine in Why Nations Fail.

In his book Negara: The Theater State in Nineteenth Century Bali, Geertz provided a characterization of how the state (called the Negara) was organized and worked in 19th century Bali and he used this to make generalizations about how many pre-colonial states functioned in 19th century Southeast Asia.

Today Bali is part of Indonesia, but in the 19th century it was independent and made up of a number of separate polities. In 1800 there were probably 11.

The Dutch began their colonization by capturing part of the north coast of the Island in the late 1840s taking over the state of Buleleng. The Dutch, via the Dutch East Indian Company, had been colonizing in the region since the early 17th century but they had taken over little territory outside Java until the 19th century. Though the north coast of Bali was strategic for the Dutch, and integrated into their trading networks, it was marginal to Bali itself, the heartland of which was the southern piedmont dominated by irrigation fed rice agriculture.

The economic base of the states that dominated this piedmont, such as Tabanan, Karangasem, Klungkung, Gianyar, Mengwi and Badung, was trade in rice and other agricultural commodities such as coffee (previously slaving had been important as well).

According to most theories of the state, these states should have been heavily involved in the control of agriculture. Indeed, a famous hypothesis due to Karl Wittfogel in his book Oriental Despotism is that it was precisely societies that heavily used irrigation for agriculture that ended up with centralized despotic states. According to Wittfogel, this was because building irrigation systems required huge amounts of coordinated labor and this created a big incentive for a state to emerge to mobilize and control it all. (See this paper for a recent empirical analysis of Wittfogel’s thesis).

But Geertz pointed out that, paradoxically, the states of Bali controlled neither trade, which was mostly in the hands of Chinese merchants, nor irrigation systems and land, which were organized collectively by subaks (irrigation societies).

In fact Geertz argued that the Balinese states hardly governed anything at all and were remarkably un-bureaucratic. He painted a picture of a self-governing and self-organized society and instead characterized the state as being a “Theater State” which was mostly involved in pageants and religious rituals to justify itself and the social order unpinning it, but which did little else that was real.

Yes, the states collected tribute and taxes, but this was primarily to fund the theatrics. Geertz’s uses these cases to attack many ideas in the theory of the state, not just Wittfogel’s “hydraulic hypothesis”.

He is particularly keen to criticize the idea that the symbolism and pageantry of states are just a masquerade that tries to hide the reality of domination from people, noting (pp. 121-122)

Each of the leading notions of what the “state” is that have developed in the west since the sixteenth century — monopolist of violence within a given territory, executive committee of the ruling class, delegated agent of popular will, pragmatic device for conciliating interests — has had its own sort of difficulty assimilating the fact that this force [of display, regard and drama] exists. None has produced a workable account of its nature. Those dimensions of authority not easily reducible to a command-and-obedience conception of political life have been left to drift in an indefinite world of excrescences, mysteries, fictions, and decorations. And the connection between what Bagehot called the dignified parts of government and the efficient ones has been systematically misconceived.

This misconception, most simply put, is that the office of the dignified parts is to serve the efficient, that they are artifices, more or less cunning, more or less illusional, designed to facilitate the prosier aims of rule.

The last sentence of the book sums up his thesis:

The dramas of the theater state … were, in the end, neither illusions nor lies, neither sleight of hand nor make-believe. They were what there was.

So was Geertz right in his criticism of the social science literature on the state? How can we understand the different types of states that have emerged throughout history and in different parts of the world?

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