Saturday, July 22, 2006

Iraq: State formation and collapse, Historical patterns

The topic of state formation and collapse in Iraq is being addressed at Brad de Long's Semi-Daily Journal blog. Couldn't resist the tempatation of adding a comment:
"But our country had a strong state with secular traditions. That needed to be preserved at all costs. Instead the Americans smashed that state. What did they expect Iraqis would do? It sent people scurrying back to the basic building blocks of our society, which are the clans and tribes."
Historians and hegemonic states have a systematic bias, habitually assuming that states are stronger and more unified than they actually are. In fact, at root, states are just opportunistic alliances of families, clans, lineages, and political organizations.

Ming dynasty Yunnan (c. 1369-1398) is a good example. The Ming emperor picks out one of many Tai chiefs and treats him like a centralized leader. Sub-chiefs assert their independence and he has to flee to the Ming capital in Beijing. They manage to restore him to power, but he's out again in a few years. (

My only point here is that the song remains the same. There are a lot of patterns that have been repeated for a very long time in history. Of course, buying a bomb instead of funding more research is easier.

There's a whole literature devoted to state formation and collapse in political anthropology that really provides more insight into the process than Hobbes, into what takes over when a state disintegrates. This is one good review of the literature:

Johnson, Allen W. and Timothy Earle. (2000) The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State. Second Edition.Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.