Peace As State Power

The making of war is integral to the formation of the nation state. However, upon closer inspection, it is found that peace-making is what truly gives rise to State power.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker touts greatly what he considers to be the substantive decline in violence over the course of human history. Of particular importance as it relates to the formation of the State is that Pinker attributes this decline in no small part to the State’s ability to obtain a monopoly on violence, which, given the context, Pinker sees as a positive. However, it should be understood that the peace achieved through the State’s monopoly on violence is a function of the State’s ability to suppress all competition and the pervasive peace that Pinker so fervently extols is in reality the manifestation of a total dominion.

The dialectic between war and peace lies at the heart of the State. As Frederic Lane put it, “governments are in the business of selling protection … whether people want it or not.” (Tilly, War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, p. 175). Even prior to the State, those strongest in the tribe provided protection to the weakest, typically in exchange for greater freedom in the selection of mates or a larger share of rations. At the dawn of modern State formation, “a local lord extended … the perimeter within which he monopolized the means of violence, and thereby increased his return from tribute” (Tilly, p. 185). Greater and greater land bases meant more capital accumulation, which in turn meant greater and greater capacity for war-making to further extend the territory of State control. This cycle of extension and accumulation continued, annexing weaker neighbors until the emerging nation-state encountered another State of similar aspiration with an equal or greater capacity for making war.

As integral as war-making is to the formation of a State, it is not nearly as important as the ability to create peace. The demonstrated ability to put down violence is paramount to the securance of State power, as it is precisely this ability that defines said power in the first place. Having a monopoly on violence requires that no other parties in the State’s territorial sphere of influence can engage in it. The increasing peace to which Pinker refers is a necessary by-product of that monopolization.

Here it is useful to extend the premise of “power as the capability for exercising control” (Soifer, State Infrastructural Power, p. 236) in saying that State power is contingent on the purveyance of peace. This is evident in the understanding that were the State found to be incapable of ensuring peace, it would not be accepted by its constituents as legitimate, for “if the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be. When and why do men obey?” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation) They obey only when they are provided protection against perceived enemies, both foreign and domestic.

While peace is clearly a desired outcome, peace as an extension of State power is hardly deserving of the term. Peace as an adjunct of the State’s monopoly on violence is not the same as peace as deliberate intent. However, it has been demonstrated that peace-making is as integral to State formation as its capacity for war, which leaves the door open to the possibility that humanity may someday succeed in advancing a state based on the one thing it really does have a monopoly over, that being self-restraint.