What were the most important factors in the rise of the modern state?
The modern state is everywhere; it penetrates areas of our lives on a daily basis through taxation, education and healthcare, to name but a few. It’s commonly argued that the state – also known as the sovereign territorial state - is the most important actor in global politics and that the shape of the current political system is driven by the state. This is of course debatable, but what remains clear is that the modern state is crucial to this area of study. The process by which the modern state came into being is complex to say the least - a wide combination of social and economic factors, key events and developments enabled the sovereign territorial state system to triumph as the main form of political authority between the mid-16th and mid-18th centuries. However, the timeline of events leading up to this is dotted with some turning points, which are of the upmost importance in any explanation for the consolidation of states’ authority. This essay will attempt to highlight these turning points and argue that there are at least three interrelated factors and changes which are hugely significant in the development of the modern state system: religion, increased capacity for warfare and the development of a money economy. It will also be argued that although these factors are significant, they alone cannot explain the rise of the modern state system. To reach this conclusion, this essay will first outline the key factors, paying attention to their interrelation and then show how ultimately, the rise of the modern state system is a result of a combination of both long-term developments and key historical events.
Feudalism was the system of political organisation in Medieval Europe. Very different from the modern state system, it was characterised by a division power and a complex hierarchy of power headed by the Pope, followed by the king, lords, vassals and serfs at the bottom. At this time, social status dictated the amount of authority one possessed and the laws that they were obliged to abide by. This complex system of power caused an overlapping of legitimacy with the various actors often competing for sovereignty and shifting alliances frequently. Looking at a map of Europe at around 1500, one sees that the region is divided into hundreds of small states with unclear borders causing difficulties for the king in terms of being able to oversee the land. This system was the source of economic and social chaos and as the nature of trade began to change from the late 14th century, it is here that we begin to see a change in the direction of political organisation. The system of bartering which had been the main form of economy was slowly being taken over by a money economy, which gave rise to a capitalist class. This was a crucial development in the rise of the modern state as it was the monarchy that was in the best position to exploit this new wealth and organise the economy by way of taxation and force if necessary. An important part of this process was the alliance formed between the nobility and the monarchy, allowing for the efficient extraction of wealth from the economic classes. In reference to this, Weber argues in Politics as a vocation: