When doing worldbuilding, many authors or game designers assume as a matter of course that most of the peoples in their world will be part of an organized state (roughly meaning a defined territory ruled by a centralized government, in the sense of Louis XIV’s “L’etat, c’est moi”). Any “barbarian” lands lacking organized states might be dominated by roving nomadic bandits, or some other uncultured society; and in any event these would be rare curiosities, and most of the land mass would be controlled by one state or another.
That assumption is understandable, given that almost all people alive today live in consolidated states (indeed, any regions lacking a state are today declared “failed states,” rather than simply stateless). But it should not be the default for authors. In fact, for most of human history, the majority of people lived outside of states. Organized states only tended to control cities and their immediate surroundings, with most people living in tribal or clan-based societies in lands outside of the city’s reach. And for most of human history, one’s average life expectancy was actually lower as the subject of a state than otherwise.
Even as organized governments in general gained power, the modern “Westphalian” state (one that claimed unchallenged rule over a defined territory extending well beyond city walls) was not the only way to run things. The city-state was a perfectly reasonable way to organize political life, and persisted well into the 19th century in Italy. Similarly, the Hanseatic League was a loose collection of city-states allied with each other for mutual protection and benefit, but otherwise largely self-governing.
Why then have states at all? What advantages did they have, if any? For whom? What allowed the Westphalian state to eventually take over the globe? And how can we use these concepts in our fiction?
Generally, the state is built from three things: military force, bureaucracy (or some other way to enforce laws and collect taxes), and a source of legitimacy (an ideological framework justifying the demand of the state that its subjects serve loyally—religion, or patriotism, or similar). But these need not all emerge in the same order, and the initial character of the regime may vary as a result.
What happens if the military comes first? Then you have the state as a “stationary bandit,” essentially where some thug with an army gathers a group of people under his rule, and provides some of the trappings of civilized life in exchange for squeezing them for all the taxes he can get. This might not be all bad; a smart bandit can sometimes provide a better quality of life for people under her rule than what they had before, for the selfish purpose of generating more economic growth and therefore taxable wealth. But when push comes to shove, the entire purpose of the bandit state is to aggrandize and enrich the ruler, not to benefit the ruled. Slavery is frequent, taxation is heavy, the army is frequently used to squeeze the people even harder, and the desires of the people are only an annoying consideration to be managed.
What if administration comes first? You might suppose that a self-governing community, perhaps husbanding a common-pool resource, has to deal with increasingly complex problems of project planning and resource allocation; the community develops an organized bureaucracy in response, with codified laws. Then, as the community is threatened by invaders, the community raises an army for its defense (or maybe they feel like invading their neighbors!). Then it decides that keeping the army is a good idea, and becomes a state. In such a case, most of the state’s activity will initially still be focused on resource allocation and maintenance of social order, rather than sheer coercive extraction. Ancient Egypt might be a good case of this.
What if the community’s framework for legitimacy came first? For example, in the Bible, the Israelites had lived in a stateless society for centuries, but found themselves unable to repel invading powers like the Philistines. So the people approached the prophet Samuel and demanded a king “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” Yet that king was (initially) constrained by the cultural and religious expectations that the people already had. In such a case, one might expect the king to be relatively weaker than the other cases, at least initially, and not to diverge too strongly from communal expectations.
As time passes, any state will develop aspects of all three of the above aspects. The exact mix between them will vary; and in your own fiction project, you can of course emphasize the angle that works best for your story. But states tend to develop more rapidly, and to end up exerting more power over their societies, if the nation is under persistent military threat.
So far so good; but then why the modern Westphalian state? Why bother claiming all the territory in your neighborhood, and claim the power to control the behavior of the people living in it, when it might be too expensive and troublesome to control the “badlands”? Why not exist as a city-state, and simply trade for resources with the stateless peoples living outside your grasp (as was the model for most of history)?
In part, this becomes more of a factor when international diplomacy becomes more important. If other states want to make agreements with your state, they expect you to be able to fulfill your end of the bargain; that will force you to try to control “your” territory in response. If Florin makes a peace treaty with Guilder, it would be highly embarrassing if Florinian bandits start raiding Guilder territory. Florin will have to work harder to impose law and order in “its” territory, or no other state will trust its word.
If a state is less concerned with controlling its entire territory, and only with maximizing its tax revenue, it would tend to default to a city-state model, or perhaps a network of cities dotting a largely ungoverned landscape—cities are far more efficient to control. The same would be true if the state simply lacks the power to dominate the countryside. The countryside, meanwhile, would be largely self-governing by small communities of farmers or foragers, or perhaps dominated by local gentry, crime bosses, or warlords.
In your own stories, remember that the Westphalian state is not the only model you need follow, nor is it always the best one for your story. A world of uncertain political control can be really fun to explore.
(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)