Do We Need a New Theory of the State?

Written by Metin Güven

The struggle for the right to the city is growing in different contexts all over the world. For example, tens of thousands of people rebelled to protect Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013, yet their actual driving motivation was resisting the authoritarian government that is trying to control every aspect of citizens’ lives and to suppress every movement that raises concerns. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important to understand how that context is changing in a dynamic world that is transitioning into a new world order. Old powers are losing their ground and new powers are rising. The neoliberal policies of globalization are adversely affecting the living conditions of people. Because of these changes, authoritarian governments and right-wing populism are becoming more common.

I will try to explore what kind of transformation period we are going through first, then I will try to explain the historical differences of domination among the main civilizations and why I think we would understand the outcome of the current transformation better if we develop a new theory of the State that includes the various state evolutions, especially in Asia.

The Current Transition of World Leadership

Fourteen years ago the Iraq war was on the agenda, neocons of the US were planning to take over Iraq in order to establish a friendly government and access cheap oil to stop the decline of the US economy. Within a few years it became a debacle; Iraqi resistance increased the cost of the war to trillions of dollars. It also caused the collapse of the US hegemony project. In 2006 neocons left all positions in the US government. The US entered into so much debt that it hasn’t been in a position to start another war since. Yet the actual decline of the US started in 1970s, with the loss of the Vietnam War being an important turning point. Some relief was provided by neoliberalism and monetary policies during the late 1980s, as well as new economic and financial expansion in the 1990s. However, these policies could not prevent the 2001 recession. The US succeeded in attracting capital flow, but manufacturing in the US was too costly and profit rates were too low. Most investment went to new technologies, but the expected rate of consumption was not realized. The recession of 2008–2009 was even worse, and the next recession could be the worst of all given that income and wealth imbalances are at a historical high.

If we look at the decline of the US in a historical perspective this seems inevitable. Giovanni Arrighi (2007, p.235) explains four systemic cycles of capital accumulation:

Recurrent system-wide financial expansions appeared to return, new rounds of inter-capitalist competition, interstate rivalries, accumulation by dispossession, and production of space on an ever-increasing scale revolutionized the geography and mode of operation of world capitalism, as well as its relationship with imperialistic practices. Thus, if we focus on the “containers of power” that have housed the “headquarters” of the leading capitalist agencies of successive cycles of accumulation, we immediately see a progression from a city-state and cosmopolitan business diaspora (the Genoese); to a proto-national state (the United Provinces) and its joint-stock chartered companies; to a multinational state (the United Kingdom) and its globe-encircling tributary empire; to a continent-sized national state (the US) and its world-encompassing system of transnational corporations, military bases, and institutions of world governance.

One hundred years ago the world was in another transition period, with the UK’s global leadership of capitalism on the decline. Investing in the UK was not profitable; capital was flowing to the US for a higher profit. The US economy was already the largest in the world. The UK economy had been financialized just as the US economy today has been financialized. A 30- year period, including two world wars, brought the end of UK leadership. For the US, a similar period started with Iraq War. There likely will not be another war since the US doesn’t seem to be able to reduce its foreign debt and prepare for another war. Also, other opportunities to start a war between rivals seems very difficult. However, the period of the US global leadership either has already ended or it will end in the near future depending on how that leadership is defined. The US elite are in disarray regarding decisions on how to spend limited resources – whether to erect a wall on the Mexican border or to develop military capacity to match rivals China and Russia (Sonne and Harris, 2018).

There are many possibilities for the next period. One possibility is a new world system with strong global actors including US, EU, China and India. But among these powers China might have much more power than others. The Chinese economy became the largest economy based on purchasing power parity in 2014. It is expected to be the largest in nominal prices during next decade and China is expected to be number one in wealth during the 2030s when India’s economy is expected to catch up to the size
of the US economy (, 2017).

If we witness another big recession due to the current financial bubble it may also mean the end of liberal capitalism. According to Forbes, currently four of the top ten global corporations are Chinese state banks (, 2018). During the most recent recession China and India were affected the least. Even though they promote capitalist development in manufacturing and service sectors, they regulate and control their finance sector by state banks. For more than a thousand years Chinese bureaucracies have maintained a tradition of controlling capitalist development and preventing it if they think it could be a threat to the Chinese economy or state power. On the other hand, elites of Western countries have started to realize that they don’t benefit from globalization anymore. The Trump administration has already started implementing a reversal of globalization by restricting imports and other state interventions. The US might be forced to implement measures such as universal basic income to reduce social tensions as well.

The Heritage of Domination

In short there is a high probability that states will play a more crucial role to maintain current domination forms; states may become the main driving force to change the balance of different domination forms in favour of themselves. I think the concept of the heritage of domination is useful in understanding relationships between different domination forms. During the nineteenth century, revolutionary thinkers tried to explain social relationships based on class domination, as class struggle was mainly determining these relationships at that time. Then all other types of social domination and the idea of domination over nature became critical to understanding social contradictions in the twentieth century.

Social ecology provides a strong framework with which to explain how the legacy of domination and the legacy of freedom played their roles throughout history and brought humanity into the current social and ecological crisis. However, since capitalism and Western powers were so dominant in determining social change during the twentieth century, the focus was mostly on capitalism, even though social ecology advocates the end of all hierarchies and all types of domination to create a free society. We may need to change that focus to the State in the near future if state domination prevails over capitalism.

Murray Bookchin (1982, p. 95) elaborates state domination:

The State is not merely a constellation of bureaucratic and coercive institutions. It is also a state of mind, an instilled mentality for ordering reality. Accordingly, the State has a long history—not only institutionally but also psychologically. Apart from dramatic invasions in which conquering peoples either co pletely subdue or virtually annihilate the conquered, the State evolves in gradations, often coming to rest during its overall historical development in such highly incomplete or hybridized forms that its boundaries are almost impossible to fix in strictly political terms. …Its capacity to rule by brute force has always been limited. The myth of a purely coercive, omnipresent State is a fiction that has served the state machinery all too well by creating a sense of awe and powerlessness in the oppressed that ends in social quietism. Without a high degree of cooperation from even the most victimized classes of society such as chattel slaves and serfs, its authority would eventually dissipate. Awe and apathy in the face of State power are the products of social conditioning that renders this very power possible.

The evolution of the State, Bookchin explained, will not stop and the State seems to increasingly manipulate the economy while developing tools to enhance the cooperation between the State and lower classes of population.

Historically, social theories have concentrated on European states, which were formed during cycles of capitalist accumulation with strong allegiance to merchants and bankers. These states became capitalist nation-states at the end of those state-making processes. However, states all over the world have been formed in a variety of ways during decolonization in the twentieth century. Also cultural differences have made crucial differences in the evolution of the State in different countries. If we compare the oldest civilizations, states first emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt more than five thousand years ago. These two civilizations had hierarchical social structures, leaving remnants of big temples and palaces. However there is no evidence that similar buildings were constructed during Indus Valley civilization despite the fact that they built larger cities with better designs and more advanced water and sewage systems. Archaeologists haven’t yet found any evidence of kings or military organizations or indications of a hierarchical social organization in the Indus Valley. Some Indian scholars suggest that it could have been a democratic society, even though their writings haven’t been deciphered (Mayank and Nisha, 2011). It seems that the State emerged in India not as a result of internal social dynamics, but was imposed by outsiders, namely Aryan invaders. Also, there is no correlation between the level of civilization and the hierarchical structure of a society. Eventually, the native people of India accepted the imposed institutions, but Jainism and Buddhism—which were against the Aryan’s religion and the class system it brought—could have been influenced by their earlier civilization, and may have been part of their culture, yet surfaced in a different form.

The evolution of the State in China was very different, too. It seems that states emerged during the second millennium BCE—with a gap of more than one thousand years between the oldest states, which had different characteristics. The first kings presented themselves as a God, or representative of God, to legitimize their rule. However, in China the legitimacy of the king or emperor was based on a mandate of heaven (or cosmos). They did not need to be a noble to gain that mandate, but if they ignored the welfare of the masses, or if a natural disaster caused widespread misery, the people might assume that he had lost the mandate of heaven. In such cases rebellion was seen as legitimate. This pressure on emperors to be just led to periods when land was distributed to peasants equally (it was very common during the period of the Warring States). Also, local rebellions were monitored and taken seriously by rulers. The Chinese State has evolved with its own authoritarianism and rationality over more than two thousand years.

The Axial Age and Later Developments

The Axial Age is defined as the period between 800 and 200 BCE in which the main religions and philosophies were shaped throughout Eurasia. Before this period great empires collapsed and small kingdoms and states began fighting each other. As opposed to the times when empires lasted for long periods, there was uncertainty and insecurity during the Axial Age. As a result, many scholars started to think about the meaning of life and how to deal with uncertainties. Then very different new ways of thinking appeared (Graeber, 2011). We can compare these developments in three regions where the oldest civilizations emerged.

In the region of the Middle East/Europe both the first monotheistic religion and rational thinking appeared in Axial age. Greek democracy emerged based on ethics developed by rational reasoning, while Judaism was being shaped in the Middle East. Greek civilization attained peak achievements in many areas. However, even though the Macedonian and Roman empires later helped spread Greek culture throughout most of Europe and the Middle East, the core ideas of Greek civilization— democracy and ethics—disappeared. Instead, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion well after the Axial Age. Philosophy was suppressed in favour of monotheistic thought. Romans ransacked Greek cities taking writings and sculptures to Rome, sometimes killing or enslaving Greek philosophers and artists. They used the engineering knowledge of Greeks and copied their architecture and aesthetics. On the other hand, emperor Jovian in 363 CE burned the Royal Library of Antioch as well as the temple since there were pagan writings there. At the end there was no continuity in Greek ideals. Those ideals, such as democracy and ethical society resurfaced as part of the heritage of freedom about two thousand years after direct democracy was destroyed in Greece. Europe was under religious dogmatism until the seventeenth century while philosophy and science were being developed in other parts of Eurasia.

In India both Hinduism and Buddhism appeared during the Axial Age. Basic concepts of Hinduism were defined in the Upanishads written in this age. However, this philosophy has been adopted in a variety of different ways. Eventually polytheistic forms of Hinduism became dominant in India. Even though Buddhism shares some of the concepts with the Upanishads, there is no worshiping of any God in Buddhism. It teaches that “man can gain deliverance from suffering by his own efforts” (Accesstoinsight. org, 1995). During the late Axial Age, the Maurya Dynasty ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent. Ashoka was the grandson of the founder of the Maurya Dynasty and he became a Buddhist after a bloody war to conquest Kalinga about 263 BCE. That war converted him to a stable and peaceful emperor as a result of the sorrow and regret he felt. He became a patron of Buddhism until he died in 232 BCE. He left a legacy of peaceful ruling in harmony and diversity based on ethics he wrote in his edicts. These edicts included banning animal sacrifice and elimination of meat eating on many holidays. But this legacy did not provide a way of self-defence for people in India, nor could it prevent development of the caste system. The history of India has been mostly the history of foreign invasions by nomadic nations or imperialists, which were catastrophically worse than the former.

The Axial Age in China was the period of small kingdoms or states. Those states were consolidated into seven main states by 476 BCE. Then the Warring States period started. This was also a legalist period in which a realistic consolidation of the wealth and power of autocrats and the State was emphasized while ignoring morality and the goal of an ideal rule. On the other hand, Confucius developed a philosophy based on secular morality. His rationality was mostly applied to the conduct of state rule by an elite as opposed to the Greek rationality of rule by the people. Confucian ideas presumed that human nature is potentially good. Rituals and self-cultivation provide a means to attain that potential. He emphasized leading by virtue rather than enforcing by law. Confucianism became the philosophy of most dynasties during Chinese history starting with the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) at the end of the Axial Age. Starting in 136 BCE the Han Dynasty sponsored Confucianism and encouraged nominees for office to receive a Confucian-based education. During the Han Dynasty the total number of bureaucrats employed by central and local governments was estimated to be more than 130,000 in 5 BCE (Keay, 2009).

Confucian studies were heavily influenced by Daoism and Buddhism after the Han Dynasty. Then during the Sui (581–618) and Tang dynasties (618–907), Buddhism became widespread and supported by the emperors. However, it was crushed between 843 and 848 BCE when Buddhist temples had accumulated most of the available gold, silver and copper as statuary while the government was not able to find enough precious metals to mint coins. At the end, superstitious and mystical elements of Taoism and Buddhism were eliminated from Confucian studies and the new orthodoxy emerged in the 11th century as Neo-Confucianism. Also in the Tang dynasty, the examination system superseded the apprentice/nomination alternative, and was formally institutionalised by the Song emperors to recruit officers in the years 960–1279 (Watson, 2006). The number of candidates taking officer exams in the thirteenth century reached 400,000.

China in the Twenty-First Century

The Chinese state has evolved in continuity over three millennia. Its huge bureaucracy has historical experience controlling the spread of religion and capital accumulation, and mobilizing people for a variety of goals such as education, agricultural projects, and war. We shouldn’t expect that such a state would become a capitalist state. On the contrary, such a state with its own traditions of protecting its interests may shape capitalism into a new form by using its own rationalism.

Murray Bookchin (1982, p. 127) warned us about state power: “Like the market, the State knows no limits; it can easily become a self-generating and self-expanding force for its own sake, the institutional form in which domination for the sake of domination acquires palpability.” China had a “century of humiliation” between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, starting with the Opium Wars and the invasion by European states, and then by Japan. Now China is regaining confidence under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, as John Osburg (2013:, p.822) explained:

In many ways, the financial crisis of 2008 gave the Chinese leadership even more confidence in the superiority of their form of state-managed authoritarian capitalism to the laissez-faire capitalism of the United States. In the most basic terms, the CCP hopes to maintain the embeddedness of the market in state structures that it controls in order to ensure that the market is harnessed to serve political goals, such as fostering indigenous innovation, maintaining social stability, and preserving CCP rule (not to mention the unstated goal of enriching elite families). As China has become less reliant on foreign investment in recent years, it has been able to more assertively promote and protect its own companies and interests, much to the annoyance of the Global North. …Despite the fact that many SOE (state-owned enterprises) are publicly traded in overseas stock markets, the Chinese state is still the majority shareholder in these companies, which are overseen by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC). Their CEOs are appointed by the CCP’s Organization Department, the same bureau that appoints all other CCP officials. They control all industries deemed of strategic and national importance: steel, petrochemicals, transportation, utilities, and virtually all banking and financial institutions.

Apparently, the Chinese state seeks “domination for the sake of domination” and also revanche for the century of humiliation.

The Strength of the Chinese State Model

The early twenty-first century witnessed a historical transition—the failure of the world hegemony project by the US and the rising power of “emerging markets.” This transition can be interpreted in many other ways as well: the revival of Asian states from the destruction of colonization in the nineteenth century; the re-emergence of China after a century of humiliation and taking over its previous role as the largest producer and innovator of the world; the rising old superpower of Russia after the collapse of “real-socialism” during the 1990s; or all of them at the same time. But one aspect of this transition is clear: homogenization of the world by globalization is over. Quite to the contrary, cultural differences are becoming more effective in shaping the new world order. China doesn’t compromise when it comes to state domination of the economy and India didn’t compromise on protecting small farmers during the Bali and Doha rounds of WTO discussions, even the country permits large agricultural projects.

Also, for example, Bookchin (1982, p. 139) commented that: “The legacy of domination thus culminates in the growing together of the State and society—and with it, a dissolution of the family, community, mutual aid, and social commitment.” But, generally, this doesn’t apply to Asian societies with their gregarious culture. Confucian authority of parents in the family is still common in China and the CCP is using Confucian ideas to strengthen its authority. The fact that 88.4 per cent of marriages in India are arranged by parents shows how family ties are still strong there.

The capitalist nation-states of Europe evolved from weak kingdoms in the periphery when the production centres of the world were in Asia. Europe didn’t have much to sell to Asia in exchange for tea, spices, silk, porcelain and other luxuries at that time. These states had few choices to accumulate power other than developing military technologies and expanding their overseas colonies, which they plundered. In the end, an irrational capitalism dominated Europe since there was no strong State with an ethical tradition. On the other hand, the State has evolved in China for over four thousand years. Confucian traditions have provided this state an authoritarian rationalism with a secular ethic. Today China not only provides a model to other states in the developing world, but also finances most of the projects in those countries. Eventually that model may affect capitalism in developed countries as well. It is hard to predict how it would manifest itself, but we can see some trends as President Trump advocates protectionist policies for the US. However, in the long run an authoritarian rationalism may become more dominant.

A New State Theory for the Struggles to Come

Neoliberal capitalism destroys safety nets in society, increases inequality and makes people more atomized by increasing competition for jobs. On the other hand it makes the balance between society and nature more fragile as it relentlessly destroys nature. However, all these irrational developments may eventually cause the collapse of modern society—the existence of humanity is seriously threatened. An authoritarian rational state may ease these policies and make capitalism a less urgent existential threat to humanity, presenting itself as a solution to such a threat.

The heritage of domination needs to provide some hope to make people’s lives better. Currently neoliberal capitalism claims that new technologies, such as driverless cars or artificial intelligence, will make life easier. But they will only increase the profit of corporations while people will experience the same difficulties. On the other side of the world hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of extreme poverty as a result of the CCP’s policies, and new reforms are on agenda in order provide more people with safety nets. During the nineteenth National Congress of the CCP, President Xi Jinping said, “What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life” (, 2017). This definition of the new era shows that the CCP will follow more rational policies while strengthening its authoritarian power.

In the end, a struggle for freedom against such a rational State poses a much more difficult challenge than a struggle against an irrational capitalism. Current state theories that include only developments in the region of the Middle East/Europe will be of limited use for this challenge. These theories assume that states in other civilization centres would evolve in the same way. But the current reality doesn’t show any evidence in that direction. Therefore, I think a new state theory that elaborates the differences in the evolution of states and the possibilities for the role of the State in the near future is crucial as we prepare ourselves for new struggles against the kinds of hierarchies and domination we will face in the future.

This theory should help the Left to understand and foresee how authoritarian states have evolved and are likely to evolve and influence other states in the future. Such a theory would be crucial for the Left to prepare itself for struggles in the upcoming political environment. Moreover, it would provide a perspective such that class reductionism does not blind the Left when it is becoming ever more critical to fight against domination by the State, so that we might all live in a society free from all forms of oppression.

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Arrighi, G. 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing. London, New York: Verso.

Bookchin, M. 1982. Ecology of Freedom. Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire. 2017. “Principal Contradiction Facing Chinese Society Has Evolved in New Era: Xi” [Online]. [Accessed 25 January 2017]. Available from: 2018. The World’s Largest Public Companies. Forbes [Online]. [Accessed 25 March 2019]. Available from:

Graeber, D. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Mellville Publishing House.

Keay, J. 2009. China: A History. London: Harper Press.

Mayank N. V. and Nisha Y. 2011. Reconstructing the History of Harappan Civilization. Social Evolution & History, 10(2), pp.27-49.

Osburg, J. 2013. Global Capitalisms in Asia: Beyond State and Market in China, in The Journal of Asian Studies, 72(4), pp.813-829. 2017. The World in 2050, PwC Global. [Online]. [Accessed 25 March 2019]Available from:

Sonne, P. and Harris, S. 2018. U.S. military edge has eroded to ‘a dangerous degree,’ study for Congress finds. Washington Post. 14 Nov. [Accessed 25 March 2019]. [Online]. Available from:

Watson, P. 2006. Ideas. New: Harper Perennial.

March 9, 2021


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