State Formation in the Interest of Present Value

Cobey Williamson
3 min readOct 17, 2021

Regardless of the exact mechanism of modern state formation, be it differing modes of production (Hechter and Brustein, Regional Modes of Production and Patterns of State Formation, 1980), racketeering and war-making (Tilly, War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, 1985), or dynastic lordship (Sharma, Kinship, Property, and Authority, 2015), the impetus for ceding power to a trusted third party is always to serve as a hedge in the face of evolving power dynamics among competing elements of the bourgeoisie. In other words, when Marx said “the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (The Communist Manifesto), the claim wasn’t reductionist, as Mann alludes (Mann, The autonomous power of the state, 1984). It was simply correct.

To begin, no one would willingly cede authority nor sovereignty over themselves to another party. This is only ever done for fear of violence, whether that be an act of aggression or societal reprisal. Such cession occurs solely when one perceives the present value of avoiding violence is greater than the opportunity cost of ceding sovereignty. Thus arises the theory of alliances of protection, which is the crux of most arguments regarding state formation.

But the protection of what? The answer is the means of production.

It must be understood that, initially, everyone owned some means of production. This is not to say that they owned merely their own labor, as most do today. It is to say that they owned some means of production over and above their labor. They owned the arable land or the hunting grounds. They owned their labor, as all do, but in addition, they enjoyed access to the material that production requires, and they owed no tribute for it.

Moving through the stages of enclosure and capital accumulation and the alliances of protection and tribute schemes that stemmed from them, we arrive, ultimately, at a point where all the means of production, every acre of land, is in the possession of someone. Another uneasy alliance arises, between those that own the means and those that know how to merchandise and finance. Neither wants to cede power to the other, but the present value of preserving the relationship is greater than the opportunity cost of destroying it. A tenuous peace, secured in law and maintained by a bureaucratic State, is thereby created.

That this might happen necessarily, as many might claim, is not empirically evidenced. The existence of functional societies in which no State arose, in which the cession of sovereignty was minimal, wherein all participants enjoyed relatively equal standing and there was little systemic incentive toward social mobility, such as those described by Hechter and Brustein, reminds us of this fact. State formation, then, is the direct result of capital accumulation and the willingness to leverage that capital against those with less toward the acquisition of more, to the exclusion of others.

Nowhere does there exist today a State in which every member possesses the means of production. This, by definition, makes the State an instrument of the bourgeoisie, as it is the laws and bureaucracy of the State that enforce the property rights of those who own the means of production. For should some plucky proletariat attempt to avail themselves of those means, say by killing one of the king’s deer, they would suffer the wrath, not of society at large, but of the bourgeoisie at the hands of the State.

This paper was originally submitted to the University of Montana Political Science department and first published on