The rise of the “modern state” as a public power constituting the supreme political authority within a defined territory is associated with western Europe’s gradual institutional development beginning in earnest in the late 15th century, culminating in the rise of absolutism and capitalism. As Europe’s dynastic states England under the Tudors, Spain under the Hapsburgs, and France under the Bourbons embarked on a variety of programs designed to increase centralized political and economic control, they increasingly exhibited many of the institutional features that characterize the “modern state.”
This centralization of power involved the delineation of political boundaries, as European monarchs gradually defeated or co-opted other sources of power, such as the Church and lesser nobility. In place of the fragmented system of feudal rule, with its often indistinct territorial claims, large, unitary states with extensive control over definite territories emerged.
This process gave rise to the highly centralized and increasingly bureaucratic forms of absolute monarchical rule of the 17th and 18th centuries, when the principal features of the contemporary state system took form, including the introduction of a standing army, a central taxation system, diplomatic relations with permanent embassies, and the development of state economic policymercantilism. Cultural and national homogenization figured prominently in the rise of the modern state system. Since the absolutist period, states have largely been organized on a national basis.
The concept of a national state, however, is not synonymous with nation-state. Even in the most ethnically homogeneous societies there is not always a complete correspondence between state and nation, hence the active role often taken by the state to promote nationalism through emphasis on shared symbols and national identity.
It is in this period that the term “the state” is first introduced into political discourse in more or less its current meaning. Although Niccolò Machiavelli is often credited with first using the term to refer to a territorial sovereign government in the modern sense in The Prince, published in 1532, it is not until the time of the British thinkers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and the French thinker Jean Bodin that the concept in its current meaning is fully developed. Today, most Western states more or less fit the influential definition of the state in Max Weber’s Politics as a Vocation.
According to Weber, the modern state monopolizes the means of legitimate physical violence over a well-defined territory. Moreover, the legitimacy of this monopoly itself is of a very special kind, “rational-legal” legitimacy, based on impersonal rules that constrain the power of state elites. However, in some other parts of the world states do not fit Weber’s definition as well. They may not have a complete monopoly over the means of legitimate physical violence over a definite territory, or their legitimacy may not be adequately described as rational-legal.
But they are still recognizably distinct from feudal and absolutist states in the extent of their bureaucratization and their reliance on nationalism as a principle of legitimation. Since Weber, an extensive literature on the processes by which the “modern state” emerged from the feudal state has been generated. Marxist scholars, for example, assert that the formation of modern states can be explained primarily in terms of the interests and struggles of social classes. Scholars working in the broad Weberian tradition, by contrast, have often emphasized the institution-building effects of war.
For example, Charles Tilly has argued that the revenue-gathering imperatives forced on nascent states by geopolitical competition and constant warfare were mostly responsible for the development of the centralized, territorial bureaucracies that characterize modern states in Europe. States that were able to develop centralized tax-gathering bureaucracies and to field mass armies survived into the modern era; states that were not able to do so did not