Primer on State Capacity

The following is a segment on state capacity that edited out of a in-work paper. I post it as a starting point for those interested in a topic that isn’t necessarily accessible to non-political scientists. Take from it what you can…

State Capacity and Challenges

As a variable measuring societal penetration, the capacity of a government can range wildly between the polar examples of Somalia’s interim, international-backed government and the omnipresent, prebendalist regime of North Korea. To exist as a monopolistic organization jealous of its own autonomy, capable of dictating the behavior of inhabitants and the mobilization of the resources of its territory, there are fundamental characteristics that the state must develop (Snyder, pg. 313). The Western norm of high extractive capacity and political domination in a territory presupposes a strong state that can redirect resources to implement political decisions. Outside of Europe, a host of issues created idiosyncrasies in the state-building process that established a different dialectic, creating unpredictable tribulations and malformed political structures (Leftwich, pg. 60). Colonial development and natural resources were leveled incongruently across countries, while many were burdened with substantive issues of nationalism and governance that impeded the formation of capable regimes.

Within the context of civil-society relations, regime-type may affect the strategies a state can pursue to deal with groups, such as Islamists, however it has not historically privileged one form of government above all others in the overall capacity to confront such actors. Although democracy, consociational or majoritarian, is favored by Western governments and their transnational institutions, one can readily find examples of democratic states being significantly minimized or usurped by the efforts of domestic spoilers. Alternatively, some authoritarian states have had significant success is quelling Islamist insurgencies, even in their periphery. Instead, the important characteristics of the regime in confronting non-state actors are dictated in its legitimacy, functionality and penetration. Underdevelopment in these areas create a host of issues for governments and often lead to bureaucratic inefficiencies and policy failures. Such tenets are qualitative guidelines over the manner in which most governments are able to keep control and survive against competing actors, domestic or exogenous, expecting that states that display some competence in these functions should have more success in their efforts to minimize or incorporate non-state Islamist groups (Migdal, pg. 19).

Monopoly of Coercion
The state should hold a monopoly over the principle means of legitimate violence for the purpose of mass coercion and sociopolitical domination. Traditionally this relies on the establishment and maintenance of standing armies and internal security forces while routing non-state sanctioned militia and foreign armies. Advanced governments generally develop police forces different from the military which act as functionaries of the judicial-legal system.
Policy Autonomy
Significant independence from unincorporated domestic and foreign influences in the policy-making process allows for home rule in judgments made by leaders or the bureaucracy. Decision-makers should exist in a culture that promotes the common good of the public and refrains from self-serving corruption. The state must be able to circumvent the influence of strong social actors, including avoiding a situation where the government is compelled to bribe or defer to the consent of the independent elite.
Binding Rules
The ability of leaders to make and implement binding rules for all individuals within the state’s territory is fundamental to the efficacy of government. For most post-colonial states, the challenge after independence is the political incorporation of rural areas whose development was spared in favor of the industrialized, administrative center. The implementation of a uniform system of laws and the extension of a system of courts in place of fragmented customary or feudal law is essential to inducing inhabitants to behave within the policies of the government and diminishing the role of non-state actors in society. Legal institutions and police forces give the state the option of the coercive sanctions which increase the cost of challenging policies. In well-adjusted societies, there is a public expectation that those in power are equally accountable to the law, reducing the prevalence of corruption and rent-seeking.
Coherency of Government
A developed notion of the division of labor in the functionaries of the state and its bureaucracy, including differentiation of its components and fields of influence allows for specialized, complex operations with coherency, coordination and professionalism between the branches of government and with the citizen. Consistent rules increase the usefulness of institutions for the public and bolster legitimacy in terms of participation. In fragile, consociational democracies with ministries divided based on identity groups, there is often a tendency for intra-governmental competition and overlap to arise out of group-serving attempts to increase influence by expanding sections of the bureaucracy at the expense of others.

The state has traditionally been tailored as a means to ensure the security of the status quo and serve the interests of the political-connected class as well as provide a means to resolve disputes among citizens and with the state. To these ends, four persistent types of activities are prevalent among stable states: maintenance of internal order and protection of the social structure and property rights; military defense or aggression; maintenance of communication and trade infrastructure; economic redistribution (Mann, pg. 120; Rotberg, pg. 3). None of these operations account for the initial formative events which create the state or a sense of common nationality.

The concept of the state has often been labelled as being a Eurocentric model of organization propagated by colonial ventures. Traditionally, a state is composed of nations which are the subjective internalizations of common experiences amplified by the elites (Nettl, pg. 655; Snyder). Post-colonial countries were generally not the product of the development of societal institutions based on the delineation of national identities. Few African or Middle Eastern states have benefited from the slow organization and self-division that was afforded to Europe. Territory lines were often drawn arbitrarily without interest in the ethnic character of the region by distant power. International and intra-regional institutions, such as the United Nations and the African Union, have cemented these lines, dooming some states to poor governance and a state of arrested development. Certainly, this disposition doesn’t preclude such factors from having a substantial impact on the state, but it does reduce their likelihood and potency (Migdal, pg. 271).

World Timing and Historical Events

In some respects, all nations have been measurably affected by geopolitics. This is true not only for countries formerly colonized by Western Europe but others like Turkey under the Ottoman empire. To be beneficial, international politics must facilitate the consolidation of social and territorial control under one central government capable of maintaining internal order. The common example of this case is the consolidation of the international Jewish community in the Palestinian territories as a result of the population flight and British mandate instigated by the events of World War II. Further examples include the disintegration of Yugoslavia into ethnically defined nation-states or the reintegration of Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union hegemony in eastern Europe.

Exogenous Violence Threat

In a manner similar to Franz Fanon’s narration of the flattening of sociopolitical boundaries in the face of the hardships of external occupation, the threat of violence by a foreign actor has the potential of minimizing political boundaries between risk-minimizing social actors concerned about survival (Fanon, pg. 51). Without these impediments, actors should be more likely to change economic and political priorities from self-serving to community and state-serving for the sake of self-preservation at least for the length of the incursion.

Competent, Independent Bureaucracy

The Weberian, ideal standard of government defines a strong, professional group of individuals divorced from the existing bases of control who objectively identify the needs of the state as the interest of the government organization in interpreting the law. By operating outside existing social organizations, the bureaucracy is able to more closely execute the will of the government and codified laws in a clear and consistent manner impartial to overbearing social actors. In bureaucratic-military states such as those of South America, much of the real power of the government was in the state apparatuses and not the military heads of government. The bureaucracy was responsible for the minutiae of government operations and interpretation of the law, unlike the executives, who were concerned with broad policy direction. (‘There’s rarely an authoritarian way to take out the trash.’)

Skilled Leadership

The artful abilities of strong and sophisticated leaders can be sufficient to state-building by successfully mobilizing the population and its resources in articulating an inclusive national philosophy, even in a dynamic and uncertain environment. A skillful and popular leader has the potential of competing with or co-opting existing social bases and creating a new one favorable to the functions of a strong state. The strong leader is able to impose and legitimize a vision of the state that can last beyond their tenure. Few states still embody the principles of their founder as much as Turkey does of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Decades after his death, the military still serves as a check against the democratically-elected government when it appears to drift away from the Kemalist ideals of secularism and Westernization.

These qualities are causally significant in their role as legitimacy-building conditions promoting the importance and potential of the state to the public. Post-revolutionary shift in social relations are not necessarily permanent as times of crisis do not change the original conditions that created the political environment and war can reduce the available wealth of the country, causing more infighting. The ethnic cartography created by colonialism created conditions where extra-state appeals to shared kinship are common and persuasive. Despite initial, revolutionary cohesion, many multi-ethnic African states, such as Kenya and Nigeria, suffer from frequent intrastate conflict as a result of pervasive suspicion between communities. Furthermore, an intelligent interloper is likely to exploit these conditions and ally with disenfranchised elites by promising favors. The ethnic cartography created by colonialism created conditions where appeals to shared kinship are common and persuasive.Both Iran and Iraq encouraged the violence committed by separatist Kurds in each other’s countries, during their conflict in the early 80s, with promises of autonomy.

Legitimacy is a measure of the social capital and hegemonic role of the state with the individual in society, especially in relation to other actors (Migdal, pg. 32). One supposition is that the state that has a widespread compliance by the population should be a difficult environment for actors who are attempting to operate as political spoilers. If the state can gain participation on the part of the individual, there should be a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo. Contrarily, states which are plagued by issues of representation or efficacy are susceptible to challenges by political spoilers and non-state actors which assert a more relevant connection to the public through identity politics or stronger social services.


The state seeks and gains a rudimentary conformance to its demands by the population, often through the sanction of force or court system to pressure adherence. The state may also use its control over the dispersal of resources as a method of gaining social compliance and mobilization. Under such conditions, these monopolies are likely the only reason the government is able to gain the consent of the public and the state is extremely susceptible to a non-state actor that can present alternative institutions and protection.


The strength of the state is not only in the compliance of the population to government goals and policy but by the mobilization of the population for specialized tasks and the repeated, voluntary use by the public of state institutions. The state is not necessarily accepted as infallible by the population, but as a viable or necessary means of carrying out a livelihood in competition with old social organizations. For the individual, governmental institutions gain credibility because they present viable strategies for maintaining a livelihood without significant costs or unreasonable demands. At this stage, the state’s appeal is mainly economic with the court systems and security forces present to maintain internal order and not necessarily for massive coercion.


The accumulation of social capital by the state’s leads to approbation on the part of the public to the law and the acceptance of the government as the only legitimate means of administrative and social organization. The level of penetration is such that participation in the state is not out of a cost-benefit calculation of the rewards from the system but the conviction of the inherent truth of the new social order. Trust is paramount to this system.

The iconic, iron-fisted ruler can only dictate the lifestyles of the citizens by the use of coercion to a limited and ephemeral extent. In such cases, the acceptance of the leaders need only be a public exhortation of the ruler’s legitimacy with no solid influence on the mindset of the individual. The measure of a regime’s penetration and staying power should be contingent on the public’s use of official institutions connected with the state as opposed to non-sanctioned, private organizations that have the potential to interfere with the government’s operation. The goal of any developing country should be the fostering of these dependencies, whether by coercion or competition, in order to instill a long-term sense of popular or philosophical legitimacy. The entities with the power to change the culture of a population, such as the school system, should be jealously controlled by the government (Nettl, pg. 389). Failing states, in reducing the size of welfare budgets, often privatize essential services such as the educational and medical systems thereby creating opportunities for social actors to usurp the functionality of its traditional domain. In the Middle East, these competing groups have been either the landed elite or a new breed of post-state Islamists.


Fanon, F. and R. Philcox (2004).
The Wretched of the Earth.
New York: Grove P.
Leftwich, A. (1994).
States of underdevelopment: The third world state in theoretical
Journal of Theoretical Politics 6 (1), 55-74.
Mann, M. (1984).
The autonomous power of the state: Its origins, mechanisms and
European Archive of Sociology 25, 185-212.
Migdal, J. S. (1988).
Strong societies and weak states: state-society relations and
state capabilities in the Third World
Princeton UP.
Nettl, J. (1968).
The state as a conceptual variable.
World Politics 20 (4), 559-592.
Rotberg, R. I. (2003).
State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror.
Brookings Institution Press.
Snider, L. W. (1987).
Identifying the elements of state power.
Comparative Political Studies 20 (3), 314-356.
Snyder, J. (2000).
From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist