Reflections on the Political Theology of Conflict

From Medieval Scandinavia to the Global Future

Publication Date:

Journal: Medieval and Modern Civil Wars: A Comparative Perspective

Reissue Date:

Editors: Hans Jacob Orning and Jon Vida Sigurdsson

Publisher City: Leiden


Is war, civil or uncivil, simply politics by other, primarily necro-violent means? Or is there more to it than this suggests? Is politics simply war, civil or uncivil, by means of the suspension of immanent violence? The dialectical entanglement of politics and conflict, of which war is typically taken to be the epitomizing instance, is a Clausewitzian cliche as old as social thought itself. But it continues to raise theoretical questions of considerable moment, questions eternally momentous, all the more so as regimes across the planet go to war – by means military, material, social, juridical, carceral, architectural, even sonic1 – in violence against their own citizens, typically under the righteous sign of legitimate power. The essays in this volume address those theoretical questions in the sort of way that historians and anthropologists prefer: by situating them deep in the fabric of lived worlds, past and present, thus to play out a counterpoint between the concept and concrete, between the facts as we apprehend them and the analytic terms in which we make sense of them. They do so, moreover, with recourse to the kind of comparison favored by classical anthropology for purposes of theory building– exemplified most explicitly here perhaps by the chapters on “Constant Crisis” and “The Contingent State.”

A word, therefore, on comparison as a strategy in the production of knowledge.

According to legend, Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, the mythic anthropologist of the twentieth century, once said of his discipline, “[It has] only one method…, the comparative method – and that is impossible.” Evans-Pritchard never actually committed this to print (Needham 1975:365), but that has not stopped it from being cited ad infinitum for the best part of the past seventy years. If he did say it, he would probably have intended it to apply to history as well, since he viewed the two disciplines as more alike than different, both being truth-producing, “ideographic” arts rather than fanciful “nomothetic” sciences. His take on the impossibility of a comparative method was to be echoed by the likes of Edmund Leach (1961), much against the flow of a structural functionalist tradition that, after another of its founding fathers, A.R. Radcliffe- Brown (e.g.1951:15 et passim), went so far as to define anthropology as a “[branch of] comparative sociology.” The argument over comparison, in short, has a long history.2 It continues into the present, if in transmuted, rather more nuanced terms than those of the past (see e.g. Jensen 2011), terms that make clear the extent to which the value attributed to comparison depends on epistemic orientations to theory-work: on the ways in which we regard the social, the ontological, the human, the natural, the perspectival, the cultural – note, all adjectives rather than nouns. In this volume, however, resort to comparison lies in a more straightforward impulse. It is to seek the sorts of similarities and differences, the continuities and ruptures across both time and space – Scandinavia and Africa or Afghanistan, for instance, distantiated by both continents and centuries – that trouble old truisms and call for fresh perspectives; perspectives out of which theory does not arise in and of itself, but which seed the analytic grounds in which it may be cultivated. In short, the comparative gesture here does not set out to yield the species of nomothetic knowledge to which (some of) our anthropological forebears aspired. It does the opposite, unsettling received certainties in order to insist on new kinds of theory-work. We shall see, in due course, whether and precisely how it succeeds in this undertaking.


Since I have broken into the content of this volume by invoking two of its dominant themes – theoretically, the dialectical counterpoint of politics and war, methodologically, the optic of space-time comparison – it makes sense to begin with the chapter that fuses them most closely: the one by Orning and Vigh on “constant crisis.” The argument of the piece, at its most general, arises out of a critique of orthodox modernist political theory. It makes two overarching claims, two theses, both of very broad philosophical, historiographic, and analytic reach, each addressed with reference to the similarities and dissimilarities between their focal cases, medieval Norway and contemporary Guinea-Bissau. The first has to do with the manner in which conflict – and, by extension, war – is conceptualized; specifically, with its ontological grounding in the nature of the human and the social, sui generis. The second relates to the evolution of political society; specifically, to the received, and still widely sustained presumption that world history follows a “natural,” teleological trajectory, a progress, from archaic, decentralized communities (“tribes”) toward the florescence of the modern, centralized state form and, by extension, the Westphalian model of sovereignty (see Afsah and Benham, infra).3 Let us take each in turn, noting that, for Orning and Vigh – and this is a critical, and cogent, dimension of their thesis – the two phenomena they interrogate, endemic conflict and the history of political society, exist in close counterpoint with each other, each constantly making and remaking the other, albeit in non-linear, sometime tensile ways.

For Orning and Vigh, conflict is not a “chaotic rupture of social order.” Neither is it a state of exception, let alone, following Durkheimian functionalism, symptomatic of pathological public disorder. It is an ordinary, endemic condition of being, and intrinsic, therefore, to political life, either immanently or manifestly. Shades here of the classic Simmelian tradition in sociology (Simmel 1903, 1955; Coser 1956); to wit, where Marx saw contradiction, especially class contradiction, to be the motor of history, Simmel treated conflict in much the same way, suggesting that a “harmonious [society]…is not only impossible empirically, but would also display no essential life-process and no stable structure” (1903:491). Similarly, for the African context, to which medieval Scandinavia is compared here, Max Gluckman’s Order and Rebellion (1963) famously held that, in “tribal” societies, conflict is endemic, the deus ex machina of political life. For Gluckman and his colleagues in the Manchester School of anthropology (see e.g. Turner 1957), “constant crisis,” if we take this term as a synonym for the immanence of conflict to political society, underlay social reproduction tout court. Indeed, there is a long tradition of comparative sociology and anthropology – again, note the evidentiary force of the comparative here – to substantiate Orning and Vigh’s thesis. And to support their effort to de-link conflict from crisis, a functionalist equation that takes the former to be the pathological precursor of the latter; indeed, to argue, with them, and with the likes of Simmel, Coser, Gluckman, and many others, that conflict does not negate or interrupt order but is a condition of its possibility, “an essential part of the social fabric…more structure than event.”4 To be sure, the “normalization” of crisis has become a burgeoning focus of social theory, recasting it less as an empirically verifiable state of social and economic, material and moral, political and ecological breakdown than as a more or less recursive (“constant”) narrative of rupture, of imminent apocalypse, against which to conjure calls to action. Hence Janet Roitman’s Anti-crisis (2013), a compelling reflection and extension of Reinhard Koselleck’s landmark Critique and Crisis (1988), the thrust of whose thesis, translated for present purposes, is that, far from being an objectively measurable objectifiable condition, (constant) crisis is a product of the age of Enlightenment critique; the critique, that is, which emerged, in a new age of political freedom, as bourgeois reason turned its censorious gaze on the history of the present and adjudged its defects and deformities to be, well, critical. What Orning and Vigh add to this rich discursive vein is to show that there is a much longer history to the sorts of “nervous politics” that underlie the apprehension and articulation of crisis. Or, at least, to the sense of precarity that inheres in the recursive presence of conflict in everyday political life.

It is one thing to accept that conflict is an endemic, recursive, perennial phenomenon, present even when absent; that it is productive of the practices and institutions of political society; that war, its most violent, most intensified manifestation, is less an aberration or an interruption than merely one end of a continuum wrought by what we may call “the dialectic of ordinary crisis,” the ongoing interplay, that is, of dis/order. But it is quite another thing to explain what motivates conflict and gives it its material and meaningful form. Or even where to look for an answer. In ontology? In historical sociology? In human psychology? In the contingency or conjunctural force of the chance event? In the structure of some or other duree? Somewhere else? Let us defer this thorny issue for a moment and turn to Orning and Vigh’s second thesis, which is also argued by Sigurdsson and Vigh (infra) in their essay, with reference to a very insightful analysis drawn from Iceland and Guinea-Bissau.5

This thesis relates to segmentary politics and the historical dynamics of de/centralization. Weberian theory in its various forms, it is commonplace to note, sees the evolution of political society as a teleological progress from less to more centralized, simpler to more complex systems: from archaic tribes ruled by “traditional” authority to nation-states governed by “rational-legal” authority. This is itself a corollary of the post- Enlightenment conception of modernity, which measures civilization, and its forms of rationality, in terms of ever greater functional refinement – in other words, complexity – such that the more highly developed a political or economic or legal order, the more specialized its structures and offices, its roles and institutions. As Peter Corning (2004:11) puts it, “political evolution has been inextricably linked to the synergies that have inspired the ‘progressive’ evolution of complex social systems.”6 Deviations from this trajectory, whether wrought by civil war or economic depression, by social pathology or cultural beliefs, are, concomitantly, taken to signal antimodernity, retrogress, or historical stasis. It hardly need be said any longer that, in this ideologically-fraught grand narrative, Africa – “our” contemporary, non-coeval, proto- medieval ancestors, so to speak – represents the archaic, the savage polarity of decentralized, stateless communities; Euro-America, by contrast, its modern, civilized endpoint. This is despite the fact that Africa, Hegel’s (1956) and Trevor-Roper’s (1965) putatively historyless continent, had a large number of elaborate empires a very long time ago; indeed, long before the medieval Europe it is supposed to resemble.

Orning and Vigh – again, with strong analytic support from Sigurdsson and Vigh (infra) – argue vigorously against this evolutionary orthodoxy, rejecting the notion that political history moves lineally from backward, anarchic, decentralized, “stateless” polities to modern, centralized ones, unless interrupted by dysfunctional reverses.7 Both medieval Norway and modern Guinea-Bissau, they show, contain within them both centralizing and decentralizing tendencies that manifest themselves, in various proportions to one another, at different times. Or, as Sigurdsson and Vigh stress, simultaneously for 12th-13th century Iceland and, once again, for contemporary Guinea- Bissau. These societies, despite their spatio-temporal distance from one another, share a number of critical characteristics: (i) highly labile political networks, (ii) dominated by patrons who condense power in themselves, more or less enduringly, by (iii) accumulating “friends” and followers – some of them kin, some of them neighbors, many of them clients – who (iv) offer their loyalty and labor in battle and/or domestic production in return for protection and other material benefits which, (v) if not given, may lead them to move on to other patrons. In the Icelandic case, Sigurdsson and Vigh add, conquest by a Norwegian king eventually tucked these patrimonial arrangements into a hierarchical structure, imposing a second order dialectic between centripetal monarchial power and the centrifugal pull of local patrons. The conclusion, nonetheless, is clear: the historical trajectory of political society in all these cases, the African, the Icelandic, and the Scandinavian, is neither unidirectional nor repetitively cyclical. Nor does it follow the sort of oscillating equilibrium classically described by Leach (1954) for Highland Burma,8 where the Shan state and the scattered, egalitarian, pattern of stateless gumlao communties are said to have represented the endpoints of a perennially plied continuum, moving first in one direction, then the other.

But what, then, propels these polities through time, giving them their manifest shape and internal construction? The answer, for Orning and Vigh, lies in their segmentary dynamics which, they say “are adaptive and problem solving phenomena”; or, to phrase this in less Durkheimean functionalist, more contemporary Foucauldian terms, productive of sociopolitical forms. These dynamics, dynamics of fission and fusion, yield shifting assemblages of power, albeit in different ways in medieval Scandinavia and contemporary Guinea-Bissau. What is common to them, however, is that, in both, political figures, seek to extend their power by consolidating and sustaining alliances, coalitions, and networks around themselves, which they seem best able to do under conditions of external threat; echoes here of the reliance on “crisis” as a source of political mobilization and centralization. But consolidation carries, within it, counter- tendencies toward factionalism, civil war, and decentralization; hence the immanence of conflict, even when it is absent. But, and this is critical to their thesist, decentralization does not mean disorder or breakdown. Decentralized polities, they insist, “are governed by their own logic.”

That said, Orning and Vigh appear to find the motor for (non-linear, non- evolutionary) swings in the labile shape of sociopolitical formations largely in political contingency. In a world whose social composition conduces to the constant need to manage relations, alliances, and affiliations – as is the case in medieval Norway9 and contemporary Guinea-Bissau – it is “situational practices” and “shifting assemblages,” they suggest, that produce and sustain centralization. Or subvert it by eroding concentrations of power. This is where their account differs from those of Leach (1954) in Burma or of ours in South Africa (e.g. Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:Chapter 4), although more in degree than in kind. Both Leach and we argue that the counterpoint of centralization and decentralization is not merely the product of contingent political action and reaction; that it is motivated by structural contradictions inherent in both centralized and decentralized political orders, contradictions that express themselves simultaneously in economic, political, social, and ideological terms – thus to prime the sorts of contingent practices that sediment into (more or less de/centralized, more or less un/stable) political arrangements. A parenthesis here, however: where, for Leach, as noted above, this yields a pattern of oscillating equilibrium, we seek to show for Africa that dialectical systems may simultaneously evince cyclical and linear – though not necessarily teleological – trajectories through time and across space.

There is no need to dwell on the details here. The point is simply to underscore that there are different theoretical points of departure in addressing the history of political formations – and that, among them, Orning and Vigh have chosen one that focuses less on dialectics and the contradictions internal to those formations, more on dynamics and the contingency of situational, segmentary-driven practices. About such matters, reasonable minds may disagree. But one thing is significant: however we may approach its explanation, Orning and Vigh’s stress on the endemic coexistence of centralization and decentralization – as two moving tendencies rather than types of polity,10 each with its own internal logic, each with its capacity to yield to historical change – has resonances that far exceed the limits of medieval Norway or contemporary Africa. Hence, again, the methodological point of comparison. Those resonances, for example, are to be seen in the USA, whose political system inscribes a tension, fought perennially, between the same two tendencies: it expresses itself in recursive struggles between the federal administration and the states, between social democratic liberals and neoconservative libertarians; and, sometimes, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Nor is the US alone in this respect: in the UK, the devolutionary impulses of the “Celtic fringe” refuse to go away, all the more so as Brexit is about to tear Britain out of the European Union.

This returns us, finally, to the question I left hanging earlier. Given that we recognize its endemic pervasiveness and its historical productivity, how do we explain the immanence of conflict, its causes and consequences? Does the answer lie in ontology, in human psychology, or in sociology? In the intrinsic nature of the human or the exigencies of the political? Other essays in this volume, to which we shall return, answer this question in their own ways. For their part, Orning and Vigh suggest that, whatever its momentary motivations, conflict arises out of political sociology: out of segmentary processes that, in turn, sediment into political formations which may persist for longer or shorter duration before they, too, are transformed. The theoretical challenge, then, is to account for the relationship of the former to the latter, of process to formation. We have seen how Orning and Vigh address this relationship in non- teleological terms: power is accumulated (and, to a greater or lesser degree, centralized) in would-be sovereigns through “situational practices” directed at the creation of coalitions and alliances, i.e. “shifting assemblages,” which hold together until sundered by segmentary forces arising out of political competition between leaders. The resultant conflict, in turn, could, often did, give way to civil war, thus to reconfigure the political landscape, rendering it either more or less centralized, depending on historical circumstance. The point is similarly made in Sigurdsson and Vigh’s essay. For them, recall, patrimonial politics hinged on patrons who forged quite volatile networks of friends and followers (in other words, “shifting assemblages”) largely through the pragmatics of everyday exchange and reciprocity (in other words, “situational practices”), thus to concentrate power in themselves; power that, nonetheless, was relatively precarious and could, under adverse conditions, dissipate very quickly and recenter itself elsewhere.

But, self-evidently, form requires meaning: brute power, to congeal into a political formation – into sovereignty, if you will – demands a cultural scaffolding: an order of signs with reference to which it can authorize itself. It is by this means that “savage” warlords become sovereigns, that local patrons become potentates, that marauders become monarchs; in other words, that state formation proceeds. But where, exactly, do we look for the production of that order ot signs and meanings?


One place is suggested by Orning and Rosén in their compelling analysis of Sverres Saga, a legend focused on Sverre Sigurdsson, King of Norway in the late twelve century, on his “mobilization of resources, and on his capacity for fighting competitors and ensuring dominance and respect among the population.” Superficially a story of war, one that has attracted a large scholarly literature, it is treated here not as an historical source but as a mandate, an ideological manifesto for contemporary kingship. By reading it in this way, Orning and Rosén avoid tired debates in historiography over the extent to which such mytho-epics may be plumbed for their facticity (see e.g. Orning 2015:1).11 Instead, they plumb the saga, very effectively, for the semiotic foundations of an emerging political formation: one which, by embracing a diverse population into an imagined civil society centered around a monarchy, creates the conditions of possibility for civil war – which, by definition, requires a sovereign citizenry within which violent conflict may occur.

Orning and Rosén isolate six focal elements in the saga which, they argue, anticipates Hobbes’s conception of the state, thereby constituting Sverre’s polity as proto-modern and Sverre himself as a “modern man.” Slightly paraphrased those elements are: a bounded territory under the sovereign; a “people,” envisaged as a political-legal community situated within that sovereign territory – and taxed, a theme extensively developed by Rosén and Vogt (see below); a “time of rule” that bespeaks permanence rather than cyclity; the sanction of transcendent authority, in which the monarch stands between God and man; a separation between kingship-as-office and king-as-person; and, subsuming it all, an order of centralized governance. In positing these elements as the founding ideological principles of a new form of political society, Orning and Rosén conclude, medieval Nordic myth lays out the terms of a species of sovereign state power whose echoes would last until the present day.

An anthropological note here. Ever since Malinowski (e.g. 1948) wrote of myth as a “charter,” it has been commonplace to read epics like the Sverres Saga for what they tell us about the ways in which the worlds whence they come are conceptualized – and, more importantly, justified as normative, authoritative orders. The six elements in this one are found fairly widely in the mythological narratives of African kingdoms as well. So, too, are some of the other themes in the Sverre legend, which, as we are told, liken him to the biblical King David: that his progress toward the kingship takes him from being a mercenary to a monarch, from a guerilla to the leader of a national army, from outlaw and unpopular usurper to the sovereign embodiment of the law (cf. also Rosén and Vogt, infra); that his passage is divinely inspired and foretold in dreams, themselves a vehicle of communication from the sacred to the secular, between which he becomes at once mediator and medium; that his career is marked by the apparently miraculous, not least in besting a much stronger contender-enemy; that, along the way he overcomes resistance, turning popular peasant protest into personal popularity by winning hearts and minds. And so on. All of these elements, in one or another variants, are integral tropes of the fantasy of sovereignty, even if the route to state formation and political authority, in practice, may be rather different. But what is most striking about

Sverre Saga, read by someone totally unfamiliar with it, is that relates, in mythic form, the substance of Orning and Vigh’s thesis on the dialectics of centralization and decentralization, representing them as endemically co-present tendencies at the core of political history: the centrifuge of forces pulling away from Sverre’s authority – forces that constantly threaten to undo all of the six elements on which that authority was erected – amount to a camera obscura of the established sovereign order over which he comes to rule. In short, the Saga may indeed inscribe a mandate, and a manifesto for a new sovereign polity. But it also carries within it notice of its own antithesis, thus to gesture toward the limits, and the potential unraveling, of sovereign power. Interestingly, parallel African mythologies often do much the same thing: they point darkly to the forces, particularly those unleashed when a ruler violates the normative expectations surrounding his office, that might end in his removal – and, in extremis, the dissolution of the body politic.

But is this a story of proto-modernity? And does Sverre emerge as a Modern Man? Or is it merely a generic story of the conditions of possibility of political society? Orning and Rosén, I believe, are justified in seeing the Sverre Saga as a foreshadowing of contemporary sovereignty. But that may be because it tells, in a Nordic medieval version, a story whose general lineaments are as old and as new as the ages, as much a story of Scandinavia as of indigenous Africa, past and present. And many other places besides. Which makes it no less compelling. Quite the opposite: read as they have read it, it gives cogent support to their dialectical, as opposed to a teleological, take on political history.

But, while Sverres Saga tells us about the production of kingship and political order, as mandate, it does not take us very far into the practical causes and effects of conflict, of war and peace. Or of the pragmatics of state formation. Which is where we move next.


Like Orning and Vigh, Afsah and Sigurdsson start out their essay on “Peace and War” – my paraphrase, with apologies to Tolstoy – by remarking on the constitutive oppisition at the core of theories of conflict and, concomitantly, of political society: “man as either quintessentially aggressive or pacific,” by nature selfish or social, primordial homo economicus or law-abiding homo juralis. And like Orning and Vigh, they transcend the dualism by exploring the conditions that give rise to conflict12 – which, again, they ascribe to social, material, ecological, and cultural determinations, rather than to ontology – and establish the means and the meanings through which its resolution, peace, may be produced. Peace, in turn, they remind us, may take a variety of forms, from the mere cessation of hostility to the attainment of the ‘good life’ built on stable institutions, social order, and a functioning state – although the last, the state, may itself be ambivalently regarded, as it is so widely today, being at once a guarantor of security and infrastructure and an incursion on individual and social freedom/s Indeed, Old Norse, as it happens, has three distinct, polysemic terms for peace, each of which connotes a quite different state of being in the world.

For present purposes, however, it is to conflict, and especially to war, that this essay draws our analytic attention. Here, again, a caveat. It is not always clear how Afsah and Sigurdsson differentiate between the two, at times appearing to treat conflict and war as similar species of practice separated only by scale, at times as phenomenally distinct modes of engagement. Of course, if, after Carl Schmitt (1996), politics is to be treated generically with reference to drawing the line between friend and enemy, there may well be a theoretical, or at least a philosophical, point in sustaining this ambiguity; vide, too, Achille Mbembe’s (2003) treatment of “necropolitics,” a concept that, in essence, treats all politics as war by other means, thereby to erase the difference between various kinds of social conflict over the exercise of power.13 However, anthropologically and historically-speaking, the two are self-evidently not the same, even in situations, like the ones described by Sigurdsson and Vigh for medieval Iceland and contemporary Guinea-Bissau, which may muddy surface distinctions between them.14

Like politics, in short, war is a specific genus of conflict – although war itself, patently, is not all of a kind. Indeed, Evans-Pritchard (1940), famously, and in unremarked resonance with Schmitt, argued that, in segmentary polities, the line between war and law expresses a basic principle in the social grammar of conflict, tout court: within a polity, conflict is, normatively at least, addressed by legal means, beyond its borders, by military confrontation. The line between a polity and its exteriors, in other words, demarcates the difference. When law gives way to war, or vice versa, that line is redrawn. In this logic, feud, being balanced killing, is the undecidable midground, which might either be contained by law or give way to war; civil war, by extension, is the process by which the balanced blood-letting of the feud generalizes, thus to rupture the body politc or, if one side wins, to contain hostilities by radically altering post-conflict politico-jural relations.

As this suggests, peace, in its various inflections, may stand in contrast to war – its pragmatic and poetic caesura – but it can and does coexist with conflict in many of its other modalities; among them, resort to legal actions, rhetorical and reputational battles for hearts and minds, the competitive extension of economic and social patronage, ritual and occult affray, and so on and on, depending, as Afsah and Sigurdsson observe, on prevailing cultural means and ends. (In many parts of precolonial and colonial Africa, for example, it was commonly said that “we marry our enemies,” the politics of affinity being a zone of social combat through which power, measured as “wealth in people,15 was often consolidated – and even kingdoms made; in this respect, see, on the rise of the Swazi state, Bonner 1982, and, more generally, on “wealth in people” in patrimonial societies, Sigurdsson and Vigh, infra). To complicate matters yet further, war itself may be subsumed into law: note the recent literature on “lawfare” in the USA and elsewhere, which argues that legal instruments may be weaponized, literally, to have some of the same effects as military encounters.16 The wider implication? That the presence or absence of war, civil or other, does not in itself negate the thesis that conflict is everywhere endemic to political society – productively, dialectically so – or that it may occur, in its many non-military forms, coevally with conventional warfare.

But what of war itself? Does it yield to an evolutionary trajectory, if not necessarily to a telos? To this question, Afsah and Sigurdsson appear to give an affirmative answer, basing it once more on a comparative methodology – which, in this instance, begins in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries and Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th. They suggest that, because Iceland was characterized by a small population, not much to fight over, rudimentary weapons, and a culture that stressed the resolution of differences, warfare was inherently restricted in scope. Similarly Afghanistan: although it had a centralized state and a monarch, its harsh terrain placed effective limits on interference alike from the outside world or from government; as a result, conflict there, too, was circumscribed, being confined to feuds – over land, water, honor, sexual impropriety, and the like – which, reminiscent of Gluckman’s (1963) “cycle of rebellion,” reaffirmed prevailing social arrangements (cf. also Afsah and Benham, infra). Afsah and Sigurdsson acknowledge that combat in stateless societies can be deadly, but suggest that the anatomy of these societies, the fact that they are founded on kinship and personal loyalties, would reduce enmity and the ferocity of fighting within them. And therefore both the body counts and social dislocation occasioned by outbreaks of violence. As weaponry grew in quantity and capacity for carnage, as war economies expanded, as states sought to act more intrusively, and as the population of such societies became more complex – in Afghanistan, more ethnically diverse – so war turned into something different in kind. From, as they put it, being “ritualistic” and constrained by spiritual and ethical taboos, only moderately destructive, socially and technologically contained, and inward looking, it became much more deadly, more highly weaponized, politically instrumentalized, and state-centric – often, moreover, involving external actors and new resources.

While this typology, to its credit, recognizes the simultaneous significance of sociological, cultural, and material determinations in structuring war, it does appear to suggest a radical opposition – and, by virtue of its citations, an evolutionary one – between types of military conflict: types, that is, that correspond, functionally, to simple (more or less decentralized) and complex (more or less centralized) societies. As an aside, one cannot but wonder where or how Sigurdsson and Vigh’s highly nuanced account of war in medieval Iceland, pre- and post the imposition of the Norwegian monarchy, and in contemporary Guinea-Bissau might fit into both the typology and its sociological correlates. But, to return to Afsah and Sigurdsson, they add, apparently after Turney-High (1991), that “it is war that imposes functional differentiation and thereby transformed stateless societies into states.” This raises two immediate issues. The first is logical: on one hand, we are told that the form of war follows from the form of society, but then, to close the circle, that the historical form of society follows from the form of war. Unless some dialectical process is posited to account for this, or for how it is that these two propositions coexist, it appears to be tautological. The second is theoretical: if in small scale societies conflict is by its nature socially reproductive, as we are told it is, when and under what conditions does it change its nature, break its own limits, and have the capacity to transform those stateless societies into states? Under external conditions of the sort that intervened in Afghanistan? If so, war is not the cause of the transformation at all, but the intervening force between (still to be specified) exogenous causes and an endogenous effect. But is the story not yet more complex? After all, how do we account for the celebrated rise of the Zulu military empire in a political ecology of dispersed clans under Tshaka in the early 19th century? This was a largely endogenous process that involved not just a technical invention and a new strategy of combat – the replacement of the conventional throwing spear with a stabbing assegai and an attack formation that mimicked the aesthetic of bovine horns – but, much more importantly, depended on the creation of a new social structure, new marital and gender arrangements, age organization, and the like. Or the conquest states of East Africa, like Rwanda-Burundi, which involved not just combat, but the superimposition of the Tutsi cattle economy over the Hutu agrarian economy, a dominant over a subordinate mode of production?

But these are not the only questions. While differences in the scale of warfare seem self-evident, are the diacritica associated with each of the two types – let’s call them “restricted” and “complex” for convenience – so clear? Take, for one thing, the notion that wars of restricted scale are “ritualistic” while complex, state-centric ones are “political” in their objectives. Modern, complex warfare hardly lacks ritual and religious dimensions. Indeed, Lévi-Strauss (1964:7f) opens his study of totemism – for Durkheim ([1912]1995:93), “the most primitive and simplest religion” – by juxtaposing the phenomenon among Native Americans, Brazilian Indians, and soldiers of the 42nd Division of the US army during World War I, for whom both identification with and a mystical connection to their totemic marker had almost all the characteristics of “tribal” belief systems.17 A century later, American fighting forces are widely reported to have been “pervasively Christianized” (Kaye 2008; Comaroff 2009:204); note, also, that the second Gulf War was styled by the Bush administration as a “crusade” on the part of a Christian nation against an enemy whose “fundamentalist” religion is widely portrayed as intrinsically violent and warmongering. Religion on the Battlefield (Hassner 2016), often in elaborately ritualized guise, it seems, is to be found in modern armies around the world. In short, to suggest that only “restricted” warfare is “ritualistic” rather disfigures the concept of ritual.

Likewise the contention that only “complex” wars, those between advanced states, are politically motivated. This, surely, presumes a Eurocentric notion of politics. After all, if we may return to Evans-Pritchard (1940) once more, segmentary combatwas the established mode of politics among the Nuer and people like them: it was the given means of not just of dealing with conflict, but also of regulating relations of power, property, and people among lineage corporations in a stateless society. What is more, fighting between them and the neighboring Dinka over water, animals, and pasture was, and remains, no less political for the two polities than is, say, contention over the US- Mexican border for the US and Mexico – involving, in both cases, the conditions of material survival and sovereign control over life and death. Similarly the epic biblical confrontation between David and Goliath. While their encounter may have been the most limited form of warfare imaginable, just two warriors each standing metonymically for a nation, this was also a battle for dominion over people and place, for theological hegemony, and for the kingship of a united Israel (see e.g. Alter 1999).

Nor is “restricted” warfare always constrained by the fact that it may range kin against each other. To the contrary, among decentralized polities Central Africa, for example, or the mid-size chiefdoms of Southern Africa, some of the most bitter, deadly struggles have long been between close members of office-holding lineages – even when, to the Eurocentric eye, there may not have been large stakes to fight over. These struggles, I stress again, are profoundly political: they decide access to high office, with all that goes with it in the form of land, labor, tribute, spiritual power, and social loyalties. In this respect, they echo those six mandated elements of kingship contained in the Sverres Saga (Orning and Rosén, infra); although Southern and Central African political theologies go further, perhaps, in insisting that, reminiscent of the Two Bodies of the King (Kantorowicz 1957), a living incumbent of chiefship is required to meet the demands of good government normatively required of his position – or face the consequences, typically removal, occasionally worse (Comaroff e.g. 1978). Historically- speaking, civic conflicts in these polities, occasionally very violent and usually led by competing candidates for office, have not always ended in the social reproduction of the communities concerned. Often over the past centuries, in fact, they have led to social rupture and division, although, in the short run, the splintering groups have tended to replicate the internal structure of the parent polity. Not always, though: sometimes polities have fragmented in the process, only becoming more or less centralized again when political, economic, and other conditions are conducive to the possibility.

Mention here of the stakes involved in conflict of various kinds raises a critical question, only glancingly addressed thus far: what is the role of materialities, specifically of property, in theorizing civil war, political life, the dynamics of centralization and decentralization, and, by extension, processes of state-formation?


This is a matter cogently taken up by Rosén and Vogt in their essay on civil war and private ownership across Norway and Denmark during the High Middle Ages. That epoch, they argue, saw the genesis of a mutually constitutive connection between, on one hand, political sovereignty and civil war, and, on the other, the institution of property; the possession of assets being a necessary condition for any regime of taxes, duties, and levies – on which, in turn, the sustenance of sovereign military force depends. The equation is straightforward: political sovereignty offers the protection of persons and their belongings in return for the legal right to exact the fiscus on which to found the exercise of a monopoly over legitimate violence. Herein, for Rosén and Vigh, lies a materialist, rather than a philosophical or ontological, grounding for the social contract, and, with it “the political-legal bedrock of the European nation state project”; a project, Afsah and Benham (infra; below) remark, that has rarely been wholly fulfilled in modern history; indeed, one whose aspiration has almost always exceeded its realization

Returning to Sverres Saga, which they read for different but complementary purposes than do Orning and Rosén (see above), Rosén and Vogt isolate five ways in which property enters into the calculus of sovereignty, political coercion, and war: via taxation, appropriation and confiscation, plunder, burning, and gift-giving. Each of these species of action is shown to be a mode of mobilizing property relations for sovereign ends, sometimes under the everyday conditions of governance, sometimes in moments of suspension and/or emergency: burning and confiscation, for example, are two means of punishing non-compliant populations; gift-giving, an exchange of loyal recognition for sovereign grace and favor. The general principle, here, is that “sovereignty overrides private ownership,” yet holds the key to the sovereign-subject relationship. However, one axial distinction among these species of political action is especially critical: that between tax and plunder, with, one would think, appropriation as a point of mediation between them. For Rosén and Vogt, as I have already intimated, taxes were indispensable to civil war not just because they financed the fighting. They could also be its contingent cause, the spark that ignites combat and everything that follows from it. From this vantage, “the practice of taxation in the Nordic civil wars was a ‘propeller’ of the institution of private property.” But if the latter bespoke a transaction between sovereign ruler and propertied subject, it was rendered meaningful by contrast to plunder, a mode of brute extraction through conquest, with no exchange value, no transaction whatever. Here lies the difference. Tax is the prerogative of kings, plunder that of warlords. Or of organized crime, as Charles Tilly (1985) might have put it, either prior to, or in refusal of, the establishment of political dominion over the vanquished. Plunder negates property, tax recognizes, even constitutes, it. As the midpoint between them, appropriation, like plunder, is non-transactional, but unlike it, is typically justified under the sign of the common good.

Herein, then, lies Rosén and Vogt’s materialist understanding of the social contract, its embeddedness in the dialectical relationship between political sovereignty and war. It is, as I have said, a compelling, aesthetically-tight formulation. And one that raises a number of testing and important – but, I emphasize, friendly – theoretical questions about all of the terms on which it is founded.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is whether there is more to the social contract, and to the relationship between sovereign and subject than the material exchange of tax (and loyalty) for the protection of private property – and, by extension, the person of its owners? What, for example, of the sacred dimensions of that relationship? Recall that the mediation between the monarch and God was one of the clauses of the mandate of kingship that Orning and Vigh read from the Sverres Saga. The numinous dimensions of sovereignty, in many political cultures, are inseparable from the material; the presumption being that material life depended on the beneficence of deities with whom only a monarch could intercede. And what of the law? In many polities, too, after the Mosaic model, the ruler is thought of as a law giver, and if not that, its sovereign protector and its ultimate justice. Take Southern African chiefs and kings, by way of comparison. As noted earlier, they, too, have historically engaged in warfare, not all of it “ritualistic” or limited in its deadly violence; slaves and subjects, cattle and domestic goods, and women and their children were also often spoils of battle. The forms of polity over which they ruled, for the most part, had neither tax regimes, nor monetary systems, nor private ownership, sensu stricto. Land was allocated under usufruct arrangements and other property was held not privately but by social groupings; this even in societies whose kinship systems, like those of medieval Scandinavia, tended, because of their endogamous marriage practices, toward the bilateral (see above). Here the social contract lay in a more generalized relationship. Subjects, the ruler’s “wealth in people,” gave him their loyalty and tribute, a transactional offering like tax – it took the form of agricultural produce, bovine stock, and/or labor – yet said to be voluntary in substance.18 Reciprocally, monarchs brought the law. Among Tswana, for example, the chief was known as setlhaba molao, “the summit/apex of the law,” and by the singular noun for the (plural) name of the polity embodied by his office;19 note, in this respect, the point made by Afsah and Benham (infra), that, “throughout Islamic state theory…the establishment of justice [was] the ruler’s chief task.” But that is not all: Tswana sovereigns were responsible for the accomplishment of bogosi yo bontle (“good/beautiful government), the falling of rain, ancestral benefaction, economic well-being, and the conduct of war, in many cases, fought by age regiments.20 When a ruler did not deliver, when he violated his side of the transactional relationship either by acting autocratically or failing to meet the demands of bogosi yo bontle, he stood in danger of replacement, despite holding his position by ascription; as this suggests, there were mechanisms for the public evaluation of the performance of an incumbent, measured against the prescribed ideals of his office.21 All this, incidentally, contrasts starkly with Afghanistan (Afshah and Benham, infra; also Afsah and Sigurdsson, above), where the king, a primus inter pares, interfered almost not at all with his subjects: there was “not any constructive desire to establish governance, let alone statehood,” and kingship was “defined negatively by not encroaching…”

The point? That the conduct of war and its relationship to sovereignty depends on the prevailing political economy, its ideological scaffolding, and its social constitution. In some contexts, taxation may be the transactional currency of that relationship, in others not. In sum, it may be a sufficient basis of the bond between sovereign and subjects – and where it is, it does seem to privilege private property — but it is not anecessary one. What is more, taking Rosèn and Vogt’s point a step further, their very suggestive proposition – that it is in the articulation between sovereignty, war, taxation, and private property that the social contract and the modern nation state project finds its genesis – could perhaps also do with a friendly amendment: in as much as the transactional relationship between sovereign protection and private property may provide the material core around which the social contract comes to be woven, that contract appears to complete itself as it takes on the other dimensions of sovereignty – the numinous, the juridical, the governmental – thus to conjure into being the two bodies of the king. And the shift, as it were, from warlord to monarch, clients to citizens. Perhaps it also matters to those citizens what sovereigns use their taxes for, as many rulers have found, to their cost and to their advantage, over the course of history.

A second question here, one that relates back to several other of the essays discussed above. Rosèn and Vogt offer an exceptionally sensitive account of the immanent tensions involved in the transactional relationship between sovereigns and subjects, basically, in balancing the equation between extraction and protection; although, following what I have just said, it is possible that this equation is mediated by the other collective values that a ruler bestows on his followers. When that equation turns from the positive to the negative, when the extractive dimension of the relationship comes to be seen as too burdensome, might it result in a counter-pressure toward decentralization? Under what conditions? In other words, does the triangulation of sovereignty, taxation, and private property at the core of the social contract, as Rosèn and Vogt have argued, also contain within it the dialectical interplay of centralization and decentralization? The contemporary version of this in Anglo-America, interestingly, has been the erosion of the “administrative state” as citizens prove ever more reluctant to pay taxes (e.g. Monbiot 2018:3). If that argument can be persuasively made – and extended to take into the equation the other (numinous, legal, governmental) dimensions of sovereignty — it would make a strong case for seeing civil war in the Nordic High Middle Ages as an optic through which to theorize the material and sociocultural origins of the modern social contract, and the European nation state project, in new and productive ways.

One final question in this respect, however. When, precisely, does protest and resistance against a ruler become a civil war? When is civil war both civil and war? The delicate balance of which Rosèn and Vogt speak may indeed be upset when sovereign extraction is felt to be unduly onerous, sparking tax revolts and mass uprisings. But this is not yet civil war. The latter, it seems, requires an opponent, an aspirant or extant sovereign, around whom opposition may congeal, thus to bring into force the segmentary principle of which Orning and Vigh write. And, with it, an aspiration to make, and/or sustain, a state. Which brings us to the last piece of our comparative conversation.


How, then, does the aspiration to state-making – however it may be mandated in the mythic or the cultural – actually become “the” state in its accomplished form? And what form, exactly? These are the questions that lie behind Afsah and Benham’s very insightful essay. It begins with a salutary reminder that “the” state, past and present, is not a singular, definite article; that it varies widely over space and time, rarely conforming, as we noted earlier, to the Westphalian model; that reading European political history with hindsight appears to give it “an ‘inevitable’ trajectory,” a false “inner logic.” Nonetheless, they add, this model has “become universalized.” And so it remains. Which, in turn, conduces to two problems. The most immediate is that it makes “political life in many non-Western societies” – bluntly, the majority of societies across the world – “only imperfectly comprehensible through the analytical lenses developed for the rational, bureaucratic state”; lenses, they might have added, that, by continuing to posit “tradition” and “modernity” as binary ends of an imagined historical arc, still pervade academic political science.

The second, equally serious problem is that this Eurocentric ideal, itself unevenly realized in the global north, has become the measure against which the “success” of states elsewhere is commonly assessed. It is a conceit that devalues forms of political life – wrought, especially, in the complex interplay of governance, capital, and civil society – that diverge from those of the West; this even as, in the Age of Authoritarian Populism, northern polities appear to becoming ever more like, well, some African and Latin American ones. It is also the case that relatively dysfunctional “modern” states, such as the US,22 which resemble the Westphalian original more in their outer form than in their inner workings, are not said to have failed; this notwithstanding, among many other things, rampant corporate capture, the politicization of the judiciary and the bureaucracy, an increasingly unaccountable, profiteering executive, widespread police violence, perennial breaches of human rights, a fiscus in irrecoverable debt, and a legislature that repeatedly refuses to answer to the will of the majority. Which begs the question: for whom precisely are all or any of these polities successes or failures? African states, like a number of states in the north, “succeed” brilliantly for some, yet not for the vast majority. Another name for this is inequality. As we all know, the election of the most controversial, wealthiest president in US history was engineered by appeal to the deterioration of effective government and living standards for “ordinary” Americans; echoes, here, of Ariana Huffington’s Third World America (2010). It is an appeal that currently resonates with many millions of voters, for whom Washington D.C. has indeed failed. Miserably.

What are often referred to as “failed states,” in short, may actually be something else, a distinctive formation, albeit one with many variants, uneven proportions, and multiple trajectories: one in which sovereign authority is not founded, materially, on a scaffolding of fiscal taxation and other regulatory frameworks, but on rentier governance – wherein, more or less coercively, capital (internal, external or both, criminal or legal)23 finances a ruling regime, its treasury and its means of violence, in return for the “right” to profit, especially from enclaved extraction, illicit commodities, and services no longer provided by the state. In this dispensation, moreover, the latter, the state, sustains the forms of a centralized political structure but, willingly or not, devolves many of itsfunctions, and a major measure of control over its economy, to the private sector;24 hence the coexistence here of centralization and decentralization – each a condition of each other’s possibility – at times in collaboration, at times in tensile complementarity, at times in violent conflict.

It is this sort of formation that, with two caveats, Afsah and Benham describe for contemporary Afghanistan, by contrast to Scandinavia from the 12th century onward; the caveats being that, in their specific case, they stress organized criminal capital and see it as undermining governmental authority rather than engaging government in a Faustian bargain. Either way, it is a formation that, in all its variants, lacks the institutional bases of settled social and economic order and, consequently, is prone to “constant crisis” and immanent civil war (cf. Orning and Vigh, infra); all the more so since it yields high returns on investment in “shadow economies” that blur the line between the lawful and the unlawful. As Afsah and Benham themselves put it, “criminal elements capture elements of the state, but also state organs begin to engage in criminal extraction,” to the extent, and here they quote Cockayne and Pfister (2008:14), that it becomes “hard to distinguish…what is legal and what is criminal… [since] government entities and criminal organizations come to resemble each other functionally, providing similar services – especially protection – financed by similar rents and taxation arrangements.” This is true not just of criminal organizations. It applies, too, to those transnational corporations that have become ever more state-like as they strike similarly Faustian bargains with ruling regimes – and diffuse their operations into the same or similarly il/licit “shadows” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2016). These sorts of arrangements, founded on rentier governance and shadow economies, are found, as I have already intimated, in several parts of the antipodes, including Guinea-Bissau (see above), whose quite comparable inner workings under existing global conditions, to close another circle, may also account for the dialectics of de/centralization there. And in other contexts as well, not all of them in the global south.

Afsah and Benham’s very useful, synoptic genealogy of Euro-modernist etatism makes a number of other critically important points. Among them, for example, is the observation, echoed in some of the other chapters as well, that the counterpoint of centralization and decentralization with which we have been so centrally concerned here occurs not only in respect of polities at large, but also at different levels within them, an insight eminently worth pursuing further.25 For present purposes, however, I should like to end with the most general conclusion that arises from their comparative account. It has important implications for the political history of the present. And, like all good history, also of the future.

While Afsah and Benham admonish against adducing an “inner logic” from the history of the longue duree, preferring to stress contingency over teleology, they do appear to derive a political health warning from the broad sweep of their account. Although Afghanistan is an extreme, even singular example of countries caught up in “constant conflict,” its predicament, they offer, suggests that “the implications for state- formation in contemporary times are dire.” Their overarching point is that the genesis of stable political order in medieval Scandinavia, itself a harbinger the Euro-modernist polity, arose with the steady production of local wealth, which necessitated a legitimate state structure that, in return for taxation, afforded security and protection, the rule of law, and an established regulatory framework (i.e. a proto-bureaucracy); therein lay a mutually beneficial contract between sovereign and subject. But in recent times, they argue, this arrangement has “broken down” in those many places characterized by endemic conflict and – my gloss, not theirs – misnamed “failed states,” which evince some or all of the diacritica listed a moment ago: “shadowy,” more or less criminal economies founded on extraction and illicit commodity production, augmented by privatized violence; the involvement of non-local actors in those economies; the entanglement of the state and capital, both operating across the murky lines of the il/legal; the displacement of taxation regimes, along with the administrative and juridical functions of state, by rentier government; the evacuation of the social contract and, with it, the bases of order.

Some theorists might go further than Afsah and Benham in arguing that these are symptoms of a growing tendency in global political life, a tendency made manifest in the currently rising tide of rightwing movements and antiliberalism, neo-nationalism and xenophobic racism, de-democratization and authoritarian populism; that, far from “getting to Denmark” – the phrase invoked in describing how Europe arrived at modern liberal democracy – much of the planet may actually be edging, uneasily and unevenly, toward Afghanistan or Guinea-Bissau. Or, if not quite there, given that the arc of history is always laced with the unexpected, then to other places palpably distant from medieval Scandinavia and the political future it once heralded; this as states almost everywhere, again by ideological choice, capture, or compulsion, increasingly outsource their operations, including the means of violence. Which feeds yet further the perennial, capricious play of centralization and decentralization, etatism and devolution, at the heart of political economies as they enter headlong into the history of the here-and- now. It is a history, ironically, that, in its latest twists and turns, makes “modern” liberal democracy look fairly “traditional,” a figment of the nostalgic imagination, when read against the emerging “new normal” at the front ends of the global present. And then, again, perhaps not.


A brief concluding note to round off this reflection.

By recourse to the comparative method they share, the foregoing chapters, a collective tour de force if I may say, accomplish handsomely what their authors set out to do: to trouble old, yet enduring truisms about the nature of political life and civil war, conflict and state-making, order and disorder, thus to open up new avenues of theory- work for the social sciences. They establish, once and for all, the poverty of teleological theory at the core of so much etatist history; the allusion here being to E.P. Thompson’s Poverty of Theory, a magisterial critique of another species of over-determined teleology.26 In so doing, they show that the pathway from medieval Scandinavia, through Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan, to the global present is anything but a March toward Modernity, an inevitable progress from decentralized to ever more centralized, ever more functionally specialized, ever more techno-rational political systems. Not only do they demonstrate that conflict, at once endemic and imminent, is neither pathological nor dysfunctional. They also make plain why it has to be read as a primal, intrinsic motor of all political life. And of the social, economic, and cultural practices in terms of which political life manifests itself. What is more, they explain how it is that those contrapuntal, segmentary tendencies of centralization and decentralization at the dialectical core of social existence – note again, tendencies not types, nor stages in an evolutionary arc – are co-present throughout the history of the longue duree, each conditioning the other, albeit in different proportions and in different ways.

They remain co-present in the contemporary moment, a historical conjuncture in which more and more states, increasingly corporate in motivation and disposition, appear to be devolving their own operations progressively – or retrogressively, depending on ideological orientation – into the private sector; this either by virtue of political theology or so-called “state capture” or a mix of both. It is also a conjuncture in which ruling regimes enter new forms of un/civil war: wars against those they deem terrorists and criminals and illegal immigrants, against drugs and poverty and those embraced in their clutches, against “others” marked by race and religion – wars fought, at once by militarized police and by governmental technologies, using means of violence sometimes slow and sometimes implosive, sometimes confrontational and sometimes capillary. This comparative exercise, in sum, has yielded a number of very broad, very compelling lessons about the past, the present, and the possible futures of a world well beyond medieval Scandinavia, Iceland, Guinea-Bissau, or Afghanistan, indeed a world now often referred to, tellingly, as “neo-medieval.”

Other Essays