3/9/10 - from the sun king to karzai

In today's excerpt - historians argue that the situation in Afghanistan today, with a central government that has little real power beyond the capital city and relatively independent (war)lords in the territories beyond the capital, parallels the situation in most European countries at around 1600 AD:

"Up until the seventeenth century, the European continent was divided into many small political units with vague and porous borders. Where kings reigned, they usually were only titular leaders with little power outside a capital city. They had little contact with, or even direct impact on, their supposed subjects. The dominant authority figures in most people's lives were religious leaders or local notables, and popular identities were based on religion, locality, or community rather than anything that could truly be called nationality. Christian clergy exerted immense social, cultural, and political influence and the church carried out many of the functions normally associated with states today, such as running schools and hospitals or caring for the poor.

"Responsibility for security, meanwhile lay chiefly with local or regional nobility, who maintained private fortresses, arsenals, and what would now be called militias or paramilitary forces. Political life in this prestate era was brutal: warfare, banditry, revolts, and religious and communal conflict were widespread. Even in England, where authority was centralized earlier and more thoroughly than elsewhere in Europe, one-fifth of all dukes met unnatural, violent deaths during the seventeenth century.

"Around 1600, however many European kings began to centralize authority. Their efforts were fiercely resisted by those with the most to lose from the process -- namely, local political and religious elites. ... Through the sixteenth century France was essentially a collection of loosely affiliated communities with independent institutions, customs, and even languages. It was primarily during the reigns of Louis XIII (1610-43) and, especially, Louis XIV (1643-1715) that the monarchy expanded its armed forces, legal authority, and bureaucracy and took control of the country.

"This process was remarkably conflictual. Its first several decades were marked by peasant revolts, religious wars, and the obstinate resistance of provincial authorities, which culminated in the series of conflicts known as the Fronde (1648-53) and threatened to plunge the country into complete chaos. Louis XIV eventually defeated the recalcitrant nobles and local leaders on the battlefield, but the costs of victory were so high that he decided to complete the process of centralizing power by co-opting his remaining rivals rather than crushing them.

"During the second half of the seventeenth century, accordingly, he and his ministers focused on buying off and winning over key individuals and social groups that might otherwise obstruct their state-building efforts. Adapting and expanding a common practice, for example they repeatedly sold state offices to the highest bidders; by the eighteenth century, almost all the posts in the French government were for sale, including those dealing with the administration of justice. These offices brought annual incomes, a license to extract further revenues from the population at large, and exemptions from various impositions. The system had drawbacks in terms of technocratic effectiveness, but it also had compensating benefits for the crown: selling off public posts was an easy way to raise money and helped turn members of the gentry and the emerging bourgeoisie into officeholders. Rather than depending on local or personal sources of revenue, these new officeholders eventually developed new interests connected to the broader national system. ...

"Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, the chief ministers to Louis XIII and XIV, respectively studied the relationships that allowed local elites to control their underlings and reward their supporters and tried to supplant those with new relationships centered on the king and his ministers. They selected provincial brokers who had excellent contacts in far-flung areas but whose loyalties were to Paris and then gave these brokers money and benefits that could be channeled to others in turn, thus expanding the reach of the crown throughout the periphery.

"Another tactic designed to secure the state's authority was the construction of Louis XIV's glittering palace at Versailles, which was officially established as the seat of the French court in 1682. The luxury of the palace was more than merely a celebration of the wealth and power of the Sun King; it was also a crucial weapon in his battle to domesticate the obstreperous French nobility. Louis XIV made the aristocracy's presence at Versailles a key prerequisite for their obtaining favor, patronage, and power. By assembling many of the most important local notables at his court, he was able to watch over them closely while separating them from their local power bases. The tradeoff was clear: in return for abandoning their local authority and autonomy, nobles were given handsome material rewards and the opportunity to participate in the court's luxurious lifestyle."


Sheri Berman


From the Sun King to Karzai: Lessons for State Building in Afghanistan


Foreign Affairs


March/April 2010
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