Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 163-165
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In The Sovereign State and Its Competitors Hendrik Spruyt, a Columbia University political scientist, undertakes to deconstruct the sovereign state's claim to be the necessary end product of Western political development. Beginning with the revelation that "the sovereign, territorial state had its own peculiar rivals that very well might have held the day," Spruyt aims to show how the welter of "crosscutting jurisdictions...started to give way to territorially defined authorities" in the late Middle Ages, when the discovery of "the notion of sovereignty" allowed states in the modern sense to "emerge for the first time" (p. 1). The crucial question, he believes, is not the oft-studied growth of formal government but "why some governments took the form of sovereign, territorial rule whereas others did not." Spruyt attacks this question along two lines, "the development of hierarchy within politics and the effects of sovereignty on the relations between states." He hopes also to answer the further question of "why...sover-eign states have become the sole constitutive elements of the international system at the exclusion of others."
The book's structure is straightforward and easy to understand. Chapters 1 and 2 are devoted to a critique of what Spruyt calls "the unilinear evolutionary image," which turns out to be the idea of the state that historians have been dismantling for about eighty years, followed [End Page 163] by his own model for explaining institutional variation and selection. There follows an interesting chapter on "nonterritorial logics of organization" (p. 5), the church, the Holy Roman Empire, and feudalism. The book's empirical heart comes in chapters 4-7, which study the "economic renaissance of the late middle ages" and three political formations that benefited greatly from it: the Capetian monarchy in France, the German Hansa, and the Italian city-states. These chapters are followed by a very important chapter on the relative advantages of sovereign territorial states over confederations of cities and, indeed, all forms of what Spruyt oddly continues to call "fragmented sovereignty." Here Spruyt develops his critique of the mainstream of developmental comparative politics. His concluding chapter estimates the investigation's theoretical yield and assesses its value for predicting the future behavior of sovereign states and international systems.
Historians will be quick to criticize Spruyt's book for several reasons. First, he rushes through a wide-open door by attacking the historical teleology of the sovereign state, which Marc Bloch crippled and Otto Brunner utterly disrupted during the interwar era. Second, he relies very heavily on older literature, preferably in English. Third, his treatment of large historical structures does not come up to historians' standards, though on the church he provides a treatment that is better than average for political scientists (see, for example, Reinhard Bendix in Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1964). Before dismissing Spruyt's account as old-hat, however, historians should recognize that he brings these (to us) well-known insights and concepts to a debate that is still current in the discipline of political science. It concerns the evolution of governance in Europe in general and the identification of "the catalyst" for state formation in particular.
The two main issues in this discussion concern chronology and agency. On the first, the field divides between proponents of "uni-linear" political evolution since roughly the Carolingian era—what may be called "Dark Ages determinists"—and proponents of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as the turning point toward the sovereign state as the dominant European form of governance. On the second issue, the two main nominees as agents of transformation are war and trade, though there are historians who would nominate the church as a third possible agent. Spruyt is a supporter of the late Middle Ages and trade, against others, notably Michael Mann...