Has every state in history collapsed?

A few throw away quips on Twitter with Philip Sandifer and I found myself foolishly visiting Vox Day’s blog. Nothing much has changed and it is the same mix of deniable stuff that isn’t worth engaging with. However, I did notice this throw away remark: “Remember, every state in history has collapsed.” – this was in a post about this post http://www.internationalman.com/articles/the-deep-state <- a site I know nothing about so be careful.

Well that got me wondering. Firstly clearly no state will last forever just because entropy and the existence of the universe etc. However, ‘collapsing’ is a specific way for a state to end, rather than morphing into some other kind of state, amalgamating or sub-dividing. So how true is it that all states collapse?

I need some decent criteria for ‘collapse’. Given the context of the state in a wide sense rather than just a specific constitutional form or a particular set of rulers, I take it to mean that for a recognizable period the overall functions of a state were effectively no longer in operation – central taxes weren’t being collected, laws weren’t being made, there was nobody effectively in charge, the army wasn’t following orders and, as a consequence, the mechanisms of the state had to be restarted somehow. The ‘restart’ may have been in the same form (e.g. the same civil servants more or less in the same positions in the same kinds of departments, organized in a similar way etc) but there was a definite restart.

Things I wouldn’t count:

  • peaceful transitions of power (the end of Apartheid government in South Africa – the state changed it didn’t collapse)
  • loss of empires (the British Empire came to an end fairly rapidly post-WW2 but the British state didn’t collapse)
  • major constitutional change
  • military coups (in the cases were the other mechanisms of the state continued – e.g. each of the post WW2 military coups in Thailand don’t count as the state collapsing)

Essentially if there was change with continuity and more-or-less uninterrupted governance then the state didn’t collapse.

So do all states COLLAPSE? Firstly a lot of the world’s nations are relatively new states. This is not necessary direct evidence of the claim as many new states arose through the end of the age of empires. There are very few states that are not post-colonial states of one kind or another. All of the American states are ex-territories claimed by Spain, Portugal or Britain. The African states are ex-territories of The Ottoman Empire, or European nations and so on.

That leaves very few countries – mainly European ones plus Thailand, China, and Japan. World War 2 knocks our Germany, and surrounds. The Netherlands arguably, France, Italy (which was a relatively new country), Greece and the Balkan countries. Spain avoided WW2 but suffered a collapse during the civil war the preceded WW2. Eastern Europe suffered the double issue of both WW2 and the Soviet era. That leaves the UK, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, plus Finland and Iceland. Denmark and Norway were also greatly impacted by WW2, Sweden, Finalnd and Iceland less so.

Beyond Europe, WW2 (and the wars that preceded it) loom large as well. China as a state effectively collapsed due to Japan’s invasion. Japan arguably didn’t collapse but only because of the manner in which the US occupation maintained the status quo. Thailand is an odd example, dominated by military governments for most of its 20th century history. The 1932 revolution in Thailand caused a substantial change in the constitution but the state as entity did not collapse.

Putting newer nations aside, that leaves us with a few candidates of which Britain and Sweden seem to have substantial longevity. Britain of course, may become just ‘England’ in the near future but even if Scottish and Welsh independence occurred this would not represent the collapse of a state. England’s most significant scrape with ‘collapse’ was the English Civil War, which despite the battles and regicide didn’t result in the collapse of the state per-se. Prior to the early modern period it becomes increasingly difficult to describe the various entities as ‘states’ in the modern sense.

Of course one or two examples of states muddling through rather than collapsing isn’t a great rejoinder to the claim that all states collapse. However, it is worth noting that running through those examples the biggest issue with states collapsing was not some inherent problem with states but rather empires either expanding or contracting.

Which leads to my two top tips for not collapsing as a state:

  1. try not to have an empire
  2. try not to become part of somebody else empire
  3. if you do become an empire try and dissolve your empire without falling to bits yourself
  4. generally avoid anything with ’empire’ written on it

Aside from that there is no reason for a functioning state to collapse. Morph, change, subdivide, amalgmate, etc all work. Even radical change is possible. Collapse is unlikely if the points above are avoided because it is rarely in the interests of the rich or the poor for a state to collapse (the poor bear the brunt of the worst parts of the collapse, the rich lose all the stuff they like).

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4 thoughts on “Has every state in history collapsed?

  1. So what you’re saying is that once again VD makes superficial remarks that demonstrate just how ignorant and trite he really is?

    Must be a day ending in a “Y”.

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  2. I like “the state in a wide sense rather than just a specific constitutional form or a particular set of rulers” because it recognises that e.g. possession of the British monarchy exchanged hands several times without much impact on the state below.

    I think the British commonwealth/protectorate period comes close, if you ignore that it all got restored of course. You have civil war impacting on the ability of the old state to function, then a fundamental constitutional change followed by some significant social and cultural (esp religious) changes that make the new state appear very different to the old one albeit still composed of at least a subset of the old state, but of course then followed by a restoration that broadly reversed all that. Would the new commonwealth have counted as a new state for the purposes of collapse? Probably not due to it retaining much of the old state, but it’s definitely an edge case.

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    1. I think there is a difference between a change of regime and the collapse of a state but I agree the civil-war/commonwealth/restoration i arguably a collapse – although many institutions of the English state continued – the Church of England, the courts.

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