The Organic State: Revisited

Friedrich Ratzel (and his student, Rudolf Kjellen). Mention their names to one of the “New Left” professors so prevalent in our discipline and you might very well feel a minor disturbance in the force. National socialists! they shall decry. Imperialist geographers seduced by power! they shall lament. And then calmly explain, with no uncertain terms, that the discipline has improved by abandoning their ideas. Of course if you’ve read my first post, you’ll be aware of my belief that our discipline has stagnated since the “New Left” arrived. So why not revisit these old ideas, dust them off, and give them a good think. Today, we’re going to take a look at the “organic state”.

Its true, Ratzel and Kjellen’s “organic state” concept was eventually utilized by the Nazi party in Germany to justify its aggression towards its neighbors (namely Poland). Full disclosure, I don’t have Ratzel’s original writings as a PDF so I can’t say where his idea ended, but I believe (based on reading it sometime in grad school) that he conceptualized the state as an organism, it grows, dies, and so on. If I’m not mistaken, later Nazi propagandists added the term “lebensraum” (living space, the wikipedia article is completely unsourced on this point). At any rate, propagandists combined the two concepts into a policy. Germany, as a growing state (populated by the racially pure “Aryans”), needed space to expand and since Poland we’re not-quite-human, they didn’t need their space. So yes, I am cognizant of the ramifications on abusing good ideas. And the organic state is a very good idea.

Look at this map of political boundaries (I’m sorry its Mercator…). This is probably the second map you will see in your life, the first, obviously, being a political map of your state/country (warning: if anyone uses the term “nation” when referring to a “country” your comment will be dismissed out of hand). For me, this map is one reason I’m a human geographer. Early on, it was a map of places I would one day travel to or study. Now its become a call to action. I said before that geography is perspective, a way of critically examining the world around you. Or this map. As a child, I grew up seeing this map and never challenging one of its most basic assumptions, that these states are uniformly distributed across their territory. That is Russia. Clearly there are vast areas of blank spots, some might even be very sparsely inhabited, but I would have still considered those blank areas as Russia, exactly the same as Moscow.

Critically examining this map, having a good think, and we see the assumption in the map. Is it true? Before hypothesizing an answer, let me be clear on how I’m measuring a state. Since we’re looking at country-wide scales here, let’s begin with something basic. For this exercise let’s just say country capitals, provincial capitals, and country-wide highways (think Interstate System in the U.S.). Why? Well I would say the state’s power is concentrated in the capital, where the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches sit (places like Brazil and South Africa, with multiple capitals are another story). Since we’re not using hovercraft yet, I think roads are a reasonable way to project a state’s power, the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War could partially be attributed to the former’s razing of the latter’s railroads. We could probably make this list ridiculously exhaustive, add military bases, county capitals, so on and so forth – up and down the scale. But the point is, the “state” is diffuse, it concentrates in some areas, but not in others.

Further, we know that the state was developed over the course of years (in some cases centuries). It expands, rarely does it contract, but this phenomenon is easily mapped. Think of the westward expansion of American settlers into new territory “empty.” Imagine each settler represented on a map as blot of ink moving west. The blot moves but it doesn’t leave a trail, eventually it settles and represents the expansion of the American state. Then these disparate communities begin to be linked by progressively better roads, the ink blots are then connected by lines of ink on the map. The ink representing the “state”, or at least the potential for a “state.” We can scale this organic state idea down to local levels. Perhaps in a single city the city’s legislative assembly, mayor’s offices, and various police stations are the ink blots while major thoroughfare’s are the links.

The “organic state” has implications in a variety of areas, too many for me to list and discuss individually but there are a few I find particularly interesting. First, if the state’s power can be mapped it would clearly show areas where there is little (or no) state power. Think of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa is located in the far west, the Belgians weren’t exactly the most progressive colonialists, and there’s tropical rain forests and rivers in the interior. These combine to make the eastern areas of the country somewhat remote from capital. Incidentally, a lot of separatist and transboundary violence occurs in this area. Then there’s the U.S. case, we’ve spent a bit of cash and coin in the last decade attempting to fortify our southern boundary, a bigger border patrol, customs and inspection, and a new fence, essentially trying to project state power into a border region that never really knew any state’s power.

Consider this map of UN deployments along the border between North Yemen (now Yemen) and Saudi Arabia, during the North Yemen civil war in the 1960s. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were accused of supporting the royalists (Saudi Arabia) and republicans (Egypt). The UN deployed most of its forces, understandably, in the major towns and utilized helicopters and patrols for the spaces in between. And then, of course, is the “Empty Quarter” (ar-Rub al-Khali). Is the name implies, there’s very few things that humans would value there. So when Saudi Arabia was accused of still supporting one of the North Yemeni royalists, you can just hypothesize through which area they sent supplies. But, it would be unrealistic for the UN to project power into ar-Rub al-Khali, there’s few infrastructure and no existing population centers (which would at least have some compulsory necessities for human survival) to support the force.


But there’s an even more basic implication. I took me years (decades, actually) to challenge this assumption that I digested during childhood – that the state’s power is omnipresent, that these borders somehow mean something. Power is concentrated and projected from these areas, and boundaries are just lines on a map. Yes, the state has direct control over those area’s where border crossing points are located, maybe even an hour or two drive down the border road, but what about a desert that is an hour’s helicopter flight away? So the vast majority of us grow up with the assumption that each and every state is more or less totally encased within its borders. Clearly, its not. But we act like they are. Politicians, and we citizens, expect that a state maintain control over its borders but that’s unrealistic.


7 thoughts on “The Organic State: Revisited

  1. Andrew,
    The New Left could disagree on multiple levels. Sometimes they make the organic state model into the boogy man of determinism. One major point they can criticize is that the model treats the state in and of itself as a form of living (hence ‘organic’) and acting beyond the inputs of normal men, agencies, “evil imperialists”, etc Another complaint they could make is that some take the organic model as an endorsement of imperialism. The wikipedia article has a good explanation of this.

    • Quite so Catholicgauze, also Andrew – they might not disagree with this particular conception of the state but the New Left would probably disagree with my resurrecting an idea from Ratzel and Kjellen. This is very similar to the environmental determinism (Catholicgauze touches on this) debate, geographers through out that idea too. But are there aspects we could have salvaged?

      • Thanks for the replies. Allow me to introduce myself, as I have a feeling that I’ll be making many comments on this blog. I studied geography as an undergrad at Macalester College. I was the representative physical geographer in classroom discussions, although I was interested in other sub-disciplines as well. I do remember many of the discussions being strange and somewhat strained, especially when we got into the postmodern stuff. I decided not to pursue geography academically, and I am now a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. While I love my vocation, my mind still loves geography. I find the premise of this blog interesting. Many blessings!

      • Welcome Andrew! I think you’ll fit right in here, Catholicgauze and I have discussed the “strange” conversations in Geography at length so we both know the anguish you experienced. I look forward to your comments!

  2. Pingback: Almost sensible: Making (Geographic) sense of Mali | Z Geography

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