Political Geography and State Organization: Confederacies to Empires

The organization of the state, that is the countrywide government (or the “national” government according to modern myth), can be examined geographically. While the organization of the state’s power structure can seem like an academic, somewhat boring (almost trivial) exercise, its worth remembering that millions fight, and frequently perish, for one structure over another. While cataloging all of the conflicts and the myriad ways a state’s power can be geographically organized could really be the subject of a thesis or dissertation, its worth talking about in a blog for no other reason than to make the ideas more accessible to all. For myself, I hope this initial discussion prods me into actually doing something with the organic state idea since this post is very much tied to that, as shall be explained later. Onward Geography!

My reference material (as always) is wikipedia in the Politics series bar (on the right) you’ll find the “Power Structure” section under “Basic Forms of Government,” it lists five: Confederal, Federal, Hegemony, Imperial and Unitary. Further down in the main page, section 3.4 lists forms of government by regional autonomy – an inherently geographical idea! The listing in that section steals a bit of my thunder, but nonetheless, it lists sovereignty (or ultimate power over the land) as resting at the “center of political jurisdiction” in empires and unitary states. The rest can generally be categorized under “diverging degrees of sovereignty” (power) but makes an unclear distinction with two groups in this general category including: hegemonies, federations/federal republics, confederations, federal monarchies, asymmetrical federations, associated states, protectorates, leagues, commonwealths, colonial dependencies, thalassocracies, and devolved states.

Thinking about the organic state, and how power is concentrated in the capital (the center of political jurisdiction, if you please), radiating outwards along roadways, we can categorize state power in political geography. The first is that of unitary states and empires. In this type of state structure, power is ultimately (and overwhelmingly) concentrated in the capital, radiating outwards. This structure is similar, of course, to the empires in during the colonial and imperial period, the Russian Empire, the British Empire. Yet, unitary states still exist (though Empire is now a dirty word). The People’s Republic of China and the United Kingdom are both unitary states. In the latter, all power ultimately rests with the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland. Unlike the ideas of some Scots, the Scotland Act of 1998 was passed by that Parliament devolving power to other authorities, it can be taken back (though whether it would ever be taken back is another question altogether). Thus, provincial governments unitary states have only as much authority, and power, as is granted by the central government. Thus while the radiate power in the organic state its not as vibrant, it can be taken away or removed “at a whim.” The wikipedia difference in power structure between a unitary structure and an imperial structure appear scant. I suppose that the argument could be that empires maintain unitary control over diverse population groups and extensive areas, but so do a number of modern unitary states – China has substantial populations of minorities from Koreans to Mongols to Tibetans and Uighurs.

The next tier involves various forms of federal structures, including federal republics (like the United States) and federal monarchies (Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates). In this geographic expression of political power, power is still concentrated in a capital, but provincial capitals have somewhat more autonomy (power independent of the capital) than provincial capitals in empires or unitary states (which owe their existence and relevance to the capital). In the United States, the political tug of war between “state” (or provincial) governments and the “federal” (or central) government has been a common theme throughout its history. The conception of devolution (of central government powers) is also expressed in political geography. Devolution is transfer of some political power from the central government in the capital to the provincial capitals, or below. Thinking then about the state of the United Kingdom, prior to the Scotland Act of 1998, political power was more or less concentrated in London and any state political power in Scotland was evenly distributed between its main cities and counties. But following the devolution of some power to the Scottish Executive (now Scottish Govenment) and the Scottish Parliament, political power in Scotland is concentrated in the provincial headquarters, Edinburgh, radiating outwards.

The next tier of organizing political power geographically is the confederation (confederalism). In this structure, the central government is weak with only limited authority over the constituent provinces (sub-central governments). In fact, much of the constituent provinces maintain their own autonomy (political power) on a wide variety of issues while the central government handles other issues, commonly related to external relations of the group with other states. Examples of this political geographic organization are the current European Union and the Iroquois Confederacy. In the European Union the central government in Brussels has some authority over domestic matters but this requires ratification by members states (provinces). Because of this Brussels’ radius of power is more influenced by its status as capital of Belgium than as capital of the EU. If we were to map the EU’s political power, it would barely reach outside Brussels and even less so outside the “provincial” capitals, given the amount of autonomy they enjoy.

The final framework for understanding political power geographically (according to Wikipedia’s definitions) is the hegemony. In this model, one state’s central government (let’s say the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) has more or less control over other independent states. Weaker than a confederation, this structure implies only a measure of indirect power over the other states. Really, this could be considered the antithesis of an empire. An empire, which incorporates a variety of peoples and states, is held together by direct political power and force. A hegemony, on the other hand, is maintained by indirect political power and force. Looking at the old Soviet Union, we see a number of different power structures at work within the state. I’m presuming that the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic was a unitary state with the center of political power all present in Moscow, devolving power to the other provinces with the Russian republic. The USSR as a whole, however, was a federal state. The central government had ultimate authority but each constituent republic had authority over its own affairs. Finally, the USSR projected hegemonic power over those areas of eastern Europe that were not part of the union. In this way, we see that direct political decreases with distance from the center of political power.

Among the other types of government organized by regional autonomy noted by wikipedia, a number can be included in the four categories above. For instance, a league (the Athenian league) is a hegemonic framework for state relations. A commonwealth is similar to a confederacy with each member state retaining a great deal of sovereignty amidst a limited (if at all present) central government, the Commonwealth of Nations (former British colonies) is an example of this organization. A final group, organized under federation, but worth drawing attention to is asymmetrical federations, which includes, federacies, associated states, protectorates, and colonial dependencies. As the term federacy implies, this type of power structure is federal in nature with a central government and somewhat autonomous constituent provinces. However, the asymmetry is in the relationships between the provinces and the central government. Some provinces have a degree greater of autonomy from the central government than others. One example of asymmetry is Malaysia, modern Malaysia was formed in 1963 by the merger of the Federation of Malaya with Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak. Singapore departed the federation in 1965, gaining its independence. Sabah and Sarawak (both on the island of Borneo and geographically separated from the rest of Malaysia) have the autonomy to control immigration to the provinces.

As I mentioned in the introduction, this discussion of the various ways to geographically understand and organize political power has real (often dire) consequences. A recent article in the Times of India reports that President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka (a unitary state, according to the map below) has “ruled out” granting Tamils greater political autonomy. Well-read readers will know that there was a Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka’s north and east for several decades, going as far as to creating their own insurgent state, until the movement (Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam, “LTT-Homeland”) was dismantled in 2009. The LTTE self-appointed champions of the Tamil community against perceived discrimination on the part of the Sinhala-dominated central government, sought greater autonomy or independence. What the UN and Tamils have sought, and to which President Rajapaksa initially agreed, is devolution of some authority from Colombo to Jaffna (the likely place for a Tamil capital), in the north. While a Tamil dream for an actual federation-type power structure is likely a pipe-dream, a devolution of some power to a Tamil-dominated province makes sense. However, it would be a hard political sell to the Sinhala elite (like Rajapaksa) who probably view Tamils as “immigrants” brought to the country during the British colonial period, and who are probably unwillingly to accept relinquishing control of some areas of the “state.” To the government, devolving power to a Tamil Parliament would be seen as ultimately reducing the central government’s authority, inviting the creation of an autonomous, potentially ‘insurgent’ state (like the one that was violently defeated).

In this way, future instability in Sri Lanka is tied directly to the geographic projection and control of state power.

map of unitary states (via wikipedia)


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