Harvard University

A History of Political Space

Charles Maier’s Once Within Borders is a history of the organization of the earth’s surface by law, war, commerce, and technological change. Intertwined with but distinct from a history of the state, the book is a history of territory, the underlying framework that makes states possible. In the passage below, excerpted from the book’s Introduction, we begin to see how examining the logic of territoriality can throw new light on the making of history from geography.


Once Within BordersTerritory—an idea that seemed to have fallen into genteel disuse—has intruded into our lives with a renewed and menacing urgency. It refers to a geographic space, set apart from others by law and boundary. Until recently we could take territory for granted; it was protective and offered security and belonging, with less and less self-conscious effort. After the end of the Cold War, Europeans and Americans tended to believe that territorial priorities had become anachronistic, subsisting mostly among stubborn peoples in the Balkans or the Middle East or as a stake in East Asia. Now the security that territory once offered seems precarious everywhere and to be maintained only with constant surveillance.

The new sense of vulnerability rarely arises from traditional international rivalries as it used to. Rather, all our customary homelands seem assailed by global trends that transgress once reassuring borders and spatial stability—by threats of terrorist attacks, uprooted refugees, tidal flows of international capital, the scary spread of new diseases, and the threat of climate change oblivious to frontiers. Peoples who have long enjoyed territorial security no longer feel sheltered. Some seek new and nonspatial defenses; others mobilize to reaffirm boundaries under threat. And in many places, groups that have never possessed territorial security are prepared to kill and die for it. Territory is not what it was, but it remains indispensable.

Territory is not just land, even extensive land. It is global space that has been partitioned for the sake of political authority, space in effect empowered by borders. Territories allow people to be governed or taxed or imbued with loyalty by virtue of their shared spatial location, not their race or their kinship ties or their faith or their professional affiliation. Territory has been a major sociopolitical invention.

We have a sense of why territory has become precarious in recent times. But how did this spatial sheltering of group life emerge, flourish, and then perhaps decay? Can we write a history of territory as a central attribute of human society? Certainly we can research and write the history of particular territories, small or extended: of city-states and vast empires, Luxemburg or Russia. But until recently territory as such has had little attention from historians, although geographers and political scientists have reflected on its evolution.

One reason for neglect is that except for those moments when borders are made explicit—by having to flash a passport, or viewing via CNN the desolation of the displaced or another interminable, faraway war—we have taken for granted the fact that territorial divisions exist. They have been an unremarkable constant of life. The specific boundary lines might change, whether by peaceful means or by violence, but the fact of territorial division has seemed as permanent as political organization. In fact, territory and the properties that territory entails—so-called territoriality—have changed over time and continue to change profoundly. They have had a history.

This book attempts to write that history of territory as such, of its idea and, just as important, its social practice and manifestations in the last half millennium. It traces how territory was endowed with critical attributes, became a major resource for state and economic development, thereafter an obsession in some cases, and has now perhaps irreparably weakened in efficacy, leaving some citizens with a great sense of political melancholy and others with a determination to revalorize its capacities.

Reconstructing that history allows significant insights into human development. Jean-Jacques Rousseau identified the importance of territory for property: “The first man who, having enclosed a plot of land, thought of saying, this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Max Weber underlined its role for politics: “The state is the community that successfully claims a monopoly of legitimate capacity for force within a defined area—and the area is integral to the definition.” Most of Weber’s commentators have dwelled on the ideas of violence and legitimacy. Until recently, they have taken the criterion of “defined area” or territory for granted, giving it little more attention than the air that all historical subjects must breathe. But frontiers control the entry and sometimes exit of residents or travelers, of goods, of money, and even occasionally, though less successfully, of ideas. People tend to divide over whether they should be made more absolute or more porous. Robert Frost thought that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” but the farmer next door stubbornly believed that “good fences make good neighbors.” We have usually divided over that alternative, sometimes raising the fences, sometimes making them more permeable.

The tendencies we lump together under the idea of globalization suggest that the attributes of territory are changing rapidly. Over the last quarter century, globalization has impinged on the public imagination as an unprecedented and irresistible force, undermining a stable geopolitical ordering of the world. What has weakened is precisely a traditional sense of territory. The political rights that came with territory included determination of who belonged and who was foreign, how wealth would be generated and distributed, how the domain of the sacred must be honored, how families reproduced themselves. Territory is thus a decision space. It established the spatial reach of legislation and collective decisions. At the same time, territory has specified the domain of powerful collective loyalties. Political and often ethnic allegiance has been territorial. “Breathes there the man with soul so dead, / Who never to himself hath said, / This is my own, my native land!” Territory has thus also constituted an identity space or a space of belonging.

Through the first three quarters of the twentieth century, excepting experiences of wartime or emigration, most adults in the West understood their decision space and their identity space to be congruent. The areas that claimed their loyalty also organized their labor, provided security, and ensured family continuity. Today these domains no longer coincide so pervasively. Territoriality seems less a resource for guaranteeing livelihoods, excluding foreigners, or maintaining coherence of values. It no longer provides the same capacity for control, even if territories remain the nexus of primary allegiance. Identity space and decision space have diverged.

In fact, they were not always identical. The age of territory was not part of the natural order but historically bounded. The common assumption is that before globalization there was little transformation. Most commentary, whether journalistic or academic, has taken territory to be a permanent and reassuring fixture of social and political organization that has come suddenly under attack—much like the great polar ice shelves, only now after millennia of frozen solidity melting into the sea. Historians, however, are rightly suspicious of conditions that have remained unquestioned and supposedly unchanging. In fact, the idea of territory has evolved over the last half millennium as societies, sometimes states and nations, imagined and organized the segments of the globe’s surface on which they lived. These concepts and practices—call them constructions of territory or the territorial imagination—have continually changed along with the other major variables of human history, such as environment, technology, class divisions, attributes of gender, principles of faith and politics and science, and forms of political organization.

Globalization may undermine the capacity for territorial governance, that is, erode decision space, but it does not necessarily weaken identity space, the grip of the territorial imagination, and perhaps not the stubborn persistence of frontiers. Recall the Middle Eastern refugees seeking entry into Europe, the recurrent border conflicts, most recently in Ukraine, and the dismaying surge of national and ethnic violence since the 1990s, including the murderous conflicts in Bosnia, the slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the resistance of Chechnya, the marauding bullies in East Timor, the long misery in Darfur, and the seemingly intractable confrontation of Palestinians and Israelis. Even if we leave violence out of account, nationalism still prospers. Peoples still seek nationhood, and they continue to win recognition as national states.

Within states globalization has shattered accustomed political-party frameworks. It has created a major new principle of political division that has both cut across the party systems of Left and Right with which most of the countries of the Americas and Europe have tried to regulate the allocation of state power and public goods for about two centuries. “Globalists,” who believe in and benefit from the new flows of capital and employment, confront “territorialists,” who fear that their jobs and traditional values are being sacrificed. Each of these camps has its own Left and Right. The globalist Left urges state intervention to create new employment and assist those displaced; the globalist Right, often labeled neoliberal, stresses the imperatives of market competition and is confident that the further the process goes the wealthier societies become. The territorialist Left believes that the removal of trade barriers has destroyed jobs and urges government intervention to sustain employment at home while the territorialist Right tends to emphasize strengthening borders against migration and often includes the groups we think of as “Populist.” Our traditional parties contain both globalists and territorialists. The result has been two or three decades of often muddled politics and the rise of more xenophobic parties and candidates.

But this inquiry is not about globalization per se or the persistence of ethnic loyalties and nationalist passions. Rather it concerns the capacity and the resources for effective governance that national space and frontiers once provided but seem to no longer. No one can overlook the lurid fires of communal loyalties, religious passion, and the advances of a global populism. But these forces do not restore national industry, confidence in economic growth, or familiar cultural homogeneity. They do testify to the search for primitive bonds as the more abstract loyalties of territorial inclusiveness slowly disintegrate. The question here is not which new claimants will get a state or who will dominate a state. Neither is it how ethnically pure a state, old or new, will become. It is, rather, what can one do with the territory at the basis of statehood? What livelihood or psychic belonging will it provide; what self-sufficiency can it claim? The answers can help resolve more policy-oriented questions concerning the consequences for domestic politics, for international order, and for capitalist economies.

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