What is a state? A common definition is “a territorial monopoly of force.” But what about a civil war in which an old regime and a would-be new regime are fighting street-to-street over control of a city? In that case, there is no territorial monopoly of force over the contested areas. But are we to say that such areas are “stateless”?
When an incumbent regime loses its monopoly of force over a region, it does not suddenly become more benign as an institution. And the fact that the upstart “rebels” do not yet have such a monopoly does not make them any more benign either. Both are still pernicious in a hugely important and distinctive way. They both enjoy the privilege of committing aggression that is perceived by at least some to be exceptionally legitimate. Both are granted a special dispensation by their partisans to commandeer the persons and property of others.
That is the fundamental problem that makes both groups distinctively vicious as compared to other criminals, regardless of whether they have yet achieved uncontested dominance. And so it is that characteristic that deserves to be the criterion for statehood. It highlights the most important issue in the theory of government if we define the state not as “a territorial monopoly of force,” but as “anybody whose aggression is considered exceptionally legitimate by some.”
And there are grades of legitimacy. A warlord’s tribute, not yet hallowed by the years, may not have as much perceived legitimacy as a tax paid to a long-established bureaucracy. But so long as it is normalized at all by habit and/or propaganda in the minds of the victims, then it is importantly different from pirate booty or a highwayman’s loot. Most warlord bands, therefore, should be considered statelets.