The nation-state is a European construct that was stamped on the Americas through colonial conquest. Because of its centrality to contemporary world politics, it is essential to retrace the theoretical origins of the nation-state and its historical meanings. It is also important to do so by stepping outside the European context. This article will map out the links between the Hobbesian state of nature, the nation state, and colonial terror. These arguments originate from North American Indigenous academics, with the exception of Beate Jahn, who is a German professor of international relations.

Hobbes’ famous depiction of the state of nature in his canonical Leviathan is familiar: it is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He did not believe that humans were necessarily evil, but were driven to fierce competition due to scarce resources and lack of common authority. Life in the state of nature is characterized by a state of war, where people live under the constant fear of violent death because actions are guided by private judgement. Morality is subjective to the individual and selfish interests. Justice is delivered by a sovereign who uses a set of laws to determine the good and the bad. The Leviathan is the sovereign power that will provide protection in exchange for obedience. Entering into a commonwealth is the solution to violence, chaos, and brutality. The creationist story of the conception the state is entrenched in many other works and historical events, but Hobbes’ work laid down the foundation for the European understanding of the constructed state as a legitimate form of political community. This distinction between civil society and the state of nature became the starting point for European discourse of political organization and government.[1]

Beate Jahn highlights that the state of nature is more than a theoretical construct.  Its legacy as an analytical construct in political theory serves to explore the rise of political communities, although it also has profound cultural and social meanings. The state of nature was developed simultaneously with the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and used to justify a hierarchy of culture because it represented a condition prior to civilized society. Jahn writes that the European “view of the Amerindians as living in the state of nature led to a redefinition of history along a linear time scale providing a secular telos as the basis of the historical process.”[2] This justified the Europeans’ “civilizing mission,” since they thought it necessary to “enlighten” the Indians and bring them into a higher sphere of human advancement.

James (Sakéj) Youngblood Henderson and other Indigenous writers highlight that North American Indigenous communities were organized around complex political systems based on kinship networks, customary law, constitutional orders, and organized political proceedings.[3][4] Henderson remarks that to equate Aboriginal culture with lack of political advancement, European political and legal philosophers had to purposefully reject and disregard evidence that they had of the contrary.

“… to equate Aboriginal culture with lack of political advancement, European political and legal philosophers had to purposefully reject and disregard evidence that they had of the contrary.”

The construct of the state of nature, as articulated originally by Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke, was a foundational construct for the idea of nation-states. Liberal states were the political arrangement that man ought to enter after leaving the state of nature. However, the nation state was synonymous of terror and regress for Indigenous peoples of the world. The imposition of the European artificial state on Indigenous communities by force led to the catastrophes of colonialism. Henderson writes that the state of nature and the nation-state, as a Eurocentric paradigm, were experienced by Indigenous peoples as centuries of domination, oppression, and racism.

The brutality of the Hobbesian State of Nature obscures the violence created by the imposition of the state on unconsenting peoples of the world. For European theorists, the artificial nation-state came as a solution to violence and chaos. For Indigenous peoples, the state itself created and institutionalized terror and violence. To Eurocentric thinkers who continue to allude to the chaos of the state of nature as an alternative to modern states, Henderson answers: “They seem to be unaware that we have been living in the chaos caused by their artificial state and society for the past 400 years.”[5]

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Jeanne would like to thank Professor Christa Scholtz and Professor Catherine Lu for including Critical Voices in their syllabus.

Image by Chris Tolworthy, via Flickr Creative Commons. https://flic.kr/p/nafbGD


[1] Henderson, James (Sakéj) Youngblood, “The Context of the State of Nature,” in Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, ed. Marie Ann Battiste (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000), 11-31.

[2] Jahn, Beate. “IR and the state of nature: the cultural origins of a ruling ideology,” Review of International Studies 53, no. 3 (1997): 411-434.

[3] Ladner, Kiera L. “Up the Creek: Fishing for a New Constitutional Order,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 38, no. 4 (2005): 923-953.

[4] Jeremy H.A. Webber and Colin M. Macleod, Between consenting peoples: political community and the meaning of consent (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

[5] Henderson, James (Sakéj) Youngblood, “The Context of the State of Nature,” in Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, ed. Marie Ann Battiste (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000), p.32.