The state has been studied from many perspectives but no single theory can fully capture and explain its complexities. States and the interstate system provide a moving target because of their complex developmental logics and because there are continuing attempts to transform them. Moreover, despite tendencies to reify the state and treat it as standing outside and above society, there can be no adequate theory of the state without a wider theory of society.
For the state and political system are parts of a broader ensemble of social relations and neither state projects nor state power can be adequately understood outside their embedding in this ensemble. 1 What is the State? ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. This innocuous-looking question challenges anyone trying to analyze states.
Some theorists deny the state’s very existence (see below) but most still accept that states are real and provide a valid research focus. Beyond this consensus, however, lies conceptual chaos. Key questions include: Is the state best defined by its legal form, coercive capacities, institutional composition and boundaries, internal operations and modes of calculation, declared aims, functions for the broader society, or sovereign place in the international system? Is it a thing, a subject, a social relation, or a construct that helps to orient political action?
Is stateness a variable and, if so, what are its central dimensions? What is the relationship between the state and law, the state and politics, the state and civil society, the public and the private, state power and micropower relations? Is the state best studied in isolation; only as part of the political system; or, indeed, in terms of a more general social theory? Do states have institutional, decisional, or operational autonomy and, if so, what are its sources and limits?
Everyday language sometimes depicts the state as a subject—the state does, or must do, this or that; and sometimes as a thing—this economic class, social stratum, political party, or official caste uses the state to pursue its projects or interests. But how could the state act as if it were a unified subject and what could constitute its unity as a ‘‘thing? ’’ Coherent answers are hard because the state’s referents vary so much. It changes shape and appearance with the activities it undertakes, the scales on which it operates, the political forces acting towards it, the circumstances in which it and they act, and so on.
When pressed, a common response is to list the institutions that comprise the state, usually with a core set of institutions with increasingly vague outer boundaries. From the political executive, legislature, judiciary, army, police, and public administration, the list may extend to education, trade unions, mass media, religion, and even the family. Such lists typically fail to specify what lends these institutions the quality of statehood. This is hard because, as Max Weber (1948) famously noted, there is no activity that states always perform and none that they have never performed.
Moreover, what if, as some theorists argue, the state is inherently prone to fail? Are the typical forms of state failure properly part of its core definition or merely contingent, variable, and eliminable secondary features? Finally, who are the state’s agents? Do they include union leaders involved in policing incomes policies, for example, or media owners who circulate propaganda on the state’s behalf? An obvious escape route is to define the state in terms of means rather than ends.
This approach informs Weber’s celebrated definition of the modern state as the ‘‘human community that successfully claims legitimate monopoly over the means of coercion in a given territorial area’’ as well as definitions that highlight its formal sovereignty vis-a-vis its own population and other states. This does not mean that modern states exercise power largely through direct and immediate coercion—this would be a sign of crisis or state failure—but rather that coercion is their last resort in enforcing binding decisions. For, where state power is regarded as legitimate, it can normally secure compliance without such recourse.
Even then all states reserve the right—or claim the need—to suspend the constitution or specific legal provisions and many states rely heavily on force, fraud, and corruption and their subjects’ inability to organize effective resistance. Building on Weber and his contemporaries, other theorists regard the essence of the state (pre-modern as well as modern) as the territorialization of political authority. This involves the intersection of politically organized coercive and symbolic power, a clearly demarcated core territory, and a fixed population on which political decisions are collectively binding.
Thus the key feature of the state is the historically variable ensemble of technologies and practices that produce, naturalize, and manage territorial space as a bounded container within which political power is then exercised to achieve various, more or less well integrated, and changing policy objectives. A system of formally sovereign, mutually recognizing, mutually legitimating national states exercising sovereign control over large and exclusive territorial areas is only a relatively recent institutional expression of state power.
Other modes of territorializing political power have existed, some still coexist with the so-called Westphalian system (allegedly established by the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 but realized only stepwise during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), new expressions are emerging, and yet others can be imagined. For example, is the EU a new form of state power, a rescaled ‘‘national’’ state, a revival of medieval political patterns, or a post-sovereign form of authority? And is the rapid expansion of transnational regimes indicative of the emergence of global governance or even a world state?
Another influential theorist, the Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, defined the state as ‘‘political society ? civil society;’’ and likewise analyzed state power in modern democratic societies as based on ‘‘hegemony armoured by coercion. ’’ He defined hegemony as the successful mobilization and reproduction of the ‘‘active consent’’ of dominated groups by the ruling class through the exercise of political, intellectual, and moral leadership. Force in turn involves the use of a coercive apparatus to bring the mass of the people into conformity and compliance with the requirements of a specific mode of production.
This approach provides a salutary reminder that the state only exercises power by projecting and realizing state capacities beyond the narrow boundaries of state; and that domination and hegemony can be exercised on both sides of any official public–private divide (for example, state support for paramilitary groups such as the Italian fascisti, state education in relation to hegemony) (Gramsci 1971). Building on Marx and Gramsci, a postwar Greek political theorist, Nicos Poulantzas (1978), developed a better solution.
He claimed that the state is a social relation. This elliptical phrase implies that, whether regarded as a thing (or, better, an institutional ensemble) or as a subject (or, better, the repository of specific political capacities and resources), the state is far from a passive instrument or neutral actor. Instead it is always biased by virtue of the structural and strategic selectivity that makes state institutions, capacities, and resources more accessible to some political forces and more tractable for some purposes than others.
Poulantzas interpreted this mainly in class terms and grounded it in the generic form of the capitalist state; he also argued that selectivity varies by particular political regimes. Likewise, since it is not a subject, the capitalist state does not, and indeed cannot, exercise power. Instead its powers? (plural) are activated by changing sets of politicians and state officials located in specific parts of the state in specific conjunctures.
If an overall strategic line is discernible in the exercise of these powers, it is due to strategic coordination enabled through the selectivity of the state system and the role of parallel power networks that cross-cut and unify its formal structures. Such unity is improbable, according to Poulantzas, because the state is shot through with contradictions and class struggles and its political agents must always take account of (potential) mobilization by a wide range of forces beyond the state, engaged in struggles to transform it, determine its policies, or simply resist it from afar.
This approach can be extended to include dimensions of social domination that are not directly rooted in class relations (for example, gender, ethnicity, ‘‘race,’’ generation, religion, political affiliation, or regional location). This would provide a bridge to non-Marxist analyses of the state and state power (see below on the strategic-relational approach). 2 The Origins of the State and State-building ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
State formation is not a once-and-for-all process nor did the state develop in just one place and then spread elsewhere. It has been invented many times, had its ups and downs, and seen recurrent cycles of centralization and decentralization, territorialization and deterritorialization. This is a rich Weld for political archeology, political anthropology, historical sociology, comparative politics, evolutionary institutional economics, historical materialism, and international relations. Although its origins have been explained in various monocausal ways, none of these provides a convincing general explanation.
Marxists focus on the emergence of economic surplus to enable development of specialized, economically unproductive political apparatus concerned to secure cohesion in a (class-)divided society (see, classically, Engels’ (1875) Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State); military historians focus on the role of military conquest in state-building and/or the demands of defense of territorial integrity in the expansion of state capacities to penetrate and organize society (Hintze’s (e.g. 1975) work is exemplary; see also Porter 1994).
Others emphasize the role of a specialized priesthood and organized religion (or other forms of ideological power) in giving symbolic unity to the population governed by the state (Claessen and Skalnik 1978). Feminist theorists have examined the role of patriarchy in state formation and the state’s continuing role in reproducing gender divisions.
And yet other scholars focus on the ‘‘imagined political communities’’ around which nation states have been constructed (classically Anderson 1991). The best approach is multicausal and recognizes that states change continually, are liable to break down, and must be rebuilt in new forms, with new capacities and functions, new scales of operation, and a predisposition to new types of failure. In this context, as Mann (1986) notes, the state is polymorphous—its organization and capacities can be primarily capitalist, military, theocratic, or democratic in character and its dominant crystallization is liable to challenge as well as conjunctural variation.
There is no guarantee that the modern state will always (or ever) be primarily capitalist in character and, even where capital accumulation is deeply embedded in its organizational matrix, it typically takes account of other functional demands and civil society in order to promote institutional integration and social cohesion within its territorial boundaries.
Whether it succeeds is another matter. Modern state formation has been analyzed from four perspectives. First, the state’s ‘‘historical constitution’’ is studied in terms of path-dependent histories or genealogies of particular parts of the modern state (such as a standing army, modern tax system, formal bureaucracy, parliament, universal suffrage, citizenship rights, and recognition by other states).
Second, work on ‘‘formal constitution’’ explores how a state acquires, if at all, its distinctive formal features as a modern state, such as formal separation from other spheres of society, its own political rationale, modus operandi, and distinctive constitutional legitimation, based on adherence to its own political procedures rather than values such as divine right or natural law. Third, agency-centered theorizations focus on state projects that give a substantive (as opposed to formal) unity to state actions and whose succession defines different types of state, for example, liberal state, welfare state, competition state.
And, fourth, configurational analyses explore the distinctive character of state–civil society relations and seek to locate state formation within wider historical developments. Eisenstadt’s (1963) work on the rise and fall of bureaucratic empires, Elias’s (1982) work on the state and civilization, and Rokkan’s (1999) work on European state formation over the last 400–500 years are exemplary here.
3 Marxist Approaches to the State …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. Marx’s and Engels’ work on the state comprises diverse philosophical, theoretical, journalistic, partisan, ad hominem, or purely ad hoc comments. This is reflected in the weaknesses of later Marxist state theories, both analytically and practically, and has prompted many attempts to complete the Marxist theory of the state based on selective interpretations of these writings.
There were two main axes around which these views moved. Epiphenomenalist accounts mainly interpreted state forms and functions as more or less direct reflections of underlying economic structures and interests. These views were sometimes modified to take account of the changing stages of capitalism and the relative stability or crisis-prone nature of capitalism. Instrumentalist accounts treated the state as a simple vehicle for political class rule, moving as directed by those in charge.
For some tendencies and organizations (notably in the social democratic movement) instrumentalism could justify a parliamentary democratic road to socialism based on the electoral conquest of power, state planning, or nationalization of leading industrial sectors. Others argued that parliamentary democracy was essentially bourgeois and that extra-parliamentary mobilization and a new form of state were crucial to make and consolidate a proletarian revolution. Frankfurt School critical theorists examined the interwar trends towards a strong, bureaucratic state—whether authoritarian or totalitarian in form.
They argued that this corresponded to the development of organized or state capitalism, relied increasingly on the mass media for its ideological power, and had integrated the trade union movement as a political support or else smashed it as part of the consolidation of totalitarian rule. Marxist interest revived in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the apparent ability of the Keynesian welfare national state to manage the postwar economy in advanced capitalist societies and the alleged ‘‘end of ideology’’ that accompanied postwar economic growth.
Marxists initially sought to prove that, notwithstanding the postwar boom, contemporary states could not really suspend capital’s contradictions and crisis-tendencies and that the state remained a key factor in class domination. The relative autonomy of the state was much debated in the 1970s and 1980s. Essentially this topic concerned the relative freedom of the state (or, better, state managers) to pursue policies that conflicted with the immediate interests of the dominant economic class(es) without becoming so autonomous that they could undermine their long-term interests too.
This was one of the key themes in the notoriously difficult Miliband–Poulantzas debate in the 1970s between an alleged instrumentalist and a purported determinist, respectively. This controversy generated much heat but little light because it was based as much on different presentational strategies as it was on real theoretical differences. Thus Miliband’s (1969) work began by analyzing the social origins and current interests of economic and political elites and then proceeded to analyze more fundamental features of actually existing states in a capitalist society and the constraints on its autonomy.
Poulantzas (1973) began with the overall institutional framework of capitalist societies, defined the ideal-typical capitalist type of state (a constitutional democratic state based on the rule of law), then explored the typical forms of political class struggle in bourgeois democracies (concerned with winning active consent for a national-popular project), and concluded with an analysis of the relative autonomy of state managers. Whilst not fully abandoning his earlier approach, Poulantzas later argued that the state is a social relation (see above).
The best work in this period formulated two key insights with a far wider relevance. First, some Marxists explored how the typical form of the capitalist state actually caused problems rather than guaranteed its overall functionality for capital accumulation and political class domination. For the state’s institutional separation from the market economy, a separation that was regarded as a necessary and defining feature of capitalist societies, results in the dominance of different (and potentially contradictory) institutional logics and modes of calculation in state and economy.
There is no certainty that political outcomes will serve the needs of capital—even if (and, indeed, precisely because) the state is operationally autonomous and subject to politically-mediated constraints and pressures. This conclusion fuelled work on the structural contradictions, strategic dilemmas, and historically conditioned development of specific state forms. It also prompted interest in the complex interplay of social struggles and institutions. And, second, as noted above, Marxist theorists began to analyze state power as a complex social relation.
This involved studies of different states’ structural selectivity and the factors that shaped their strategic capacities. Attention was paid to the variability of these capacities, their organization and exercise, and their differential impact on the state power and states’ capacities to project power into social realms well beyond their own institutional boundaries. As with the first set of insights, this also led to more complex studies of struggles, institutions, and political capacities (see Barrow 1993; Jessop 2001). 4 State-centered Theories………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
The flourishing of Marxist state theories in the 1970s prompted a counter-movement in the 1980s to ‘‘bring the state back in’’ as a critical explanatory variable in social analysis. This approach was especially popular in the USA and claimed that the dominant postwar approaches were too ‘‘society-centered’’ because they explained the state’s form, functions, and impact in terms of factors rooted in the organization, needs, or interests of society.
Marxism was accused of economic reductionism for its emphasis on base-superstructure relations and class struggle; pluralism was charged with limiting its account of competition for state power to interest groups and movements rooted in civil society and ignoring the distinctive role and interests of state managers; and structural-functionalism was criticized for assuming that the development and operations of the political system were determined by the functional requirements of society as a whole.
‘‘State-centered’’ theorists claimed this put the cart before the horse. They argued that state activities and their impact are easily explained in terms of its distinctive properties as an administrative or repressive organ and/or the equally distinctive properties of the broader political system encompassing the state. Societal factors, when not irrelevant, were certainly secondary; and their impact on state affairs was always filtered through the political system and the state itself.
The classic statement of this approach is found in Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol (1985). In its more programmatic guise the statist approach advocated a return to classic theorists such as Machiavelli, Clausewitz, de Tocqueville, Weber, or Hintze. In practice, statists showed little interest in such thinkers, with the partial exception of Weber. The real focus of state-centered work is detailed case studies of state-building, policy-making, and implementation.
These emphasize six themes: (a) the geopolitical position of different states in the interstate system and its implications for the logic of state action; (b) the dynamic of military organization and the impact of warfare on the overall development of the state— reflected in Tilly’s claim that, not only do states make war, but wars make states; (c) the state’s distinctive administrative powers—especially those rooted in its capacities to produce and enforce collectively binding decisions within a centrally organized, territorially bounded society—and its strategic reach in relation to all other social sub-systems (including the economy), organizations (including capitalist enterprises), and forces (including classes) within its domain;
(d) the state’s role as a distinctive factor in shaping institutions, group formation, interest articulation, political capacities, ideas, and demands beyond the state; (e) the distinctive pathologies of government and the political system—such as bureaucratism, political corruption, government overload, or state failure; and (f) the distinctive interests and capacities of ‘‘state managers’’ (career officials, elected politicians, and so on).
Although ‘‘state-centered’’ theorists emphasized different factors or combinations thereof, the main conclusions remain that there are distinctive political pressures and processes that shape the state’s form and functions; give it a real and important autonomy when faced with pressures and forces emerging from the wider society; and thereby endow it with a unique and irreplaceable centrality both in national life and the international order.
In short, the state is a force in its own right and does not just serve the economy or civil society (Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985). Their approach leads ‘‘state-centered’’ theorists to advance a distinctive interpretation of state autonomy. For most Marxists, the latter is primarily understood in terms of the state’s capacity to promote the long-term, collective interests of capital even when faced with opposition—including from particular capitalist interests. Only in exceptional and typically short-lived circumstances can the state secure real freedom of action. Neostatists reject such a class- or capital-theoretical account and suggest that it is usual for the state to exercise autonomy in its own right and in pursuit of its own, quite distinctive, interests.
Accordingly, they emphasize: (a) state managers’ ability to exercise power independently of (and even in the face of resistance from) non-state forces—especially where a pluralistic universe of social forces opens significant scope for maneuver; and (b) the grounding of this ability in the state’s distinctive political resources and its ability to use these to penetrate, control, supervise, police, and discipline modern societies.
Neostatists also argue that state autonomy is not a fixed structural feature of each and every governmental system but differs across states, by policy area, and over time. This is due partly to external limits on the scope for autonomous state action and partly to variations in state managers’ capacity and readiness to pursue a strategy independent of non-state actors. The extensive body of statist empirical research has generally proved a fruitful counterweight to one-sided class- and capital-theoretical work. Nonetheless four significant lines of criticism have been advanced against neostatism.
First, the rationale for neostatism is based on incomplete and misleading accounts of society-centered work. Second, neostatism itself focuses one-sidedly on state and party politics at the expense of political forces outside and beyond the state. In particular, it substitutes ‘‘politicians for social formations (such as class or gender or race), elite for mass politics, political conflict for social struggle’’ (Gordon 1990). Third, it allegedly has a hidden political agenda. Some critics claim that it serves to defend state managers as effective agents of economic modernization and social reform rather than highlighting the risks of authoritarianism and autocratic rule.
Fourth, and most seriously, neostatism involves a fundamental theoretical fallacy. It posits clear and unambiguous boundaries between the state apparatus and society, state managers and social forces, and state power and societal power; the state can therefore be studied in isolation from society. This renders absolute what are really emergent, partial, unstable, and variable distinctions. This excludes hybrid logics such as corporatism or policy networks; divisions among state managers due to ties between state organs and other social spheres; and many other forms of overlap between state and society. If this assumption is rejected, however, the distinction between state- and society-centered approaches dissolves.
This in turn invalidates, not merely the extreme claim that the state apparatus should be treated as the independent variable in explaining political and social events, but also lesser neostatist claims such as the heuristic value of bending the stick in the other direction or, alternatively, of combining state-centered and society-centered accounts to produce the complete picture. 5 Foucauldian Approaches …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. If state-centered theorists hoped to bring the state back in as an independent variable and/or an autonomous actor, Foucault aimed to undermine the analytical centrality of the state, sovereignty, or law for power relations. He advanced three key claims in this regard.
First, state theory is essentialist: it tries to explain the state and state power in terms of their own inherent, pre-given properties. Instead it should try to explain the development and functioning of the state as the contingent outcome of specific practices that are not necessarily (if at all) located within, or openly oriented to, the state itself. Second, state theory retains medieval notions of a centralized, monarchical sovereignty and/or a unified, juridico-political power. But there is a tremendous dispersion and multiplicity of the institutions and practices involved in the exercise of state power and many of these are extra-juridical in nature.
And, third, state theorists were preoccupied with the summits of the state apparatus, the discourses that legitimated sovereign state power, and the extent of the sovereign state’s reach into society. In contrast Foucault advocated a bottom-up approach concerned with the multiple dispersed sites where power is actually exercised. He proposed a microphysics of power concerned with actual practices of subjugation rather than with macro-political strategies. For state power is dispersed. It involves the active mobilization of individuals and not just their passive targeting, and can be colonized and articulated into quite different discourses, strategies, and institutions. In short, power is not
concentrated in the state: it is ubiquitous, immanent in every social relation (see notably Foucault 1980a,b). Nonetheless Foucault did not reject all concern with the macrophysics of state power. He came to see the state as the crucial site of statecraft and ‘‘governmentality’’ (or governmental rationality). What interested him was the art of government, a skilled practice in which state capacities were used reflexively to monitor the population and, with all due prudence, to make it conform to specific state projects. Raison d’e? tat, an autonomous political rationality, set apart from religion and morality, was the key to the rise of the modern state.
This in turn could be linked to different modes of political calculation or state projects, such as those coupled to the ‘‘police state’’ (Polizeistaat), social government, or the welfare state. It was in and through these governmental rationalities or state projects that more local or regional sites of power were colonized, articulated into ever more general mechanisms and forms of global domination, and then maintained by the entire state system. Foucault also insisted on the need to explore the connections between these forms of micro-power and mechanisms for producing knowledge—whether for surveillance, the formation and accumulation of knowledge about individuals, or their constitution as specific types of subject. Foucault never codified his work and changed his views frequently.
Taking his ideas on the ubiquity of power relations, the coupling of power-knowledge, and governmentality together, however, he offers an important theoretical and empirical corrective to the more one-sided and/or essentialist analyses of Marxist state theory and to the taken-for-grantedness of the state that infuses neostatism. But his work remains vulnerable to the charge that it tends to reduce power to a set of universally applicable power technologies (whether panoptic surveillance or disciplinary normalization) and to ignore how class and patriarchal relations shape the state’s deployment of these powers as well as the more general exercise of power in the wider society. It also neglects the continued importance of law, constitutionalized violence, and bureaucracy for the modern state.
Moreover, whatever the merits of drawing attention to the ubiquity of power, his work provided little account of the bases of resistance (bar an alleged ‘‘plebeian’’ spirit of revolt). More recent Foucauldian studies have tried to overcome these limitations and to address the complex strategic and structural characte