Government and the State

Functions of the State

Various schools of thought consider the state to be either a neutral entity separated from society or an immoral partisan instrument.

Learning Objectives

Classify the different political theories concerning the function of the state in society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Liberal and conservative theories of the state tend to see the state as a neutral entity separated from society and the economy. These theories treat the economic system of capitalism as a given.
  • Marxist theories see the state as a partisan instrument that primarily serves the interests of the upper class. These theories emphasize the relationship between political power and economic power.
  • Anarchists believe that the state apparatus should be completely dismantled and an alternative set of social relations created. These social relations would not be based on state power at all.
  • Pluralists view the state as a neutral body that simply enacts the will of whichever groups dominate the electoral process.
  • A polyarchy, a concept developed by Robert Dahl, refers to the idea that the modern democratic state’s acts in response to the pressures applied to it by a variety of organized interests.

Key Terms

  • polyarchy: a government by many persons, of whatever order or class
  • pluralist: an advocate of pluralism (in all senses)
  • anarchist: One who believes in or advocates the absence of hierarchy and authority in most forms (compare anarchism), especially one who works toward the realization of such.

The State

A state is an organized political community acting under a government. States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to, any other power or state. States are considered to be subject to external sovereignty, or hegemony, if their ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. A federated state is a territorial, constitutional community that forms part of a federation. Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.

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The United States: Americans live in a federal system of 50 states that, together, make up the United Sates of America.

Theories of the State

Most political theories of the state can roughly be classified into two categories. The first, which includes liberal or conservative theories, treats capitalism as a given, and concentrates on the function of states in a capitalist society. Theories of this variety view the state as a neutral entity distinct from both society and the economy.

Marxist Theory

Marxist theory, on the other hand, sees politics as intimately intermingled with economic relations, and emphasizes the relationship between economic power and political power. Marxists view the state as a partisan instrument that primarily serves the interests of the upper class. Marx and Engels were clear that communism’s goal was a classless society in which the state would have “withered away. ” For Marxist theorists, the role of the non-socialist state is determined by its function in the global capitalist order. Marx’s early writings portrayed the state as “parasitic,” built upon the superstructure of the economy and working against the public interest. He believed that the state mirrored societal class relations, that it regulated and repressed class struggle, and that it was a tool of political power and domination for the ruling class.

Anarchism

Anarchism is a political philosophy that considers states immoral and instead promotes a stateless society, anarchy. Anarchists believe that the state is inherently an instrument of domination and repression, no matter who is in control of it. Anarchists believe that the state apparatus should be completely dismantled and an alternative set of social relations created, which would be unrelated to state power.

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Anarchists at the G20 Summit in London, 2009: Anarchists oppose state control.

Pluralism

Pluralists view society as a collection of individuals and groups competing for political power. They then view the state as a neutral body that simply enacts the will of whichever group dominates the electoral process. Within the pluralist tradition, Robert Dahl developed the theory of the state as a neutral arena for contending interests. He also viewed governmental agencies as simply another set of competing interest groups. The pluralist approach suggests that the modern democratic state acts in response to pressures that are applied by a variety of organized interests. Dahl called this kind of state a polyarchy. Pluralism has been challenged on the ground that it is not supported by empirical evidence.

Characteristics of the State

A state is an organized political community acting under a government. States differ in sovereignty, governance, geography, and interests.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the central characteristics that define the state

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Federated states differ from sovereign states in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.
  • Under the rule of law, no one person can rule and even top government officials are bound by the law.
  • The “nation” refers to a large geographical area and the people living there who perceive themselves as having a common identity.
  • The nation state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit.
  • Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests.

Key Terms

  • civil society: All of the institutions, voluntary organizations, and corporate bodies that are less than the state but greater than the family.
  • nation state: a political entity (a state) associated with a particular cultural entity (a nation)
  • Sovereign states: A sovereign state is a political organization with a centralized government that has supreme independent authority over a geographic area.

States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to, any other power or state. Other states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony where ultimate sovereignty lies in another state. A federated state is a territorial and constitutional community forming part of a federation. Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.

The concept of the state is different from the concept of government. A government is the particular group of people that controls the state apparatus at a given time. In other words, governments are the means through which state power is employed; for example, by applying the rule of law. The rule of law is a legal maxim whereby governmental decisions are made by applying known legal principles. The rule of law is rule not by one person, as in an absolute monarchy, but by laws, as in a democratic republic; no one person can rule and even top government officials are under and ruled by the law.

The concept of the state is also different from the concept of a nation, which refers to a large geographical area, and the people therein who perceive themselves as having a common identity. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural or ethnic entity. The nation state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. The term nation state implies that the two geographically coincide.

In classical thought, the state was identified with political society and civil society as a form of political community. In contrast, modern thought distinguishes the nation state as a political society from civil society as a form of economic society. Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests. It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere and then referred to as the third sector of society, distinct from government and business.

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Heads of State: In the United States, the state is governed by a government headed by an elected president. Pictured here are, from left to right, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.

Citizenship Rights

Citizenship carries both rights and responsibilities, as it describes a person with legal rights within a given political order.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the rights and responsibilities of citizenship held by individuals

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Citizenship is the state of being a member of a particular social, political, national, or human resource community. The term describing all citizens as a whole is citizenry.
  • Citizenship generally carries with it the right of political participation in a community, including voting, participating in government, and receiving state protection.
  • A person who does not have citizenship in any state is stateless.
  • Many people are presumed to be citizens of a nation if they were born within the physical geographic territory of the nation. This policy is called, by the Latin legal term. jus soli, meaning “right of soil. ” A jus sanguinis policy grants citizenship based on ancestry or ethnicity.
  • Nationalization is the acquisition of citizenship by somebody who was not a citizen of that country at the time of birth.
  • The term “citizen of the world” has been applied to people who have fewer ties to a particular nation and more of a sense of belonging to the world in general.

Key Terms

  • nationalization: Nationalization is the process of taking an industry or assets into government ownership by a national government or state
  • jus soli: A right by which nationality or citizenship can be recognized to any individual born in the territory of the related state.
  • jus sanguinis: Jus sanguinis (Latin: right of blood) is a social policy by which citizenship is not determined by place of birth, but rather by having one or both parent who are citizens of the nation. It contrasts with jus soli (Latin for “right of soil”).

Legally, citizenship denotes a link between an individual and a state. Under international law, citizenship is synonymous to nationality, although the two may have different meanings under national law. A person who does not have citizenship in any state is stateless.

A person is generally presumed to be a citizen of a nation if one or both of their parents are also a citizen of said nation; this is often called jus sanguinis (Latin legal term), meaning “right of blood. ” A jus sanguinis policy means grants citizenship based on ancestry or ethnicity, and is related to the concept of a nation state common in Europe. Many people are presumed to be citizens of a nation if they were born within the physical geographic territory of the nation. This policy is called by jus soli (Latin legal term), meaning “right of soil. ” These first two factors are usually lumped together under the term birthright citizenship.

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Dual Citizenship: Some people may be citizens of more than one country.

Nationalization is the acquisition of citizenship by somebody who was not a citizen of that country at the time of birth. In general, basic requirements for nationalization are that the applicant hold a legal status as a full-time resident for a minimum period of time, and that the applicant promises to obey and uphold that country’s laws, to which an oath or pledge of allegiance is sometimes added. Citizenship can also be obtained by marrying a citizen, which is termed jure matrimonii.

Citizenship status, under social contract theory, carries with it both rights and responsibilities. In this sense, citizenship was described as “a bundle of rights — primarily, political participation in the life of the community, the right to vote, and the right to receive certain protection from the community, as well as obligations. ” Citizenship is a status in society. It generally describes a person with legal rights within a given political order. It almost always has an element of exclusion, meaning that some people are not citizens; this distinction can sometimes be very important, or not important, depending on a particular society.

More generally, citizenship is seen as the relation between an individual and a particular nation. Certain entities, however, cross national boundaries, such as trade organizations, non-governmental organizations, and multi-national corporations, and sometimes the term “citizen of the world” has been applied in to people who have fewer ties to a particular nation and more of a sense of belonging to the world in general.

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Naturalization Ceremony, Salem, MA, Citizenship Day 2007: New citizens are welcomed during a naturalization ceremony in Salem, MA.

State Formation

Theories explaining the origins and formation of states all revolve around the ability to centralize power in a sustainable way.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the formation of states and centralization of authority in modern history

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • States first arose when agriculture and writing made centralized power possible.
  • In hydraulic civilizations, water and irrigation were centrally controlled, which consequently led to the general centralization of power in a despotic state.
  • According to the coercion theory of state formation, states formed in order to handle the burden of fighting and defending against wars.
  • States have continued to grow more rational and bureaucratic, with expanding executive bureaucracies, such as the extensive cabinet system in the United States. Thus, states have evolved from relatively simple but powerful central powers to complex and highly organized institutions.

Key Terms

  • Hydraulic civilization: A hydraulic empire (also known as a hydraulic despotism, or water monopoly empire) is a social or government structure which maintains power and control through exclusive control over access to water. It arises through the need for flood control and irrigation, which requires central coordination and a specialized bureaucracy.
  • Centralization of power: Centralization of power occurs in governments in which power or legal authority is exerted or coordinated by a de facto political executive to which federal states, local authorities, and smaller units are considered subject. In a national context, centralization occurs in the transfer of power to a typically sovereign nation state.

State Formation and the Centralization of Power

Today we take it for granted that different societies are governed by different states, but this has not always been the case. Since the late nineteeth century, virtually the entirety of the world’s inhabitable land has been parceled up into areas with more or less definite borders claimed by various states. Earlier, quite large land areas had been either unclaimed or uninhabited, or inhabited by nomadic peoples who were not organized as states. In fact, for most of human history, people have lived in stateless societies, characterized by a lack of concentrated authority, and the absence of large inequalities in economic and political power.

The first known states were created in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, the Americas (e.g., Aztec civilization, Inca civilization). Most agree that the earliest states emerged when agriculture and writing made it possible to centralize power in a durable way. Agriculture allowed communities to settle and also led to class division: some people devoted all their time to food production, while others were freed to specialize in other activities, such as writing or ruling. Thus, states, as an institution, were a social invention. Political sociologists continue to debate the origins of the state and the processes of state formation.

Competing Theories of State Formation

Hydraulic Civilization

According to one early theory of state formation, the centralized state was developed to administer large public works systems (such as irrigation systems) and to regulate complex economies. This theory was articulated by German American historian Karl August Wittfogel in his book 1957 Oriental Despotis. Wittfogel argued that most of the earliest states were formed in hydraulic civilizations, by which he meant civilizations where leaders controlled people by controlling the water supply. Often, these civilizations relied on complex irrigation systems that had to be centrally managed. The people, therefore, had good reason to give control to a central state, but in giving up control over the irrigation system, they also gave up control over their own livelihoods and, thus, the central state gained immense control over people in general. Although Wittfogel’s theory is well known, it has also been criticized as inaccurate. Modern archaeological and anthropological evidence shows that many early societies were not as centralized, despotic, or unequal as the hydraulic theory would suggest.

Coercion, War, and the State

An alternative theory of state formation focuses on the rise of more modern nation-states and explains their rise by arguing they became necessary for leveraging the resources necessary to fight and defend against wars. Sociologist Charles Tilly is the best known theorist in this tradition. Tilly examined political, social, and technological change in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present and attempted to explain the unprecedented success of the nation-state as the dominant form of state on Earth. In other words, instead of asking (like Wittfogel) where the very first states came from, Tilly asked where the types of states with which we’re most familiar came from, and why they became so common.

According to Tilly’s theory, military innovation in pre-modern Europe (especially gunpowder and mass armies) made war extremely expensive. As a result, only states with a sufficient amount of capital and a large population could afford to pay for their security and ultimately survive in the hostile environment. Thus, the modern states and its institutions (such as taxes) were created to enable war making.

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Ancient Persian and Greek Warriors: States may have formed to help societies organize for war.

Rationalization and Bureaucracy

Yet another theory of state formation focuses on the long, slow, process of rationalization and bureaucratization that began with the invention of writing. The Greeks were the first people known to have explicitly formulated a political philosophy of the state, and to have rationally analyzed political institutions. In Medieval Europe, feudalism furthered the rationalization and formalization of the state. Feudalism was based on the relationship between lord and vassal, which became central to social organization and, indeed to state organization. The Medieval state was organized by Estates, or parliaments in which key social groups negotiated with the king about legal and economic matters. Since then, states have continued to grow more rational and bureaucratic, with expanding executive bureaucracies, such as the extensive cabinet system in the United States. Thus, states have evolved from relatively simple but powerful central powers to complex and highly organized institutions.

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The Tigris-Euphrates Watershed in Mesopotamia: In hydraulic civilizations, control over water concentrated power in central despotic states.