Although he likely never uttered the words “L´État c’est moi”, the phrase embodies a certain truth about King Louis XIV of France. During his reign from 1643 to 1715 he was “the proprietor of the state” and “the owner of the kingdom” (Rowen 1961, 84-85). In more modern times, the executive of a nation is typically no longer viewed in such terms. Some nations, like the United States, still combine the roles of chief executive and the head of state in the office of the president, while others, such as the United Kingdom, have the positions split between the monarch as the head of state and the prime minister as the head of the government. Nevertheless, during the Cold War and its aftermath the United States and especially her president has been given the title of the “Leader of the Free World”. As Louis XIV before him, is the president the embodiment of the United States and the greater concept of freedom in general? If not, who or what is the state? And how does it or should it interact with the society under its dominion?
What is the State?
Max Weber defines the state as a separate political community which consists of three attributes. It has “(1) a ‘territory”; (2) the availability of physical force for its domination; and (3) social action which is not restricted exclusively to the satisfaction of common economic needs in the frame of a communal economy, but regulates more generally the interrelations of the inhabitants of the territory” (Weber 1978, 902). He argues that in a political community, the interests of the individual are subordinate to the interests of the larger group.
Similarly, to Weber, Michael Mann defines the state as possessing four major parts. 1. “a differentiated set of institutions and personnel”, 2. A centrality where “political relations radiate outwards”, 3. “a territorially-demarcated area”, and 4. “a monopoly of authoritative bind rule-making, backed up by a monopoly of the means of physical violence” (Mann 1984, 188). The state possesses, to varying degrees, two types of power, despotic and infrastructural. Despotic power is that which the sovereign or elite collective body can perform regardless of the wishes of the public. By contrast, infrastructural power is the state’s ability to penetrate civil society. He idealizes the character of the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass as a leader with high levels of despotic power but low levels of infrastructural power. Mann notes that states have been increasing their levels of infrastructural power historically while levels of despotic power have varied over time.
Unlike the idea of the sovereign as the embodiment of the state, pluralists view the state not as a single person but as a competing assortment of different interest groups. These groups are comprised of a variety of individuals each with their own goals who can shift their coalitions as their preferences dictate. For pluralist theory, “nothing categorical can be assumed about power in any community. It rejects the stratification thesis that some group necessarily dominates a community” (Polsby 1960, 476). With no fixed hierarchy of power, there is no one group or person who is able to dominate politically on every issue. Unlike with Mann, there is no Red Queen. Carnoy argues that “In America, the typical citizen would probably describe the government as a pluralist democracy in which competing interest groups and the public at large define public policy” (Carnoy 1984, 10). Furthermore, pluralists believe that the state serves the interest of the public good, or at least that is the intention. The state is the servant of the people. (Carnoy 1984, 11). Furthermore, political philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes agree in their various writings that one important function of the state is to protect the property of the community at large and free themselves from the state of nature. (Carnoy 1984, 17).
Despite what the pluralists might say, one shouldn’t be too quick to assume that a state is a benevolent force, existing primarily to protect and defend the lives, liberties, and property of citizens living within its borders as declared by John Locke (Locke 1993) and found at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, which substitutes the pursuit of happiness for property. Given the state’s possession of the monopoly of violence, Charles Tilly compares the state to an organized crime racket in the book Bringing the State Back In. Although the state can use force to protect the citizens under its care, it can also use this same force to expand its power and authority, often at the expense of these very same citizens. He explains that “popular resistance to coercive exploitation forced would-be power holders to concede protection and constraints on their own action” (Tilly 1985, 170). Note that these concessions on behalf of the common good are not done out of concern for the public but often forced under duress. It is the attempt of civil society, or some lesser ruling group, to place a check the sovereign’s despotic power. King John’s signing of the Magna Carta is one prime example of this principle in action. The king desired peace with his barons and the barons demanded protection from the unrestrained power of the king. If we travel forward in time to the 1600s, we find the situation repeat itself during the reign of the Stuarts in England. The crown demanded loans which it often repaid without interest if it repaid its creditors at all. However, this policy led to difficulty in the state’s ability to pay for its expenditures. As the king sought new sources of revenue, Parliament responded by checking the power of the monarch, which ultimately resulted in the protection of property rights and requiring the state to honor its contracts. (North & Weingast 1989).
Returning to Tilly, he lists 4 activities the state engages in regarding violence. “1. War making: Eliminating or neutralizing their own rivals outside the territories in which they have clear and continuous priority as wielders of force 2. State making: Eliminating or neutralizing their rivals inside those territories 3. Protection: Eliminating or neutralizing the enemies of their clients 4. Protection: Acquiring the means of carrying out the first three activities” (Tilly 1985, 181). Using these four activities in tandem further strengthens the state. Tilly concludes his chapter with a discussion of the topic of war and how the state uses war as a tool to both protect and expand its influence. This concept is reminiscent of the thoughts of Randolph Bourne who, in his unfinished work The State declared repeatedly that “War is the health of the State” (Bourne 1970).
Marxists and Neo-Marxist have an even more bleak view of the state. However, there is no single unifying Marxist theory of the state. As Marx explains, the state does not mold the society but rather the society which molds the state. In Marx’s time, he thought that the state was a tool designed to cement the superior position of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. (Carnoy 1984, 45-47). Lenin advocated for a dictatorship of the proletariat under the protection of the party to both mobilize and educate workers. Rosa Luxemburg, by comparison, stressed: “a dictatorship of class, not of party or clique” (Carnoy 1984, 61). Although some Marxists believe that the state can be used for good purposes and others consider it only as an ill on society that must be allowed to wither away, all of them seem to be skeptical of the state.
How Do States and Societies Interact and What are the Boundaries Between them?
There is no one model which can explain the interactions between a state and civil society. Even if there were, it would not be stable over time as the relationship and boundaries fluctuate as states and societies wax and wane, as new leaders emerge in both spheres jockeying for power and weaving their own niche in this rich tapestry. Nevertheless, many researchers have explored state/society relationships and boundaries which provide important details and clues as to how these interactions are initially and how they might evolve.
In China, we observe a phenomenon Joel Migdal would likely label as a strong state interacting with a weak society. In Evolving State-Society Relations in China in China Review, Huang, Alexander Korolev, Fengshi Wu, and Xiaojun Yan all explore the topic of a powerful and centralized national state as it attempts to penetrate and control Chinese civil society. Considering first Korolev, he observes that the Communist state has reinstituted a program called the ‘mass line’ in an attempt to improve communication between the leaders and the public. He argues that “the use of mobilized forms of participation makes the decision-making process in China more inclusive and pluralistic than it was in the past” (Korolev 2017, 29-30). Next, there is Yan and Huang. Private enterprise has expanded in China since reforms in 1978. Rather than snuff it out, the party has sought to bring this sector of their economy under the influence of the state by expanding the party apparatus. (Yan & Huang 2017). Lastly, we have Wu, where we find the interaction between the state and nongovernmental organizations. She reports a tension as the government seeks to control all aspects of civil society in China, including the choice of names used to identify these NGOs. (Wu 2017, 143).
However, in neighboring India, we discover a totally different situation than the Chinese case. In Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner’s Claiming the State, we are told of a citizenry who is detached from the day-to-day considerations of the state. Nevertheless, when these citizens are both motivated and enabled, they make claims on the state, seeking roads, schools, fresh water, and a host of other government services. Unlike China, it is not a top-down approach to state-society relations, but rather a bottom-up, heavily decentralized model. (Kruks-Wisner 2018).
Despite the current differences in boundaries between China and India, one should not presuppose that these lines which currently exist cannot be redrawn. The United States in the 1960s provides one such example. During the Lyndon Johnson administration, the government sought to redraw the boundary between church and state in the area of public funding of Catholic schools. Prior to this time, the federal government had not had much involvement in education. However, the state wished to greatly expand federal funding of schools and, in order to accomplish this task, sought to erase the boundary between schools and the government in Washington. Despite the result upsetting some Catholics and Protestants, the state ended up redefining the long-standing border which separated it from the education system. (Mayrl & Quinn 2016, 10-14).
In recent decades we have seen an important transformation in the United States regarding the interplay between the state and the private sector when it comes to the military. Although, as mentioned in the opening pages, Weber declared that the state enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate violence over the territory it controls. However, this boundary is eroding. During the early days of the formation of the modern nation-state, the monarch weakened feudal lords within his realms by consolidating the use of physical power as part of his purview. But, during the Clinton and W. Bush presidencies of the 1990s to 2000s, the United States switched from a long-standing Republican ideology which stressed “national sovereignty” and “ownership and provision of the military force by the state and national armed forces” to a Neoliberal model of “fragmentation”, “individual sovereignty” and “ownership and provision of the military force by public and private actors” (Krahmann 2010, 41).
Over the last year and a half, my research has focused heavily on elections and political freedom. Although democratic nations profess to support the concept of free and fair elections, what they do in practice is often markedly different from their rhetoric. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, “fair elections should ensure equal conditions for all participants in the election process…all candidates, parties, and political organizations that wish to run for office should be able to do so and to compete on the basis of equal and impartial treatment under the law” (OSCE 2007, 18).
One would assume that Carnoy is correct. If asked, presumably the average person would agree that a state such as Virginia has free and fair elections under the definition presented by OSCE, though an inspection of the Code of Virginia would reveal a different story. To begin with, every candidate seeking office, except for party nominees, are required to collect signatures from registered voters to have their names printed on the ballot. (Title 24.2. Elections). But what are party nominees? Checking the code, we find “‘Party’ or ‘political party’ means an organization of citizens of the Commonwealth which, at either of the two preceding statewide general elections, received at least 10 percent of the total vote cast for any statewide office filled in that election.” (Title 24.2. Definitions). As a result of this threshold, the state of Virginia only recognizes two political parties. Thus, Democratic and Republican nominees are granted automatic ballot access in Virginia while independents and the candidates from other political parties are required to pass through these hurdles in order to achieve ballot placement. It is fairly obvious that under the definition of free and fair elections Virginia does not qualify. So why do these laws exist? Those individuals who control the state want them in place as a barrier to entry for any would-be challengers. It is yet another mechanism of the state exerting its control over civil society.
Pluralism might reflect the way a democratic state ought to be and how society should interact with it, but, in practice, it doesn’t play out this way. Nevertheless, the theory may still be valuable as an ideal for an informed citizenry to strive toward or, for more nefarious purposes, a useful fiction for the ruling elites to spread in order to maintain their control and enhance political stability.
Although fairly pluralist in outlook in my early days, after more than two decades in political activism, working for a variety of campaigns and interest groups and running as a candidate myself, my own viewpoint on the state and its relationship with society is similar to an amalgamation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles Tilly. “Rousseau therefore saw the State of his time as the creation of the rich to secure their position as the dominant class, a State presented as benefiting all but designed to preserve inequality” (Carnoy 1984, 21). However, unlike Rousseau or the Marxists, I do not believe that the state exists to benefit the rich, but rather serves the interests of the politically well-connected. Whether in communist China or the democratic United States, in societies where the state enjoys both a monopoly on violence and strict barriers to prevent competition in the political sphere, the society and the people as a whole are relatively powerless, resorting to praying for the mercy of the ruling class.
Following the same line of thought as Tilly, Mancur Olson compared warlords, an early precursor to the state, to bandits who either roamed the countryside looking for victims or those who settle in a specific area taking “his theft in the form of regular taxation” (Olson 1993, 568). Furthermore, as Olson wrote concerning the state-society relationship, “history until relatively recent times has been mostly a story of the gradual process of civilization under stationary bandits interrupted by occasional episodes of roving banditry” (Olson 1993, 569). Louis XIV, John, and James VI and I all died centuries ago and the Red Queen is but a fiction, but much of their legacy regarding the power of the state and its interaction with civil society lives on. The state is no longer a single, absolute monarch, but rather a collection of the powerful elite. Nevertheless, the same desire for dominion over everything within its borders remains. At the end of the day, the state, whether democratic or authoritarian, for the most part, is an agent of exploitation and control.
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