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  The political world is now constituted by states, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, the world has not always been comprised of states. The state is a set of governmental institutions of relatively recent historical origin. Until very recently parts of the world were either unclaimed by states or under the control of stateless nomads, but that is no longer so. Government, in the sense of rule-making and decision-making, has been characteristic of all societies, even tribal societies, but the state has not. There have been stateless societies. What then defines a state?

There is no universally agreed answer. All those who define the concept organizationally accept that a state is special type of government which must exercise sovereign authority over a specified territory and population, and have that sovereignty recognized by other states. Internally, a state is differentiated from its society by the fact that it is the formal source of law, the claimed monopolist of civil force, and the final extractor of taxation. Its activities are normally administered and managed by authorized bureaucracies. Externally, a state exists in a world of other states. To be an authentic state a polity must be capable of autonomous diplomacy and organized war-making. Thus understood, states vary in the extent to which they are effectively sovereign both in international relations and within their territories. They vary in the extent to which they are centralized, bureaucratized, internally co-ordinated, and autonomous from (or free from control by) their societies; and they vary radically in the extent to which they are democratic, that is, subject to the control and direction of the free choices of their citizens.

States are also, and confusingly, defined functionally either by their alleged goals or by their alleged consequences. For example, it is sometimes said that the central function of the state is to preserve order which can have the odd implication that all institutions which preserve order (for instance, the family) become part of the state.

Finally, states are sometimes defined normatively, that is, they are discussed as models of how political systems should behave. In these discussions states are usually characterized as operating according to the rule of law (as opposed to lawless régimes), or more broadly according to rational principles. Thus Hegel\'s Philosophy of Right presents the modern state—as the objective realization of the subjective freedom latent in the human spirit.

Understood organizationally it is widely agreed that the modern state emerged in late medieval Europe, through the supersession of feudalism. It is, however, a moot point, whether any of the ancient empires of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, pre-Columbian America, India or China should be described as states. There has been an enduring temptation on the part of all historians and political scientists to read back into history the presence of many core features of the modern state—sovereignty, centralization, territoriality and bureaucratization. The alternative temptation has been to draw a sharp distinction between the ‘city states’, ‘feudal polities’ and ‘empires’ of agrarian societies, and the states of commercial and industrial societies.

The rise of the state in modern Europe was reflected in 16th-and 17th-century political theory, notably in Machiavelli\'s The Prince, Jean Bodin\'s Six Books of the Republic and Thomas Hobbes\' Leviathan. Bodin and Hobbes, theorists of sovereignty, shared a common hostility to feudalism, and the belief that states were essential for the preservation of order. In their writings the idea of the state emerges for the first time as an abstract and impersonal set of offices, in principle independent of the particular officials who occupy positions within it. The absolutist implications of Bodin\'s and Hobbes\'s defences of states were not universally accepted, and in response liberal political thought, notably in the work of John Locke, sought to ensure that the modern state would be governed with the consent of the governed, through principles of representative government. Liberals, and subsequently democrats, have sought to limit the autonomy of state power through ensuring citizens have rights against the state, and in limiting the scope of the doctrine of raison d\'état (‘reason of state’), which permitted public dishonesty, the violation of treaties and the illegal use of violence.

Although states vary considerably in their forms and official doctrines and ideologies almost all of them, leaving aside some residual traditional monarchies, seek to legitimate themselves in two reinforcing or contradictory ways. Modern states invariably claim to be legitimate emanations of their peoples. They claim on the one hand to be expressions of popular or democratic sovereignty (even dictators go through the motions of legitimating their rule through plebiscites). On the other hand they usually claim to be nation-states, embodiments of the rule of the nation, emanations of the self-determination of the people of X. These two claims explain two of the fundamental political dynamics of modern states. On the one hand competition for control and use of the state centres on claims to represent the popular will. On the other hand competition for definition and control over the territorial boundaries of the state centres on claims to represent the national will. The sometimes reinforcing and sometimes conflicting projects of ‘state-building’ and ‘nation-building’ stem from these dynamics.

Much recent political science has focused on interpreting the organizational nature of the state in liberal democracies. In part these interpretations are responses to the growth of state activities in the capitalist democracies of the West, which in the 20th century have seen the liberal state\'s functions expand beyond those of the defining features of government (defence, civic order and law-making), to include extensive involvement in economic management and regulation and the organization of social and individual welfare.

Five distinct schools of thought on the workings of the democratic state are evident in political science: pluralism, Marxism, rational choice, élite theory (now sometimes called ‘new institutionalism’ or ‘statism’) and neo-pluralism. Some claim to be able to detect novel feminist and green theories of the state, although these claims are disputed. Each of these bodies of thought is internally divided over the extent to which they believe that states are controlled by their citizens or societal collectivities or vice versa. Simplifying matters drastically three different interpretations of the way in which the state operates can be discerned in the political science literature: (1) in cipher models states (or their officials) are understood to be controlled by their societies (or the most powerful agents in their societies); (2) in guardian models states (or their officials) are considered sufficiently autonomous to be able to redirect and reshape the pressures placed upon them by their societies (or the most powerful agents in their societies); and (3) in partisan models states (or their officials) are considered sufficiently autonomous to act directly against the pressures emanating from their societies. Thus a Marxist who believes that the democratic state is in fact controlled by the capitalist class illustrates the employment of a cipher model; a pluralist who believes that the democratic state acts to look after the unorganized as well as the organized illuminates the guardian model; while a rational choice theorist who argues that public bureaucracies oversupply public services uses a partisan model.

Most political thinkers regard the state as an ineluctable feature of modernity, a necessary part of the landscape of industrial societies, an indispensable source of public cohesion and power. Only a minority of anarchists, libertarians, and Marxists wish to smash the state, or promise to make it wither away into historical memory (so far only Marxist revolutionaries have had the chance to break this promise). However, among those persuaded that a state is an indispensable feature of modern life there is passionate disagreement about the appropriate scope and limits on state power.

One crude distinction differentiates friends and enemies of state intervention on three dimensions. One dimension, the preservation of defence, law, order and property rights, is warmly extolled by conservatives, but disliked by anarchists, pacifists and libertarian socialists. Another dimension, the redistribution of wealth and income, is endorsed by social democrats, socialists and social liberals, but opposed by conservatives and economic liberals. A third dimension, the maintenance of traditional moral values, finds liberals and libertarians opposed to state regulation of private morality, with moral conservatives taking the converse position. BO\'L

See also absolutism; anarchism; conservatism; democracy; liberalism; nationalism, socialism and social democracy.Further reading P. Dunleavy and , B. O\'Leary, Theories of the State: the Politics of Liberal Democracy; , C. Tilly, The Formation of National States in Western Europe.



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