Functions of the State
One of the key defining features of a state is the concept of "sovereignty". States are sovereign if they are not dependent on or subject to the power of any other state. As we will learn in Unit 6, this characteristic of a state was established in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia and is especially critical when discussing international relations.
Various schools of thought consider the state to be either a neutral entity separated from society or an immoral partisan instrument.
Classify the different political theories concerning the function of the state in society
- 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 acts in response to the pressures applied to it by a variety of organized interests.
- 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.
- Pluralist: An advocate of pluralism (in all senses)
- Polyarchy: A government by many persons, of whatever order or class
- Many people consider the United States to be a pluralist state. Even our money reads "E Pluribus Unum", which means out of many, one. Much of U.S. politics can be understood by looking at different special interest groups who compete to get their agendas passed. For example, in debates over education, the National Education Association, a union of teachers, might be considered one special interest group, while a group of parents could band together to form another interest group. The teachers union would likely support tenure for teachers, while the parents group might want stricter evaluation of teachers or stiffer requirements for pay raises. According to the pluralist view, whichever interest group was better able to recruit members to its cause, and to persuade policymakers, would prevail.
- Marxists explain political outcomes and policies not by reference to different interest groups, but by assuming that the state acts in a way that benefits capitalists and hurts workers. So, for example, Marxists would not be surprised to see government forces such as the police or national guard mobilized in order to put down strikers, nor would they be surprised when politicians continually give tax cuts to the rich. On an even more mundane level, Marxists might point out that many states have given capitalists extra privileges by treating corporations as people, affording them the same rights as human beings.
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 .
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, 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 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.
Anarchists at the G20 Summit in London, 2009
Anarchists oppose state control.
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.
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