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The State Notes

History Notes > History of Political Thought c.1890-present Notes

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Is the state a fiction?
The central issue when discussing the nature of the modern state is its inherent paradox. JeanJacques Rousseau typifies the state of modern politics with his elucidation of a whole host of such paradoxes in his Social Contract (1755); 'Man was born free but everywhere he is in chains'. Crucially human beings, in Rousseau's thesis, are solitary animals yet can never fulfil their innate capacities if they remain outside of the world of social interaction. Such a viewpoint mirrors Immanual Kant's formulation of 'anti-social sociability' as the driving force behind human progression and social development. Man naturally seeks out social relationships but it is exactly those relationships that deprave him. It is the distinctly human capacity for 'willing or rather choosing' (Rousseau) that facilitates this paradox. Consideration of the state - the medium of political association between individuals - must follow similar lines. Quite paradoxically the state is both a fiction and utterly real. The modern world is dominated by the existence of individual states. As J. Bartelson highlights, it is the ability of man to criticise the nature of the state, of which he is a part, that empowers the very notion of such a state; the state provides the mechanism through which such criticism is at all possible. The residence of man in political states is a reflection of his political volition and need to associate with others. It must be remembered that paradox, however complex, does not amount to contradiction. In this sense the tension between the authority of the state and the will of its constituents is not ultimately problematic. Similarly, the tension between the conception of the state as a fiction and its very real applications in the world is vindicated. How is the state conceived? Although within modern society human beings adhere to the will of the state on a daily basis, the nature of the state is in fact intangible. In the main, people reserve ultimate loyalty for the unitary state in the face of its imposition of laws that we are obligated to obey. Despite this tension between the state's authority and the independent action of citizens, most of us are quite content with the relationship. The intangible state is a product of modernity. Any personal or patriarchal elements within the notion of the state have disappeared (a fact that Max Weber was acutely aware of). It would be a fair assessment, especially for Weber, that the operation of the modern state is rational. Governments are fairly elected by the majority, there exists a professional class of civil service who control state activities, and day-to-day political operation is facilitated by long-established, permanent and elective political institutions. Weber identified such phenomena with modernity. Furthermore this progression towards rational government is unavoidable, or in the words of Bolingbroke, 'an indefinable monster'. It seems plausible to define the modern state in such terms. Equally, given the rational nature of such modern politicking and its indisputable impact upon individuals, it seems implausible to define the modern state as a 'fiction'. The term 'state' no longer refers to the position of a ruling monarch or prince in modern democratic politics. Since Henry Parker's articulated reallocation, in1642, of state sovereignty from King Charles I of England to the whole population or commonwealth, the state has espoused an impersonal and transcendental quality. In England, though mortal kings were expected to 'live of their own' during peace time, it was within their power to utilise the financial strength of national taxation in times of crisis or war; this had been the case since the fourteenth century. In this way kings possessed two bodies: one was their personal or private body that could be seen and touched, and an impersonal or public body that constituted the abstract interests of the state. It was indeed this demarcation of power that parliament used to override Charles I's objection to the militia ordinance of March 1642. By denying that the king held the private authority to veto parliamentary legislation, the parliamentarians effectively promoted the impersonal or public authority of the state to a position of supremacy. It is at this point that modern popular sovereignty, and its concurrent conception of the modern state, was born. This act was based upon the belief that no individual or group of individuals could be entirely free from corruption. Political power had to be separated from any such individuals. The legitimate use of force or violence that characterises much of Weber's writings can only be exercised by a non-human. This entity is, as defined by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651), 'the great Leviathan called a commonwealth or state'. Louis XIV's acclaimed adage 'L'etat c'est moi!' is therefore, within modern logic, entirely unfounded. The majesty of the king's private person was dissolved, ostensibly for the greater good of the entire population. In this sense, the concept of the state was put into practice for very practical reasons and as such cannot be narrowly labelled merely an imaginary fiction.

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