State, The: Overview

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State, The: Overview

The concept of the state was central to the social sciences until temporarily displaced in the 1950s by a concept of the "political system" that is mainly associated with Talcott Parsons's (19021979) systems analysis. Parsons's sociology identified the political system with behaviors and institutions that provide a center of integration for all aspects of the social system. David Easton echoed Parsons by declaring that "neither the state nor power is a concept that serves to bring together political research" and instead defined the political system as "those interactions through which values are authoritatively allocated for a society" (p. 106). Systems analysis was tied closely to various theories of decision making, but most notably to pluralist theory, which viewed decision making as the outcome of peaceful bargaining between interest groups in society. Pluralist theory implicitly assumed that key sources of power such as wealth, force, status, and knowledge, if not equally distributed, are at least widely diffused among a plurality of competing groups in society.

Return to the State

A return to the state in political science, sociology, and history was launched by the publication of Nicos Poulantzas's Pouvoir politique et classes sociales (1968; Political power and social classes) and Ralph Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society (1969), which directly challenged pluralist theory and systems analysis. The worldwide political rebellions of 1968 called into question the dominant assumptions of an academic social science that presumed the existence of pluralism and system equilibrium as the basis of the political system. Miliband and Poulantzas both drew on a radical tradition identified with the writings of Karl Marx (18181883), Friedrich Engels (18201895), V. I. Lenin (Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov; 18701924), and Antonio Gramsci (18911937) and considered a theory of the state anchored in this tradition to be the main alternative to the dominant social science. Their works were highly influential. At the height of his popularity in the mid-1970s, Miliband was one of the leading political scientists in the English-speaking world. Nicos Poulantzas was arguably the most influential political theorist in the world, with works that influenced scholars in Europe, North America, and Latin America.

Instrumentalism and Structuralism

Miliband's writings are most notable for reestablishing an instrumentalist theory of the state, which was subsequently adopted by many scholars conducting research on political institutions and public policy. Prior to Miliband, the instrumentalist theory of the state had been articulated cryptically by Paul Sweezy, who asserted the state is "an instrument in the hands of the ruling class for enforcing and guaranteeing the stability of the class structure itself" (p. 243). Miliband identifies the ruling class of a capitalist society as "that class which owns and controls the means of production and which is able, by virtue of the economic power thus conferred upon it, to use the state as its instrument for the domination of society" (p. 23). Both authors trace this concept of the state to Marx's famous dictum in The Communist Manifesto that "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." Miliband identified the chief deficiency of Marxist political theory as the fact that nearly all Marxists had been content to assert this general thesis as more or less self-evident, but without proving it. Thus, Miliband's main objective in renewing state theory was "to confront the question of the state in the light of the concrete socio-economic and political and cultural reality of actual capitalist societies" (p. 6). Miliband suggests that Marx provided a conceptual foundation for the socioeconomic analysis of capitalist societies, Lenin provided guidance for a political analysis, and Gramsci supplied the conceptual apparatus for a cultural and ideological analysis of capitalist societies. Miliband was convinced that the central thesis and conceptual structure of Marxist political theory was effectively in place and therefore what Marxist political theory needed was more empirical and historical analysis to give concrete content to this thesis and its associated concepts.

The state, as Miliband conceives it, does not exist as such, but is a conceptual reference point that "stands for a number of particular institutions which, together, constitute its reality, and which interact as parts of what may be called the state system" (p. 49). This state system is actually composed of five elements that are each identified with a cluster of particular institutions, including:

  1. The governmental apparatus, which consists of elected legislative and executive authorities at the national level, which make state policy;
  2. The administrative apparatus, consisting of the civil service bureaucracy, public corporations, central banks, and regulatory commissions, which regulate economic, social, cultural, and other activities;
  3. The coercive apparatus, consisting of the military, paramilitary, police, and intelligence agencies, which together are concerned with the deployment and management of violence;
  4. The judicial apparatus, which includes courts, the legal profession, jails and prisons, and other components of the criminal justice system;
  5. The subcentral governments, such as states, provinces, or departments, counties, municipal governments, and special districts.

One of the most direct indicators of ruling-class domination of the state is the degree to which members of the capitalist class control the state apparatus through interlocking positions in the governmental, administrative, coercive, and other apparatuses. Miliband emphasizes that: "It is these institutions in which 'state power' lies, and it is through them that this power is wielded in its different manifestations by the people who occupy the leading positions in each of these institutions" (p. 54). A similar concept of the state was also adopted by many non-Marxists, such as G. William Domhoff, who proposed a power structure theory of how "the owners and managers of large banks and corporations dominate the United States" (p. xi). Although indebted to Marx's writings, Miliband was also aware that Marx "never attempted a systematic study of the state" (p. 5) comparable to the one conducted by Miliband, but instead left a collection of political writings that are unsystematic, fragmentary, and sometimes self-contradictory.

This ambiguity in Marx's work quickly led to a disagreement with Nicos Poulantzas, who became the leading spokesperson for a structuralist theory of the state. Poulantzas claims that the basic structure of the capitalist mode of production generates contradictory class practices and crisis tendencies that inexorably disrupt the capitalist system at the economic, political, and ideological levels. These crisis tendencies and contradictions necessitate a separate structure to specifically maintain and restore its equilibrium as a system. Although Poulantzas modified systems analysis by introducing class conflict as a disequilibrating mechanism, he was nevertheless clearly indebted to the American functionalists and systems theorists in arguing that the general function of the state in the capitalist mode of production is its function as "the regulating factor of its global equilibrium as a system" (p. 45).

Whereas Miliband articulates an institutionalist conception of power, Poulantzas articulates a functionalist conception of power anchored by the methodological assumptions of structural functionalism. In direct contrast to Miliband, Poulantzas draws a sharp analytic distinction between the concepts of state power and the state apparatus. Poulantzas defines the state apparatus as: "(a) The place of the state in the ensemble of the structures of a social formation," that is, the state's functions and "(b) The personnel of the state, the ranks of the administration, bureaucracy, army, etc." (p. 116). The state apparatus is a unity of the effects of state power (i.e., policies) and the network of institutions and personnel through which the state function is executed. Poulantzas emphasizes the functional unity between state power and the state apparatus with the observation "that structure is not the simple principle of organization which is exterior to the institution: the structure is present in an allusive and inverted form in the institution itself" (p. 115, fn. 24).

Poulantzas defines state power as the capacity of a social class to realize its objective interests through the state apparatus. Bob Jessop observes that within this framework "state power is capitalist to the extent that it creates, maintains, or restores the conditions required for capital accumulation in a given situation and it is non-capitalist to the extent these conditions are not realised" (p. 221). In structuralist theory, the objective effects of state policies on capital accumulation and the class structure are the main objective indicators of state power.

Poulantzas's well-publicized methodological differences with Miliband were deeply influenced by the French structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser, but like Miliband, he also claims to draw on the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Gramsci and "to provide a systematic political theory by elucidating implicit ideas and axioms in their practical writings" (pp. 1, 42). Yet, while Miliband placed Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto at the center of his political theory, Poulantzas identifies Capital as "the major theoretical work of Marxism" (p. 20). The chief difficulty in designating Capital as Marx's central theoretical treatise is that it is an unfinished work with no theory of social class and no theory of the state, but a text that is rife with lacunae, omissions, and stated intentions never fulfilled in fact, particularly in its latter volumes.

These disputes were aired in the New Left Review in a series of widely heralded polemical exchanges that became known as the Miliband-Poulantzas debate. The debate itself was symptomatic of unresolved epistemological issues within Marxism that had far-reaching methodological repercussions beyond state theory and even beyond Marxism. Their public debate set off a wide-ranging discussion among scholars throughout the world that stimulated renewed interest among social scientists in the nature of the state. The debate mainly revolved around Poulantzas's claim that Miliband's empirical and institutional analysis of the state in capitalist society constantly gives the impression that "social classes or 'groups' are in some way reducible to inter-personal relations and the State is itself reducible to inter-personal relations of 'individuals' composing social groups and 'individuals' composing the State apparatus." Poulantzas insisted that this method of analysis failed to comprehend "social classes and the State as objective structures, and their relations as an objective system of regular connections, a structure and a system whose agents, 'men', are in the words of Marx, 'bearers' of it" (pp. 7071).

Instrumentalists and structuralists were quickly divided into competing schools of thought symbolized by the fractiousness of the Miliband-Poulantzas debate. As the polemic between them and their supporters became redundant, state theorists began looking for ways to move beyond the methodological stalemate. Moreover, despite the ongoing methodological controversy, both theories of the state shared a common analytical postulate that the state successfully implements the long-term interests of the capitalist class by maintaining the equilibrium of the capitalist mode of production. This postulate was increasingly called into question in the later 1970s as a result of slow economic growth, high unemployment, high inflation, and the crisis of the welfare state. The growing disequilibrium of the welfare state was dramatically symbolized by the expenditure rollbacks of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and President Ronald Reagan in the United States.


The Miliband-Poulantzas stalemate and the crisis of the welfare state defined the intellectual and political context in which the journal Kapitalistate first introduced derivationismalso known as the capital logic schoolto Anglo-American scholars. Derivationism emerged from the West German student movement in 1969, but it did not have an impact outside Germany until the translation and publication in 1978 of several essays by John Holloway and Sol Picciotto. The central axiom of the derivationist approach is that the analysis of the relation between state and society must be deduced from contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production. The rationale for this claim is that if capitalism were in fact a spontaneous and self-regulating economic system as stipulated by neoclassical economics, there would be no logical rationale for state action in relation to capital accumulation. Yet, the state routinely intervenes in economic relations in all capitalist societies. Therefore, derivationists posit the state as a logically necessary instance of capitalist society that must perform for the capitalist class those tasks that it inherently cannot perform for itself. These tasks, whatever their nature at any given historical period, define the general interests of the capitalist class.

Derivationism was viewed briefly as a way to transcend the methodological antinomies of the Miliband-Poulantzas debate because it focused state theory on the limitations imposed on state policies by its relation to the process of capital accumulation. Derivationism seemed to offer a more dynamic approach to the state that would explain the relationship between the state's historical political development and the underlying contradictions of the capitalist mode of production in contrast to the static models proposed by Miliband and Poulantzas. Paradoxically, the major objection to derivationism was that it tended to remain ahistorical and nonempirical in its approach to the state and thus provided little guidance to scholars who were interested in studying the historical political development of actually existing states.

The derivationists' main contribution was to call attention to the possibility that systematic and insurmountable limitations on state policy may be imposed by the developing contradictions of the capital accumulation process. It could no longer be assumed that the state would automatically succeed in maintaining the equilibrium of the capitalist system or resolve the underlying political conflicts generated by that process. Thus, state theorists increasingly searched for a theory of the state that could identify the limits of its policy-making capacities and that could conceptualize, anticipate, and explain the crisis tendencies of late capitalist societies, rather than describe its maintenance and stabilization mechanisms.

Systems Analysis

A new systems-analytic approach sought to identify these limits by identifying specific examples of policy breakdown, particularly instances where state policy either fails to maintain capital accumulation or to restabilize social order among disaffected subordinate classes. The systems-analytic theory of the state is largely identified with the "post-Marxist" works of Jürgen Habermas and Claus Offe, who were influenced by the derivationists conceptually, but whose methodology draws heavily on the radical systems theory of Niklas Luhmann. Offe is largely credited with advancing state theory beyond instrumentalism and structuralism by introducing the dependency principle. The dependency principle asserts that the decision-making power and policy capabilities of the state in capitalist society are dependent upon the continuity of the capital accumulation process, primarily because of the modern state's dependence on tax revenues. Therefore, state elites in a capitalist economy must adopt policies that enhance business confidence in the short-run and that promote a favorable business climate over the long-run. Where state elites promote a favorable business climate with public policy, they will be rewarded with high rates of private investment, economic growth, and employment stability. Where state policies undermine business confidence, business people will refuse to invest, which generates an investment strike throughout the economy, while many business people may even redeploy their capital toward economies in which they have greater political and economic confidence.

The modern state's dependence on substantial and growing tax revenues means that every interest state personnel have "in their own stability and development can only be pursued if it is in accordance with the imperative of maintaining accumulation" (Offe, p. 126). According to Offe, "this fundamental dependency upon accumulation also functions as a selective principle upon state policies," because violating this logic of accumulation would simultaneously weaken or undermine all state capacities. Thus, a concern for the continuity of private accumulation is "incorporated in the pursuit of interests and policies that, considered by themselves, may have little or nothing to do with accumulation" (p. 126).

However, in a political democracy, the capitalist state must also be legitimate. A capitalist state that sustains an exploitative accumulation process can only achieve legitimacy by deploying concealment and ideological mechanisms. Concealment mechanisms, such as administrative secrecy, facilitate the adoption and implementation of maintenance policies outside the sphere of class struggle and special-interest competition. The state's ideological mechanisms convey the image that its power is organized to pursue the general interests of society as a whole, even though it functions in a specific relationship to capitalist accumulation. Consequently, a capitalist state must sustain and yet conceal a structural disjuncture between its democratic form and its capitalist functions.

The capitalist state must respond to contradictions in the capitalist mode of production with social policies, but an important feature distinguishing post-Marxist systems analysis from similar structuralist analyses is the assertion that welfare states actually fail to function at precisely those moments when most needed and these system failures result in contradictory outcomes that produce a variety of cumulative crisis tendencies in capitalist societies. Jürgen Habermas and James O'Connor suggest that the political contradictions and policy failures of modern states cumulatively generate an economic crisis, a fiscal crisis, crises of state rationality and legitimation, and a motivation crisis in the underlying population and workforce.

Organizational Realism

During the 1980s and 1990s, state theorists influenced by the new institutionalism in political science and sociology elucidated yet another post-Marxist approach to the state called organizational realism. Organizational realists define the state as an organization that attempts to extend coercive control and political authority over particular territories and the people residing within them. A fundamental thesis of organizational realism is that in pursuing this political objective state elites are self-interested maximizers whose main interest is to enhance their own institutional power, prestige, and wealth. Consequently, Theda Skocpol has suggested that during exceptional periods of domestic or international crisis state elites may be impelled to implement social policies, economic reforms, and institutional changes that concede subordinate class demands while violating the interests of those classes that benefit from the existing economic arrangements within a state's jurisdiction. Under certain circumstances, Skocpol argues that state elites might deploy state power to act against the long-run interests of a dominant class or even act to create a new mode of production. However, Skocpol cautions that the extent to which states actually are autonomous, and to what effect, varies from case to case, which means "the actual extent and consequences of state autonomy can only be analyzed and explained in terms specific to particular types of sociopolitical systems and to particular sets of historical international relations" (p. 30). Therefore, the aim of this research strategy has been to focus on the theoretically limited task of constructing empirical generalizations by using comparative historical case studies of policy formation and state institutional development.

Economics and the State

The new institutionalism in state theory has been embraced by some economists, such as Douglass C. North, who observes that "the whole development of the new institutional economics must be not only a theory of property rights and their evolution but a theory of the political process, a theory of the state, and of the way in which the institutional structure of the state and its individuals specify and enforce property rights" (p. 233). There have been few significant efforts to follow through on this observation. Joseph Stiglitz also suggests that because most state activities involve questions of resource allocation, state theory falls within the purview of the economics discipline, but economists have largely neglected the state despite their agreement that there are only two ways of coordinating the economic activities of large populations: (1) central direction involving the use of coercion (that is, the state) and (2) the voluntary cooperation of individuals (the market).

Economists have devoted little attention to the theory of the state because most assume that markets provide optimal resource allocations in contrast to the state's supposed inefficiency. From this perspective, state intervention in the economy is only justified in cases of market failure, but since market failures are considered exceptions to the rule that markets optimize resource allocations, the analysis of the state and its role in society is considered marginal to the main focus of neoclassical economics. At its most extreme, libertarian philosophers and economists not only accept this proposition, but draw on well-accepted definitions of the state as a coercive institution to argue that the state is inherently parasitic. Murray Rothbard claims that regardless of its form, the state is inherently illegitimate since it is dependent on "coerced levies" (i.e., taxes) that make it essentially no different from "a criminal band" beyond the fact that it is the "best organized aggressor against the persons and property of the mass of the public" (pp. 4647). In contrast to Marxist theory, which views the state as a mechanism for subordinating subaltern classes by a dominant class, libertarian theory views the state itself as a political class that exploits the entire society of economic producers.

Stiglitz has proposed an economic model that reverses the main assumption of neoclassical economics with the argument that markets are always imperfect because information is imperfect and this makes all markets incomplete without state intervention. In Stiglitz's model, the issue for economists is not to identify market failures, since "these are pervasive in the economy, but of identifying large market failures where there is scope for welfare-enhancing government interventions" (pp. 3839). This model incorporates the normative assumption that the state will (or should) pursue welfare-enhancing policies and, therefore, challenges the normative claims raised by most other theories of the state, which view it is an exploitative organization.

Globalization and the State

The main contours of "the state debate" were fixed by the early 1990s, and there were few new developments in state theory as many scholars lost interest in the topic. The proliferation of state theories from 1968 onward resulted in an intellectual stalemate, where scholars retreated into their favored theoretical approach to conduct empirical and institutional research on political development and public policy. Postmodernist and poststructuralist theories of power claimed that power was not centered in the state, but diffused in a variety of everyday relationships and identities such as language, gender, race, ethnicity, mass media, medicine, family, work, and play. Many scholars shifted their attention to the analysis of these diffused forms of "micropower." Finally, the process of economic globalization, which became so evident in the 1990s, led others to conclude that the state was in crisis, retreat, or decline as its sovereign functions were lost or ceded to global markets and transnational corporations.

However, the latter trend also witnessed the emergence of new supranational institutions (for example, the European Union and the World Trade Organization) and the strengthening of preexisting international organizations (for example, the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). This development stimulated renewed interest in state theory at the turn of the century, while shifting its analytic focus toward the new forms of global governance and their relation to the nation-state. A variety of theoretical positions quickly appeared, which are distinguished mainly by their analysis of the American state within this global system and their claims about the role of the nation-state within the world economy.

The proponents of the American superstate thesis argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union has left the United States with no serious rivals in the economic, political, or military realms, and thus economic globalization and its auxiliary institutions are viewed as a projection of the American state's power on a global scale. Thus, globalization is not viewed as a development external to the nation-state, because it is nation-states, particularly the United States and its allies, that have played the leading role in creating a new global economy, while remaining the primary actors within the new supranational institutions.

A major theoretical challenge to this thesis is Martin Shaw's argument that an internationally legitimate "global-Western state" has integrated its member nation-state's functions as an organizer of legitimate violence and authoritative rule maker into larger bloc structures. While the United States played a leading role in constructing the Western state's supranational military and economic organizations, Shaw insists that "the idea of American hegemony is too simple to characterize relations within the Western state." Instead, Shaw claims that the global-Western state is "an integrated authoritative organization of violence" that should be considered "a new type of state, rather than an alliance or a complex set of alliances of states" (pp. 240242).

Finally, a thesis proposed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri seems to mark a new phase in the abandonment of the state concept. Hardt and Negri seek to replace the state with a concept of empire. Their main hypothesis is that globalization is transforming governance to such an extent that "sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule" (p. xii). The global form of sovereignty is called empire. Hardt and Negri argue that "Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open expanding frontiers" (p. xii). Hardt and Negri concede that the United States enjoys a privileged position in empire, and they attribute the origins of its logic to the United States Constitution, but they view empire as a supranational logic "that effectively encompasses the spatial totality that rules over the entire 'civilized' world." Empire is an "order that effectively suspends history and thereby fixes the existing state of affairs for eternity" and thus marks the end of history or the final phase of world political development (p. xiv).

See also Empire and Imperialism ; Marxism ; Political Science ; Sovereignty .


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Clyde W. Barrow

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State, The: Overview

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State, The: Overview