From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
This article discusses states as sovereign political entities; for other meanings, see state (disambiguation).

A state is an organized political community occupying a definite territory, having an organized government, and possessing internal and external sovereignty. Recognition of the state's claim to independence by other states, enabling it to enter into international agreements, is often important to the establishment of its statehood, although some theories do not make this a requirement - for instance, the Montevideo Convention. The "state" can also be defined in terms of domestic conditions, specifically the monopolization of the legitimate use of force within a country. The exact meaning of this definition depends on what is understood by "legitimate". For more information see government.

The word "state" in contemporary parlance often means the "Westphalian state", in reference to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. In this sense, the modern state is an entity that enjoys extensive autonomy in its domestic economic and social policy, largely free from interference from other states and powers. A number of modern commentators have claimed that we are experiencing the decline of the Westphalian state as the principal actor of the international system, pointing to economic, cultural, political, and technological changes in the world, such as globalization and the emergence of regional and supernational groupings such as the European Union.

The term "state" is also used to describe subnational territorial divisions within a federal system, as in the case of the United States of America. See state (law) and state (non-sovereign).

In common speech, the terms country, nation and state are casually used as synonyms, but in a more strict usage they are distinguished:

  • country is the geographical area.
  • nation designates a people (however, national and international both confusingly refer as well to matters pertaining to what are strictly states, as in "national capital", "international law").
  • state refers to the government, and an entity in international law.

Currently, the entire land surface of the Earth is divided among the territories of the roughly two hundred states now existing, with the special case of Antarctica, a variety of disputed territories, and a number of areas where state power exists in theory, but not in practice (the most significant of these being Somalia).



The word "state" originates from the medieval state or throne upon which the head of state (usually a monarch) would sit. By process of metonymy, the word state became used to refer to both the head of state and the power entity he represented (though the former meaning has fallen out of use). A similar association of terms can today be seen in the practice of referring to government buildings as having authority, for example "The White House today released a press statement..."

Formation of the state

The birth of the state, in the broadest sense of the word, coincides with the rise of civilization. For most of the existence of the human species, people lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. That lifestyle began to change with the invention of agriculture around the 9th millennium BC. The practice of agriculture made it necessary for human beings to build permanent settlements and spend most of their lives in close proximity to the land they cultivated. Thus, control over land became an issue for the first time. To express that control, the idea of private property developed, and people started claiming exclusive rights over various area of land. Disagreements over such claims of ownership degenerated into violence and the first "wars".

In some parts of the world, notably Mesopotamia and the Nile valley, natural conditions favoured the concentration of land ownership in few hands. Eventually, a small group of people found themselves owning the land on which many other people worked for a living. This control over the land meant control over the people whose livelihoods depended on the land; thus, the first primitive states arose. These states were usually despotic and unstable, with the ruler(s) holding absolute power over their subjects until some other ruler(s) displaced them. Since there were no laws and no infrastructure, and since power was exercised arbitrarily, some political theorists and historians do not consider such early forms of despotic rule to have been states in the proper sense of the word; they are sometimes called proto-states.

One of the earliest known sets of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, has been dated to ca. 1700 BC. It was around this time that the concept of law - one of the foundations of the modern state - began to appear. But the rulers of the Ancient Near East had a long tradition of holding absolute power and claiming the status of god-kings (see hydraulic despotism). Thus, laws limiting the power of monarchs did not develop very far in that region.

The city-states of Ancient Greece were the first to establish states whose powers were clearly defined in laws (even if the laws themselves could usually be changed quite easily). Also, notably, the idea of democracy was born in ancient Athens (see Athenian democracy).

Many institutions of the modern state can trace their origins back to Ancient Rome, which inherited the political traditions of the Greeks and developed them further (particularly the rule of law, albeit in incomplete form). However, the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire - which, in turn, created the concept of universal empire: the idea that the entire world was (or should be) under the authority of one single legitimate state.

The fall of the Roman Empire and the Great Migrations changed the character of European politics. The barbarian kingdoms and chieftains that followed the Roman Empire were ephemeral and transitory and bore little resemblance to the modern state. Even the kingdom of Charlemagne was fleeting; without the tradition of primogeniture, it dissolved into three smaller kingdoms with the Treaty of Verdun in 843. These kingdoms were treated more as land holdings by the royalty that ruled them. Once again, the state became little more than an expression of the ruler's private ownership of a certain area of land.

The lack of a real successor to the Roman Empire in Western Europe created a power vacuum. The kingdoms of Western Europe were besieged by invaders on the frontiers - first, the Muslim invasions from the south, then a series of new migrations from the east and finally the Viking invasions from the north. The solution that evolved out of this affairs was decidedly opposed to the system of independent states and temporary alliances that dominate the modern international system. Religion, which had rarely been a factor in the power calculations of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, became the cornerstone of an extremely loose pan-European defensive bloc under the aegis of the Catholic Church. This system produced an extensive framework of institutions - feudalism - that regulated internal conflict and enabled Western Europe to confront exterior threats, even while no individual secular entity was truly independent in the sense of the modern state. This system asserted itself abroad in the form of the Crusades as the Middle Ages progressed. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII stated that the political powers of Christendom exercised their prerogatives “at the command and sufferance of the priest.” This limited the power of kings, who were obliged to pledge their ultimate allegance to the Pope.

The Holy Roman Empire, one of the strongest medieval authorities, emerged as a competitor to Papal power under Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who invaded Italy to press his claims to secular authority in the mid-12th century. The weakening of the papacy was a major theme of the Middle Ages; the Western Schism in the later 14th century, a dispute over papal succession, was exploited by secular authorities and contributed to their growing power. The emergence of large, stable land holdings by single dynasties - for instance, Spain, France, and Castile - enabled them to take a more active and independent role than their traditionally subsidiary role in the earlier middle ages.

This shift to more independent, more secular actors would become a major point of controversy in Early Modern Europe. The great dynasties of Europe dramatically consolidated power by the beginning of the 16th century; additionally, the external threats to Europe had considerably lessened. The Reformation was to have a powerful impact on the structure of European politics; the dispute was not only theological, but also threatened the very fabric of the ancient political institutions of feudalism. The bloody conflicts that followed, blending the religious and political, pitted those who asserted the authority of the Pope (and in Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor) against those who asserted the authority of secular authorities and their sovereign ability to make internal policy, particularly when that policy reflected religious affiliation, Roman Catholic or Protestant.

These conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years' War of the 17th century. In 1648, the powers of Europe signed the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the religious violence for purely political motives and the Church was stripped of temporal power - even though religion continued to play a political role as the foundation of the divine right of kings. The principle of "cuius regio, eius religio" established at Westphalia and previously in the Peace of Augsburg set a precedent of noninterference in other states' internal affairs that was key in the evolution of the modern state. In Germany, the office of the Holy Roman Emperor, the most prominent symbol of lingering institutions of feudalism, was emasculated as a secular authority in favor of the constituent elements of the Holy Roman Empire. The modern state was born.

The state continued to develop as monarchs brought nobles and free towns into line and amassed spectacular resources and prestige. The growing numbers of civil servants eventually became known as the bureaucracy after the elevation of the Republican ideal.

Nearly a century and a half after the Peace of Westphalia, the state became fully modern through the French Revolution. Claiming 'national will' as its justification, Napoleon and the Grande Armee of France swept over Europe. In response, conquered and neighboring principalities discarded their old systems and adopted the new model of the nation state. And the nation state has remained the dominant political entity all over the world ever since, even though the many ideologies of the 19th and 20th century have created numerous different ways of running the affairs of nation states, as well as numerous different forms of internal and external organization (see political system and economic system).

International point of view

The legal criteria for statehood are not obvious. A document that is often quoted on the matter is the Montevideo Convention from 1933, the first article of which states:

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Also, in article 3 it very clearly states that statehood is independent of recognition by other states. This is the declarative theory of statehood. While the Montevideo is a regional American convention and has no legal effect outside the Americas, some have nonetheless seen it as an accurate statement of customary international law.

On the other hand, article 3 of the convention is attacked by the advocates of the constitutive theory of statehood, where a state exists only insofar as it is recognized by other states. Which theory is correct is a controversial issue in international law. An example in practice was the collapse of central government in Somalia in the early 1990s: the Montevideo convention would imply that the state of Somalia no longer existed, and the subsequently declared republic of Somaliland (comprising part of the so-called "former" Somalia) may meet the criteria for statehood. However the self-declared republic has not achieved recognition by other states.

Article 1 of the convention is also attacked by those who claim that it fails to take into account the complicated situations of military occupation, territorial cession, and governments in exile. Richard W. Hartzell is a leading proponent of this view, and stresses that the four criteria of article 1 need to be expanded to nine. See The Montevideo Convention and Military Occupation.

The domestic point of view

Looked at from the point of view of an individual nation, the state is a centralized organization of the whole country. Those studying this dimension emphasize the relationship between the state and its people. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that in order to avoid a multi-sided civil war, in which life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", individuals must necessarily surrender many of their "natural rights" -- including that of attacking each other -- to the "Leviathan", a unified and centralized state. In this tradition, Max Weber and Norbert Elias defined the state as an organization of people that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a particular geographic area. Also in this tradition, the state differs from the "government": the latter refers to the group of people who make decisions for the state.

For Weber, this was an "ideal type", or model, or pure case of the state. Many institutions that have been called "states" do not live up to this definition. For example, a country such as Iraq (as of April 2005) would not be seen as truly having a state since the ability to use violence was shared between the U.S. occupiers and a variety of independent or insurgent militias (plus "terrorist" groups), while order and security were not maintained. The official Iraqi government had very limited military or police power of its own. The official Iraqi government also lacked sovereignty because of the role of U.S. domination. In fact, it might be said that while the Iraqis have a government, it is the U.S. military occupiers (and their allies, the U.K., etc.) that constitute the state. Even that state has so far not succeeded in monopolizing the legitimate use of force in Iraq and so represents a "failed state".

Other countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire), have a "failed state", where civil war continues to this day.

One of the most basic characteristics of a modern state is regulation of property rights, investment, trade and the commodity markets (in food, fuel, etc.) typically using its own currency. Although many states (by their own decision) increasingly cede these powers to trade bloc entities, e.g. North American Free Trade Agreement, European Union, it is always controversial to do so, and opens the question of whether these blocs are in fact simply larger states. The study of political economy, which evolved into the modern study of economics, deals with these specific questions in more detail.

However, although states are often influenced in their decisions and no longer hold an absolute jurisdiction over their internal affairs, they are nonetheless much stronger in relation to international organizations or to other states than lower (substate) political subdivisions normally are. But the trend at the moment is for the power of superstate levels of governance to increase, and there is no sign of this increase abating. Many (especially those who favour constitutional theories of international law) therefore reject as outdated the idea of sovereignty, and view the state as just the chief political subdivision of the planet.

Philosophies of the state

Different political philosophies have distinct opinions concerning the state as a domestic organization. In the modern era, these philosophies emerged with the rise of capitalism, which coincided with the (re)emergence of the state as a separate and centralized sector of society. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau pondered issues concerning the ideal and actual roles of the state. Recent philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick were more concerned with distributive justice and the morality of exercising political power.

There are four theories about the origin (and indirectly the justification) of the state. They are:

  • Supernatural or natural authority - In this view, the state is either ordained by a higher power (such as God for the "Divine right of kings") or arises naturally out of a presumed human need for order and authority.
  • Natural rights - According to this theory, human beings have certain rights that are "natural" (the implications of this word may vary), and establish states for the protection of those rights.
  • Social contract - This idea holds that the state is established by the people (i.e. through the consent of the governed) in order to provide for various collective needs that cannot be satisfied through individual efforts, such as national defense, public roads, education, "the general welfare", etc.
  • Conflict - Perhaps the simplest of the theories, it holds that the state did not arise out of any conscious decision, but merely as the result of violent conflict. Various groups of people fought each other for control over land or other resources, and the winning side imposed its domination on the losing side.

These four theories can accommodate the full spectrum of political views. In practice, most people (and most political philosophies) subscribe to a combination of two or more of the above theories - arguing, for example, that different states have different origins. The conflict theory, in particular, is often combined with one of the other three in order to separate the illegitimate states (those created through conflict and subjugation) from the legitimate ones.

There are at least five major philosophies of the state today, the last four of which correspond to specific political ideologies: contractarianism, liberalism, Marxism, conservatism, and anarchism.

Contractarianism, as the name implies, is based on the social contract theory. It is also the only major philosophy of the state that does not fall within any single political ideology - perhaps because several different ideologies have adopted it as their own. Contractarianism is the foundation of modern democracy, as well as most forms of socialism and some types of liberalism. In contractarian thinking, the state should express the public interest, the interests of the whole society, and reconcile it with the separate interests of individuals. The state provides public goods and other kinds of collective consumption, while preventing individuals from free-riding (taking advantage of collective consumption without paying) by forcing them to pay taxes.

Liberalism, in the classical sense, is based mainly on the natural rights theory. Historically, liberals have been less concerned with determining what the state should do and far more interested in stipulating what the state shouldn't do. The liberal philosophy of the state holds that the powers of any state are restricted by natural rights that exist independently of the human mind and overrule any social contract. However, there has been considerable debate among liberals as to what these natural rights actually are. Critics argue that they do not exist at all, since they are not evident from any observations of nature.

On the other hand, there are also liberals who subscribe to the contractarian theory. In most cases, they fall on the left wing of liberalism, being social liberals ("New Deal" liberals; see American liberalism) and arguing for a welfare state. They stand in opposition to adherents of the natural rights theory, who tend to be libertarians, falling on the right wing of liberalism and arguing for a "minimal" state.

The Marxist philosophy of the state is based on the conflict theory - specifically, on the idea of class conflict. In this view, the primary role of the state in practice is to enforce the existing system of property and personal rights, class domination, and exploitation. The state also mediates in all types of social conflicts, and supplies necessary social-infrastructural conditions for society as a whole. Under such systems as feudalism, the lords used their own military force to exploit their vassals. Under capitalism, on the other hand, the use of force is centralized in a specialized organization which protects the capitalists' class monopoly of ownership of the means of production, allowing the exploitation of those without such ownership. In modern Marxian theory, such class domination can coincide with other forms of domination (such as patriarchy and ethnic hierarchies).

In conservative thinking, which is based on the theory of (super)natural authority, the existing structure of traditions and hierarchies (of class, patriarchy, ethnic dominance, etc.) is seen as benefiting society overall. Thus, in a way, conservatives accept some ideas from both the Marxist and the liberal schools of thought, but view them in a different light: the state forces people to accept class and other kinds of domination, but this is seen as being for their own good. This perspective posits that, in general, current traditions only exist because they have been demonstrably successful in the past. Further, as with the liberals, the state is seen as always existing and/or "natural". Many conservatives, especially in recent decades, have come out in favor of the liberal theory of natural rights.

Finally, in anarchist thinking, the state is nothing but an unnecessary and exploitative segment of society. Totally rejecting the Hobbesian notion that only a state can prevent chaos, anarchists argue that if the state and its restrictions on individual freedom were abolished, people could figure out how to work together peacefully and individual creativity would be unleashed. Contrary to the Marxist perspective, the anarchists see the state as an unnecessary evil, rather than a tool to be used in the class struggle. Based on the conflict theory, anarchists argue that state power is completely illegitimate and should be abolished as soon as possible.

See also


  • Cassirer, Ernst (1955) The Myth of the State, Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books. ISBN 0313237905
  • Van Creveld, Martin (1999) The Rise and Decline of the State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052165629X
  • McNeill, William H. (1991) The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226561410

External links

Subnational entity
Banner | Borough | Canton | Circuit | City | Commune | County | Council | Department | District | Division | Dominion | Duchy | Governorate | Hamlet | Municipality | Neighbourhood | Parish | Prefecture | Province | Region | Republic | State | Territory | Town | Township | Village | Voivodship | Community
Autonomous: banner | city | community | county | prefecture | province | region | republic | ward
Civil: parish | township
Federal: capital | district | capital district | capital territory
Local: council
Metropolitan: borough | county
National: capital district | capital territory
Rural: council | district | municipality
Urban: district
edit See also: List of terms for subnational entities, List of subnational entities, Matrix of subnational entities
Personal tools