Within a federal system, the term state also refers to political units, not completely sovereign themselves; however, these systems are subject to the authority of a constitution defining a federal union which is partially or co-sovereign with them.
In casual usage, the terms "country," "nation," and "state" are often used as if they were synonymous; but in a more strict usage they can be distinguished:
In other languages meaning can be different. Polish 'państwo' can be derived from the word 'pan'=lord, the one who has power ('Lord Jesus'='Pan Jezus'). 'Państwo' therefore denotes a state, when someone is governing (is in charge). The word 'państwo' also suggest some kind of social organisation, as its second meaning in Polish relates to "family" (państwo Smith = the Smiths).
It has also been claimed that the word "state" originates from the medieval state or regal chair 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). Two quotations which reference these different meanings, both commonly, though probably apocryphally, attributed to King Louis XIV of France, are "L'État, c'est moi" ("I am the State") and "Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours." ("I am going away, but the State will always remain"). 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...".
Empirically (or de facto), an entity is a state if, as in Max Weber's influential definition, it is that organization that has a 'monopoly on legitimate violence' over a specific territory. Such an entity imposes its own legal order over a territory, even if it is not legally recognized as a state by other states (e.g., the Somali region of Somaliland).
Juridically (or de jure), an entity is a state in international law if it is recognized as such by other states, even if it does not actually have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a territory. Only an entity juridically recognized as a state can enter into many kinds of international agreements and be represented in a variety of legal forums, such as the United Nations.
Some scholars have suggested that the term "state" is too imprecise and loaded to be used productively in sociology and political science, and ought to be replaced by the more comprehensive term "political system." The "political system" refers to the ensemble of all social structures that function to produce collectively binding decisions in a society. In modern times, these would include the political regime, political parties, and various sorts of organizations. The term "political system" thus denotes a broader concept than the state.
Some political philosophers believe the origins of the state lie ultimately in the tribal culture which developed with human sentience, the template for which was the alleged primal "alpha-male" microsocieties of our earlier ancestors, which were based on the coercion of the weak by the strong. However anthropologists point out that extant band- and tribe-level societies are notable for their lack of centralized authority, and that highly stratified societies--i.e., states--constitute a relatively recent break with the course of human history.
Perhaps the most important political innovations of classical antiquity came from the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic. The Greek city-states before the 4th century granted citizenship rights to their free population, and in Athens these rights were combined with a directly democratic form of government that was to have a long afterlife in political thought and history.
In contrast, Rome developed from a monarchy into a republic, governed by a senate dominated by the Roman aristocracy. The Roman political system contributed to the development of law, constitutionalism and to the distinction between the private and the public spheres.
The state-system of feudal Europe was an unstable configuration of suzerains and anointed kings. A monarch, formally at the head of a hierarchy of sovereigns, was not an absolute power who could rule at will; instead, relations between lords and monarchs were mediated by varying degrees of mutual dependence, which was ensured by the absence of a centralized system of taxation. This reality ensured that each ruler needed to obtain the 'consent' of each estate in the realm. This was not quite a 'state' in the Weberian sense of the term, since the king did not monopolize either the power of lawmaking (which was shared with the church) or the means of violence (which were shared with the nobles).
The formalization of the struggles over taxation between the monarch and other elements of society (especially the nobility and the cities) gave rise to what is now called the Standestaat, or the state of Estates, characterized by parliaments in which key social groups negotiated with the king about legal and economic matters. These estates of the realm sometimes evolved in the direction of fully-fledged parliaments, but sometimes lost out in their struggles with the monarch, leading to greater centralization of lawmaking and coercive (chiefly military) power in his hands. Beginning in the 15th century, this centralizing process gave rise to the absolutist state.
The rise of the "modern state" as a public power constituting the supreme political authority within a defined territory is associated with western Europe's gradual institutional development beginning in earnest in the late 15th century, culminating in the rise of absolutism and capitalism.
As Europe's dynastic states — England under the Tudors, Spain under the Habsburgs, and France under the Bourbons — embarked on a variety of programs designed to increase centralized political and economic control, they increasingly exhibited many of the institutional features that characterize the "modern state." This centralization of power involved the delineation of political boundaries, as European monarchs gradually defeated or co-opted other sources of power, such as the Church and lesser nobility. In place of the fragmented system of feudal rule, with its often indistinct territorial claims, large, unitary states with extensive control over definite territories emerged. This process gave rise to the highly centralized and increasingly bureaucratic forms of absolute monarchical rule of the 17th and 18th centuries, when the principal features of the contemporary state system took form, including the introduction of a standing army, a central taxation system, diplomatic relations with permanent embassies, and the development of state economic policy—mercantilism.
Cultural and national homogenization figured prominently in the rise of the modern state system. Since the absolutist period, states have largely been organized on a national basis. The concept of a national state, however, is not synonymous with nation-state. Even in the most ethnically homogeneous societies there is not always a complete correspondence between state and nation, hence the active role often taken by the state to promote nationalism through emphasis on shared symbols and national identity.
It is in this period that the term "the state" is first introduced into political discourse in more or less its current meaning. Although Niccolò Machiavelli is often credited with first using the term to refer to a territorial sovereign government in the modern sense in The Prince, published in 1532, it is not until the time of the British thinkers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and the French thinker Jean Bodin that the concept in its current meaning is fully developed.
Today, most Western states more or less fit the influential definition of the state in Max Weber's Politics as a Vocation. According to Weber, the modern state monopolizes the means of legitimate physical violence over a well-defined territory. Moreover, the legitimacy of this monopoly itself is of a very special kind, "rational-legal" legitimacy, based on impersonal rules that constrain the power of state elites.
However, in some other parts of the world states do not fit Weber's definition as well. They may not have a complete monopoly over the means of legitimate physical violence over a definite territory, or their legitimacy may not be adequately described as rational-legal. But they are still recognizably distinct from feudal and absolutist states in the extent of their bureaucratization and their reliance on nationalism as a principle of legitimation.
Since Weber, an extensive literature on the processes by which the "modern state" emerged from the feudal state has been generated. Marxist scholars, for example, assert that the formation of modern states can be explained primarily in terms of the interests and struggles of social classes.
Scholars working in the broad Weberian tradition, by contrast, have often emphasized the institution-building effects of war. For example, Charles Tilly has argued that the revenue-gathering imperatives forced on nascent states by geopolitical competition and constant warfare were mostly responsible for the development of the centralized, territorial bureaucracies that characterize modern states in Europe. States that were able to develop centralized tax-gathering bureaucracies and to field mass armies survived into the modern era; states that were not able to do so did not.
Some Marxist theorists, such as Antonio Gramsci, have questioned the distinction between the state and civil society altogether, arguing that the former is integrated into many parts of the latter. Others, such as Louis Althusser, maintain that civil organizations such as churches, schools, and even trade unions are part of an 'ideological state apparatus.' In this sense, the state can fund a number of groups within society that, while autonomous in principle, are dependent on state support.
Given the role that many social groups have in the development of public policy and the extensive connections between state bureaucracies and other institutions, it has become increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries of the state. Privatization, nationalization, and the creation of new regulatory bodies also change the boundaries of the state in relation to society. Often the nature of quasi-autonomous organizations is unclear, generating debate among political scientists on whether they are part of the state or civil society. Some political scientists thus prefer to speak of policy networks and decentralized governance in modern societies rather than of state bureaucracies and direct state control over policy. Alfred Stepan also introduced the idea of `political society' those organisations that move periodically between the state and non-state sectors (such as Political Parties). Whaites has argued that in developing countries there are dangers inherent in promoting strong civil society where states are weak, risks that should be considered and mitigated by those funding civil society or advocating its role as an alternative source of service provision.
These states form what International relations theorists call a system, where each state takes into account the behavior of other states when making their own calculations. From this point of view, states embedded in an international system face internal and external security and legitimation dilemmas. Recently the notion of an "international community" has been developed to refer to a group of states who have established rule, procedures, and institutions for the conduct of their relations. In this way the foundation has been laid for international law, diplomacy, formal regimes, and organizations.
The legal criteria for statehood are not obvious. Often, the laws are surpassed by political circumstances. However, one of the documents often quoted on the matter is the Montevideo Convention from 1933, the first article of which states:
Each of these theories has been employed to gain understanding on the state, while recognizing its complexity. Several issues underlie this complexity. First, the boundaries of the state sector are not clearly defined, while they change constantly. Second, the state is not only the site of conflict between different organizations, but also internal conflict and conflict within organizations. Some scholars speak of the 'state's interest,' but there are often various interests within different parts of the state that are neither solely state-centered nor solely society-centered, but develop between different groups in civil society and different state actors.
Within this tradition, Robert Dahl sees the state as either (1) a neutral arena for settling disputes among contending interests or (2) a collection of agencies which themselves act as simply another set of interest groups. With power diffused across society among many competing groups, state policy is a product of recurrent bargaining. Although pluralism recognizes the existence of inequality, it asserts that all groups have an opportunity to pressure the state. The pluralist approach suggests that the modern democratic state's actions are the result of pressures applied by a variety of organized interests. Dahl called this kind of state a polyarchy.
In some ways, the development of the pluralist school is a response to the "power elite" theory presented in 1956 by the sociologist C. Wright Mills concerning the U.S. and furthered by research by G. William Domhoff, among others. In that theory, the most powerful elements of the political, military, and economic parts of U.S. society are united at the top of the political system, acting to serve their common interests. The "masses" were left out of the political process. In context, it might said that Mills saw the U.S. elite as in part being very similar to that of the Soviet Union, then the major geopolitical rival of the U.S. One response was the sociologist Arnold M. Rose's publication of The Power Structure: Political Process in American Society in 1967. He argued that the distribution of power in the U.S. was more diffuse and pluralistic in nature.
The importance of democratic elections of political leaders in the U.S. (and not the Soviet Union) provides evidence in favor of the pluralist perspective for that country. We might reconcile power elite theory with pluralism in terms of Joseph Schumpeter's theory of democracy. To him, "democracy" involved the (non-elite) masses choosing which elite would have the power.
The absence of democratic elections do not rule out pluralism, however. The old Soviet Union is sometimes described as being ruled by an elite, which ran society via a bureaucracy which united the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the military, and Gosplan, the economic planning apparatus. However, bureaucratic rule from above is never perfect. This meant that, so to some extent, Soviet policies reflected a pluralistic competition of interest groups within the Party, the military, and Gosplan, including factory managers.
For Marxist theorists, the role of modern states is determined or related to their role in capitalist societies. They would agree with Weber on the crucial role of coercion in defining the state. (In fact, Weber himself starts his analysis with a quotation from Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik leader.) But Marxists reject the mainstream liberal view that the state is an institution established in the collective interest of society as a whole (perhaps by a social contract) to reconcile competing interests in the name of the common good. Contrary to the pluralist vision, the state is not a mere "neutral arena for settling disputes among contending interests" because it leans heavily to support one interest group (the capitalists) alone. Nor does the state usually act as merely a "collection of agencies which themselves act as simply another set of interest groups," again because of the state's systematic bias toward serving capitalist interests.
In contrast to liberal or pluralist views, the American economist Paul Sweezy and other Marxian thinkers have pointed out that the main job of the state is to protect capitalist property rights in the means of production. At first, this seems hardly controversial. After all, many economics and politics textbooks refer to the state's crucial role in defending property rights and in enforcing contracts. But the capitalists own a share of the means of production that is far out of proportion to the capitalists' role in the total population. More importantly, in Marxian theory, ownership of the means of production gives that minority social power over those who do not own the means of production (the workers). Because of that power, i.e., the power to exploit and dominate the working class, the state's defense of them is nothing but the use of coercion to defend capitalism as a class society. Instead of serving the interests of society as a whole, in this view the state serves those of a small minority of the population.
Among Marxists, as with other topics, there are many debates about the nature and role of the capitalist state. One division is between the "instrumentalists" and the "structuralists."
On the first, some contemporary Marxists apply a literal interpretation of the comment by Marx and Frederich Engels in The Communist Manifesto that "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." In this tradition, Ralph Miliband argued that the ruling class uses the state as its instrument (tool) to dominate society in a straightforward way. For Miliband, the state is dominated by an elite that comes from the same background as the capitalist class and therefore shares many of the same goals. State officials therefore share the same interests as owners of capital and are linked to them through a wide array of interpersonal and political ties. In many ways, this theory is similar to the "power elite" theory of C. Wright Mills.
Miliband's research is specific to the United Kingdom, where the class system has traditionally been integrated strongly into the educational system (Eton, Oxbridge, etc.) and social networks. In the United States, the educational system and social networks are more heterogeneous and seem less class-dominated to many. But a social connection between state managers and the capitalist class can be seen in the dependence of the major politicians and their parties on campaign contributions from the rich, on approval from the capitalist-owned media, on advice from corporate-endowed "think tanks," and the like.
In the second view, other Marxist theorists argue that the exact names, biographies, and social roles of those who control the state are irrelevant. Instead, they emphasize the structural role of the state's activities. Heavily influenced by the French philosopher Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek neo-Marxist theorist argued that capitalist states do not always act on behalf of the ruling class, and when they do, it is not necessarily the case because state officials consciously strive to do so, but because the structural position of the state is configured in such a way to ensure that the interests of capital are always dominant.
Poulantzas' main contribution to the Marxian literature on the state was the concept of relative autonomy of the state: state policies do not correspond exactly to the collective or long-term interests of the capitalist class, but help maintain and preserve capitalism over the long haul. The "power elite," if one exists, may act in ways that go against the wishes of capitalists. While Poulantzas' work on 'state autonomy' has served to sharpen and specify a great deal of Marxist literature on the state, his own framework came under criticism for its "structural functionalism."
But this kind of criticism can be answered by considering what happens if state managers do not work to favor the operations of capitalism as a class society. They find that the economy are punished by a capital strike or capital flight, encouraging higher unemployment, a decline in tax receipts, and international financial problems. The decline in tax revenues makes it more necessary to borrow from the bourgeoisie. Because the latter will charge high interest rates (especially to a government seen as hostile), the state's financial problems deepen. Such events might be seen in Chile in 1973, under Salvador Allende's Unidad Popular government. Added to the relatively "automatic" workings of the economy (under the spur of profit-seeking businesses) are the ways in which an anti-capitalist government provokes anti-government conspiracies, including those by the Central Intelligence Agency and local political forces, as actually happened in 1973.
Unless they are ready to actually mobilize the working population to revolutionize society and move beyond capitalism, "sober" state managers will pull back from anti-capitalist policies. In any event, they would likely never go so far as to "rock the boat" because of their acceptance of the dominant ideology encouraged by the prevailing educational system.
Despite the debates among Marxist theorists of the state, there are also many agreements. It is possible that both "instrumental" and "structural" forces encourage political unity of the state managers with the capitalist class. That is, both the personal influence of capitalists and the societal constraints on state activity play a role.
Of course, no matter how strong this link, the Marx-Engels dictum that "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" does not say that the executive will always do a good job in such management. (As Poulantzas pointed out, the state maintains some autonomy.) First, there is the problem of reconciling the particular interests of individual capitalist organizations with each other. For example, different parts of the media may disagree on the nature of needed government regulations. Further, it is often unclear what the long-run class interests of capitalists are, beyond the simple defense of capitalist property rights. It may be impossible to discover class interests until after the fact, i.e., after a policy has been implemented. Third, state managers may use their administrative power to serve their own interests and even to facilitate their entrance into the capitalist class.
Finally, pressure from working-class organizations (labor unions, social-democratic parties, etc.) or other non-capitalist forces (environmentalists, etc.) may push the state from toeing the capitalist "line" exactly. In the end, these problems imply that the state will always have some autonomy from obeying the exact wishes of the capitalist class.
In this view, the Marxian theory of the state does not really contradict the pluralist vision of the state as an arena for the contention of many interest groups, including those based in the state itself. Rather, the Marxian proposition is that this multi-sided competition and its results are strongly biased in the direction of reproducing the capitalist system over time.
It should be emphasized that all of the Marxist theories of the state discussed above refer only to the capitalist state in normal times (without civil war and the like). During a period of economic and social crisis, the absolute need to maintain order may raise the power of the military -- and military goals -- in governmental affairs, sometimes even leading to the violation of capitalist property rights.
In a non-capitalist system such as feudalism, Marxian historians have said that the state did not really exist in the sense that it does today (using Weber's definition). That is, the central state did not monopolize force in a specific geographic area. The feudal king typically had to depend on the military power of his "lieges." This meant that the country was more of an alliance than a unified whole. Further, the difference between the state and civil society was weak: the feudal lords were not simply involved in "economic" activity (production, sale, etc.) but also "political" activity: they used force against their serfs (to extract rents), while acting as judge, jury, and police.
Getting further beyond capitalism, Marxist theory says that since the state is central to protecting class inequality, it will "wither away" once class inequality of power is abolished. In practice, no self-styled Marxist leader or government has ever made attempts to move toward a society without a state. Of course, that is to be expected. After all, no society has ever completely abolished classes. In addition, no self-described "socialist" country has been able to do without a military defense against capitalist invasion or destabilization. Third, in Marxian theory, impetus for the abolition of the state would not come from the leaders or the government themselves as much as from the working people that they are supposed to represent.
Thus, they oppose the state as a matter of principle and reject the Marxian view that it may be needed temporarily as part of a transition to socialism or communism. They propose different strategies for the elimination of the state. There is a dichotomy of views regarding its replacement. Anarcho-capitalists envision a free market guided by the invisible hand offering critical or valuable functions traditionally provided by to replace the state; other anarchists (such as Bakunin and Kropotkin in the 19th century) tend to put less emphasis on markets, arguing for a form of socialism without the state. Such socialism would require worker self-management of the means of production and the federation of worker organizations in communes which will then federate into larger units.
Anarchists consider the state to be the institutionalization of domination and privilege. According to key theorists, the state emerged to ratify and deepen the dominance of the victors of history. Unlike Marxists, anarchists believe that the state, while reflecting social interests, is not a mere executive committee of the ruling class. In itself, without class rule, it is a position of power over the whole society that can dominate and exploit society. Naturally enough, many fractions of the ruling classes and even the oppressed classes strive to control the state, forming different and ever-changing alliances. They also reject the need for a state to serve the collective needs of the people. Hence, they reject not only the current state, but the Marxian idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat). Instead, they see the state as an inherently oppressive force which takes away the ability of people to make decisions about the things that affect their lives.
In particular, the "new institutionalism," an approach to politics that holds that behavior is fundamentally molded by the institutions in which it is embedded, asserts that the state is not an 'instrument' or an 'arena' and does not 'function' in the interests of a single class. Scholars working within this approach stress the importance of interposing civil society between the economy and the state to explain variation in state forms.
"New institutionalist" writings on the state, such as the works of Theda Skocpol, suggest that state actors are to an important degree autonomous. In other words, state personnel have interests of their own, which they can and do pursue independently (at times in conflict with) actors in society. Since the state controls the means of coercion, and given the dependence of many groups in civil society on the state for achieving any goals they may espouse, state personnel can to some extent impose their own preferences on civil society.
'New institutionalist' writers, claiming allegiance to Weber, often utilize the distinction between 'strong states' and 'weak states,' claiming that the degree of 'relative autonomy' of the state from pressures in society determines the power of the state—a position that has found favor in the field of international political economy.
These and other early thinkers introduced two important concepts in order to justify sovereign power: the idea of a state of nature and the idea of a social contract. The first concept describes an imagined situation in which the state - understood as a centralized, coercive power - does not exist, and human beings have all their natural rights and powers; the second describes the conditions under which a voluntary agreement could take human beings out of the state of nature and into a state of civil society. Depending on what they understood human nature to be and the natural rights they thought human beings had in that state, various writers were able to justify more or less extensive forms of the state as a remedy for the problems of the state of nature. Thus, for example, Hobbes, who described the state of nature as a "war of every man, against every man, argued that sovereign power should be almost absolute since almost all sovereign power would be better than such a war, whereas John Locke, who understood the state of nature in more positive terms, thought that state power should be strictly limited. Both of them nevertheless understood the powers of the state to be limited by what rational individuals would agree to in a hypothetical or actual social contract.
The idea of the social contract lent itself to more democratic interpretations than Hobbes or Locke would have wanted. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, argued that the only valid social contract would be one were individuals would be subject to laws that only themselves had made and assented to, as in a small direct democracy. Today the tradition of social contract reasoning is alive in the work of John Rawls and his intellectual heirs, though in a very abstract form. Rawls argued that rational individuals would only agree to social institutions specifying a set of inviolable basic liberties and a certain amount of redistribution to alleviate inequalities for the benefit of the worst off. Lockean state of nature reasoning, by contrast, is more common in the libertarian tradition of political thought represented by the work of Robert Nozick. Nozick argued that given the natural rights that human beings would have in a state of nature, the only state that could be justified would be a minimal state whose sole functions would be to provide protection and enforce agreements.
Some contemporary thinkers, such as Michel Foucault, have argued that political theory needs to get away from the notion of the state: "We need to cut off the king's head. In political theory that has still to be done. By this he meant that power in the modern world is much more decentralized and uses different instruments than power in the early modern era, so that the notion of a sovereign, centralized state is increasingly out of date.
Others have advocated the consideration of the state within the context of complex underlying elite relationships, themselves shaped by factors that include outside pressures. This work has been prominent in the thinking of State-building theorists such as Alan Whaites, who focuses on dynamics shaping the nature and capability of states. Whaites' model of state-building offers a conceptualization of why some states work well and others become characterized by patronage, corruption and conflict.