Friday, March 28, 2008

How might we define the modern state - Free Essay -

How might we define the modern state

The inference that we might be able to define what constitutes a modern state presupposes that it already existed prior to it becoming modern. This is not in doubt. What are task then entails is to illuminate the transition from pre-modern to a modern state, and to distinguish its characteristic features. We shall undertake this task by considering historical changes in how the state legitimises its rule, and the relationship between this rule and subjection. What is more, whilst exploring the relationship between rule and subjection we will pay specific attention to the concept of consent, an idea that was first forwarded by the British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Herein it will be possible to make links to the analysis of political and social theorists such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Emile Durkheim whose concepts of democracy and social organisation have played a major role in how we today define modern states.

To be able to define the state as modern it will be necessary for us to focus our analysis at a time in history when the state, as a political concept, was just beginning to formulate. That is, we will contemplate the structure of the state in the period known as Absolutism, and in particular when this period was drawing to an end between the sixteenth and seventeenth century. ...ruled from his court, not through it.' (Poggi, 1978:70) This was enabled by the In England, Stuart king's attempts to rule and raise taxes without Parliament precipitated the English Revolution of the 1640s.' (Hall, 1990:7) We will now develop the theme of the English civil war, 1642-48, thus making links to Thomas Hobbes political theories of state legitimacy.

The opposing views of Charles I and the parliamentarians, and the pursuing civil war was the accumulation of years of religious and political divide. In 1640, at the height of this divide, and after ruling alone for eleven years Charles I reformed parliament in order to secure funding the Bishop's War in Scotland. This was come to be known as the Short Parliament because it was promptly dissolved again after only three weeks. Still, Charles I did secure the funds he needed, although he was to be unsuccessful in Scotland. Later that year Parliament again was recalled this time being known as the Long Parliament, in contrast to the previous occasion. Nonetheless, the King was now tied to Parliament for future funding, thus giving those who opposed him, such as John Pym, the opportunity to erode his The reforms carried out by the Long Parliament eventually formed the basis of the Restoration Settlement and were important steps towards the constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy of modern Britain.' (Plant, 2004) This is something we shall expand upon further in due course.

It was amid this turmoil that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) formulised and set out his ideas of an alternative theory for legitimizing the state, other than by divine right, or by theories based on natural law. ...every man is enemy to every man.' What is more, Hobbes held, great Leviathan' or The attaining to the Soveraigne Power, is by two ways. One, by Natural force...The other, is when man agree amongst themselves, to submit to some Man or Assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others. . (Hobbes, 1996:121)

In today's language Hobbes Leviathan state may seem to us to be dictatorship whereby its citizens are obliged to conform to the state wishes, and that it is the state that only has rights. But we must understand that his concept was a thought experiment, an exercise in which we should understand the states legitimacy in terms of peoples consent in return for peace and stability. It also offered an alternative, secular, form of state other one based on religious principals or mans natural rights. holding that no such transfer of sovereignty need or should take place: sovereignty not only originates in the people -- it ought to stay there.' (Cranston, 1968:30) This can be seen to be the opposite of Hobbes social contract, based on consent and obligation. Moreover, it illuminates contrasting views of sovereign power either as absolute sovereign, or that of the sovereign people. This latter conception was to influence totalitarian models of democracy throughout twentieth century Europe, notably Communism, and Fascism. Nevertheless, we now turn our focus to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wherein it will be possible to contrast the above views of state legitimacy, and sovereignty and establish the links to the definition of the modern state.

The state had a responsibility for citizens, for their life and security, for their (national) commercial and industrial enterprises and for the prosperity of the country.' (Torstendahl, 1992:26) With this in mind we shall now consider three of five aspects that are seen to be characteristic of the modern state, bureaucracy, sovereignty, and territory.

First, during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century Britain witnessed reforms in the civil services. As housing, education and health services improved and grew so too did state bureaucracy. This was necessary for the state as it had to set in place areas of administration that was capable of dealing with public affairs, yet maintaining an impersonal approach. What typically denotes modern bureaucracy is its hierarchical nature, fixed procedures, and technical ability. Thus those who worked within these administrations were come to be known as techno-bureaucrats. Second, in terms of sovereignty, to enforce such legislation was not only the responsibility of the state but was also the states autonomous prerogative. We have chosen legislation on civil service reforms as an example of how sovereignty may be defined on a national level, but when it comes to issues that may be of an international nature then the concept of sovereign power is ambiguous. This is partly to do with the recognition of what constitutes sovereign power, (divine right or the people, for example,) but also there may be disputes over what boundaries a sovereign power may exist within. We can see then that our third characteristic, territory, is crucial to the concept of sovereignty, as it demarcates the boundaries in which its powers lie, yet these may not always be universally accepted. This can be demonstrated by the troubles between Israel and Palestine.

We have seen how the modern state is defined by its ability to set legislation autonomously, within its own territory, and via a bureaucratic system. However, at the core of this definition is a political system that allows the functioning of the above processes. It is to this system now that we will turn our attention as we consider centralisation and constitutionalism as characteristics of the modern state. Moreover, by utilising Emile Durkheim's theories of democracy by way of contrast, we shall endeavour to show how a modern state such as Britain legitimizes its political system.

...comes from the collective mass of society and is diffused throughout that mass -- it is made up of those sentiments, ideals, beliefs that society had worked out collectively...' (Durkheim, 1992:79) According to Durkheim, if the mass of diffused thought was the unconsciousness of society, then the state/ government was the consciousness. It is to these ends that the state is seen as a channel for all of this disparate thought -- moreover, the process by which this is done is by deliberation between state and society, or unwritten' constitution states the supremacy of parliament, and the rule of law, and this is also seen as a characteristic of a modern state.

In sum, our task has been to show how we might define the state as modern. In order to do this we considered the transition from a disjointed Feudal rule to a more unified Absolutist power, a period when the state first became a political concept. The state, as a political concept needs legitimate means of power to be able to function. We illustrated this concept by contrasting both ideas of social contracts as posited by Hobbes and Rousseau, and exploring differing conceptualisations of sovereign rule. Although we can see early characteristics such as unified rule, and sovereign power in earlier states, it not until we reach the nineteenth century that we can start to define them as characteristics of the modern state. As capitalism becomes the dominant mode of production and society is organised around its processes, the state is forced to recognise its responsibility. Herein we define bureaucracy, sovereignty, territory, centralisation, and constitutionalism as characteristics of the modern state. That is, we suggested that Britain, as a modern state, is defined by its political power to set legislation autonomously, within its own territory, and via a bureaucratic system. Moreover, the political system is legitimized through a democratic process based on electoral representation, is centralised, and is seen to be part of a constitution.


Birch, A,H. 1993. The Concepts and Theories of Modern Democracy. London: Routledge.

Cranston, M. 1968. Introduction to J.J. Rousseau's The Social contract. Harmondsworth -- Penguin.

Durkheim, E. 1992. Professional Ethics and Civic Morals. Trans. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. London: Routledge.

Hall, S. 1990. The Pluralistic State'. The Philosophical review 28 (6): 562-575.

Magee,B. 2001. The Story of Philosophy. London: Dora Kindersley.

The Idea of the Modern State. Buckingham: Open University Press. 1-28.

Held, D. 1989. Political Theory and the Modern State. Polity Press: Cambridge.

Hobbes, T. 1996. Leviathan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laski, H,J. 1919. The long Parliament', British Civil Wars, Commonwealth and protectorate 1638-60. Online. Available from: [accessed 1/11/04].

Poggi, G. 1978. The development of the Modern State. London: Hutchinson.

Torstendahl, R. 1992. State Theory and State History. London: Sage.

by artd3co at blueyonder dot co dot uk



blogger templates 3 columns | Make Money Online