The aim of this essay is to examine the three major theories of the state before concluding which of them is, in my opinion, most useful when examining the relationship between the state and civil society in the UK. I will first attempt to briefly outline the three theories. Following this I will offer some definitions and distinctions as well as highlighting some of the contentious and problematic issues that arise whenever one undertakes examination of this type of subject.
I will vary from the ordering of the question here to first outline the Marxist theory. I do so simply because many prominent academics (1) argue that the pluralist and elitist schools of thought arose, if not directly in response to, then certainly following, the Marxist theory.
The theory is outlined most clearly in The Communist Manifesto (2). The argument is that clear social divisions along class lines lead to a ‘ruling class’ controlling the ‘means of production’. Marx argues that this inevitably leads to an abuse of the proletariat in order to promote the interests of the bourgeoisie.
The elitist theory could be said to follow on from the Marxist in that it postulates a privileged minority with disproportionate control. However, the control in this case is over the mechanisms of the state. Therefore, one might argue that these elite only possess influence rather than control over the means of production. This is perhaps the reason proponents of this theory are more content for the continuation of its existence when compared with their Marxist counterparts.
The final theory I will examine is the pluralist theory, which hypothesises that there are many sources of power. Beyond that premise there is serious debate amongst pluralists as to whether these many groups share power or struggle for complete control of the state.
It must also be made clear that there are almost infinite variations and combinations of these theories as well as a multiplicity of alternatives that cannot be tackled in this essay. It is important that we view these theories as part of a larger and more complete framework. For example, Held (1996) argues that the Communist Manifesto offers one interpretation whilst The 18th Brumaire offers two alternatives (with a study of the two Napoleons and their reigns).
Compare and Contrast
All three of the theories are concerned with the distribution of power. Marx’s bourgeoisie control the means of production, and by extension have economic power. In contrast to this, both the elitist and pluralist theories focus much more on socio-political power. Although the argument may well be made that socio-political power would allow, if not control, then at least a degree of influence over the economic landscape. Taken further, one might conclude that there is some obvious correlation between the Marxist and elitist theories of the state with both positing a minority of the population with the majority of the power. On the other hand, pluralists believe that there are a number of groups and that they all struggle for power. Dahl calls this “government by minorities” (3), and argues within civil society there are many different sources of power all able to influence the state. These groups range from political parties and interest groups acting through formal channels to new social movements who often adopt a more informal approach.
This multiplicity of socio-political actors espoused by the pluralist theory gives rise to the debate over how these different groups interact with each other and the state. Some argue that the distribution of power amongst these different agents is unequal, with groups such as business interests more able to shape policy, thereby damaging the democracy. Others maintain that all groups have the ability to...