The state has been studied from many perspectives but no single theory can fully capture and explain its complexities. States and the interstate system provide a moving target because of their complex developmental logics and because there are continuing attempts to transform them. Moreover, despite tendencies to reify the state and treat it as standing outside and above society, there can be no adequate theory of the state without a wider theory of society. For the state and political system are parts of a broader ensemble of social relations and neither state projects nor state power can be adequately understood outside their embedding in this ensemble.
1 What is the State?
This innocuous-looking question challenges anyone trying to analyze states. Some theorists deny the state’s very existence (see below) but most still accept that states are real and provide a valid research focus. Beyond this consensus, however, lies conceptual chaos. Key questions include: Is the state best defined by its legal form, coercive capacities, institutional composition and boundaries, internal operations and modes of calculation, declared aims, functions for the broader society, or sovereign place in the international system? Is it a thing, a subject, a social relation, or a construct that helps to orient political action? Is stateness a variable and, if so, what are its central dimensions? What is the relationship between the state and law, the state and politics, the state and civil society, the public and the private, state power and micropower relations? Is the state best studied in isolation; only as part of the political system; or, indeed, in terms of a more general social theory? Do states have institutional, decisional, or operational autonomy and, if so, what are its sources and limits?
Everyday language sometimes depicts the state as a subject—the state does, or must do, this or that; and sometimes as a thing—this economic class, social stratum, political party, or official caste uses the state to pursue its projects or interests. But how could the state act as if it were a unified subject and what could constitute its unity as a ‘‘thing?’’ Coherent answers are hard because the state’s referents vary so much. It changes shape and appearance with the activities it undertakes, the scales on which it operates, the political forces acting towards it, the circumstances in which it and they act, and so on. When pressed, a common response is to list the institutions that comprise the state, usually with a core set of institutions with increasingly vague outer boundaries. From the political executive, legislature, judiciary, army, police, and public administration, the list may extend to education, trade unions, mass media, religion, and even the family. Such lists typically fail to specify what lends these institutions the quality of statehood. This is hard because, as Max Weber (1948) famously noted, there is no activity that states always perform and none that they have never performed. Moreover, what if, as some theorists argue, the state is inherently prone to fail? Are the typical forms of state failure properly part of its core definition or merely contingent, variable, and eliminable secondary features? Finally, who are the state’s agents? Do they include union leaders involved in policing incomes policies, for example, or media owners who circulate propaganda on the state’s behalf? An obvious escape route is to define the state in terms of means rather than ends.
This approach informs Weber’s celebrated definition of the modern state as the ‘‘human community that successfully claims legitimate monopoly over the means of coercion in a given territorial area’’ as well as definitions that highlight its formal sovereignty...