Examine and assess the idea that the authority of the state to govern is always contested This essay will explore the assertion above by considering democratic governing, ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, and international relations including the UN. It will conclude that the state’s authority is always and necessarily contested, and its reaction to such challenges is partially related its system of government. Modern-day politics commonly follows a democratic system, and this in itself can lead to further contestation of the state. The ‘state’ refers to the politicians that comprise the leadership, along with the ‘machinery of government’ that allow laws and policies to be enforced. These include those agencies with coercive powers, such as the police and military, the judiciary system, and a tax collection administration, responsible for bringing in the revenue necessary to fund these agencies. It also comprises organisations concerned with improvement, such as education and healthcare. Weber, quoted in Bromley (2009) defined the state as ‘a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.’ This concept of legitimate authority is important when considering how far the state is contested – it could be argued that the more legitimacy a state can lay claim too, the less likely it is contested. In order for a government to lay claim to the right to govern, they need to establish political authority. It may be established through winning an election or, in a non-democratic state, through coercion or the threat of coercion. Sternberger, quoted in Sills (1968) claimed that, "Legitimacy is....both a consciousness on the government's part that it has a right to govern, with some recognition by the governed of that right”. So in order for the state to claim legitimacy, and to retain political power, it needs (at least a minimal level) of support from its citizens. It is important to consider the distinction between legitimate authority, and coercion. A government with legitimate authority requires consent from those being governed, whereas power through coercion does not. The concept of political legitimacy is closely associated with democracy. As Saward (‘Citizens of the state,’ 2009, track 1) suggests, ‘democracy is crucial to a sense of legitimacy or acceptability of public order.’ The definition of democracy has been widely contested, but representative government is a key founding principle. It has been argued that democratic principles reinforce the legitimacy of the state; however it may also be suggested that a democratic system by nature inherently encourages an active process of contestation. Bromley and Clarke (2009) refer to a democratic government’s accountability when they comment that ‘if (authority) is misused, or if it oversteps its agreed boundary, it is called into question and may need to re-establish itself.’ This observation describes how the state is held accountable for its actions, and a democratic system (to varying extents) allows citizens to contest these actions. Citizens may contest the state through formal means built into the structure of the state, such as elections, or more informal methods, such as strikes and protests. These acts of contestation may be more common in a democracy, as non-democratic states often employ fear and coercion as control. However, even under a highly coercive regime, citizens still protest to contest the state, an infamous example of this being the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 in China. It is important to note that a democratic state also has means of coercion in its armed forces and police to discourage serious contestation. The election process represents the contesting of authority, specifically the authority of the current government. However it is important to note that often this election process is not held particularly frequently. In the UK and US for example, they are held every four...
References: Bromley, S. and Clarke, J. (2009) 'Governing problems ' in, Bromley, S., Clarke, J., Hinchliffe, S. and Taylor, S. (eds) Exploring Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Blakely, G. and Saward, M. (2009) 'Political ordering ' in, Bromley, S., Clarke, J., Hinchliffe, S. and Taylor, S. (eds) Exploring Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Bromley, S. (2009) 'Governing problems ' in, Bromley, S., Clarke, J., Hinchliffe, S. and Taylor, S. (eds) Exploring Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
‘Legitimacy’ in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Sills, D. (ed) New York, Macmillan and Free Press, 1968
'Citizens and the state ' (2009) Exploring Social Lives [Audio CD 3], Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Walton, J., BBC news online (10 May 2010) ‘Election 2010: Turnout mapped’, Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8672976.stm (Accessed 5 June 2010)
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