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What is a state?

+7 votes
It's one of those terms I feel like I understand, but can't define. I also hear people say for ex. while arguing against ancaps, that 'defense associations' turn into 'mini-states'. What does that mean? What are the bare requirements for a state? Can you have a state without government? Government without state?
asked Jan 21, 2014 by formyinformation (2,440 points)
fantastic question!
Thank you all for the answers. I'm still re-reading everything but the definition of 'state' is revealing itself more clearly now.

5 Answers

+3 votes
government is used flexibly, so whether you can have a state without one is dependent on which definition you're using. both government and state are used in the overarching way that you're talking about, as the fundamental thing that anarchists are fighting against, and both are also used for specific bodies or specific institutions.

proof that this is an ongoing issue...
malatesta (in "anarchy") said:
"Anarchists, including this writer have used the word State, and still do, to mean the sum total of the political, legislative, judiciary, military and financial institutions through which the management of their own affairs, the control over their personal behaviour, the responsibility for their personal safety, are taken away from the people and entrusted to others who, by usurpation or delegation, are vested with the powers to make the laws for everything and everybody, and oblige the people to observe them, if need be, by the use of collective force.

In this sense the word State means government, or to put it another way, it is the impersonal abstract expression of that state of affairs personified by government....
...
For these reasons we believe it would be better to use expressions such as abolition of the State as little as possible, substituting for it the clearer and more concrete term abolition of government."

he also defines government as:
...a series of institutions (legislative, judicial, military, political, and financial) which impose, through collective force, a social order on the people.

but the point is that the state includes a government (or governments), but is not limited to them, it is also the *context for* the government.
at least, that's how i use it, in line i think with weber's definition...
the state is the only legitimate authority using power (within certain territorial boundaries) and the authority that gives legitimacy to institutions to use compulsory means (punishment, laws, police, etc.)
answered Jan 22, 2014 by dot (52,310 points)
I like this answer as well as the question and I have a handful of follow ups. This is probably one of the things anarchists need a strong definition as much of our critique of authority is directed against the state.

Another cluster of institutions would be "civil society" that I'm not sure where they would fall. Like the media, civil society (unions, churches, charity groups, etc.) holds strong ties to government, though often considered outside of government. But we see even anarchist tendencies that want to push civil society into a broader role typically taken on by the state and business, but to me this would not be an elimination, but rather a horizontal vision of the state, transforming the central functions of government to a multitude of institutions.

The American system of government already holds a great deal of decentralization, with municipal governments, county governments, state governments and federal governments. Very broad and large bureaus spread through each of these systems. Murray Bookchin's vision of mass society as municipal based would rewrite the system from the neighborhood up, but so many things cross municipal boundaries, such as infrastructure and there are so many needs outside the municipal that would need to be transported, necessitating more institutions.

While what may be called a government might not exist, I feel that these large institutions would still develop the functions of a state. They may reserve themselves from expressing violence, but they also hold that power to define violence if not make it exclusive to itself (such as passing ordinances against violence...thus making it so only the agents that can enforce such ordinances the only ones that can express violence, even if it is to pacify the violent).

It is difficult for me to believe mass society can exist without a state as the conflicts over available resources would arise on occasion and probably more so. Accidents will also happen, things break down, food spoils. The unexpected will challenge any system and frustrations will challenge people.

Other things: People do drugs, get drunk, have fun, say things they shouldn't, go crazy, get desperate....just on and on, while much of this could be handled without institutional interference, anything that would disrupt the normal flow of things may cause pressure. Though I'm trying to be vague with my examples, I am trying to point out that what constitutes a state at minimum is a monopoly on violence and point out that even in the most radical visions of mass society will have violence that challenges the systems needed to provide for this mass, thus calling for institutional intervention that can't help but look like the behavior of a state.
+2 votes
Tough question.

If you ask me, one of the most striking, and most misguided, obsessions in anarchist thought is this chimera of the state. We say no to the state, and we imagine that by saying this we are also saying no to power. Well, what is the state exactly, and what can it mean to oppose it?

Foucault famously wrote that:

“The state is not a universal nor in itself an autonomous source of power. The state is nothing else but the effect, the profile, the mobile shape of a perpetual stratification (étatisation) or stratifications, in the sense of incessant transactions which modify, or move, or drastically change, or insidiously shift sources of finance, modes of investment, decision-making centers, forms and types of control, relationships between local powers, the central authority, and so on. In short, the state has no heart, as we well know, but not just in the sense that it has no feelings, good or bad, but it has no heart in the sense that it has no interior. The state is nothing else but the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities."


I think he is really right in this. Normally we say "the state" and we think we are referring to a real entity aka "the government" but in fact we are only vaguely gesturing at a huge and bewildering set of practices that are constantly changing. A hell of a lot of the things that "the state" supposedly does are actually done by various contractors and sub contractors. A lot of "the state"'s decision making is the result of confusing internal crises and/or it is indexed by the moods of the market economy, because it was designed to be like that.  "The state" has had all kinds of different ways of operating, many of which have very little resemblance to one another. For instance did you know that the original police forces were in fact bureaus set up to coordinate economic production in france? they had nothing to do with law enforcement at all; in fact law enforcement as we know it now is quite a new invention. This is what Foucault is getting at when he speaks of multiple, mobile governmentalities.

There are a lot of ways we could think about addressing this, but it seems to me that the traditional answer is a knee-jerk reaction of saying "down with the state". Ok, yes, but what are you going to do about it? It's not as if you can just go storm the palace and then "the state" will be gone.

In fact the type of politics that has mobilized this state phobic discourse the best is probably American style "anarcho-capitalism" which aims to curtail "the state's" intervention in the economy.  Something that I think we should obviously be quite wary of...
answered Jan 22, 2014 by asker (8,190 points)
edited Jan 24, 2014 by asker
+1 vote
The state is the amalgamation of governments within a defined region, typically a nation-state. The territory dominated by a nation-state is sometimes considered a country.

In the United States there are many governments within each state, which then is federated within a union of other states subordinate to the federal state, which also controls territory on its own (ex. Washington D.C.). The various governments have bureaus and enforcement agents that are typically subordinate to a chief executive, a president (federal state) or a governor (single state). What is important is the sovereign state to most definitions, so the federal government of the United States would be the sovereign state of America, which then defines the role of its various governments beneath it.

In this definition "the state" is the same thing as "the government" as we don't say "the governments" and refer to the many city, county, state, federal, etc. governments as "the government". This would also be the strictest definition of state I can think of.

However, it should also be noted that asker has a point and I refer to http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/wolfi-landstreicher-the-network-of-domination which gives a good start on defining all institutions as playing into the network of domination, including the state, business and most (all?) of civil society.
answered Jan 23, 2014 by hpwombat (3,910 points)
+1 vote
Since there are almost as many definitions of "the State" (and whether or not one uses the upper case...) and "government" as there are anarchists, it's probably not the most useful thing to try to accomplish. Considering that there are many forms of government and different types of states, most attempts at creating and defending one particular definition will be met with objections and exceptions. For me it's better to list characteristics and social behaviors -- for want of a better word, *culture.* A better way to describe it might be to ask: What does a state look like? What does a state do?

A couple of quick and not comprehensive generic answers:
The state looks like a conglomeration of interlocking institutions of coercion (both subtle/emotional, like public education, media, and religion and overt/physical, like cops, armies, and prisons). The state reserves for itself a monopoly on the *legitimate* use of violence, which is codified/celebrated through the creation and enforcement of laws. There is usually some invocation of "the people" (when it's not a monarchy or other form of dictatorship) as an important location of legitimate authority even though it is always the case that the state actually exists through the exclusion of individual and group sovereignty. The state claims sovereignty over a particular geographical territory to the exclusion of other polities; it will also enter into relations with representatives of other states in order to secure a recognition of mutual territoriality. The state regulates/restricts the movement of people under its rule -- a majority of whom are supposed to be citizens (those with special rights, obligations, and duties). The state foments, creates, and exacerbates divisions among and between people, whether based on gender, ethnicity, intelligence, genetics, class, or any other construct/mythology; the state claims for itself the capability and wisdom to resolve the conflicts that inevitably arise from a class-based society.

Ironically or not, a state is only recognizable as a state by other states. The creation of South Sudan (the newest one, as we are constantly reminded in the news) through a process of a decades-old civil war (itself a term relating to armed conflict that occurs within one state concerning the political complexion of that state) resulting in an election that was set up and coached by other more powerful sovereign states, is a good example of what statecraft looks like. Older states are able to confer legitimacy to whomever they choose as the most likely to be of benefit to themselves; the post-WWII process of decolonization is also a good place to see this process, as the indigenous business/administrative/military class took over the legislative and executive bureaucracies that the colonial powers had set up for themselves.

There is much more to examine with this question...
Also, please excuse the use of "state" as if it were a person with a will, an actor that does things. It is not. This is a linguistic shortcut so we don't have to keep saying "people who run the state" or "those in power" or some other more accurate but awkward phrase.
answered Jan 24, 2014 by lawrence (610 points)
edited Jan 25, 2014 by lawrence
0 votes
"What is a state? This is a difficult question to answer because the idea of the state conjures multiple meanings and associations. Sometimes the state refers primarily to an institutional apparatus:bureaucracies, armies, ministries, police, legislatures, political parties, and the like. At other times it signifies something broader, more in keeping with its reference to a territorial entity, such as the state of France. At still other times it refers to its legal and symbolic character as sovereign power. Defining the state in terms of any one of these alone—institutionality, sovereignty, territoriality—would be a mistake. Moreover, the history of the state is not a simple or linear process. Its development has been rather messy and unpredictable, complex and open to a multiplicity of possible trajectories."

- from the book "The Nation-State and Global Order" http://muhammadgozyali.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/nation-state-and-global-order.pdf

i've always enjoyed this response to the question
answered Feb 10, 2014 by rocinante (1,320 points)
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