Reflections on the Theories of State

What comes to your mind when your hear ‘state’ in international affairs? ‘State’ as in the state of Armenia, the state of Azerbaijan, the state of Belarus. A sovereign political body? But there are other terms to describe a state, such as nation and realm, as we will see below. But the word ‘state’ has acquired a unique position amongst others. Professor of Political Theory Quentin Skinner argues in an article that it is imperative to understand the evolution of the term ‘state’ so as to get a sense of its current usage.

Professor Skinner is a unique specimen amongst mavens of political theory. His distinction lies in the inventive approach he adopts to his incisive analysis of major political concepts. While most distinguished contemporary political theorists couch their exposition of rarefied intellect in terms inaccessible to the lay reader, Skinner’s text is as comprehensible to the common person as it is useful to the political cognoscenti. Skinner’s writing style stands out in that the clarity of his argument and perspicuity in its elucidation does not compromise conceptual depth. Take for instance his short book on Machiavelli published by Oxford University Press. He gives due attention to every aspect of the medieval Florentine writer’s ideas on politics, devoting considerable time to explaining the whys and wherefores of the notoriety that is usually attached to Machiavelli’s name and admirably demonstrating how much of his infamy is undeserved. With a remarkable capacity for lucidity underpinning his immense knowledge of and expertise in political theory, Skinner is just the right person to explicate on the varied dimensions of the historical and modern understanding of the concept of state.

Whilst thinking about the word ‘state’ in present times, one immediately conceives of it as meaning a government or the modern apparatus of a functioning country. This commensensical understanding of state, however, must not be taken as given, argues Skinner in his essay titled, ‘A Genealogy of the State’. ‘State’ has over the past centuries connoted ideas and concepts very different from its present-day understanding as the apparatus of a modern government. Similarly, what is currently instinctively being referred to as state had different names in the past. Realm, nation and body politic are examples of terms that referred to a ‘state’ in medieval Europe. How did the word ‘state’ come to the forefront?

In an attempt to analyze the emergence of ‘state’ as a descriptive term for modern-day governments, Skinner traces the origins of the word in pre-Renaissance Europe and examines the varied contexts in which it was used and the different meanings to which it was attributed over time. Skinner concentrates predominantly on the theoretical understanding of state as it developed from a conceptualization of an autocratic sovereignty of the monarch over his subjects to Thomas Hobbes’ fictional theory of characterizing the state as a single voice that represents the entire community of a certain body politic.

Skinner firstly identifies the ‘absolutist state’ as the earliest interpretation of the word ‘state’. This strand compares the state and its citizens to the head and body of a person. That is to say, the state is seen as a substitute of its ruler. The state is the ruler. The citizens are relegated to mere subjects who meekly obey what they are told by the ‘head’ of the state. A patronizing view of citizens was intrinsic to the absolutist understanding of state. The prevalence of autocratic monarchies across Western Europe influenced such a perspective on the state. The significance of the Church was recognized even as it was also acknowledged that it was subordinate to that of the state.

The outburst of liberal-democratic theories of government and their cogent exposition by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke seminally influenced a counterforce and gave rise to an alternative way of thinking about the state. In what Skinner identifies as the ‘populist theory’ of the state, the state is seen as set-up where the ruler is characterised as a responsible servant to the citizens, rather than the other way around. The importance of the conception of citizens as rights-bearing individuals who also possess group rights as a community was recognized by the populist understanding of the state. The monarch was no longer supreme. It was the citizens whom he served. The populist theory emerged in conjunction with other key concepts that underpin present-day political life such as liberty, equality and justice. Therefore, even though this strand does not explicitly denounce principalities and monarchies, it exhibits a distinct inclination towards republican form of government.

However, as John Stuart Mill recognized, the populist understanding of state risks degenerating into a tyranny of the majority. As the populist theory accords pride of place to vox populi, the peril of submerging the voice of the minority amongst the people is spawned. This would subsequently lead to a situation where the dominant views win out in every contest by means of a brute majority. To the less dominant section, such a suppression of their voice by the majority is akin to that of the latter at the hands of an absolute monarch. Ergo, by this logic, the populist conception, however specious at first glance, was found wanting in fairness and intellectual depth.

To counter this shortcoming, Skinner introduces a different idea of the state which he largely attributes to the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. The ‘fictional theory’ of the state strikes a middle ground between the absolutist and populist conceptions in an attempt to resolve the defects of both. This strand views the state as a set-up at the top of which is the ruler who owes his position to the citizens. While this might sound very similar to the populist strand, the difference lies in that Hobbes envisions a ‘person of the state’ as making decisions for and representing the entire population. In other words, a ruler consults his own intelligence to make his decisions and doesn’t consult the people. But the legitimacy of such a ruler lies in the fact that he is elected by the people. Thereby, such a ruler becomes the ‘person’ of the state. This strand evades the crisis of legitimacy that a ruler faces under the absolutist version of the state. Simultaneously, it also manages to avoid concerns over the dominance of the majority in the populist version of the state.

The ‘person of the state’ is a key concept in Quentin Skinner’s essay. He argues that with the rise of ‘pragmatic’ thinkers such as Rousseau who disdained fictional theories of the emergence of the state, the significance of Hobbes’s fictional theory fell by the wayside. The prominence of the present-day understanding of the word ‘state’ was a result of the pace of globalisation in the mid-18th century and the corresponding emergence of international institutions. The essay by Skinner presents a sublime survey of the historical progress the understanding of the term state has evolved through. From a historical perspective, this essay is a must-read for anyone who ventures to appreciate the full meaning of the evolution of state – the concept – as well as state – the word.

At the end of the essay, Skinner engages in an analysis of the importance of studying the person of the state. Whilst his basic argument is fleshed out rather succinctly, readers with an analytical bent may be disappointed by the skimpy amount that Skinner devotes to analytical writing in his essay. One would have liked to learn more about how alternative terms to describe the apparatus of government were foreshadowed by the growing prominence of the term ‘state’ or about the varied interpretations that the term ‘state’ is still subject to. Why, for instance, has Max Weber’s concept of ‘monopoly of legitimate use of force’ gained superior significance over any other interpretation in modern times. Is it because that is the most convincing explanation of a state or does the reason lie elsewhere?

In any case, Skinner’s essay is an important contribution to a tradition of political theory that is much ignored in present times; tracing the genealogy of an ideology. The proliferation of academic writing and the resulting reams of volumes on interpretations of classical texts has given rise to an obfuscation of sorts that needs erudite and distinguished scholars like Skinner to untangle and illuminate. He has also delivered a lecture on the genealogy of another widely contested concept in political theory; liberty. But that’s for another day!

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

Picture: Armenian army displaying a show of strength (Credits –

Most Popular

To Top