Definition, Functions, Origin & Characteristics of the State


Origin, Definition, Functions, Characteristics of the State

Origin of State (City State)

The city-state was an organized society of people living in what the Greeks called “polis.” The Greek-city state shared three basic characteristics: small size, love of independence and all-inclusiveness. Appadorai (2004) has suggested that geographical factor may be responsible for this preference for small size in the days of the Greek city-states. Greece is a land dotted and interspersed with mountains and small valleys, making it impossible for big, linear settlements.

Consequently, this natural division encouraged the development of small and separate communities, popularly called the city-states. The Greek city-states also preferred their separate independent status, for reasons that ranged from freedom to practice their different religions, and to pursue different economic activities. By its nature, a city-state was an isolated community that rarely admits of stranger that could possibly pollute its purity. Citizenship status or rights could only be granted by virtue of birth. All the activities of the state: political, economic and social were restricted to the city.

According to Aristotle, a city-state must be large enough to be economically viable or self-supporting, but must not be too large as to prevent unity or personal feelings among its members.

The city-state also approximates to the Platonic notion of an ideal state: something that is close to the idea of an individual, in which if a part of the body suffers, other parts will feel it and sympathize with the affected part, in the manner of the saying that the “pain of the toe is that of the whole body”.

However, the city-states could not endure for long and had to collapse because of quarrels and disagreements among them, which peaked when a powerful state in the north, under Philip of Macedon, emerged. In contemporary time the Vatican with its seat in Rome, because it fulfills the features of modern sovereign states of the post 1648 Treaty of Westphalia can be regarded as a city-state.


Definition of  State

Academics have advanced the notion of a state and its definitions from different perspectives. Harold Laski (1982) defines a state as “a territorial society divided into government and subjects claiming within its allotted physical area, a supremacy over all other institutions. In this definition, four elements can be identified: people, territory, government and sovereignty. Although, the words ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are closely related, they do not mean the same thing. The term state applies to that political authority which maintains domination over a specific geographical area. It is the means by which the people are organized for the purposes of legal coercion.

Marx Weber (1964) defines the state as “a regime or supreme authority, which gives order to all and receives orders from all.” Northedge (1971) also gave an international dimension to the state when he defines it as a means by which people are organized for participation in the international system.

This conceptualization is closer to that of Woodrow Wilson who defines a state as “a people organized for law within a political community. Karl Marx introduced the ideological dimension to his definition, when a defines the modern state as “a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” Common to all these conceptualizations is that above all, the state is a political community that recognizes the importance of law in its internal organization and its external relations. A state also functions within a deliberately structured institutional framework. It possesses compulsory jurisdiction over those who live within its territory

The state according to Leeds (1981), “is a territorial association, an area with a clearly defined boundary within which a government is responsible for law and order.” Every person becomes a member of a state at birth and the membership cannot be disowned but citizenship can be transferred through naturalization.

The state has a monopoly of coercive powers over every person domicile within the defined territory. This implies that all individuals and groups living within the state are subject to its authority.

The authority exercised by the state is usually defined by the constitution, which provides for the institutions of government that are necessary to ensure internal stability and external security. For any polity to be regarded as a state, it must have the following fundamental elements: population; defined territory; government and sovereignty. These characteristics differentiate a state (properly so-called, e.g. Nigeria, USA, etc.,) from a state (a component unit in a federation, e.g. Kwara, Lagos, New York, Illinois, etc.,) and such other sociopolitical institutions like a nation, a society, etc.

Since the state is an artificial person, it operates through an agent called ‘ the government’ which is an administrative institution capable of resolving conflicts between groups within the society by making enforceable decisions without necessarily the use of force.

Although, government as the agent of a state, is that body which exclusively exercises the legitimate use of force in making regulations and in enforcing its rules within the given territorial boundary. However, the allegiance and loyalty of the citizenry in a state is to the state but expressed it through the agents of the state - the government. In addition, states seldom apply force to maintain its authority as the threats of sanctions or punishments, which constitute the basis of justice, are sufficient to obtain obedience.

Theories on the Origins of the State

There are many theories on how and when the state came into existence. The origin of state has, over the periods, generated disagreements among scholars. While some have argued that the institution of the state originated from the will of God, others proffered different theories. We will examine these different theories in this section.

1. The Natural Theory

According to Aristotle, human by nature are social beings; that is they naturally gather and interact among themselves in a community. Beyond the biological necessity for this interaction, human beings also find more fulfillments when they come together socially. This coming together in a community or state is the only way men seek to achieve moral perfection. This therefore makes the state the natural environment in which a man could be truly human, and as Aristotle pointed out; an individual outside the state is either “a beast or a god.”

2. The Force Theory

The force theory has two components: the negative and the positive. The negative conception of the force theory states that the state was created by conquest and force, i.e. by the forceful subjugation of the weak by the strong. A powerful group of bold and cunning men got together and made themselves masters over the rest of the society. They took over the resources of the society, ran it in their own interest, thereby making the rest of the people their servants. The Greek Sophist, Thrusy Machus once observed: “Justice is the interest of the stronger.” Marx equally shares this view when he agrees that the conquest band imposes her dominion on the conquered. Machiavelli was also a fanatical believer in force theory when he admonished every prince (leader) to combine force with guile in order to sustain himself in power.

In some respects, it could be argued that Rousseau is also of this view when he argued, “the strongest is never strong enough to always be master, unless he transforms strength into right and obedience into duty”. During the inter war years, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler used the force theory to convert Italy and Germany into a police and totalitarian state respectively. Mussolini’s idea of a police state is the forerunner of what is today known as Statism. According to him, the State has mystical properties; it is the centre of life, with incomparable purpose and meaning. Just as individual has a personality and a will of its own, the State, Mussolini argued, draw from each developing a personality and will of its own. The will of the state is therefore a measure of values, virtue and wisdom. As the late Italian fascist declared: “The power of the state is total and commitment of the individual must be total...everything for the state; nothing against the state: nothing outside the state”.

Likewise, Hitler employed German mythology, elitism, militarism and the concept of a corporate state to foist a one-man power regime in Germany. Hitler declared:

When those with the greatest will to power dominated others, the most perfect possible existence would have been achieved...It is evident that the stronger has the right before God and the world to enforce his will” (quoted in Baradat 2000).

All the scholars quoted above are all in agreement with Coulumbi who wrote, “Consideration of justice arises between parties of equal strength, and there is no dishonor, but only prudence when the weak capitulate to the poor.” Maclves is however one scholar who was opposed to force, since according to him force is destructive violence. “Force does not create right.”

History has also shown that though many leaders have acquired power through force (revolution) but not all have been able to keep the power thus acquired through the same means. Due to this origin, the state is sometimes viewed as an evil contrivance that could be resisted in a righteous cause. Harold Laski (1982) was of this view when he described rebellion against the state as a contingent duty of a citizen, especially if it departs from its utilitarian purpose. This conception of the state has therefore given encouragements to revolutionary groups who consider opposition to the state as a worthy and altruistic cause. Thus, in history we saw the rejection of the doctrine of the two swords (Roman Catholic doctrine) by the Protestants, as well as the challenge of the monarchical tyranny by the Republicans.

On the other hand, the positive conception of the force theory developed in 19th century Germany. Rather than being born of, or the incarnate of evil, it is force that is said to dignify the state (Baradat, 2000).

The concept of “might is right” is meant to legitimize the rule of the strong over the weak. Nietzsche, a prominent member of this school argues that by institutionalizing the power of the strong over the weak the state was doing the right thing; since the weak should be ruled by the strong.

3. The Divine Rights of the King Theory

This theory states that state is of supernatural authority that was created by God and that God appointed some people to preside over the government of a state on His behalf. In other words, the Chiefs, Emperors, Presidents are said to be anointed orvery close to God, hence the subjects must obey them. Disobeying them means direct opposition to God. The divine Theory was used to justify the rule of monarchs as best exemplified in the rule of the Tudors in Britain.

As Appadorai (2004) explains “monarchy is a divinely ordained institution”; Kings are accountable only to God only; and non-resistance and passive obedience are enjoined by God.” Other example of leaders who have claimed divine right in both ancient and modern governments include the Hindu Maharajahs, who was regarded as the incarnate of the God Krishna, the Egyptian kings reputed to be the son of Ra, and the Mikados of Japan who was said to have carried the claim to divine right to rule to the extreme, when they asserted that they were the incarnations of the sun-God who ruled the entire universe.

4. The Social Contract Theory

There are many versions of this theory. However, the kernel of the theory is that government came into existence because of a contract between the ruler(s) and the ruled. The understanding is that individuals surrender their rights to rule themselves to the government or a constituted authority, with the hope of getting security and every necessities of life in return. However, why the contract was established or how did it happen, is where opinion differs.

5 Thomas Hobbes’s version

His version of the social contract appeared in his popular book The Leviathan. According to Hobbes, in the beginning men were living in a “state of nature” where life was “poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” In order to free them from the state of nature, which was characterized by selfishness and unbridled desires, men decided to surrender all liberties to one man (the leviathan or king) or an assembly of men? The aim was to transform the state of nature with its insecurity of life and property to a civil society, where peace and order prevails.

This was the origin of social contract or as observed by Hobbes, the creation of the great leviathan. Hobbes wrote the Leviathan in 17th Century England to justify the restoration of the Stuart dynasty.

Hobbes’ Leviathan was a response to the problem of social order, and was specifically meant to regulate the relations between society and man, and between the sovereign and the citizen. In England of the 17th Century, the forces of absolutism in alliance with Anglican traditionalism were in competition with those of puritan reform that was in league with parliamentary assertiveness. To justify the absolute power he recommended for the monarch or Leviathan, Hobbes had to appeal to natural law (Nisbet, 1973). There are also John Locke and J. J. Rousseau’s versions of the theory of Social Contract that are different from that of Hobbes’ only in emphasis but not in substance.

6. The Marxian Theory

The basic claim of this theory is that in the beginning, life was not in a state of nature, but was peaceful. There were no selfish people who harbored egoistic interest of appropriating the resources of the society, for their selfish interest, as the society’s resource were shared fairly equally by every member of the society. According to the Marxists, this period was known as communalism. However, with the collapse of communalism came feudalism. This period witnessed the emergence of social fragmentation. Some powerful individuals assumed the status of the lords and took over total control over the means of production. Other members of the society were relegated to the status of serfs and were used by the lords as instruments of production on their property. Those serfs had no property of their own and the feudal lords appropriated all that was produced through their labor. During the feudal epoch, the lords formed a government that protected their personal safety and property, and the government kept their serfs under perpetual subjection.

After the demise of feudalism, especially in Western Europe, came capitalism. In the capitalist epoch of development, those who control the means of production are the industrial bourgeoisie and their main instrument of production is the proletariat. In the capitalist state, the government that emerged was that of the bourgeoisie.

Hence, Marx and Engels declared in The Manifesto of the Communist Party that the “executive of the modern state is a committee of the bourgeoisie.” All laws made in every capitalist state are meant to protect private property or to be specific, protect the properties (banks, industries, cars etc) of the capitalists. The bourgeoisie controls the government and monopolizes the instruments of coercion to protect their private interests. The Marxists further argue that after the demise of the capitalist state, a socialist state will be instituted under which the government will impose its dictatorship on the bourgeoisie. However, after all pockets of resistance by the bourgeoisie and injustice have been completely eliminated, the state will wither away and give way to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

7.  The Family Theory

There are also different versions of this theory; however, there is a consensus among the versions that the state or government started from the family and expanded to the clan or kinship group, to the community and finally the state was created. This means that a single family expanded and the rules made by parents of the nuclear family were transferred to the enlarged family, which later on developed to the level of the modern state. Hence, Maclves has observed that government is continuous by the more inclusive society of a process of regulation that is already highly developed within the family. How this happened is where opinion differs.

8.  Sir Henry Maine and the Patriarchal Theory

Maine has argued vehemently that the modern State or government is traceable to the male decent in every family hence, the evolution of the state is patriarchal in nature. His arguments run as follows: The unit of primitive society was the family in which the eldest male parent was supreme. His power extended to life and death and was as qualified over his children and their houses as masters over his slaves. The single family breathes up into many families, which all held together under the head of first family (the chief or patriarch) becomes the tribe. An aggregation of tribes makes the state. In his own opinion, Milennan believed that the state evolved matriarchal. It is a contention that the primitive group had no common male head and that Kinship among them could be traced only through the woman. That it is only through the women, that blood relationship can be traced and not through men. Hence, he observed that, “maternity is a fact, paternity an opinion.”

9.  Evolutionary Theory

This theory considers the state mechanism, neither a divine institution nor as a deliberate human contrivance; but sees the emergence of the state as a result of natural evolution. However, J. W Buress is of the view that the evolution of the state has been due to a gradual and continuous development of human society out of a gross imperfect beginning, through crude but improving forms of manifestation towards a perfect and universal organization of humanity. Sharing this view, conservative British philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1777) believed that the state evolved out of a complex set of human needs and that neither these needs nor the characteristics of the state can be totally understood through human reason. He therefore advised against tampering with existing institutions and social relationships because they are the sinews that hold society together.

Furthermore, Greece et al (1976) has observed that the ancient Greeks gave the evolutionary or natural theory of the state, it highest prominence. They had viewed man as inseparable from the state, which they considered not only a necessity for human survival, but also the means whereby man could achieve the “good life.” Aristotle assessed that man was “by nature a political animal” who could fulfill himself only through the state and that man outside the state was indeed, not a man at all, but either a god or a beast.


Appraisal of the Theories of the State

We can broadly classify the theories discussed above into two; and to use Saint Augustine’s terminology, one serving the city of God, and the other the city of man: one spiritual and the order temporal. In its early days, the state was subsumed within the Church. Nevertheless, in the wake of the successive impact of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, otherwise called the Age of Reason, the doctrine of the infallibility of the Papacy was challenged. The decline in the primacy of the Church in secular matters was assisted by what was called the indulgences. What is today known as corruption of the leadership of the Church was initially mildly challenged by Erasmus, and later more forcefully by Luther, who led the revolt against the Church and the demand for the separation of the State from the Church. But in spite of its defects or imperfections, until it yielded to the temporal order, the spiritual order from which the theory of Divine Right of the King found its justification, remained an anchor of societal stability.

The rise in secularism-the increasing attention to non-religious values marked the beginning of the emphasis on private initiatives in economic matters, and human rights in politics. Yet, it was realized that individualism if left without control or check could resort to anarchy. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and J. J. Rousseau, the prime philosophers of this era all agreed that individual should be free, but  they disagreed on the definition of freedom, or the limits to be imposed on the exercise of this freedom. Hobbes argued that freedom was possible only when the individuals in society subordinate themselves completely to the monarchs, hence his Leviathan. Locke, a liberal believed that freedom could be maximized when the individual was left alone; hence his preference for parliamentary republic, while Rousseau preferred an “infallible” general would, through the democratic process.

Historically, the Greek city-state where direct democracy was practiced was the highest expression of individualism, at least in political matters. Similarly, Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hands” in his The Wealth of Nations, before the rise of Mercantilism, known today as state’s involvement in business foreign trade is its equivalent in the economic realm.


Functions of the State

The state evolves for the sake of life and continues “for the sake of life” (Aristotle). The end of the state is therefore ethical. As Newman puts it: “the state exists (according to Aristotle) for the sake of that kind of life which is the end of man. When the state by its education and laws, written and unwritten, succeeds in evoking and maintain in vigorous activity a life rich in noble aims and deeds, then and not till then has it fully attained the end for which it exists”. The ethical end of the state is subordinated to convenience in Locke’s view. His concern is not with the ‘good’ but with the ‘convenient’. This is the preservation of the people’s property-which is Locke’s general name for ‘lives, liberties and estates’. The manner these natural rights are preserved are therefore the purposes of political society; and the exercise of power by government is conditioned by that purpose (Appadorai, 2004) Adam smith (1723) in his The Wealth of Nation (1776) laid down the following as the three duties the sovereign must attend to:

1. The duty of protecting the society from violence and invasion of other independent societies

2. The duty of establishing an exact administration of justice

3. The duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions for the society.


Other functions of state are as follows:

1.  A state must have a clearly defined territory. It needs to be clear where that state is geographically. Its territory can have natural borders, like a seacoast, or border the territory of another state.

2.  A state must have a permanent population. Antarctica has a clear territory, but since it has no permanent population, it cannot be considered a state.

3.  A state must have a functioning government. A state needs to be administered by a governing body with rules and laws that are applicable within the defined border of that state.

4.   A state must have the capacity to enter into relations with other states. This essentially means that a state is recognized by other states.

In contemporary language, these three functions are the maintenance of internal law and order, defense of a state independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, efficient administration of justice and provision of public good and infrastructural facilities. Writing on the purpose of the state, Laski says the state is an organization that enables the mass of men to realize social good on the largest possible scale.


Characteristics of  the State

The assumption of statehood by most nations obscures the urgent fact that the state is only one, however, important, of the various groups into which society is divided. In the opinion of Harold Laski (1982), the state is, in its daily administration, the government; and the government may lie at the disposal of a special interest and it is essential it consult with the various groups if the will realized is to represent a just compromise between competing wills. In other words, Harold Laski was indirectly affirming Marxist’s notion of the state, which states that a state expresses a will to maintain a given system of class relations.

Indeed, the territorial character of the sovereign nation-state enables a small fraction of its members to appropriate its power for its own ends even against the interest of their fellow citizens. It does so by the use of its supreme coercive power to that end. In a feudal state, law is made to serve the interest of the owners of land, the reason it embodies is their reason; the general end of society it seeks to fulfill is its conception of what that general end should be. Similarly, in a capitalist society, the owners of capital will similarly determine the substance of the law predominantly. However, it also reflects the interest of the society as a whole. Therefore, the idea of equality before the law within a state is meaningless, unless such society is a classless one.

The question arises whether the citizens always obey the state. What are the reasons for peoples’ obedience? Is it out of fear, habit, consent or utility? No doubt, in some degree it is all of these. In a feudal state, the serf had no option but to live as the feudal lord decrees because it was upon such obedience that his livelihood and existence are guaranteed. In a capitalist system, the coercive power of the state is always at the disposal of the ruling class to compel obedience, thereby enforcing their will. The difference between a feudal and capitalist society is that while obedience was usually secured in the most crude, even cruel ways in the former, In the latter, the pretense to democracy makes obedience to state voluntary and freely given since it is assumed that the state authority are exercised in the interest of the generality of the people. The veneer of participation of all citizens is thus reinforced by the freewheeling principle of the capitalist system, which in a reality is a contraption to promote the interest of a few.

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