Statism Definition Research Paper

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Statism is a more complex, quirky phenomenon than is often supposed. It is a more cerebral, less emotive concept—and a more recent one—than nationalism, patriotism, and xenophobia. Quentin Skinner, a prominent contemporary political theorist, regards the very use of the word state in early modern theory as a “decisive confirmation” of his thesis that “the state,” as opposed to “the ruler,” as the monopolizer of “legitimate” disposition over the means of violence, is foundational to what he terms “modernity” (Skinner 1978). Henceforward, rulers alternate in manning the state apparatus, but the state itself persists en permanence. Skinner explicitly follows Max Weber: “Modernity” involves the separation of the ruler from ownership of the means of rulership.

This leads to a problem. Whereas, in the words of Jens Bartelson (2001), “Skinner and other(s) … have accounted for the emergence of the modern state concept . it could be argued that their accounts . are themselves inherently statist, since they have posited a modern notion of the state as the end towards which early modern political reflection evolved.. It is as though all roads in the past led to Weber but none further beyond” (p. 9). Moreover, if one characterizes statism as predicated not just on the presence but also on the centrality of the modern state, one runs into an unexpected paradox. This paradox assumes a variety of guises, all of them marked by denial and avoidance. The USA Patriot Act of 2001, to give one egregious example, was designed to bolster the national security state, but did so by transposing “state” into “homeland.” The verbal legerdemain involved here is by no means without precedent: Euphemisms for “state” (Motherland, Fatherland, la patrie—the list goes on) have long abounded. This in turn is part of the reason why the unwieldy (and often inaccurate) composite, the “nation-state,” has become so familiar, as have such formulations as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the Communist International. None of these could have been engendered by nations; all are examples both of inter-state organization and, once again, of an intriguing, fastidious avoidance of the word “state.” Political scientists have proved adept at introducing semantically equivalent locutions for the state (e.g., the “governmental process,” the “political system”). These subterfuges are invariably unconvincing. By reintroducing the state through the back door, they inadvertently attest to the hold or central-ity of a concept they had started out by trying to avoid. Not for nothing was there a recent debate within the recondite reaches of political science about “bringing the state back in”: Where, one has to ask, did participants in this debate think it had ever gone away to?

But if the state was there all along, we must at this point ask questions about its oddly elusive centrality.

Nothing sensible can be said about statism without doing so. As Bartelson (2001) states, “within large parts of our legacy of political theorizing, the state is both posited as an object of political analysis and presupposed as the foundation of such analysis… [This] makes it inherently difficult to take political theorizing out of its statist predispositions” (p. 5). Anarchist theorizing, to take one extreme, fails at the level of significance in that “the state” is both the object and the condition of its critique (Thomas 1985). At another extreme, to regard “the state” as the telos (ultimate end) toward which political reflection as well as political innovation was moving would make early instances of state institution-building, such as cameralism, presentiments of statism too—which would make about as much sense as regarding the Magna Carta of 1215 as the fountainhead of present Western liberties. The state, one should remember, is an institution. Statism is a concept, one that would make of the state what it is not: the be-all and end-all of political life, or “the sole source of its intelligibility.”

States differ. All of them may appear as unitary entities when viewed from the outside, looking in: They are conditioned by the absence of their features—authority and sovereignty—in what is (incorrectly) called the “international” sphere. The state is also distinct from civil society, when viewed from the inside, looking out. The state and the international sphere, on the one hand, and the state and civil society, on the other, are binaries in which each term is always already defined in terms of the other term of the couplet. But it follows from none of this that states are best understood as constructs or resultants of parallelograms of forces that predated them, constructs that, once established, change the rules of the game once and for all. States are also entities that have tasks to per-form—things to do, that is, other than satisfy definitional requirements. States do not often do these well. They make universalist claims on their own behalf while restricting popular participation in “their” affairs. Their record in addressing, let alone confronting, citizens’ claims are at best mixed. These claims are themselves not of a piece. Personal rights (such as freedom of speech and assembly) are distinct from political rights (which center around claims to participate in the workings of the state), and both are distinct in their turn from what T. H. Marshall (1964) calls the rights of “social citizenship” (guaranteed education, full employment, decent housing, free medical care—the foundation of the twentieth-century “welfare state”).

It is noteworthy that the early-twenty-first-century U.S. national security state (the “homeland”) trumps the rights of social citizenship (which have never counted for much in the United States) with a mixture of personal and political rights that are trumpeted and reified as the consummation of what is called “freedom,” this being one of many stratagems to which modern states can, with frightening ease, resort. Statism is of great help to such sleight of hand. It is content to award the state a set of purely formal credentials. Citizenship as outlined above is, nevertheless, not a formal category but the site of substantive demands and rights. Because it is the state’s job to deliver on these, and not to fulfill formal definitional requirements, states on all but statist characterizations may be found wanting—and this gives everyone a great deal of work to do.


  1. Bartelson, Jens. 2001. The Critique of the State. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Marshall, T. H. 1964. Class, Citizenship, and Social Development. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  3. Skinner, Quentin. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Thomas, Paul. 1985. Introduction. Karl Marx and the Anarchists. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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