a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Questioning the State

The history of nation-states is not a pretty one. State creation is often a bloody and very painful exercise. Either states boundaries are decided through years of fighting or as an arbitrary decision by colonial authorities. Once states have been created, violent border disputes aside, states have been responsible for the repression of thousands of its own citizens. Perhaps even more damning, the nation-state framework seems to be an obstacle to addressing urgent international issues, such as global climate change and a growing refugee crisis. The on-going bloody history of states and pressing international issues present strong reasons to consider a justification of the primacy of the state.
This post is not intended as argument against or in favour of the primacy of the state, rather to make the case that its primacy is not an automatic good and needs to be justified for those (like Rawls) who take it as the prime site of justice.  There seem to be three key arguments for the state 1) the identities argument, 2) the justice promoting argument and 3) the pragmatic argument. I will go through these in turn to demonstrate that justification for states as the prime site of justice relies on a pragmatic argument:  they exist and so we should make them better. I suggest that this leaves room for important work to consider whether there are other more effective institutional arrangements that would promote justice.
So, let us consider the identities argument. The world has many different communities, who have distinctive cultures, histories and ways of approaching politics. As such, they need their own territorially distinct institution to conduct their affairs. Although there are very different communities across the globe, current borders do not match the boundaries between these communities. A quick glance at postcolonial Africa demonstrates that borders do not follow divisions between existing communities. Redrawing boundaries would not fix this. Identities no longer (and arguably never did) map neatly onto distinct and clearly defined territorial areas. The territorially exclusive state enclosing a coherent political community is not a reality. The state is not a natural political unit reflecting distinct political identities. Therefore justification requires some belief that its existence promotes a particular good.
The second argument is the ‘justice-promoting argument’. It goes something like: “Having nation-states promotes justice. We need localised institutions, such as the NHS, tax redistribution, education to ensure justice. The state is the best organization for this. ” This, unfortunately, is not the reality for much of the worlds population. In the Global South, justice-promoting states are not the norm, and often states can produce a considerable amount of injustice. Moreover the poor environmental practices and unfair trade policies of states in the Global North also harm the lives of those in the Global South. The response may be: Don’t dismantle states rather improve the unjust states! But, on what grounds have we decided the state is the best institution? There are other forms of political organization, be it townships, chieftaincies, kinship networks, cooperatives and charities which also promote justice and in many cases are a more meaningful avenue for providing the necessary services of justice. What makes a state the most valuable form of political community?
I think the crux of the ‘pro-state’ position comes to a pragmatic argument. The overwhelming majority of the globe’s population live under the legal jurisdiction of states.  Even where, in practice, the state does not exist or it is is repressive, the trend is to improve state capacity and to make it more functional. Therefore let us not waste time considering alternative political arrangements or a more serious empirical consideration of whether the state is indeed a good provider of justice and rather work on ways to improve what is already there.
I am not totally against this final argument. States do exist, and improving them may be best in the short term. It comes down to a practical judgement call. If, in the short term, it is more effective to improve states – this is something we should do. However this is an empirical question. Given the violent history of states and current pressing international questions. Would it be more effective to improve states or create alternative political institutions, which promote justice better? Both avenues deserve careful normative and empirical consideration.


How poverty antagonises the interests of children and those of women


Ethical trading as profit sharing: An alternative perspective on the terms of international market transactions


  1. More generally though – a really interesting question, thanks. My own instinctual response is that states are justice promoting and that your argument against this justification is somewhat unsatisfying.

    Bad states are not evidence that states do not work. Moreover I think we have lots of evidence that states can be justice promoting (the NHS, redistribution, property rights etc.). You respond to this by pointing to our lack of evidence for the state relative to other political organisations. Firstly I think we have a lot of evidence that states are better -> It has become the most successful model of justice promotion in the world, if other forms of political organisation achieved better results why have we not pursued them? / why have they died out?

    My other response is that I don't really understand what a state is as a form of political organisation in contrast with other forms of political organisation? We have had city states in history, I'm sure we could have kinship networks as a form of state (I can't see why you would want to though). How exactly are we suppose to organise our lives as a charity? My understanding of the state is a group of individuals who agree to some common binding laws, which usually involve the renouncing of some power in exchange for various benefits. I think you are working with a different definition from myself?

  2. oh sorry to add to that definition of the state, it is exclusive – you cannot contract into multiple states and the power transfer is usually somewhat substantial (this is not a tennis club).

  3. Thanks for the fantastic post Katie, it fits right in with the course I am teaching on anarchism this term! To be honest I don't have any specific challenge to offer but rather I'd like to consider why most political theorists in the academy don't consider this question and/or the contribution of anarchist political theory that have analyzed why the state is not a good provider of justice. In similar ways that public opinion is averse to anarchism, unfairly equating it with violence, terrorism and chaos – academics whose speciality is political theory all too often do not take the time to actually consider non-statist options for global justice. Is the lack of funded research on this question evidence of the tight link between the state and university funding? If so, is this another example of the state perhaps not being the best structure to bring about justice if its not willing to fund reflection on alternative structures that promote justice.

  4. Anya very pleased to hear you are teaching anarchism! You might find David Graeber's "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology" useful, it opens with a discussion of why there is so little academic engagement with anarchism.


  5. Will I don't think you can argue that just because states have won out against other forms of political organisation that this is because they are "the most successful model of justice promotion in the world". As a historical explanation I think its plainly false. States beat other forms of political organisation because they were able to build and importantly sustain armies that could invade, conquer and expropriate non-state societies. Basically the story of European colonialism.

  6. Ok that's fair enough. However I do think that states have gone the furthest in large scale justice promotion to date. Furthermore I don't believe that for many currently living in these states there are necessarily barriers for them to attempt alternatives – collectives etc. have been formed before right and they were not all shut down by force?

  7. Bruno – would you mind giving a couple of line summary? Gut instinct is that I don't think that anarchists have raised a strong enough challenge to status quo political theory.

    I admit I haven't read the literature, but in my head if the argument was strong/good enough generic political philosophy students would be swayed and supporters would grow until mainstream political theory was forced to address the issue. Having said this I really do think the onus is on anarchism to build support before PT theorists should be expected to invest significant resources in building a response that is more substantial than: "This is untenable on a large enough scale to impact the issues that we care about e.g. global poverty".

    This is beginning to sound really arrogant/dismissive – I actually conceptually like a lot about anarchism! – I just feel it falls down badly at the viability hurdle…

  8. I think its a mistake to assume that if the argument was good enough then it would have convinced students and political theorists by now. We don't come to arguments from a neutral and untainted perspective but with the baggage of our wider social and economic backgrounds and experiences. Those backgrounds are quite hostile to radical thought such as Marxism, socialism, feminism and anarchism.

    Furthermore I think its strange to say the onus is on anarchists. Social and political movements across the world are increasingly drawing on anarchist ideas (though not always calling themselves anarchist) about horizontalism, direct action, and consensus democracy. Prominent examples include the Occupy movement, the indignados in Spain, the Zapatista's in Mexico and Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa. Basically the onus is on political theory to engage with this stuff because if it doesn't its going to be increasingly outdated and irrelevant to activists.

  9. Kathie, thanks for raising this question! To add another dimension to the debate: isn’t the basic assumption by many political theorists that there is always going to be power in society, and that nation states *can* be a way of organizing this power in ways that harm the society less than other ways? So this is also a pragmatic argument, but with a bit more background than „this is the way things are“. So from this position you could ask those who don’t accept states two questions: 1) do you really think that the absence of a state would lead to the absence of unequal power? (Looking at what happens when states withdraw from even just one sphere, i.e. the economy, doesn’t make me too optimistic that the answer could be „yes“), 2) If there is going to be unequal power in the foreseeable future, why not try to organize it such that those in power can be removed without violence and there is at least a minimum of accountability? What you then end up with could be called „state“ (which, to note, is a different definition (and a more „normative“ one) than the one Will suggested above, so might be worth clarifying what yours is).
    That does not mean, though, that we couldn’t have many alternative forms of political organizations, and that we should maybe be more realistic in what forms of power we consider legitimate or illegitimate. In the international sphere, this is happening at the moment: some multinationals take on „state“ functions in some areas (e.g. building roads, providing hospitals – not necessarily for the „right“ reasons, of course), and there is a lot of talk about „soft law“ and „Post-Westphalian“ governance regimes. A morally *very* grey area, I would say…

  10. Interesting post Katie, and very timely given that while we think through questions of global justice, the state becomes increasingly under question. I enter a question within the dialogues above, but one separate thought that might be worth entering is that it could be useful to disaggregate what is meant by ‘the state’. In a certain sense that may look obvious, but for this analysis, it might be useful to separate different components. Often with this term, we mean the idea of a Westphalian sovereign state, but this idea can be broken into components. Caney (Justice Beyond Borders) separates it into: 1) a legal entity, 2) with ultimate authority, 3) over a particular territory, 4) with a comprehensive remit. I think the separation is useful because we might find that we should value particular features of states whilst other features might be less valuable or worth abandoning. For example, we might keep 1 and 3 in place, whilst relaxing 2 and 4 by giving power to global institutions on some issues. Arguably, that is what has happened in the EU and it might be defended on the hybrid grounds that collective self-determination of a territorial group is valuable provided it is set within constraints (both internal and external) permitted by global justice. Not suggesting that this argument works; I mean only to highlight that separating the components might help isolate what precisely, if anything, is valuable about the state.

  11. I was not sure where to enter this question because it picks up on both this thread and Lisa's comment below, but I wonder if you draw too stark a line between the latter two of your arguments. Perhaps the argument for the state is not so much that the ‘justice-promoting’ claim that they are ‘the best organization’ or the pragmatic case that they simply do exist, but somewhere in-between: that from our experience thus far, states, in some form, have been the best we have found for large-scale executions of justice. My own sense would be that a legal entity governing a particular territory with ultimate authority over a reasonable range of issues has been a good mechanism for resolving many collective action problems, primarily by overcoming epistemic and bias problems that make it difficult for smaller groups (such as those you mention) to meet their duties of justice, especially to those outside their community. Like Lisa, I have some sympathy for dispersing some powers to other actors – global institutions would be my suggestion, because they help resolve the same problems at the inter-state level. And as you say, it is largely an empirical issue. I do not know enough either way to judge this issue finally (perhaps there is no one, fixed answer). But I wonder whether your argument needs to do more than pose the question: what makes a state the most valuable form of political community? Advocates of the state may be able to offer, at least, a pragmatic argument in response. And would that not suffice without clear evidence of large-scale execution of justice through alternative structures?

  12. So I do think your argument is very much in the pragmatic camp. What I wanted to highlight is that there are no intrinsic reasons why the state should be the prime site of political authority. All arguments in favour of the state rely on some sort of pragmatic/empirical position that they are the best. And I think, given that deciding the way we organise our politics is very important, this can not be decided on assertion. My position is that political theorists are too quick to assume that the state is the best institution. And because of the lack of funding/interest in research on these questions – we don't actually have a comprehensive assessment of whether the state really is the best institution available to us. I can't pretend to know, but I would certainly like more people to think and do research about it.

  13. And responding more directly to Will's original comment, I am happy for the sake of the argument to use Andrews definition (borrowed from Caney) of the state: " 1) a legal entity, 2) with ultimate authority, 3) over a particular territory, 4) with a comprehensive remit"

    I feel your second half of your comment was questioning how alternatives to the state would look. It would involve changing any of the above 4) criteria. For example, Andrew and Lisa have both suggested relaxing 4) and ceding authority to higher or lower political institutions. To give an example of a more radically different version. It may involve relaxing the requirement of political institutions tied to particular territories. Think of nomadic-pastoralists that travel huge distances every year. Creating a new political institutions, which are not tied to territory and are rather totally dependent upon self-identification as a member of that group (and the self-identification is like the implied social contract in being born in a liberal state), may be very useful and relevant for this community. O'Neil also suggests looking seriously at transnational institutions (such as Oxfam etc) as important mechanisms for promoting justice. I hope that helps explain what alternatives may look like.

  14. I agree with Bruno. And given that this is the decision of how we structure our political organisation (quite an important question), I think suggesting that 'the onus is on anarchists' to make us care is not a sensible position.

  15. I find your arguments against dismantling the state very interesting (and I am sympathetic to them). But I would like to clarify a couple of points. 1) To clarify my position: Questioning the primacy of the state does not mean I am an anarchist. Instead I would like serious consideration of whether the state (as an institution) is doing a good job and whether alternative political arrangements would be more effective. Which leads me onto my second point 2) I don't believe that there are only two options, anarchy or the state, instead I believe there are many forms of political organisations available to us and we should spend some time working out what these are, whether they would be better and, if they are, is the process of changing the state system feasible (read: more hassle than it is worth).

  16. I very much like your definition, thanks Andrew.

  17. I think you are quite right that more detailed attention would be a good idea, Katie; that is probably almost always true. I guess that much of the literature in the history of political thought of, say, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau etc. does delve into the problem, though. It is also receiving somewhat increased attention recently in an age when post-national structures are becoming more prevalent. Have you seen Risse's discussion in On Global Justice?

  18. I’m very much with you on there being different arrangements of how power is organized, and I agree that research on that is very worthwhile! One more point, which would need more empirical input to be an argument, so it’s just a thought here: the Holy Roman Empire (not the Roman one, but the Medieval one) was a „mixed constitution“ in which you had very many different authorities, often not tied to territory (for example, the members of a university in a town would have their own jurisdiction about certain forms of misbehaviour). One point to make about this is that it can (not: has to!) lead to very complex situations, which struggles about which court is responsible, etc., which could considerably weaken the legal security for subject (that’s part of what’s going on in Michael Kohlhaas). On the other hand, some historians argue that the competition between different jurisdictions was beneficial to economic and cultural development, because it created room for experimenting with different institutional structures. The question is whether you could have this beneficial effect without the other, less beneficial effect.

  19. I want to avoid too many interpretative discussions on what Hobbes, Locke etc were trying to do (and you are much better qualified on this than I am). But I am going to make the tentative suggestion that the justifications provided for the state in Locke, Hobbes (and I know Rousseau less) are really arguing against anarchy. So I read them as arguing for political authority versus 'the state of nature' (a hypothetical situation where there is no political authority or organisation). I think those arguments may justify the existence of political authority, but it doesn't answer the question of why the state versus other forms of political organisation? Of the political theory I have read, in the mainstream literature considering alternatives to the state is not something which has been taken too seriously. Although there are interesting work done by Benhabib and O'Neil along with useful anarchist discussions by Kropotkin (thanks Bruno) and Scott. These works remain few and/or marginalised in mainstream political theory discussions. I don't know Risse's work, and will take a look (roughly what does Risse argue?)

  20. Not surprisingly I also agree with Bruno. I have often taught anarchist theory (Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman etc) to my students and they come to the subject with immense baggage (even more than they do to feminism, queer theory etc) which is always difficult but by the end of the course/discussion they are very interested in questions of vertical vs horizontal politics, alternative structure of gvt, empowerment vs hierarchical modes of power, direct action, prefiguration (which connects directly to Kant's means/ends and Arendt's reading of the third critique). I want to recommend Emma Goldman's 1910 text on anarchism which tries to counter the two easy objections/assumptions about anarchism being impractical and violent. As Bruno said many theorists today on the left make recourse to anarchist theory and praxis without calling it anarchism because of all the baggage and also as PT we should try to understand what is going on around the globe (Gezi, Tahir, Occupy) and this cannot be done without anarchist theory.

  21. I am probably partly with you on the point about historical thought. Only partly because I think it depends on how one focuses ideas. E.g., Hobbes' thesis can be read as a case for authority against anarchy, but its facets could also give reasons to think that multiple authorities within jurisdictions are problematic, or, in other words, that dispersing sovereignty across different levels and domains (aspects 2 & 4 in my definition below) will have similar problems to the state of nature. Similarly, perhaps Rousseau's ideas on interaction and social bonds problematise the thought that we can drop the territoriality dimension (something pursued more recently in arguments about global democracy). I am not sure anything here challenges your claim that more focus could be put on the precise question of 'alternatives to the state'. I think I am suggesting only that there might be a larger amount of relevant analysis if the question is understood as 'exploring the merits and demerits of particular features of different types of political organisation'. Similar things could be said of Caney, Miller, Pogge, Cohen & Sabel…

    Re. Risse: there probably is not space here to recount a summary (perhaps, crudely, his view is not so far from the pragmatic answer I suggested above), but worth saying that he is a theorist who takes the question of 'what justifies the state' very seriously and does heed to the questions you are posing.

  22. I think Anya's point is really important. Its not about being taught that anarchism is 'correct' but opening up students minds to alternative ways of thinking about politics and social organisation. Students might not be convinced by every claim made by the various anarchist thinkers, movements and traditions (I'm not either), but they hopefully become more critical towards hierarchical forms of social and political organisation.

    By studying anarchist theory and practice (here I'm thinking particularly of examples like the anarchist collectives during the Spanish revolution) students get to see that capitalism and a centralised state are not the only ways of organising things. At the moment political theory and academia don't do enough to show this alternative.

  23. Hmmm in attempting to reply to this I must admit I find myself rapidly retreating from some of the positions I've put forth and deeply confused. If I come up with some better ideas I'll come back.

    I don't think anyone has disagreed with teaching anarchism to students though.

  24. In a similar way nobody disagrees with teaching feminism but most people don't unless pushed to do so. I am surprised by how rarely thinkers from an anarchist line are included in political theory syllabi especially those with directly engage with questions of state, capital and neo-liberalism.

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