The word ‘state’ derives from the Latin word stare (to stand) and more specifically from status (a standing or condition). Clearly, we need to think how this relates to the function or the role of the state today. Did the state always mean the same set of institutions as it does now?
When we use the word ‘state’, it refers to the modem state, a form of political organization that could be said to have evolved in early modern Europe, and was transmitted primarily through colonialism to other parts of the world. Thus, the modern state and the modern system of states have not been permanent and universal features of human history.
Further, we can say that the trajectory of the development of the state in other parts of the world has been very different from that in Europe.
Many political philosophers point out that the idea of the modern state could be traced to the late medieval ages, especially in the writings of Nicolo Machiavelli, who is often credited with first using the concept of the state-stato-to refer to a territorial sovereign government in his work If Principe or The Prince, which was published in 1532.
Skinner points out that Machiavelli’s use of the word Lo Stato was different from the use of the word ‘state’ in modern times. When he used the word for the first time, it did not have the impersonal standing as it does now. Rather, the state then meant that it was someone’s state: the prince’s or the monarch’s.
Machiavelli’s treatise was intended as a guide to the ruler for the maintenance of political power. It attained infamy for advising the prince to do whatever is necessary to maintain power. What is important for us here is that when Machiavelli talks about political power, he begins and ends with one individual: the prince, who is the sovereign. So, the state meant the prince’s state.
In Western political theory, it is with Hobbes that the theorization of power moves on to an abstract, non-human entity, the modern sovereign state.
What is distinctive about the modern state in-terms of its difference from earlier kingships is the distinction between the rulers, and the office and institutions they occupy. Thus, the modern state is characterized by its impersonal standing.
The current holders of power in the government do not constitute the state. The state exists before they come to power and continues to be there after they leave.
It aims to gain autonomy from the contending parties or groups that come to hold political power. It is for this reason that the state is said to be abstracted from the power holders.
The modern state is a public order distinct from and located above both the ruler and the ruled.
With the dissolution of feudal system and erosion of the authority of the church, new individualism appeared which demanded greater freedom for man. A political system was needed in accordance with the new ideas and new conditions. This took the form of the nation state. As population became stationary and common interest developed, it became increasingly evident that new State would, in general, follow geographic and ethnic lines. Bonds of nationality and language strengthened by natural boundaries, group the feudal fragments into more and more permanent combinations.
This process led to the emergence of France, Spain, England, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Russia and Italy as the nation states. This separation of territories into distinct states, each with its own national spirit, destroyed the idea of a common superior and paved the way for the rise of international law and the modern theory of sovereignty and legal equality of states.
The earlier nation-states were largely monarchies. However, since the 18th century, there has been a slow transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and democracy in large parts of Europe.
In some countries, such as England, the transition to democracy was relatively peaceful, while in France, it was brought about by a violent revolution. In any case, with the growth and expansion of democracy, the principles of liberty, equality, popular sovereignty and rule of law came to be established as the principles of government in a large part of Europe.
The emergence of the modern state in Europe is linked to the differentiation of various spheres of people’s lives. It identifies the political sphere, and is at its apex. It is concerned only with the political aspects of the lives of the people living within it, though it is debatable what the realm of the political is. Is the political concerned only with formal institutions of power? The distinction between civil society and the state is based on the recognition that individuals who are subject to the power of the state also have capacities and interests of a non-political nature.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, political power was held by several different sources. These included the Church, the king, and the feudal lords. There was no clear differentiation of political functions. The same set of political functions: declaration of war, collection of taxes, etc, could be performed by different sources of authority. The Church and the king had their own armies and they both had the power to declare war.
The Peace of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 concluded a series of religious wars among the main European powers, and led to an undermining of the power of the Church, giving the king authority over his own realm. It led to the strengthening of a new conception of international law based on the principle that all states have an equal right to self- determination. The earlier dispersed political authority was replaced by what would eventually lead to centralized modern authority, and the state came to be the source of political authority.
David Held identifies the following features of the Westphalian model:
The world consists of and is divided by, sovereign states that recognize no superior authority.
The processes of law-making, the settlement of disputes and law enforcement are largely in the hands of individual states.
International law is oriented towards the establishment of minimal rules of coexistence; the creation of enduring relationships is an aim, but only to the extent that it allows state objectives to be met.
Responsibility for wrongful acts across the border is a ‘private matter’ concerning only those affected.
All states are regarded as equal before the law, but legal rules do not take account of asymmetries of power.
Differences among states are often settled by force; the principle of effective power holds sway. Virtually no legal fetters exist to curb the resort to force; international legal standards afford only minimal protection.
The collective priority of all states should be to minimize the impediments to state freedom.
Sovereignty refers to the state being the ultimate source of political authority within the territory under its Jurisdiction. There are two aspects of sovereignty internal and external.
Internal sovereignty refers to the fact that within its boundaries, there are no authorities higher than the state. The state is supreme, and a citizen cannot appeal against the state to any other authority. The state has the right to make binding decisions upon its citizens and upon those who enter its territory.
External sovereignty of the state refers to the recognition that other states accord to a particular state, and the acceptance that the state can speak for its citizens in international affairs. External sovereignty implies the autonomy and independence of the state in the international sphere.
The sovereignty of the state can be challenged in many ways; the state might surreptitiously lose its sovereignty despite having voluntarily entered into international treaties, or other states might intervene in the affairs of the state on the grounds of a deemed violation of human rights, the possession of weapons of mass destruction, etc.
The state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of coercion is reflected in the institutions of the armed forces, the paramilitary forces, and the police. These reflect the immense power that the state has over people’s lives.
Imprisonment, death penalty, declaration of war-all these involve the use of violence, and only the state is entitled to the legitimate use of these powers. That is why the state is said to have a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.
The coercive institutions help to maintain the supremacy or the sovereignty of the state, and to ensure the observance of laws and the maintenance of order when these are considered to be infringed.
The modern state is territorially based. This means that the state exercises its authority within its territorial borders which are acknowledged by other states. This acknowledgement distinguishes the state from other forms of political organizations, where governance is over people rather than over land, and people allegiances are not territorially determined. So one’s rights and duties depend on one’s place in the hierarchical social order within a tribe or clan or other forms of ethnic organization.
For instance, in India, one’s location in the hierarchical structure of the caste system still tends to determine one’s rights and duties.
The modern state has no authority outside its borders, and no other state possesses authority within another state’s borders. Within the boundaries of the state, there is a single system of governance, distinct from others that operate externally. The territorial foundations of the state distinguish it from other types of organizations and associations, which could be religious. The demands for statehood by groups are often for the recognition of the claim to territory.
One of the most tragic, poignant, and complex struggles over the claim to territory in the recent past has been the Palestine-Israeli conflict. The Palestinian struggle for statehood could be a struggle for the recognition of the claim to the land.
The stability of the nation-state system has led to the vast development of international and international organizations to regulate the behavior of nation-states, international transactions, to ensure collaboration in the development of science and technology, art, literature and culture as also to tackle global problems like prevention of atmospheric pollution, sharing of rare but essential resources, saving humanity from injustice and so on.