Distinction between the notion of State and Society is necessary because “to identify the social with the political is to be guilty of the grossest of all confusions, which completely bars any understanding of either society or State.” To equate the State with society is to justify State interference in all aspects of human life, Thereby significantly affecting individual liberty.
Aristotle’s State was an omnicompetent State as he saw no difference between the State and society. A dictator, too, will pay scant attention to this distinction. There is no sphere of life which a dictator’s State will not cover. For Hitler and Mussolini there was nothing above the State, nothing beyond it, nothing besides it.
Society is the product of man’s instinctive desire for association which finds expression in the aggregation of people having common interests and united together by what may be called “consciousness of the kind.” The people who live together think alike, associate with one another, and make common efforts for a common purpose or plan. They establish, what Sociologists call, “functional” institutions for the realization of that common purposes which associated men together. It may be a club, a debating society, a religious, economic or political association. All combined together make the social structure and aim to serve the various purposes for which the society came into existence. “Social relations are threads of life” and social institutions “form the loom on which the threads are woven into a cloth or garment.”
Society stands for the whole scheme of life and it is interwoven by different associations which serve different purposes to complete the whole purpose of life. Political purpose is one of those purposes and it is performed by the State. The State is, therefore, one of these “functional” institutions, the creation of man’s will and reason. It is organized in a special way to secure certain results. It emerges and exists within society, but “is not”, as Maclver says, “Even the form of society.” The geographical areas of the State and society may be the same and their membership may also be identical, but they are distinct in origins, aims and functions.
The State exists for one single purpose and its functions are relative to that purpose. Society exists for a number of purposes, “some great and some small, but all in their aggregate deep as well as broad.” The organization of the State “is not all social organization,” as Maclver puts it, “the ends for which the State stands are not all the ends which humanity seeks, and quite obviously the ways in which the State pursues its object are only some of the ways in which within society, men strive for the objects of their desire.
Since society is natural and instinctive and the State is the creation of will and reason, society is prior to the State and it embraces all communities organized and unorganized. Organization is not the essential characteristic of society. But the State must necessarily be organized.
The Pathans of the Tribal Area, on the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, do not form a State, though every tribe is a distinct social unit. Similarly, certain groups of Eskimos have no recognizable political organization.
Writers like Plato and Aristotle did not make any distinction between state and society. That was partly due to the peculiar circumstances prevailing in the Greek city states which were small in area and compact in population. Their problems were simple and they could consider the city as an all-embracing organisation covering the whole of the life of man. Their attitude was: “She is ours and we are hers”. The Greek city was the state, the church and the school, all in one. The Greek theory was one of omnicompetent “society-state”.
Like the Greeks, the Idealists like Hegel did not make any distinction between state and society. However, the relation of state and society has been correctly described by Barker in these words: “They overlap, they blend, they borrow from one another. But roughly, we may say that the area of the one is voluntary cooperation, its energy that of goodwill, its method that of elasticity; while the area of the other is rather that of mechanical action, its energy is force and its method is rigidity.”
According to Maclver, “There are social forms like the family or the church or the club which owe neither their origin nor their inspiration to the state; and social forces like custom or competition which the state may protect or modify, but certainly does not create; and social motives like friendship or jealousy which establish relationship too intimate and personal to be controlled by the great engine of the state.” Again, “The state is a structure not coeval and co-extensive with society, but built within it as a determinate order for the attainment of specific ends.”
The scope of society is much wider than that of the state. The state deals only with the political aspect of the life of man while society is concerned with the whole of his life. It is concerned with the religious, moral, physical and social aspects of his life. There is no aspect of his life with which society is not concerned. However, experience shows that it is neither desirable nor practicable to give all that control to the state.
Barker points out that the state and society differs from each other with regard to their purpose or function, organisation, structure and method. As regards the purpose, the state is a legal association which acts for the single legal purpose of making and enforcing a permanent system of law and order, but society acts for a variety of purposes other than the legal purpose. To quote Barker, “The state exists for one great but single purpose; society exists for a number of purposes, some great and some small, but all, in their aggregate, deep as well as broad.” As regards organisation and structure, the state is a single organisation but society has many organisations within itself. As regards method, the state employs the method of coercion or compulsion, but society that of persuasion.
The State is definitely a territorial organization.Society recognizes no territorial limitations. Its branches may be spread in other parts of the universe too. Then, society embraces the whole life of man and all those social ties, like the family, the caste, the church, the club, etc., which bind men together. The State is concerned only with those social relationships that express themselves through the government. It has no jurisdiction over others. Maclver has beautifully expressed this difference. He says that “there are social forms, like the family or the church or the club, which owe neither their origin nor their inspiration to the State; and social forces, like custom or competition, which the State may protect or modify, but certainly does not create; and social motives, like friendship or jealousy, Which establish relationships too intimate and personal to be controlled by the great engine of the State.
The State is sovereign and it lays down a system of imperatives. If one disobeys the imperatives of the State, which take the form of laws, one can be punished. But society does not possess coercive power. That is the monopoly of the State. Society, no doubt, has its own rules which regulate social behaviour, but they are not imperatives. They are simply rules of conduct, which the members of society are desired to observe. It has no authority to force obedience. Nor can it physically punish those who disobey its rules. Society ensures the observance of its rules by persuasion, and appeal to the goodwill of its members. Barker rightly says, “The area of society is voluntary cooperation, its energy is good-will and its method is elasticity, while the area of the State is mechanical action, its energy is force and its method is rigidity.”
While the State is not identical with society, yet it provides the framework of the social order. According to Laski, the State is a way of regulating human conduct. “Any analysis of its character reveals it as a method of imposing principles of behavior by which men must regulate their lives.” The conditions in which we are born, grow up, are educated, work, enjoy our leisure; own property, marry, have children and die, are all laid down by the State, and the government can compel us to comply with them. All births must be registered otherwise all kinds of complications can arise. Similarly, parents are obliged to send their children to school for a certain number of years. They are obliged to notify the authorities if they suffer from certain infectious diseases. Citizens must pay taxes to the State, whether they approve of the use to which the money is put or not. They must clothe themselves decently, behave with propriety in the streets, avoid making themselves a nuisance to their neighbors, and they must respect the persons and property of other people. There is, in fact, hardly a single human activity which is not in some way regulated by the State. All conduct in society must conform to the way of life prescribed by the laws of the State, as the State makes and maintains its laws not for the sake of laws, but for what they do to individual lives.
The State, thus, represents the highest form of social organization and it exists to regulate and cement social relations. It binds people together and enjoins upon them to observe certain uniform rules of behavior, without which we cannot think of a well-ordered social life.
It may, however, again be emphasized that “the State is a structure not co-eval and co-extensive with society, but built within it as a determinate order for the attainment of a specific end.” The end of the State is to provide those conditions of togetherness without which the happiness of man cannot be secured. But the State can serve its purpose best when it performs it own functions efficiently and refrains from trespassing into others. If it does, then the State stands equated with society embracing the whole life of man. This will make the State omnicompetent and omnicompetence really means incompetence. It may mean even something more. The happiness of the individual may be sacrificed in the name of the glory and prosperity of the State.
In this way, all social activities, which constitute the social order, will ultimately be at the mercy of the government, for “the State is”, as Laski says, “for the purpose of practical administration, the government.” The government may prescribe anything which it may like and as it likes. But this is neither the way of the State nor that of the government. The State is the creation and agent of society and, therefore, it’s subordinate. Both society and the State strive to achieve the common objective: the free development of man’s personality; his happiness. This is possible only when the distinction and collaboration between the two is properly recognized.
Following is the summary to clarify the points involved in the discussion:
Society is instinctive to man and is spontaneous in its growth and development. Maclver says, “Wherever living beings enter into, or maintain, willed relations with one another, there society exists.” The State is one of the associations contained within society, the creation of man’s will and reason to maintain and cement the various aspects of social life. Two results, then, follow:
Society is both prior to and wider than the State; and
Society is a complex of all such associations as economic, educational, religious, political and cultural.
Society precedes the State just as it precedes the family, the church, the corporation, the political party. It unites all these as a tree unites its branches. The State is one of these associations, and it has become the most prominent of all because it controls and coordinates the various aspects of social life.
The purposes of society are many and diverse whereas the purpose of the State is only one; its political organization and its end is related to its purpose to which it must confine itself.
The State is definitely territorial, society is not. Loyalty to the State does not exhaust all the social obligations of man.
The structure of society is elastic and it is based upon the voluntary cooperation of its members; it appeals and persuades. The State is compact, its actions are mechanical, its methods are rigid and its power is force.
The State issues orders and their disobedience is accompanied by physical punishment. Society acts upon its members through customs, Conventions and moral rules. It exercises social pressures but not force.
In spite of these differences between society and the State, they are connected and inter-dependent. Social conduct must conform to the way of life prescribed by the laws of the State. But the State must not trespass into the sphere not assigned to its jurisdiction.