The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics

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Mitchell argues that the boundaries between the state and the society have always been porous, elusive and mobile, which is an indicator of the nature of the state. Neither rejecting the idea of state in favor of some concepts like the political system, nor bringing it back in is not feasible ways to understand the nature of the state. The former has already been disapproved while the second takes the state-society relations only as an external one. What Mitchell argues is that these relations has more than being an external relationship but is one of more complex power relations.
 
Mitchell starts his article with a literature review on the definition of the state. Starting from the post-war period American political science has offered two alternative responses: 1- to abandon the state as a concept too vague and too narrow to be the basis of a general science of politics, replacing it most frequently with the concept of political system; 2- since 1970s, bringing the state back in; state is not just distinguishable from society but partially or wholly autonomous from it; 3- the elusiveness of the state-society boundary needs to be taken seriously, not as a problem of conceptual precision but as a clue to the nature of the phenomenon. The distinction must be taken not as a boundary between two discrete entities, but as a line drawn internally within the network institutional mechanisms through which a social and political order maintained.
 
Why the state was abandoned: seeking a “total science”: (Gabriel Almond, David Easton)
The word state suffered from two weaknesses: 1- its meaning is vague producing disagreement about exactly what is referred to; 2- even if agreement might be reached, the term excluded important aspects of the political process. Comparative politics scholars dropped the concept because they wanted to broaden their concern and expand the territory of the discipline to a total science (Loewenstein). By 1950s, this concern became more urgent when American optimism had turned into political uncertainty. This approached criticized the too great emphasis on the formal aspects of institutions and processes. One of their main aim was to understand the expansion of Communism in non-Soviet areas and also expand the Anglo-American values to the newly independent colonized parts of the world.
 
It had a promising scientificity which seemed to overcome the ambiguity of the state and its boundaries. Its totalizing ambition presented the possibility of a science whose object, the political system has no discernible limits.
 
Easton’s systems approach depends on the political being clearly distinguishable form its social environment. The distinction exists mainly as a consequence of speaking of politics as a system. Basic tenets of the theory reflect a phenomenon arising only from the very idea of the system.
Far from solving the problem of the uncertain boundary between state and society by substituting the enlarged but sharply defined edges of a self-contained system, the systems approach unfolded the very space of the boundary into a limitless and undetermined terrain.
 
 
The return of the state: (Eric Nordlinger, Stephen Krasner, Theda Skocpol)
 
Easton: “The state is less an analytical tool than a symbol for unity, a myth. It represents something transcendental that symbolizes the inescapable unity of one people on one soil.” But the concept of the state refused to disappear.
 
Nettl: “The state is essentially a socio-cultural phenomenon which occurs due to the cultural disposition among a people to recognize the state’s conceptual existence. Politics is a process built out of shared constructs and a construct like the state occurs not merely as a subjective belief incorporated in the thinking and the action of individuals.
 
Krasner: “The lines between state and society have become blurred. This new understanding located the focus of state not in the monopolistic organization of coercion or in the arrangements that maintain a given relationship between the producers of capital and its owners but in the formation and expression of authoritative intentions.
 
Nordlinger: “The core of the statist perspective is to begin with public officials forming their own policy preferences. Is the state acting on its own policy preferences, translating them into public policy?” Starting form an individual level creates the effect of an autonomous state. State is determined to be originally subjective, composed of individual preferences.
According to Mitchell, this idea collapses as soon as one moves away from this point. Subjectivity needs societal support but it is not introduced until it is evident that statist arguments are not sufficient. 
 
Nordlinger then turns to various structural features of the state that he had originally rejected as many aspects of the state definition. Then he looks at society centered explanations to ask how the structural features of the state are determined. Nordlinger concludes that the statist approach creates a state not simply autonomous from society but one that acts in the national interest.
 
Krasner: “The state should be understood essentially as a subjective process of policy making.” State is an autonomous promoter of collective goals by excluding fro consideration state organs that sometimes fail to live up to this vision.
 
Ideological justifications were adapted according to political need, or reflected conflicts within the administration or were simply a confused attempt to defend a war in which even those responsible no longer believed. “hallmark of an ideological foreign policy”
 
The possibility of economic interests might have played a role in prolonging the war is dismissed. State autonomy rests on single assertion. The amorphous object of analysis is reduced to something called policy; intentions and desires of some certain state officials. The state is the embodied national interest and examined as a self-generated and governing idealism.
 
Skocpol: She writes on New Deal years and explicitly rejects a voluntarist approach to the study of the state. First she narrows the definition of the state to ensure that apparatuses into which nonstate elements may penetrate are excluded. Skocpol distinguishes fundamental state organizations from the broader political system. State organizations represent only a part of overall political systems which may include institutions through which social interests are represented in state policymaking as well as institutions through which nonstate actors are mobilized to participate in policy implementation. Autonomy of the state must be construed not in relation to any broader commercial or political interests but as the state’s independent desire.
 
Skocpol takes the examples of French, Russian and Chinese monarchies and concludes that in all three cases the provincial and local power of the state is inseparable from the political power of the landed classes.
 
Mitchell: there is a common problem experienced by all three authors. The edges of the state are uncertain, societal elements seem to penetrate it on all sides and the resulting boundary between the state and society is difficult to determine. The conflict between different parts of the state apparatus is an important indication of the permeability of state boundaries because it enables one to trace how wider social differences reproduce themselves within the processes of the state. For example Skocpol argues that state and party organizations should be treated as independent determinants of political outcomes for they have their own structures and histories which in turn have their own impact upon society.
 
An alternative approach:
 
This approach begins with the elusive, uncertain boundary between the state and the society. The boundary of the state or the political system never marks a real exterior. The line is drawn internally within the network of institutional mechanisms through which a certain social and political order is maintained. There are always conflict between the state and the society as there are between different government agencies between corporate organizations and within each of them. We should not be misled by the idea that state is a coherent object clearly separate from the society.
 
The task of a critique of the state is not just to reject such metaphysics but to explain how it has been possible to produce this practical yet ghost-like effect. System theorists ignore practical questions about the state like the distinctiveness of the state in the modern age. State theorists also ignored these questions, even the ones who adopted a historical approach like Skocpol.
 
Here comes Mitchell’s own argument; he makes use of Foucaldian term, disciplines. The state is the sum of disciplinary methods of enframing, partitioning and surveillance. By using this approach, we can move beyond the image of power as essentially a system of authoritative commands or policies backed by force. Other theorists have taken power as an exterior constraint, however disciplinary power works not from the outside but from within, not at the level of an entire society but at the level of detail and not by constraining individuals and their actions but by producing them. They also produce the modern, individual, productive political object. Power relations do not simply confront this individual as a set of external orders and prohibitions.
 
Resistance movements often derive their organizational forms from the military and their methods of discipline and indoctrination from schooling. Political subjects and their modes of resistance are formed as much within the organizational terrain we call the state, rather than in some wholly exterior social space. 
 
State is not the actual structure but the powerful metaphysical effect of practices that make structures appear to exist. Frontiers are one of the characteristics of the modern state that practically defines and constitutes a national entity, which seems more than the sum of the everyday activities that constitutes it.
 
Structuralism, like arguments of Poulantzas, takes for granted the idea of structure; sharing the ideal-material dualism of the statist approaches. By approaching the state as an effect one can both acknowledge the power of the political arrangements that we call the state and at the same time account for their elusiveness.