A state is a centralized political organization that imposes and enforces rules over a population within a territory. There is no undisputed definition of a state. A widely used definition from the German sociologist Max Weber is that a "state" is a polity that maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, although other definitions are not uncommon. A variety of forms of states have developed over time, which used many different justifications for their existence (such as divine right, the theory of the social contract, etc.)
State and Government
A state is not synonymous with a government, as stateless governments like the Haudenosaunee Confederacy exist. A state can be distinguished from a government. The state is the organization while the government is the particular group of people, the administrative bureaucracy that controls the state apparatus at a given time. That is, governments are the means through which state power is employed. States are served by a continuous succession of different governments. States are immaterial and nonphysical social objects, whereas governments are groups of people with certain coercive powers.
Each successive government is composed of a specialized and privileged body of individuals, who monopolize political decision-making, and are separated by status and organization from the population as a whole.
State and Nation
States can also be distinguished from the concept of a "nation", where "nation" refers to a cultural-political community of people. A nation-state refers to a situation where a single ethnicity is associated with a specific state.
State and civil society
Modern thought distinguished the nation state as a political society from civil society as a form of economic society. Thus in the modern thought the state is contrasted with civil society.
For most of human history, people have lived in stateless societies, characterized by a lack of concentrated authority, and the absence of large inequalities in economic and political power. As such, these societies can be seen as fundamentally against the state. Modern archaeological and anthropological evidence points to the existence of several non-stratified and politically decentralized complex societies.
Theoretic models to explain the existence of states
- Security-based explanations that emphasize the role of warfare,
- Economy-based explanations that emphasize trade, property rights and capitalism as drivers behind state formation, and
- Institutionalist theories that sees the state as an organizational form that is better able to resolve conflict and cooperation problems than competing political organizations.
Max Weber identified three main sources of political legitimacy in his works.
- Legitimacy based on traditional grounds is derived from a belief that things should be as they have been in the past, and that those who defend these traditions have a legitimate claim to power.
- Legitimacy based on charismatic leadership, is devotion to a leader or group that is viewed as exceptionally heroic or virtuous.
- Rational-legal authority, whereby legitimacy is derived from the belief that a certain group has been placed in power in a legal manner, and that their actions are justifiable according to a specific code of written laws. Weber believed that the modern state is characterized primarily by appeals to rational-legal authority.
Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state and hierarchies to be unnecessary and harmful and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy, a self-managed, self-governed society based on voluntary, cooperative institutions.
Anarchists believe that the state is inherently an instrument of domination and repression, no matter who is in control of it. Anarchists note that the state possesses the monopoly on the legal use of violence. Anarchists believe that the state apparatus should be completely dismantled (without a revolution, peacefully), and an alternative set of social relations created, which are not based on state power at all.