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Reviewed by:
  • States and Citizens: history, theory, prospects
  • Jeremy Grest (bio)
Quentin Skinner and Bo Stråth (eds) (2003) States and Citizens: history, theory, prospects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

This volume of edited papers had its origins in a conference at the European University Institute, Florence, in 2000. The editors are both Professors of Modern History, at Cambridge, England and Florence, Italy, respectively. In their introduction they note the growing literature on the decline of the modern state and argue that its demise is not imminent or even readily imaginable. Taking the importance of the state as their point of departure, contributors to the volume look at its 'history, its theoretical underpinnings and its prospects in the contemporary world'. Six of the contributors are based in the UK, three in Florence, two in Paris and one each in Switzerland and the Netherlands. The majority are historians with various specialisations - Late Medieval History, Early Modern History, Contemporary History, European Intellectual History, etc, with political scientists, political theorists and political philosophers making up the balance.

The book is very much a European production. The editors have deliberately concentrated on the Western European experience of the state, which, it has to be said, is fully justified in terms of its importance as the cradle of the modern form which was then exported via colonisation and conquest to the rest of the globe, where it has had a very chequered history. State formation in Japan and China is not covered, neither do the two federated states which confronted each other for much of the twentieth century, the USA and the USSR, receive any attention. The only 'non European' state to receive attention is India, the world's greatest postcolonial democracy. The book is divided into five parts, with a total of 13 chapters and an introduction. Part one, with three chapters, is entitled [End Page 81] 'States and citizens: setting the scene', parts two and three, with two chapters each, deal with 'The medieval background' and 'Early-modern developments'. Parts four and five, with three chapters each, are entitled 'Citizens, states and modernity' and 'After the modern state'.

The first of the conceptual, scene-setting chapters, by Quentin Skinner, examines the idea of state power in relation to the freedom of citizens in the Anglophone context. Skinner provides a very useful review of leading traditions of thought about the concept of civil liberty. As one of the central issues in political philosophy today, the suggestion that the fundamental confrontation is between states and citizens is a modern one, in the sense that the issue first arose in the course of the constitutional upheavals of the seventeenth century in England. It was only once the opponents of the Stuart monarchy seriously began to question the powers of the crown in the 1640s that they started to describe themselves as freeborn citizens rather than subjects of their king. In the eighteenth century the idea that the freedom of citizens consisted in an absence of interference in their rights began to take hold, and has never really lost its dominance since then, despite attempts in the nineteenth century to expand the concept of freedom to take in the notion of real human interests. Skinner ends by looking at the moral limitations inherent in such a vision of the relationship between the freedom of citizens and the power of the state.

David Runciman's chapter 'The concept of the state: the sovereignty of a fiction' focuses on the elusiveness of the idea of the state, and the difficulty of identifying it with anyone or anything in particular. He emphasises the classic importance of Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) and then uses analogies with another powerful institution - money - to make the case that the fictional nature of the state does not undermine, but rather helps, explain its continued power over us.

Gianfranco Poggi's chapter looks at how the experience of citizenship has been conceptualised. He begins by asking what citizens look like when viewed from the vantage point of the state. He is very clear that they are in the first instance subjects, but have represented themselves to the state in a number of ways, as soldiers, as tax...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1726-1368
Print ISSN
0258-7696
Pages
pp. 81-86
Launched on MUSE
2005-11-16
Open Access
No
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