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  • Beyond Max Weber:The need for a democratic (not aristocratic) theory of the modern state
  • William J. Novak (bio)

The State must always be rediscovered.”

John Dewey

I – Introduction: The problem of the state

The State is a difficult concept. Listen to two of the foremost social theorists of our age articulate its historic elusiveness.

The further I advance in my own work on the state, the more convinced I am that, if we have a particular difficulty in conceiving this object, it is because it is … almost unthinkable … The state is a well-founded illusion; this place exists essentially because people believe that it exists. This illusory reality, collectively validated by consensus, is the site that you are headed toward when you go backward from a certain number of phenomena … This mysterious reality exists through its effects. It is something that you cannot lay your hands on, or tackle in the way that people from the Marxist tradition do when they say ‘the state does this,” “the state does that”… That is a very dangerous fiction… All sentences that have the state as subject are theological sentences … in as much as the state is a theological entity, that is, an entity that exists by way of belief.

You will, of course, put to me the question, or make the objection: Once again you do without a theory of the state. Well, I would reply, yes, I do, I want to, I must do without a theory of the state, as one can and must forgo an indigestible meal… The state does not have an essence. The state is not a universal nor in itself an autonomous source of power. The state is nothing else but the effect, the profile, the mobile shape of a perpetual statification (étatisation) or statifications, in the [End Page 43] sense of incessant transactions which modify, or move, or drastically change, or insidiously shift sources of finance, modes of investment, decision-making centers, forms and types of control, relationships between local powers, the central authority, and so on. In short, the state has no heart, as we well know, but not just in the sense that it has no feelings, either good or bad, but it has no heart in the sense that it has no interior.

The first quotation, of course, comes from the recent translation of Pierre Bourdieu’s lectures Sur l’État at the Collège de France on January 18, 1990.1 The second, almost as easily recognizable, comes from Michel Foucault’s posthumously published Collège de France lectures on Biopolitics eleven years before on January 31, 1979.2 No wonder comprehensive theoretical treatises on the State per se remain so scarce. No wonder some of our greatest interpreters of modern society, polity, and economy never completed systematic studies of the State.

Moreover, recognition of the inherent difficulty of the State concept is not just a recent discovery. In The Public and Its Problems (1927), the prolific American political philosopher John Dewey anticipated Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s troubled reflections by some fifty years:

The concept of the state, like most concepts which are introduced by ‘The,’ is both too rigid and too tied up with controversies to be of ready use. It is a concept which can be approached by a flank movement more easily than by a frontal attack. The moment we utter the words ‘The State,’ a score of intellectual ghosts rise to obscure our vision. Without our intention and without our notice, the notion of ‘The State,’ draws us imperceptibly into a consideration of the logical relationship of various ideas to one another, and away from facts of human activity.3

For almost a hundred years, then, there has been a remarkable intellectual consensus among some of our greatest thinkers and theorists, that the concept of the State is difficult, thorny, murky, and frustratingly complex. During the very century in which the modern state took center stage in history – expanding, extending, and propagating often with the most extreme consequences for populations and competing jurisdictions – theorists have struggled to reckon with exactly what was entailed by this forceful new actor in the world theater. Strangely...


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