Ralph Milband wrote in his 1969 study of The State in Capitalist Society that ‘more than ever men now live in the shadow of the state’. It is argued that the state is the central political association, and that any study of politics is concerned with the analysis of this institution of set of institutions. The state is an abstraction, there is no such thing as the state as such, however, there are certain common feature that is common to all states which define what a state is.
Generally a group of people inhabiting a specific territory and living according to a common legal and political authority; a body politic or nation. Machiavelli and Hobbs spoke of the state as the greatest Leviathan or whale, a sovereign body artificially created by human reason, as a means of keeping order, of settling the conflicts which arose in society and which, if there were no state, would lead to the ruinous conflict and chaotic situation of a ‘war of all against all’.
Any society other than a totalitarian society necessarily contains different types of people with different interests. These interests will be reflected in its various forms of its institutions; a free society will allow the open expression of different points of view. By contrast, a totalitarian society forbids the existence of groups which are independent of the state. In this way, individuals become isolated or atomised, they can rely on no sectional group for protection against the state. Loyalty and obedience to the state are the only outward allegiance permitted. Hitler’s Third Reich, Mao’s china are terrible examples of ‘no individual outside the state'( Gentile).
In earlier societies there had been no army, police or governmental apparatus separate from the majority of people. Even some 50 or 60 years ago in parts of Africa, it was possible to find societies in which this was still so. Many of the tasks done by the state in our society were simply done informally by the whole population, or by meetings of representatives. Such meetings would judge the behavior of any individual who considered to have broken an important social rule. Punishment would be applied by the whole community- for example making miscreants to leave. Since everyone was agreed on the necessary punishment, separate police were not needed to put into effect.
Marx believed that once you had a society in which a minority had control over most of the wealth, these simply ways of keeping ‘law and order’ and organising welfare could no longer work. Any meeting of representatives or any gathering of the armed young men would likely be split along class lines. The privileged group could survive if it began to monopolise in its own hands the making and implementation of punishments, laws, the organisation of armies, the production of weapons.
So the seperation of classes was accompanied by the growth of judges, policemen, generals, bureaucrats, all of whom were given part of the wealth in the hands of the privileged class in return for protecting its rule. The ruling class, having armed a monster could not control it. But since wealth needed to keep the killing machine running came from the exploitation of the working mass. Marx believed that the state is dependent on its economically dominant class, which in capitalism is the bourgeoisie. So throughout history people who have really wanted to change society for the better have been up against not just the privileged class, but also an armed machine, a state, that serves its interest.
Quentin Skinner believes that the state is the sovereign body, in the sense of an institution superior to and different from the mass of the citizens. It is a separate apparatus of domination which exercises sovereign power. In Skinners words, ‘the state came to be accepted as the master noun of political argument. The state can be described as a set of institutions constituting a specialised apparatus of domination and a supreme law making and law enforcing agency for society.
Not only is the modern state distinct from society over which it rules, but it is also a centralised apparatus of power. Is the state in a relationship of neutrality towards the different groups which make up civil society, or is it one which exists to maintain a particular power relationship in civil society, with that of the ruling class. The problem with the relationship between state and society, is whether this vast machinery of domination, realised in the modern state as an impersonal apparatus of power, has interests of its own. Marxist theory suggests that it is one particular social interest (the economically dominant ruling class) which is dominant and reflected in state action.
Pierre Rosanvallon defines four aspects of this state- civil society relationship. The first is a democratic idea, according to which it is society as a whole which constitute and forms the state, secondly the state a nation-state, functioning as an instrument of cohesion, thirdly the state as a welfare state, as a means of providing people with the basic needs. Finally, the state as an economic regulator, as a steering the economy, intervening in the economy to secure such goods as full employment, monetary stability and economic growth. So the state is separate from society but exists in a relationship with society, a relationship which can be considered under Rosanvallon’s four aspects.
A pluralist model of society demands that power is dispersed and not concentrated exclusively in any one institution or held in the hands of an elite group. Britain is often described as a pluralist state. A pluralist not only allows but positively encourages the free expression and interaction of different groups and institutions. The United States is the classical example of a pluralist society: it was built up by many ethnic groups who emigrated to the New World to seek political and economic freedom. Britain has a strong claim to be to be regarded as a pluralist democracy. Political parties, pressure groups, chuches and a vast range of private organisations- social, cultural and economic- exist and contribute to the rich texture of British society.
So, a pluralist model of society demands that power is dispersed and not concentrated in any one institution or held in the hands of an elite group. However, Britain does not match up to the ideal of a pluralist model. Pressure groups do not enjoy equal access to the corridors of power. Insider groups with consultative status have direct access to whitehall while others might be ignored. During the 1960’s and the 1970’s, academics like Middlemas concluded that Britain was developing into a ‘Corporate State’ mentality because the ‘separate’ and ‘competitive’ elements of a pluralist culture were being eroded.