Do you agree that in modern liberal democratic societies the state is now reduced to being ‘one actor amongst many’?
Whether or not the role of the modern state has changed in modern times is a contentious issue. Some argue that the state remains to be the most powerful actor in the system, holding ultimate authority on decisions. Others however, argue that the state is now just one actor amongst many. With this we can assert that there are other institutions that hold more influence over the state. It is important the role of the state is assessed under different power theories. These include Pluralism, Marxism and Elitism, whilst also looking at the theories of Zero and Positive sum politics. In this essay the internal and external threats to the states power will be assessed. These include, New Public Management, The New Right and also the impact of both globalisation and Europeanisation. Ultimately, it seems that the state has been reduced to being one amongst many actors; however, it can still remain a dominant figure within that system.
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Firstly, it is apt to discuss what we mean by “The Modern State.” Max Weber was an early writer about the modern state, he concluded that, ‘a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ He also linked this in with two other vital traits that are taxation and legitimacy. It is important that the modern state is built upon and within a democratic system that includes the people within its boundaries.
The Modern State can also be linked with various theories of power. The first theory that the state can be assessed under is Pluralism. Schwarzmantel outlines Pluralism in his text. ‘A system where there are competing parties, a network of pressure groups and associations, a “separation of powers” in some form.’ This may be linked heavily with how the state has become on amongst many actors. Also important to analysis is Elitism. This theory argues that power is more concentrated and not dispersed as Pluralism assumes. ‘Elite theorists argued that whatever the ostensible form of government, an elite minority always rule.’ Again, this may be linked with the state; however, this theory argues that the state is still dominant. This leads onto the theories of Zero and Positive sum, these may be more accurate in describing the gaining or loss of power for the state. Zero sum argues that power is a finite resource and when it is given away, the state loses it to the other actor. Linking with the argument of the state power being reduced. On the other hand, Positive sum argues that power is infinite and when shared, it comes to the benefit of all parties involved, including the state. This theory may be linked with both the Pluralist interpretation of power and also the argument that the state can remain a dominant actor within a system of many actors.
Internal challenges to the state have been highly important and allow us to assess the role of the modern state. The internal challenges include The New Right and the growth of New Public Management in both the UK and the USA from the 1970’s onwards. Figure-Headed by the then leaders, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the New Right grew in conjunction with the apparent failure of the Keynesian welfare state. With this, the emphasis was switched from major involvement in welfare and economics, to the rolling back of the state into a more limited form. The New Right looked to do this in various ways.
The economy provided an important area where the New Right could stamp their new methods of governance onto society. To move away from Keynesianism, it was seen that government needed to cut all involvement in the economy, leaving market forces to dictate the variables such as inflation and unemployment. Richards and Smith highlight this. ‘The state had to be cut, in order to create conditions where business could prosper.’ This is important when we consider the UK. There were over 50 companies and industries that were privatised, both under and after Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. This had a significant impact on the state. Having given away some power from denationalising major industries, it may be argued that under the Zero Sum assumption, the state had lost power to the other actors that had been brought into the frame, as they were able to exert more influence over society and over the UK government.
The New Right also has links with the new phenomenon that grew during the 1980’s and 1990’s, New Public Management. These developments go hand in hand with the privatisation policies previously mentioned. Klijn comments on the growth of New Public Management. ‘NPM leads to a proliferation of separate bodies, comprised of actors focussing on their specific task.’ Again, this supports the notion that the state has now become one actor amongst many. Ultimately, big-business and other organisations have become much more powerful and have more influence now, than they did before the 1980’s. NPM also has links with the rolling back of state bureaucracy. Interestingly, this can be seen with the reduction in the amount of civil servants working in the UK. In 1979, there were 732,000; this figure was reduced to 472,412 in 1997, at the conclusion of Conservative rule in Britain. The influence of both privatisation and the New Public Management can be seen heavily through-out UK society today, with the current government carrying on these policies.
Along with the rise of New Public Management came the rise of regulation under The New Right. At first glance, we may see the states role as minimal after privatisation, linking with the Zero Sum model of power, where the state has lost significant power to other institutions. However, dig deeper into the political system and assess regulation and you find that the state actually keeps quite a lot of power, by monitoring those institutions to which it has given its power previously. Hague and Harrop note that within nearly all Liberal Democracies, regulatory agencies are on the rise. With this, the government is able to take a less active role, in the knowledge that they are able to step in and take charge when needed to. ‘Britain has embraced regulatory agencies with particular gusto; over 140 agencies, from the Food Standards Agency to Ofcom’ have been formed. With this, we may argue that the state may fit more into the Positive Sum model of power. Although they have given power away to other institutions, they keep their dominance through regulation and still remain to be the most powerful actor in a pool of many. Ultimately, in this light, the state remains to be very powerful.
External Challenges can be equally important when assessing the changing role and position of the modern state. Under the external threats come Globalisation and Europeanisation. Importantly both seem to show the move away from the dominant state, into a new role where it is simply one amongst many actors in the political system.
Globalisation is the first external challenge to be assessed. It is important to understand that globalisation is very contentious issue in itself, sparking much debate about the history and validity of globalisation theory. For the purposes of this essay, we will assume that globalisation has made a significant difference to world we live in. ‘Globalisation came to be seen as more than simply a way of doing business, or running financial markets – it became a process.’ Importantly, the process became a change in the way governments had to run and forced states to adapt to the changing nature of governing.
The establishment and growth of the United Nations is key to seeing the increase in globalisation. Established in 1945, just after World War II, the UN has grown since then and had 193 nations within it in 2011. Along with this, economic globalisation has been key in showing us the decreasing role of the modern state. This has been seen as a result of the worldwide economic recession of 2007. Starting in the USA, the domino effect of economic downturn quickly spread to each corner of the developed world. Larry Elliot, writing in The Guardian, talked about the role of the state during the economic crisis.
‘One response to last week’s meltdown was the announcement of talks between the G7 – the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Canada and Japan – but while this would have been appropriate 20 years ago it is not going to calm markets today.’
Taking this into account, Elliot demonstrates the weakening power of the individual state. From this, we can infer that globalisation and increased interdependence between countries led to the lack of action states could take to prevent and ease the damage caused by the recession. Even the most powerful states, the UK; USA and Germany were limited in the actions they could take. With this, we could argue that the states dominance has been in decline and globalisation has played a major part in this change. The state is simply one amongst many in the world and is seemingly at mercy with the financial markets around the world. Banks and financial institutions hold a significant strong-hold on power, something the individual states have looked to regulate since the 2007 decline.
The other external challenge is Europeanisation. This suggests that countries in Europe have become more integrated and heavily interdependent on each other. With this issue, we can see that the European Union, at least theoretically, has led to a decline in the dominance of the individual state. The European Union has become a major actor in the modern system and this can also be assessed in economic terms. ‘Economic factors were also fundamental. European economies needed to be re-built after 1945 and then, in order to achieve the benefits of scale, integrated into a large, single market.’ The financial crisis gives an indication of the states power. Bulmer and Paterson comment on this. ‘EU politicians are consequently more likely to be at the mercy of the financial markets.’ With this in mind, we can see that there are definitely other actors in the frame when it comes to the role of the state and in the case of European economics, we may say that the state isn’t able to dominate.
In some ways however, the process of Europeanisation and the power of the European Union is limited. This may be seen as states, especially the more powerful ones, can ignore EU laws and policies without much or any sanction. This has particularly been seen in the case of Anti-Terror laws in the UK. ‘Most controversially, the Terrorism Act 2006… provided for terrorism suspects to be held without charge for 28 days.’ These laws were passed in the UK, much to the contrary to what the European Union suggests. The EU claims that these laws are against the human rights of those suspected of crimes. In this sense, the EU and the process of Europeanisation is limited in that the state always seems to keep the majority of power and dominance within the modern system.
Overall, the position of the state has without doubt changed in the last 30 years. All the factors discussed lead to the conclusion that the state is now reduced to being one actor amongst many in the system, however, we can conclude that the state is the most dominant of these actors. Although the state has taken a more limited role on, in all areas, it seems to always be there to step in when needed to. With this then, the state can be seen to fit perfectly with the Positive Sum power theory where there are many actors involved, but the state doesn’t lose any power. It may also be linked with Elitism in the system, as the state always remains the most powerful and dominant figure.
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 John Schwarzmantel (1987). Structures of Power: An Introduction to Politics (Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books). p.17.
 John Dryzek and Patrick Dunleavy (2009). Theories of the Democratic State (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan). p.57.
 David Richards and Martin J Smith (2002). Governance and Public Policy in the United Kingdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press). p.93.
 Richards and Smith, Governance and Public Policy, p.97.
 Alistair Osborne (2013). ‘Margaret Thatcher: One Policy That Led To More Than 50 Companies Being Sold or Privatised’, The Telegraph, 8th April 2013.
 Erik-Hans Klijn (2012). ‘New Public Management and Governance: A Comparison’, in David Levi-Faur (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press). p.202.
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 Hague and Harrop, Comparative Government and Politics, p.332.
 Hague and Harrop, Comparative Government and Politics, p.332.
 Simon Jeffery (2002). ‘What is Globalisation?’, 31 October 2002. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/oct/31/globalisation.simonjeffery accessed on 28.03.2014.
 Hague and Harrop, Comparative Government and Politics, p.365.
 Larry Elliot (2011). ‘Global Financial Crisis: Five Key Stages’, 7 August 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2011/aug/07/global-financial-crisis-key-stages accessed on 30.03.2014.
 Hague and Harrop, Comparative Government and Politics, p.160.
 Simon Bulmer and William Paterson (2013). ‘Germany as the EU’s Reluctant Hegemon? Of Economic Strengths and Political Constraints’, Journal of European Public Policy 20. p.1401.
 Ian Cobain (2010). ‘London Bombings: The Day the Anti-Terrorism Rules Changed, 7 July 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/jul/07/london-bombings-anti-terrorism
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