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Does the state still matter?

By Mark Bevir


Governance, governance everywhere – why has the word “governance” become so common? One reason is that many people believe that the state no longer matters, or at least the state matters far less than it used to. Even politicians often tell us that the state can’t do much. They say they have no choice about many policies. The global economy compels them to introduce austerity programs. The need for competitiveness requires them to contract-out public services, including some prisons in the US.

If the state isn’t ruling through government institutions, then presumably there is a more diffuse form of governance involving various actors. So, “governance” is a broader term than “state” or “government”. Governance refers to all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market, or network, whether over a family, corporation, or territory, and whether by laws, norms, power, or language. Governance focuses not only on the state and its institutions but also on the creation of rule and order in social practices.

Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament

The rise of the word “governance” as an alternative to “government” reflects some of the most important social and political trends of recent times. Social scientists sometimes talk of the hollowing-out of the state. The state has been weakened from above by the rise of regional blocs like the European Union and by the global economy. The state has been weakened from below by the use of contracts and partnerships that involve other organizations in the delivery of public services. Globalization and the transformation of the public sector mean that the state cannot dictate or coordinate public policy. The state depends in part on global, transnational, private, and voluntary sector organizations to implement many of its policies. Further, the state is rarely able to control or command these other actors. The state has to negotiate with them as best it can, and often it has little bargaining power.

But, although the role of the state has changed, these changes do not necessarily mean that the state is less important. An alternative perspective might suggest that the state has simply changed the way it acts. From this viewpoint, the state has adopted more indirect tools of governing but these are just as effective – perhaps even more so – than the ones they replaced. Whereas the state used to govern directly through bureaucratic agencies, today it governs indirectly through, for example, contracts, regulations, and targets. Perhaps, therefore, the state has not been hollowed-out so much as come to focus on meta-governance, that is, the governance of the other organizations in the markets and networks that now seem to govern us.

The hollow state and meta-governance appear to be competing descriptions of today’s politics. If we say the state has been hollowed out, we seem to imply it no longer matters. If we say the state is the key to meta-governance, we seem to imply it retains the central role in deciding public policy. Perhaps, however, the two descriptions are compatible with one another. The real lesson of the rise of the word “governance” might be that there is something wrong with our very concept of the state.

All too often people evoke the state as if it were some kind of monolithic entity. They say that “the state did something” or that “state power lay behind something”. However, the state is not a person capable of acting; rather, the state consists of various people who do not always not act in a manner consistent with one another. “The state” contains a vast range of different people in various agencies, with various relationships acting in various ways for various purposes and in accord with various beliefs. Far from being a monolithic entity that acts with one mind, the state contains within it all kinds of contests and misunderstandings.

Descriptions of a hollow state tell us that policymakers have actively tried to replace bureaucracies with markets and networks. They evoke complex policy environments in which central government departments are not necessarily the most important actors let alone the only ones. Descriptions of meta-governance tell us that policymakers introduced markets and networks as tools by which they hoped to get certain ends. They evoke the ways central government departments act in complex policy environments.

When we see the word “governance”, it should remind us that the state is an abstraction based on diverse and contested patterns of concrete activity. State action and state power do not fit one neat pattern – neither that of hollowing-out or meta-governance. Presidents, prime ministers, legislators, civil servants, and street level bureaucrats can all sometimes make a difference, but the state is stateless, for it has no essence.

Mark Bevir is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books including Governance: A Very Short Introduction (2012) and  The State as Cultural Practice (2010). He is also the editor or co-editor of 10 books, including a two volume Encyclopaedia of Governance (2007). He founded the undergraduate course on ‘Theories of Governance’ at Berkeley and teaches a graduate course on ‘Strategies of Contemporary Governance’.

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Image Credit: Martin Schulz during the election camapign in 2009. Creative Commons Licence – Mettmann. (via Wikimedia Commons)

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