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Why we still believe in the state

How do we explain the resilience of the modern state? State power, whether expressed by politicians, parliamentarians, policemen, or judges, seems to be routinely questioned. Yet, the state as an institution remains.

The constitutional state is today the universal expression of power despite its constant questioning and its lack of ability to maintain a minimal order in large parts of the world. This two-century-old invention seems to resist despite the challenges it faces. It remains an attractive idea with a universal reach; all cultures seem to have adopted it one way or another.

I suggest the perception of the contemporary state has much to do with the issue of legitimacy, in particular as developed by Max Weber. Weber has famously defined the state as the holder of the legitimate monopoly of violence. The monopoly of violence is often what is remembered from this sentence, whereas the most important section is in my view that concerning legitimacy. The need for the people to identify who is entitled to exert coercion in a way which is not arbitrary and responds to clear rules was best expressed by Hobbes in his Leviathan.

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651). CC0 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The issue of legitimacy takes a particular meaning in a secular context. In a context where religion is the dominant source of legitimacy, the issue is resolved by turning to the perceived self-evidence of religious power and texts. The secular state finds itself in a different situation where the justification of its legitimacy has lost the self-evidence linked to religion.

Typically the secular state has found in the idea of nation a way to sustain its legitimacy, in the form of the nation-state, and this model has proven successful and resilient despite the cultural and political challenges it has been facing. At the time of decolonization, the nation-state model has been embraced by the newly decolonized nations. Despite all the criticisms about the Western origins of the concepts of state and nation, these have taken roots in most parts of the world – not without conflicts and bloodshed (even though these did not take the dimensions of the wars in Europe, thanks in large part to the freezing effects of the cold war).

Is the model of the nation-state a transitional model or is it a model which will stay with us for the foreseeable future? For all the nice talk around the post-national and other alternative models based on civil society, we are unable to foresee a credible alternative. The nation-state is certainly bound to evolve. Its most solid dimension is based on the “legal-procedural” dimension of what I would call the “constitutional state” essentially evolved from the French/Anglo-Saxon traditions based on rule of law, human rights, and democratic rule. These are now universal standards acknowledged in most of the constitutions – the fact that they may be misapplied in practice or under threat in many countries does not change the fact that they remain valid and relevant standards.

What is more worrying for the nation-state is not so much the institution of the state but rather the idea of nation. The main issue for the state around the world is not so much its institutional basis, but rather its cultural dimension – which in turn affects its legitimacy and explains why state power is being challenged. To come back to my earlier point, the withdrawal of religion as a source of legitimacy is creating a gap that ideas such as the “nation”, the “people” can only fill partially. Terms such as “nationhood” and “sovereignty of the people” evoke a cultural and political unity that did not ever actually exist, but – assuming such unity did exist – such idea of unity does not correspond to contemporary pluralistic societies.

Church Window by Didgeman. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

The issue here is to unify the state in a plural cultural context. How can this be achieved? I would argue that a purely secularist approach, based on the Weberian “legal-rational” form of legitimacy, is not enough. The state cannot found its legitimacy if it is divested of religious or cultural references. At the same time, the issue of the cultural or religious dimension of the state is not easy to solve: in the pluralistic context of contemporary societies, strong cultural references within the state would either alienate part of the population or lead to a cultural fragmentation. The solution lies in the context of a state that should remain secular, for this is the only way one can address competing cultural and religious identities. But instead of removing culture and religion from the state, the state should directly address cultural and religious issues by ensuring that all voices can be heard as long as they are a unifying contribution within the state. Particular cultural and religious views should be welcomed as long as they are based on the “universalization” of their message and aim at reaching beyond the limits of a particular cultural or religious community.

Featured image credit: “European Parliament” by cuongdv. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

*The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and cannot be taken to reflect the views of the European Commission.

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