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The State: Power, Authority and Coercion.
Very Useful New Link added October 2013. You may now visit Steve Bassett’s Park College Sociology Department You Tube Page for excellent materials on Political Sociology including Screen Casts on the nature of Power and the State. [With thanks!]

New Link added February 2014 Ralph Miliband, Nicos Poulantzas and the State : An Introductory PowerPoint Presentation
There are clearly significant differences of emphasis as between the specifications of Government and Politics and Sociology AS and A2 courses in their coverage of the state. I hope nevertheless that the following document will prove helpful to both Government and Politics and Sociology students as they begin their studies of the State.

  • The State and Its Key Features

States have varied both historically and geographically such that for example distinctions are made between traditional states, feudal states, absolutist states and modern states and between liberal states, social democratic states, collectivist states, totalitarian states and developmental states while some states are nowadays described as failed or failing states. Such distinctions are extremely important but I shall be concentrating in the following documents on the modern liberal democratic and social democratic states and later on important more recent changes in the nature of the modern British State.

A state might be defined briefly as a political organisation which possesses sovereign jurisdiction within a defined territory and exercises its power through a set of permanent institutions which in liberal democracies include Heads of State [Presidents or Monarchs], central governments and their bureaucracies, legislatures, judiciaries and the organisations of regional, state and or local government, the armed forces and the police. Using this definition let us consider some of the key features of the state in more detail

  • The UK State and Parliamentary Sovereignty [These issues are discussed more fully in the later stages of AS Government and Politics Courses]

  1. In the constitutional theories of the C19th it was argued that any State exercised legal sovereignty within a given territory such that its laws and rules were binding within that territory and took precedence over the rules of all other groups and organisations within its territory although this neglected the fact that in the age of imperialism some nations exercised legal sovereignty over others.

  2. It is important also to note that it was argued in the case of the UK that legal sovereignty resided with the UK Parliament in the sense that the UK Parliament could make or unmake any law ; that no Parliament could be bound by its predecessor or bind its successor; and that no higher international or national authority [and in particular no court] could declare an Act of Parliament to be unconstitutional all of which differentiated the UK from states such as the USA where the Supreme Court certainly could declare Acts of Congress to be unconstitutional .

  3. During the course of the C20th and C21st governments in the UK have come to dominate the UK Parliament to the extent that it might be argued that any sovereignty which the UK Parliament appears to posses is actually possessed by the UK Government acting within the UK Parliament.

  4. Furthermore the legal sovereignty of the UK Parliament has been undermined by membership of the EU, by the introduction of devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland Scotland and Wales and, to some extent by the passage of the 1998 Human Rights Act. However the UK Parliament/Government might be still be said to have legal sovereignty nowadays only in the sense that the UK Parliament/Government may decide to secede from the EU, to abolish the devolved assemblies and to repeal the Human Rights Act if it so wishes.

  5. Although the principle of legal Parliamentary Sovereignty suggests that Parliament can make or unable any law its powers to do so are circumscribed in practice by international treaties, by membership of supra-nation organisations such as the EU, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, by the recently introduced devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, by the existence of powerful, well organized pressure groups and by the attitudes of the electorate.

  6. Thus it is argued that even if Parliament has legal sovereignty it does not have a monopoly on political sovereignty because political sovereignty is shared among a variety of political organisations and by the UK electorate which ultimately has the power to replace a government and a parliament which passes unpopular laws.

  • States: Some Further Features

  1. Modern states are organised on the basis of their Constitutions. A state's constitution may be defined as a system of rules and conventions by which the state is governed. Most importantly the Constitution specifies the relative powers of and relationships between the various political institutions of the state, most notably the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary and the rights and obligations of the citizen in relation to the state.

  2. Relationships between the political institutions of the state are complex. In some political systems such as the USA, there is a considerable degree of separation of powers as between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary whereas in the UK system the Executive may be said to dominate the Legislature in several respects. Also, within the Executive the elected government may, for a variety of reasons be dominated by its own permanent civil servants as implied, for example, in the comedy series "Yes Minister".

  3. It is, however, difficult to define the precise boundaries of the State. In the case of the UK we might wish to include public corporations such as the BBC, the former nationalised industries (when they existed), quangos such as the Commission for Racial Equality or the Higher Education Funding Authority and relatively new regulatory agencies such as OFGAS and OFWAT.

  4. It has also been argued by the French Marxist Louis Althusser that institutions such as the family, the church, the education system and the mass media should be seen as part of the state since they are ideological state apparatuses which function to legitimise the continued existence of the capitalist state. However other theorists would claim that these institutions are part of civil society rather than the State.

  5. States aim to ensure that citizens comply with their laws and they may do so by engineering the consent of the citizens and/or by the use of force. The monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force is central to Max Weber's definition of the state. He states that "a compulsory political organisation with continuous operations will be called a "state" insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds the claims to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order." Further information on Weber’s definition of the State is provided below

  • The State: Summarising the above 11 points:

A State comprises several political institutions which exercise legal sovereignty over the citizens of a given territory in the sense that the laws of the state take precedence over the rules of all other groups and institutions and are binding on all citizens of the state. Citizens who do not comply with these laws risk punishment via the state's legal institutions. States will seek to secure compliance with their rules via the consent of the citizens but may also use coercion or the threat of coercion to ensure compliance with their rules.

  • The State: Power, Authority and Force/Coercion

In order to investigate further the activities of states it is important to distinguish in more detail between States' two broad strategies for ensuring compliance with its rules: the engineering of consent and the use of force. We may approach this issue via the consideration of Max Weber's analysis of the relationships between Power, Authority and Coercion

Max Weber has defined Power as "the chance of a man or a number of men to realise their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action". That is, power consists of the ability to get your own way even when others are opposed to your wishes.

However we may accept the State’s power to control our lives in various respects sometimes because we accept that the State has a legitimate right to use its power in various ways and sometimes because we recognize that the State may use either the threat of coercion or actual coercion to force us to obey the State. Therefore according to Max Weber there are two types of Power:

  1. Authority which is a type of power that citizens are prepared to accept because they believe that it represents a justified legitimate use of power and

  2. Coercion which is a type of power which citizens accept not because it is felt to be justified or legitimate but because of the threatened or actual use of force.

Thus Power may be subdivided into Authority [=legitimate power] and Coercion [=power supported by the threat or actual use of force].

Although we can distinguish in principle between Authority and Coercion as different types of Power it is often difficult to do so in everyday practical situations. For example an individual may complete accurate tax returns partly because s/he accepts the Authority of the State to levy taxes but partly also because of a fear of Coercion if s/he is discovered to have evaded taxation. Motorists’ motivations for driving within the speed limit may be similarly mixed while Cabinet Ministers may obey their Prime Minister partly because they recognize the PM’s authority but also because they know that their promotion prospects may be affected adversely if they disobey.

Max Weber distinguished also between 3 types of Authority which he described as Traditional Authority, Rational-Legal Authority and Charismatic Authority although once again we shall see that it is difficult to distinguish between these three types of Authority in practice.

Traditional authority was prevalent in pre-modern societies where certain types of authority were accepted because of long standing customs and traditions; thus, kings exercised traditional authority because of the acceptance of the religiously based doctrine of the divine right of kings; church leaders exercised traditional authority over their parishioners; the nobility exercised authority over commoners; employers exercised traditional authority over employees and men exercised traditional authority over their wives and children.

However as a result of the gradual transition from pre-modern to modern society authority was increasingly based less on tradition and more upon laws and regulations which, according to supporters of liberal democracy, citizens are apparently prepared to accept partly because citizens recognize that these laws and regulations operate in the interests of the citizens themselves and partly because these laws and regulations have been arrived at more or less democratically although as we shall see below other explanations are possible for citizens’ acceptance of these laws and regulations.

This type of authority is known as rational-legal authority and it is a relatively simple to give examples where citizens accept authority because of its rational-legal basis: motorists accept the rules of the highway code…most of the time; citizens under the age of 16 are not allowed to marry; students must remain in full-time education at least until the age of 16; medical practitioners must have a license to practice medicine …and so on.

Weber’s third type of authority is charismatic authority and occurs when citizens accept the authority of particular leaders because of the strength of their personal characteristics; they may be regarded as particularly intelligent, determined or committed to political principles. Examples of charismatic leaders could include Napoleon, Lenin, Churchill and Hitler and to a lesser extent Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. We should note however that political leaders may go to great lengths via political advertising to attempt to present themselves as charismatic leaders as a means of enhancing their political power. Also we are likely to accept the authority of democratically elected leaders more because they have been democratically elected than because of their charisma: i.e. rational legal authority is more significant in these cases than charismatic authority.

Supporters of Liberal Democracy argue that we are prepared to accept the rational legal authority of elected leaders because of the features of liberal democratic political systems.

  1. Party leaders will have outlined their future policies at General Elections and voters will have evaluated the rationality or otherwise of different parties’ policies.

  2. They will have voted in competitive elections based on universal suffrage to elect the party with what they see as the most rational set of policies and the elected government will govern in accordance with these policies.

  3. The elected government will govern in accordance with the rule of law and can be called to account in the courts and punished if it is shown to have acted illegally.

  4. The fact that governments can be removed in subsequent general elections means that governments will be under great pressure to govern in accordance with their general election promises.

To see the relationship between the mechanisms of liberal democracy and the acceptance by the citizens of the rational legal authority of elected governments consider the following question. Would you accept the rational legal authority of the government if it had not outlined its previous policies, if competitive elections did not exist, if there was no guarantee the e government would act in accordance with the rule of law and no possibility that it could be called to account in the courts?

  • Power and Authority: A More Critical Approach.

Liberal democratic political regimes operate within essentially capitalist economic systems and supporters of these regimes argue that they can provide high and rising average living standards, protection against excessive state power and good opportunities for political participation all of which explain why the legitimacy of such regimes is widely accepted. However more critical theorists argue that the existence of a formally liberal democratic system and a welfare state which apparently meets the needs of the poor, the sick and the old and promotes equality of educational opportunity hides from view the fact that these liberal democracies are actually capitalist democracies which operate more in the interests of the capitalist class than the rest of society. In effect individuals we are accepting the authority of the government not because it is based upon rationality and legality but because it is based upon mass deception.

In this view despite the alleged advantages of capitalist liberal democracies these politico-economic systems in reality serve the interests of a wealthy economically dominant capitalist class whose privileged life style derives from the exploitation of the working class many of whom are severely economically disadvantaged and whose opportunities for meaningful participation in the political system are severely limited .Nevertheless individuals are persuaded via complex processes of socialisation to believe that capitalist liberal democracies are beneficial to all of their citizens whereas in reality they benefit primarily the ruling elite/ruling class of such societies at the expense of the majority of the citizens.

The distribution of economic and especially political power within liberal democracies is analysed from the differing theoretical perspectives of classical pluralism, elite, pluralism, Marxism, elite theory, corporatism and the New Right and it is important to note that different approaches to the actual measurement of power are adopted in these perspectives. Additional information on the nature of power is presented below and further information on the different perspectives on the distribution of power will be provided will be analysed in later documents for example on pressure groups and political parties


  • Further Analysis of the Concept of Power: Steven Lukes and Power as a Three Dimensional Concept.[For further details see Steven Lukes’ study entitled Power” A Radical View; Second Edition 2005]

 Stephen Lukes has offered a wider definition of Power such that: "A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B's interests". In other words, Lukes argues that Power is exercised over those who are harmed by its use, whether they are aware they have been harmed or not. According to Lukes, power is a three-dimensional concept. The first dimension of Power can be measured by consideration of the outcome of actual decisions. If, for example, the government embarks on a new nuclear programme despite the opposition of protesters, this would be seen as demonstrating the greater power of the nuclear lobby relative to that of the protesters. Similar cases are the defeat of the NUM in 1984-5 and of anti-road protesters in the 1990s. As we shall see in subsequent documents it is this first dimension of Power which is investigated by Pluralist writers leading to the conclusion that power is indeed widely dispersed in modern capitalist societies.

The second dimension of power is highlighted in the work of P.Bachrach and M. Baratz, who, while recognising the importance of the first dimension of power, argue that power consists also in the ability of the powerful to restrict the political agenda and the policy decisions which flow from it within limits sympathetic to the continued domination of some elite group or ruling class or to the continuation of the existing social order. While the first dimension of power can be measured by the outcome of actual policy decisions, the second dimension is implicit in the existence of non-decision making. Radical critics of the existing social order may be demoralised, ignored, out-manipulated or defined as unrepresentative, dangerous militants such that their protest which could potentially challenge the status quo, does not even figure on the political agenda and cannot, therefore be measured by consideration of actual decisions. For example radical Green theorists argue that our environmental difficulties will be solved only if we accept that we must wean ourselves away from the desire for permanent economic growth which, according to the radical Greens, is unsustainable. However in this second dimension of power it is the fact that the zero growth option is never [or at most rarely] discussed by the major political parties which points to the relative powerlessness of the Greens

The third dimension of power is emphasised by Steven Lukes himself arguing that individuals, groups or classes may not even organise to defend and promote their own interests because complex processes of ideological manipulation generate a "False Consciousness" such that many people do not realise what their own objective interests are. For example in this view it might be argued that it is in the real interests of the poor to join a trade union and/or to vote for a Socialist Labour Party because these organisations are most likely to try to defend the interests of the poor and that the facts that many of the poor fail to join trade unions and/or abstain or vote for different political parties is a sign that their lack of power derives from a failure to recognise their own best interests. Similar arguments might be used by Feminists to argue that women who reject the aims and methods of the feminist movement show that their lack of power derives from their failure to recognise their own real interests.

Critics of this third dimension of power have argued that theorists cannot possibly state with accuracy what the best interests of other individuals really are and that individuals themselves should be seen as the best judges of their own best interests. In this view if a poor person chooses to vote for a non-Socialist party or a woman rejects feminist analysis their choice should be respected rather than assumed to show that these people are not aware of their own best interests.

 The implications of both Weber's and Lukes' definitions of Power are that:

  • Those who hold Power do so at the expense of others - there is essentially a fixed amount of Power available such that to the extent that Group A has Power, Group B does not

  • Individuals and/or groups use Power to further their own interests at the expense of other individuals or groups

In fact in the theories of Marxism, Elite Theory, Democratic Pluralism and Elite Pluralism, it is assumed that societies are characterised by conflict such that social groups attempt to use power at the expense of other social groups and also a zero sum concept of power is used whereby one social group's power can only be increased if another social group's power is reduced.

However Sociology students must familiarize themselves also with the Functionalist approach to the concept of power. As is well known Functionalist Sociology is based upon the assumption that societies are based on consensus rather than conflict. It should, also be noted that in the Functionalist Perspective, a variable -sum concept of power is used such that one social group's power could increase without the reduction in another group's power. Thus, the capitalist class could use its power to further collective objectives such as economic growth which would improve the living standards and hence the power of most (if not all) citizens. Therefore because the capitalist class is using power to benefit the citizens, the citizens will accept the legitimacy of the capitalist class having more power than them.

This argument can clearly be seen as a strand of the more general Functionalist theory of social stratification according to which both economic inequalities and political inequalities are both desirable and inevitable. Critics of Functionalism argue that it is little more than a misleading ideology designed to maintain the power of dominant groups in society .However the strengths and weaknesses of Functionalism in general and of the functionalist theory of social stratification will eventually [!] be considered in future documents on this site.

I hope that the above introduction to issues around the State, Power, Authority and Coercion will help students in their further studies.

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