The Question of the State: Philosophy, Theory, and Context

30 July, 2023

The ACRPS has published The Question of the State: Philosophy, Theory, and Context (456 pp.) by Dr Azmi Bishara. The eleven chapters are devoted to the philosophy, theory, and origins of the modern state; the social contract and Hegel’s philosophy of law as they relate to states; the state as a doctrine (according to Carl Schmidt) and the relationship of sovereignty to citizenship in the modern state; the issue of state legitimacy (Max Weber et al.) and the distinction between the concepts of state and system of governance; as well as how nationalism transformed into nations within states.

In examining the philosophy and theory of state formation, The Question of the State delves into a field of knowledge that fundamentally intersects with political science and sociology, two of the most important humanities disciplines. Bishara illustrates a novel approach to the subject, posing the challenge of crafting a critical, humanistic concept of the state that accounts for all the critiques posed by moral and political philosophy, political science, sociology, and law from collectivist, liberal, or Marxist perspectives. Bishara further explores the consequences of globalization and the post-state era.

The state has taken on more functions and greater importance, and individual and societal expectations thereof have grown in spite of ideological predictions of its dissolution. Moreover, sovereignty has endured even in weak states beset by bitter civil conflicts. Bishara argues that the critical concept of the state he puts forth draws upon and transcends what has been written to date. The book’s critical dimension is best embodied by its attention to the friction between sovereignty and citizenship, and to the capacity of modern man to discern the conflict between the state in concept and in reality (as with, inter alia, the Arab countries).

Intellectual foundations

The Question of the State comes as the latest instalment in Bishara’s ongoing intellectual project that spans four of his previous books:

  • Civil Society (1996): Though both books understand the state as a prerequisite for civil society, The Question of the State frames the strong state as a prerequisite for a strong society, repudiating the notion that strong states necessarily coincide with “weak societies” and that there are, in turn, weak states with strong societies.
  • Religion and Secularism in Historical Context (2022), 2 parts: Bishara directs readers to two lengthy chapters in the first volume of Part II (Chapter 2: Premises of the Middle Ages; Chapter 5: The Development of the Logic of the State) that discuss the emergence of the idea of the state in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance period in Europe.
  • On the Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Manifesto (2007): In his latest work, Bishara elaborates on this book’s distinction between nations and nationalisms.
  • Democratic Transition and its Problematics: A Theoretical and Applied Comparative Study (2020): Here, Bishara establishes state stability as a prerequisite for a successful democratic transition, alongside the army not opposing the transition and the political elite adopting a conducive culture.

Beyond the book’s theoretical contributions, Bishara writes in the introduction that he aims for The Question of the State to become a reference work for scholars and students alike that outlines the theory, philosophy, and problems of the modern state. Though there were initially fourteen chapters, Bishara removed the last three (on the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms, the development of the Arab state, and the nation-state era) because he intends to devote a separate monograph to them, slated for publication in the near future. The author writes that it would be wrong, at the end of a largely theoretical text, to introduce issues of special concern to an Arab readership. Furthermore, Bishara wished not to replicate a past experience when exhaustive chapters on Iraq were added to the end of Sectarianism Without Sects (2018; English translation published 2021).

Contents of the book

Bishara writes in the introduction that he was initially inspired to write the book in 2021, after he gave a lecture titled “State, Nation, and Governance: Interconnection and Differentiation” at the eighth round of the ACRPS Social Sciences and Humanities Conference. Rather than publishing the lecture, Bishara elected to expand on it in a theoretical work through which to close the extant gap in knowledge about the state and related theories: a lacuna that the aforementioned two sections of Religion and Secularism and chapter from Democratic Transition could not fill by themselves.

The author adds that the exigency of writing a manuscript on the state in the Arab World coincides with the need to clarify issues of citizenship, sovereignty, legitimacy, and universal ethics – especially the question of how to enhance the definition of the state and the significance of citizenship as a part thereof. Oher pressing topics include the relationship between sovereignty, legitimacy, and citizenship; that of the nation and nationalism; and the distinction between states and regimes. As well, The Question of the State conducts a review of Western theorization of the state from an alternative perspective.

Chapter 1 addresses the importance of studying the state and offers a word of caution that such an endeavour is not to be taken lightly, offering proposals based on real-life cases to adjust conventional definitions of the state. Bishara then investigates the distinction between, on the one hand, the ancient state as a relationship between the rulers and the ruled, and, on the other, the modern state wherein those who govern and those who are governed come together within a common entity. The chapter introduces citizenship as an essential component of the contemporary state, before concluding with an evaluation of the decline of ideologies predicting the state’s demise.

Bishara devotes Chapter 2 to differentiating political philosophy from political theory – the scientific method being indispensable, even to normative questions, with the latter – then argues that complex social phenomena cannot be explained with a single principle without giving way to ideology. Next, the chapter considers nationalist, functionalist, and institutionalist understandings of the state, identifies liberalism as a normative theory of both governance and society, and concludes by investigating what sets the modern state apart from empires.

Chapter 3 shows how history began not with individuals, but with collectives that constituted ancient states, and that Niccolo Machiavelli’s arguments on the matter are more realistic than the principles of the social contract. The chapter explains that the modern state did not emerge from a vacuum but from existing powers that, after regional expansion, took the form of sovereignty and a code of laws by which to legitimately govern the modern state. Here, Bishara stresses the distinction between the law and the wishes of rulers, then sheds light on the development of the modern state’s organs and the role of war in the transition (en route to the establishment of a modern state) from a limited, parliamentary monarchy to an absolute monarchy.

Chapter 4 concludes that early state theorists, largely clerics or lawyers, were the ones who defended sovereign authority against the Church’s incursions. It argues that the state is a means, not an end, in the view of natural law, and that the social contract cannot be understood in the absence of opposition to religious wars and the belief that the solution was to elevate the state above the fray by achieving consensus around a common political entity: embodied for Thomas Aquinas by the ruler and for Jean-Jacques Rousseau by the “general will”. The chapter devotes much space to an alternative perspective on Rousseau’s ideas, framing them as axioms of republican thought and civic democracy simultaneously.

Chapter 5 sets much space aside to discuss Friedrich Hegel’s critique of Enlightenment thought, especially Kant, and the idea of freedom and ethics being directed at society from the outside; at this juncture, Bishara argues that it is the state which reifies ethical praxis. The chapter then addresses Karl Marx’s critique of Hegel’s view of the state’s management of society, expectation that the state would dissolve into society, and claim that the state reflects the greater good, as well as Marx’s demonstration of how the state represents private, not public, class interests. The chapter makes note of the question of socialist regimes keeping societies under the state’s control (rather than vice versa) and the fact that they augment state machinery rather than dismantle it, as dictated by the Marxist attitude to the state.

Chapter 6 delves into the debate as to whether the state is a single entity with a unified will – that is, a legal person above society – and how utilitarianism and classical liberalism use this distinction as the basis for absolute state sovereignty. Though some scholars have rejected the notion of absolute sovereignty, the chapter addresses their view of the state as a legal person in international and constitutional law. The chapter also discusses the rise and fall of pluralism, a school of thought that warned of the danger of the vast rift between the individual and the absolute sovereignty of the state, then critiques its conception of sovereignty and insistence on treating the state as a federation of collectives.

Chapter 7 discusses sovereignty as a supreme, final authority that can be characterized as absolute without the implication of having no limitations, and which stands opposed not to democracy, but to disobedience and rebellion. The chapter demonstrates that the idea of the state is not the same as an empire, as is primarily reflected in the legislature, followed by the other branches of government. A monopoly on organized violence does not precede the notion of the rule of law in the modern state; rather, it follows from it (in theory, if not historically). The Ottoman Empire’s foray into legislation through the Tanzimat reforms coincided with an emergent contradiction between state and empire. This is because the first component of sovereignty, the state’s monopoly on legislation, precedes its monopoly on organized violence, both of which are (admittedly insufficient) requisites for the modern state. The chapter argues that to make the claim of popular sovereignty despite the people lacking the power to legislate (through the election of a legislature) is pure demagoguery.

Chapter 8 turns to the need to avoid reductive definitions of the state, arguing that Weber’s definition of the modern state is predicated upon the structural characteristics thereof. After confirming that the bureaucracy holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, Bishara addresses the crucial distinctions between authority and power and between state and other forms of authority. Bishara discusses Émile Durkheim’s emphasis on the state’s administrative, pedagogical, and ethical functions in the modern age vis à vis the non-normativity and atomization of modernity The chapter notes that because the state derives legitimacy from its monopoly on violence, it does not follow that this monopoly should itself constitute legitimacy. Rather, the legitimacy accorded to state violence arises from various constitutional, ethical, and cultural sources.

Chapter 9 investigates one of the book’s most important themes – demonstrating that citizenship has become part of how the modern state is defined – by beginning with the mediaeval history of citizenship in the free cities outside of states (with the associated rights and obligations). Then Bishara discusses citizenship’s transition into modernity through the French Revolution and the idea that rulers and the ruled could coexist as members of an entity known as the state; eventually, despite having largely correlated with membership in a given national collective, citizenship would assume its historic autonomy. Further, Bishara critically discusses TH Marshall’s chronology of the development of civil, political, then social rights in Britain.

Chapter 10 argues that it is impossible to separate premodern states from systems of government, then discusses a potential conceptual distinction between modern states and governance systems that underlies contemporary popular perceptions. Bishara hypothesizes that state institutions and the regime are congruent in the contrasting cases of democracy and totalitarianism, yet distinct in the cases of authoritarianism and fragile democracy.

Bishara concludes the book in Chapter 11 by comparing and contrasting state-building with nation-building and exploring how they relate to one another. The chapter considers the role of nationalisms in the rise of contemporary states and the role of states in the formation of nationalisms, as well as the difference between nationalist states and “nation-states”. Bishara investigates dynamics of the relationship between individuals and society and between the state and ethics in the public sphere; conflict between citizenship and community groups as an ethical field; the state as an ethical field when there is a nation of citizens, regardless of its historical intersection with (or divergence from) nationalism in many countries; as well as the conditions for (and the unpredictability of) the success of nations home to multiple nationalities.

Is The Question of the State a work of political philosophy? Of sociology? Of political science? Is such a classification even relevant? In the case of Greek political philosophy, we find that this body of texts was written about life in Greek cities, their administration, power struggles, wars, and so on. But before it had branched off into the sciences, it was called philosophy because it offered a rational analysis of reality and human beings that does not set out from mythology and invisible forces. Rooted in the study of human nature, this field formulated the general assertions about human societies that were known to the Greek philosophers.

This is quite unlike the academic discipline within moral philosophy known today as political philosophy. Bishara engages with philosophy as the foundation of a comprehensive, rational procedure for evaluating phenomena and discusses underlying human motives, while seeking to arrive at theoretical inferences that improve our understanding of social phenomena. Yet the author argues that such a task is no longer possible without studying history and implementing the paradigms of fields such as sociology, political science, law, economics, and psychology as needed, not according to a predetermined methodology. In Bishara’s view, it is precisely this interdisciplinarity – not the scholarly works that even philosophers find difficult to understand – that might reinvigorate philosophy and justify its existence.

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