Political Theory Notes for Political Theory and Thoughts Notes

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Nations or States ? Definition

These two terms are clearly related, yet they must with equal clarity be seen to be separate.

To be sure, the two are often used interchangeably, in an indiscriminate fashion (such as the “United Nations”, which is actually an association of states, not of nations). In laymen’s minds, the difference between the two concepts is vague – to such an extent that the slightly old-fashioned term nation-state is sometimes used.

Bismarck, and his exhortations (urge earnestly) to the German people to “think with their blood”) led to a general feeling that states must of necessity be established on the basis of national identity.

This despite the fact that there were plenty of successful examples to the contrary (Switzerland, for one).

Definition of Nation

Humans are tribal animals, with a tendency to arrange themselves in small groups around dominant males and females – much like a group of monkeys in the trees. The fundamental element of human organization is a local and tribal group, which, in more advanced societies, forms the basis for a more elaborate structure of civilized society on top of the tribal base.

The idea of a nation (from the Latin word natio which derives from natus “(of) birth”) implies a common blood relationship.

In fact, this relationship is rarely actual – more often, it derives from a postulated common ancestor.

This common ancestor may be an actual historical figure, but most of the time, he or she is a mythical being.

Tribalism aside, the bonds that bind a group of people into a nation are more complex than mere blood relationships (real or imagined).

This relationship really only holds true at the lowest levels of society (and even then, local hierarchies related by blood have become rare in the modern world). As civilized society grows ever more complex, it is often the case that nationality is a function of more complex factors – a shared heritage or blood relationship being only one of them.

Language is a factor, definitely – yet there are nations that exist quite happily with multiple languages (of course, for every success story, there is a counterexample of national disintegration along linguistic lines).

Nevertheless, nations with a single dominant language often use this language to define who they are.

This is particularly the case in those situations where the language is very difficult for outsiders to learn (e.g. Danish, Finnish, Japanese).

Culture, and the artifacts of culture, play a part in defining a nation – ask the Greeks about the importance of the Elgin marbles, or a Dane about the Golden Horns.

Often, cultural artifacts that have changed hands between national groups become sources of deep-felt national outrage (such as the Elgin marbles, or the Isted Lion), icons of lasting disaffection between the nations involved.

The proponents of nationalist ideology often lay forth the postulate that their nation is an immutable and “original” one – that the basic tenets and attributes of their nation are fixed, and have been a part of the national makeup since before recorded history.

For instance, German nationalists hark back to the defeat of the Roman legions in Teutoburger Forest by the Germanic tribal leader Arminius (“Hermann”). Yet, evidence is incontrovertible that no nations are immutable entities. Paradoxically, if there is a constant of human society, it is change, and this ensures that a nation of today is different from the nation of the same name that existed a generation ago. Nations are evolving and changing all the time.

Summing up, some of the attributes of nationhood are:

  • A common postulated interrelationship – a “blood” bond between members. This blood relationship may be actual, but more often, it derives from myth.
  • A shared cultural heritage. This heritage, and particularly the cultural artifacts (and sometimes also, institutional structures) that it has created, represents the “patrimony” of the nation, and is often invested with considerable sentimental value, to the extent that attacks on it are responded to with violent emotion.
  • Linguistic coherence, in the form of one or more languages identified with the national identity.
  • The more unique or difficult these languages are, the stronger the emotional attachment to them, as something that must be defended.
  • In the world of mass telecommunications and the omnipresence of English as a lingua franca, bitter struggles are taking place all over the world to protect the national languages (most notably, in Iceland and France).
  • A sense of identification by members with the nation. The idea of national affiliation is a deep-rooted one in the human psyche, and members of a nation suffer a very visceral response to any threat against it, real or perceived.

The state – an institution without sentiment

  • Originally, the word state derives from an Italian term, lo stato, coined by Machiavelli to describe the whole of the social hierarchy that governs and rules a country. Over the centuries, the term has come to take on a more sophisticated meaning – yet, in many ways, it is as vague a term as nation.
  • A state, then, may be defined as an institutional structure charged with exercising authority within a definable jurisdictional purview (which is often territorial in nature).
  • Often, political theorists have relied on the definition offered by Max Weber: “…. a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence” – Max Weber: Politik als Beruf, 1919 .
  • The state is thus the supreme legitimate authority (whatever “legitimate” may be taken to mean, in the particular context) entrusted with the exercise of violent force over a group of people.
  • Conspicuously absent from this definition is the concept of territorial authority, yet the legitimacy and jurisdictional authority of states is tied so intimately to this attribute that it cannot be ignored.

Summing up, the following attributes are then the characteristics of a state:

  1. Monopoly on exercise of force.

  2. Legitimacy, as perceived by the governed.

  3. Institutional structures established to handle governmental tasks, including, but not limited to, the exercise of force.

  4. Control over a territory – absolute or partial.

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