State | The Canadian Encyclopedia




The state is a broad concept that includes government as the seat of legitimate authority in a territory but also includes bureaucracy, judiciary, the ARMED FORCES and internal POLICE, structures of legislative assemblies and administration, public corporations, regulatory boards, and ideological apparatuses such as the education establishment and publicly owned media. The distinguishing characteristic of the state is its monopoly over the use of force in a given territory.

The state as a concept in political research was for a long time unfashionable in Western SOCIAL SCIENCE, largely because of the "liberal pluralist" notion, dominant for some 2 decades after WWII, that the key questions traditionally asked about it - especially those concerning the state as an apparatus of power over society - were resolved in Western democracies. It was assumed that power in society was now competitive, fragmented and diffused among virtually all social groups and that the "political system" represented a neutral and even-handed mechanism for fulfilling or harmonizing conflicting demands.

The state re-emerged in the 1970s as a central concept of social science in Canada and elsewhere. This occurred in response to the inability of "pluralist" approaches to make sense of the increased size and scope of the state in advanced capitalist countries from WWII through the 1960s as well as to the continuing dominance of the state over society in Communist regimes. It was further encouraged by the need to understand the paradox of "dependency" in the "Third World" states that had replaced the old empires and their colonies. These states had all the formal attributes of sovereignty and power was highly concentrated in the hands of new political elites, but they were economically (and often politically) "dependent" states, especially on American capital and the global power of the American state. This was a problem particularly relevant to Canada, which could be seen in this light as a "rich dependency."

In medieval Europe, the term "state" was associated with the rank and status of royalty and nobility. The state was seen as embodying power and sovereignty, but not in a way that was distinctive from the hierarchical ordering of feudal society itself. As capitalism developed, "state" took on a more distinctly political meaning. The class relations in society between owners and nonowners were no longer formally codified in the state, which instead presented itself as the sole political community and the guarantor of the legal equality of individuals. Sovereignty and power now became exclusively political notions, and a generalized and formal disjuncture developed between the public and the private.

In the growing awareness of this disjuncture from the 17th to the 19th centuries modern social science sunk its roots, turning the old question of political philosophy, "What is the art of politics?" into "What is the nature of the state in relation to society?" Different philosophical traditions continued to provide different answers. The conservative tradition (particularly strong in Canada) maintained the medieval notion of the state as embodying the mutual rights and obligations of hierarchically arranged social orders. The liberal tradition oscillated between characterizing the state as a necessary evil designed for defence against external enemies and for protecting property and policing contracts in market society, but against which individual liberties and an autonomous "civil society" had to be protected; and seeing it as the foremost human community designed to develop the potential of the individual in market society. In the socialist tradition (and particularly in its intellectual bedrock, MARXISM) the state was perceived as the product of class division in society, playing the role of reproducing class relations and moderating or repressing class conflict (see SOCIAL CLASS). In the anarchist view, the state was the prime source of human inequality and alienation.

A new Marxist theory of the state developed by the 1970s attempted to uncover the development and dynamics of particular types of state in relation to particular types of society. The most progress has been made in work dealing with the liberal democratic states of advanced capitalist societies. The growth in the size and scope of the state in the 20th century was seen not in some vague sense as "creeping socialism" but as an integral aspect of the development of 20th-century capitalism. The state responded to the social transformations and economic crises capitalism had wrought by absorbing many of the private risks and social costs of production, through policies and agencies which regulated and yet facilitated capital accumulation and which institutionalized and thereby also regulated class conflict.

Democracy in capitalist states did not lead to socialism, as those who had denied workers the right to vote or form trade unions had feared; it did not even lead to "pluralism." But it did change the role of the state. The new theory of the state examined the connections between state and class structure in an attempt to understand the link between the formal political equality of liberal democracy and the continuing socioeconomic inequality of capitalist society. In this respect, the concept of the "relative autonomy of the state" has been used to amend the classical Marxist notion of the state as "the executive committee of the bourgeoisie," so as to invite investigation of the full range of social forces represented in the state as well as of the political compromises that dominant classes undertake to maintain their hegemonic position.

One of the virtues of Canadian social science was that it long recognized that the large role of the state was not antithetical to the development of the capitalist economy in Canada. ThePOLITICAL ECONOMY tradition has emphasized that in a dependent, staples-oriented economy such as Canada's, the state provided, partly out of economic necessity, partly out of close ties with the capitalist class, much of the technical infrastructure and economic regulation necessary to keep capitalism viable. The state tried to create a favourable fiscal and monetary climate for economic growth; it underwrote the private risks of production at public expense through grants, subsidies and depreciation allowances; it played a crucial role, via land and immigration policies, in developing the labour market and, more recently, in absorbing the social costs of production through sanitation services, medicare, employment insurance, educational facilities, etc; and it very often directly built the infrastructures for economic development (canals, railways, airports, utilities) when this was too risky or costly for private capital.

The development of the new theory of the state in Canada demonstrated that the close ties between state personnel and private capitalists inhibited as innovative and large WELFARE STATE activities as in a country like Sweden in the post-war era, they hardly preclude either such activities to the extent as was the case in the US. The Canadian state's difference in this respect reflected a more class-conscious labour movement, as well as the creative tension in the post-war era between the provincial and federal levels of government. The strength of social democratic orientations in the governments formed by the Saskatchewan CCF and the federal Liberals, and eventually in the Liberal and PQ governments of Québec in the 1960s and 1970s, was important in this respect.

This tension reflected the binational character of Canadian society and the geographic and cultural diversity as well as the unevenly developed economies of the various regions. But the same factors were also at work in sustaining the limited relative autonomy of the state from the capitalist class, in that regional fractions of this class have been able to use the provincial state to represent their interests to the federal government and to other regional capitalists (see PRESSURE GROUP).

To speak of a liberal democratic state such as Canada's as also a capitalist state does not mean that the institutions of parliamentary government, regular elections among competing political parties, freedom of association, speech, press and assembly are merely ephemeral in the representation of a very broad array of social forces. The degree to which a state is relatively autonomous from immediate domestic or international capitalist pressures cannot be judged abstractly; it can only be assessed through concrete analyses of the balance of forces at each particular juncture. In this respect, an important restructuring of state activity became increasingly visible after the 1970s. Although "free market" ideologies were not initially as pronounced in Canada as in the US or Britain in the context of the re-emergence of severe crisis tendencies in the economy and the global restructuring of capital and labour that has resulted therefrom, there has nevertheless been a shift away from welfarist and regulatory criteria and towards more explicit free-market criteria in the making of Canadian state policy. FREE TRADE with the US is an important aspect of this development insofar as it removes some of the historical and material basis for a large role for the state in providing the infrastructure for and co-ordinating a specifically Canadian, albeit dependent, economic space north of the 49th parallel.

These developments do not necessarily mean there will be "less state" rather than "more state," as the popular language of political discourse often suggests. There was an "institutionalist" response to the state theory of the 1970s which stressed the capacity of certain states to resist global market trends and capitalist class pressures. This approach to state theory has not been borne out by events, which have revealed instead how correct the theory of the 1970s was to stress the extent to which the state was only "relatively autonomous."

But the globalization of capitalism does not mean that states are no longer significant actors. It only means that their role is restructured. The demise of Communist regimes, the "transition to democracy" in capitalist authoritarian regimes and the rise of new social movements all have given rise to a discourse that stresses the importance of the autonomy of "civil society" from the state. But the very active state role in promoting free markets has diminished civil society's autonomy in significant respects. This may be seen in the Canadian state's abrogation of trade-union freedoms in the public sector over the past 2 decades, which has brought forth renewed concern about a "strong state" which limits liberal democratic freedoms even as it promotes market freedoms.

The explicitly coercive dimension of Canadian state behaviour has indeed been one of its traditional aspects. Often identified in this respect are the historical role of the RCMP in suppressing strikes and radical political protest; violations of fundamental rights and freedoms during wartime (eg, the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII); the discrimination against Communists during the Cold War and the suspension of civil liberties during the FLQ crisis in 1970. Added to this has been the exposure through the 1970s and 1980s of illegal activities undertaken by the RCMP and more recently by the CANADIAN SECURITY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE in the course of routine state surveillance or infiltration of radical political parties, peace groups and trade unions.

Some of these activities, moreover, pertain to the requirements of Canada's close military and intelligence relationship with the American state in the global political order. Despite the entrenchment of the CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS in Canada's Constitution Act, 1982, it is by no means clear, given the provisions of the Charter itself or the inclinations of the judiciary, that the new constitution effectively inhibits the growth of the "strong state" in the context of domestic and international pressures toward the "free market."

At the end of the 20th century, the classical questions regarding the nature of the state first raised with the rise of capitalism have taken on growing rather than diminishing relevance. More than ever, Canadians have been faced with the task of determining not only the meaning and scope of state sovereignty, but also the meaning and scope of individual and societal freedoms amidst a global capitalism.

Further Reading