The Modern State and its Alternatives

Course Material 2020/21

This paper seeks to understand the practical and imaginative foundations of modern politics and the reaction and resistance to them. It is structured around set texts. These texts are not there to be analysed as texts per se but to be considered for the arguments they contain. We have chosen these texts for this paper not because they represent a canon but because they engage with some of the fundamental questions of modern politics.

The paper begins with the modern state. The modern state is a historically contingent political phenomenon but it has become the predominant basis on which political authority and power are constructed across the world today. Where there is no modern state, there tends to be civil war or occupation by other states. Where modern states are ineffective, politics is unstable and sometimes violent, and governments struggle to manage the economy. But the modern state also is a site of violence and an instrument of power that has been used at times to inflict vast suffering on those subject to its coercive capacity at home and imperial reach abroad. The question of how the exercise of power by the modern state over its subjects can be legitimated is a perpetual one in modern politics, and the answers to it have been deeply politically contested.

The first modern states were monarchies. From the late 18th century onwards, there was in Europe and the United States a move towards what we now call representative democracy. Representative democracies have been more historically precarious than modern states and there remain alternatives to this form of government. The idea that the modern state under conditions of modern commerce leads necessarily to representative democracy has been disproved by historical experience of, especially that outside Europe and North America. As an idea representative democracy appears to offer equality, liberty and self-rule. But representative democracy also frequently disappoints in practice as it rarely does realise these values and the goods it promises frequently clash with each other. The second part of the paper looks at the contingent historical origins in the United States and the political implications of representative democracy as it spread as a form of government. It seeks to unpack the paradoxes of representative democracy as a form of government that rhetorically invokes the ‘rule of the people’ and the pursuit of the common good and yet gives power to those who are elected to office by seeking votes, and to consider its relationship to the conditions of material prosperity and the distribution of wealth.

The final part of the paper examines the coherence and persuasiveness of a number of political critiques of the modern state and representative democracy as well as the mortality of democratic politics and government. It considers the critique made by Marx of the democratic modern state as the product of capitalism, Gandhi’s rejection of the violence and alienated sovereignty of modern politics in search of a return to a soul-based civilisation, and Arendt’s desire to return politics to its place as a meaningful sphere of free human action. Since everything in politics is mortal, it concludes by contemplating the question of how democracy itself may end.

Section notice

This material is intended for current students but will be interesting to prospective students. It is indicative only.