Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. and Christe A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
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Throughout virtually all periods known to us by way of historical records, there is some sort of organization conceived as a state. There is usually an accompanying notion (whether universally accepted or not) that this state exists by some kind of intrinsic right. States are marked usually by law, and invariably by a network of power structures. They contain institutions, simple or complex, all of which have certain laws or rules governing them; they also contain ad hoc power structures that are not part of the necessarily documented constitution or pattern of the state.
The source, character, and progression of types of state is a vast and intriguing study. Political entities can probably be characterized at a handful of levels, though in reality there are almost infinite gradations:
Typically an extended family (often running to hundreds or thousands of members), the clan is still constituted in such a way that it derives its internal sense of imperium from a kind of transference of the auctoritas of the family members or leaders. Often it is a constituent part of a tribe or a city-state.
The tribe is effectively an extension of the clan; typically it consists of related people though its numbers may run as high as several hundred thousand. Again it maintains a familial foundation, though its political patterns tend to form up in ways that have begun to detach themselves from mere patterns of familial dominance. It may be and often is migratory or nomadic.
The city or city-state is normally defined by a coherent political structure and bound less to ethnicity than to a particular place. Here location is not only its own consideration, but it has to do extensively with the geography and geographical constraints imposed by its situation. Usually the city-state is relatively small in terms of states, though it may run to as many as a million people.
The modern nation-state is normative in today’s world, and few of us question what an unusual concept it is. Effectively, it is breaking down in a number of ways, but its legacy remains very important. The historical founding thrust of the nation-state was the idea of the nation: that is, an ethnically defined coherent group of people, sometimes admitting racial admixture but virtually always controlled by a common language and a uniform set of laws.
The imperial state, whether ancient (e.g., Rome and China) or modern (e.g., the Soviet Union) is typically transnational—that is, encompassing people of multiple ethnicities, and often people speaking a variety of languages. It is in many ways the exception in the history of humanity, though it is usually bound by a common system of law and a rich variety of power structures.
States can also be categorized by the kinds of political structures they support. Here we still tend to fall back on Aristotle’s threefold dual-valued definitions of the forms of government. There are other ways of presenting it, but they have chiefly to do with where the power to govern resides, or in whom the power is invested. He also accompanies it (in his Politics) with an interesting reflection on the order in which such forms of government tend to give way, one to another:
Monarchy is the rule of one leader, and (according to Aristotle) it would degenerate in due course to tyranny. The terms were, in fact, not entirely clear; there are certainly in the history of the Greek polities some self-identified tyrants who were generally considered to be good rulers. But in general, Aristotle considered it the dark side of monarchy, so to speak. It in turn would be replaced by aristocracy.
Aristocracy was the presumptive rule of &ldauo;the best.” These were usually the wealthiest, but also those with the most invested in the stability of society, both in economic and social terms. Its corresponding bad form was oligarchy, the rule of a few. It in turn would be replaced by democracy.
Democracy was the form of government in which all authority was invested in the demos, or the populace. It was the form under which Aristotle found Athens, though it would, he argued, eventually give way to mere mob rule (ochlocracy). When that degenerated to pure chaos, a strong man would emerge to be the monarch of a new cycle.
Whether there is any real predictive validity to Aristotle’s description of how such things follow one another, or whether there is in fact no other form of government (as many Greek and Roman thinkers suggested there might be, especially after the rise of the Roman republic with its mixed form of government), his typology remains useful as a set of handles on which to base other discussions.
There are throughout history all manner of other free or constrained associations of persons, some of which function with and through the state, and others of which function despite it or without reference to it. These relationships can change fairly easily. Churches, organizations, societies, clubs, and the like have always had a role to play in personal interaction, especially in larger states. Their influence can grow or shrink, and they can complement or thwart the purposes of the state. All of them suggest further networks of power—coercive, violent, or authoritative.
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