One Size Fits Nobody – Questioning Concepts of ‘The State’

The volume “Von Staat zu Staatlichkeit”, edited by Gunnar Folke Schuppert, wants “to supplement the overly narrow concept of the state with the concept of statehood” – or even to replace it and thus pursue “Staatlichkeitswissenschaft” (statehood studies) rather than the traditional “Staatswissenschaft” (state studies). It aims at overcoming the problem that many political entities – nowadays, yet also throughout history – do not fulfil criteria such as full sovereignty, territorial integrity, a legitimate government or efficient bureaucracy, derived from the idealised, so-called post-1648 ‘Westphalian State’ or its OECD update. The semantic shift from state to statehood provides a means to avoid a simplifying either/or-approach, enabling a nuanced view on forms of governance, because most, if not all these supposedly deficient entities will show at least some degrees of statehood. Instead of counting the deficits an empire, a ‘failed’ state, or the European Union might exhibit when compared to the state, one focusses on common state-like characteristics, their comparability and analyses why such traits might make these political entities successful or at least durable. This challenges notions about deviance and normality, helping to better understand the many cases in which the state has never managed to become the norm. The same applies to cases where this norm seems to be increasingly obsolete, as with what has long been identified as the Western welfare state. Instead of insisting on a reductionist ideal, this perspective underlines that a variety of polities will make a variety of institutional approaches necessary, for example, when striving for compatibility of existing political orders with the rule of law.

In my chapter, I try to show that studying the history of ideas is essential for this undertaking. Playing on Latour’s famous dictum that “we have never been modern”, one might say: we have never had such a state – i.e. the idealised state, the Hobbesian Leviathan. Speaking of ‘statehood’ instead of ‘the state’ is more than a stereotypical postmodern shuffling of concepts; it underlines that even when the state is supposed to have been at its prime, it was not as uniform as we would usually imagine it to be.

Unravelling the semantics of the ‘Westphalian State’ illustrates this claim. The image of the grand Leviathan eclipses a constitutive irony, as noted by Arnhelm Neusüss: The form of ‘the state’ as all-encompassing governing-unit is, from its beginning, associated with functional differentiation, i.e. the fragmentation of a formerly coherent metaphysical world order and the accelerating loss of unified control instruments[i]. Put differently: Ambiguity is inscribed into ‘the state’, its omnipotent integrity was always more pretension than anything else, a way of coping with increasing complexity. Nicholas Henshall put it as follows, when dissecting the so-called absolutist state: “Whatever Bodin and Hobbes might write, the subjects’ duty was not owed exclusively to the state but also to a multiplicity of local and provincial, civil and ecclesiastical authorities”. Besides, those ‘classics’ did not talk about absolutism; the term was introduced later. One ought to be careful to not read Hobbes et al. in the light of what came after them – “they had a different past”.

Granted, paradigmatic semantics of a strong, centralised, and coherently acting State emerged in early modernity – in theory, but also in claims and aspirations of governments. Yet, parallel to these developments, similarly paradigmatic or at least influential (counter-)semantics remained plausible and guided every-day life; for instance, the vast research on gute Policey (‘good policy’, legal and political precursors of modern public administration) and early modern communities is a testament to the role of ‘the commoner’ and the entanglement of top-down and bottom-up dynamics. Solidifying statehood was understood in many ways, certainly not just in those that central authorities would have championed. Even the 19th century, which we mostly associate with Hegelian ‘deifications’ of statehood, was not exclusively the stage of Metternich or Castlereagh, statesmen featuring prominently in ‘realism’ à la Henry Kissinger[ii]; a counter-modernity flowered simultaneously.

Replacing the term ‘state’ with ‘statehood’ thus underlines that the evolution of manifold polities has often been creating very comparable forms and functions of coping with complex challenges, while not producing ‘state’ as identical product. As Klaus Roth has observed, state-formation by European peoples was only one of several historic alternatives; forms of empire remained plausible for a long time[iii]. Such empires were characterised by some features typical for states, while not having the distinct borders or homogenous bureaucracy associated with an ‘ideal’ state. Centre and periphery differed vastly – a phenomenon not uncommon today. By looking at historic contingencies, our alleged normality of a ‘proper state’ is therefore put into perspective. The “new obscurity” (Habermas) is not so new: deconstructing clichés about the past sheds a different light on our present – it becomes less surprising that polities often do not fulfil the long checklist associated with state-ideals. This list has been only one (admittedly dominant) perspective on the varieties of statehood – still, there are numerous circumstances, where historic trajectories have made other solutions far more plausible, as ‘deficient’ as they might look at first.

The supposedly straightforward semantics of ‘the state’ offered clear orientation during the rise of global modernity. They provided a distinct starting point for building up complexity. But as modernity has been producing ever more ambivalences, these semantics have turned from help to hindrance in dealing with such complexity. Not the epoch of statehood has ended, as Carl Schmitt claimed 50 years ago – instead, the uniform semantics of the grand, leviathanic state have used up their potential. Their use always came at the cost of ignoring differences, but this was mostly felt at ‘the margins’. Increasingly though, it becomes globally evident that state-semantics always just offered one possible perspective and that many parallel forces were neglected. By mustering history through the lens of statehood, such formerly self-evident semantics can be understood and put into context. This underlines the contingencies in the evolution of modern states and the precariousness of their achievements. By relativising the necessity of their evolutionary trajectory, more versatile approaches in dealing with their challenges become conceivable.


[i] Neusüss, Arnhelm, 2007: Ein Ausflug ins Gebirge. Wie unser Horizont sich verschob. Wissenssoziologische Essays. Berlin, p. 147.

[ii] Kissinger, Henry (2013 [1957]): A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812 –1822. Brattleboro.

[iii] Roth, Klaus, 2003: Genealogie des Staates. Prämissen des neuzeitlichen Politikdenkens. Berlin, p. 384.

Roland Römhildt’s article „Im Rangierbahnhof der Begriffe? Ideenevolutorische Perspektiven auf Staatlichkeit“ has been published in: Gunnar Folke Schuppert (ed.) 2019: Von Staat zu Staatlichkeit. Beiträge zu einer multidisziplinären Staatlichkeitswissenschaft. Baden-Baden: Nomos.

Written by

Roland Römhildt is a Research Fellow of the Research Professorship "Global Public Law" at the WZB Center for Global Constitutionalism.
Website at the WZB

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *