What is the state, what is the polity

Structured Text on Sovereignty, Nationhood, Statehood - Book index

1 The dichotomy between headline and effective sovereignty carries over to the distinction between the state and the polity.

1.1 States may enjoy headline sovereignty, but conditions can be such that [part of] effective sovereignty is exogenous to them. The ramifications are understood in the appropriate context: inter-state or inter-national relations.

1.2 The international dimension means that sovereign will formation is not confined to the boundaries of any one state. A policy implemented at the state level can have aspects that derive from international conventions. It might even be the outright extension of an international initiative, rather than self-determination in the narrowest sense.

1.3 Relations between states, insofar as they have implications on collective decision making, reveal an emergent form of effective sovereignty. The parties or the primary actors may be nation states. The dynamic produced by their relationship is a case-dependent stratum of supra-state (supra-national) political authority that is neither a nation nor a state.

;; Where is the locus of power?

1.3.1 For as long as that supranational level can determine—or otherwise provide the impetus for—collective will formation, it enjoys effective sovereignty for the matters concerned. These types of supranational authority may emanate from a trade agreement, the balance of power and relevant struggles between states, and so on.

1.3.2 Seen from the perspective of policy—or a policy framework—, the terms “state” and “polity” should not be treated as semantically equivalent. The state is a given institutional order with defined boundaries. It follows a certain cultural-historical path. It has its own constitutional identity and practical morality. Whereas a polity is emergent from within the specifics of the case. It is the source of a given policy or set thereof: the province of effective sovereignty from whence that policy initiative comes from. For instance, a trade agreement as such has no normative claims on supreme political authority. No headline sovereignty. It is understood that the parties to the agreement hold rights. The agreement itself is a token of their shared capacity to exercise them. Yet the agreement has implications on the distribution of effective sovereignty, in that it forces conditions on the parties to it, while enabling a range of possible courses of actions that was theretofore unavailable.

;; The polity is elusive.

1.3.3 So where is the locus of power for the items—the relevant areas of policy—that concern the agreement? It is not instantiated in any one of the parties to it. It is emergent from the case as such. “Emergence” in this context means circumstances-specific and greater than the parts in isolation. The conditions themselves bring about that eventuality. Furthermore, “emergence” here denotes the presence of a stratum of effective sovereignty, without it being a [new] state or nation. This stratum comes into effect dynamically. It remains a function of the circumstances that bring it about. It ceases to be, in the way or extent that it is, when its contributing factors change.

;; State and polity are the same in a decontextualised state.
;; This, however, is a product of thought, with no correspondence to any case.

1.4 Assuming a sovereign nation as such, a nation state in its own right, the magnitudes of state and polity are indistinguishable. All authority comes from and is limited to the state. However, consider the broader framework of global affairs. It is a complex web of relations between nation states. Each set of relations generates its own dynamics. The implications on effective sovereignty can vary. Against this backdrop, it is more likely that “state” and “polity” are decoupled.

1.4.1 The state can be likened to a constant. It is static. It is there as a legal personality. In contradistinction, the polity is dynamic. It only appears in instances where relations between states give rise to a supra-state level of political authority.

1.5 A polity is a policy-[framework-]specific form of supreme authority that is derived from the relationship between states, or between political orders in general.

1.6 Headline sovereignty is always enjoyed by a personified or impersonal state. In the modern era, the latter is a nation state.

1.6.1 Effective sovereignty can come from a locus that is not recognised as either a nation or state in the strict sense. Still, the distinction drawn herein may be more difficult to discern in actual politics. Consider the complex phenomenon of the European Union. The EU is not a nation. Yet there is no doubt that it exercises effective sovereignty over the areas of policy that have been conferred to the European level. Similarly, the EU is not a state, properly so called. It is a union of nation states that is best described as a federal system with its fair share of idiosyncrasies. Again, that does not prevent it from exercising supreme political authority over matters it has competence over. Is the EU a state or a polity? Why? It is static, well defined, not emergent from evolving circumstances. As such, the problem is a matter of semantics, where “state” can mean different things as nation state or as an administrative entity within a federation. Perhaps then, the EU is a political order that can be named a “republic”. What is a trade agreement, such as the proposed TTIP, in terms of its impact on effective sovereignty? It forms a polity for the issues it encompasses and remains irrelevant for all the others.

2 To further elaborate on the dichotomy between the state and the polity, consider the factors of statehood: (i) population, (ii) territory, (iii) governance, (iv) outwardness. A state, properly so called, must satisfy all of them.1

;; The first factor of statehood is a permanent population.

2.1 The entity must have a permanent, replenishable population.

2.1.1 Seen from a broader historical vantage point, permanence implies that the population does more-or-less identify itself as a collective. It has an adequate degree of homogeneity that prevents a part from trying to sever its ties with the rest of the body politic. From the perspective of the factors of effective sovereignty, the sense of belonging, kinship, or togetherness is of paramount importance. It is the foundation of solidarity: a prerequisite to the preservation of social peace. Togetherness produces a common bond between the people and the structures that may make up a political hierarchy. People can identify with the individuals and institutions that rule over the populace where such a bond exists. A population that thinks of its presence as a singular entity in a cultural-historical sense, functions as a unified whole.

;; Second factor of statehood is a defined territory.

2.2 The entity must control a certain space. It has to occupy a clearly delineated territory.

2.2.1 Territoriality is a prerequisite of any political order. Collective human experience, such as economic activity, occurs in space. Whomsoever controls the space, can exercise political authority. This is a litmus test for the establishment’s capacity to wield effective sovereignty at any given moment in time. It shows whether the political order controls the media for the implementation of its authority; to exercise powers that are characteristic of supreme political authority, such as to levy taxes or maintain a standing army. Territoriality may also suggest independence from external influences, though this should not necessarily be the case. For as long as there can be emergent forms of effective sovereignty, control over a certain territory can only safely imply that the entity concerned enjoys effective sovereignty over matters that pertain to this control only.

;; Third factor of statehood is governance.
;; Governance ≠ government.

2.3 The political order must be capable of uninterrupted governance.

2.3.1 “Governance” is not the same as “government”. The latter is an institution. A collection of people that perform certain tasks in accordance with a set of rules or expectations. Whereas the former is a process: that of managing political affairs. A government engages in governance. Accounting for the first factor of statehood (population), perhaps a more descriptive definition of governance is that of managing political affairs in accordance with the norms, traditions, rules, and expectations of the self-conscious people.

2.3.2 In the modern era, this would suggest that the political order has a fully fledged legal system, credible institutions as well as established processes for adopting decisions and/or resolving disputes. These provide for predictability and make the authorities recognisable among the populace. Permanent institutions are important for confirming the idea of a common identity derived from the sense of belonging. Subjects of governance can relate to the government.

2.3.3 A coherent legal-institutional order is a clear indication that the society lives in peace and operates unencumbered by internal strife. A single recognisable government does, among others, imply that there are no warring factions vying for control. Any political disputes are resolved with existing means within the available procedures. Governance is consistent.

;; The fourth factor of statehood is outwardness.
;; The entity can engage in relations with other political orders.
;; Not to be confused with the international recognition of nation states.

2.4 The political order must have the means to engage in relations with other entities, including other political orders.

2.4.1 This is not the same as the capacity to maintain an international diplomatic presence. It is broader than that. It encompasses any kind of recognition, acceptance, or approval of the political order as a singular entity.

2.4.2 Outwardness is confirmed in relations between states, but also in transactions with non-state actors, such as foreign investors willing to enter in contractual arrangements with the political order and/or invest in its domestic economy.

2.4.3 Outwardness covers any kind of partial or scoped recognition by internationally recognised states. Such a scenario is the acceptance of the political order as a singular entity within a certain context or for a given process or even area of policy.

2.4.4 Outwardness is judged on the basis of its impact on effective sovereignty. If exposure to the outside world can lead to benefits or to virtuous cycles, then the political order demonstrates a capacity to stand on an equal footing with internationally recognised states.

2.4.5 As such, outwardness is not the equivalent of formal recognition from the international community. It is, nonetheless, the substance of what renders a political order recognisable.

2.4.6 Formal recognition may amplify the effects of outwardness. But amplification points at a difference of degree, not category. As such formal recognition is not a factor of statehood per se. It is a requirement for participating in the international community in a formal capacity. Which means to enjoy headline sovereignty.

2.4.7 Formal recognition must satisfy the criterion of correspondence to reality: the political order to be recognised as a formal state must already satisfy the criteria of statehood, as these are understood under the scope of effective sovereignty. Without such correspondence, recognition is but a token, perhaps a diplomatic device for forwarding a certain agenda. Formal recognition as such does not turn a political order into a fully functioning state nor does it guarantee such a condition.

3 The state is a defined apparatus. The polity is a circumstances-dependent stratum from whence effective sovereignty comes from. The locus of power can only be known by studying the contributing factors of the case.

  1. The factors of statehood presented herein are a re-evaluation and reformulation of the Montevideo Convention of 1933. [^]