For Gold, Peace, and Freedom


Book Review: Bringing the State Back In

March 19th, 2008

bringing-the-state-back-in-book-review.jpgThis article by Sarah Tenney is a review of the book Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, published by Cambridge University Press in 1985.

In this edited volume, the authors put forward a convincing case on the need to take into account the role of states in comparative politics. They note that in the decades preceding the publication of Bring the State Back In, there was a tendency among scholars to take the Neo-Marxist approach of focusing on political phenomena as the consequences of individual, group, or class behavior. Through a variety of individual case studies, the authors show that the state should not be seen as merely an arena for struggle among contending economic interests, classes, or societal groups, but as an actor in its own right. They use the country studies compiled in this book to show that states have varying levels of autonomy and abilities to influence economic developments and social cleavages. In this respect, they demonstrate that the relationship between states and other domestic and international actors should be seen as reciprocal.

While the authors do not clearly define the term “state” in the preface or introduction to the book, this term is taken to refer to the individuals and institutions that make up national government. The authors also make various references to “strong” and “weak” states, but not in the traditional sense of position in the international arena or military and economic power. Rather, they focus on governments’ abilities to influence or control other domestic and international actors. For example, in the cases of Taiwan, SPC and Yorubaland, the authors focus on the state’s ability to control economic development and social cleavages, respectively. In the article on developing and industrialized nations in the post-World War II period, the author examines the capacity of states to influence the behavior of transnational corporations.

In the case of Taiwan, the author examines the way in which the Nationalist government that took over Taiwan after World War II was able to effectively control and direct economic development over time, even though its initial concerns were military. This case study also highlights dialectic among economic and political relations as the thrust of state and domestic actions moved from the desire to recapture Mainland China to economic development and expansion over time.

State autonomy is also highlighted in the article on Yorubaland, which examines how the British imperial administration was able to cement native cities as primary among primordial differences in forming group identities, despite the division of the population between Christians and Muslims. The importance of native cities in framing the political culture among the Yorubaland provinces of Nigeria remains today.

Each of these case studies examines unique historical and societal features of the nations concerned. The authors comment on how the themes covered may apply to other countries. For example, the role taken by the state in directing economic development can be seen in other countries that have undertaken export-led development strategies, such as South Korea and Singapore, and the role of the state in defining social cleavages can be seen in Israel. Nevertheless, the authors’ observations about the role of the state in both of these cases would seem to apply to only a small sample within the total population of states; therefore, it is not clear that they could usefully be subjected to a large N study applied across all countries.

Unlike these two cases, the article on developing and industrialized nations in the post-World War II period covers a broad population of states. For the purposes of this case study, Peter B. Evans focuses on the role of the state in influencing foreign direct investment, in the form of transnational corporations, and indirect investment, in the form of sovereign or government-guaranteed debt. He finds that “where states stand in this area largely depends on where they sit.” While the “peripheral” developing countries can effectively control transnational corporations in extractive industries, they have less influence in the manufacturing sector. Over time, the struggle to influence the behavior of transnational corporations and other economic variables helps to build the autonomy — if not the capacity — of states in the periphery. Thus, the tendency among these countries is to have “strong” states.

The opposite dynamic in found among the “core” industrial countries, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, that serve as the “homes” rather than the “hosts” of transnational corporations and financial institutions. For these countries, it is in both the corporations’ and the states’ interest to have fewer government controls. Therefore, these countries tend to have “weaker” states. The hypotheses developed in this article seem to fit nicely into development and world-system theory.

Taken together these articles clearly show that states are important actors in their own right and that governmental institutions can have an important, if not decisive, impact on the societies they represent. However, the articles also show that states do not operate in a vacuum. Rather, social and economic forces also influence and limit the activities of states. What is needed is a general theory to explain the interaction among the variables considered. Perhaps more immediately, the authors do not offer suggestions on how to measure relevant factors, such as the relative strength of primordial ties in the case of Yorubaland, the strength or direction of long- versus short-term state goals in the case of Taiwan, or “influence” in the relationship between governmental institutions and transnational corporations and financial institutions.

Instead, the articles seem to emphasize the diversity among states and societies. They point to important differences not only in historical backgrounds and economic developments, but also among the societies concerned. In this respect, the main finding of the book seems to be that the state is an important — if not the most important — actor in political phenomena, but there is no “generic or “average” state.

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