political revue

Year LXII, 2020, Single Issue, Page 35



Political Power:
From the Nation State to the Federal Sate*





The Definition of Political Power.

This essay must necessarily start with a definition of the word “power”. Very broadly speaking, “power” can be understood to mean “the ability or capacity to do something” and it refers, among other things, to the exercise of “control, influence and authority” over others.[1]

Power can be divided into types according to the “instruments” used to exercise it. Power, for example, can be “religious” or “symbolic”, if the actions of the target group are influenced by beliefs or symbols. On the other hand, in situations where material resources are used to influence the actions of those who have less of them, the power being exercised is “economic”.

Political science, ever since the birth of this discipline, has grappled with the question of how to define a further type of power, more complex and less clearly recognisable: political power. One of the most classic definitions of political power is that which links power to the exercise of force. We refer, therefore, to that current of political science that begins with Hobbes’ Leviathan and leads us all the way to Weber, who, for example, weaves the idea of force into his definition of the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”.[2] On this basis, the concept of political power emerges as inextricably linked to the concept of state, understood in the sense of the modern European state of the post-Westphalian system. It was indeed with the birth of the modern state that political power began to take on its own distinct and autonomous form with respect to other forms of power (religious, economic, coercive). Political power can therefore be taken to mean the power of government as held first by modern states, and now by contemporary states, both understood as the only entities able (legitimately) to have recourse to the use of force. According to this framing, the possibility of resorting to the use of force is therefore the key characteristic of political power.

Actually, this idea of political (or government)[3] power linked to the exercise of force/violence has been the subject of numerous criticisms and redefinitions in the literature, which, for practical reasons, cannot be examined in depth in this essay.

At this point, it is, I feel, worth highlighting a more complete, reading of the concept of the power of government, in which force is considered a less central feature. Indeed, Mario Stoppino, in Potere e Teoria Politica, challenges the idea that violence defines political power, and argues, rather, that the former is merely the specific means/instrument of the latter. The aspect on which Stoppino reflects in order to reach his broader and more complete definition of political power is not so much the instrument of political power (i.e., violence), as its function.

It is, he argues, the function of political power, meaning that which it produces, that defines and distinguishes it from other forms of organised social power. Stoppino explains that political power is, in essence, the power that produces power, in the form of rights, for a society.[4]

In every society — but this is particularly evident in liberal-democratic systems —, rights fall into four main categories: “freedoms”, “faculties”, “powers of authority” and “entitlements”; and each category imposes a duty of compliance on other individuals and groups.

Freedoms, such as the freedom to move within the territory of a state, the freedoms of assembly and association, and religious freedom, all demand compliance in the sense of non-impediment by the rest of society (including political authorities and their agents). Rights falling into the second category, such as the possibility to obtain (through payment of the appropriate price) certain things that are offered to the public, and powers connected with the right of asset ownership, come with specific obligations, and also depend on non-interference by other members of society. The third category of rights covers, for example, the powers exerted by company directors over employees, which are underpinned by specific and stable rules designed to ensure compliance on the part of subordinates. Entitlements, finally, are the rights to certain amounts of money or shares of certain services (in the context of the system that, in modern terms, we call the welfare state).

All the aforementioned rights are produced by the government, or its agents, and they are more or less lasting and well established, and more or less widespread in society. Nevertheless, they are “guaranteed rights” that, in the event of non-compliance by other actors on the social stage, we can have reinstated by the judiciary. It is precisely this role, as a producer of rights, that distinguishes political power from other forms of power.

Having thus clarified the function of political power, we can now move on to an examination of the different ways in which it produces the aforementioned rights, in other words, the different forms of political production.

With reference in particular to the modern and contemporary European states, we can say that the first form of political production is regulation, by which we mean the establishment of the rules of the “social game”, i.e., the laws designed to guarantee order within a state (“internal protection”). Another form of political production, on the other hand, is aimed at guaranteeing “external protection”, and in this case we are referring to the establishment of the armed forces as a means of defending the people and their assets against external aggressors.

The above observations immediately bring us back to the question of violence: internal protection and external protection are the primary objectives of states, and states’ tendential monopoly of violence is the very instrument that allows them to guarantee these two forms of political production.

There are a further two forms of political production that particularly characterise modern and contemporary states: “facilitation” (that is, the production, through the minting of money or the establishment of a central bank, for example, of faculties, meaning rights designed to improve social interaction and cooperation) and “allocation” (which refers to the production of entitlements).

Finally, it should be added that political production (in its various forms) can work successfully only thanks to the support coming from other activities carried out by political authorities (or their agents). These are activities that cannot, in themselves, be classed as forms of political production, since they do not produce “rights” per se. However, they are indispensable tools for political production, and for this reason, Stoppino calls them “instrumental activities”.[5] The following are the most crucial:

  1. the organisation of the institutions and systems involved in one form of political production or another (the armed forces, the judicial system, public health system, etc.);
  2. the extraction of financial resources from society, through taxation; after all, no institution or organisation can operate effectively without adequate funding.

To summarise, political power can be defined by its purpose, namely to produce guaranteed rights within the reference society. The political power’s primary objectives (supported by political production) are internal and external peace, which are achieved through the threat of the use of force, but political production (in the forms defined “facilitation” and “allocation”) also serves other purposes linked to the promotion of social cooperation. Finally, political power, to be effective, needs institutions capable of enacting political decisions and a system for gathering the financial resources needed to implement them in practice.

Political Power and the State: From the Nation State to the Federal State.

In the considerations thus far set forth on the relationship between political power and the state, we have referred to the “modern” state, a model created in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. The modern state is one in which a sovereign entity endowed with legal personality exercises pre-eminent power (sovereignty) over a given territory, and holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In the sphere of international relations, modern states formally recognise each other as equals. Historically, from the time of the Peace of Westphalia until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europe saw the gradual establishment of absolute states governed by monarchies; in these states, political power was concentrated in the person of the sovereign (in some cases almost to the point of creating an overlap between the figure of the monarch and the state, a situation perfectly encapsulated by the exclamation “L’état, c’est moi!” supposedly uttered by King Louis XIV of France). From the French Revolution onwards, and with the emergence of the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century, the absolute state gradually made way for the birth of nation states, which were based on the (questionable) idea that the state should be an expression of the national people. However, notwithstanding the regime changes that accompanied the transition from absolute regimes to those of the nineteenth century, the affirmation of nation states left intact the principles underlying Westphalian sovereignty, namely that power is exercised within the state and that international relations are relations between equals. Westphalian-type sovereignty is therefore a concept related to the existence of a state, of any form (absolute, national or federal); even federal states (such as the USA, Switzerland and Germany) exercise Westphalian-type sovereignty.

There can be no denying that the political power structure adopted in Europe is that of the nation state. What we, as federalists, are anxious to clarify is the path that will lead to the creation of a political power above the level of the nation states. The novelty of the process of European integration lies precisely in the fact that its objective is the creation of a new power (in the sense of one that currently does not exist) that will unify the political powers of different states characterised by a very strong shared political and historical identity.

To this end, it is useful to mention Albertini’s important examination, in his essay La Federazione, of the experience of the American founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton in particular. After all, their journey led to the overcoming of the political power of the individual states through the creation of a new political power designed for a level of government above them.

In 1778, the thirteen colonies, still at war for their independence, created their first common institutions, in particular, a Congress composed of delegates of the states. However, it should be noted that the powers of these common institutions were relatively weak (if not inconsistent) compared with those of the individual states. In addition, delegates could be recalled at any time by the states that had appointed them. So, while the Congress, in theory, could declare war, manage international relations, and organise the army, it lacked the executive and judicial bodies through which to perform these functions: in short, as explained by Albertini, it could issue army conscription orders, but actual the recruiting of troops was in the hands of the states; it could manage a common fund, but the voting on and collecting of taxes was done by the states. The Congress could therefore establish quotas of men and money, but to obtain them, they had to ask the states.[6] From the above, it is immediately clear that this American situation of two and a half centuries ago left the Congress devoid of true political power, as defined in the first section of this essay, due to the absence of four key conditions:

  1. the power to produce rights;
  2. the ability to create external peace;
  3. institutions;
  4. the ability to raise funds.

It is impossible, therefore, to speak of political power of this Congress, since political power continued to be held by the states. This circumstance is hardly surprising, given that these newborn American states’ only point of reference, in a political sense, was the European model of separate sovereign states, which they sought to replicate. In America’s case, however, leaving sovereignty entirely in the hands of the single states would have put the survival of the Union in jeopardy; essentially, their conflicting interests would have prevented Congress from adopting effective policies. An alternative proposal, advanced by some, was to establish a single American unitary state (again, a sovereign state in the European mould) that would eliminate the sovereignty of the thirteen states. However, this option seemed impractical from the outset, as it was seen as a threat to the freedoms won through the revolution.[7] Hamilton wrote: “The science of politics (…) has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided. To this catalogue of circumstances that tend to the amelioration of popular systems of civil government, I shall venture, however novel it may appear to some, to add one more, on a principle which has been made the foundation of an objection to the new Constitution; I mean the ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT within which such systems are to revolve, either in respect to the dimensions of a single State or to the consolidation of several smaller States into one great Confederacy.”[8]

The novel aspect introduced by Hamilton was a completely new conception of the organisation of a state, and therefore of political power. His idea hinged on the creation of a constitutional area that would allow the coexistence of a number of states, and within which the common government would be:

  1. “national”, in terms of the source and manner of execution of its power — in the sense that this power derives directly from the citizens through suffrage, and is exercised directly over them through laws issued by a legislator and through administration by an executive body —; and
  2. “federal” in structure, as its sphere of competence would be limited by the competences of the member states, whose powers also derive directly from the citizens and directly address the citizens.[9]

In short, the federation is an association, which is endowed with its own powers, of members, which are also endowed with their own powers, and as such it entails different spheres of competence and different levels of government. Within this new organisation of power, the Constitution becomes the dimension within which the powers of the various levels of government (federal and state) are established. In this regard, it is worth citing the words of Kenneth C. Wheare, who, in his book Federal Government, defines the “federal principle” in terms of a “system of power sharing that allows the central government and the regional governments to be, each in its own sphere, coordinated and independent.”[10]

In practical terms, the step that allowed power to be attributed to federal level was Hamilton’s decision to introduce a federal tax system, in other words, to enable the federal political government, acting autonomously of the member states, to collect the resources necessary to pursue and achieve its objectives. In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton reflects on the need for the Union to  be able to collect the resources necessary for the recruitment and maintenance of an American army, and highlights, in particular, the sticking point of a Union budget dependent on individual national contributions: “There is no method of steering clear of this inconvenience, but by authorizing the national government .— which should be taken to mean federal government, author’s note .— to raise its own revenues in its own ways”.[11]

Considerations on the European Union: Are We Moving Towards a European Political Power?

Finally, it is worth considering, briefly, the current European situation. The question to ask is whether, today, we can talk of a European political power. In the light of all that has been discussed in the previous sections, and on the basis of the definitions presented, it must be concluded that there is still no real political power (or power of government) at European level, much less of a federal kind. Even though European Union institutions exist, the competences they have are limited by the political power of the nation states, whose sovereignty over crucial matters remains intact.

Europe’s great weakness, which has been evident ever since the sovereign debt crisis, is the lack of an autonomous budget, independent of contributions from the nation states (the same weakness that faced the American Congress before the US’s federal leap). It is only by overcoming the EU’s inability to address the enormous difficulties generated by its limited resources, and by the compromises reached by its member states, that the conditions can be laid for the construction of a European political power in the federal sense.

The adoption of the Next Generation EU plan, in response to the crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, is certainly a great opportunity to finally address the issue of true European taxation. For the first time, the idea has taken root that borrowing directly on the market is a way for the EU to find the resources it needs; the next real leap — and this must be the main topic of debate in the coming months — is to affirm the principle that the EU, alongside the possibility of borrowing, must also have a power of taxation, in order to be able to its guarantee its debt repayments. It is emblematic that similar problems were faced by Alexander Hamilton, who, in Federalist Papers No. 30, wrote: “The power of creating new funds upon new objects of taxation, by its own authority, would enable the national government to borrow as far as its necessities might require. Foreigners, as well as the citizens of America, could then reasonably repose confidence in its engagements; but to depend upon a government that must itself depend upon thirteen other governments for the means of fulfilling its contracts, (…) would require a degree of credulity not often to be met with in the pecuniary transactions of mankind (…)”.[12]

Creating a European fiscal competence is the first step towards the realisation of a European political power, and therefore the first step in the battle for political unification of the continent; the Conference on the future of Europe, now imminent, will be successful if it succeeds in making this a priority issue in the debate on the future of the European Union.

* Contribution presented during a debate on Federalism and the Concepts of Political Power, Power, Statehood and Sovereignty, held in Florence on 17-18 October 2020 and organised by the Debate Office of the European Federalist Movement.

[1] Collins English Dictionary, entry “power”.

[2] Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1918.

[3] Cf. Mario Stoppino, Potere e Teoria Politica, Milan, Giuffrè, 2015, p. 272, who points out that the word ‘government’, in addition to its specifically political meaning, can also be used in a generic sense, which indicates the management function of any group or organisation.

[4] Mario Stoppino, op. cit., p. 291.

[5] Mario Stoppino, op. cit., p. 304.

[6] Mario Albertini, La Federazione, in Id., La politica e altri saggi, Milan, Giuffrè, 1963, p. 35.

[7] Lucio Levi, La federazione: costituzionalismo e democrazia oltre i confini nazionali, introductory essay to the reprint of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, Il Federalista, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1997.

[8] Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison,

[9] Mario Albertini, op. cit., p. 49.

[10] Kenneth C. Wheare, Federal Government, London-New York-Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1963.

[11] For more on this, cf. Federalist Papers numbers 12, 21 and 30. This remark appears in number 21. Alexander Hamilton et al., op. cit..

[12] Ibidem.

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