Is The State An Organic Entity?

Does Burkean notion of the state as an organic entity still apply? 

The view that the state is an organic entity was famously coined by Burke who stated that in order for both the citizens and the country as a whole to develop, it needed to do so through ‘gradual and natural change’ after his ideology developed upon reflections of the French Revolution.

If a plant has blossomed within a particular soil, should you uproot it and put it in an entirely new soil that may kill it? Burke’s viewpoint dictates that this illustration represents the organic entity; the organism needs to grow and develop in a stable and natural way, and not have its environment radically changed. For a state to achieve true liberty for its citizens, it needs to be combined with several other factors – most importantly, tradition. The French Revolution failed to build upon the customs and traditions of the French but demanded radical change, and due to this key flaw, the French Revolution failed to produce meaningful change over a consistent period of time: thus, things went eventually back to exactly how they were before.

According to Burke (as well as Conservative ideology) ruling is indeed an art (techne) and cannot be done by everyday men. An analogy of this was put forward by Oakeshott, who compared this to a cookery book – you see the picture of the meal you want to cook, and you follow the instructions perfectly, yet the result looks entirely different. This is an example of techne and, more importantly, the difference between knowing what and knowing how.

When the Normans invaded Britain in 1066, they sought gradual change, by the slow imposition of laws which built upon British customs and values, and, because of this, their ‘takeover’ of Britain was both successful and also laid the foundations down for future generations. Burke argued therefore that the state is, and should be, an organic entity, as throughout our history we’ve clearly been hesitant towards radical change through via legislation, giving, for example, homosexuality full legality as well as equal rights to women, but over a longer period of time.

In support of this systematic, gradual, approach, Lord Devlin was extremely worried about radical change and the increase in individualism,NPG 655,Edmund Burke,studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds as the moment we begin to neglect our customs and traditions, he though, is the moment we begin to fragment from within. In other words, if our customs and our traditions don’t unite us, then nothing will; if we all pull in entirely different (radical) directions, our moral consensus and respect for tradition completely fades, and the very fabric of society begins to crumble. Therefore, the state is (and should be) an organic entity, as demonstrated in pivotal times such as World War 2, where the famous ‘King’s Speech’ united the country by focussing primarily on conservatism and a respect for our values and traditions. If the state wasn’t an organic entity that didn’t build upon traditional institutions, the speech, I contend, would have been extremely different (not to mention irrelevant) and could have led to disunity and defeat in World War 2.

This also demonstrates that the key focus must be on tradition, rather than any other potential method. Freeden complements and categorically advocates the state as an organic entity through his 5 key arguments, as, in summary, he vociferously argues that laws cannot be predicted. To give an example, our laws and values are different from the USA’s. Why? Because our history and traditions differ. How can you build a house without the framework which holds it up? You can’t – and if the framework for building a house is the tradition for progressing a society, the point remains identical. Therefore the state is an organic entity, as history and tradition are the framework of not only our society, but societies throughout the world. Without this framework, society would crumble.

To emphasise the organic analogy, Aristotle famously used the example of the body, by arguing that the foot without the body was absolutely pointless. In other words, individuals within society would be meaningless without the society (and the tradition that comes with that society), and therefore the whole is more important than the part(s). He further develops this by asserting that within every aspect of life there is a natural hierarchy, and that hierarchy must be respected and adhered to as that hierarchy has been brought about through natural and progressive change.

An example might be the male-dominated household. However, is the male-dominated household still regarded as ‘the norm’? With the ever changing social status of women (not to mention the view of their domestic role) the increase in single-parent families and symmetrical families is undeniable – not forgetting the dramatic changes in legislation which give women full equal rights (for example, giving women the right, which they never used to have, to divorce men). Furthermore, although the whole is more important than the parts, it is both naïve and ignorant to presume that the foot is irrelevant when removed from the body, as the removal of the foot severely hinders the body.

In addition, does history and tradition necessarily mean wisdom? Mill would vehemently argue that this is not the case, as custom and tradition is only relevant to the time at which it applied. For example, racism and sexism was the tradition of one generation, but not necessarily the next. Furthermore, tradition (as we can see with these examples) does not logically entail ‘rightness’. Just because one generation thought something was right, doesn’t mean that it should be taken as gospel and continued over future generations. Mill strongly put forward that the state should allow individuals to think for themselves and blossom, not be stifled by tradition and what they’re told is right either by the majority or by the state. Ruling in this thesis isn’t an art: it is simply the tyranny of the majority. For example, if 51% of the population voted that murder should be legal in a referendum, murder would become fully legal. The majority oppresses the minority into believing their viewpoint is the right one. Therefore, the state may not an ‘organic entity’, but merely the  tyranny of the majority.

With regard to oppression, Marx would fundamentally agree that the state oppresses individuals, but would, on the other hand, say that that’s exactly what the state is for. The state is merely a capitalist statesystem that both alienates and exploits the proletariat (workers of the land) and its role is to protect itself, generate maximum surplus value and, more importantly, oppress individuals into a false class consciousness through dominant ideology. Marx uses the example of workers/land, as he states that workers will never be able to generate enough wealth from that land/work but believe that if they keep working hard they’ll one day have enough for their own land: but that equally, however, this is merely the myth of meritocracy which keeps the proletariat in a false class consciousness and, critically, keeps them working the land in vain. Therefore the state is not an organic entity that develops over a long period of time, but an organic state that requires radical change in order to better itself.

If we take a different angle to the state as an oppressor with philosophical anarchism, Godwin states that the state intervenes within people’s lives to keep them under a forceful rule which is both abhorrent and unnecessary. The only rule that individuals need is through themselves, and the only judgment they need is their own – this therefore led Godwin to coin the term ‘principle of private judgment’, stating that we have the capabilities to decide what is best for us through the simplistic system of weighing up if a particular decision was good or bad for us through deontology (based on consequences).

This was based on Bentham’s infamous ‘hedonistic calculus’ which dictates that if something gives you 10/10 pleasure and causes someone else 9/10 displeasure (pain), then you have +1 pleasure, which means it is perfectly acceptable to do, and should be done also. However, lest we forget, this hedonistic calculus not only advocates potential cases of bullying, rape and terrorism – which therefore illustrates that, although the state is not an organic entity (but indeed an oppressor), Bentham’s alternative is both morally abhorrent and at best easily questionable.

The ideological statement that the state is an organic entity seems to be one that was correct within our past: but it also, due to the rapid increase/development in individualism, society’s respect for tradition and gradual change, seems to be one that has disappeared. This is because individualism promotes individuals within society to pull in their own direction, thus causing social divides (fragmentation) within society. Therefore, the state’s role as an organic entity becomes an extremely limited and difficult one, and it has thus had to adapt itself.

Reece Warren


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