States of imagination

People at once both despise and desire the state, and unpicking the paradoxes within attitudes to the state is essential to understanding how to move the state forward.

Janet Newman John Clarke
17 March 2014

The Kilburn Manifesto is a statement being made in twelve monthly instalments, issued free on-line, about the nature of the neoliberal system which now dominates Britain and most of the Western world, and about the need to develop coherent alternatives to it. OurKingdom will publish a discussion of each instalment of the Manifesto. To see the rest of the series click here.

Does everybody hate the state? It often appears so. Neoliberals detest the state and aim to downsize it or even make it wither away. And defending it certainly raises problems. Many people disenchanted by formal politics no longer look to the state, despairing of its associations with bureaucracy, hierarchy, corruption, secrecy and lies. Others view it as an outdated institution, a left-over legacy of nineteenth-century nation-building and twentieth-century power politics that has little relevance to those seeking to create new responses to contemporary challenges. This has given rise to a search for new forms of social and political engagement--the Indignados movement, new feminist and anti-racist movements, and a proliferation of community mobilisations--that flow across national borders and have little truck with old-style political parties.

However, a politics of the state still matters. Even a cursory glance at current affairs demonstrates as much, from the NSA revelations to recent power struggles in Ukraine to the UK’s very own phone-hacking scandal. How we imagine the state, how we feel about it, will shape the kinds of politics that are possible. Popular disenchantment with the state reflects the experiences of the kind of state we currently have to live with, at least in Britain – a state that has been commodified, marketised and managerialised, and seems to ignore the human relationships at stake in its encounters with citizens. But the ‘rolling back’ of the state also creates a strong sense of loss: the loss of state funded institutions (voluntary organisations, advice centres, arts and cultural provision), public services (the local library, hospital, youth centres), public welfare (elder care, childcare), and, not least, the capacity for public governance. In our current conditions of austerity and deepening inequality, many people are looking to the state to regulate financial interests, curb corruption and abuse, and prevent social harm. In such moments, we hear a different view of the state – it is seen as a bulwark against the market’s destructive powers; as the guarantor of rights; as ‘the equaliser’.

This is the puzzle, the paradox of the state that we must address: that the state is both despised and desired. Yet this is not a simple paradox, and should not be treated as an ‘on the one hand … on the other’ kind of argument. The problem facing us in seeking to understand ‘the state’ is that it is many things, and works through a series of different relationships with those whom it claims to represent, serve, scrutinise, improve or coerce. The state is both an expression of publicness--it is something more than the sum of individual interests or choices--and, paradoxically, in recent years, an instrument for the destruction and evacuation of public attachments and identifications.

A number of newspaper headlines show something of current contradictory responses to the changing role of the state, and the affective dimensions of those responses.

"The health services could keel over in 2016"

Guardian, 7.8.13

"Fat profits: how the food industry cashed in on obesity"

Guardian G2, 8.8.13

"When did we give our consent to a secret state?"

Guardian, 4.10.3

These three headlines neatly illustrate the complex and contested functions of the state. The neoliberal privatisation of public goods has blurred the distinctions between public and private sectors to the extent that it is no longer clear for what, exactly, the state retains accountability and responsibility. Is obesity a public issue or is it just a consequence of individual greed or ‘life style choice’? Or, as argued in the G2 piece above, is it perhaps a direct consequence of profit-seeking by the food industry, and, if so, should the industry be regulated more closely?

The state has also been opened up to powerful interests: the reference above to the health service potentially ‘keeling over’, for example, was made by the head of the Foundation Trust Network, when calling for the pace of privatising reforms to be accelerated and for political interference to be curtailed.

Then there is the state’s role as an intrusive power, concerned with national security and carrying unprecedented powers of surveillance and control. Revelations about the extent of mass surveillance by security agencies in Britain and the US (our third headline above) have attracted huge public concern.

The state is, then, both retreating and expanding; it is plural in the forms of power and authority it exerts. The state that is being undone, securitised and marketised is also the one that inscribed--however partially and conditionally--the rights which previous generations of campaigners and activists fought for: gender and racial equality, the protection of workers from forms of abuse that threaten their health and safety, legislation against rape and domestic violence, rights to pensions and other forms of social protection, and the right to receive education and healthcare and other public services.

In the face of these contradictions, we believe that the renewal of public relationships is vital. The idea of the state as representing or embodying a unified idea of the public and public interest is of course no longer viable. There can be no going back to a mythical golden age of the state. Nor do we envisage a return to the idea that the state can somehow be ‘captured’ by progressive social forces. Rather, we propose an approach to the state that enhances notions of the commons, reasserts collective (public) interests and enables collective (public) action.

Public-making does not reside wholly in the state: it is enacted through a proliferating array of groups and organisations working beyond the state to build new communities, networks and forms of mobilization within and beyond the nation. We think this points to the need for a fundamentally dialogic state – one which is constantly encouraging, and simultaneously being shaped by, public dialogue. Such dialogues need to be horizontal--among the many publics that make up society--as well as vertical between the citizens and the state. This means that a dialogic state is also necessarily a dispersed state.

For us, the possibility of remaking the state lies partly in continuing attachments to collectivity and solidarity in insecure times. These can be seen as residual attachments, marked by the continuation of questions that cannot be answered in the terms of the dominant ideology: it is in this light that we interpret the desires for a bulwark against exploitation, a sense of security in the face of uncertainty, and an attachment to collective institutions that transcend the individualising drive of neoliberal capitalism. But the state also needs to adapt to emergent, more dialogic, forms of engagement

A state in the making might respond to both residual and emergent desires – embodying them and making them more possible. States are contradictory in part because they are always confronting the challenge of managing the contradictions in, and crises of, contemporary capitalism. Yet, paradoxically, such contradictions create the cracks and spaces of possibility out of which alternatives recurrently emerge.

* This title of this essay is borrowed from a collection of ethnographic studies of the postcolonial state, edited by Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat (Duke University Press, 2001).

This is the seventh instalment of the Kilburn manifesto. A longer version is available at

**A Soundings seminar based on this article is taking place on 20 March at 6.30, at the Marx Memorial Library, London EC1R 0DU (map)

Janet Newman and John Clarke are both Emeritus Professors of Social Policy and Criminology at the Open University. Each has written widely on the state, including their jointly authored book Publics, politics and power, Sage 2009. John was a co-author of Policing the Crisis. Janet’s most recent book is Working the Spaces of Power: activism, neoliberalism and gendered labour, Bloomsbury Academic 2012.

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