The State Against the State

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We asked sev­er­al con­trib­u­tors to write on the the­me of the state and rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy, for a round­table dis­cus­sion revolv­ing around the fol­low­ing prompt:

“In the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies the social­ist move­ment spilled a great deal of ink debat­ing the ques­tion of state pow­er. Lenin’s work was per­haps the most influ­en­tial, but it also pro­voked a wide range of crit­i­cal respons­es, which were arguably equal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. But whether or not Lenin’s con­cep­tion of the cor­rect rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance towards the state was ade­quate to his own par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, it is clear that today the real­i­ty of state pow­er itself has changed. What is liv­ing and what is dead in this the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal lega­cy? What would a prop­er­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance towards state pow­er look like today, and what would be the con­crete con­se­quences of this stance for a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy? Does the ‘seizure of state pow­er’ still have any mean­ing? Does the par­ty still have a place in the­se broad­er ques­tions?”

This essay is one con­tri­bu­tion to the round­table. Please be sure to read the oth­ersGeoff EleyPana­gi­o­tis SotirisJoshua Clover and Jasper BernesJodi Dean, Immanuel Ness.


As the last ves­tiges of the wel­fare state all but dis­ap­pear in the UK (among oth­er things: health­care; dis­abil­i­ty ben­e­fits; a tax on spare rooms, the so-called “bed­room tax”; legal aid; fund­ing for arts and the human­i­ties; afford­able uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion; hous­ing ben­e­fits; and unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, espe­cial­ly for young adults) we are faced with the para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of those most opposed to “the state” (either as anar­chists or as rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies com­mit­ted to its “with­er­ing away”) being forced to defend ele­ments of it again­st those who are in the process of pri­va­tiz­ing it into obliv­ion. Of course “the state” is not sim­ply a van­ish­ing safe­ty net or a real but ignored set of oblig­a­tions, but also pris­ons, police, courts, and mul­ti­ple oth­er forms of coer­cion, pun­ish­ment, con­trol, and vio­lence. Can we defend the “good state” again­st this oth­er one with­out falling into polit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tion or prac­ti­cal con­fu­sion? Can we sep­a­rate out the state and cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion?

In “With­in or Again­st the State?” Eliz­a­beth Humphrys argues that “In mov­ing towards a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the cap­i­tal­ist state it is bet­ter … to see the state and cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion as dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed moments of the same set of social rela­tions.” We do not need to oppose the image of trans-state eco­nom­ic elites to state-speci­fic con­sid­er­a­tions in order to be crit­i­cal of both the repres­sive aspects of the state and cap­i­tal­ism: we do not have to believe that we will first need to wage a war from with­in the state in order to over­turn it. As Humphrys puts it, we need instead to start “from an acknowl­edge­ment that the cap­i­tal­ist state, the most con­cen­trat­ed form of social rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ist dom­i­na­tion, can­not be trans­formed to deliv­er the very dif­fer­ent world we all agree is urgent­ly required.”1

Since the begin­ning of the UK state’s “aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures,” it has been clear that the state, despite wish­ing to abdi­cate or sell off many of its polit­i­cal and legal respon­si­bil­i­ties (such as pro­vid­ing legal aid for defen­dants), has in no way backed down when it comes to pros­e­cut­ing those who seek to chal­lenge the­se mea­sures. If any­thing, we could say that the UK state has tak­en on a delib­er­ate­ly mus­cu­lar approach to protests and riots since the Con­ser­v­a­tive-led gov­ern­ment has come to pow­er.

If you are the state, the con­text for protest and upris­ings is all yours, it belongs to you. Police “wit­ness­es” stand up for hours in court inton­ing the same phras­es: “it was the worst vio­lence I’ve ever seen,” “I was afraid for my life!,” “We were sur­round­ed.” The crowd and the mob who can­not be pros­e­cut­ed en masse but whose spec­tral ter­ror can be invoked to taint the indi­vid­u­al in the box, as if they car­ry the weight of num­bers upon their shoul­ders, are every­where, threat­en­ing to invade the court­room at any moment to car­ry the jury off in a mael­strom of irra­tional­i­ty, a cloud of col­lec­tive luna­cy. But the mob does not (yet) con­trol the space in which this men­ace is invoked, and the silence of the court­room masks its true pur­pose and its real vio­lence.

If those being pros­e­cut­ed do not get to invoke con­text, nor con­trol the nar­ra­tive, they do not get to con­trol time either. The state has all the time in the world. You do not. It is infinite and you are mor­tal. Your life is on hold as you await tri­al and pos­si­ble impris­on­ment. Fam­i­ly mem­bers die before they get even the mere hint of a ver­dict regard­ing the death of a loved one. An emer­gen­cy or a cri­sis is some­thing that hap­pens to you, but it is not the same emer­gen­cy as the one that gets report­ed, or the one that sees gov­ern­ment min­is­ters hud­dle togeth­er try­ing to for­mu­late a respon­se. The dai­ly emer­gen­cy that is impov­er­ished or bru­tal­ized exis­tence is nev­er described as such because the notion of emer­gen­cy does not belong to those for whom it is the ongo­ing fab­ric of their lives. An “emer­gen­cy” is one in which the state is sup­pos­ed­ly under attack – even if the vio­lence or threat involved is far less than that expe­ri­enced by a far larg­er and much more real num­ber all the time. An “emer­gen­cy” is when the drones and the airstrikes come out over­seas and the batons come out at home. An emer­gen­cy belongs only to the state.

The state con­trols not only the images of emer­gen­cy and the nar­ra­tive that enfolds them, even as we watch and see a per­ma­nent mis­match between words and image (“but the police are attack­ing them!”); it also gets to order the rela­tion­ship between time and those flash­es with­in time that rise up, those states of “emer­gen­cy.” They get to gen­er­ate them too, espe­cial­ly if a small­er nar­ra­tive can be used to make sense of a larg­er one: force a protest to “turn vio­lent,” open the courts for 24-hours a day to process “riot­ers” and demon­strate that “jus­tice is being done,” declare at all times that the state is under threat from “domes­tic extrem­ists.” In the­se times of height­ened secu­ri­ty, as the end­less trans­port announce­ments have it, it is imper­a­tive that the state knows who the ene­my is, or at least how to con­struct it, even if you do not know who it is, or even if there is one. What “hap­pens” hap­pens to you, but nev­er in the way they say it did: it pass­es through you and you are made into a pup­pet or a ghost, a warn­ing to oth­ers. To exit the state’s def­i­n­i­tion of emer­gen­cy would be to destroy the state itself, and to cre­ate a new kind of “emer­gen­cy” that would high­light all at once the dev­as­ta­tion wrought by the emer­gen­cy that is all around us, the one we are sup­posed to believe is noth­ing oth­er than busi­ness as usu­al.

The one argu­ment it is impos­si­ble to make in court, but the one that push­es itself for­ward con­stant­ly is the one that says: “But we had a right to be angry! Did you see what they were doing to us? Did you expect us to just stand there and take it?” All you can say is “it wasn’t me,” “I didn’t do it,” or “I didn’t mean it like that.” I am not the indi­vid­u­al to whom this charge relates, but I am reduced to my indi­vid­u­al­i­ty on the stand: I can­not invoke the cause, how­ev­er just, and I can­not rely on the crowd because you have plucked me from it. If you are a defen­dant, there is no con­text, only your actions and your future sway­ing in the bal­ance. Any attempt to talk about why you were there, or what the police did to you will be deemed irrel­e­vant: it’s the facts that mat­ter, always damn facts, because some­thing “hap­pened” and you do not get to con­trol the nar­ra­tive, because you are not the state, and are always posi­tioned as its ene­my.

From out of the monot­o­ny, sud­den­ly some­thing “hap­pens,” and the scram­ble for facts begins. A protest takes place, let’s say, and the police, as always, are there and they start to get rough: push­ing, shov­ing, smack­ing shields again­st faces, batons out, peo­ple get hurt, cam­eras start flash­ing – per­haps a shot like the one of a masked kid kick­ing in the glass at the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty head­quar­ters in 2010 will turn up, or some­one will chuck a bot­tle. News reports will talk about “vio­lence” in a way that both alarms and obfus­cates – who caused it? Who got hurt? What were peo­ple protest­ing about any­way? The bat­tle for con­trol of the nar­ra­tive – of “what hap­pened” – begins. It is, like most wars, asym­met­ri­cal, with one side able to mar­shal vast resources (this year the Lon­don Met­ro­pol­i­tan police will spend around £5.4 mil­lion on “media and com­mu­ni­ca­tion”) and the oth­er pos­sess­ing noth­ing. It is a bat­tle played out across the field of its own repro­duc­tion: the expen­sive cam­eras that film the pro­test­ers are mir­rored by the cam­era-phones held up by the crowd, each try­ing to cap­ture some­thing slight­ly dif­fer­ent: on the one hand, a sto­ry, pos­si­bly even the lead on tonight’s news, on the oth­er, a record of what “real­ly hap­pened,” the oth­er sto­ry that won’t ever make the news, but might just stop some­one from going to pris­on.

The use of film in the West­min­ster stu­dent protests of late 2010, and the more recent Cops Off Cam­pus demos that took place in late 2013 and 2014 in Blooms­bury, Cen­tral Lon­don provide a salu­tary lesson in this fram­ing of events, on the ques­tion of who gets to call an event an emer­gen­cy, of who gets to decide what the con­text is, or if there even is one. The rise of cit­i­zen jour­nal­ism has made it pos­si­ble to com­mu­ni­cate, often in real time, what is “hap­pen­ing” and where: but it has also made the ques­tion of sur­veil­lance an urgent mat­ter for pro­test­ers. In the dozens of tri­als fol­low­ing the stu­dent protests of 2010, footage from YouTube, alongside that from the many CCTV cam­eras and police observers on the ground, was used repeat­ed­ly in evi­dence again­st pro­test­ers. While peo­ple gen­er­al­ly know well enough not to put up footage that might incrim­i­nate indi­vid­u­als, what emerged was how the police and Crown Pros­e­cu­tion Ser­vice have the resources to trawl through hours and hours of footage upload­ed by well-mean­ing fel­low pro­test­ers: footage of the accused sim­ply won­der­ing around was used to pin­point clothes, loca­tion, mak­ing mon­tages of sup­posed inten­tion and latent vio­lence. Every frame starts to look guilty, every well-inten­tioned clip a resource for the oth­er side. The state not only has most of the­se cam­eras already but can force any­one else – busi­ness­es, media – to turn over what frag­ments of the spec­ta­cle they pos­sess: the state is omniv­o­rous for images, except for those of itself in its true, vio­lent form.

It is no sur­prise that the visu­al field becomes the site of con­tes­ta­tion when police vio­lence is involved. When the fam­i­lies of those killed by the police in cus­tody call for jus­tice, they know from bit­ter expe­ri­ence that it is not bour­geois law that will provide it: the­se deaths are shroud­ed in mys­tery and cov­er-ups, inves­ti­ga­tions are lengthy and delib­er­ate­ly incon­clu­sive: the chance of a pros­e­cu­tion again­st offi­cers approach­es zero. There is no trans­paren­cy, no answers, only silence, bureau­cra­cy and defeat. When fam­i­lies of those killed call for CCTV in the back of police cars, or for offi­cers to wear cam­eras as part of their kit, or for footage in sta­tions to be made avail­able, they are com­pet­ing on the only ground that remains avail­able, the ground upon which the police them­selves attempt to con­trol the nar­ra­tive: the visu­al field. The bat­tle here is once again between the idea that some­thing has “hap­pened” or, in the­se cas­es, as the police would prefer, that “noth­ing has hap­pened, there’s noth­ing to see here.” But fam­i­lies don’t for­get – how could they? The omnipres­ence of CCTV, the way in which police and courts rely on it con­stant­ly to put peo­ple in pris­on means that the call for the image to be set free can­not be ignored with­out a fun­da­men­tal truth being admit­ted: the visu­al field is obscured pre­cise­ly to the extent that pow­er wants it hid­den. It doesn’t mat­ter how easy it would be to fit cam­eras in police cars, or in sta­tions, or on kit, it doesn’t mat­ter how much every­one else “signs” a con­tract to be sur­veilled that doesn’t exist – even the images you make do not belong to you. You will nev­er know if the footage you shot will be used to pros­e­cute the very peo­ple you protest­ed alongside. The police “super-spot­ters” who claim to be able to iden­ti­fy pro­test­ers by their eyes alone are the direct inverse of the image­less vac­u­um that greets those who try to dis­cov­er moments of real, dead­ly state vio­lence only to be greet­ed with the absence of any­thing – no images, no apol­o­gy, no expla­na­tion, no jus­tice, no peace.

What does this mean for our rela­tion to the state? The state itself, while main­tain­ing the insti­tu­tions of oppres­sion, sees no con­tra­dic­tion between pun­ish­ing who­ev­er it wants when­ev­er it wants with all the resources at its com­mand, and at the same time pri­va­tiz­ing ele­ments of the­se same insti­tu­tions. In the UK, groups such as Ser­co and G4S run var­i­ous ele­ments of the pris­on sys­tem, while a pri­vate police force has been open­ly dis­cussed for some years now: in this we are of course and as always, just a few years behind the US, dogged­ly pur­su­ing our “spe­cial rela­tion­ship.” To “seize” state pow­er would first of all mean to under­stand how it oper­ates, and how it dis­avows its own oper­a­tions. To make it with­er away would mean to destroy its very mech­a­nisms for cre­at­ing space and time. Do we, in the mean­time, attempt to pre­serve what lit­tle is left of it that con­cerns care and sup­port? Do we con­tin­ue to set up our own net­works, thus absolv­ing the state of its for­mer “respon­si­bil­i­ties”? It is clear that the state does the work of cap­i­tal, but also its own work to which we are fre­quent­ly forced to respond (court sup­port, pris­on sup­port). Eco­nom­ic elites per­pet­u­ate their lives through the dis­pos­ses­sion and rob­bing of every­one else, whether it be through exploita­tion, incar­cer­a­tion or both. The destruc­tion of the repres­sive state is also the destruc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, and vice ver­sa.


  1. Eliz­a­beth Humphrys, “With­in or Again­st the State?,” Jacobin Mag­a­zine

Author of the article

teaches Philosophy at the University of Roehampton and Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art.