The Urgent Task of Reimagining the State

by | 8 Apr 2021

Covid 19 has given new urgency to the radical task of rethinking the state.  Illness, job losses, hospitalisation, and economic precarity demonstrate the need for scales and forms of governance that can organise and resource social welfare and public health provision. Living through this pandemic demonstrates how vital are scales and forms of governance that can also regulate conduct – from airlines to cycle lanes, from family gatherings, to housing, employment, medical trials, and vaccination.

Certainly, governments’ actions have not been unattended-to. There is no shortage of progressive commentary critically dissecting the failings of different states in tackling this pandemic. Some critique speaks to a Marxist, libertarian or anarchist-inflected repudiation of state action, other criticism signals a more hopeful account of socially responsible statehood – including through renewed calls for a guaranteed income, action to address racism and sexual violence, and planetary measures to avert ecological disaster.

Attending to state policies and practices is vital. But what often gets lost in this discussion about what states should or shouldn’t be doing is the question of what it means to be a state – and what it could (or should) come to mean. Several writers have explored the power and influence of different state imaginaries. Emily Brissette, for instance, addresses the impact of evolving state imaginaries on twentieth century US anti-war protests, from the image of complicit and so responsible citizens to one of prey subject to a predatory state.1Brissette, E. (2016). From complicit citizens to potential prey: State imaginaries and subjectivities in US War resistance. Critical Sociology, 42(7-8), 1163-1177. Nick Gill traces the impact of different imaginaries on British refugee activism.2Gill, N. (2010). Tracing imaginations of the state: The spatial consequences of different state concepts among asylum activist organisations. Antipode, 42(5), 1048-1070. Gill’s analysis foregrounds the differences in activism that can arise from approaching the state as open, contradictory, and porous rather than monolithic, exploitative, and closed. Both approaches can be found on the left but does only one of them offer a correct account of the state?

As a more than a generation of post-Marxist and post-structuralist state theory suggests, there is no solid thing identifiable as the state.3Colin Hay suggests we approach the state “as if real” to avoid the unhelpful and intractable debate about whether it is real or a fiction. Hay, C. (2014). Neither real nor fictitious but ‘as if real’? A political ontology of the state. The British Journal of Sociology, 65(3), 459-480.  Like other socio-political concepts, the state exists in the interrelationship between how it is imagined and actualised, and both take a vast array of forms. Thus, the concept of the state can be imagined as the “territory plus people” of a nation, as the condensation of class relations, as an assemblage of domination, a network of contradictory governance projects and more. Each treats different socio-material cuts and connections as significant; and, in the process, a different paradigmatic example of the state – as the instance through which thinking is done – gets folded in.

How we understand what it means to be a state depends on many factors – time, place, socio-material conditions, and experiences (including the diverse legacies and histories we carry). But one important factor is what we are understanding the state for. In my recent book, Feeling Like a State,4Cooper, D. (2019).  Feeling like a State. Duke University Press. I consider ways of conceptualising the state (or stateness, perhaps, as a better term), that might support a progressive transformative politics. From such a vantage-point, what might it mean to be a state?  Such a question faces in different directions: towards the sharp critiques that make progressive reconstruction necessary and desirable; towards more utopian hoped-for prospects where reimagining the state provides an orientation, a path to face or set out on, rather than a well-defined, filled-out account.

Progressive State Tasks  

Progressive and radical state thinking tend to foreground critique, I want to focus on the reconstructive and prefigurative dimensions of the state’s reimagining. Welfare, ecology, care, and social justice are important agendas, here, that we might want progressive state formations to organise around. In their 2014 article, “States of Imagination”, Janet Newman and John Clarke suggest states might provide a defence against rapacious markets and capitalism, promote a sense of the commons and public good, and play a role in “the renewal and reassertion of notions of public governance, public dialogue and public solidarity”.5Newman, J., & Clarke, J. (2014). States of imagination. Soundings, 57, 153-169. There is a resonance here with Bonnie Honig’s discussion of “public things” – the shared objects that democratic life depends upon.6Honig, B. (2017). Public things: Democracy in disrepair. Fordham University Press.

What about coercive powers and borders? Should they retain any role in a reimagined state given their oppressive histories and contemporary uses? In their recent writing, John Clarke and Nick Gill provide interesting responses to these questions.7See J. Clarke. (2019). Harmful thoughts: Reimagining the coercive state; N. Gill. (2019). Border abolition and how to achieve it; both in Reimagining the state: Theoretical challenges and transformative possibilities, ed. D. Cooper, N. Dhawan and J. Newman, Routledge. As their analyses make visible, the place of coercion and borders may depend on the entities targeted – corporate rather than human and other animals. It may also depend on the state bodies in question – their power, geopolitical place, and scale. Other difficult questions relate to the state’s role when it comes to pleasure, play, and the erotic. Does reimagining the state make room for these aspects too – reformatted away from the cruel, manipulative, dissembling kinds of play and erotic life that states currently undertake? If creativity, inventiveness, sensory stimulation, and vibrancy are important aspects of everyday life, should they also have a place in reimagined notions of public governance? Views on the left here differ. But the value of their consideration may lie less in the furnishing they provide to some stable, utopian state vision than in how they sharpen thinking about public forms of governance – what it can, should, and shouldn’t do. What play also contributes, whether we understand it as creativity, inventiveness, or playfulness, is a critical attention to the conditions that would need to be in place for its qualities to become politically desirable. In conditions of state inequality, violence, vulnerability, and unmet needs, play is a distraction or risk. Like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, play throws into relief much of what is wrong with states, whether we want them to engage in horizontal forms of play or not.

But does risk, more generally, underlie the state’s progressive reimagining? Acting as if the state could be a progressive formation, oriented to welfare, care, creativity, and horizontal decision-making may seem alarmingly naïve – harmful in its implicit discounting of the state’s “real” destructive powers in favour of imaginary possibilities. This critique is important. Demonstrating how seemingly liberal states maintain economic, racialised, transnational and other forms of injustice – by supporting private corporations and markets, prison and immigration policies, restrictive union laws, and so on is crucial.  At the same time, this critique of the state as it is (or seems to be) needs supplementing. Deferring more hopeful projects to a time when critique of the state seems less compelling misses the urgency of the need to discuss, think, and share – to intensify and enrich – desires and ambitions for alternative institutional or counter-institutional forms. We may think of these forms as lying outside of the state; but my point here is that this depends on how we conceive of the state. The state can be understood in multiple ways; no single, clear state/ non-state boundary exists.

Prefiguring the State

Reconstructing the state does not just happen in a future time. It can also be prefigured. By this I mean, people can act as if the aspirations they hold for the state – what it could come to mean and be – are already available. Of course, the right can and have prefigured their own conception of the state – early neoliberal moves to treat the state as a competitive corporate participant within a capitalist marketplace was one example of this. But my concern here is with its progressive take-up.

Prefiguring the state can mean several things. It can mean acting as if the nation-state is committed to the idealised standards of social justice that it proclaims, and so seek to hold state bodies to these standards, pushing them in the process to be established as shared standards – as a kind of property that belongs to the people or the commons (in contrast to those beliefs which states recognise and may protect through human rights law as private beliefs but do not publicly assume as their own). Second, it might involve, in Chiara de Cesari’s words, the “anticipatory representation” of a state, such as Palestine, which is not fully recognised as existing, yet whose realisation is desired and sought.8On the anticipatory representation of statehood, see De Cesari, C. (2012). Anticipatory Representation: Building the Palestinian Nation (‐State) through Artistic Performance. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 12(1), 82-100. For other examples, see McConnell, F. (2016). Rehearsing the state: The political practices of the Tibetan government-in-exile. John Wiley & Sons; also Mundy, J. A. (2007). Performing the nation, pre-figuring the state: The Western Saharan refugees, thirty years later. Journal of Modern African Studies, 275-297. Prefiguring means acting, symbolically or materially (and, of course, the two aren’t necessarily separate), as if such states were real. This may centre aspirations for national sovereignty, but it can also incorporate progressive ideas about what a state could be like.

Third, prefigurative projects might decentre the nation-state to identify the presence and promise of progressive stateness elsewhere – in the radical municipalisation initiatives, for instance, that Bertie Russell,9Russell, B. (2019). Beyond the local trap: New municipalism and the rise of the fearless cities. Antipode, 51(3), 989-1010. Matthew Thompson,10Thompson, M. (2020). What’s so new about New Municipalism?. Progress in Human Geography, 0309132520909480. and James Angel,11Angel, J. (2020). New Municipalism and the State: Remunicipalising Energy in Barcelona, from Prosaics to Process. Antipode, doi.org/10.1111/anti.12687. among others, have recently explored,12On
public-common partnerships as a progressive alternative to the more familiar
public-private formulation, see https://www.common-wealth.co.uk/reports/public-common-partnerships-building-new-circuits-of-collective-ownership
adding new work to an older tradition.13I have explored this literature in more detail in other writing, including Cooper, D. (2017). Prefiguring the state. Antipode, 49(2), 335-356. Or we might consider counter-institutional simulations, from local currency networks to People’s Tribunals, feminist and wild law judgment writing, and parodic People’s Republics, such as Frestonia, which anticipate or replay stateness in more progressive keys.

Fourth, prefiguration can mean acting through and as the state – attending to the opportunities, resources, and forms of power that institutional action provides. Local councils, for instance, may respond to civil society urgings that their policies treat gender as self-determined and no longer binary. Councils may act as if they are entitled to engage in foreign relations, exercising international solidarity, for instance, by participating in the pro-Palestinian boycott of Israel.14See Cooper, D., & Herman, D. (2020). Doing activism like a state: Progressive municipal government, Israel/Palestine and BDS. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 38(1), 40-59. Janet Newman’s account of “working the spaces of power” explores how politicians, officials, activists, and others use institutional tools to advance progressive agendas.15Newman, J. (2012). Working the spaces of power: Activism, neoliberalism and gendered labour. Bloomsbury. Rachel Dobson (2020) similarly analyses state-making through homelessness services, to explore the heterogeneous ways in which progressive (and conservative) performances of stateness arise.16Dobson, R. (2020). Local government and practice ontologies: agency, resistance and sector speaks in homelessness services. Local Government Studies, 46(4), 583-603.

Acting through the state may also rely on opportunities, which services users and public sector recipients acquire – thanks to the spaces, processes, and people to which they gain access – the “weapons of the weak” to use James Scott’s phrase. When conservative Christians use their participation in adoption and fostering processes to assert their objections to gay equality; or, to take quite a different example, when school students use their access to school buildings, teachers, curricular and published rules to assert their objections to sexual violence or institutionalised racism, prefiguring the state seems remote. However, these instances expose a form of state power that is often neglected. Typically, users of state services are not considered part of the state – nor are dissident or minority views, beliefs, and feelings. But if the concept of the state is approached pluralistically and purposively, there may be value in understanding states as heterogeneous evolving formations that cannot be reduced to their durable, systemic parts. One thing this also does is stimulate questions about how users of services and spaces can deploy the things, rules, and people to which they have access to remake the state (even if such actions are small-scale and temporary), or to stage and experiment with what collective, horizontal forms of socially just governance might entail.

Too often the left situates social movements and progressive politics outside of the state in ways that reinforce a sense of the state as a bounded, thing-like entity. Yet, the division between good, grass-roots radical politics on one side, and oppressive state action on the other, does left politics a disservice. Aside from reifying the state and romanticising what lies beyond it, such an approach can neglect the opportunities and resources that institutional practice makes available. These opportunities and resources are not innocent – uncontaminated by the sites, struggles, and histories through which they arise. But what a pandemic brings powerfully to the surface are the risks and redundancy in searching for purer spaces. Contamination is a challenge not a ground for political withdrawal from the task of reinventing the state.

Davina Cooper is a research professor in law and political theory at King’s College London.

  • 1
    Brissette, E. (2016). From complicit citizens to potential prey: State imaginaries and subjectivities in US War resistance. Critical Sociology, 42(7-8), 1163-1177.
  • 2
    Gill, N. (2010). Tracing imaginations of the state: The spatial consequences of different state concepts among asylum activist organisations. Antipode, 42(5), 1048-1070.
  • 3
    Colin Hay suggests we approach the state “as if real” to avoid the unhelpful and intractable debate about whether it is real or a fiction. Hay, C. (2014). Neither real nor fictitious but ‘as if real’? A political ontology of the state. The British Journal of Sociology, 65(3), 459-480.
  • 4
    Cooper, D. (2019).  Feeling like a State. Duke University Press.
  • 5
    Newman, J., & Clarke, J. (2014). States of imagination. Soundings, 57, 153-169.
  • 6
    Honig, B. (2017). Public things: Democracy in disrepair. Fordham University Press.
  • 7
    See J. Clarke. (2019). Harmful thoughts: Reimagining the coercive state; N. Gill. (2019). Border abolition and how to achieve it; both in Reimagining the state: Theoretical challenges and transformative possibilities, ed. D. Cooper, N. Dhawan and J. Newman, Routledge.
  • 8
    On the anticipatory representation of statehood, see De Cesari, C. (2012). Anticipatory Representation: Building the Palestinian Nation (‐State) through Artistic Performance. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 12(1), 82-100. For other examples, see McConnell, F. (2016). Rehearsing the state: The political practices of the Tibetan government-in-exile. John Wiley & Sons; also Mundy, J. A. (2007). Performing the nation, pre-figuring the state: The Western Saharan refugees, thirty years later. Journal of Modern African Studies, 275-297.
  • 9
    Russell, B. (2019). Beyond the local trap: New municipalism and the rise of the fearless cities. Antipode, 51(3), 989-1010.
  • 10
    Thompson, M. (2020). What’s so new about New Municipalism?. Progress in Human Geography, 0309132520909480.
  • 11
    Angel, J. (2020). New Municipalism and the State: Remunicipalising Energy in Barcelona, from Prosaics to Process. Antipode, doi.org/10.1111/anti.12687.
  • 12
    On
    public-common partnerships as a progressive alternative to the more familiar
    public-private formulation, see https://www.common-wealth.co.uk/reports/public-common-partnerships-building-new-circuits-of-collective-ownership
  • 13
    I have explored this literature in more detail in other writing, including Cooper, D. (2017). Prefiguring the state. Antipode, 49(2), 335-356.
  • 14
    See Cooper, D., & Herman, D. (2020). Doing activism like a state: Progressive municipal government, Israel/Palestine and BDS. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 38(1), 40-59.
  • 15
    Newman, J. (2012). Working the spaces of power: Activism, neoliberalism and gendered labour. Bloomsbury.
  • 16
    Dobson, R. (2020). Local government and practice ontologies: agency, resistance and sector speaks in homelessness services. Local Government Studies, 46(4), 583-603.

1 Comment

  1. Post-mosque approaches are not well suited to reinventing something they deny exists in principle.

    Reply

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