Refugee status must mean permanent residence.

The Home Office has recently introduced a Safe Returns Review that allows them to refuse refugee applications for indefinite leave to remain if it is judged that it is now safe for them to return. This post argues that the policy needs to be challenged. If you agree please sign this petition.

My step-mum, Anna, is a Chilean refugee who lives in South London. She was under threat of persecution from the Pinochet dictatorship installed by the US-orchestrated coup in 1971. Being recognised as a refugee in 1973 meant she could settle in the UK permanently and could plan her life for the long term. She trained to be a psychotherapist and worked in the NHS, she played active roles in the political communities in the Latin American diaspora and later in the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and she played a huge role in my upbringing.

For a long time now, the link between refugee status and permanent residence has been under threat. In 2005, the New Labour government, having previously lauded settlement as vital to refugee integration made the first crack in the connection. They made a formal change that meant that procedurally speaking refugee status was granted for 5 years, after which one would have to apply for indefinite leave to remain. This would routinely be granted automatically unless the applicant had a criminal record.

The Tory government have rhetorically tried to prise open the crack further. In 2015 Theresa May stated:

“We’ll introduce strengthened ‘safe return reviews’ so when a refugee’s temporary stay of protection in the UK comes to an end, or if there is a clear improvement in the conditions of their own country, we will review their need for protection. If their reason for asylum no longer stands and it is now safe for them to return, we will seek to return them to their home country rather than offer settlement here in Britain.”

This safe return review was quietly published in a new Home Office policy that states:

“All those who apply for settlement protection after completing the appropriate probationary period of limited leave will be subject to a safe return review with reference to the country situation at the date the application is considered. Those who still need protection at that point will normally qualify for settlement. Caseworkers must refer to the Settlement Protection instruction for more detailed guidance on considering such applications.”

This change applies immediately and means that the 59,000 people who have received status in the last 5 years now will undergo a full safe returns review. If the circumstances either personal or political that led one to receive refugee status have in the Home Office’s eyes ‘ceased to exist’ they are now able to block refugees from accessing leave to remain.

We don’t know the precise effects of the policy change. The Home Office may continue, for the time being, to routinely grant indefinite leave to remain to refugees. But whether it is immediately noticeable or occurs at an imperceptible speed, this move severs the connection between refugee status and permanent residence.

The increased uncertainty will have significant effects on the lives of those have already succeeded against the odds at persuading the Home Office or an asylum judge that they have a right to refugee status. Being a refugee no longer means one is in control of one’s own future: deciding what educational, professional choices to take, how one is to build relationships and participate in communities have to be taken in the knowledge that one’s right to remain is not secure. It means refuge is increasingly being re-characterised as a precarious, liminal status where residence is always dependent on the continued threat to one’s life. If biological life ceases to be threatened by persecution, one’s social and political life in the UK is immediately placed under threat.

Given the experience of poor Home Office decision making and the likelihood they may need to be overturned on appeal, refugees may now need to seek legal advice again when applying for leave to remain. This is likely to affect people who gained refugee status on the basis of gender based persecution because the personal circumstances involved are likely to be more subject to change.

There will be those who tell us the refugee status is only about protection and that’s all it is meant to do. They are wrong. Refugee status is about granting the security and control that enables people fleeing persecution to build a full human life that includes full participation, in whatever ways they so wish, in the life of communities in the UK. Long term residence is essential to this security and control and this is why it is so important that we need to repair, secure and celebrate the connection between refugee status and permanent residence in the UK.



The poverty of the ‘migrants contribute’ argument

One of the most prominent arguments against the racism and nationalism of border enforcement is to draw attention to the contribution that migrants make to the UK. A botched attempt to make it was made on question time last night and it back-fired big time. While I adopt a pragmatic approach to arguments in general (if it works, use it!) here are some reasons to be wary of it.

1. Analytical problems of the migrants contribute argument

a. It reduces people to their economic contribution
The migrants contribute argument participates in the ‘common sense’ idea that we should value each other based on their contribution society, however, often this is code for economic contribution. This neoliberal logic grounds a person’s right to citizenship in their participation in a national economy – usually through work and taxation. But this logic unduly celebrates work as a means of valuing ourselves and others. At the same time, it obscures the diverse ways that people participate in communities and families including ways that the majority in a community might not recognise.

b. It mischaracterizes the ties that connect migrant labour to European wealth

Europe’s relative wealth, including the development of the Welfare State, has been built using the labour of slavery, the accumulation of colonialism, the maintenance of neo-colonial and imperial power and racist labour exploitation based. The idea that people without British citizenship contribute both presents this history as a cosy, consensual agreement, drastically underplays the dependence of the European state on the labour of Black and Brown people and obscures the cost and conditions of the migrant labour.

2. Strategic problems: It is unlikely to gain support and it does not go far enough to achieve pro-migrant ends

a. Who does migration benefit?
Claims that migrants contribute in general beg the question of who they contribute to. On the one hand, we know that society isn’t organised to foster prosperity for all and the widespread feeling of being unjustly excluded from the riches of neoliberal growth is deeply entwined with emboldened nationalism and border-racism. So when we value migrants because they make profit or make coffee – it will not convince someone who doesn’t benefit from these activities.

On the other, it reinforces the kind of us-them thinking that the border is premised upon. We should not encourage people to require that their lives or country is being contributed to by someone in order for me not to want them to face everyday racism, be put in immigration detention or forcefully removed.

b. The trope of the good and deserving migrant

In order to create a socially just society, we need to be challenging the ‘legitimate’ social exclusion of people who are unemployed, homeless and those with criminal convictions. These are social problems that require social solutions – yet arguments based on how migrants contribute will always draw attention to those that don’t ‘contribute’ expected ways.

c. It invites questions of who contributes more?
In order to form discourse that builds a consensus around free movement, we need to build narratives that value everyone – both communities who have moved and those who are relatively static. The notion that migrants contribute, in conditions of austerity, industry collapse means that those who need to be included in a progressive vision of the future are excluded. Focusing on migrants doing important jobs dovetails with the classism and snobbery that British working class aren’t doing the jobs they are supposed to be doing.

3. There are better arguments

a. Free movement as a right that states have a responsibility to protect
The freedom to move and build lives and communities of one’s own is an essential part of human life. Recognising and fighting for the inherent value of the freedom to move and stay in new places is necessary to bring into view socially just futures. It is on this basis that we need to convince people to support the development of the open societies and infrastructure needed to enable less border control.

 b. Focus on the violence of border control
A focus on migrants contributing means that we silence the main instrumental reason we should be rejecting border control. Arguments that are based on harm done by the individual foreground the experiences of those who are the victims of state violence and adopts the stand that our collective liberation is dependent upon ending the violence and domination dealt out by the state where-ever it occurs and whoever it occurs.

For these reasons, we should be very wary of using claims that migrants contribute in order to pursue anti-border goals. It is both analytically misleading, strategically misguided and there are better arguments to use.

Methodological notes on Concepts and Empiricism

This blog piece articulates how and why concepts can be useful tools to work with in order to articulate the dynamic and practical political thinking generated within embodied, situated activist practices.

A motivating a theory of concept

In many domains of social life, there are conceptual models through which relationships between people are understood. These concepts may relate to common, broad categories of relationships as in the case of friends, colleagues, employers and lovers. They might also be more specific: developed within particular social and professional milieus – the relationship between lawyer and client, researcher and informant, commuters sharing adjacent seats. These models guide how we should behave, the expectations we might have of others and the possibilities which might be realised within the bounds of that model. While necessary and helpful in navigating social interaction, and forming a common understanding, these conceptual models can implicitly fix the possibilities of social life and carry unfair and imbalance social norms.

These concepts are honed and negotiated through several mediums: all originate in social practice but they are also described and reinterpreted in forms of social discourses in film, fiction and commentary. Some are the subject of scientific study while others are regulated in law. Individual instantiations of these relationships will exceed and stretch the conceptual model in detail, intensity and shape. Awkwardness or excitement might arise from the intersection of these conceptual models and creative conceptual thought might be needed to invent or stretch new concepts to navigate new social terrain. Concepts are not abstract and atemporal universals unchanged by time and material practice. Yet nor are they reducible to the concrete relationships that give rise to them: concepts extend the concrete, delineate possibilities, carry knowledge and inform the next iterations of practice. Concepts, in short, both shape relationships and are themselves shaped by the dynamic, diverse and intricate material relationships the constitute social life (Cooper, 2014).

In some domains of life, particularly those outside of institutional structures, there is no such a stable set of concept resources to mediate and navigate relationships. Here, the logics which govern how the community interacts with itself are developed and a precarious order arises out of uncertainty. It is important, then, to develop conceptual resources and a conceptual orientation that open possibilities for working together, are inherently dynamic and are not necessarily prescriptive, but are light footed, playful and responsive to the material conditions in which we are embedded. In these settings new concepts might be forged to articulate new ways of working together or, as is more often the case, concepts might be borrowed from other aspects of life, become stretched, rearticulated and refracted through its new material conditions.

In other words, the material interactions involved in activist (and other) practices are dynamic and productive. The problem is how to tease out these conceptual innovations that emerge, even fleetingly, to recognise new tendencies and new possibilities for political relationships in developing political fields.

A theory of the Conceptual

Academic work clustered around what we might call ‘philosophical empiricism’ or ‘New Empiricism’ has developed methodological innovations drawing on Deleuze’s notions of empiricism and concept (Bal, 2009; Cooper, 2014; Gane, 2009). Deleuze rejects the idea that concepts should be primarily associated with general categories – fixed mental abstractions that collect together different aspects of the world and obscure difference and singularity. Rather, concepts are dynamic intensities – incorporeal assemblages that arise and are shaped through the local social situations that not only represent what is happening but articulates the possibilities for action.

In Deleuze’s view, conceptual creativity is not only a question of explanation or categorisation but tools of navigation always connected to the problems encountered in the course of entanglements with the empirical world. Problems are not objective but are always invented – motivated by intentional actors or what Deleuze would call ‘conceptual personae’. It is in the tension between the empirical world and philosophical and political thought that concepts are generated and already existing concepts become refracted to expose new possibilities. In this way, transcendent concepts that point toward a world beyond the present such as justice or law are always immanently shaped by the material present.

Conceptual creativity might seen in the creation of new concepts but equally be articulated through the rearticulation existing concepts. As abstract objects of thought and speech, concepts travel from context to context, discipline to discipline, subtly changing their role and meaning. Gane uses the metaphor of concepts as bridges that constantly are being assembled and disassembled. As bridges, they articulate possibilities rather than represent a static reality. In this way concepts are affective – they articulate ways in which through engagement in materially situated practices of working together a collective’s capacities to be affect and be affected change.

There are elements of Deleuze’s notion of concept that are not taken forward by this methodology. Conceptual creativity is an elitist practice that falls to philosophers to carry out (Deleuze and Guattari, 2011; Massumi, 2002). More democratic understanding of conceptual development has been crafted elsewhere. For Cooper (2014), it is the role of concepts to move or reverberate between actualisation and imagining. The imagination stretches concepts to realise new potential to enact markets, property, the state, or democracy in ways other than they currently are practised. Actualisation in the activities of communities responding to social problems supports, sustains and shapes the direction of future movements. In practice, these aren’t separate processes but occur through one another. If one wants to understand the generativity of social life one needs to remain attentive to conceptual innovations and subversions that occur the dynamic and creative lives of those around us.

As Gane argues, Deleuze’s notion of concept is intimately tied to his understanding of empiricism – that is a project that does not only explain phenomena by tying them to pre-established, static systems by trying to locate and foster novelty (Gane, 2009). It means drawing concepts that are developed in one social milieu into new ones – not with the purpose of absorbing the new object of inquiry into the old concept but by locating the dissonance and tension, the transformations and inversions that indicate the new realms of political possibilities. Bal, working in the interdisciplinary humanities, argues that travelling concepts is an asset rather than a liability – it allows us to see the connections between contexts but also keep alert to the innovations and creativity at work in new spaces.

How might this work in practice?

That’s something I’m working out! But if theory is anything to go by the practice will not be contained by the theory, but will exceed it in response to the infinitely complex realities of empirical world!


Bal M (2009) Working with Concepts. European Journal of English Studies 13(1): 13–23.

Cooper D (2014) Everyday Utopias: the conceptual life of promising spaces.

Deleuze G and Guattari F (2011) What is philosophy? Repr. London: Verso.

Gane N (2009) Concepts and the `New’ Empiricism. European Journal of Social Theory 12(1): 83–97.

Massumi B (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press.


The Removal Men: Immigration Detention, Activism and Art

CN: sexual violence, Immigration detention.
I have just seen a play called the Removal Men written by M. J. Harding and directed by Jay Miller. The play is centred on the lives of immigration detention guards and their feelings about their work and the people they detain. I arrived at the play sceptical: I was interested in it as a way of bringing the detention to the consideration of new audiences but I felt uncomfortable about how it was marketed as a ‘love story’ between a guard and a woman in detention. I had the following questions circling in my mind:
  • What is the range of acceptable, interesting or politically useful artistic responses to the violence of Yarl’s Wood?
  • What is the difference between participating in and normalising the racism and sexism of immigration control and helpfully re-presenting the racism and sexism of detention for the examination of new audiences?
For anti-detention activists, the importance of unambiguous condemnation of detention and deportation, of sexual conduct between border guards and people held in detention is important. Because of the political and social exclusion faced by those in detention, it is important that detainee voices and experience are represented and shared as much as possible. And plays that obfuscate, confuse and revel in the controversy of detention serve to normalise detention and extract financial and social capital for the artists without challenging audiences into political action against their existence.
For the artist, developing a play that embodies what is repulsive and oppressive about detention could be a laudable aim. The play reflects back at the audience a vision of detention and of themselves as caught up in logics that enable oppressive violence of detention to occur. Because guards are racist, sexist and homophobic, the characters can say racist and homophobic jokes. Because detention excludes people, is racist and violent, it is legitimate and perhaps politically useful to embody these by for example, failing to depict the detained woman who is in the relationship with the main character.
It is interesting that the artists, I think rightly, decide not to justify the play on the basis of liberal free expression to explore any such story about detention. Instead, their argument justifies the ambivalent depiction of detention on the basis of its instrumental effect that to prompt questioning and further inquiry for the audience about detention. Yet for this to be successful it must be the case that the elements that make the play repulsive and offensive are those things that make detention repulsive and offensive. It would be a failure if the play was repulsive and offensive in ways that obscure the ways that detention is. If this were the case, one couldn’t argue that the audience was being asked to interrogate their relationship to the oppressive institution reflected back at them.
The play explicitly interrogates a number of themes. Through the play’s central characters, Mo and George, the play explores white masculinity that the detention centres themselves embody: insecure in their identity and place in the world, fragile and prone to lashing violently out, and yet placed in positions of power over others. By channelling ‘The Office’ style humour and repeated references to ’empathy workshops’ for the guards, the play explores the ways care, love and empathy are mobilised to facilitate the operation of imprisonment and deportation in ways that empty these words of meaning. The soporific music and dream-like sequences instil a sense that the people working in detention have to remove themselves emotionally from their jobs and, perhaps, leaves the audience examining their own detachment from, and therefore complicity in, detention.
The plot is driven Mo’s ‘relationship’ with a character named Didi who is never present on stage. When Mo is tasked with letting Didi know she is about to be removed, he tries to prevent her removal by cutting her with a broken mug and raping her resulting in Didi becoming pregnant. These are the clearest words to describe what happened, but the play is less than clear about what actually happens. How Didi responded to Mo’s apparent wish to disrupt her removal is unclear because it happens just off stage. Mo thinks she actively consented, the detention centre manager is disgusted at what Mo has done and there is a dreamy music sequence in which the actor playing the detention centre manager seems to take on the voice of Didi persuading him not to try to ‘help her’. It is left ambiguous about what actually happened.
The play was uncomfortable and intentionally so. The line between indulging in the white fetishisation and sexualisation of the absent black women in custody and representing it to a new audience to critique is difficult to discern. And without a way for audiences to digest and get direction, the play seemed to revel in this indistinction and nihilism. While I had attended an aftershow discussion that helped the audience digest the political content of the play – this discussion was an exception and was only put on in response to the open letter by activists.
Art does not need to be didactic and it can usefully explore any of the stories that intersect with detention. I found much of the play’s use of ambiguity quite effective. It was necessary to attempt to think about the social conditions that enable people to work in places of detention. And it is necessary to explore what I took to be the play’s key thesis: that one of the reasons why detention is so concerning is the destruction it does to fundamental human emotions and instincts.
Yet, on the subject of sexual assault of women in immigration detention, I would question whether the same argument can be made. Here, the fact that there is sexual assault in detention is clear – one only has to listen to the people in detention, former detainees and activists that have worked hard to gain recognition of abuse. The ambiguity only results from the exclusion from political participation of people in detention and the culture of disbelief that surrounds both sexual assault and people who make immigration claims. The play, therefore, fails to achieve what the artist wants: represent detention for the inspection of new audiences. Instead, the play’s inability to clearly re-present these stories participates in the damaging cultural trope that maintains ambiguity around sexual assault. On this subject, the maintenance of ambiguity and the mirroring of exclusion of voice fails to support the people who have suffered in Yarl’s Wood and who have provided the subject matter for the play.
It is also unclear that the inclusion/exclusion of Didi a character who was so central to the plot but never represented as a character in the play by an actor aids in re-presenting to the audience problems of detention. I was quite sympathetic to the artists’ argument that by representing people in detention through one person in detention and by refusing to add to the depictions of suffering black bodies was a way to a avoid problematic politics of different kinds. However, I was less sympathetic toward arguments that the play was again mirroring the realities of detention since the absence of voice is difficult to feel without it being confronted directly.
The absence of Didi’s character was made more problematic by the ambiguous presentation of sexual assault, discussed above, and the way the marketing revolved around the question of whether a ‘love story’ could exist in detention. In the pos- show discussion, no responsibility was taken by the writer or director for the marketing of the play. But the framing of the play is an important resource through which an audience will approach the play and it is indicative of how the play understands itself. The fact is we cannot ask whether ‘love’ can exist in detention without a depiction of the agency of the woman in detention because a love story is not an emotion felt by a white man but suggests the collaboration and consent of others. This focus on the emotions of Mo his ‘love’, the indulgence of his white guilt in the last half an hour of the play, I feel took us further and further away from a confrontation with detention and its problems.
In all, reproducing the repulsive reality of detention is a useful pursuit. However, it is important to recognise the fine but definite lines between re-presenting the violence of detention and reproducing the social conditions which enable the violence of detention to exist.

2017: How to build on the growing Shut Down Yarl’s Wood demonstrations?

The Yarl’s Wood Demonstrations have been massive for the anti-detention movement. Indeed, the tireless work of Movement for Justice and others has created the movement. The demonstrations are not just shows of solidarity with women detained in the centre, but a reminder that the day to day of anti-detention work is not carried out in isolation and a sign of the growing strength of anti-detention sentiment.Two things struck me about December’s Yarl’s Wood Demo. Firstly, as I entered the demonstration and walked to the far end of the field, there were so many pockets of song and organisation, each expressing their outrage and love in overlapping yet distinctive ways. A coalition of groups representing

Two things struck me about December’s Yarl’s Wood Demo. Firstly, as I entered the demonstration and walked to the far end of the field, there were so many pockets of song and organisation, each expressing their outrage and love in overlapping yet distinctive ways. A coalition of groups representing organisational capacity to do more and more to resist detention.

Secondly, that when MFJ enabled women in detention to take to the microphone – there was a unifying respect and discipline: everyone was there to listen, to respond and to work alongside the women in Yarl’s Wood to shut it down. This unified display of political intention, to me, shows a movement learning a common way of doing politics together.

The question for 2017 is how can this movement expand and escalate from Yarl’s Wood demonstrations?

An answer, for me, must include growing a base of support against the men’s detention estate.

This is important because we know the dangers of movements that select groups of people subject to oppression as deserving of support. While policy changes may be made, the effect is to solidify the appearance of the fairness of detention without diminishing the numbers of people incarcerated and deported.

We urgently need to recognise the intersecting racist and sexist violence that occurs in Yarl’s Wood that manifests many ways, not least the numerous allegations of sexual assault committed by guards and the large numbers of survivors of rape that are held there. At the same time, it is important to resist becoming a campaign that falls into the trap of pitting good categories migrants against bad migrants. This is important especially in the context of widespread gendered and racist representations about black, male adults as threatening and expendable. Black men are both vulnerable to the violence detention and deportation and worthy of mass mobilisation against their incarceration.


I hope the Yarl’s Wood demonstrations continue and expand. But my hope for the movement is that it can draw strength from them and expand resistance across the detention estate.

Best tracks of 2016

This year, fearful that I was succumbing to a lazy unwillingness to listen to new music masked by an unjustified belief in the superiority of my teenage idols, I forced myself to listen to habitually explore this year’s new releases with more interest than usual. I made this list of my 10 top ten tracks of 2016, with a mind to give recognition to the bands I discovered this year.

Honourable mention: 

Kurt Vile: Pretty Pimpin, b’lieve I’m going down – for his drooly laid back riff based guitar music.

She Drew the Gun: If you could see – a melodic indie-rock band with sci-fi songs on time travel and lefty politics.

10) Michael Kiwanuka: Cold little Heart, Love and Hate
I was a real fan of Kiwanuka’s first album. This second album has yet to grow on me as a whole but I really love the opening track’s slow ascendency.

9) Leonard Cohen: You want it Darker, You want it Darker
Lost in the tumultuous week of the US election, Leonard Cohen died. And so, as with Bowie’s record, I cannot listen to it without being drawn back, even though the record came out some weeks earlier. I like this record for its dark religiosity and cutting bass line. Cohen has been saying goodbye in his songs for a number of years now, but in the context of Trump’s election, Cohen’s prophetic voice gauding ‘you want it darker’ took on some extra significance.

8) Angel Olsen: Shut up and Kiss me
I just really like this album. It asks old questions (what is this messed up love thing?) and echoes traditional folk and rock-n-roll styles but feels fresh.

7) M83: Do it, Try it, Junk
I’m new to M83 tooSometimes I’m appalled that I enjoy listening to it but at others, I just love the commitment to 80s weirdness which makes running a whole lot more fun.

6) Junius Meyvant: Beat Silent Need, Floating Harmonies
I don’t know how I came across Junius Meyvant – he combines melodic folk with uplifting brass lines and danceable bass. We saw him play at a strange little theatre in Hammersmith this year and the brass was played on a keyboard which was a little underwhelming but his off-beat humour made up for it.

5) Radiohead: Daydreaming, A moon Shaped Pool
While I really like the energy of the dystopic opening track ‘Burn the Witch’, I went with Daydream for its silky soundscape textures and gently soporific mood. It’s a track that works calms and focuses rather than overwhelms. It’s much more representative of the album which at first listen might pass you by but it’s depth and subtlety has much to offer.

4) Kate Tempest: Europe is Lost
I’ve been reading the anti-fascist Auden poem September 1, 1939 a lot recently. It feels relevant to the times we’re living in. It’s about ordinary life in the context impending rise of fascism – the temptation to block it out, to continue as if everything’s ordinary and to shut it out when this only lets it in. The nihilism of contemporary fascism and its cause/effect in ordinary life is explored in this Kate Tempest song.

3) Ezra Furman: Teddy I’m Ready, Big Fugitive Life
This song represents more than the EP that it sits on but also the discovery of Ezra Furman’s back catalogue as a whole that has been possibly the best part of this project. Basically, he’s really good at incorporating opposing forces within songs to create emotive, interest and fun. Combining lazy, laid-back guitars of his shambolic doo-wop punk with dark, lonely lyrics that have unexpected integrity and sharpness that explore dealing with depression and politics in refreshing, caring ways.

2) Kamasi Washington: Change of the Guards, The Epic
I don’t listen to much jazz but this is a jazz record like I’ve never listened to. It blew me away. It’s such a rush as it rises and rises, pushing you to ever more dissonant places and then releasing you back to the familiarity of its chorus that in itself is already driving you somewhere else.

1) David Bowie: Blackstar, Blackstar
It’s impossible for me to listen to this without confronting again Bowie’s passing – which changes fundamentally the album’s meaning. The whole album is astonishing with excellent frenetic drums, elements of jazz and a darkness that one doesn’t usually associate with Bowie’s work. The whole album directly confronts death but the lengthy opener through its different sections engage with death’s religious power over us, Bowie’s worries about legacy, death as blissful release and the jerky impulsive movements that i associate with the track because of the video reminds me of how we are subject to bodily limits and control.

Here’s this list in a Spotify playlist

Can States be progressive? On Re-imagining the state

This blog was originally published on the Kent Law School blog, CounterCurrents.

On the 19 and 20 of May 2016, Kent Law School hosted a two-day workshop with the aim of discussing the role of the state and conceptualising the state within progressive political critique and practice. Davina Cooper, who organised the event, invited the speakers to think about the progressive potential of state thinking: Are there politically useful ways of thinking ‘critically, optimistically and ambivalently’ about the state that are useful for political praxis? Can different ways of thinking support or hinder particular avenues for practicing politics? Without purporting to capture the diversity of contributions to the frequently multi-layered and complex discussions, this piece offers one way of navigating some of the issues discussed.

Conceptualising the state

The driving premise of the workshop lay in the rejection of state essentialism, the notion that there is such thing as ‘The State’ as a singular, entity or institution or concept. This rejection follows from two critiques of state essentialism. The first, rejects the notion of a single state form: states operate in different guises consisting of and resulting from distinctive institutions, ideologies, geographies and histories. Ideological rationales for states and the practice of state institutions function very differently depending, for example, on their place within post-colonial capitalism and particular trajectories of colonialism and colonization.

The second, perhaps more radical, critique of state essentialism challenges the idea that what we ordinarily label as ‘states’ are individual entities that have a singular character. On this view, states are multi-faceted, dispersed and distributed, peopled and constituted by numerous ‘networks, institutions, and practices’ (Baiocchi). It upsets clear distinctions between state and non-state: perhaps the boundary is blurry, or the boundary is (re)produced locally through different activities, or the state is a klein-bottle-esque entity such that things can be conceived to be simultaneously enrolled in and outside of the state (Painter). These approaches not only trouble the idea of a boundary between state and non-state, it also put into question the possibility of a unitary character of the state as an epistemological or ontological entity.

This is not to say that thinking about the state’s character and boundaries is irrelevant to critique of the state. On the contrary ‘stateness’ or what Mitchell (1999) has called ‘state effects’ are imaginaries that emerge through prosaic and ceremonial state-practices (Painter). The plurality of state effects and practices that produce them mean different conceptualisations of the state may be useful or appropriate for different modes of critique and practice. We might think of the state as the imagined source of ultimate authority. We might draw, as Castro Varela and Clarke did, on Polantzas’ notion of the state as the condensation of social power, while adding that these condensations are finely grained and that social power may be more complex than Polantzas’ Marxist vision. The state is frequently cast as a human body, with organs, intentions, feelings. The state body might be masculine or feminine; it may be child-like or rogue. It might be thought of as overwhelmingly repressive or violent or we might emphasise its enabling powers, its ability to regulate, coordinate and redistribute (Newman).

State effects emerge through official action but also through the activities of people who aren’t normally thought of as state actors: not only policy makers but those workers who carry them out; activists and NGOs might be involved in state work of crafting the state. As Gill argued, state imaginaries are sometimes influential in strategies of activism. The project of re-imagining the state becomes a question not wholly of epistemology and ontology but of strategy, utility, praxis and prefiguration. That is to say the critique of state essentialism is not only a negative project challenging the state centrism and essentialism of say international law and the project of development (Eslava). It also motivates questions about how different ways of conceptualising the state enable different possibilities for developing progressive praxis and about the ways that different kinds of praxis bring about or enable different ways of understanding the state.

Strategies of engaging and re-imagining the state

There was broad agreement that engaging with the state was a necessary site of progressive political struggle that could not be ignored. A number of speakers sought to warn against the popularity of what might be called ‘state-phobic’ politics (Dhawan). State phobic prognoses are, perhaps, evident in Butler’s resistance to regulation of hate speech, Foucault’s resistance to regulation of sexuality, in critiques of homo-nationalism and in Angela Davis’ appeal to the community rather than the state as a response to violence. The problem with state-phobic discourses is that they have the potential to reify the state-community distinction rather than view them as mutually constitutive in important ways. As Shirin Rai argued, the feminist ambivalence to the state lies in its recognition of violence of multiple sovereigns in the state, family and community and places the state not just a source of violence but a source of regulation and coordination. Dhawan exemplified the dangers of celebrating civil society in a way that glosses over its own complicity in violence and subalternisation even when it claims to be a space where subalterns can speak. Furthermore, state-phobic strategies might close down strategies for subaltern subjects to be included in and speak back against the nation-state. Finally, state-phobic politics produce ‘perverse confluences’ (Dagnino, 2007) that participate in the neoliberal reconfiguring of a minimal state that responsibilizes its citizens without becoming responsible for them (Dhawan).

A counter point that was perhaps absent in the discussion is the possibility that state-phobic rhetoric is actually a strategic imaginary opening up non-normative engagements with state spaces. If the state is constituted through material-practices of engagement it may also be engaged with in unusual ways by those who advocate rhetorically for non-engagement. While in rhetoric there may be similarities between some anarchist rhetoric and ordoliberal demonization of the state, their practices are very different. Conversely, making demands of the state performs other functions for social movements – it may re-deploy and subvert state rhetoric, it may be staking claim to the co-opted languages of rights or it may be a rallying call for further organisation. Comprehending the practices and counter-normative engagements with the state that both state-phobic and seemingly co-opted rhetoric enables is important in interpreting activist and NGO language.

How, then, might we look for ambivalent, critical and optimistic politics of state craft? As Janet Newman argued, we should be looking beyond a binary affective politics of hope and despair. One possibility, illuminated by the second critique of state essentialism, is to become involved in state work that furthers progressive aims. Rather than states being conceptualised in singular ways as totalising systems or as determined by oppressive logics, states could be understood to incorporate movements of opposition and struggle (Cooper).

How might re-imagining the state through ‘working the spaces of power’ be done? Baiocchi advocated a critical participation with state decision-making structures. Participation initiatives, he argued, often institute a ‘passive equality’ through top down enfranchisement that expands involvement while limiting the domain of democratic decision-making. Newman brought our attention to the ways social movement innovation around participatory democratic politics and coproduction of policy have influenced the state’s practices. While they were fundamentally altered through their synthesis with neoliberalism, they exemplified the ability of social movements to influence, if not determine, state policies and practices. For both Newman and Kinna, the question is not whether or not to interact with state but how and when to do so.  Kinna argued that some anarchist theoretical models of prefiguration allow different ways of thinking about engaging with the state. She valued the insurrectionist model of prefigurative practice that allowed for use of state technologies to claim fundamental rights as long as they were connected to people’s struggle to end their own oppression. This had some resonance with Newman’s assertion of the importance that progressive ideas remained embedded in the social movements that created them.

What other sites might we look for progressive forms of state craft? Davina Cooper brought attention to academic, social and activist groups that can be seen to be prefiguring the state through play. The open, creative, emergent practices of developing feminist legal judgements, exchanging new currencies, the satirical secession of cities and the collective writing of alternative constitutions are spaces in which state practices are rethought. Through play, goals and desires change, conflict can be engaged with in more pleasurable ways and play might make room for mistakes and failures. While play can serve conservative functions thinking about state practices through play may motivate the imaginative and affective potential of state concepts.

As De Cesari discussed, the shift from art as a representational practice to a figurative, performative one allows for art to become not only a space to imagine progressive states but to bring them into being. De Cesari argues that two experiments in setting up national museums of Palestine are purport to produce new ‘state’ art and cultural institutions – the kinds of disaggregated, uneven, and asymmetric sovereignties of Palestine. While this work points to the potential of reimagining the state and the ways states are produced, De Cesari also raised some pitfalls of anticipatory representational. Firstly, it may create the illusion of state hood and sovereignty and therefore grant the status quo legitimacy without. Secondly, while it may hold the possibility of exploring alternative state imaginaries, they can end up producing traditional monolithic, ceremonial images of statehood.

Re-imagining the state and state violence

The progressive Re-imagining of the state is not about ignoring oppressive acts of the state nor overlooking the state’s embeddedness in and capture by unequal stratifications of power. On the contrary, it raises questions around two themes. Firstly, how can re-imagining the state aid practices that engage with the violence, coercion and exclusion of the state? Secondly, is it possible to re-imagine the violent apparatus of the state to be deployed for progressive means? This mostly speculative discussion revolved around the following themes.

Borders­ – Can we imagine states without borders (Gill)? Or, perhaps in the meantime, can we imagine states with progressive borders – say, that select according to a traveller’s need and not wealth, that are invitational and that institute politics of solidarity and inclusion rather than exclusion.

Violence – Is there a progressive role for state violence through police, imprisonment or military means? Can state violence be motivated and organised to resist not just subjective violence but  means for controlling the state apparatus of violence be imagined and practice, something that in light of historic and contemporary experience looks improbable (Clarke).

Ethical state – What are the conditions of possibility for states that are able to wield these powers in ethical ways? Can the state foster citizen subjects or ‘critical insiders’ (Castro Varela drawing on Butler) that in turn motivate ethical state interventions, hold states accountable and mobilize states that expose their own violence through whistle-blowing or research?

Some concluding questions:

What other resources can we use to reimagine the state and perform the state in progressive ways? As many of the contributors outlines, thinking of the state as a dispersed network creates room for experimentation at different levels. Can we think, for example, of municipal polities as locations which prefigure borderless states (Cooper)? How can art and activism be mobilised to think about the potential of progressive state forms?

Emotional language of nostalgia, comfort, excitement, despair, hope and ambivalence was common throughout the workshop. Yet the Left tends to use rationalistic language to talk about the state abdicating the realm of the emotions to the Right’s mobilisation of pride, tradition and belonging. In light of this, what role do the emotions and also the senses bring to thinking about the progressive state politics?

The intensity of social movement innovation ebbs and flows, projects, networks and organisations may flourish then subside. How, then, should we assess failure and mistakes in attempts to perform a progressive politics of the state? What happens after innovation is assimilated or co-opted? What is left when projects end? Are there ways of thinking about the afterlife of prefigurative experiments in productive ways?

Finally, should we think of the work of critique and the work of the imagination as strategic tools to be deployed? If so, does taking structural power seriously mean that we should refrain from re-imagining and remain in a critical mode (Gill)? Or are critique and re-imagination different aspects of the same practice, enrolled in one another, each necessary to enable and also temper the extremes of the other.

Tom Kemp is a PhD candidate in Law at Kent Law School. His work investigates the prefigurative thought within anti-immigration-detention activisms. Tom can be found at 

With thanks to the workshop contributors:

Gianpaolo Baiocchi, NYU
Chiara De Cesari, Amsterdam
John Clarke, OU
Davina Cooper, Kent
Nikita Dhawan, Innsbruck
Luis Eslava, Kent
Nick Gill, Exeter
Ruth Kinna, Loughborough
Janet Newman, OU
Joe Painter, Durham
Shirin Rai, Warwick,
Maria do Mar Castro Varela, Alice Salomon University Berlin

Other references:

Dagnino, E. (2007) Citizenship: a perverse confluence. Development in Practice.  17 (4–5), 549–556.

Mitchell, T. (1999). Society, economy and the state effect. In G. Steinmetz (Ed.), State/culture: state formation after the cultural turn (pp. 76-97). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.