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.