The State Against the State

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.