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 is the author of many articles on philosophy, culture and politics.