Posts Tagged ‘the state’

“The political relation of power precedes and founds the economic relation of exploitation. Alienation is political before it is economic; power precedes labor; the economic derives from the political; the emergence of the state determines the advent of classes.”

— Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State. New York: Zone Books, 1989. p. 298.


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“Discerning the socially masculine dimensions of the state requires coming
to terms with the theoretical problematic of the state itself, specifically
the paradox that what we call the state is at once an incoherent,
multifaceted ensemble of power relations and a vehicle of massive domination. The contemporary…state is both modern and postmodern,
highly concrete and an elaborate fiction, powerful and intangible, rigid
and protean, potent and without boundaries, decentered and centralizing,
without agency, yet capable of tremendous economic, political, and
ecological effects. Despite the almost unavoidable tendency to speak of
the state as an “it,” the domain we call the state is not a thing, system, or
subject, but a significantly unbounded terrain of powers and techniques,
an ensemble of discourses, rules, and practices, cohabiting in limited,
tension-ridden, often contradictory relation with one another… Insofar as “the state” is not an entity or a unity, it does not harbor and deploy only one kind of political power; to start the story a bit earlier, political power does not come in only one varietv. Any attempt to reduce or define power as such…obscures that, for example, social workers, the Pentagon and the police are not simply different faces of the state in an indigent woman’s life but different kinds of power. Each works differently as power, produces different effects,engenders different kinds of possible resistance, and requires a different analytical frame; at the same time each emerges and operates in specific historical, political, and economic relation with the other, and thus demands an analysis that nonreductively capture this relation.”

– Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. p. 174-175. 

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“This perfect democracy fabricates its own inconceivable enemy, terrorism. It wants, actually, to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The history of terrorism is written by the State and it is thus instructive. The spectating populations must certainly never know everything about terrorism, bit they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else seems rather acceptable, in any case more rational and democractic.”

– Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

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a far more unnatural combination than in the death penalty, in a kind
of spectral mixture, these two forms of violence are present in
another institution of the modern state, the police. True, this is
violence for legal ends (in the right of disposition), but with the
simultaneous authority to decide these ends itself within wide limits
(in the right of decree). The ignominy of such an authority, which is
felt by few simply because its ordinances suffice only seldom for the
crudest acts, but are therefore allowed to rampage all the more
blindly in the most vulnerable areas and against thinkers, from whom
the state is not protected by law—this ignominy lies in the fact
that in this authority the separation of lawmaking and law-preserving
violence is suspended. If the first is required to prove its worth in
victory, the second is subject to the restriction that it may not set
itself new ends. Police violence is emancipated from both conditions.
It is lawmaking, for its characteristic function is not the
promulgation of laws but the assertion of legal claims for any
decree, and law-preserving, because it is at the disposal of these
ends. The assertion that the ends of police violence are always
identical or even connected to those of general law is entirely
untrue. Rather, the “law” of the police really marks the
point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the
immanent connections within any legal system, can no longer guarantee
through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any
price to attain. Therefore the police intervene “for security
reasons” in countless cases where no clear legal situation
exists, when they are not merely, without the slightest relation to
legal ends, accompanying the citizen as a brutal encumbrance through
a life regulated by ordinances, or simply supervising him. Unlike
law, which acknowledges in the “decision” determined by
place and time a metaphysical category that gives it a claim to
critical evaluation, a consideration of the police institution
encounters nothing essential at all. Its power is formless, like its
nowhere tangible, all-pervasive, .ghostly presence in the life of
civilized states. And though the police may, in particulars,
everywhere appear the same, it cannot finally be denied that their
spirit is less devastating where they represent, in absolute
monarchy, the power of a ruler in which legislative and executive
supremacy are united, than in democracies where their existence,
elevated by no such relation, bears witness to the greatest
conceivable degeneration of violence.”

–  Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Edited by Peter Demetz. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schoken Books, 1986. pp.

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law-preserving violence
is a threatening violence. And its threat is not intended as the
deterrent that uninformed liberal theorists interpret it to be. A
deterrent in the exact sense would require a certainty that
contradicts the nature of a threat and is not attained by any law,
since there is always hope of eluding its arm. This makes it all the
more threatening, like fate, on which depends whether the criminal is
apprehended. The deepest purpose of the uncertainty of the legal
threat will emerge from the later consideration of the sphere of fate
in which it originates. There is a useful pointer to it in the sphere
of punishments. Among them, since the validity of positive law has
been called into question, capital punishment has provoked more
criticism than all others. However superficial the arguments may in
most cases have been, their motives were and are rooted in principle.
The opponents of these critics felt, perhaps without knowing why and
probably involuntarily, that
an attack on capital punishment assails, not legal measure, not laws,
but law itself in its origin. For if violence, violence crowned by
fate, is the origin of law, then it may be readily supposed that
where the highest violence, that over life and death, occurs in the
legal system, the origins of law jut manifestly and fearsomely into
existence. In agreement with this is the fact that the death penalty
in primitive legal systems is imposed even for such crimes as
offenses against property, to which it seems quite out of
“proportion.” Its purpose is not to punish the infringement
of law but to establish new law. For in the exercise of violence over
life and death more than in any other legal act, law reaffirms
itself. But in this very violence something rotten in law is
revealed, above all toa finer sensibility, because the latter knows
itself to be infinitely remote from conditions in which fate might
imperiously have shown itself in such a sentence.” 

Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections:
Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings
Edited by Peter Demetz. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York:
Schoken Books, 1986. pp. 285-286

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“That truly Kafkaesque Castle, the modern state.” – Nicos Poulantzas.

I. In ‘The Castle’, it is never entirely clear what is happening.
There are officials who appear to govern. No one knows what they do, exactly. The only thing that gives them any sort of definition, any sort of concreteness, is the snow-bound castle at the centre of the village, from which they govern.
This is the outward face of the bureaucracy. In the story, it appears at first as a void. This blank, silent screen encourages the inhabitants to project their own fantasies onto authority, so that they all entertain elaborate, inconsistent theories about what authority is actually doing.
The main fantasy is one of omnipotence. Their paperwork, the authorities claim, is perfect, without flaws. In reality, as with any bureaucracy, it is riddled with dysfunctions, which are dealt with through expedients such as, for example, burning papers.
The guarantor of the centralised unity of the Castle, its seamless perfection, is its worshipped ruler, the Count. But, as Kafka’s notes show, and those ruled by the Castle are unaware, the Count is dead. It is the supposed — hypothesised — omnipotence of the Castle which ensures that it continues to be obeyed. But it is also that same supposition which ensures that rules of authority make no sense, and impose impossible demands, since they can never be challenged.
If the Castle weren’t a physical object, we would have to ask what it is. And since, in the story, it stands metonymically for the authority, which isn’t a physical object, we’re still none-the-wiser. The authority, it seems clear enough, is a state. But what is a state? A state is something of a mystery.

II. Neither the policeman nor the truncheon, neither a subject nor an object, the state refuses to resolve into clear boundaries.
Thinking it through, what are the experiences we have of the state? Job centres, traffic wardens, council offices and hospitals. Schools, soldiers and army barracks. Police and police stations. Birth and death certificates. Road sweepers, rubbish bins and tax collectors. Border patrol and building inspectors. Laboratories, land surveyors and labyrinths. Speeds signs and spending targets. Parks, palaces and parliaments.
Banks and corporations are entities provided for, legalised, by the state. Work is conducted and remunerated within a framework provided by the state. Sex is had, or not had, under the law of the state. Ingestion and egestion are functions regulated by the state. The scope of state activity is vast, ranging from end to end of the territory, from the sewers to the seas and skies.
What single logic, what single necessity, what single function or structure, holds all of this together? We can think of the Castle in this context as part of the theatrics of the state, much as the changing of the guard, or a presidential speech to a joint session of congress, or an inquiry or inquisition, are theatrics. They produce an image of the state which appears to justify the use of the definite article.
If we didn’t have these theatrics, we wouldn’t know what the state was.

III. As the plight of Kafka’s villagers makes obvious, knowing what the state is, isn’t much help. This knowledge is a fantasy. If we start by not knowing what the state is, we will get a little bit further.
Peter Bratsis, drawing on Gaston Bachelard’s Psychoanalysis of Fire, argues that “the state idea” is a bit like pre-scientific ideas of fire. A flame appears to be some sort of object or essence, and it has “palpable confirmations” — light and heat — that appear to support this idea. This gives rise to substantialist or animistic ideas about fire, wherein it is believed to be some sort of spirit or essence. Once the idea is established, it shapes how we register the palpable experience of fire, such that it is very difficult to let go of the idea.
The way out of this impasse was to analyse flame, not as a thing in itself, nor as a spirit, but as an outcome of certain physical processes. Only the analysis of these processes can tell you what fire is. Likewise, if we want to understand what a state is, we have to start with the processes.
This is, obviously, an argument for Nicos Poulantzas’s approach, in State, Power, Socialism, which describes the state as only the effect, the outcome, of those immense, complex processes of social production, reproduction, and contestation, which are summed up in the marxist phrase, “class struggle”. The state, in this sense, is a particular “material condensation of the balance of class forces”.
The thought is similar to Foucault’s contention, in The Birth of Biopolitics, that “the state does not have an essence”. Far from being “an autonomous source of power” in itself, it is:

“nothing else but the effect, the profile, the mobile shape of a perpetual statification or statifications, in the sense of incessant transactions which modify, or move, or drastically change, or insidiously shift sources of finance, modes of investment, decision-making centres, forms and types of control, relationships between local powers, the central authority, and so on. In short, the state has no heart, as we well know, but not just in the sense that it has no feelings, either good or bad, but it has no heart in the sense that it has no interior. The state is nothing else but the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities.”

Mark that: the state “has no interior”. The Castle has no heart, dark or enlightened.

IV. To leave it here would be to imply that the “state idea” is just an illusion and nothing more. But even in the Castle, that isn’t true. The idea has real effects in the organisation of power, and is made real in a sense through its effects.
In a recent book, Bratsis warns against the temptation to “take it literally.” Although he doesn’t say so, this could imply that the “state idea” is a kind of metaphor. As Raymond Williams tells us in Keywords, the modern term ‘state’ has origins in the conception of rank linked to political sovereignty: the dignity and status of the king. It came, through the seventeenth century, to be distinguished from another term, society, which represented an alternative order of being. The state came to signify the apparatus of political power, and society the association of free individuals.
To this we could add reference to the peculiar etymology of the term “body politic” which in the medieval period was the second body of the monarch next to the frail physical body. For much of the time, this was treated literally, in law, in that the body politic was considered a real manifestation of the king’s corporeality. In the modern sense, the body politic simply refers to the realm, the domain of rule and governance.
So, the “state idea” contains embedded within itself the idea of rank and hierarchy, the idea of sovereign power separate from society, the idea of a body consubstantial with that of the king, and the idea of a realm. And all of these ideas have played an important role in the history of state formation, the elaboration of jurisprudence, the allocation of rights, the organisation of territory, and so on.

V. In The Castle, ‘all’ that is happening is a series of bureaucratic processes which organise political power.
The Count doesn’t really rule: he is dead, his body is decomposing. That things go on as they were suggests that the Count was only necessary as a signifier, as a social location that people could believe in — or that they could at least believe others believed in.
Nonetheless, there is centralisation, there is hierarchy, there are chains of command and flows of information. As fissiparous and dysfunctional as the processes of the Castle are, the idea that the Count rules and that the system works perfectly, organises the processes of government.
But if the Count is dead, on whose behalf do the officials rule? Not ‘the people,’ surely? They are kept ignorant and excluded from power. Not themselves? They could do a lot better with their rule than organising this absurdist paper-chase. They, ultimately, are subject to the same ludicrous law as everyone else, even if they occupy a special rank.
The state is always a state under law. And law is what, exactly? It is, you could say, the dominant ideology in any society, exhaustively distilled into a series of axioms determining how things shall be done, and not done, articulated with the means of violence. The law is where the consent-coercion dichotomy breaks down, since the refusal to consent is met with physical force.
Being ideology, there is nothing intrinsically rational about legal axioms or the more-or-less predictable chains of juridical reasoning unfolding from them. Nor is there anything universally true about them. However, law selects the ontological and epistemological premises of the social order under law, and encodes them in the legal form which rationalises and universalises them.
Of course, the field of law isn’t univocal. It is always contested, and there is always room for the balance of legal forces to alter, to be pushed in a more liberal or fascist direction, but always in a form determined by the way in which the ruling class dominates in it.
And this is the final point. It is the law which says there is such a thing as ‘the state’. It is the law which appears to give it clear boundaries, a clear definition, in the separation between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres (which maps onto the state-society dichotomy). It is the law which orchestrates the public-private dichotomy and which regulates the legitimate range of actions within each sphere.
But of course, the law is just the state speaking in its dominant register. The public-private dichotomy is a division internal to the state. It is the state giving itself the appearance of concreteness, of definite boundaries, of an interior. It is the state giving itself a body and a heart, the latter shrouded in darkness.
So, in this sense, whatever other functions and characteristics we might wish to allocate to the state, there is this one which is consistent. From beginning to end, from cradle to grave, from coast to coast, the state is process whose purpose is to make us believe in the state.”

– Richard Seymour, “Kafka’s Castle,” Lenin’s Tomb. July 11, 2017.

Illustration is by Bill Bragg from The Folio Society Edition of The Castle by Franz Kafka. Source.

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“The [Egyptian] citizenship law category consternation just described echoes the confusion of European-trained census takers who worked to measure the Egyptian population in the late nineteenth century. … In a sense, the malleable landscape of nationalities reflected in
these censuses appears a category game, in which the population was reclassified by different criteria each decade. As we will see in the next section,
however, nationality was anything but an abstraction: in the complex legal
landscape of turn-of-the-century Egypt, nationality determined jurisdiction
over the bodies of the territory’s subjects.  The confounding incoherence
of nationality categories in the Egyptian census shows that in a system of
overlapping sovereignty, identification is performative. Egyptians and Otto-
mans were labeled not for their own needs – the labels entailed no access
to rights – but for presentation to their imperial administrators. Like
nationality law, the census provides only unsteady ground for the study of
Ottoman-Egyptian citizenship.

The 1882 census was hardly the first to categorize Egypt’s population
by national type. The 1800 Description de l’Egypte described eight groups:
Egyptians, Turks, Arabs, Moors (specifically, Maghrabis), Greeks, Syrians,
Jews, and Europeans. The 1840 census divided the population between those under local authority (dakhil al-hukuma) and those beyond government authority (kharij al-hukuma).  A contemporary study of the 1855
cholera epidemic differentiated between eleven categories: Europeans,
Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Israelites, Natives, Turks, Maghrabis,
Barbaris, and Blacks.  

The 1882 census employed a new hierarchy of three major categories
(settled native, nomad, and foreigner), each of which was subdivided into
minor categories. The decennial censuses of 1897, 1907, and 1917 reduced
the decisive split to foreign and local. Local subjects (as opposed to foreigners) were subdivided in the four censuses in question… 

…four main groups adulterat[ed] a vision of a purely
Egyptian local population: Ottomans, Bedouins, Sudanese, and local subjects of European origin (such as Greeks). The 1897 census divided the local
population much as the one in 1882, but Sudanese were dropped, and the
divide between settled and nomadic Egyptians was set aside. Sedentary,
Bedouin, and Ottoman were all clearly labeled as “real” Egyptians. In 1907,
Sudanese reappeared, and certain Ottomans were divided into four “local”
nations. The 1907 census was the first since the inchoate Egyptian nationality law of 1900. Perhaps as a result, Ottomans appeared for the first time
as foreigners. Subdivision was extended ten years later: Egyptians were
distinguished according to sect, and four new miscellaneous population
categories were added. But only now, once it was divided in a dozen ways,
did “local” emerge as a distinct, collective category given a cumulative population figure of its own. In previous years, census makers offered an aggregate total of foreigners but never of local subjects. 

From the time of the 1882 census, settlement was the hallmark of a
national population; Bedouins and foreigners were anomalous because they
were mobile. Although the desert and sea hinterlands of the Nile valley
were sites of problematic flux, “real” Egyptians were suitable f(n· counting
because they were tied to the land and isolated from other nations. Turkish
and Syrian immigration had slowed, and Europeans were now the principal
immigrant group. Their “distinct social and political behaviour (al-mukhtalijiyin mashraban/situation sociale et politique apart) prevent[ed]
them being confused with the native population (zummt al-wataniyin),”
which was agrarian and sedentary. The census makers claimed that this
distinction was “social and political”; in reality, it was jurisdictional. Bedouins and foreigners were considered separately because they were exempt from the laws that governed other subjects. The distinction between real
Egyptians and all others made operative sense in terms of 1880s domestic
policy, according to which dangerous Bedouins were to be taken under
government control, foreigners were to be protected, and settled natives
were to be taxed. 

Nonstandard subjects were deficient subjects, and they tarnished the
census project. In an opening apologia, the authors of the 1882 census
distinguished their work, which only measured de facto population, from
the study of resident population that a proper European state required.
Only the systematization of civil status would make such a project possible
in Egypt. In other words, something like “indigenous nationality” had to
be clearly defined if Egypt was to join the community of nations. Subsequent censuses track the progress of this project. By 1917, a full range of
local nationalities joined the foreign diversity previously on display. It is
no surprise that census counts of national groups in Alexandria were as
inconsistent as the categories themselves. Although the overall population
of the city increased steadily from census to census to census, the share
assigned to each group fell and rose and rose and fell. 

Faced with these unwieldy categories, social historians are as otibalance
as the legal scholars cited in the previous section. Daniel Panzac has produced several studies of the population of nineteenth-century Egypt in
which he displays careful critical faculties. His suspicion of uneven growth
rates, for instance, leads him to a radical departure from census figures of
Egypt’s aggregate population.  But where nationality is concerned, his
work is in the thrall of the census and its categories and content to trace a
smooth growth rate for the foreign population, ignoring the fact that Ottomans appear and disappear from the census figures. Other studies of the
censuses avoid this trap, but their critical approach toward statistics rarely
extends to the categories employed.  This remarkable omission manifests
the allure of dividing population into singular nationalities that seem to
possess some inherent validity discouraging critical probing. 

Three pieces of evidence call into question the national categories of
identity used by census takers: the changing stock of categories used; the
inconsistent statistics that they produced; and the calculated, nuanced performances that court documents demonstrate lay behind most black-and-white claims to nationality. Census
makers certainly witnessed the same genre of performance on polling day.
Little is known of the details of their data collection.”

– Will Hanley, “When Did Egyptians Stop Being Ottomans? An Imperial Citizenship Case Study.” in Willem Maas (ed.), Multilevel Citizenship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. pp. 89-109.

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