Democracy without the State

Below is the text of the talk I just gave at the Policy & Politics conference in Bristol (England). As you can see, I was very conscious of the audience, which I was not quite sure I had a handle on, but which turned out, I think, to be a group of people who think a lot about government and policy, but do so very critically and intelligently. So my message, that we need to get serious about thinking democracy without the State, was in a sense a message “from beyond,” but one they were able to hear and engage with, even if they did not fully accept it. Also important to know is that the theme of the conference was “Democracy, Inequality, and Power.”

[The paragraphs in brackets were part of the talk, but they were offered as asides. Those with a “***SKIP***” tag were in fact left out.]



When you find yourself on a list of plenary speakers like this one, in which all the others have really deep track records of academic achievement, you ask yourself what the heck you are doing here and what you can contribute. I don’t have their record, I am not a social scientist, I don’t study inequality, I am not even British.

I guess what I am is someone who has thought about and written some on democracy, on the idea and practices of democracy. So I thought what I would do today is offer a contribution along those lines. What I plan to do, we’ll see how it goes, is to introduce into the conference what I anticipate will be a minor current of thought. My idea is that this minor current will haunt the discussions we have over the next two days, haunt them in what I hope is a productive way, a way that is sympathetic to the tenor of thinking at the conference, but that raises critical questions of that thinking, and thereby stimulates new (and maybe even better) currents of thought.

I have structured my contribution in the form of two claims:

The first claim is that the best way to understand the two terms “democracy” and “the State” is in a way that makes them mostly antithetical to each other, as political operations that move us in opposite directions.

The second claim is that in this time of troubles, in which the political and economic powers that be have driven us into the crash of 2007-8, and then doubled down on their failed model by imposing austerity in both the metropolis and the hinterlands, what we need, what can save us, is democracy. We need to focus our energies on the project of becoming democratic, the project of retaining our own power and learning to use it to govern ourselves.

Becoming democratic involves the positive act of learning to use our own power, but it also involves a negative act: we must refuse to surrender our power to entities outside of and above ourselves. The quintessence of such entities is the State, but of course multinational corporations, international institutions (UN, World Bank, the Troika, etc.), churches, and trade unions fit the bill as well.

Taken together, these claims will have a tense relationship with those who advocate more robust government policy designed to redress the worsening socio-economic inequality in our world today. While it is likely that option would result in greater equality, I argue that it would vitiate the project of becoming democratic. To be sure, a robust welfare State is without a doubt preferable to the neoliberal alternative, which offers neither equality nor democracy. But I want to insist that we are capable of more than the welfare State. We are capable of democracy.

Democracy can be much more than we think

What do I mean, democracy? Democracy, as I am about to conceive it, is a mode of life in which people struggle to reclaim their power and learn to use that power to manage their affairs for themselves. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll explain what I mean by way of an etymology.

Democracy is made up of demos and kratia.

We think we know very well what demos means, but in ancient Greece, by which I mean the Greece in which Plato and Aristotle fashioned their political theory, demos typically referred only to the poor, to those who had to work for a living. The demos were always more numerous than the rich, but they never encompassed the whole population. They were always the largest faction, but they were a faction all the same. For Plato and Aristotle, then, democracy referred to a system of government in which that larger faction controlled the affairs of the polis. In the modern era, of course, and this is readily apparent in Hobbes, demos has come to mean everyone, all persons without qualification. And so we are in the habit of thinking of democracy as a political system in which everyone rules.

The second part of the word, kratia, is perhaps a bit more complex. We typically use words like “rule” or “govern” to represent it in English, as I just did, and so we are in the habit of thinking that kratia signifies the power of one entity over another. And kratia does in fact have those connotations, both in the way it was used in Plato and Aristotle’s Greece, and in the meaning of our own words that bear its imprint (like aristocracy, bureaucracy, meritocracy, etc.). Kratia in this sense refers to a power that controls, that limits, even a power that dominates.1 And in fact this word, kratia, is the most direct point of contact with Greek for our word “democracy”: the ending “-cracy” is most closely connected to kratia. But kratia‘s own etymology can be traced deeper, if we choose to, to another, more basic, word: kratos. Kratos means something less specific: it refers to strength or power or might. Those who are partial to Spinoza, and Nietzsche after him, will see the opportunity here: we can understand kratos to mean the power humans have to act into the world, their capacity to affect the world around them in some tangible way. In this sense, kratos takes on a meaning more like “power to,” which is to say humans’ power to create something new, to invent, to produce changes in our world.2 And so if we return to the first word, kratia, we can reappropriate its meaning. While it does bear the meaning of “power over,” it also evokes, from down deep in its roots, the idea of “power to,” the idea of our human capacity to act into and change our world.

And so this line of thinking offers us the opportunity to understand democracy as a condition in which demos and kratia are bound together, in which all people without qualification (demos) retain their power to act into and change the world (kratia), and they use that power to manage their affairs for themselves.

[I don’t mean to give the impression that I think my etymology of kratia has revealed its true meaning, and that we have been getting it wrong for all these years. Rather I am saying that kratia contains both ideas, that each is very much present in the word’s origins. And so, we can choose, if we wish, to emphasize kratia‘s meaning of “power to” rather than its meaning of “power over.”]

The State Is What Hobbes Said It Is

The founding operation of the modern State is to move precisely in the opposite direction from democracy as I have just described it. To make that argument, again begging your patience, I need to talk about Hobbes.

Hobbes argued passionately that we need a State, because only the State can save us from ourselves. Without the State, living in what he called the state of nature (which is to say the condition of being outside of State society), we are in a condition of total war. This war is a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of each person against all other persons.

This war exists because in the state of nature each person has the natural right, the right of nature, to use his or her own power to ensure his or her own survival. There are no codes, moral or legal, that govern the use of that power. Therefore, Hobbes argues, there is nothing at all to prevent one person from harming any another, even to the point of killing them, if he or she thinks it will help them survive. And so the condition of war exists precisely because in the state of nature each of us retains our own power and has the right to use it as we see fit. The solution to this intolerable condition, therefore, is for us to surrender our power. To what? Not to another person or persons, since persons having power is precisely the problem. We surrender our power to an artificial person, a made-up entity, the modern State. The specific function of the State is to be other than, or outside of, ourselves. We cede our power to this artificial person that is other than ourselves in order to keep us apart from our own power, to alienate us from it. [Marx’s word for alienation is instructive here: entfremdung = to make strange something that is now familiar.] This alienation is the whole point: us having our power is what endangers us, and so we must be separated from our power in order to keep us safe. And so Hobbes makes crystal clear that the founding act of the State is to separate people from their power.

[This context is ideal for understanding Nietzsche’s claim that the State is the coldest of cold monsters: it is a cold monster, an artificial person, by design.]

In addition to this alienation, there is another critical element to this relation between natural persons and the artificial one: the artificial person is not only separate from us, it also transcends us. It is above us; it has power over us. It is, in a word, sovereign. Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei.


There is no power on Earth that compares to it. It is a mortal God. It must be so. If its power is not ultimate, if its power is not raised above all other powers, then any natural person (or group of natural persons) can reassert their own power, retake matters into their own hands, reassert their right of nature to do whatever they must to survive. But of course this would be disaster for Hobbes: people having their power is precisely the cause of the bellum. So State power must be above all other powers. That is why we speak of the capital-S State, and its capital-L Law. It gets a capital letter because it is at the head, it comes first, it is above all other powers on Earth.

[***SKIP***It doesn’t hurt, Hobbes thinks, that this power is not only sovereign by contract (and therefore by right), but also that this collected power is so terrifying that it is able to “overawe them all,” just in case anyone takes it into their head to reassert their natural right to their own power.]

It is important to remember that Hobbes is very careful to ascribe to us the decision to alienate our power to an authority outside of and above us: we make these moves ourselves, voluntarily, by making contracts with each other. He says we do this because our reason tells us that the State is our only option, the only thing that will save us from total war.

There are many extraordinary things going on in Hobbes. I have talked about how he establishing the seminal argument for the modern State. But another extraordinary thing that is taking place here is that he is establishing the modern State in the ground of a new, modern idea: the idea that originally people are equal and sovereign over themselves. All of early-modern political thought—especially Locke and Rousseau—adopts this assumption uncritically, and it quickly becomes an axiom of thought, despite the fact that it was rarely held either by the ancients or by those in the Middle Ages. Even if the principle aim of these modern thinkers was to get us to abandon this sovereignty, even so it is there, in their work, described in great detail, this “natural” or original condition in which we are a multitude of persons who retain our own power and use it to manage our affairs for ourselves. Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau are arguing, in other words, that our original condition is democracy, and that the purpose of the modern State is to move us out of our original democratic condition.

[Those familiar with Jacques Ranciere’s work will recognize that he has been arguing something similar, although he situates the discussion in the Greek polis of Plato and Aristotle. Ranciere reads those thinkers as similarly engaged in a concerted effort to build a legitimate political order that can capture and control our original condition of democracy, which for Ranciere is a condition of equality in which anyone at all is qualified to speak and to participate in politics.].

I have been focusing my attention squarely on Hobbes because he offers the most clear-eyed and honest argument for the modern State. At the same time, I am conscious of the common objection that what the modern State actually became is not Hobbes’ absolutist State, but Locke’s more limited, liberal State . This is true, at least in countries with so-called ‘liberal-democratic’ governments. But the difference between the two thinkers—Hobbes’ State of absolute authority and Locke’s State of limited authority—should not cause us to miss what they share. In both thinkers, the nature of the political operation involved in founding the State is precisely the same: people surrender (some measure of) the power they have in the state of nature to an invented entity outside of and above themselves. Even though Locke grants the legislative only limited powers (which are to judge and enforce the Law of Nature), he nevertheless insists that the legislative must be sovereign within those limits, that people must surrender their original power to carry out those functions for themselves. [***SKIP***In Locke, interestingly, there is a double alienation, first of the power of each of us to a body politic, and then of the power of the body politic to the legislative.]

[It is worth saying that precisely this same dynamic exists in Rousseau as well: people surrender every last bit of their power to what he calls the “body politic.” Here there is a new wrinkle, which is that Rousseau imagines the body politic to be made of the whole of the people themselves, rather than an artificial person, as in Hobbes, or a part of the whole, as in Locke’s legislative. But only a little reflection reveals that Rousseau’s body politic is no less an artificial entity, because all persons are not, in fact, part of one body. The body politic is just as invented an idea as Hobbes’ artificial person. In Rousseau the power of each of us is alienated no less fully than it is in Hobbes, to an entity no less outside ourselves, and that entity is no less sovereign over us.]

Again, though Hobbes formulates it with greater clarity, all of the political thinkers who articulated the logic of the modern State agreed that it is founded on the same political operation: people surrender their power to an entity that is separate from and sovereign over them.

The liberal-democratic State is not democracy

And so this line of thinking leads us to conclude, with clear eyes, that the State is not and can never be the same thing as democracy. The State works in the opposite direction from democracy.

And yet, we are constantly conflating the two:

“Egypt is making the transition to democracy…”

“We live in a democracy…”

“Inequality is in danger of producing a divided democracy…”

Those of us who live in a national society ruled by a liberal-democratic government will commonly say we live in “a democracy.” We regularly conflate the liberal-democratic State with “democracy.” But our liberal-democratic State, because it is a State, operates to transfer power from people to an entity separate from them, and that entity is given the sovereign authority to make laws that people must obey. The liberal-democratic State, therefore, just like all States, works in the direction of oligarchy rather than democracy: it is a regime that alienates the power of the many and transfers it to a few.

Of course the existence of elections, in which people are enjoined to participate in the selection of (some of) those who will represent them in the State,3 does mean that those representatives are weakly accountable to people. This does introduce something that resembles a democratic element into the State relation, in the sense that the power of the representatives is not entirely disconnected from the wills of people. But this democratic element only asks people to decide who their power will be surrendered to; it does not ask them if they want to surrender it. It assumes they want to surrender it. Elections therefore renew and reaffirm the contract by which people surrender their power to the State. People participate directly and willingly in the transfer of their power to the few, and that participation strongly legitimates the oligarchical relation that the State institutes.

With respect to the question of (in)equality, the form of the liberal-democratic State we typically think of first is the Keynesian Welfare State. Certainly not all welfare States are the same, nor are all Keynesian policy regimes the same. But to the extent they imagine a role for the State in analyzing the problem of inequality, in devising redistributive solutions, and in implementing those solutions…and to the extent they assume that the State acts on behalf of the people in this way, these political regimes work us away from democracy, away from the active management of our affairs for ourselves.

Not democracy, but becoming democratic

If even the liberal-democratic State, and even in its Welfare-State form, moves us away from democracy, if winning elections, changing policy, and introducing new Laws are all working in the wrong direction, what then should we do instead?

Maybe we could just “go back.” Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau all thought that we were originally democratic, before we surrendered our power to the State. Maybe then it is just a matter of sloughing off the State, of voiding the contract in order to return to our original democratic condition?

I wish it were that easy. But democracy isn’t an original condition to which we can return. It is, instead, a joyous and difficult project to remake our future. It is a project that can never be finished. It is not a state of being in which we are at last reunited with our primordeal power, and all of our problems are resolved. It is instead an open-ended project, one that is best conceived of as a struggle to become democratic. We must constantly renew our determination to retain our power, and constantly refuse the temptation to let someone or something else manage our affairs for us. And we must constantly learn how to use that power more effectively. Moreover, we have to figure out how to do all this together: democracy is always necessarily a collective project, and as such we must always be deciding what democratic community means, and how we can best realize it.

Becoming democratic is a difficult project because it requires effort and commitment to do things for ourselves. But it is joyous project too, because it connects us to our power to act into the world, our power to produce new ways of living together. It offers nothing less than the prospect of revivifying us as political beings.


I am sure that over the next two days we will hear in detail about how the current era is creating massive disparities in income, opportunity, and well-being. Inequality, and in particular the kind of inequality we face today, is a vital question that we must address. But I want to urge us to remember that it matters entirely how we address this question. My plea is for us to aspire to more than ceding our power to the State and letting it handle the problem of inequality, that we aspire instead to become democratic, to increasingly retain and learn to use our own power ourselves.

You are perhaps feeling at least a little uneasy: without the State how will anything get done? We can’t possibly do all this ourselves! More specifically and urgently, in an era of neoliberal austerity, how we be able to stem the rapid growth of inequality, and even redress it, without the State?

It is an understandable feeling. As I have said, refusing the State will not magically produce a functioning democratic society that will be immediately capable of permanently resolving the question of equality. However, if we do refuse the State, and we do take up the challenge of becoming democratic, I want to reassure you that part of what that project will entail is people using their power to decide together what equality means for them, and what amount and kind of equality is right for their society. We don’t have to think of equality as an outcome achieved for us by a power outside of and above us, we can think of equality instead as an ongoing concern of our always developing democratic practice.


If this shift, from relying on the State to relying on ourselves, still strikes you as a reckless leap into the void, as abandoning solid ground for the smooth sea, perhaps the best thing I can do is to remind you that even though we live under a State that separates us from our own power, we do not lack experience with becoming democratic. In fact, we have been working away at it for a very long time.


On this slide I have indicated just a few instances that are particularly compelling to me, but of course this is only a drop in the ocean of our democratic experience.

I have indicated three (among infinitely many) clumps of democratic experience, all of which I am happy to reshuffle and rethink:

In the blue clump is Labor, in which a particular group of people, workers, struggle to manage for themselves a particular set of affairs, economic production.

In the green clump is Community/neighborhood, in which members of whatever community—these can be physical or virtual—struggle to manage for themselves the affairs that matter to the community.

In the red clump is Popular Protest/Assembly, in which all sorts of people, on urban, national, or global scales, gather to voice indignation at the current state of affairs, and also to take up the project of building another world themselves.

None of these should be taken as the model case. All of them were partial; all of them had failings. They should instead be taken as clear evidence that we desire to become democratic, and that in fact our desire is not all that rare. Moreover, we act on that desire, we engage in an active struggle to become democratic. At times our struggle produces particularly strong blooms that reach the surface and present themselves to our consciousness. At other times the struggle works away quietly, unseen, in small, everyday contexts that only matter to small groups of people. Either way it is there. We are at work. In each of the cases on the screen, people who participated achieved significant growth, they discovered new capacities, both personal and collective, they debated and implemented ideas of equality, and they learned and practiced new techniques of communication and organization. All of it was achieved by people themselves. Nothing was perfected, but that does not mean nothing was accomplished. It is vital to pay very close attention to these experiences. They are a wide and deep common pool of resources that we can draw from in our ongoing struggle to become democratic.


We are sick, it is true. But it isn’t really inequality that is making us sick. What is making us sick is our alienation from our own political activity, our own power to decide and to act into to world. What we need, first and foremost, is to commit to becoming democratic, to taking up the challenge of deciding together what we want the world to be, and the challenge of bringing that world into being.

1It is a power that Spinoza calls potestas, Deleuze and Guattari call pouvoir, and Hardt and Negri call constituted power.

2This is what Spinoza calls potentia, Deleuze and Guattari call puissance, and Hardt and Negri call constituent power.

3This is described by Hobbes as natural persons “personating” the artificial person.


3 thoughts on “Democracy without the State

  1. I had been talking to a friend about Bernie Sanders over coffee, and then you posted this the next day! Of course I shared it with him immediately.

    The argument for ‘politics without the state’ is such a persuasive one, especially when posed with the remarkable analytic clarity you use here. There is something compelling about Ranciere’s particular elaboration, which is sharpened especially for the policy audience – politics is both without the state and without distribution! We both know that I can be a bit dismissive of democracy, but if this is our operable definition, I’m much more amenable to the idea.

    I can’t help but imagine the ‘problems’ of Sanders – both the critiques of Sanders based on his voting patterns and those who endorse him anyway – is revealed by your problematic. To truly be an advocate for the masses, you have to take on the system rather than be beholden to its conditions for reproduction.

    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew. It is a fond hope of mine that we might rescue democracy and reimagine it this way, so we’re not stuck thinking that, say, electing Obama will save us. Or even Bernie, bless his heart.

      I also don’t want to say that the State is nuclear waste that we should never have anything to do with. That kind of puritanism is probably not the right mind set. But if we do work with it–to do policy or elections or legal reform, etc.–we should always understand that the State works in the opposite direction from democracy.

  2. Pingback: Democracy without the State, by Mark Purcell | Policy and Politics Journal

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