Focaal Special Issue: Non-Recording States

Berghahn Journals is pleased to announce that the latest issue of Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology has been published.

In a special section titled “nonrecording states,”contributors explore why and when states knowingly refrain from recording people and their activities. This issue also features a general articles section and concludes with a forum and review article.

Please visit the Berghahn website for more information about the journal:

THEME SECTION: Nonrecording states
Guest Editors: Barak Kalir and Willem van Schendel

Nonrecording states between legibility and looking away
Barak Kalir and Willem van Schendel

The sanctioning state: Official permissiveness and prohibition in India
Ajay Gandhi

Non- and dedocumenting citizens in Romania: Nonrecording as a civil boundary
Ioana Vrăbiescu

Nonrecording the “European refugee crisis” in Greece: Navigating through irregular bureaucracy
Katerina Rozakou

“China gives and China takes”: African traders and the nondocumenting states
Shanshan Lan

State desertion and “out-of-procedure” asylum seekers in the Netherlands
Barak Kalir

Interiority and government of the child: Transparency, risk, and good governance in Indonesia
Jan Newberry

Neutrality in foreign aid: Shifting contexts, shifting meanings-examples from South Sudan
Elzbieta Drązkiewicz

Anthropology at the dawn of apartheid: Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski’s South African engagements, 1919-1934 Isak Niehaus
Isak Niehaus

Review Article
Race, space, secularism, and the writing of history
Ashley Lebner

Recommend Focaal to your library
A form for this purpose is provided on the Focaal website:

Free Sample Issue



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.

Marx: Deconsecrate the State

From Miguel Abensour’s analysis of Marx in Democracy Against the State, pp. 32-33:

Marx denounces the repetition of religious alienation in a profane form, such that the product (the State) withdraws from its producers (human beings) and turns against them by establishing itself as a foreign power. Lodging itself in the place the criticism of religion left unoccupied (the place of theos) the State engenders a veritable self-idolatry. Reclaiming the human powers wasted in the heaven of politics; deconsecrating the State; reorienting emancipation with the help of the Copernican turn again, so that humankind no longer revolves around the illusory sun of the State and at last revolves around itself: these are the directions opened by this new phase of Marx’s criticism [beginning in 1843].

Abensour: Democracy Against the State

I am just embarking on a journey I have great hope for, a trip through Miguel Abensour’s Democracy Against the State. Abensour engages closely with the young Marx, and so he has already had the benefit of sending me back to (re-)read lots of Marx’s early work. So even if Abensour sucks, I still win. But I suspect he won’t, as suggested by this nugget from the introduction:

Marx was able to show as clearly as possible that the struggle against the State, as a form, is inscribed in the heart of democratic logic. Democracy is anti-statist or else it is not [democracy] (p. xxxiii).”

Abensour goes on to say that “contemporary thought…wrongly identifies democracy with representative government or the rule of law” (p. xxxiv), and so we must expose “the contradiction in terms that is the ‘democratic State’ ” (p. xxxiii).

The struggle against the State as a form. I like that part. Not the struggle against the bourgeois State, which implies that the State is a neutral container of power and is only a problem because the bourgeoisie currently controls it and uses it to maintain their class power. No. The State as a form creates political relations of oppression, of domination, of alienation, of hierarchy. Democracy must stand opposed to the State because it is opposed to those relations, or, better, because democracy relentlessly contructs political relations that are not oppressive, not dominating, not alienating, not hierarchical. Democratic politics are necessarily a struggle against the bourgeois State, sure, but they are also, equally necessarily, a struggle against the State as a form.

Rousseau on the State: Servitude and Misery


I just finished discussing the Second Discourse with my undergraduate students.  What struck me today (among many other things) is that in addition to saying that property is the primary cause of the downfall of man and the origin of inequality, Rousseau is very clear that the modern State, as it was laid out by Hobbes and Locke, is essentially a scheme thought up by the rich (those who owned property) to protect their property from the poor.  The lack of order in the state of nature (whether it be Hobbes’ chaotic one or Locke’s relatively peaceful one) is not a concern for everyone, as Hobbes and Locke would have us believe, it is really a concern for the rich who hold property.  So for Rousseau the modern State is a solution to the problems of the rich, not a solution to the problems of “man” in general.  The Leviathan “gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich,” he says, and “established forever the law of property and of inequality…and for the profit of a few ambitious men [the rich] henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery” (p. 70 of the Hackett edition).  In establishing the State, he says, the rich gave up their liberty to gain protection for their property, but the poor “had nothing to lose but their [natural] liberty,” and so nothing to gain by surrendering that liberty to the State (p. 71).

My students came to the conclusion that for Rousseau, while the establishment of the State is not necessarily the cause of inequality, it is what codifies and institutionalizes that inequality, what ensures inequality will endure.  That conclusion is, by the way, perfectly consistent with the argument in both Hobbes and Locke.  Both agree that the state of nature is a state of equality, and so any observable inequality in civil society (i.e. “politic society” or life under the State) would, logically, only be possible as a stable condition because it is being actively protected by the State.

So, again, it seems to me there is lots to appreciate in Rousseau (even if there is also lots to recoil from).

Emmanuel Terray: No to the State


Unplanned obsolescence

Another for my collection of those who want to think politics without the State: Emmanuel Terray, from The Idea of Communism 2.  He joins Deleuze and Guattari, Lefebvre, Badiou, Virno, Balso, Illuminati, Negri, and more.  Here is Terray:

The strategy of the Communist Parties, as we know, consisted of trying to seize state power in order to then put it to use as a lever for carrying out social transformation and securing the victory of the emancipation project.  This strategy thus relies on the all-decisive hypothesis that the state is an instrument adequate to this project — and it is precisely on this point that we might question it.  There can be no doubt that the state is an effective instrument for carrying out certain social transformations: in particular we might recall the role that it played in the period of primitive accumulation laying the ground for the advent of capitalist society.  But when the transformation we have in mind is that of collective emancipation, the generalization of freedom and equality across all domains of social life, is the state still the appropriate tool?  This is doubtful: by definition, the state is an authority separated from, exterior to, and above society; its very existence relies on the opposition between those who govern and those who are governed, between those who rule and those who are ruled.  Since communism must necessarily advance by way of the abolition of this opposition, we can say that there exists a manifest contradiction between the goal pursued — communism — and the means employed — the state and the party that mirrors it.

His understanding of communism fits almost exactly with my understanding of democracy, as that form of political life in which the opposition between rulers are ruled is abolished.  And so the project of becoming democratic that I advocate would mean a struggle on the part of everyone to become ruler, and to thereby make our present rulers obsolete.

The Public Without The State


I recently participated in a session on the concept of the public organized by Malcolm Tait for the joint AESOP/ACSP Planning Conference in Dublin.  This was an audience of planners, and so my comments were geared toward their ears, but it still might be interesting to a wider audience.  The panel was great, and it included Lucie Lauien, Lucy Natarajan, Christopher Maidment, Mattila Hanna, and Sanjeev Vidyarthi.

The Public Without the State

In the opening session of this conference, the Irish Minster for Housing and Planning said, “I want to demystify the planning system, and give it back to everyone.” I want to think through what it would mean to take her literally.

The backbone of my comments will be this question: what would happen if we decouple “public” from “State”? How would we think public if there were no State? I should say that by “State” here I mean a transcendent power, a constituted power, a centralized power, a sovereign power.

I want to pose this question in two registers:

A theoretical register: how might we think the idea of public without the State?

And an empirical register: how are people actually thinking and enacting publics without the State?

So in prompting the panel for the session, Malcolm asked a series of questions, which I will try to address most of. He asks, How might communities identify and support the interests of those outside their own community, even if they clash with their own interests?

Theoretically, we could offer a further question: what would happen if we explored this question without recourse to a State? If we forced ourselves to think only in terms of immanent communities, and in terms of horizontal relations of affinity or antagonism among them. If we got out of the habit of thinking in terms of State-mediated relations between communities, and into the habit of thinking in terms of direct relations between communities.

Empirically, we would want to ask: how are local groups actually identifying and supporting the interests of those outside their community right now in the absence of State mediation? Not in some mystical land where there is no State, but in the many, everyday real-life cases of inter-community relations where the State is not actively managing those relations for communities.

Malcolm also asks: How might public participation activities better encourage communities to identify with broader constituencies and publics?

Theoretically, we could ask: if there were no official (i.e. State-sanctioned) public participation activities/processes, how might communities themselves manage tensions between “us” and those broader groups of which their “us” is a part?

Empirically, we could ask: how are they managing these tensions when the State does not tell them how?

Malcolm again: What is the role of the professional planner in identifying wider (public) interests?

Theoretically: how would wider public interests be imagined if there were no professional planners? If we all were responsible for deciding our own affairs, how would we define “public interest”? Would we even use the term at all?

Empirically: how are public interests being defined by people when there are no planners around?

Malcolm: What is the role of the State in promulgating wider public interests against the wishes of individual communities? and Under what circumstances might the State impose a solution that is deemed in ‘the public interest’?

Theoretically: in the absence of a State or transcendent authority, how would we understand the question of conflict between wider public interests and the interests of individual communities? What might we judge the problem to be if there were no transcendent power to “deem” what is in the public interest? If we did decide that there was a conflict between the wider public interest and the interest of a small community, what would we do?

Empirically: how are people actually judging the problem of the public interest when the State is not judging it for them? What solutions are they inventing when they are able to managing their affairs for themselves?

[Some examples I prepared, thinking planners would ask me to give concrete examples (though they didn’t)]

Disaster zones, like New Orleans, Japan, New York

Autonomous zones, like villages in Chiapas, or land occupations in Brazil, or recuperated factories, or informal settlements

Self-managed moments, like Taksim, Tahrir, Puerta del Sol, and Syntagma

Immanently created institutions, like asambleas barriales in Argentina or Spain, comitate di base, social centers, worker-managed co-ops, CORE in CTU, CEDICAM

Immanent initiatives, like guerrilla gardens, free software, co-housing, squats, or the global anti-neoliberalism movements

Everyday practices, the myriad ways we organize our collective lives without law: rule of thumb, norms, custom, habit, culture

Deleuze and Guattari: the State is a “Terror without Precedent”


Biblical Seamonster

Exciting moment in Anti-Oedipus (Part 3, Chapter 5) when Deleuze and Guattari first introduce their analysis of the birth of the modern state (and their scathing critique of it). They draw heavily on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, especially his discussion of debt in Essay II. Deleuze and Guattari write (p. 192):

It is here that Nietzsche speaks of a break, a rupture, a leap. Who are these beings, they who come like fate?. . . .They are the founders of the State. Nietzsche will come to establish the existence of other breaks: those of the Greek city-state, Christianity, democratic and bourgeois humanism, industrial society, capitalism, and socialism. But it could be that all of these–in various ways–presuppose this first great hiatus, although they claim to repel and fill it. It could be that, spiritual or temporal, tyrannical or democratic, capitalist or socialist, there has never been but a single State, the State-as-dog that “speaks with flaming roars” (OGM, II, 16). And Nietzsche suggests how this new socius proceeds: a terror without precedent, in comparison with which the ancient system of cruelty [that Neitzsche has been discussing], the forms of primitive regimentation and punishment, are nothing. A concerted destruction of all the primitive codings, or worse yet, their derisory preservation, their reduction to the condition of secondary parts in the new machine, and the new apparatus of repression. All that constituted the essential element of the primitive inscription machine–the blocks of mobile, open, finite debts, “the parcels of destiny”–finds itself taken into an immense machinery that renders the debt infinite and no longer forms anything but one and the same crushing fate: “the aim now is to preclude pessimistically, once and for all, the prospect of a final discharge; the aim now is to make the glance recoil disconsolately from an iron impossibility”(OGM, II, 21). The earth becomes a madhouse.

Nomad Democracy, or, Eugene Holland and Me

D&G's nomad chariot

It is quite a thing to run across someone who seems eerily connected to you in terms of their intellectual project.  That is the experience I had reading Andy Merrifield’s Magical Marxism, and I just had it again reading Eugene Holland’s Nomad Citizenship.  I tend to think in terms of the concept democracy, and Holland prefers citizenship, communism, markets, and general strike, but our overall projects are quite close.  We both draw on a similar stable of thinkers (Deleuze and Guattari, the Italians, the Invisible Committee, Marx) to imagine a politics that does not confront the state and capital, but rather seeks out the alternative forms of economic, political, and social life that are already being tried.  Our job (‘our’ meaning everyone) is not to create those new forms, or organize people and cause them to live those new forms, but to learn to recognize new forms as they exist now and figure out how to help them grow on their own terms and spread by connecting with other, similar initiatives.  I just tried to articulate this idea in a response to a comment made by Nik Janos on my post on Bakunin.  The idea is that these alternative forms of life must survive, grow, and, eventually, come to pervade society, to reach a critical mass, as Holland puts it, to become-general so that we arrive at a bifurcation point after which we spill over into a new land, one that is thick with the presence of democracy (for me, or free-market communism, for Holland).  It is not really a question of wanting to smash the state or capitalism, it is rather a question of “growing” democracy to a point where those oligarchical forms of rule appear quaint and no longer relevant to the needs of our lives.  Holland puts it like this (p. 163): we have to “produce a gradual but irreversible, and ultimately definitive, becoming-unnecessary of our abject dependence on both capital and the State….”  I would just soften his “irreversible” and “definitive” language: we must always understand that even if we reach the tipping point, even if we create a new land, capitalist and State alienation will always return, always re-emerge and seek to reimpose themselves on us.  We must understand the new land to be made up of our perpetual flight from these apparatuses.  Their defeat is possible, but it can never be irreversible.

To be clear, I don’t mean to imply I am at the same level as Merrifield and Holland, just that we are trying to articulate a very similar project.

[Holland and I also share an affinity for Richard Day’s work, but don’t like his penchant for ruling out forms of struggle once and for all, considering them “dead” or passe.  I have an exchange with Day on this point coming out soon in ACME].

More from Bakunin: Against Marx


From “Critique of the Marxist Theory of the State,” in Bakunin on Anarchism, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff, Knopf, 1972, pp. 330-331):

“If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another and, as a result, slavery; the State without slavery is unthinkable – and this is why we are the enemies of the State.

What does it mean that the proletariat will be elevated to a ruling class? Is it possible for the whole proletariat to stand at the head of the government? There are nearly forty million Germans. Can all forty million be members of the government? In such a case, there will be no government, no state, but, if there is to be a state there will be those who are ruled and those who are slaves.

The Marxist theory solves this dilemma very simply. By the people’s rule, they mean the rule of a small number of representatives elected by the people. The general, and every man’s, right to elect the representatives of the people and the rulers of the State is the latest word of the Marxists, as well as of the democrats. This is a lie, behind which lurks the despotism of the ruling minority, a lie all the more dangerous in that it appears to express the so-called will of the people.

Ultimately, from whatever point of view we look at this question, we come always to the same sad conclusion, the rule of the great masses of the people by a privileged minority. The Marxists say that this minority will consist of workers. Yes, possibly of former workers, who, as soon as they become the rulers of the representatives of the people, will cease to be workers and will look down at the plain working masses from the governing heights of the State; they will no longer represent the people, but only themselves and their claims to rulership over the people. Those who doubt this know very little about human nature…

The Marxists are aware of this contradiction and realize that a government of scientists will be a real dictatorship regardless of its democratic form. They console themselves with the idea that this rule will be temporary. They say that the only care and objective will be to educate and elevate the people economically and politically to such a degree that such a government will soon become unnecessary, and the State, after losing its political or coercive character, will automatically develop into a completely free organization of economic interests and communes.

There is a flagrant contradiction in this theory. If their state would be really of the people, why eliminate it? And if the State is needed to emancipate the workers, then the workers are not yet free, so why call it a People’s State? By our polemic against them we have brought them to the realization that freedom or anarchism, which means a free organization of the working masses from the bottom up, is the final objective of social development, and that every state, not excepting their People’s State, is a yoke, on the one hand giving rise to despotism and on the other to slavery. They say that such a yoke – dictatorship is a transitional step towards achieving full freedom for the people: anarchism or freedom is the aim, while state and dictatorship is the means, and so, in order to free the masses of people, they have first to be enslaved!

Upon this contradiction our polemic has come to a halt. They insist that only dictatorship (of course their own) can create freedom for the people. We reply that all dictatorship has no objective other than self-perpetuation, and that slavery is all it can generate and instill in the people who suffer it. Freedom can be created only by freedom, by a total rebellion of the people, and by a voluntary organization of the people from the bottom up.”