An Attempt at Unmasking “the State”

By Martha Hooge
UCR Class of 2014

“We have come to take the state for granted as an object of political practice and political analysis while remaining quite spectacularly unclear as to what the state is” (Abrams).

The task that we´re faced with now is to demystify the state, destabilize our idea of it, that is to say, question the frequently assumed “facts” about the state as being a free-standing entity, that is separate from and above society. We need to be aware of the fallacy that we are continuously tempted to fall for – talking about it as if there was “a thing” that actually is the state. The state is not a thing; it does not exist as such. But then, what is the state, where can we place it? Or better, is there actually something like the state? Needless to say, I cannot really provide you with an answer, but I can share some of my thoughts about it.

I will start with the somehow god-like status the state seems to have attained. Its almost ridiculous if you think about the similarity between those concepts. God, as well as the state, is often seen as a unified entity – superior to normal human beings, as if, in some way, providing salvation or punishment. People recreate and maintain the idea of god and its presence in multiple ways, mainly through everyday practices and rituals, as for instance, praying and going to church – in case of the state those practices would be carrying your ID card with you, or simply having it at all, getting off your bike in the pedestrian lane if a police officer in a uniform tells you to, or just in general following the law.

All these mundane things; these reminders, serve to maintain the cycle of creation and recreation. Timothy Mitchell stated in an article that “what we call the state and think of as an intrinsic object existing apart from society, is the sum of mundane processes of spatial organization, temporal arrangement, functional specification, supervision and surveillance, and representations that create the appearance of a world fundamentally divided into state and society.” This is Mitchell´s understanding of “the state effect”, which could also pretty much be applied to the idea of god – “the god effect”.

Society is in both cases separated from the concept, which is one of the mechanisms reinforcing their existence. However, without society, without the people, there would and could be no state, no god, because there would be no one believing in it – so how is it possible that we so often separate these concepts?

Interestingly, those structures recreating and maintaining the idea of the state have a very personal level as well – it is we, every single one of us, who participates in this process, and without this active participation, the idea would and could not exist any longer. The state effect is the result of structures, self-regulation, and self-discipline. There is no one superior, almighty government and/or state, that has all the power and imposes it upon the people, but there are the people, constituting society, creating the state, and as a consequence of that it somehow becomes real.

What one believes in as being real is, even though it does not exist as such, becomes real in a sense of the effects of that belief being usually very real and tangible. An example of this is the state violence in form of violence by the police that many people fall prey to when protesting in the streets, which is a form of “learning the power of the state the hard way” as one women said while we were exchanging our ideas about the state and power. She said the state to her seems a bit more that only an idea, that it is very important not to lose touch with reality when dealing with, rethinking and digesting all kinds of (academic) theories. Indeed, theories help our understanding, broaden our view; however, aren´t you all often struggling with contextualizing those theories? I ask myself constantly, “And now? What to do with it in real (everyday) life?”

This is basically also the course of all my conversations about the state so far. What to do with the realization of the state being an ideology? That it does not exist as a coherent entity, as a thing, as something up there. With the realization that political power (and power in general) is not only exerted by institutions of the state, by local governments, the police, the military, but also by other institutions and individuals which/who do not really seem to have anything to do with it, such as schools/universities (the educational system), the family, in general the people around you – and not to forget, you yourself.

The government influences many aspects of our lives, playing a part in almost all activities and practices, which influence and shape our conduct. Indeed, we are controlling and disciplining ourselves to such a high degree that we almost do not need to be disciplined any longer; we are the agents enacting the state’s discipline on ourselves. We then basically govern ourselves – which would make governing from “the outside” obsolete.

But then again, the fact remains that the moment you stop disciplining yourself, the moment you disobey and rebel, you are suddenly confronted with the sovereign, very real, violent power of the state. So, I am asking again, what to do with all of that?

In the course of all the conversations I had about ‘the state’, chewing through many aspects over and over again, the conclusion was fairly often, that it is necessary to raise awareness, and on a broad scale. However, how can we raise awareness? What I realized throughout the past years is, that the moment I became aware of something, the moment I really understood it, there was no way back any more. So I believe that if you understand something once, it is hard to turn away from it, to become blind to it again. This is what frightens us so often: The feeling of being alone with a realization, with a point of view, at least in our surroundings; the feeling of not being able change anything anyway, so why start with it at all?

Coming back to the point of raising awareness: Raising awareness in order to show that first of all, the state, as a thing, does not really exist, further, that the government as we mostly think about it now, is not the only way to organize the people, society, and social relations. There is a need to teach people about ideas, ideologies and their immense power. In the end, if you think about it, it is not only about the state, not only about what it is or is not, or if it really exists or not. It is about many other concepts, ideas, ideologies that are influencing us, accompanying us in our daily lives. To start increasingly becoming aware of the construct of the state, to demystify it, unmask it, helps to do the same thing with so many other constructs. It actually already happens sometimes even when you don’t notice it.

Martha Hooge, Class of 2014, is Social Science Major (Anthropology & Sociology), from Cologne, Germany.

One thought on “An Attempt at Unmasking “the State”

  1. Haha, very nice article but it is also interesting (but not surprising) that Friedman has been telling exactly the same story (with exactly the same example) for years

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