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Rebecca Coulson

Rebecca Lowe Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

There was a nice clue in The Times’s quick cryptic the other day: ‘State one’s a friend from Durham? (5)’. Not the greatest ever, but a mention of my hometown was enough for me. As it happens, it has another of my favourite words, too. This isn’t me declaring my love for ‘stating’ my thoughts, however; being a crossword clue, you can’t take the sentence’s syntax at face value. ‘State’ is being used as a verb here, for sure, but its positioning signifies that the clue’s ‘definition’ or ‘simple answer’ is a synonym for, or example of ‘state’, the noun.*

Ok, that was convoluted. Yet, even without crossword confusion, ‘state’ is tricky. And, while words themselves aren’t the most important thing, it’s helpful to have some agreement on the referents of those we use often. So, what do we mean when we say ‘the state’? What do we think it is, should be, and should do?

Surely, now’s the time for this kind of fundamental question; it increasingly feels as if everything that was obvious is no longer so. Not only has history not ended, we don’t know what it is anymore — or rather, we’ve grown unable to push what we think anything might be. This plays into the hands of those opposing the liberal foundations of our society; it gives fake news credence. We have to readdress the questions that once seemed so easy that we stopped justifying our answers to them.

Although we variously use ‘the state’ to mean various things, we share standard basic understandings of it. These are well set out by the OED: ‘a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government’; ‘an organized political community or area forming part of a federal republic’; and ‘the civil government of a country’. An informal vox pop provided me with similar responses, from ‘the focus of political control in a self-defined national area’, to a society’s ‘most dominant and unchangeable force’.

Yes, mostly, we see the state as a concentration of power, whether — to the extremes — in terms of unending over-creep (as one of my respondents put it, ‘a gift that keeps giving’), or as something that inherently stifles the poor or weak. It’s the famous ‘monopoly on legitimate violence’ (or, perhaps, as my vox-poppers offered, on ‘legitimate technology’, or ‘legitimate incompetence’…), which formally authorises both military force and the law and order imposed by civil government. The state, therefore, is at the heart of politics, because its centralisation of power is organised, official; it has authority, but is in need of justification, checks and balances, and transparency. And key to our acceptance and expectations of this thing is our relationship with it — whether we see ‘the state’ as some big leviathan of a monster, with you at his elbow, and me at the nape of his neck; or as something separate from, yet nonetheless dependent on, our membership.

Traditionally, notions of ‘the state of nature’ (amusingly, the point of this ‘state’ is that it’s not a ‘state’, in the other sense) have been used to help justify ‘the state’. If our natural stateless state is free and equal but exhaustingly perilous, then it’s sensible for us to enter into ordered society. The hypothetical bargain we cut, in doing so, swaps some of that absolute freedom for some protection for us and our stuff. Considered the other way round, contemplating the absence of a state — anarchy — assists deliberations about what a state is or should be. The old argument says that the state should enable us to remain as much like we would be in that non-state state as possible, because that’s the very reason we’ve sought to partake.

But some people ask why we should base the state on the maintenance of a hypothetical non-state status quo, especially if it represents a bellicose wasteland. If we’re going to have this state thing, they say, then why not aim to make it as ‘good’ as we can? In other words, if we agree that the state is justified, we then need to consider whether that justification provides a complete description of how the state must be — in terms of its obligations, conception of justice, or whatever — or whether we should use it to go further.

Naturally, anyone applying these thoughts to reality must recognise there’s no blank slate on which to experiment. Nonetheless, these questions can help us to assess or improve our current state. We should also remember that the conceptual thing exists alongside the actual one: in the same way that Donald Trump is an instance of ‘the President’, but ‘the President’ is a concept above and beyond him, so is ‘the state’.

When considering what the state actually does — or should do — we need to think about framework. Primarily, this is those institutions that set and enforce our society’s laws. But there are other state bodies and provisions, too, of course: our state, here, supplies extensive education, healthcare, welfare, and more — things not necessarily essential to its being a state. And, for a while, most of our party-political arguments were reducible to a question of where we should draw the line on the obligations and limits of this state thing that we’d accepted.

In these rapidly changing times, however, maybe we need to rethink the concept, itself. This isn’t to capitulate completely, and suggest some worldwide federation or superstate, but rather to ask what — realistically — a state could be and do, today. Many recent developments must be considered, including: the rise of globalism, and new global threats; changes in and additions to the world political order; heightened awareness of even our most distant neighbours, and what they face; the expansion of pan-national projects, not least the EU; the pushback against that expansion, not least in the form of Brexit; growing Western antipathy with certain forms of the status quo — seen by some in the election of Trump — and on into dissatisfaction with democracy, calls for greater transparency, frustration with ‘elites’ in the form of political representatives, the judiciary, and more; questions about privatisation, particularly relating to those institutions that have become seen to ‘belong’ to the state; the effects of an ever-ageing and relatively unproductive population; and, of course, migration.

When we think of ‘the state’ along classic lines, could we be stuck thinking about something that bears little relation to what this thing really is, or could be again? We need to ask this kind of question, not only to stand up to those who seek to change our minds through the persuasion of force, but also because it’s right to keep considering, no matter how sure you are.

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*The answer is ‘Nepal’ (state = NE + pal)

2 comments for: Rebecca Lowe Coulson: A monster on your back, or safety in numbers – what exactly is ‘the state’?

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