The State

Yet the State is nothing but a name. It is an abstraction. Like other concepts—the nation, race, humanity — it has no organic reality.
— Emma Goldman

States do many things. They test students, imprison individuals, make roads, adjudicate property disputes, track the health of populations, issue identity documents, provide benefits to those deemed deserving, safeguard markets, regulate the poor, drop bombs, and patrol borders.
— Paisley Currah

“The State” demarcates the anarchist from other socialists, communists, activists and social critics. As anarchists, we do not see social change as a result of either appealing to The State or take over control of The State. Anarchists see the alienating power [see Firebrand Dictionary entry on Power] of The State as part of the social relations we are struggling against. But as we struggle against The State, we need to ask ourselves what is this thing we are struggling against. Can it be “smashed” as the anarchist slogan goes? I would argue that The State is not an “it” that can be “smashed.” The State is a complex network of social practices and disciplines. If we are struggling against social practices and disciplines, how we organize ourselves and our communities could reproduce the same alienating power produced by The State.

When pressed, most people cannot give a clear definition of The State or point to where The State actually is materially. We can look at different examples to illustrate that The State-Society divide is not simple or total. Look at the relationship that exists between The State and financial institutions which are connected to schools and scientific research interlocked with medical knowledge and practices [see Changing Suns Press book A Labour of Liberation by Baijayanta Mukhopadhyay]. The State-Society divide is a line drawn internally within a network of institutions, knowledges, and social practices that maintains certain (historically situated) social and political orders through disciplines, measurements and normative standards [3]. This complex network of social practices and disciplines appear as a separate freestanding object that intervenes on individuals. This does not negate The State’s use of force or violence, but The State is not an actor that uses force on society. This image of The State simplifies and abstracts The State, which impacts our strategies, as anarchists, to struggle against alienated power.   

We, as anarchists, need to understand the kinds of articulations that can separate—with machine-like precision—an organization or institution and the individuals who comprise it. We need to understand the techniques of organization and articulation that produce the effects that make The State appear as a freestanding apparatus that can act on individuals. Michel Foucault’s analysis of discipline and disciplinary power is a helpful analytic to think with. [4] When looking at discipline, we are not looking at the “entire” society but at the level of the local because we are trying to understand the power that works from within not from outside. By this I mean, understanding how discipline, knowledge and social practices produce individuals not just “restrain” them.  Discipline functions in the particular by taking social processes and separating them out by different functions. Disciple then reorganizes the parts to improve efficiency and precision. This process creates productive and powerful combinations. Foucault’s work on disciple parallels arguments Karl Marx made in Capital regarding factory discipline and George Woodcock made in “The Tyranny of the Clock” about the measurement and control of time. [5] Marx writes, “In each individual workshop it enforces uniformity, regularity, order and economy.” [6] He argued that this abstracted peoples’ activities so their activities could be homogeneously measured. At the same time, The State started categorizing labourers into biological categories like “adult males,” “adult female,” and “children” as well as differing racialized categories that could be analyzed and managed. It is though this process that a dialectical relationship emerged that produces both the modern individual and modern society (including The State as it functions today.) Simultaneously this process created the image of structures that stand outside of individuals like The State and The Economy. [The next Firebrand Dictionary will look at the productive relationship between Individual/Society]. Through discipline-knowledge-social practices individuals are constructed as disciplined and industrious subjects. Alienated power does intervene on individuals by force or violence, but the individual is already a product of these relations when they are confronted.

Think of the quintessential agent of The State—the police. When I have made these arguments about The State in the past [7], anarchists have responded arguing that “cops beat people and this is more then discipline and social relations.” It is true that police “beat people” which is itself a social practice and functions only in a complex network of discipline-knowledge-social practices. The police do not assert force on individuals randomly, but within a network of knowledge about populations. The police assert force on individuals from populations that are categorized and organized via specific markers (could be ethnic/racial markers, poverty, geographic etc.). These categories are produced and reproduced through knowledges (statistics, sociology, criminology, colonial histories, media, literature, criminal code, charter of rights etc.). Individuals identify or understand themselves in the category through their life experiences within and interacting with different institutions (schools, churches, clubs, community groups, social services etc.).  The police are demarcated from other populations (through specific training, uniforms, social status, legal code, legal use of violence etc.). Police are in a relationship with different communities and community representatives that produce and reproduce them as intermediaries between The State and Society (church leaders, community leaders, lawyers, judges, social workers, city council representatives etc.). This complex network of discipline-knowledge-social practices creates the image that The State is separate from society and that the police are the representatives of the State. When we—and many of us do—struggle against police violence and racism, where exactly is The State; at which point in this network is the power of the police?

All of this is important for anarchist organizing and struggle. If The State is not an object, but a set of discipline-knowledge-social practices, then how we organize ourselves matters. If we organize ourselves in ways the reproduce or mimic the disciplinary power of our present society, then even if we think we are “smashing the state” (or capitalism) we can actually be reproducing relations of alienated power. The State is a form of transcendent power only to the extent that it intersects with other forms of transcendent and alienated power and knowledge, all of which measures and organizes our lives (settler-colonialism, the economy, the family, morality, the church, gender, race, etc.). Anarchists usually struggle against many (if not most) of these institutions and ways of knowing/living. We argue that these are forms of authority that can not be isolated. This means that as we struggle against the forces of violence, regulation and control, we also need to struggle for different ways of knowing and living in the world—together. We need to be attentive to how we organize our communities. We need to be attentive to how we live in our communities. Attentive to the disciplinary power we are producing and a product of. The “cops in our head” can be just as violent to the future world we are trying to create as the “cops on the street.”

The next entry of the Firebrand Dictionary will be the concept(s) of “Individual/Society.

Other entries of the Firebrand Dictionary: Power, The Family and Individual and Society


[1] Emma Goldman (1998)  “The Individual, Society and the State” In Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader ed. Alix Kates Shulman Humanity Books: Amherst pp. 109-123

[2] Paisley Currah (2014) “The State” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 1(1-2): 197

[3] Michel Foucault (1991) “Governmentality” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller Chicago: University of Chicago Press pp. 87–104.

[4] Michel Foucault (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison New York: Vintage Books

[5] Karl Marx (1990) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1 New York: Penguin and George Woodcock (1972) “The Tyranny of the Clock” In The Rejection of Politics and other essays Toronto: new press pp. 46-50

[6] Karl Marx (1990) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1 New York: Penguinp. 465  

[7] Chris Kortright (2003) The State and Economy as Regimes of Discipline: beyond state fetishism Santa Cruz: Saloon Anti-League

Posted on December 18, 2015 .