State and society

Originally produced June 2012

Nugent: “the line between state and society is most easily drawn when the mission of the state has failed”

Mitchell: “producing and maintaining the distinction between state and society is itself a mechanism that generates resources of power” (Mitchell)

For Nugent the successful integration of state and society is the aim of the state whereas for Mitchell the division seems to be the aim. However, the ideas behind these statements may not be as contradictory as they at first seem. To a lesser or greater degree both Nugent and Mitchell see the state as a construct which lends legitimacy and helps generate power for institutions and ruling elites. According to these thinkers, the state should not be seen in the Hobbesian fashion as a all-powerful leviathan of which its subjects are beneficiaries or victims – however, this is how, thanks to Weber particularly, the state is often seen. According to Abrams the state is not a thing – it is in fact a complete fabrication – it is not the hidden reality behind the workings of institutions – it is the mask that hides the lack of coherence and the raw imposition of power. With this in mind we can read Nugent’s statement slightly differently – when the role of the state is most obvious, its power is most obvious and raw. This goes against what the state-idea is intended for, according to Abrams, that is to make subjugation more tolerable by creating ritual and myth around it. For Nugent, however, the state need not be an imposition, constantly needing to reinforce its own legitimacy – state-society interactions can be positive and constructive. For Nugent what is important is how the state is conceptualised – if it is not conceptualised in oppositional terms it can be a productive idea.

Thus the difference could be seen more in these terms – that for Mitchell, the conceptualisation of the state is very much about maintaining power. This power can be generated from the perceptions of it as separate, this separate-ness lends it legitimacy to impose power through particular rituals – the state is effectively a constant ‘happening’ that occurs every day. Bourdieu argues that the constant nature of these rituals serve to reinforce the state-system. Nugent’s interest is more about, given the prevalence of the state-idea, how can we work to make this better. Mitchell has received criticism for the fact that most of the solutions he proposes in changing the way in which people approach society and power require fundamental, hard to locate, shifts in consciousness. In his writings on resistance, Mitchell recommends that we abandon ideas about how we conceive the state and society all together, and how we conceive resistance in oppositional terms, but offers little practical advice for how this might be achieved. Nugent’s work on the other hand offers a window to a vision of the process and consequences of changing attitudes towards the state. Mitchell would almost certainly criticise Nugent for buying into the dichotomy that the state-system promotes of a separation between society and state and that it is only by changing conceptions such as Nugent’s that we can move forward.

 

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