‘Feeling Like a State: Desire, Denial and the Recasting of Authority’ by Davina Cooper reviewed by Lucy Freedman


Feeling Like a State: Desire, Denial and the Recasting of Authority

Duke University Press, Durham, 2019. 272 pp., $26.95 pb
ISBN 9781478004745

Reviewed by Lucy Freedman

About the reviewer

Lucy Freedman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Drama department at Queen Mary, University of London. She …

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At the centre of Davina Cooper’s new book Feeling Like a State, lies the urgent question: how can differing and directly contradictory needs be met in a way which causes the least harm and impingement on freedoms? In pursuit of an answer, Cooper poses more crucial and often overlooked questions around liberal pluralism and the erotic character of state power. Unfortunately, though, Cooper doesn’t steer us towards many tangible answers. Her book acknowledges the existence of state violence, but stops short of analysing the mechanisms through which it occurs.

Throughout the book, Cooper positions herself away from ‘left-wing critics’ of the state (90) without even cursorily engaging with any anti-state or even state-critical thinker at any point; even James C. Scott, from whose book Seeing Like a State she takes her title. Instead, Cooper’s project is to ‘reimagine’ what the state could be (4). Before arriving at the wholly unsatisfactory conclusion that states could be improved through slight increases in citizen participation in local government, ‘feminist judgements’ (read: carceral feminism) and the proliferation of ‘self-declared micro-nations’ (160) (she gives the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove and Frestonia as examples), Feeling Like a State takes its reader on a tour of half-baked thought experiments about how playfulness might allow us to come together, thus offsetting the need to abolish class society. Essentially, the book’s downfall is its implicit assertion that positive social change can be enacted by changing perspectives, rather than material conditions. Overall, Feeling Like a State reads as state apologism, caveated with a few flimsy suggestions for improvement, rather than a robust critique of the violences and injustices of the contemporary bourgeois capitalist state.

Using what she terms the ‘legal drama’ of clashes between the state and the Christian Right over matters of gay consumer rights as an extended example which spans the book, Cooper frames the often-fraught relationship between state and subject as one of mutual threat of withdrawal. Focusing on recent instances of states withdrawing funding or other forms of support from homophobic conservative Christian organisations, she characterises the modern liberal state as essentially progressive, but unable to find a way to enable its citizens to live in harmony without anyone’s sensibilities being offended.

The mutual relation of withdrawal Cooper is interested in sees conservative Christian commodity producers and service providers withdrawing from exchange with consumers of whom they disapprove, and the state withdrawing funding for homophobic Christian organisations, and employment from homophobic Christian employees. Notably, the examples she uses involve gay subjects-as-consumers who are attempting to use their purchasing power to assimilate (e.g. buying wedding cakes). Cooper nods towards an understanding that consumer rights are not the most pressing of marginalised people’s concerns (36), but nevertheless chooses not to focus on the forms of state withdrawal – of housing, welfare, healthcare etc. – likely to befall the most structurally oppressed members queer communities, such as trans people of colour or queer migrants.

In her discussion of the state’s role in the ongoing ‘legal drama’ between conservative Christian producers and gay consumers, Cooper misinterprets state intervention to regulate (and open up) the market for social and moral progressiveness, making reference to the ‘activist state’ as one who withdraws from or legislates against the exclusion of gay subjects from the labour or commodity market. This is a misunderstanding which is compounded by the examples she chooses, along with misguided analysis of what is going on in these examples. It is a flawed logic and understanding of history which sees the state as an ‘activist’ applying top-down pressure on backwards bigots out of the good of its (metaphorical) heart, rather than acting under pressure from sustained class struggle from LGBTQIA+ activists.

It is easy to see how this about-face analysis has been arrived at. Cooper doesn’t set out with a clear conception of the state, the relationship between the bourgeois state and the circulation of capital, or the distinction between local and central state authority. Nor does she distinguish between states: her examples are drawn from the US, the UK, Canada, Iceland, Japan and France, and she jumps between these without acknowledging the differences in governance between these states. She often describes the political form these states take as ‘(neo)liberal’, but any discussion of social and economic liberalism, neoliberalism and the differences between these is lacking. The questions Cooper raises could perhaps begin to be disentangled by putting them into discussion with Marxist-materialist theories of the development of the bourgeois state, but Cooper turns instead to new-materialist-inflected analysis.

As such, the book offers up a confused understanding of what a state is. Sometimes it is a local council or individual agency, sometimes central government, sometimes a vague idea of collectivity, sometimes a landmass and sometimes just a feeling. Barring a few minor exceptions, Cooper’s examples focus on Western, bourgeois capitalist states. She recognises that these states share certain characteristics: they are pluralist, democratic and at least to a certain degree secular, but doesn’t ask why it is that the organisation of capitalist society takes the bourgeois state as its particular form. Some of the confusion around the state’s reach or remit could be explained through engagement with materialist analyses of the contemporary bourgeois state. Theorist of the bourgeois state, Heide Gerstenberger, explains that the democratic, capitalist state is caught between competing and contradictory interests –its need to administrate the flow of capital, to reproduce itself and its citizens and to ensure popularity in order to remain in power and stymie class struggle (Gerstenberger 1978) – and must act in accordance with these constraints. For Cooper, the state is simultaneously a monolith which imposes political and social hegemony, and an amorphous body made up of individuals, organisations and relationships whose intentions and motives are muddy and unclear. She is right to highlight the disparateness of the state’s many functions, but needs to employ more robust analysis in order to adequately theorise why this is, how it plays out and how things could be different.

The book keeps almost hitting on something nuanced and important, but then re-routes, falls down unnecessary rabbit holes and looks for answers in the wrong places. Centring touch and feeling in an exploration of how we relate to and are impacted by the state is an interesting approach, given how often the state makes itself known to us via our bodies – most often its offering (and withdrawal) of welfare, and the violence of its law and border enforcement – and one often overlooked by materialist theory. But again, rather than turning to the wealth of materialist critique which would provide solid grounding from which to extrapolate more abstract ideas around embodiment (for instance Cynthia Cockburn or Kirstin Munro’s critiques of the welfare state, or the materialist affect theories of Lauren Berlant, Sianne Ngai, etc.), Cooper draws her analysis from the immaterialist fields of new materialism and actor network theory.

Cooper is interested in dismantling our alienation from each other – a worthwhile aim – but because she dismisses the anti-state left as overly critical and doomy, she ignores extensive existing thought which argues that capitalist social relations must be dismantled if we are to enact social change in any meaningful way. Instead, she proposes that we enact change by re-orienting our social and political lives towards playfulness. Cooper suggests those in power re-think their approach to governance along the principles of ‘free running’ or ‘parkour’ (124), and that violent practices of state repression, such as police infiltration of political movements, be reconsidered as role-play (107). She does acknowledge that playfulness wouldn’t always be a suitable framework by which to understand state-subject relations – she concedes: ‘It seems doubtful that a homeless person, for instance, could play (in any meaningful way) with their housing officer’ (144) – but despite this recognition fails to notice glaring flaws in her quasi-utopian project. Surely, we should be looking to a future where there is no homelessness and no need for housing officers.

Clearly, play is not a useful lens through which to think about radically reorganising our society. Even if the state could be recuperated as a body which genuinely ensures that its citizens have their needs met (not a position this reviewer holds), one would not want it to be ‘playful’ or ‘teasing’ but rather competent and efficient. The bourgeois state, as it stands, reproduces capitalist social relations, relations which alienate us from each other and deny us access to our needs (such as housing, in the example Cooper provides), unless we are successful in selling our labour power for a high enough price. Cooper’s fixation on play and pleasure points to a wish to transform our alienated, immiserated lives, but she overlooks what causes them to be this way, and thus calls for solutions in the form of gimmicks rather than serious political action.

Cooper dedicates chapter five to exploring ‘the erotic life of states’. I was particularly drawn to this discussion, as the erotic nature of bourgeois state power is under-theorised, and is something I address in my own work. But I was disappointed by Cooper’s approach to this issue, which reads as an invitation rather than a critique. As it stands, there is an underlying eroticisation in the relationship between state power and subject – from the state’s policing of bodies, gender and sexuality, to sexual abuse by such as through strip-searches, to the ‘teasing’ suspense at play in drawn-out court cases. The state’s wielding of an eroticised power over the lives and bodies of its subjects, particularly those it criminalises, is an essential component of bourgeois state power, and a strong argument for the need to dismantle it. But far from offering a critique of this relation, this chapter naively sidesteps state violence, positing that ‘state touch’ could be ‘replenishing, stimulating, and satisfying […] teasing, playful and lighthearted’ (16). Without any practical roadmap indicating how we might arrive at such a playful, sensual, non-threatening relationship with ‘the state’, this provocation seems implausible. Once again, by falling back on new materialist clichés about flows and networks of relationships, Cooper fails to get to the crux of what a state is and how it functions as a concrete, historical social form. The state is not plastic, it is not a set of concepts but a material truth, it cannot be radically altered by changes in attitude alone.

Though she never offers us anything with which to redeem the state, Cooper fights hard throughout the book to defend its continued existence, albeit in its new fun and sensual guise. The book concludes with the claim that state abolition is neither possible nor truly desired. Cooper dismisses all historical attempts at actually-existing socialism, suggesting that Engels’ ‘withering state’ ‘has acquired more than a century’s worth of scorn’ (175). To write off all post-1878 revolutions as merely objects of scorn, and to look only to Engels for theorisation of state abolition once again demonstrates a lack of engagement with the wealth of critical scholarship that exists on the state. Despite her wholesale rejection of anti-state alternatives as untenable, Cooper’s proposals for building a ‘different kind of state’ (chapter six) are all extremely abstract, never really moving towards implementable practical suggestions. When juxtaposed with the work of anti-state communists such as Michelle O’Brien or Freundinnen und Freunden der klassenlosen Gesellschaft, who put forward pragmatic suggestions as to of how society could be organised without a state, it is Cooper’s vague attempts to recuperate the state which appear untenable.

Cooper’s final contestation of ‘radical antistate critiques’ is that we are in fact not ‘ready to shed […] the state as a security blanket’ (175). This assertion raises questions about who the ‘we’ she speaks of is exactly. As with earlier in the book where she is concerned with affluent gay couples wishing to assimilate rather than more marginalised queers, here she ignores that for many, the state is far from a ‘security blanket’. While she is distracted by middle-class communities role-playing self-determination, Cooper misses global movements – such as the recent George Floyd uprisings, or the current movement against the British state’s carceral response to endemic gender-based violence – of people hungry, and ready, to do away with the state altogether.

22 March 2021

References

  • Gerstenberger, Heide 1978 Class Conflict, Competition and State Functions State and Capital: A Marxist Debate eds. John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, Edward Arnold: 148–59.

2 comments

  1. I want to respond to Lucy Freedman’s review of my book – to correct some misapprehensions and to explain what the book aimed to do.

    Freedman’s criticism boils down, I think, to four key claims. First, that Feeling like a state ignores anti-state scholarship and state-critical thinking. Second, that it buys into liberal state functions and promises, over-attending to the value of regulatory market interventions and the desire for harmony by the “good-at-heart” state. Third, that it calls for playfulness when it should foreground the meeting of core human needs. Fourth, that it views social change as a matter of changing perspective. In this way, the importance of real material conditions to generating change becomes displaced.

    My understanding of the book is rather different.

    Feeling like a state is an experiment in the sense it asks whether conservative practices might provide resources that can prompt and support a progressive reimagining of what stateness might mean. As such, it takes a step beyond my previous book, Everyday Utopias, which explored how innovative progressive spaces – from democratic schools to local currency networks – might stimulate and give experiential heft to left ideas.

    Typically, when we seek prompts for progressive thinking, we look for corresponding progressive practices. We might think of these material conditions, albeit partial and fragmented, as generating and naturalising progressive forms of thought (begging the question of whether only participants in everyday utopias experience the influence of new material conditions on their ideas or whether outsiders, including academic visitors, do so also).

    What Feeling like a state sought to consider was whether the practices that prompt and support progressive thinking can be broadened. The counter-intuitive question it posed was whether and how right-wing practices might stimulate new left-wing thinking on what it could mean to be a state.

    To give this focus, the book’s terrain was a contemporary legal drama over conservative Christian refusal to comply with gay equality norms. It therefore traced the issues and litigants involved in several dozen legal cases in Britain, Canada, Australia, and the US. The book explored the challenges posed by conservative forces’ withdrawal from liberal equality norms and the reactive withdrawal of liberal state bodies from conservative Christians. It did not do so to recuperate a liberal agenda or to argue for the significance of these particular harms. Rather, its aim was to trace the methodological moves and challenges invoked in using this litigation to stimulate new progressive ways of reimagining what it could mean to be a state.

    Such an undertaking does not deny or discount the importance of state critique – both of existing states as well as more general ideas about the state, as the book discusses. However, given the extensive and excellent scholarship already available, the book sought to contribute something else, namely, to probe ideas of governance, statehood, political responsibility, and sovereignty to see if anything could be salvaged and redeployed. For this reason, I did not elaborate, to Freedman’s regret, on state violence – the mechanisms through which it occurs, its touch, and disturbing erotic registers. Feeling like a state discusses work in this area, including insightful scholarship by Begoña Aretxaga and Asli Zengin. But its own contribution lies conceptually elsewhere.

    Is the state, though, a concept? Freedman’s review suggests that the state is not a concept but a “material truth”, and so something that cannot be altered by attitudinal change alone. I agree that academics often overstate what new ideas can accomplish – claiming their impact as a constitutive or declaratory effect rather than tracing the mediated, more complex, contested, sometimes surprising ways that ideas make a difference. In this case, however, Freedman misunderstands my use of the “concept”. I don’t use its terms to refer to abstract ideas or notions that exist purely in the terrain of cognition or thought. My work reutilises the concept to approach it as the relationship between imagining and actualisation – a relationship that is plural, contingent, purposive, and material.
    The state, as a concept, incorporates both ideas and socio-physical practices and things. Both are multiple as Marxist state theory itself exemplifies – take, for instance, the famous debate, fifty years ago, between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas, in New Left Review.

    Different notions of the state entail different tracings and cuts in the social fabric. For instance, some approaches to the state include or exclude the family, religion, “the people”, or – as I discuss in this book – dissident beliefs, feelings, and service users. Whether these should be understood as part of the state, and how they might be part of states, cannot be resolved as questions either of abstract definition or of materiality. Both imagining and actualisation are involved.

    Given the different conceptual tracings that can legitimately be made, the question becomes: what conception of the state is most useful given the task at hand? For this book, the cuts I wanted to explore were those which made the state, as a concept, worth retrieving. These cuts operate in the realm of thought – imagining progressive stateness necessarily invokes social justice, equality, democratic participation, and welfare across a wide range of scales. But, in taking them up in reimagining what it might mean to be a state, practical glimpses of such stateness also arise.

    Freedman dismisses the places, in the book, where these are found, describing them, rather inaccurately, as “middle-class communities role-playing self-determination”. Yet, counter-institutional activity, which may draw – explicitly or otherwise – on discourses and symbols of stateness can be found in many places. I wanted to explore some less documented examples, including those that use humour and wit, as well as initiatives that simulate institutional practices with revisions in less playful ways, such as local currency networks and people’s tribunals.

    Play’s occupancy in the book forms a target of Freedman’s critique. It is easy for play to ‘play into’ a dismissal of actions as ludic, frivolous, and trivial. But play is much more multi-faceted and significant than this suggests. In the book, I use the concept of play for political actions whose ambition exceeds what they can accomplish or realise at a given time. Here, play signifies an evolving space of aspiration that allows things to materialise that cannot yet be effectively achieved. For instance, local currencies act as if they are money even though they cannot achieve what it is that their creators want money to do.

    Within this space beyond realisation, play provides a register for politics and governance that may (although it doesn’t have to) involve wit, creativity, and a stretching and testing of alternatives. Certainly, state bodies (human and institutional) play cruelly, competitively, and to dissemble. Activist communities, as I discuss, also play with the state. But what could it mean and entail for states to play well with their peoples? And is it desirable for progressive forms of governance to incorporate play?

    Freedman suggests government should just be “competent and efficient”. I think this is too limited. Since my early activism and scholarship, in the 1980s, when I was also a council member of a radical London council, I have been interested in what else state bodies might do (see Sexing the city) – and the place of exploration, creativity, and inventiveness in state-work. As Feeling like a state argues, in conditions where state bodies are the bearers of concentrated force, with significant roles in maintaining capitalist relations, playfulness and inventiveness can damage and oppress. But sometimes counter-hegemonic forces temporarily gain some degree of control or at least the capacity to re-purpose certain state tools and resources. Municipal radicalism is a typical example of this, even as its bursts of creative political energy often prove short-lived. Taking up state powers in unexpected ways to pursue agendas beyond their formally authorised remit – from gay equality policies to nuclear free zones and international boycotts – state bodies appear as activist states, something I have explored more fully elsewhere.

    And yet, beyond the question of whether progressive forms of stateness should make room for the policy innovations designated “serious play”, there is an important critical value in considering play by states. It brings the changes required for states to be able to play well with citizens to the fore (whether play is about creativity or playfulness). Free play cannot happen in conditions of inequality or where one party is reliant on or vulnerable to the power and resources of the other, as the book makes clear.

    Feeling like a state is not intended as a celebration of the state. Given the record states have in sustaining and fortifying capitalist relations and racialised anti-ecological geopolitics, celebrating the state would be foolishly naïve. At the same time, critique benefits from the supplement that prefigurative projects pose, attuned to imagining and enacting other meanings. The state is not necessarily the concept that people should or will want to reach towards in “reorienting or disorienting governmental thinking” as I say in the book’s closing. But the political antagonisms, disappointments, hopes, activities, authority, power, desire, and resources, that stateness encodes, renders the state-concept an important reservoir, worthy of attention whether progressive and radical political movements choose to retain and repurpose the language of stateness or not.

    1. Thanks for reading this review Davina. I think we fundamentally disagree about the role of the state within prefigurative thinking, and also perhaps in our visions for transformed world, but I appreciate your comments.
      Lucy

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