Academic journal article New Formations

Transcendentalising the State

Academic journal article New Formations

Transcendentalising the State

Article excerpt


   I believe that as we were saying in the assemblies of the
   Polytechnic, if the revolution doesn't come now, if we don't push
   this insurrection to a real revolution, it will not be because we
   don't have the power but because we don't have our world. (1)

The problem discussed in this paper is that of radically resisting the state, when material and ideological circumstances foreclose a non-statist horizon, or, as anarchist activists Pavlos and Irina put it, where one has no world outside the state. To articulate a radical challenge to state authority from within a statist framework, this paper will rely on points of view of communities that know no stateless world, but still reject contemporary state governmentality as such (rather than just this or that government).

The first section will flesh out the claim that there is no 'world' outside the state. Then I look into Zapatista resistance (among others) to see how resistance to the state works where there is no independent world from which the state is to be resisted. In the following two sections I will use the work of Pierre Clastres and liberation theology to set up a model that I call 'transcendentalisation of the state'--a form of governmentality that retains the state as constitutive framework, but undermines its power to enforce its authority. The last two sections will flesh out this model with case studies.


Pavlos and Irina (of the motto above) realise that they have no 'world' outside the state, that is, no array of power and discourse that can be considered as the state's outside. The claim is not simply that there is hardly any piece of land outside state sovereignty, but that the state's biopolitics and control force themselves on what could be considered, until recently, as spaces outside state government. 'The family, the school, the army, the factory are no longer the distinct analogical spaces that converge towards an owner--state or private power--but coded figures--deformable and transformable--of a single corporation that now has only stockholders'. (2) The state is no longer an element of sovereignty with borders, frontiers, enemies and an outside; it has become a pervasive form of governmentality, an inescapable 'state of affairs'.

In this section I would like to explain why some of the sites that might be considered as sites of resistance outside the state are, in fact, intertwined with the state. The first sites to explore as potentially outside-state are zones where state jurisdiction does not apply. James Scott's The Art of not Being Governed studies such zones in the mountains of South East Asia before the mid-twentieth century. (3) Scott distinguishes state zones from non-state zones, where 'the state has particular difficulty in establishing and maintaining its authority'(p13). In the relevant historic conditions, non-state zones are areas where natural or other circumstances prevent the binding of large populations to rice cultivation plots and systems of registration and taxation that enable state control (p179).

Scott's most relevant claim for us here is that non-state zones do not precede the state, but are co-constructed with it:

   The state and its resulting shatter zone are mutually constituted
   in the full sense of that much-abused term ... The valley state's
   elites define their status as a civilisation by reference to those
   outside their grasp, while at the same time depending on them for
   trade and to replenish (by capture or inducements) their subject
   population. The hill peoples, in turn, are dependent on the valley
   state for vital trade goods and may position themselves cheek by
   jowl with valley kingdoms to take full advantage of the
   opportunities for profit and plunder, while generally remaining
   outside direct political control (pp326-7).

In fact, the borders between Scott's states and non-state zones are so fluid, that the former are called 'concertina states' (p164-5). …

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