State it?

A review of State power and democracy before and during the presidency of George.W.Bush - Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, hardback, 252pp.

Erik Empson

For anyone that was under the illusion that the USA was a place of political freedom, a bastion of democracy and a model of an egalitarian society, Kolin’s book is essential reading. Indeed his claim, asserted with gusto, that the USA is in fact a police state, where freedom is severely circumscribed by increasingly centralised government agencies, goes against most indices of democracy and gravely questions its agenda of exporting brand democracy abroad.

For the rest of us however, the book is perhaps of lesser use. Sure, it presents a cogent and informed argument that something like that which we might call a police state has gradually arisen in America. It shows that the Bush administration did many things typical to totalitarian regimes. Drawing comparisons with Nazi Germany and Italy, Kolin talks of how the US declared a permanent state of emergency, exercised detention without trial, triumphed security over civil liberties, and instituted an unprecedented level of surveillance over society. But the claim that there has been a historical tendency towards this is supported only by a potted history and an ever changing inventory of what exactly constitutes a repressive regime worthy of the name. The book tends to speak to the initiated, it rarely clarifies why one mass movement might be considered democratic and a right wing one not.

Kolin begins with an analysis of the historical relationship between state power and mass movements but ends with a denunciation of the progressive erosion of civil liberties and the US administration’s breach of international and constitutional law. In fact, an apparent continuity between mass movements, taken as the expression of democracy as ‘self determination’, and the legal framework is assumed throughout the book. This runs the danger of presenting the struggle against state power as one of good versus evil, civility versus abuse, failing to unravel any form of rationality behind this expression of a blind will to power.

In this respect State Power has a tendency to occupy the same paradigm of political reasoning as the state itself: that of power from above, sovereign authority, the masses as the victims or tools of an overarching authority that at every opportunity clamours for an extension of its powers. This kind of thinking expresses a limit beyond which political science has little to say. Although the steady encroachments on freedoms of political association are well documented, is this telling us much about the exercise of power? A counter-history needs to do more than document the machinations of the powerful, it needs to trace the ideological shifts that accompany the political dynamics, in short it needs to understand political legitimacy.

The question that really needs answering is why there is such a disconnection between a widely held perception of national, constitutional freedom as a norm of society and the reality of the repressive apparatuses the author describes. Surely Kolin has a good answer to this, but he fails to state it. We know it lies somewhere between the propensity of groups and individuals to internalise and identify with the language of the state and their capacity for contrasting that inner identity with the behaviour of others who are alien, and outside. The difficulty with Kolin’s book is that it does not address the forces that produce this imbalance. Arguably, it is not because of itself that a police state comes into existence, indeed as Kolin rightly notes, most police states are to a large degree dysfunctional. Rather, the interplay between antecedent interests, simmering conflicts and other repressive apparatuses, the market economy very much included, produces a kind of social vacuum, or a vortex perhaps, into which the state, often clumsily and incoherently, extends itself.

In the Bush era we saw the rise of a rhetorical message along clear Schmittian lines of a friend/enemy distinction. What we don’t fully understand at the level of popular culture and politics, but desperately need to, is how, on a psychological and sociological level, the State appears to be speaking to each individual as a friend and of everyone else as potential enemy. Why and how is this accepted?

Put differently, why will the publication of State Power, fail to make a significant impact on American society. How is it that an expose of this type, a contention of this magnitude, will not resonate with a wider potentially receptive audience, and will be studiously ignored by those disposed to be hostile to it? Unfortunately the reason will not be because as a thesis and intervention it is not great science - the book does not deal with the obvious counter-propositions to its argument, it fails to interrogate the existing discourse on political freedom and democracy, it is didactic and fails to examine its own presuppositions. Maybe it’s because its perspective of the centralisation of authoritarian control to a total system of police power only makes sense from the point of view of the state, understood as such in its own language. Perhaps everyone else is too busy circumventing its reality in their own individual way to entertain a theory of its increasing effectiveness.

Discourse is a real element of social relations, by merely proposing an alternative take on reality without showing how and why the conventional view arises, one does not really get to the root of the problem. As such adopts a one-sided view of reality, which as a polemic is fine, but as a piece of scientific research, sadly lacking, for it fails to suture its reasoning to wider political and social realities. State Power really needed to express something more of the intimacy of the whole.

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