By Sam Kirwan
As part of work I am doing on the work of Citizens Advice, I was asked to respond to the paper “States of Imagination” by John Clarke and Janet Newman, part of the Kilburn Manifesto. It is a paper that asks questions of the state and community that we have also looked at as part of our research group, and gave an opportunity to expand from advice work to governance and the contemporary logic of neoliberalism. Yet what it led me to think about most was the nature of democratic authority, and so set out below are my current thoughts on what the paper, and our work, can tell us about this concept.
What I found interesting about Clarke & Newman's paper is the proposition that to...
understand the state, we have to begin not from a set of institutions, but from ‘the complex clusters of relationships through which the state is brought to life’, and the ambivalence – the conflicting and mutually exclusive desires – with which it is brought to life. The reason I think this is an important appraisal of the role of the state, and questioning of the state that we want, is that it comes from an acknowledgement that the state is deeply imbricated in our everyday conversations and experiences, and that amongst these complexities, there is as much desire for the state as there is resistance to it.
I’ll focus on the key dimension of the desired state John and Janet isolate, its dialogic quality, which is rightly linked not only to participation – to consultation and so forth – but to dissent and conflict. We are conducting a project at the University of Bristol into advice work, and I’m interested in how a receptivity of the state to dissent and conflict is essential if advice is going to be meaningful and productive. What I want to add to the paper is that, in treating this openness to contestation as a luxury to be scaled back, as we are seeing with legal aid, it is the ‘democratic authority’ of the state that is eroded.
So, I’ll run through an example of such complex clusters. You have lost your job as a result of discrimination from your manager. You discuss this injustice with your friends and colleagues; the latter are naturally cautious in their support. The change of circumstances necessitates benefits claims; you have to discuss changes to your household economics with your partner; you have to negotiate changed repayments with your various creditors. In each case, the expectations we make of the state in terms of protections and principles are part of our conversations and ways of understanding the world. These expectations have become part of how we experience work, our relationships, our responsibilities to others.
But we find now that the fees to take an employer to a tribunal are beyond the means of most employees. The benefit claim is likely to be sanctioned, without any form of rejoinder, because of pressure placed upon a Job Centre employee. The expectations we make of the state turn out to be expectations about our opportunities to challenge decisions, whether made by the state or other institutions, that affect us.
When we talk about conflict and dissent, we should not only focus on spectacular manifestations - on protest and so forth. There are everyday negotiations with the state that constitute who we think we are. Advice work sits in these interstices. A person arrives with a set of disparate problems – redundancy, rent arrears, debt – and ideally, the advice worker transforms them into prioritised processes. This interstitial space exists because there is receptivity on the part of the state to that person’s voice. There is a degree of suspension regarding what constitutes a valid question.
The narratives we hear repeated on these subjects – that tribunals are clogged with nefarious and vexatious employment claims, that our benefits system is overburdened by unnecessary or fraudulent claims – are all subtle movements towards closing off this openness and receptivity. If the state has democratic authority, that is, if we trust it to act in our name, it is because in its imbrication in these complex clusters of relationships it bears a certain openness to engagement, to various forms of challenge, to a diffuse process of questioning. The dialogic state mentioned in the paper is less about dialogue than it is about a receptivity to dialogue. This is why I think it’s so important that the paper focuses on the commons as the basis of the dialogic state, as, in contrast to ‘community’, the commons defines a certain suspension of who can take part in public life; it carries an openness to new articulations, to the new questions made of it.