Gore Vidal (2004) observed in the first decade of the twenty-first century that we no longer live in a state; we live in a Homeland. The Cold War is over, but the US national security state (supposedly called forth by the Cold War) is alive and well, fortified—now that the State Department is no longer sufficient—by its Department of Homeland Security. The rhetorical sleight of hand involved in this transposition of “state” into “Homeland” is not without precedent, and the 2001 Patriot Act is but the latest incident in a long history of state-sponsored countersubversion that predated the Cold War (Rogin 1987). Euphemisms for state (“Motherland,” “Fatherland,” la patrie) have long abounded, and so has the unwieldy and often inaccurate composite “nation-state.” Note also the substitution of “nation” for “state” in names such as United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
The centrality of the state to the sphere of political activity seems self-evident to some thinkers. Prominent contemporary political theorist Quentin Skinner (1978), taking his cue from the writings of Max Weber, regards the very use of the word “state” as a confirmation of his thesis that the state—defined as the legitimate monopolizer of the means of violence—is foundational to what he calls “modernity.” Political science as a discipline has long tried to substitute for the term “state” some semantically equivalent term such as “governmental process” or “political system.” Such attempts are invariably ruses; they merely underscore the status of “state” as a keyword that both defines the field of political science and characterizes various positions within that field (Bartelson 2001).
It is not enough simply to cut through such subterfuge. States do exist, and they matter. They appear as unitary entities when seen from the outside looking in; their claims to sovereignty have no counterpart in the international or interstate sphere. At the same time, viewed from the inside looking out, they are distinct from civil society. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claimed that the state “is based on the unhampered development of bourgeois society, on the free movement of private interest. . . . It is not the state that holds together the atoms of civil society. . . . In reality, the state is held together by social life” ( 1975, 4:113). Here and elsewhere, Marx critiques the modern state not because he rejects the need for community to which the state lays claim but because the alienation of the state from civil society means that it cannot deliver on its promise of human freedom.
Marx’s question remains powerful today: How can something singular, the state, be based on or held together by something as fragmentary and divided as civil society? This is where cultural studies (American or otherwise) and political science can fruitfully collaborate. The play of private interests in civil society generates political and cultural divisions (such as class, race, and gender) among its human constituents. The state and its official culture must then reunite, or claim to reunite, people by transcending, but not obliterating, these same divisions. The state, that is to say, must represent what its citizens and subjects have in common, an identity or equivalence. But this equivalence, in any radically unequal society—and all known societies are radically unequal—can only be formal, not substantive (Lloyd and Thomas 1995, 1998).
Take as one example of this tension the nineteenth-century struggles for extension of the electoral franchise in Britain and the United States. These struggles introduced a developmental narrative intended to produce an equivalence (political citizenship), which then would become a potential category. The conservative argument against extension of the franchise, an argument that carried the day for a long time, was cultural. It involved the claim that women, the poor, and others to be excluded were insufficiently formed, ethically incomplete beings, unprepared or unfit to exercise the faculty of disinterested judgment that representation and citizenship required. Matthew Arnold ( 1994, 64) put it in a nutshell: “Culture suggests the idea of the state.” Once democracy became practicable only as representative democracy, Marx’s famous judgment on the nineteenth-century French peasantry (“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”) becomes pregnant indeed ( 1954, 106). People are to be made worthy of the state or excluded from it; the state is not to be made worthy of them, as in radical participatory theories such as those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine.
This conjuring trick, this substitution of cultural and political representation for participation, took hold elsewhere, not least in twentieth-century struggles for national liberation from colonial hegemony. And its shelf life has been remarkable. States make universalist claims, but popular participation in the state is always and everywhere limited (P. Thomas 2001). These limitations may be horizontal: How much participation is enjoined by those who are to participate? Casting ballots in periodic elections is a common answer. They may also be vertical: Who, among those who can or could participate, may or will participate? Citizens, as opposed to “undocumented aliens,” is a familiar answer. Either way, the basic tension remains. Political representation, which theoretically unites, takes place apart from and outside the sphere of civil society, which divides in practice.
What then is a state, so circumscribed, supposed to do? G. W. F. Hegel rebutted the easy answer: it protects property and preserves the peace. States, he observed, tax their citizens and wage wars ( 1979). Still, the diverse claims of citizenship remain. Personal rights, which include freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, are distinct from political rights, which center on participation in the state. Both are distinct from what T. H. Marshall (1965) called rights of “social citizenship,” including guaranteed education, full employment, decent housing, and free medical care. The latter category of social rights, the warp and woof of the twentieth-century “welfare state,” is essential if citizenship and participation in the state are to be meaningful, not merely formal or rhetorical. However, recent phenomena such as the emergence of the “Homeland” should remind us that citizenship in the state was a formal phenomenon all along and that attempts to give it substance in the form of social citizenship—which, by contrast with social democracies such as those in western Europe, has never counted for much in the United States—can readily be short-circuited from above, in a way that affects neither a burgeoning military budget nor the interplay of personal or political rights.
In contrast to social citizenship, personal and political rights can then be fetishized as though they were ends in themselves. This helps to explain why conservative writers such as Friedrich Hayek (1944) and Milton Friedman ( 2002), along with their neoconservative and neoliberal progeny, stridently denounce the use of state power to promote the claims of social citizenship, why they do so in the name of “liberty” or “democracy,” and why they have been more influential to date in the United States than anywhere else. It also helps to explain why foreign wars prosecuted by the US state, from the nineteenth century to the present, have claimed to advance the frontiers of democracy and have clothed themselves in the mantle of elections as though these were ends in themselves. This ruse leaves the substance of democracy at home and abroad (education, employment, housing, medicine) not to the state but to the vagaries of the market. We are evidently not yet done with conjuring tricks.