Political ordering
Political ordering

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Political ordering

5.1.2 Summary

We have seen how the legitimacy of the state was deeply contested in Northern Ireland, primarily by those in the Nationalist/Republican community but also by those in the Unionist/Loyalist community. Moreover, throughout Northern Ireland there are some who were, and still are, critical about the way in which the new power-sharing political structures and institutions of Northern Ireland are developing. It would be a mistake, however, to fall into the trap of seeing Northern Ireland as an exceptional case. Instead it may be located at one point on a continuum that embraces numerous degrees of acceptance felt by individuals and groups towards the state in which they live.

Returning to Jill for a last time, is it possible to argue that her everyday story is a narrative that would be the same whoever she was and wherever she was within the UK? On a general level, the answer is affirmative. It is the case that much of the story would be similar for anyone anywhere in the UK but, on a more detailed level, there would be differences depending on who Jill was and where she lived. This is because individuals, and the communities they live in and belong to, experience the state differently depending on a range of variables, which could include not only territorial location but also nationality, age, gender, class, race, disability, religion and sexual orientation. You might want to think about what kind of narrative you would write about yourself and what kind of experiences of the state would feature in your own story.

Although Wales and Scotland have not, in recent times at least, sought to defend their national identities with force as in Northern Ireland, they have maintained distinct national identities despite being ruled from Westminster on losing their independent parliaments. Most recently, these national identities have gained expression through a Parliament in Scotland and a National Assembly in Wales. It is not just national groups, however, that may feel ambivalence towards the state which governs them. Black people may feel separated from a state that is still run predominantly by white people. Women may question the authority claims of a state still run predominantly by men. Working-class people may at times feel alienated from a state run predominantly by individuals from the middle and upper classes.

Different people might feel different degrees of acceptance in their relationship to the state. Shared experiences of ambivalence or alienation that are articulated and expressed sometimes lead to more-or-less enduring critical perspectives on the state. A number of critical perspectives have grown and declined over the years and decades. Many of these are reformist – advocating relatively minor changes to state structures or practices – and others are radical demands for fundamental change.

Activity 3

Read the extract below. What sort of person do you think it was written by? When do you think it was written? Is it a view of the state that has resonance for you?

To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so … To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

Now, returning to the thread which opened this course, Jill apparently did not take a radically critical view like this (as opposed to being moderately irritated perhaps). But we could just about imagine how the ubiquitous presence of the state in Jill’s life might lead to more radical views. The uncompromising words above were written by the classical anarchist writer and political activist J.-P. Proudhon in 1851 in the epilogue to a book entitled General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (Proudhon, 1923 [1851], pp. 293–4). Anarchists are opposed to the state as a matter of principle. The state, for them, is purely an oppressive, exploitative entity. Today, the term ‘anarchy’ is almost always used as a synonym for something like ‘chaos’. The critical perspective Proudhon articulates is associated with the view that individuals can, more-or-less spontaneously, regulate their own behaviour, and that collective rules can arise from the people themselves rather than being devised or imposed by a single sovereign entity, or state. Anarchists argue, therefore, that we can have political order in the sense of avoiding basic social chaos if we do not have institutional political order like the state. Some other form of institutional political order might be fine – a more spontaneously generated, bottom-up, fluid and decentralised set of institutions and practices perhaps. According to this view, Jill, you, me, our friends, family and compatriots could together find ways to organise rules and institutions for ourselves, beyond the state, and doing so would make us freer.

As citizens we experience annoyance with, express support for and criticise aspects of the state’s activities and structures in our daily lives. Often we are simply unaware of the many and detailed ways in which the state orders our daily routines. Some widely shared critical perspectives on the state, including anarchism, have endured, even as they change over time. Many of these critiques have, to some extent, been taken on by state actors and institutions, for instance in policies on equal pay for women and environmental protection.

We have seen that the work of political ordering is continuous, and that as part of this states are engaged in a constant process of claiming and repairing a sense of their legitimacy. A good deal of this activity involves everyday processes, which order (and in many ways regulate) people’s daily lives. In this sense, political order is linked intimately to social order. In this course we have explored key ways in which the state acts out its claim to be the ultimate source of legitimate authority over the population and land in a particular territory (or country). Citizens are positioned very differently in terms of race, gender, class, religion and region; individual and group experiences of political ordering, or encounters with the state, will be detailed and varied. There are recognisable ways in which states and their attempts at legitimation are disputed. The specific dynamics of ordering can be highly distinctive in different (often contested) societies, as we saw in the case of Northern Ireland. The state remains a diverse, enigmatic and complex force in all our lives. To sum up, in this course you have considered:

  • the degree to which states’ claims to legitimacy are recognised and acknowledged by individuals and groups varies in time and space
  • how a shared experience of ambivalence to or alienation from the state may produce critical political perspectives on the state, both reformist and radical
  • how one critical tradition, the tradition of political anarchism, contends that it is possible and desirable to have an ordered society without the institutions of the state.
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