Encounters with the state

Political order in everyday life

Jill’s story

Jill lay awake in bed waiting for the alarm to ring, worrying about the day ahead. She already had a mental list of things to be done: renew the car’s MOT; make an appointment with the health visitor for her toddler’s two-year check-up. And there was the inspection they were facing at the school where Jill worked as a receptionist.

The sound of the alarm forced her out of bed and into the shower. Jill managed to leave the house on time, bundling her toddler into the car seat to take her to nursery. Just as she was leaving, the post arrived. Jill ignored the pile of envelopes; probably just more bills and tax demands. She drove the short distance to the nursery, taking care to avoid the potholes and the speed cameras, and left her toddler in the care of her favourite nursery nurse, Vicky.

On her journey to the school, a police car and two ambulances rushed past with their sirens blasting. The noise momentarily drowned out the politician on the radio who was droning on about the next local election. Waving at the lollipop lady, Joan, as she drove through the school gates, Jill braced herself for work. Mercifully, the busy morning passed quickly.

Jill gulped down a quick lunch at her desk while scanning the headlines of the newspaper that one of the inspectors had left behind. One headline declaring the arrival of the ‘Big Brother state’ turned out, rather disappointingly, to be about the possible introduction of identity cards rather than the reality TV show. Another headline, ‘Nanny state bans your chip butty’, reminded Jill too late that she had meant to choose the healthy option from the canteen rather than the bacon butty she had plumped for. One headline, however, held her attention: ‘More state help for parents: how to save money on childcare’. That’s something I really could do with, she thought.

Jill left her desk to dash to the local shops. She needed stamps from the post office; she wanted to join the new DVD rental club (she had remembered to bring proof of identity) and she had to buy a card and present for one of the teachers who was retiring after over thirty years at the school. They were all going to the local pub after work to celebrate. Roll on half-past three, Jill thought, as she headed out into the rain, cursing the weather forecast for being wrong yet again.

Jill’s story is in many ways a typical one. You might have had similar mornings yourself or, at the very least, you may recognise some of Jill’s experiences as familiar. What any of this has to do with ‘political ordering’ or ‘the state’ is perhaps less obvious. After all, this is just a simple account of someone’s (hectic) morning. And yet, during this account our protagonist encounters and experiences the state in numerous ways. Moreover, her experience is not unusual. As individuals, most of us will bump up against the state on a daily basis in many areas of our lives, although we might not always notice that we do so. This is because state actors, institutions, practices and discourses order (or try to order) our lives in various ways. The state is not the only mechanism that contributes to social order. Social order is produced and reinforced in various ways, but the state does provide an institutional political order that is one important part of the social order it (ideally) produces.

Political order

Both a condition in which there is an absence of conflict and disorder, especially an absence of violent disorder, and a set of organisations that seek to shape or regulate social life.

In fact, we could argue that there are two types of political order:

  1. the avoidance of chaos or disorder generally in society
  2. institutions that regulate our lives in many small and large ways.

The two are closely linked. The state is, among other things, an institutional order that aims to prevent social chaos and make social order. But where is the state in Jill’s everyday story?

First, there are the people who are employed by the state to carry out certain functions, such as the health visitor, the lollipop lady, the school inspectors and the teachers. The nursery nurse may be a state employee or she may be employed by a private nursery. Even if she is employed by a private nursery, however, she will still be providing childcare, an activity that is regulated by the state. Though they are not mentioned directly, there are state agents – people employed by a state institution, or in the public sector – behind some of the material objects mentioned, such as the speed camera, the police car and the ambulances. There are also state agents behind some of the practices referred to, such as the arrival of the post.

Some of the state’s institutions are also visible, or at least hinted at, in this narrative. By ‘institution’ we mean organisations (the post office, a government department or ministry, a school or a hospital), but also sometimes regular or patterned ‘ways of doing things’. The most visible examples are the school where Jill works and the post office where she buys her stamps. The nursery might well be a state institution. It is also possible to imagine the state institutions behind the police car, the health visitor and the ambulances. Listening to the politician on the radio might conjure up images of the House of Commons, just as listening to the weather forecast might conjure up an image of the Met. Office – although many people may be surprised to know that this is a state institution which operates under the Ministry of Defence.

The state also appears in this narrative through the bureaucratic procedures – that is, established procedures through which state institutions and their employees regulate and order many everyday activities. Jill’s office timetable, the length of her working day and the time allocated for her lunch break are regulated by state health and safety procedures. Even the very time that appears on Jill’s alarm clock is regulated by the state – an Act of Parliament in 1916 established that people in Britain would get up an hour earlier in summer (from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October to be precise). The requirement to use a car seat, for the car to have its MOT certificate, for Jill to have a valid driving licence in order to be able to drive, all point to the existence of the state through its laws and regulations and the people who work in the state institutions and agencies that make and implement them.

What Joe Painter, the political geographer, calls ‘the everyday discourses of state actors’ (2006, p. 761) also feature in Jill’s story. Most obviously there is the politician talking on the radio, but there is also the labelling that probably appears on Jill’s sandwich telling her what ingredients it contains, the road signs on Jill’s way to school, the tax demands which may have come in the post and even the fine she might have incurred driving past the speed camera. The state also presents itself to individuals, not just through official correspondence in the form of tax demands or speeding fines, but through the mass media. Newspaper headlines referring to the ‘Big Brother state’ or to the ‘nanny state’ do so because these terms have meaning – they reflect ideas about the state that circulate in society. These particular headlines imply a state that is overbearing and intrusive in everyday life, and they are used precisely because this is one image of the state that has resonance for many people. There is, however, a headline that talks about state help, and this suggests another idea of the state that supports its citizens with childcare or retirement; in other words, what is generally defined as the welfare state. We can see here an interesting tension between state provision of security and protection on the one hand, and unfair state intrusion into people’s lives on the other. Many political debates focus on disagreements about how to define the point at which protection and support turn into intrusion or interference.

So, what is the state?